It’s Not All Good, But It Will Be

April 24, 2016
by Emily Rowell Brown

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Most of us probably think of this text from the Revelation to John as a funeral text. We often hear it as we remember the dead. This is the part of Revelation that we do not mind reading, that we skip all of the other chapters about burning flames and crazy symbols, to exhale a sigh of relief. There is something comforting and fitting about the idea that just as our scriptures begin with the creation of the earth, so do they end with a re-creation, a transformation of that earth.

That this text comes to us immediately following Earth Day, which was on Friday, may attune us more to the passage’s creational elements. The distinction between heaven and earth is collapsed, and God resides permanently among the people. The picture that we had received earlier in Revelation of a God far away and removed from the world up in heaven, is replaced. But we receive a vision not of a rotten, wretched world and people that ascends to heaven but a heaven that comes down here, to us. It is earthy and material, like something we already know, and yet infinitely better. This gives us every reason to take care with this life and this planet because it sets the foundation for what awaits. Heaven as a place in the clouds with pearly white gates? That idea certainly does not come from this scripture.

But to get at today’s text, I mostly just would like to share two remarkable humans’ stories. Would that be okay?

First, I want to tell you about Jackson,[1] a fifteen-year-old with cerebral palsy who recently completed a half marathon and will compete in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington this October. He writes a blog by typing on an iPad keyboard with his toes because his fingers lack such nimbleness. He does Crossfit, and I could go on and on. But I knew Jackson, you see, when he was still in his mother’s womb. When he was born, doctors and specialists told his parents that their child would probably never walk, never graduate high school, never have a “normal” childhood, never have a future.

Jackson’s parents did not accept this bleak fate predicted for their son, but they sometimes carried with them exhaustion and discouragement. How could they not? To watch Jackson’s siblings, however, was both humbling and inspiring. Jackson’s siblings adored Jackson, and they knew what their youngest brother was capable of, even if none of the grown-ups and purported experts did. Eight-year-old Matt and six-year-old Taylor sat with Jackson for hours cheering for him as he struggled to do a puzzle. “He’s getting it, he’s getting it!” Matt said excitedly, when three-year-old Jackson moved the puzzle piece two inches forward from the carpet closer to the puzzle board. Still now, they proudly post updates about their brother on their Facebook pages.

They have faith that God is making all things new.

Now I want to tell you about Anna. Anna is in my book club, and she and her husband Don lost their baby last month. While in Tunis for Don’s doctoral research, they learned that their eleven-month-old had cancer, and that same day, sweet Ella died. Ella’s funeral was the day after Easter.

Our book club sat with Anna last week and she told her story. She told us how she felt guilt for not being a good enough mother, for taking her baby to Tunis, for not knowing–she is a nurse!–what was wrong with her child sooner. She told us how she felt rage at the hospital in Tunis, who sent her and her husband home for the night when they admitted Ella to the hospital. She told us how she believed that Ella was in God’s hands but that she had never more palpably longed for heaven.

But she also told us how she saw God working in the midst of her grief. With extraordinary perspective and grace, she spoke about how God had given her patience to bear the well meaning but so not helpful comments from people trying to comfort her. She spoke about how grateful she was to be able to say goodbye to Ella, even though she did not know it at the time, not amidst IVs and monitors, but by playing with toys and going for a walk and reading favorite books, before taking Ella to the hospital. She spoke about how she and Don bathed Ella a few hours after Ella died for the very last time, stroking their child’s delicate, cool skin, and remembering.

They have faith that God is making all things new.

But God is not finished. That’s the rub of the beautiful message from Revelation. It conveys hope and promise, but we realize how much our world is not there.   Beauty can emerge from pain and brokenness–and arguably, sometimes even more so as a result–and that is where God is. God shows up in redemption, in transformation. But is that enough for us?

Heaven and the end times are tricky to speak about. Suffice it to say that the Christian tradition holds a wide variety of beliefs about both topics, but we just do not know. What we do know about heaven from our scriptures is that the heaven that Jesus brings is anticipatory and already realized, which is not the way popular culture thinks about heaven at all. We find slices of heaven here in this life–in Jackson’s blog posts about Crossfit, in Anna and Don’s final bath with Ella–even if incomplete. They are incomplete. Right now there is still death and mourning and crying and pain.

John may have written the story in code language two thousand years earlier in the wake of the Roman Empire’s oppressive rule to provide his earliest audience with affirmation of their struggle, but the truth of the message persists. We may not be worked to death or bone poor like those in John’s community, and we do not even experience the hardships of many of our contemporaries at other places on this globe–or down the street here in Richmond–but we all know that sense of things not being quite right.

The root of our faith, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, is the promise not only that God is with us but that God is for us. Sometimes it is simply not enough to know that God is present alongside us in tragedy and evil–no, we need God to express outrage and anger, to not only wipe away every tear but to stop them once and for all.

The Christian faith is a faith of resurrection; we are an Easter people. We put our trust in Jesus not merely because he came to be with us, even unto death, but because he came to conquer. We cling not to a glib assertion that all is well because we believe but we believe because all is not well, and we have the audacity to hope that God is up to–is still up to–making all things new.

Revelation 21:1-6

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, the 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, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

[1] All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals included here, but their stories and details are true.