Revelation 21:1-6a 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, 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, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done!"
My friend’s uncle was a normal, college educated, guy from Georgia who through some bad acquaintances and poor decisions ended up turning to combination of cocaine and alcohol to unwind after a hard day at work. One evening under the haze of the drugs in control of his body he got into a very bad fight at a bar. Without control over his body, the fight went very badly for my friend’s uncle. He would awake the next day in jail in excruciating pain and needing a pin put into his jaw. Judges do not like assault, but even more so frown on possession of cocaine; my friend’s uncle would spend the next five years in prison.
Now, in the many versions of this story that sadly play out every day all around us, the man in prison will continue to feed his addiction and will spend the rest of his life in and out of the system, all to feed his ever growing need for the next high. This story we all know so well ends in death and sadness, as a life is wasted to the service of feeding addiction.
My friend’s uncle’s story ends a little differently than the story we all know. In prison he attended an AA-like group for recovering addicts. Initially he attended because the court mandated he do so. However, after a few sessions he found a friend in a man who attended the sessions out of love. This man was no longer a slave to his addiction, was out of prison, and lived a productive, sober life. This man showed my friend’s uncle that a better life was possible.
Each week as he sat in fellowship in his recovery group, my friend’s uncle’s new friend lived into a stark contrast between the life in prison and the life addicted to drugs. He was living proof that there was a bridge between addiction, sobriety, and new life. My friend’s uncle would leave prison after five years completely sober. He would again, find those willing to offer him a vision of hope in a halfway house that gave him shelter while he rebuilt his life. Today, my friend’s uncle is a Christian, has repaired his broken relationships from his time of addiction, and is happily married to a dentist.
One man, in one place was the bridge to a happy future for a struggling soul. Glory be to God that tonight Christians from across Nashville have gathered in this place. Praise God that he has sufficiently sanctified our hearts to forego the many alternatives of this night to instead stand in the presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “How majestic is [his] name in all the earth” that he has overcome the many divisions we have made in this world and united us here tonight as one flock. The Sprit of the Lord is truly here tonight. Under the outpouring is his love in this place we will tonight be “one body” with “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism”. All praise, honor, and majesty be given to you Lord, the “one God and Father of all”!
Let us pray…
The month of December is a study of contrasts. We start the month in Advent where we both remember the prophecies of the Messiah who would eventually come to be laid in a manger as well as the apocalyptic prophecies of Jesus’ eventual return and judgement over all of humankind. In Christmastide we celebrate and remember the holy incarnation; that God took on our form that he might save us from ourselves. However, even as we celebrate the ancient coming of God in the flesh, we know that the salvation he bought for the world required him to die. On this, the final day of December, we look forward to the hope of the coming year, whilst remembering the year that is now expired. Joy, sadness, anticipation, fulfillment, discomfort, peace, judgement, forgiveness, fear, excitement; all of these exist in the same season. We see it among the shepherds “watching their flocks by night” as the angels bring them both fear and rejoicing. We see it as Mary bares the profound shame of pregnancy outside of marriage yet is “blessed among women” as the womb of God’s fleshly arrival.
Watch Night fits perfectly into this season of contrasts. Watch Night finds its origins in the English and Scottish church as a more sober, Christian alternative to the revelrous secular celebrations that brought in the New Year. Early Methodists continued this English tradition, but also merged in elements of Puritan-inspired covenant renewal services. In a separate stream the slaves in North America would gather at the end of the year in worship not knowing who of their family and friends had been sold away to balance the year-end budget. Born out of church revival and reformation as well as the sadness and pain of the North American slavery experience, Watch Night is itself a contrast. Gathered together as those redeemed in Christ, we remember the moments of sadness and joy of the previous year. We rejoice that we serve a God who walks beside us through life’s hills and valleys. We look forward to God’s movements in our lives in the next year and covenant to remain faithfully his through it all. Watch Night is a service contrasting that which has been against that which can be through our complete reliance and surrender to God’s holy will. It is on this contrast that I wish to focus on tonight.
In tonight’s reading from St. John’s Apocalypse, God reveals to us the ultimate outcome of what Jesus did on the cross. We are presented with a picture of the Earth’s complete renewal; a literal Heaven on Earth. Death, already defeated on the cross, will be removed from the human experience. Mourning, crying, and pain will have “passed away” as God’s people stand rejoicing in his presence in the holy city built by his own hands, the new Jerusalem. This is indeed a picture of the great Christian hope; God’s sovereignty made visible to the entire world and creation’s complete renewal to God’s intended perfect state.
