Tuesday, December 20, 2016 Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
The Reverend Canon Howard Buchner of blessed memory, Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, Toronto from 1961 to 1983, once said that the words from Revelation 21 “See, I am making all things new” were the most radical in the whole of the New Testament. It also sums up the essential message of the good news, and the mission of God in creation – the renewing of all things.
The good news is not really about accepting Jesus in order to avoid the wrath to come. To reduce the gospel to something like this is to miss the universal quality of what God is doing in Christ. Some evangelicals will emphasise the personal nature of the death of Jesus – “Even if you were the only sinner in the world Jesus would still die for you” – but I think that is just a little bit of an egocentric way of understanding the Incarnation. It’s not just about you. It’s not just about Christians. It’s about the whole of creation, heaven and earth, things visible and invisible. The question about this is: do we see this all as good news and are we ready to be swept up in God’s transforming embrace? Or do we want to stick to the ways things are, resist the change that is coming, and deny God’s presence in the world? Are we willing to become the wonderful creatures that God made us to be, or will we hold on to the warped and perverted versions of ourselves that is at best a dim reflection of the divine glory?
As Revelation 21 continues on into Revelation 22 the description of the New Jerusalem is of a city that is larger than any city that has ever existed. It is this large, it would seem, because of all of the people who are to be in it. The passage today does suggest that some might be excluded from the New Jerusalem, but it does not name names.
Some folks might get excited by the passage about “the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death”. Just as time is complicated in Revelation, so are images. A wise scholar once said that people take metaphorically the things in that book which were meant to be taken literally, and take literally the things which were meant metaphorically. Thus some excited exegetes miss the underlying message of transformative justice in Revelation, and only see the surface images and not through to the underlying meaning. The sulphurous lake is one of those. I would agree with the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) said that “we must see that hell is not an object that is ‘full’ or ’empty’ of human individuals, but a possibility that is not ‘created’ by God but in any case by the free individuals who choose it”. As somone once said, “We are required to believe that hell exists, but nowhere are we required to believe that anyone is in it”.
My own thinking is that hell is the freely chosen separation from the divine, and active resistance to grace, which manifests itself in this life in violence, lies, and damaging action. If we believe that there is some continued existence after life, then it is also reasonable to believe that that separation and warped mode of being also continues. I have not seen too many death bed transformations – people tend to die the way they lived. If they were good and generous people in life they would be the same in death; if they were miserable, angry, so-and-sos throughout their lives, then that’s the way they went out of this world.
So this reflection takes us back to the here and now. If the kind of people we are at death and into the afterlife are the kind of people we are in life, what kind of people do we want to be now? The time to change is not at death, or at some moment before the judgment seat of God, it is now. So, when the one seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new” he is speaking perhaps of some time in the future, or perhaps of the resurrection of Jesus – or perhaps at this very moment. Now is the time when, for me, all things are being made new. Can we accept this radical message?
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
He will raise a signal for the nations,
and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.
The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.
But they shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west;
together they shall plunder the people of the east.
They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites shall obey them.
And the Lord will utterly destroy
the tongue of the sea of Egypt;
and will wave his hand over the River
with his scorching wind;
and will split it into seven channels,
and make a way to cross on foot;
so there shall be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant that is left of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’