New Heaven, New Earth, New Year
Sunday, December 31, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
Have you ever had an experience in your life where you thought “this is going to change everything”? Everything is going to be different now, and nothing is ever going to be the same again.”
Of course, all of us experience changes in life on a fairly regular basis: maybe, like me, you bought a new car this year, or you switched up your hairstyle, and for a while it felt kind of fresh and exciting, even though the change may have taken some getting used to. But that’s not the kind of experience I’m talking about.
Maybe you moved from one home to another; or you downsized from your house to an apartment, and you could only bring ¼ of the possessions you’d spent the last 50 years gathering; let alone all the family memories tied to your former home. Or maybe after 35 years of advancing your career you made a job shift that brought big changes to the rhythm and pattern of your life. Those are much more significant changes than a new hairstyle, of course, and take more time to adjust to; but still not what I’m talking about. As big as they are, they are still really just external changes, changes of geography shall we say.
No, I’m talking about the experience that changed everything: it changed your heart, it changed your mind, the way you think, your whole outlook on life, your very identity and sense of who you are! Things like the birth of your first child, or the death of a loved one; you got married or you got divorced; maybe you recovered from a near-fatal illness or accident. Many of these experiences also bring external, perceptible changes; but quite often those external changes pale in comparison to the internal changes that happen. These experiences do something to our heart; they alter our worldview; they rock our foundations and sometimes make us question everything we thought we knew for sure. Often they leave us questioning the meaning of life altogether, or reassessing our values and priorities in life. Often, they make us starting thinking about God in ways we may not have before. Suddenly, becomes more real and present.
When God became flesh in Jesus, it was that kind of experience for the world. It was something so new – God coming close to people! – that it totally and utterly changed the course of human history. But the difference may not have been immediately obvious. To external appearances, it was just another baby being born to a young couple from a poor family. To those who were busy dealing with their day-to-day lives, as well as now having the bother of the census, it was an unremarkable event. Very few people noticed the brilliant star in the sky or came to visit: Not the political leaders or the townspeople of Bethlehem; not even the innkeeper and his wife.
But the difference that his birth made to the world was obvious to those whose hearts were open to seeing God’s spirit moving in the world; people like the shepherds – who weren’t too busy to hear from God – and the Magi – who were actively searching for messages from God. Also there were Simeon and Anna, who Andrew spoke of last week, who had probably seen thousands of babies born to couples just like Mary and Joseph, but who knew that this baby was different; that this baby was going to change everything.
Jumping forward 33 years: the people who heard of Jesus’ resurrection after his death on the cross also received this event in different ways: those who felt it threatened their position of privilege – the political and religious leaders – tried to cover it up and denied that it had happened, knowing that if people heard about this news it would change everything. And it did change everything for those whose hearts were open to God’s truth –the knowledge that God’s love was even stronger than death gave them hope that they could not keep to themselves; they had to share it with the whole world! And those whose hearts were open to believe the good news brought by these eyewitnesses also received that great hope, and it altered their whole worldview, and their lives were changed forever. Hope changes everything.
But then something happened during the decades between Jesus’ resurrection and the time that the apostle John, now an old man and the only surviving disciple of Jesus, wrote down the words we heard this morning, this vision from God in the book we call Revelation. Externally, not much had changed since the time of Jesus; people were living their lives, going about their business as usual. But the apostles were telling everyone they could about Jesus and his resurrection, and many accepted that with great joy and hope. And they changed their lives, took on a new identity, and believed that the love of God would conquer the powers of evil and oppression in the world.
But now many of these Christians were being violently persecuted and were suffering. They were tortured and martyred and exiled. They lost friends and feared for their own safety. And over time doubt began to creep in where hope had once resided. Jesus was supposed to have changed everything; he was supposed to have turned the world upside down, was supposed to have conquered death. But by all external appearances, it seemed like nothing had changed at all; there was nothing new at all.
You see, their hope was to some extent hinged on external, visible changes. They withstood a lot of persecution, but over time the lack of obvious change wore down their spirits, which I think it would do to any of us. Over the centuries since that time, however, Christian thinking has evolved to the realize that our external circumstances may or may not change, but the difference Jesus makes in our lives does not necessarily have to do with things that are external, but with the content of our heart, our character, our attitudes – and those things are harder to change than our circumstances! The new life Jesus brings starts on the inside.
That’s why principles like ‘loving our neighbour’ are central to the Christian faith. I’d rather avoid my annoying neighbour than change my heart and learn to love them! It’s why hatred is as grievous a sin as murder, or lust as grievous as adultery. We live out the Christian faith, not in ways that everyone can see, but mostly in ways that – like the birth of Jesus – are not immediately remarkable.
Does the way we live our lives reflect our belief that Jesus’ birth, life and death changed the world, and that in him we have a new identity? Our human nature is to trust what we perceive with our senses more than what we know in our hearts. That’s why we often put much more emphasis on external, outward, visible changes than internal changes. Those are harder to measure, harder to explain.
At this time of year, many people are thinking about making changes in our lives; but even with all these changes, will Jan 1st really be any different from Dec 31st? I suspect when we turn on the news, it will all look the same. We make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, pay off credit cards, buy a house, or change jobs; some resolutions might be more about internal growth – read more, take up a new musical instrument.
I’ve managed to squeeze all of my own resolutions into that list of examples…I intend to run a 10Km race this year (and with that, hopefully lose the 10 lbs I’ve gained since I started working here); I’m going to read more fiction; and I bought a book to teach myself how to play the recorder that has been gathering dust in my office! I hope all of these things will improve the quality of my life in some way – if I am disciplined and consistent in these new habits, hopefully they will make me fitter and smarter as I exercise both my body and my mind.
