With a nod to Peter Leithart, whose writings were a great help as I prepared this sermon, and thanks to Kate, indefatiguable editor! Delivered at Adam and Laura's wedding on December 9th, from a rather frighening medieval pulpit while wearing a suit that had been nibbled by moths in an unfortunate place...
The reading we have just heard is the final page of a story. It comes from the penultimate chapter of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It’s the end of something called the old order of things.
As well as being the end of that story, it is the beginning of another. Have a look at the passage on your orders of service: the first paragraph tells us about a wedding. As we all know, a wedding is the beginning of something new – lives joined in an amazing partnership, the creation of a new family, with a future. In the case of this passage from the Bible, the future in view is quite astounding.
Look at the end of the first paragraph again – there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. And there is a promise for those who overcome (third paragraph), who will inherit all the new things that the one from the throne talks about.
Something as good as that has got to be worth looking into! Before we take another peek at it, let’s think for a moment about what stories are…
Stories are not just for kids. Stories are not just for the TV or the cinema. Stories are our lives – our lives are stories.
We make sense of every moment we live, every moment NOW, by reference to what has already happened, and what we want to happen and what we know will happen. In other words, you have come from somewhere, you are doing something now, and you hope to be doing something else pretty soon!
Each of the groups we belong to has a story. Our families have a collection of amusing moments from past Christmases, or from what little Johnny did when the neighbours came over. Our family now has the story of how Laura and Adam met: when Kate and I were having a big argument, and the doorbell rang, and Adam, who was staying with us, had to open the door and chat to the unsuspecting caller – who was Laura. And not long after that… well, you know the rest.
Each of the nations we come from has its stories – its official history and its folk tales; its plans, and politicians and academics and ordinary citizens all predicting this for New Zealand in the next few years, or that for the USA, and something else for Canada, or Brazil, or Iran, or Japan.
Some of those stories we have some influence over, and many of them we don’t. But all these overlapping stories are who we are, they are where we are, and they help us to make sense of the world and where we fit in it.
So, naturally, God communicates to us through stories. The Bible contains some laws, and it contains some letters that explain to us about God. But most of the Bible is narrative. There are short narratives and there are long narratives. And the overall narrative is in fact the biggest and most important one there is – it is the story of the universe as told by its Creator.
And just as stories have characters – so does the big story of the Bible. the main character is God, who, as we see in this passage, speaks from a throne – in other words, he’s the King.
The other main character in the Biblical story is the human race. There are plenty of people in the Bible – Joseph and his technicolour dreamcoat, Moses, David and Goliath, Saint Paul, and hundreds of others. And you and me and everyone else also make an appearance.
In our passage from Revelation, we come to the climax of the story: the end of the old order of things, and a wedding. And the two main characters are there.
To summarise the plot so far: God creates a fabulous world and creates people to live in it and look after it. But, people don’t want God to be their King, so they disobey him, and as a result he punishes them by sending them away from his presence, which is ultimately the same as death. Over many years he begins to create and to nurture a nation, Israel, that will fulfil what he originally intended for the human race.
The Bible sometimes uses the picture of a bride for Israel, and the bridegroom is God himself. It’s a rocky relationship, and Israel is unfaithful and fickle. Aren’t we all? God sends various messengers and representatives to warn people, but mostly the people didn’t want to listen.
So finally God comes himself, as a human, in the person of Jesus Christ, whose coming we look forward to in this season of Advent. Jesus brings God to us in a new, exciting way. And he announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Most of those around him didn’t want to know, and they felt threatened by his claims – so they killed him. But, by his death he paid the penalty for all the wrong things we have done, and so brings forgiveness and a new relationship with God to anyone who believes in him. And by coming back to life, he demonstrated his victory over death. All the positive, wonderful, eternal things in the passage from Revelation are grounded in that. Jesus’ power over death guarantees that eventually death and mourning and crying and pain will be gone. He is the source of rich, eternal life that flows from him to all that want it – whom this passage calls those who are thirsty. As Jesus himself said elsewhere, I have come that they might have life and life in all its fullness.
Starting with his twelve disciples and the other women, men and children who were around him, he created this kingdom, this new people, this new family we call the church. And Jesus has been nurturing and growing the church across the whole world for two thousand years. The Bible calls the church the bride of Christ. It also calls the church the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. You can see all those names in the passage on the order of service. And at some point Jesus will come back, to perfect his people, and to judge everyone and everything, ready for putting things finally to rights.
And so we come back to today’s reading, to the climax of the story. Let’s briefly consider what the passage says about two things: God, and his plans for his people. Keep one eye on the passage so you can check that I’m not making this up!
First, about God and his plans. It teaches us that God is incredibly generous and incredibly powerful. Despite the mess we have made of the world, he will put things right – a new heaven and a new earth. He will give drink without cost from the water of life.
God tells us about these plans. Four times in the passage we hear that God speaks – which puts an obligation on us to listen.
The speaking also shows that God is personal. More than that, we see that he is tender. As part of the remaking of all things he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
And he will be a father to each and every person who trusts him (see the last line of the reading). Best of all he will live with his people and they with him. It’s a closeness expressed not just in the parent-child image, but also in the marriage language. Jesus Christ is the groom of this bride – he is the faithful one, whose love is as strong as death, in the words of our first reading from the Song of Songs. In fact, stronger than death.
Second, this passage teaches us about God’s people.
The people who make up this city are going to be beautifully dressed. Unlike all the smart clothes we’re wearing today, they are beautifully dressed not through their own efforts – but through God’s generosity. This city comes down out of heaven from God. That symbolises that the making and beautifying of this people is not something we can accomplish, but that it is all part of God’s gift. Just as the world around us is.
The people who make up this city are also thirsty. In other words, they know that they need spiritual water, which symbolises life with God, just as much as physical water. We cannot live very long without drinking some of this…
[drink from a glass]
…only a day or two. And we cannot live very long without God – about 80 years is the average, which is not long compared to eternity.
And according to that last paragraph, God’s people are those who overcome. In the book of Revelation this is a phrase that means, keep on trusting in God’s promises even when life is hard, which it often is, even when you are ridiculed – or worse – for that trust.
Laura and Adam already know about this. They know that they need to trust in God for everything. My hope and prayer for them is that as this next part of their stories unfolds that their marriage would be a picture of the marriage between Jesus Christ and the church, between God and his people. So, Laura and Adam, may your marriage display the faithfulness and joy of the bridegroom and bride, and provide a foretaste of what we read today. And may you show the love and generosity of the God we have read about: in demonstrating forgiveness to one another – which you’ll need – in giving water to the thirsty and drawing close to anyone who needs it.
I hope that will be true for everyone here today who is married. And, whether we are married or not the stories of our lives can either be caught up in God’s great story, and reflect his faithfulness and generosity to those who don’t deserve it, or we can try to write our own stories. Which will end in disaster.
God’s big story is playing itself out – and the bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ is calling to each of us to respond to him, to trust him for everything. And then on the day when God makes everything new, and brings the old order of things to an end, if we trust in him, we will be part of that Holy City, that New Jerusalem, whose citizens will live for ever with God and each other in perfect harmony.