For the Healing of the Nations

(Isaiah 60:17-61:7Revelation 22:1-17)

“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful line in all of Scripture than that.  Obviously there are many beautiful verses in the Bible; just as obviously, this one would be meaningless without all the rest of them.  But I think this one, coming at the climax, may be the best of them all.
Maybe you think I’m making too much of this, but follow me here.  I said last week that I don’t believe in immortal souls that live in a spiritual realm called heaven, because what the Bible promises us is the resurrection of the dead into the new heavens and the new earth.  More than that, though, this idea that our spirits are immortal and separate things from these bodies that we just happen to wear is completely unbiblical.  If you start with that idea, it chops up everything that God is doing.  You end up with this division between body and soul, between this world and heaven, between this life and eternal life, and ultimately the idea that this life and this world are only here to determine who’s going to heaven and who isn’t.  That’s wrong.  The life of the world to come will still be the same life and the same world, even as it will be made completely new.
Look at the picture John gives us.  At the center of the city stands the throne of God.  No longer will he rule from on high, far above and beyond us, but from right in the center of his people.  From his throne—from his authority, from his lordship, from his unchallenged rule—flows the river of the water of life.  We’ve talked about this before, that in a hot, dry climate without our modern technology, it was water that determined whether there would be life.  If there was clear, flowing fresh water, plants could grow, and animals and people could live.  If not, then not.
Here, the city has its own river, which flows right down the middle of its main street—right at the heart of all its business and traffic.  Our cities are creators of culture, but they’re consumers of life.  They can’t produce the food to feed those who live there, or the raw materials to feed their factories and supply their stores.  The culture of our cities consumes the life of our fields and forests.  In the new earth, that will no longer be the case.  Life will flow from the city of God, for the city will be the place from which he rules the world.  His reign will be the source of its life, and the center of its activity.
On either side of the river stands the tree of life.  Don’t imagine some great mutant tree here; the point is rather that there won’t be just one tree of life anymore, but a whole double row of them.  It won’t just bear one kind of fruit, either, but twelve:  one crop for each month, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, one for each of the twelve apostles.  Our first ancestors had one chance at the tree of life, and lost it when they chose to disobey God; in the new Jerusalem, the new city, the life of God will be abundantly available to all.
And here’s the key:  that life covers and fills and revives everything in this world and every part of our existence.  What are the nations?  Just as the city is the highest point of human achievement, so the nation is the highest point of human identity.  Ethnicity, culture, history, land, belonging, loyalty, home, all these things are tied up and bound together in and by our nations.  The enduring temptation to divide the world into “us” and “them” and define ourselves by who we’re not is all tied in there too, and has been a driving force behind some of our most horrific wars.  And of course, we give the nations lordship, accepting the authority of our various governments over our lives and bowing to their demands.  Having rebelled against the God to whom we belong and who is the one true Lord over all creation, we had to come up with some kind of replacement to give structure to human life and keep it all together.  The nations are what we came up with.
And just as God redeemed the city, so he redeemed the nations.  All of our culture, as we saw last week; all of our history, all of our land with its beauty and brokenness and all we’ve done to it, all of our sense of home and belonging, all the things that make us “us” and not “them”—all our rivalries, all our conflicts, all the walls that divide us—he took all of it and bought it with the blood of the cross and gave it new life.  None of it that is true will be abolished or wiped away, but it will all be made right.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
And yes, I said God redeemedthe nations—past tense, already done.  We don’t fully experience that now, but the work is already accomplished, in God’s time; and it has already begun, in ours.  The world has not yet been born again, but we have.  The new Jerusalem has not yet come down from heaven, but the work of the city is already here, and has been given to us to do.  It is our privilege and our honor to do it; it’s a blessing from God to give us a part in his work.
This is why and how we need to think and talk about revival, and pray for it to happen.  Revivals are part of God’s work of healing the nations.  That means, in the first place, they’re nothing we can control or make happen.  As the Rev. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,

A revival is a miracle.  It is a miraculous, exceptional phenomenon.  It is the hand of the Lord, and it is mighty.  A revival, in other words, is something that can only be explained as the direct action and intervention of God.  It was God alone who could divide the Red Sea.  It was God alone who could divide the waters of the river of Jordan.  These were miracles.  Hence the reminder of God’s unique action, of the mighty acts of God.  And revivals belong to that category. . . .  These events belong to the order of things that men cannot produce.  Men can produce evangelistic campaigns, but they cannot and never have produced a revival.

