Friday, 14 September 2012

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth

Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There is something extremely appropriate this evening about the singing of Edgar Bainton's anthem, 'And I saw a new heaven and earth'. 

It was performed at the Hillsborough Memorial Service at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in 1989. 

I am not completely sure that the publication of the report about the Hillsborough disaster was in Peter's mind when he chose the anthem, but I can't say that it is just coincidence. 

The words come from Revelation 21:1-4, and they are words that have been used at countless funerals, memorial and remembrance services as, I am sure, has this anthem. 

It is a vision of the future, of the new heaven and earth.

It is the 'new' heaven and earth, but there is some connection with this heaven and earth. 

Yes, this heaven and earth will face judgement and fire - all that is not of God, of truth, of love will be burnt up and consumed. Jesus talks about that, and Peter, in his letter, is convinced of that.
But there is also continuity. So Paul talks about how this whole creation longs for that day when it will be set free from 'its bondage to decay' and will be set free to be what it was meant to be.
And it is often said that the resurrection body of Jesus is the prototype, the taster, the model of how this present heaven and earth compares to that new heaven and earth. His resurrection body was both similar to his pre-resurrection body and yet completely different: he could eat fish, but he could appear and disappear. He could be touched and felt and smelt, but he could shine brighter than the sun. He was recognisable, it really was him, but he was also bigger than space and time. 

[Elsewhere Paul talks of how that world, our future, compares to this world. He asks himself, ''What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection?' He answers himself: 'What a silly question. It is a bit like two acorns having a discussion deep underground, asking what it will be like to be an oak tree.']

We are talking about a NEW heaven and earth - and you can only have a new heaven and earth if there is an old heaven and earth. There will be continuity, but there will be massive difference.

And we need to remember that because we are talking about a new heaven and a new earth, a future reality that transcends human history, and goes beyond our concepts of space and time, we can only talk about it in terms of picture language. 

[We are a bit like Tom and Jerry asking 'Who drew Walt Disney?' In the world that they live in, the idea that people are not drawn is completely unthinkable]

So, for instance, when John in Revelation 21 speaks of how - in the new heaven and earth - there will be no sea, he is not saying that there will be no mass of water. Who knows? I hope there will be. Rather it is using the sea, as the bible does elsewhere, as a symbol of separation, of chaos and of destruction.  

And do you notice how this city is 'coming down out of heaven from God'. It never actually arrives (cf Rev 3:12; 21:2,10). 
What we are being told is that this new Jerusalem is the joining together of heaven and earth. 
And the voice comes from the throne. Where is the throne? In heaven? No. On earth? No. The throne is in the city (cf Rev 22:1). 
So what we are being told here is this: Here is the new heaven. Here is the new earth. And in the very centre of this new creation is God and his people. 

And what we have here is not a direct picture of what the new heaven and the new earth is like - that would simply blow our mind: 'Ear has not heard, eye has not seen, nor the mind of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'. What we are told here is what we need to know of the new heaven and earth; it is enough to give us a desire and a longing for this new, future world. 

And we are told that it is a place of purity and love, of joy and life.

The new Jerusalem is contrasted with the old whore-Babylon. She is described as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 

I came across this illustration - although note that here the bride is coming from earth to meet the bridegroom. John tells us that the bride, the church, the people of God, comes from heaven to earth. But if you notice, the bride's train is made up of countless people dressed in white.

It is John's way of telling us that it is God who has protected and purified his people. 
The church, the people of God, have been kept by God and made pure through faithful endurance to Christ in suffering. That is part of the message of John.

And in the new heaven and new earth there is no more sin. Why? Because sin is the opposite of love. Love unites, but sin separates. There is no place in this new city for selfish pride, for hatred, unforgiveness, bitterness or envy. There is no place in this new city for people who think that they are little gods and that everyone else must worship them or satisfy them. 

The bible speaks of the love that there is between God and his people in many ways. 

a) He is the one who loves us as the faithful friend.
He is Immanuel, God with us, 'Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people'.
There are many times when it seems that God has gone AWOL, that he has abandoned us. Sometimes it is because we have walked far from him. At other times we feel we have been faithful to him, and yet he has still walked away from us. The promise here and now is that whatever we feel, God IS with us. The promise in the new heaven and earth is that we will KNOW that God is with us. 
b) He is the one who loves us as a parent loves their child. 
'They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God'.  
It was the promise given to Moses, to the prophets. God's purpose was to gather a people to himself.
And God 'will wipe every tear from their eyes'.
You know how it is: a child falls over and hurts him or herself. He is distraught. His world has come to an end. But mum comes to him, picks him up, embraces him and wipes the tears from his eyes. Mum knows. And as he rests in her arms he realises that it is not the end of the world. There is someone who is bigger who can make it better. It's OK because mum is there. 

