05.01.2016 Preaching Text: “And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:10)
When people tell you that biblical faith is “Good News,” what do they mean? When you look at the sweep of the biblical story from beginning to end, what recommends this assignation?
After all, there’s a bunch of hard sayings and harsh judgments in both testaments. There’s death and mayhem as well. What’s so “good” about all of this?
If nothing else, when you boil it all down, the biblical narrative consists of one basic, three-part message: Paradise Given, Paradise Lost, and Paradise Restored. It’s really that simple.
In our first reading from Genesis 3, we follow up on last Sunday’s account of creation, specifically the creation of human beings. Here begins our story – Paradise Given.
Then, just three short chapters in, the wily serpent connives Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. In the eating, theologically, humanity rejects its Creator’s lordship. We have now placed ourselves at the center.
Because of this act of spiritual disobedience, Adam and Eve are cast out of paradise, destined to live “east of Eden.” What once was an innocent, euphoric existence is now transmogrified into a life of toil, enmity, strife, injustice, and, yes, death. This constitutes the Paradise Lost.
From there things go from bad to worse, so much so that God laments having created the world. What was intended for good has fallen into a state of malevolence, directly counter to God’s will.
This disordered condition leads God to initiate the Flood, with only Noah and two of every kind of animal surviving. The point, theologically, is that there was a need to start over again.
After the floodwaters recede, however, a repentant God makes a covenant with Noah, sealed by a rainbow, that never again will God destroy the earth.
In this spirit, God forthwith initiates what has come to be called “salvation history” by making a new covenant with Abraham. Here God promises that through Abraham a great nation shall arise, one tasked with the job of announcing God’s plan to reconcile the whole world back to its original state. Thus begins the history of hope, the hope that forms the theme of the entire biblical story. God’s irrevocable Promise has been given.
The Promise is this: God shall defeat, completely and inexorably, all evil and suffering, injustice and hatred. Therefore, Israel shall announce this long-range effort, one that culminates, for Christians, in Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.
Our final reading today from the Book of Revelation colorfully portrays the final stage of God’s plan or Promise. It consists of John’ prayerful, ecstatic vision of Paradise Restored, the same one promised to Abraham long ago.
In this vision we encounter the New Jerusalem, having come down from heaven, where every last bit of Paradise Lost, Eden, has lovingly been restored.
Even the tree in the center of the Garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the same tree Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat, is now available to everyone. All of life has been restored to its original state in accordance with God’s will. Eliminated is all that vex and diminish.
This is, of course, the desires of every human – to know paradise, to love and be loved, fully, completely, and without limit. Sickness, sorrow, tears, and pain are ended. Darkness is vanished. And humanity’s greatest enemy, death, is defeated. And the vast gulf between God and humanity is overcome.
Which is to say that Adam and Eve’s Fall, and its debilitating effects, has been eliminated, not by human effort, but by the power of God in Christ.
I like the way Timothy Ware explains ubiquitous and debilitating effects of Original Sin in The Orthodox Way: “The doctrine of original sin means…that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicions, and hard to win their trust. It means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-think, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have ourselves added by our own deliberate acts of sin. The gulf grows wider and wider.”
Due to the insolubility of this existential dilemma, the biblical tale argues that we cannot save ourselves from this unholy mess. Only a force beyond us can do this. Only God can save us.
The Book of Revelation argues that it is indeed God who saves us by means of Christ’s return, the fulfillment of the Promise. Such a view challenges the more modern notion that we humans can fix ourselves.
In rejecting much of the Bible’s fantastical language, we can lose sight of how it was written. The first thing to remember is that these biblical account are, first and foremost, theology.
The biblical writers were theologians who, armed with the oral history of Israel and its forebears, sought, after the fact, to interpret this history in light of their novel belief that God is not only involved in history, but is its Lord. One should be careful not to take any of these stories too literally or unthinkingly. For one thing, Israel’s theologians didn’t always agree.
Whether you interpret the descriptions of history’s end in the Book of Revelation as fact, metaphor, or symbol (as perhaps of our own death and resurrection), its main point, again theologically, is the conviction that only God can fix the human condition.
The simplest way, for me, to think of this is to consider my own life. Is it reasonable for me to expect to attain perfection within my lifetime (which would involve everyone else’s perfection, since we’re all bound together)?
Though I believe I’ve grown in Christian faith over the years, I’m not deluded enough to think this approximates holy perfection!
No, my hope is founded on Christ fulfilling the hope and promise that’s instilled in my heart. Only God can restore my innocence. Only God can fix my sin-sick soul. Only God can defeat death and restore my heart’s greatest longings.
It is this hope, born of God’s Promise, which is at the core of the biblical story. It is indeed the Good News, humanity’s greatest hope, for believers and non-believers alike. Amen.