Second, this means we cannot be tied down to the way we’ve done things in the past.  What we’ve done that has worked before may not be what we should be doing now; God doesn’t tend to reuse his methods, lest we put our trust in the method rather than the Maker.  What we’ve tried to no apparent effect may be exactly what we’re called to do in this time, as what God is doing now isn’t the same as he was doing then.  And just because we try something and it doesn’t seem to work doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing.  When it comes to human effort, it’s well said that “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.”  When it comes to following God, though, all bets are off.  Often, the faith he uses is the faith that persists in praying and doing his will even when it seems to be pointless and a failure.  How long did Noah live with the jeers of his neighbors while he was building the ark?
Third, revival is the only hope for the healing of the nations, including ours.  As we look out, we see America swinging away from any respect for Christian faith, and that swing is accelerating.  Whole sections of the church think they can hold on to that respect by riding the swing and conforming themselves to what the elite culture demands, but they won’t.  The root of the matter is, the rich, the powerful and the influential increasingly want us all to believe that we’re gods to ourselves—because then they’re the biggest gods on the scene, with predictable results—and in the end, the only way the church can conform to that is by committing suicide.
We can’t stop this by writing new laws, because they’ll be interpreted and enforced as it suits those in power.  We can’t stop it by electing new politicians, because as they join the elite, many will be corrupted—not all, but far too many.  We can’t stop it through the courts, because the courts are part of the problem.  As Psalm 146 says, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”  Rather, our only hope is in the name of the Lord our God, who made the heavens and the earth, and who will make them all new.  America doesn’t need to be taken back, it needs to be healed.  It doesn’t need to be reprogrammed, it needs to be revived.
If we would restore the ancient foundations that are crumbling before our eyes, don’t pray for electoral victories, or for the government or the courts to protect Christians from opposition, oppression, and persecution; pray for revival.  Pray for God to do a mighty work in all our hearts by his Holy Spirit.  It’s our only hope.

The City of Glory

I suspect most people in this country, if you asked them what Christians believe is going to happen to us when we die, would say that we believe that our immortal souls leave our bodies behind and this world behind and go to live eternally with other spirits in heaven.  I expect the majority of Christians in this country would say something like that.  For my part, I don’t believe a word of it.  I don’t, because the Bible doesn’t.  That’s not what God promises, because he’s not interested in writing off the world like that.  The Bible doesn’t tell us we have immortal souls that will live eternally as spirits; it tells us God is going to raise us physically from the dead, and that those who love him will live eternally with him in a world made entirely new.

This isn’t just going to be sitting on clouds playing harps, either—which is a good thing, because I don’t think I’d make much of a harpist.  For that matter, it won’t just be what we think of as a “natural” setting, with trees and flowers and friendly animals.  Look what John says:  the centerpiece of the new creation won’t be a garden, it will be a city.  That’s a really important thing.  What is a city?  It’s a human creation.  You might even say it’s a little human world, in which you can spend your whole life surrounded only by things either made or processed by human beings.  (Except for the rats and the bugs, anyway; but even the weather is affected by the city, if not in ways that we can control.)  It’s the highest example of human mastery of the natural world.

And when God makes all things new, it won’t just be things that only he can make; right at the center of it, made new right along with everything else, will be a city—the human place, the human achievement.  I think that’s a very big deal.  I think that tells us that what we do, and what we make, and what we build, matters.  I believe that tells us that God cares about our work and our production, and that when he remakes the world, he’s going to keep the best of what we’ve done.  I don’t say everything good; a good artificial hip is a noble and beautiful thing, truly a work which honors God, but it simply won’t be needed in the new creation.  But everything that belongs will be there—our music, our buildings, our art, and the rest.  I don’t just mean stuff that was made by Christians, either; I believe God will preserve the great gifts of all our civilizations.

Nothing that is truly good in itself will be lost.  No beauty, nothing of honor, no joy will be lost; they will be transformed.  When God makes the world new, free of sickness, sorrow, pain, and death, full of his presence of love and peace, it won’t be only his world; it will be our world, too, with our gifts included with his delight.  What we do, what we make, what we build, matters to God, because we matter to God, because he loves us.

It Is Done!

(Isaiah 43:16-21Isaiah 65:17-25Revelation 21:1-8)

As I said back in January, the sermon planning for this year coalesced around the sense that God was calling me to preach on revival, shaped by the reality that I didn’t know how to go about doing that.  I did a lot of thinking, and a lot of study, and spent a fair bit of time praying through it; what evolved out of that time was a sermon series composed of several chapters, each with a different emphasis.