That is alright if the child has simply grazed their knee. But for all of us there will have been times when we 'fell over' and no one was there; or when a child or someone you loved 'fell over' and you were not able to be there, or you were - but you were not able to put it right. That is part of the desperation of people who have to go through something like Hillsborough.
The promise that is here, the Christian hope, is that each one of us - small or big - can turn to God. And if we do, there will of course still be many tears here. But He is there. And he is bigger and he can make it better. And one day there will be a day when he wipes away from us every tear. 

c) He is the one who would love us as the beloved loves the lover. 
The language of the bride points us back to the Song of Solomon: 

'Come with me from Lebanon, my bride ..
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride:
you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace. 
How delightful is you love, my sister, my bride'

And she answers:
'My beloved is radiant and ruddy, 
outstanding among ten thousand ...
His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.
This is my bleoved, this is my friend,
daughters of Jerusalem. ..
I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine'.

It is the language of delight and desire, of intimacy and devotion. God knows you and he loves you. And because he loves you, he longs that you and I get to know him, and are united to him, at the very deepest level of our being.

We are talking about a completely new reality here. 
Those two life denying principles which came in at the time of the fall, which put space and time completely out of kilter - the principles of the selfish gene and the perversion of decay and death - will have no place in the new heaven and earth. Creation will be as it was intended to become. 
Don't think of our future as sitting up there on clouds in heaven. 
Our future is as citizens of a very real new heaven and new earth. 
Isaiah has glimpses of what that might be like, and John echoes some of his words when he writes, 'There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain'.

Please don't dismiss this passage as wishful thinking. Don't dismiss it as an expression of human anxiety in the face of suffering and death. 
The resurrection of Jesus has shown that this vision is ultimate reality. 

The Christian believers to whom John wrote Revelation knew dreadful suffering, and it was suffering because they were believers. 
Those connected with Hillsborough knew and know dreadful suffering; 
Bainton himself was interred in a German concentration camp during WW1 for 5 years: he knew suffering. 
And you will know suffering. Life is, at times, intensely painful. 

But this is not all that there is.
The vision of John, which Bainton put so powerfully into music, is that 'the old order of things', that which we experience now, will - one day - pass away. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. And at the very centre of this new heaven and earth is God, the living God, the God who has chosen us to be his people, the God who loves you and who longs for us to be united with him.                                 

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The dead mouse theory of purity

Mark 7:1-13

We're looking today at two visions of what it is to be holy; what it is to be pure, acceptable 

There is the human vision of purity: I call this the dead mouse theory of purity.
And there is God's vision of purity: the fire theory of purity

THE HUMAN VISION OF PURITY - however that is understood - is that I am pure, but that my purity is destroyed by things and people out there. 

Our cat is very generous. Most mornings she brings us a gift of a dead mouse. Unfortunately we do not particularly like finding dead mice on our kitchen floor. So I get a tissue, pick up the unfortunate dead creature by the tail and throw it outside. The dead mouse contaminates our house and needs must go. 

The dead mouse theory of purity says that in order to maintain your purity, the dead mice, the things that contaminate you, must go. So, in order to keep or maintain my purity, I need to keep away from them. And there are a whole load of rules which are handed down to us to enable us to keep ourselves pure. 

As an extreme, we see it in the teaching of the Pharisees here in Mark 7: They do not wish to be contaminated by anything out there, and so they have these rules about how to maintain that purity.

Here they are challenging Jesus about the behaviour of his disciples: they are not ritually cleaning their hands before they eat. This is not an issue of personal hygiene and keeping yourself healthy, although I am sure that may be part of the origin of this teaching [the story is told of the little boy brought up by Christian parents, who told him to wash his hands before eating. He was heard muttering under his breath, 'all I ever hear is germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus - and I can't see either of them!']. Rather it is about ritual contamination: they've been in the marketplace so may well have touched  Gentiles or non-ritually clean Jews.
I experienced this myself, several years ago, in Tesco in Hackney, on a  Friday afternoon, just before the Sabbath began. The cashier asked me not to hand her the money but to put it on the side in case my hands touched hers, and she would become unclean and be unable to participate in the sabbath festival.

That is an extreme example. 
But most of us live our lives on the same set of assumptions.

Basically we think we are OK, and the real problem is not in here but out there: it is other people: the foreigners, the perverts and paedophiles, the fanatic moslems, the mentally ill, the liberal judges, the bankers, the politicians. They are the ones who defile us, who make us unclean.
The Nazis, in their propaganda videos, used to liken Jewish and gay people to rats, running through the sewers and spreading disease. 

And, according to this theory, what we need to do is keep ourselves away from the 'untouchables': whether that is people or things.

And - this is more for the passage next week - have you noticed how obsessed we have become in what we put into ourselves, in what we eat? Of course we need to eat healthily, but there is this assumption that if you are messed up, then it is because you are allowing the wrong stuff out there into you. 

This vision of purity and acceptability is very reassuring. 
It tells me that I am OK, and if I am not OK it is their problem and not mine. What I need to do is to make sure that the people around me, or the food that I eat is correct. All I need to do is follow the correct rules.
It is, I'm afraid, what 90% of people - even within our churches - think that Christianity teaches: 'You're OK and provided you follow the rules (read the bible, come to church, be good and loving) you'll keep OK'. 