But I will still be me: my identity won’t change, and the trajectory of my life won’t change. I won’t suddenly abandon my call to ministry when I discover I actually have the talent of a world-class recorder player! None of these activities will change my values or erase my flaws (unfortunately) or in any way change the essence of who I am. But more likely, like most people I’ll start out the year with the best of intentions, but life will get in the way and probably two out of three of my resolutions will just fall by the wayside. Because of this, I’ve been tempted to just abandon the practice of resolutions, like so many other people. In some ways, it almost feels pointless. And I will turn on the news, and it will seem like nothing has changed.
If we are to have any real newness of life, it will only come through changes in our hearts, changes that alter our sense of our identity, changes that make our characters more Christ-like. Our external appearances, abilities or circumstances may or may not change, but when our hearts are open to the Holy Spirit residing within us, how we respond to those circumstances will change. What gives us newness of life is hope, and hope does not come to us from any external sources; it comes from the inside out: it comes from the Holy Spirit of Christ living within us.
That’s why it’s more important to focus on the things we do to change our hearts than the things we do to change our appearance or skills or our circumstances; and those changes don’t require a special holiday or a new calendar. No matter how well I may learn to play the recorder (or may not…only the Sextons will ever know for sure!), no matter how many kilometres I can run, it’s not going to change how I respond when someone cuts me off in traffic, or when someone offends me. It’s not going to change how I deal with loss, or with trials, or stress; it’s not going to change how I understand my identity, or my mortality. It’s not going to give me hope. Only heart changes that come from the things I do that help me to grow closer to God will do that. Every moment of every day, the Holy Spirit is ready to come into our hearts and enliven our spirits with the hope of Jesus’ birth.
The coming of Jesus into the world changes everything: it changes our hearts; it changes our lives, and everything about us. And as individual hearts and lives are changed, it begins to slowly, slowly but surely change the world, one changed heart at a time; because as our hearts are changed, the way we relate to others around us is changed.
The passage we heard from Revelation this morning uses some of the images of those life events that I mentioned at the beginning to describe the coming of Jesus: a marriage (like a bride descending to meet her husband), an ultimate recovery from the grips of death (no more death or mourning). These are events that give us hope for a different world from the one we now live in. But the images of marriage and recovery are mere symbols for what he knows is truly happening. One of my favourite authors, Tom Wright, says in his book Revelation for Everyone: “The new heaven and new earth will be new in a new way; newness itself will be renewed, so that instead of a mere transition within ongoing human life, what God has planned will be the renewal of all thing.”
Wright continues: “The book of Revelation isn’t a book about a future perfect Heaven that we hope to go to one day, a Heaven that will be superior to a second-rate earth which is our temporary home.” No, God says, I am making a new Heaven, and a new Earth…I am making all things new. Earth is part of God’s glorious creation and intimately linked to Heaven itself, and all of it is being made new in Jesus Christ. All of this was set in motion with the birth of Jesus into the world. The world is being transformed into what God had intended at the very beginning, and it is being transformed by the changing of individual hearts that are filled with the Holy Spirit and inclined to love and follow Jesus Christ.
How is he doing that? By coming to dwell on earth Himself. By being the hope of the world Himself. Verse 3 “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.” – this is a totally different understanding of who God is than had ever previously been considered! For most of history and in most cultures and traditions, God (or whatever god-like deities people worshipped) was considered to be above and beyond, somewhere far off, looking down on the earth – as Bette Midler once sang: “God is watching us – from a distance.”
But the gospel – the good news – of Jesus is that God is not off in the distance looking down on us. God is here: beside us, walking with us, hearing our prayers and speaking into our hearts, and is in a real, personal relationship with us.
V. 4 continues “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” This is the difference Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection make. To outward appearances, little has changed: our loved ones die and we mourn their loss. We cry, we feel pain. But it’s like the apostle Paul says, we “do not grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). That doesn’t mean we don’t grieve when our loved ones die, but we do so with a powerful sense of hope that comes through the incarnation of God Almighty, in Jesus Christ our Lord; hope that death will not have the last word.
God’s self-giving in the birth of Jesus, and again here, in the vision of God as the one who gently wipes away our tears, is, as Wright says, “a revelation of God’s eternal character,” and “most of us, contemplating this wonderful prospect, will feel a whole new world opening up before us.”
What would be new in your life and in your relationships if you trusted with your whole heart that the loving, self-giving God of the universe is right here walking by your side and dwells with you all the time? What would change if you trusted with your whole heart that your are His and He is yours? Many of us – especially if we grew up in the church – probably already know that, at least in our heads.
How does it change your sense of identity to know in the depths of your heart that Jesus Christ walks beside you in every single moment of every single day? He doesn’t just love you when you’re praying and sitting in church; he loves you when you’re at work, or at school; he loves you when you’re out with friends, or alone at home; he loves you when you make an honest mistake, or when you mess up royally, just like the father of the prodigal son.
It changes how you see yourself when you know that God dwells with you and loves you all the time. Your identity is shaped, not by how others see you – and certainly not how you see yourself, because many of us are our own worst critics. Your identity is shaped by who you are in the eyes of the God who came to dwell on earth and die for you. Everything changes when the love of Jesus penetrates deep into your heart. The joy of a living relationship with God is that as we pray, and read our Bibles and study, and live out the principles of our faith, we experience the presence of God in ever new and changing ways that transform our lives, because the hope He brings is not just an idea, it is very real.
So how will January 1st be any different than December 31st? Because of our concept of measuring time, the first day of a new year feels like a natural time to consider making changes in our lives, whether they be small and aesthetic, or a complete overhaul and life transformation. But any day can bring a new Heaven, new Earth, new year, new life, new you…any day that God comes to dwell in our hearts; and he will be our God, and we will be his people.