Now, the easy thing for me to do would be to spend the rest of our time together here speaking of the glorious future that awaits those who put their trust in the Lord. Having faith in Christ that there will be something better beyond our current existence does make our daily struggles in some way an easier burden to bare. But, focusing only on the contrast between our current fallen existence and our future perfected state solely for putting our current struggles into perspective misses a major point. Though the contrast between past, present, and future is real it has little meaning without a central bridge binding them together. Just as the contrast of fearing angels and rejoicing with angles has little meaning outside of the context of the shepherds that Christmas day, the contrast between our present state and the future New Earth has little meaning outside of the work finished by Christ as he rose from the dead and the renewal started by God at Pentecost. To see the contrast between our current state and that of Revelation 21 and to only draw from that how far we have fallen is to miss the point. Jesus did not come to convince us how much of a mess we had made — this was evident —; he came to show us the way to a world under his reign.
What if the imagery given to us in Revelation 21 is not just to give us hope for God’s eventual reign and creation’s future renewal? What if God gave us Revelation 21 so we’d know where he’s taking us? So we’d know when we’re getting close? So we’d know when we’re doing things right? What if God was presently answering our prayers for his “will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” and we didn’t realize it? This is exactly what us Methodists propose; that God’s holiness seen fully in Revelation 21 is not just a future hope, but a hope that through the Holy Spirit can be lived into and experienced in the present. Not only can this hope be lived into now, but following the way set forth by Jesus it should be lived into. Discipleship, the Bible, prayer, baptism, the Eucharist, and all the other means of grace provided to us by God are to empower us for his call to bridge the contrast between the fallen world and his perfection.
Watch Night is not a time to look backwards. In this year we’ve all experienced hardships. Some of us have lost jobs. Some have seen loved ones pass away. We’ve all had pains and struggles. Through this year, God’s grace has filled our lives as he stood beside us through it all. With God we’ve seen joy, mercy, and hope. We could fill the entire time we have here together recounting to each other the places and times where God has poured his abundant grace into our lives. We could do all of this, but we would leave here no different than we arrived. 2014 would in the end be no different than 2013. We would have missed the contrast.
I think Watch Night can be so much more than a Christian New Year’s party. Here in this room we have the faithful members of several congregations. Here in this room we have people who put God high enough in their life to forego partying to join with their sisters and brothers in worship. Here in this room are people empowered by the Holy Spirit to make a difference in the world. Here we share and partake in all the means of God’s grace. Here God offers us his Spirit to equip us with all we need to lead the world to follow the way of Jesus Christ. Here in this place, on this night, God is willing and able to turn our lives into the bridges that connect the present with Revelation 21.
The revelation given to St. John proclaims that God’s dwelling place is with humankind. God freely offers himself to us. We can be his people and he can be our god. In Jesus Christ, God’s offer of unwarranted love flowing out since the beginning of time, became flesh. In the child that was born of Mary, the man who lived and preached amongst the people of Israel, the Messiah who died on Calvary to rise the third day and in so doing to raise us with him to glory, God was truly with us. Before Christ’s final ascension he promised someone greater than him would follow. On Pentecost, God sent his own Spirit to be with his people. We do not need to wait for God to dwell with us. He dwells with us now! He presently wipes away our tears. He presently has defeated death. He presently offers us new birth to the affect that the former things in our lives can completely pass away. We serve a mighty God!
We have no need to look backwards this Watch Night. God stands ready and waiting to begin “making all things new” through our hands. In 2014 we can participate in God’s great work; we can be the conduits for the outpouring of his love into the world. We can be the contrast against the present state of things. We can be the bridges that lead our congregations and the world to deeper discipleship. We can freely offer our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
May 2014 be the year God’s people invite the full presence of the fire of his Holy Spirit in their lives. May 2014 be the year we watch Nashville burn with the fire of God’s abundant love.
Whether for the first time or the hundredth time I offer you now to stand as you are able and join with me and the communion of the saints in the Methodist tradition that have come before us in making covenant with God. Let us now offer our entire selves to his honor, glory, and service that he might entirely equip us for the service of his kingdom. Recite with my the Methodist Covenant Prayer found on page 607 of the hymnal.