Rooted in Creation: What the Angels Can Show Us
EDITORIAL NOTE: This weekend, we will wrap up our Rooted in Creation Series and hear Mary Kate Buchanan’s very first sermon at Plymouth Church! In the meantime, here is text of my sermon from the Saturday July 13 and Sunday July 14.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
“What the Angels Can Show Us”[i]
I once knew a woman who spoke to angels. And, she said, the angels spoke to her.
Betty was the organist at my first church. I was freshly graduated from The Princeton Theological Seminary, serving in my very first call. I was 25 years old. Betty, the church organist, was 88 years old. It did not take long for me to learn a couple of key facts about Betty. First: her organ playing? Surprisingly lively. Second: she frequently carried on conversations with angels. She spoke to the; they spoke to her.
But I was not like Nikira or Mary Kate; I was not like the TiM Ministers of Plymouth Church. At 25 I was a special kind of immature. I was emotionally double-jointed; arrogant and insecure at the same time. So I never paid much attention to Betty’s talk of angels. I never occurred to me to ask her what the angels had to say.
Looking back now, I wonder what I missed.
Our text for today comes from the Book of Revelation and…I get it. I know. Revelation is not your favorite book of the Bible. I know it is full of demons and dragons and pits of fire, like a bad metal album from the 1980’s. (Actually, I think “bad metal albums from the 1980’s is probably redundant). And I know you don’t like what people have done with the Book of Revelation –the blow dried TV preachers with their wild predictions and the Kirk Cameron movies with their cheap production and all the people who always seem so confident in their interpretations of this very odd book.
I get it.
What if an angel is trying to show us something? Something we need to see?
That is John’s claim. John is the author of the book –not to be confused with John the Baptist or John the Apostle or John who wrote the 4th Gospel. (There are more “Johns” in the New Testament then “Sophias” in my son’s kindergarten class).
No, this John is his own person. He resides on the island of Patmos. It is, at the time, a sparsely populated, lonely little island way out in the Aegean Sea. John may be serving some kind of prison sentence, he may have been banished from the mainland, he may have booked a cabana on the beach to get away from it all. We don’t really know why he is there.
But John has some time on his hands. And so, yes, John has been talking to an angel. But this is not a private conversation. This is not for John’s own personal enlightenment. The angel has a vision for the church. The angel has a vision for us. So John talks to the angel. He sees some things. Then he writes it all down, he puts in the mail and to make a long story short it ends up in our Bible.
We say that “God is still speaking.” Maybe that goes for the angels as well. If an angel is trying to show us something, can we get over ourselves long enough to see it?
We have come all the way to the end –of the Book of Revelation, of the Bible itself. The whole thing concludes with this image of the New Jerusalem. The angel shows John the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, bright as crystal. No nitrates, no poisons, just a pure life-giving stream. The river feeds the Tree of Life. It grows up on either side of the river bank, big and beautiful. It is cool in there in shade. The tree bears twelve different kinds of fruit—a staggering variety!—and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.[ii]
At the end of the book, at the end of all things, this is what the angel has to show us: life giving water that flows in abundance. Nothing in the New Jerusalem will lie under the curse. God will live in the midst of a healed humanity.
Are you seeing this? Are you getting God’s dream? Healing, wholeness, peace, shalom, not only for us, but for all of us and all of the nations and all of creation. An entire world made well.
That is what the angel can show us.
And there is just one catch: We have to be willing to see it.
Why is John on Patmos anyway? Forget what you have seen in the movies. So far as historians can determine, there is no widespread persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire when John writes his Revelation. No one is getting fed to the lions. No, if anything, John of Patmos seems to worry that his fellow Christians have it too easy. John worries that the church in his day has grown a little cozy, a little comfortable.
Biblical scholar David Barr suggests that in a time of peace and prosperity—a soaring stock market, record low unemployment—in a season of ease, John addresses his Revelation to a church that risks being “seduced by the glamor and luxury of Greco-Roman culture.”[iii]
Comfy. Complacent. All snuggled in to the status quo.
But that is what happens when you stop listening to angels.
The organist at my first church was perhaps a little eccentric. The Book of Revelation is perhaps a little weird. And you and I are—let’s be honest—a little too respectable, a little too sophisticated to be taken in by all of that.
I guess that is why we backed away from the angels. Little by little, step by step, we stopped seeing what they wanted to show us, stopped listening to what the angels were trying to tell us. Maybe we were taken in by the glamor, the luxury, the distractions offered by our empire. The angels grew quieter, their voices more distant. Our faith became less about what they had to say to us and more about what we had to say to ourselves. We scaled and shriveled and shrunk our faith, got it down to a size that we could manage. Christianity became another self-help system, another support group for coping with the stress of living with all of this bread and attending all of these circuses.
We got comfortable. And eventually we forgot that the angels are trying to get our attention.
But here is the problem: what if we no longer have the option of being cozy? What if the world as we know it is about to get a lot less comfortable? What if this world—which has been so very good to so many of us—what if the world is changing for the worse?
As we have preached our way through this Rooted in Creation series, I have noticed something: it is hard to talk about the global climate crisis. The problem seems so overwhelming. And the bad news just keeps coming in.
Consider one small data point: In Anchorage, Alaska, they celebrated the 4th of July with an all-time record high temperature: 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It was hotter in Alaska than it was in Iowa. The climate is changing for the worse. And it is happening very fast.
What can we do in the face of a problem like this? Where would we even start?
Let me make one modest suggestion: What if we tune back in to what John is trying to tell us? What if we get over ourselves long enough to let the angels show us something?
If my faith is all about me and my comfort—if my Christianity mostly means a way to cope with my life while I am living it and then to get into heaven when I die—then my faith has nothing to say about the global climate crisis. If my faith begins and ends with me and my comfort, then I am already living in despair.
But there is another way. We don’t have to settle for these sad shriveled hopes. John just sent us a message; John just shared with us what the angel shared with him. And the angel says that God is not done yet. God is not ready to give up on this world. God is not finished with this creation. God has not consigned us to some sort of holy hospice care where all we can do is manage the pain until this thing is finally over. We don’t have to settle for some selfish solution where we hope to be part of the wealthy 1% who will have air conditioning and clean water.
We don’t have to give up. We don’t have to give in. God still has some dreams -for all of us; for our entire world. The river of the water of life will flow from the throne, clear as crystal. The tree of life will sink its roots deep into the well-watered soil and bring forth a beautiful harvest: twelve kinds of fruits to nourish the hungry. Tears will never stain the streets of that city.[iv] And the leaves of the tree will make all of us well.
It is a promise of healing, not for the lucky few, but for all the nations. It is a vision of life for all people and for all creation.
And we can be part of this vision. We can partner with God in making the world well.
It will begin—we will get better, our world will get better—it will begin when we are ready to see what the angels can show us.
[i] Although at no point do I directly cite him, this entire sermon stands under the influence of Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993). I believe the present climate crisis is a kind of judgement on the church: exposing the ways in which we have exchanged our prophetic birthright of authentic hope for a faith that mostly serves as a coping mechanism for the status quo. God gives us dreams and visions in the hope of provoking and awakening our hope for a world transformed.
[ii] “In John’s view, the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city.” M. Eugene Boring. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), p.p.219-220.
[iii] See David L. Barr’s commentary in The Access Bible. Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson, General Editors. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.390.
[iv] If you get this reference, I love you and want to be your friend.