As part of that, it seemed to me we needed to begin by looking at where we are now and where we’re going.  Unless you’re planning a trip around the world, it’s the beginning point and the end point that define your travel.  Of course, when you’re talking about true revival, you’re talking about something which is entirely a work of the Holy Spirit from first to last, so it’s critical to understand ourselves as we are in God and under his authority.  That’s what we’ve been doing in 1 Peter.  But 1 Peter points us toward the goal, to a reward at the end of the road which will be great enough and good enough to make all the hardships and grief of the journey more than worth it in the end; and so I thought we should begin this series by looking forward, to the glory that’s in store.  After all, while revival comes as a blessing to the world, that’s not its primary goal.  That goal lies ahead—further up and further in.

To revive is to make alive again, and we need to recognize that that’s neither meta­phor nor hyperbole.  God isn’t in the business of making people better, nor is he on about making the world a better place; he’s not just trying to patch up the damage sin has done to his creation.  He doesn’t see us as a fixer-upper in need of some repairs and renovations and a new coat of paint.  He’s going to remake everything, from first to last, from the inside out.  Every enemy and all that is wrong will cease to exist.  He’s going to raise this whole creation, and his faithful ones with it, from death to life—forever.

There’s a great deal we could say about this passage, but I want to focus on three points.  First, it’s not just that there will be no more human evil; there will also be no more natural evil.  Think typhoons, earthquakes, and those little accidents of timing that can make the difference between a harmless mistake and a traffic accident.  We see this in verse 1 when John tells us, “there was no more sea.”  The ancient world understood the sea as a force which was hostile to life and all human order.  Babylonian mythology identified the sea as the home of Tiamat, the dragon of chaos which the great god Marduk had to overcome and kill before he could create any other life; their attitude toward the sea was typical.  Though the people of John’s time made long journeys by sea, they stayed in sight of land as much as possible, and never forgot it could kill them at any time.

Whether a deep ocean like the Atlantic and the Pacific, or a shallow, land-bound body of water like the Mediterranean or the Great Lakes, the sea is treacherous even now.  The Greeks who told tales of Poseidon and the Kraken would have understood “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” just fine; some of Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics would have been obscure, but the story would have come through loud and clear.  When the world is made new, John says, this power will be no more.  I expect the new earth will still have the ocean; but it too will be remade, and fully obedient to the goodness of God.

Second, pain, sorrow, sickness and death will be no more because God will live among his people.  Our greatest joy won’t be the absence of those evils that blight our lives in this world, but the presence of the One who is all good things.  He will be fully with us, in all his glory and goodness, always and forever.  All shall be well, and all shall be good, because he will be with us.  All fear, all doubt, all insecurity will disappear, for he will be with us, and his love for us will leave no room for such things.  All sense that we’re ignored, unappreciated, overlooked, misunderstood, or alone will be gone, because he will be with us, and we will know without question that he knows and understands us fully, and that he values us as his children.  We will never walk alone or unnoticed, because he will be with us; we will never walk in darkness, for he will be our light.

Third:  “It is done!”  None of this is uncertain, or merely possible; this isn’t something God’s planning to do.  He’s already accomplished it.  The work is finished.  We haven’t experienced it yet—we haven’t caught up to it—but it has already happened.  All things have been made new—wehave been made new—sin and death have been defeated, and Jesus rules over all as the King of creation.  We don’t see it yet, but we will.  We can count on it; we can stake everything on it, including our very lives.

This is why Peter could tell us, again and again, that our reward in Christ will be more than worth the cost of whatever suffering we endure on the way.  It’s why Jesus could tell us not to focus on our earthly bank accounts, but to concentrate on storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven.  It’s why Paul could write, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us”; and again, “We do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
This is bedrock.  As Christians, we don’t bet on the past, and we don’t put our trust in the present.  The past is the evidence of the faithfulness of God to remind us in the present that we can stake our lives on the future.  This is true whether our present circumstances are good or ill, whether all is going according to plan or we no longer even remember what the plan was, whether we have a sense of physical and material security or we don’t know where our next meal is coming from.  It’s true whether God is blessing us with worldly success or tempering and testing us through worldly failure.  Our future blessing and glory in Christ is more certain than our present, and even more firmly fixed than our past.  After all, our past as we know it is limited by our memory and our under­standing; but our future is held in the mind and promise of God, who is without limits.