Then 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. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 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.’
5 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.’ 6Then 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.
The Church is a family, a very remarkable family because we are God’s family. And today we welcome our newest sister, Annabel. Jesus said that there was more rejoicing in heaven over one person who turns to him than over all the goodness in the world. And when you consider how much it pleases God when good is done, you get a sense of how delighted he is when we turn to him. There is, Jesus says, a huge party in heaven, every time a soul comes home to him. And we feel that joy today. We are partying with them. And I completely agree with Jesus on this one. Of all the things I do in my ministry, nothing causes me so much pleasure than when people come to faith and join the family and Annabel’s journey to faith has given me such encouragement and joy that I really feel, in my heart, that party that’s going on in heaven right now. But what is that family that she’s joining?
Well, firstly, it is a very diverse family. There is no outward family resemblance. It’s a family of every race, every social status and every time. As St Paul says, “In Christ, there is no east or west, no male or female, no slave or free” for all are one in him. Our family resemblance is seen in our relationship to our Father. Most specifically, in the way that we are being transformed to be more like Jesus. If you think about trying to be like Jesus, you will almost certainly feel unworthy for the task and, of course, we are. But the remarkable thing is that the more we journey with God, the more we come to know him, to trust him, to study his ways and to follow him, the more we do become like Jesus. Just as DNA shapes our outward appearance regardless of anything we do, the Holy Spirit, when we allow him into our hearts, changes our inward appearance, even despite our waywardness, our selfishness and our weakness. It is a miraculous work of God that brings so many people, from so many different starting points, to be like Jesus. It even works across all time, so that we are deeply connected with family members who are now in heaven. We are united with those who are in heaven and those who are on earth, but separated from us by distance or by difference. In truth, we are never separated, because we are joined by Jesus.
And this is most remarkable when it brings together those of us who are lost, or who are broken, or who are just a bit odd. If you doubt me, look at the disciples Jesus chose. Or look at the person next to you in the pew, or even in the mirror. What an odd bunch, from all walks of life and all eras of eternity, but we are brought together deeply by our family resemblance to our Father. And when we recognise that, our outward diversity changes from something that threatens our unity into something that we love and celebrate. The Church will never be an outwardly unified body, having only one opinion, only one way of worshipping, of living out our calling. But we are inwardly deeply united. Because we are family. We live together, fight together, pray together, and love together. And our diversity is just another cause for rejoicing.
So we are remarkable for our diversity, but we are also remarkable because of the nature of the God who is our father. There are many ideas about God. Some believe that God is the sum total of all creation. Some believe that God is a kind of mad scientist, who lit the blue touch paper at the start of creation and now sits back watching it unfold, never to interact with us again. Some believe that God is within, that our own internal spirit is our own unique god. But the God that is worshipped by Christians, Jews and Muslims is different. He is a God who is outside of creation and separate from it. The name God reveals for himself in the Old Testament is “I am who I am.” In other words, there is nothing in our world that can be likened to him. He is totally different to anything we have ever experienced. “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts,” says God, “and my ways are higher than your ways.”
So we are a family who relates to this extraordinary God. We long to know more of his thoughts, we long to walk in his ways, because they are so much greater than any thoughts or paths we can come up with for ourselves. The seminal moment in anyone joining this family is when we abandon the desire to live by our own thoughts and ways and entrust ourselves hook, line and sinker, to his ways. So, like God himself, we don’t seek to define ourselves by anything in this world. In fact, when Annabel is baptised, she will renounce the world. And we don’t mean that she will stop loving this beautiful creation, or stop enjoying life. On the contrary she will love it even more. We mean that we are placing our hope higher than anything this world has to offer. There is nothing in this world that we want to define us. We don’t seek to be like the rich and famous, or like the great and powerful, or like the cool and popular, because in truth they haven’t got life sorted any more than we have. We seek to be like the God whose ways are higher than our ways, whose thoughts are deeper than our thoughts.
So we are a remarkable family with a remarkable father and we cling to a remarkable hope. We caught a glimpse of that hope in our reading from Revelation. It is a hope, and belief, that our ultimate home is with God. That one day, God will live with us in the closest possible relationship, that he will wipe every tear from our eyes; that death will be no more; that mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We believe that, contrary to everything that might cause us to despair, our future is glorious, that we matter deeply, that we are held eternally in God’s love and that he will heal this broken old world and make it perfectly good.
And that means that we believe in transformation. We believe in fighting against all that is wrong in this world. And we start with all that is wrong in our own hearts. And if we are honest, there is enough in there for a lifetime’s work. But actually, God deals with that, so we continually hand that over to God, asking his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit to transform us into Christ’s likeness. And then we seek to live with our sins firmly behind us. But we also work tirelessly to right the wrongs of this world. We seek to bind up the broken-hearted, to give hope to the despairing, to heal the sick, to administer justice, to feed the hungry, to release the debtors (which is why I plug again the work of Christians Against Poverty), and to recover the lost, because we believe that God is amongst us doing a work of transformation. That’s why, in a few moments, we charge Annabel to fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, because we want to fight strife with peace, indifference with love and despair with hope.
And the hope that we cling to is not just a hope for the future, it is the belief that God is already among us doing that work. If you were following the reading from Revelation, you might have found yourselves momentarily surprised by the dynamic at work when heaven is established. Instead of us going up to heaven, heaven is described as coming down to us! And that is a truer understanding of the Christian hope. That heaven is about God descending to us, renewing the face of the earth and dwelling with us as our king and our father.
And what keeps us to this hope is that we seek God at work establishing heaven in our midst. We see it every time someone finds the hope and strength to live on in difficult circumstances, every time someone is healed, every time someone is released from poverty or any kind of slavery, every time the hungry are fed or justice is done, every time grace and kindness and courtesy is shown in a community. And above all, every time we see in our own hearts that the selfishness, inner condemnation, judgmentalism and despair is replaced with hope and love and joy, every time, in short, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
We are a remarkable family, with a remarkable father and a remarkable hope. And today, we join the rejoicing in heaven. Because Christ is our victory over despair. And because another little lost sheep has come home and is becoming our dear and most beloved sister. Welcome to the family, Annabel. We are an odd bunch. We’re not particularly sorted, we don’t know all the answers, we don’t always get it right, but we will love you and we will walk with you as together, we seek God’s beautiful ways, God’s magnificent thoughts and his glorious future. Amen.
Preached: – Morland, Great Strickland 4 November 2018