Today’s sermon is one with which I have truly struggled. I struggled because there are actually too many good things to choose from in the texts for today. What should I talk about? Should I talk about Lydia, Paul’s first European convert to Christianity and a wealthy woman whose whole household was baptized and who was a hostess to Paul and other evangelists? Should I talk about the amazing vivid picture drawn for us by our text from Revelation? There is the descent of Jerusalem from heaven, the place where the Lamb is the light of the city of God, the place where the river of life flows from his throne down the middle of the road and is surrounded by the tree of life. That’s the amazing life giving tree from which all humanity was barred after the fall in the garden of Eden. Or perhaps even the psalm would even be good preaching material. It speaks of praising God in thanksgiving for all he has given us. The Psalm is always a safe bet. Or maybe this Gospel lesson where Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples. It’s his great farewell address and he gives them his peace. He doesn’t give them just any comfort, but the peace that only Jesus can give.
For the past few weeks, we have had several Sunday readings from one of my favorite books of the bible. Now I will admit that I am fickle when it comes to picking favorite scriptures and books of the bible. Usually, my favorite is whatever I am reading at the moment, with a few perennial constants. Except of course for Leviticus which is about as interesting as reading the phone book. Its explicit instructions on what sacrifice must be made if you accidentally trim your fingernails on the Sabbath are not quite what I would call riveting.
But the book of Revelation holds a special place in my mind and in my heart. Not only is it filled with vivid imagery like a contemporary action movie and symbolism everywhere you turn, it is also filled with some of the clearest words of Christ’s desire to comfort and heal us as well as complete assurance of the ultimate defeat of evil. Last week, in fact, we heard what are perhaps the most comforting and hopeful words in scripture: God will wipe away all the tears from all eyes, there will be no more crying or pain because death itself has been destroyed. I love this book in spite of the fact that it is probably one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused parts of scripture.
This week’s reading comes in part from the last chapter of the whole bible. It really is the end of the end. After the final defeat of evil, the writer of Revelation shows us the city of God descending down from heaven. This is that New Jerusalem we heard about last Sunday; the renewed city of peace. This city is quite remarkable in many ways. For one thing, it has no temple. Now, the temple was the very center of all worship of God during that time. There really is no actual comparison to it in today’s Christian world. Even Vatican City doesn’t really cover it because no one, no matter how devout, believes that they must be in Rome in order to worship in the right way.
The temple in the city of Jerusalem is probably thought of more in the way we think of home. For most of us, there’s one place or even one person that truly symbolizes ‘home’. That place your mind and heart go when you remember holidays, birthdays, celebrations. The place or even the person you think of when you feel lost and cold and tired and just want to go….home. Oh, you can celebrate anywhere and when you’re tired, any pillow will do to rest your body. But deep inside, we know that the place where or person with whom it seems the most right. That is home. In that sort of way, the temple in Jerusalem was the home of God.
So, at first glance, this Jerusalem without a temple doesn’t sound so great. Where is home? At the least, would you think a city with no church was one that had been perfected by God? Probably not. It sounds very out of character for God doesn’t it? It also has no lamps or sun, which doesn’t sound so good either. But the reason for both of these absences is the presence of God. There is no need for a particular building of worship because God has made the whole city his home. It would be like having that feeling of home with you wherever you went. There is no more need to come home to God, because God has come home to us. And, the reason for no sun is that no one needs it any more. There is no longer night.
This is an interesting thought. No night. When I imagine this my first thought is, well I sure would miss the stars! But I think that this image is meant to convey something more than no more sunsets or sunrises. Nighttime can be the most threatening time of day. In the natural world, there are many predators who hunt at night. Finding a safe place to spend the dark hours is a priority for many animals and for many human beings, for that matter. Any mother or father who has had a very sick child with a fever in the wee hours of the morning knows that the darkness of night sometimes seems to go on forever. The late night telephone call with difficult news. Storms always seem more threatening and dangerous after dark. And who hasn’t woken in the middle of the night and lay awake in bed worrying over a problem; a problem that seems manageable in the daytime but somehow seems ominous and overwhelming while sitting in the dark.
The contrast between darkness and light can be found many places in scripture. Light is most often the place where God is found. Jesus is described as the light of the world; a light shining in the darkness that darkness cannot overcome. Light and life are often depicted as very nearly the same thing. Paul uses the symbols of light and dark in several places in his letters to the early church. Children of Light was a title he sometimes used when he talked about the faithful Christians and, by contrast, Children of Darkness was a title for those who were neither faithful nor Christian. Darkness can mean a time of trouble, danger, doubt, worry and fear.
So, in many ways, what God overcomes with the New Jerusalem, this great city full of light that has no need of sun or lamps, is not rooms with burned out lightbulbs or velvet black skies full of stars, but the things which darkness symbolizes. God overcomes those things that threaten us, overwhelm us, and frighten us. God comes home to live with us and God fills up everything so completely, with his light that is life, that there is no room for fearful things or harmful things. There is no room for fear.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the troubles and fears of this world and the peace he gives to us. “Peace I leave with you” he says “my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” The peace that Jesus gives to his disciples and to us is not the same kind of peaceful feeling that can be disturbed in times of darkness by worry, doubt and fear. Instead, what he gives is a peace that removes darkness altogether.
Have you ever told someone not to worry? Or has someone every told you that you shouldn’t be afraid of something? It is a little bit like telling someone not to think about a thing. Don’t think of chocolate cake. Now pretty much everyone, whether you’re hungry or not, just thought about chocolate cake! Telling someone not to think about or feel something is almost a guarantee that is the very first thing that pops into their mind. This is probably why Jesus talks about leaving his peace with the disciples, with us.
Jesus says, “my peace I leave with you” as though it is a thing, a thing that takes up space in the world. And there is something different about this peace. He says so, saying that this is not the same kind of peace we are accustomed to because it’s not the kind of peace we have with the world. The peace the world gives us might be able to help us through a long night of fear and worry but this peace fills up the night and the day. The peace of Christ is a gift Jesus gives to us, that we share with one another during worship when we pass the peace, is something beyond mere comfort and the absence of anxiety. The peace that Jesus gives is like light that fills everything. The peace of Jesus is like the light in the New Jerusalem that is so full it crowds out any kind of darkness.
Jesus tells the disciples and us, “do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid.” So, what is the first thing we all think of? Trouble and fear. However, Jesus does something different. Jesus gives them, gives us, something different. He gives them something to replace the fear. Peace. Jesus gives his peace; the peace of Christ that really does take up space in the world and, eventually, does it so completely that there is no room for fear.
Each week in worship we pass the peace. Although this is also a time when we greet people, including those we already know and any guests among us, it is also something more. “The peace of the Lord be with you all” is not just a greeting of some kind but an offering. It is an offering of the peace of Christ. When we pass the peace we are passing this same peace to and with one another. So, when you shake hands with or hug the other people in worship, you are not merely being friendly or wishing the other person well, you are sharing and receiving the kind of peace that fills up a room, a city, a whole life. Just think of that! The kind of peace that can eliminate fear, obliterate darkness, is present between you and the person to whom you are saying, “Peace be with you.” It is a little glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven; the New Jerusalem.
May the Peace of the Lord, the peace that removes all trouble and fear and brings the light of God, be with you always.