But this vision of purity has serious problems
1. It can lead to terrible fear, and people putting great burdens onto themselves and others.
Have I followed the rules? Am I following the right rules? Have I done this or that correctly?
Sign of the cross in Russia - 2 fingers or 3. A new denomination sprung up.
I remember, just before going into finals, a Christian friend saying to me, 'Oh no. I haven't prayed about this'. 

2. It leads to judgementalism: 
We get that here. The Pharisees look down on the disciples because they haven't followed the rules.
It can and does lead to a presumptuous pride: I keep all the rules, so I am OK.
And it can also lead to people judging and condemning themselves. They take into themselves the judgements of other people, and they end up believing that they are the unclean, the untouchables. And they gain acceptance among the 'unclean' and 'untouchables', and they start to live by their rules. 

3. It leads to hypocrisy: the problem is that the people who teach the rules do not always keep the rules themselves. 
The outside does not match up to the inside: in Jesus' words, our worship begins and ends with our lips. 

Jesus gives an example: 
The law of God expects people to both honour their parents, and not to curse them (i.e. to bless them). That meant, in their culture, that children needed to practically, financially support their parents - very different to today when  there were no pensions, no social security and no NHS. 

But there was a tradition, a rule - it is not in the bible - that if you said that the money you intended to give to support your parents was 'Corban', dedicated to God, you did not need to give it to them. 
The origin of the tradition would have been in the idea that if God is honoured with your money then he will look after you Himself. And, like many traditions, it could have begun as a right impulse. A child intending to give money to his or her parents is told by them that they should give it instead to the work of the Lord - and there was the assumption in the OT that if you gave to God, God would meet all your needs. There are echoes of this in Jesus' teaching: 'Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness - and all these things will be added to you'.
The problem was that children were using this tradition as a way to avoid giving money to their parents. They were saying, 'This money that I would be giving you is going to be given to the Lord', and then giving it - but giving it IN PLACE OF the money that they would have had to have given anyway to the worship of the temple. So the children actually end up better off, the temple remains the same, and the parents are left high and dry.
In other words, a rule, which on the human vision of purity, allowed you to maintain your holiness, acceptability, actually just allowed you to carry on being selfish and doing evil. 
As Pascal said, 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.'

4. (and this is critical) It cannot change the heart: 
Jesus said, 'This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me'.

The human view of purity, that it is something that we have which we need to preserve - and we preserve it by keeping the rules, just does not work.
If, adapting someone else's words, it looks like a pig, snorts like a pig, eats like a pig - it is a pig, even if it is wearing Jack Wills or has taken a shower in Lynx

GOD'S VIEW OF PURITY is that it is not about what is out there, but what is in here. And the problem is that none of us - the rule keepers or the rule breakers - are right here.
That is why the bible repeats again and again that the astonishing gift of God, that he longs to give to each person who humbles him or herself to receive it, is nothing less than the gift to us of a new heart, a new centre - a Spirit filled and a God inspired heart. 
And when that happens the commands of God cease being an external law, something that is outside of us that stands over us and demands that we obey it. It becomes an internal law, something written deep in our heart, something that we desire to do.
Barry was speaking of a man recently converted: he is an inspiration. He has such a love for God and his word. He is not perfect, far from it, but he is now looking and going in the right direction

It is only when we have a new heart, a God heart, that commands and tradition come into play. 
At the heart of all the commands of God there is but one overall command: love the Lord your God - and your neighbour as yourself.
A person with a new heart, a God heart, will desire to love God more than anything else, and as they love God they will begin to love other people, for God.

And purity - given that it begins in here, in the heart - does not have to be defiled by what is out there. Rather purity is like a fire, which does not avoid what is out there, but which can transform and burn that which it comes into contact with, so that it too becomes pure.

And so do you notice how here Jesus does not simply diss tradition. Instead he points us to the very reason for tradition, the heart of tradition. He could have chosen any illustration of the hypocrisy of Pharisees. But the illustration that he uses is the perversion of the biblical command to 'Honour your parents'. The reason that we should respect tradition, and not change everything for the sake of changing everything, is because of love: of love for our parents and for those who have gone before us. We are one fellowship with them. Yes, we need to constantly test those traditions against what the bible teaches, the commands of God, but unless there is a very good reason for changing, we should hold to those traditions - not in order to try and keep ourselves acceptable or undefiled by the world - but as an act of love, of honour to our parents and to their parents. That understanding of tradition and church history is deep within the DNA of what it means to be a Christian within the Anglican tradition. 

So I finish, by asking several questions:
What is your vision of holiness, of purity, of acceptability?
Do you have a dead mouse theory of purity:  you are OK so long as you keep yourself pure from the people and things out there, and you do that by keeping the rules?
Or do you recognise that the problem is in here, in the heart?
And if that is the case, have you come to Jesus to ask him to give you the gift of a new heart.

Jesus longs that we should be people who have new hearts, who confess him with our lips, who worship and obey him with our lives and who are on fire with a love for him.