restoration

Bride and Groom

Revelation 21:1-6

As we move toward the end of Revelation, from chapter 7 all the way to chapter 21, we’re jumping over a lot of powerful imagery. I would encourage you to take time to read it.

We’re skipping the tales of the dragon and the two beasts, the number 666 (or is it 616?), the fall of Babylon, and all sorts of other images and events more suitable for a long-term Revelation study than 20 minutes of preaching.  I’ll sum up what we’re skipping by saying the battle between good and evil has long raged, is raging, and will continue to rage until God says, “No more.”

And let’s never forget that Christ’s willing sacrifice on the cross makes “no more” possible.

This week and next, we will focus on what life will be like when there is a new heaven and earth, all reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. Sometimes we talk about this moment as a remaking or reordering of all things. Anything that is to continue to exist will be aligned with God’s will. It is also important to note that God will be fully, undeniably present, seen constantly with the heart as well as with the eyes.

Revelation’s author—and the Holy Spirit, I suppose—must drive rigid English teachers crazy with the use of mixed metaphors. Life in the full presence of God is described as both a marriage and a beautiful city (the city at one point is clothed as a bride), and each metaphor reveals something special about God’s relationship with humanity.

This week, I want to explore the idea of the “new Jerusalem” adorned as a bride for her husband. This metaphor is one of the major reasons Revelation is so appropriate as the closing book of Christian Scripture. Throughout the Bible, there has been a thought running along like a thread from nearly front cover to back. It is the idea of God as the spurned husband and humanity as the unfaithful wife.

From the beginning of our Bible story, it is clear God wanted to be fully available to his creation. When God discovered the first act of disobedience, he had gone for a stroll in Paradise in the cool of the day, looking for the people he made. Sin brought on a terrible separation. Rather than a close companion, our maker by his very nature was forced to become distant, while at the same time beginning the plan to overcome sin and restore what once was.

The prophets in particular picked up on the image of God as spurned husband. Jeremiah did. Hosea certainly did, at God’s command taking a prostitute as an unfaithful wife to symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness.

But in the end, bride and groom are restored. The Holy Spirit works within the church, healing its members and restoring them through faith in Christ. The bride is being adorned and dressed as we gather in worship and live out the church’s mission.

The metaphor also says much about the value of earthly marriage. When I take couples through premarital counseling, I make a point of reminding them that the union they are about to enter symbolizes the great work Christ is doing.

The husband stands in for God; the wife stands for the church. And to keep the husband from getting a big head, thinking this metaphor somehow puts him in a position of power, I remind him of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

In a culture where marriage is less and less valued—we are so much more about instant gratification and so much less about commitment—we need again to emphasize the symbolic value of marriage. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments where we have two; if I could add a third sacrament to our Methodist practice, it would be marriage. Perhaps we would better understand how we participate in God’s grand scheme for creation when we take our vows before God.

Next week, we’ll explore what it means when our future with God is represented by a huge, cube-shaped city. We will stroll streets of gold, drink life-giving water and eat from a very special tree. In the meantime, treasure the always faithful God who calls you home.


The featured image is of an unknown Turkish Cypriot bride and groom in 1941. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

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When God Gets Personal

Jeremiah 31:27-34

These seem like trying times.

There’s the U.S. government, of course. I don’t have to go into more detail for you to understand what I mean. I don’t even have to make any partisan statements. One thing everyone can agree on: something’s broken, and that brokenness triggers suspicion and fear.

As a pastor, I would also say that October more and more is a difficult month for people. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the change of seasons. Other pastors have noticed a change in attitudes around this time, too. People, even church people, act out in anger more, saying or doing things they probably regret later.

I have wondered if the depressing, overarching theme of the month causes some of these disturbances of the soul. I’m personally not crazy about October because Halloween has become such a big deal in our culture, and I feel during the month that I’m constantly inundated with zombies and bloody, evil imagery. If NBC doesn’t stop running those promos for “Dracula” soon, I’m going to have to stop watching the network.

It could be a lot worse, though. As my son is fond of saying, those are all “First World problems.” We’re not surrounded by our enemies, under siege and starving, awaiting an attack that is going to lead to mass slaughter. That’s the situation people have repeatedly found themselves in throughout history; in particular, that’s the position the prophet Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem found themselves in about 600 years before Jesus Christ was born.

This story is remarkable because of what God said through Jeremiah in the midst of this impending doom. I also love the way Jeremiah personally responded to God’s promises.

Jerusalem clearly was going to fall to the invading Babylonian Empire. In his role as prophet, Jeremiah had said as much, and it did happen. Before the fall, Jewish King Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah for daring to say so.

There was more to Jeremiah’s prophecies, however. He also related promises from God that still resonate in our lives today. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” Those are the words marking the beginnings of these promises.

First, the Lord said, the time of tearing down and punishing what had become a divided, disobedient children of God would end. The people of Israel would return to their homes. And not only that, a new way of relating to God would begin. Rather than being judged as a nation, each person would be judged individually for his or her sins. That is the point of the “sour grapes” verses.

Second, that new way of relating to God would lead to a new covenant, a deeply personal one. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” Jeremiah said on God’s behalf. There also was a third promise that Jerusalem will one day be remade into a holy place, “sacred to the Lord,” never again to be “uprooted or overthrown.”

Jeremiah even put his money where his mouth was. A cousin came to him, wanting Jeremiah to buy a field in Anathoth, their hometown. Imagine paying valuable silver for a piece of land just as a foreign army is about to take all the land around you—on its face, the transaction looked quite foolish.

Jeremiah bought the field to make a point, however. God’s promises are trustworthy. The land would one day be returned to the Israelites. Jeremiah had the deed of purchase sealed in an earthenware jar so he or his descendants could one day prove ownership of the field in question.

And God’s promises were fulfilled—in fact, they are still being fulfilled—in astounding ways.

For us, these promises were fulfilled most importantly through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life and death on the cross established that promised personal relationship for us. When Jesus died for our sins, we once again had a path to God. Believe in the effectiveness of his Son’s death and resurrection, and we are once again able to go to a holy God despite our sins.

And there’s more. When we enter that relationship, God’s Holy Spirit begins to work within us. That’s as personal as a relationship can be, God’s Spirit whispering to our spirits. Such interaction changes us and shapes us, re-making us into what God intended us to be.

Those promises from God carried Jeremiah and the children of Israel through conquest and captivity, sustaining them until they were returned to the land. And they likely were clueless as to just how far God would go. The Christ who would come centuries later, and how he would actually make salvation possible for all, was beyond their imaginations.

We should fare much better as we face our First World problems, particularly when we consider the knowledge we have about how God is making all things new. We can look to the Bible for sustenance; we can look to our hearts to see what God is doing, assuming we have faithfully let God in.

Jeremiah’s words are a lesson for any trying times.

On the Beach with Jesus

When I studied what is known as narrative preaching in seminary, I learned to respect the text—to let the selected Scripture drive the sermon.

This approach can place me in a quandary, however. There are stories in the Bible that are so powerful that I find it daunting to try to expand or elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence in the gallery by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite part of the Bible, the story I turn to for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation in one simple story.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.

—————–

Now that you’ve read it, I just want to share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation and then respond accordingly.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.