April 26, 2016
Spring, that glorious season of new life, is currently in full force here at my home, Preservation Acres, and the signs are all around. For one thing there are the allergies. It as if every tree and bush and blade of grass has been painted with a Technicolor pollen-leaded brush, and while the beauty is breathtaking to behold, I personally, could do without all the congestion.
Our neighbors pastures are filled with playful baby cows, and fuzzy baby sheep which I love to watch, and at our house the weekends have been filled with garden preparations galore , plowing earth, hoeing weeds, spreading fertilizer. And the preparations are not just outside – almost every surface in our house – window sills and tables and the like – have been covered up with peat pots, each filled with teeny tiny squash, peppers, okra, and pole bean seedlings – all sprouting under Nathan’s watchful eye.
In town the restaurants have opened their patios, the shops are displaying sundresses, and Yard Sale signs are cropping up like wildflowers.
New life and fresh starts are all around me.
This past spring Sunday was a preaching Sunday for me – something I do from time to time as a guest speaker out in the world, and as Family Minister at my local church. This Sunday was particularly special because I had the honor of preaching at a Baptism service. And because our church follows the Lectionary cycle, my scriptures were already chosen for me – which can be challenging at times.
This weeks readings were from:
As the Holy Spirit would have it, these three passages each contained references to fresh starts and new life. In Acts, Peter received a vision which prompted him to pursue a new and fresh path in his ministry, taking the message of Christ outside the confines of his Jewish community, out to the gentiles. In Revelations we read of a New Heaven and a New Earth, of a time when there will be no more tears or suffering, and of One who will make all things new. And then in John, we saw Jesus preparing the disciples for a new way of operating in the world – a way centered solely, above all else, around loving and being loved.
Like the season of spring, each of these passages brought with them a message of hope and new beginnings. A reminder that God is and always has been in the fresh starts and new life business.
The year before I was born, my mother had one of those new life, fresh start conversion experiences of faith herself. An experience that filled her with such a happy love for Jesus and a giddy- amazement at discovering the gift of grace, that her enthusiasm could not help but spill over into every area of her life – including how she chose her baby names. Which, is partially how I came to be named Jerusalem.
At some point, along the time when I was old enough to read, I asked my mother why she chose my name specifically – there were after all, many other perfectly suitable, and less “unique” feminine bible names to choose from.
Her way of answering was to send me after my very first, somewhat-illustrated, but fully translated NIV bible, instructing me to read Revelation 21:1-6.
A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH
21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 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 without cost from the spring of the water of life.
What my mother was showing me, by answering my question with these verses, was that I wasn’t just named for the city of Jerusalem, but I was named for, in particular, he New Jerusalem, which in my bible was illustrated as a bright golden city, with rays of sunlight bursting forth all around, a glourious site to my six-year-old eyes.
As quickly as I could, I found my bright yellow highlighter (I think maybe all evangelical children are born with the NIV in one hand and a highlighter in the other?) and marked my very first passage of scripture, adding extra lines under the New Jerusalem part.
I would read those verses time and time again over the course of my early childhood, taking in the images of new beginnings and a God who was happy to be in the midst of his creation, and hold them close to my heart.
A lot of time has passed since I first underlined those special verses, and until last week I hadn’t really thought of them much. I knew they were there of course, and now again, on a spring Sunday, I would hear them read in church, and a brief wink of recognition would cross my mind, but other than that, I just hadn’t thought of them in a very long time.
I don’t know about other preachers, but when I see scriptures from Revelation on the lectionary schedule, I can’t help but cringe just a bit – images of beast with seven heads and so forth, spring to mind. So you can imagine my relief when I realized this past Sunday’s reading of Revelation was one that I was familiar with personally. Reading over the text, preparing for my sermon, I was able instead to go back to simpler days – back to a time when I didn’t fret over apocalyptic metaphors, or feel the pressure to find prophetic meanings, or historic significance, hidden between the passages. Instead, I found myself reading these verses much like I did when I was six years old. When I read these words as a promise – a promise of what God’s love looks like in action.
This what I heard when I read Revelation 21:1-6:
God was always, and would always be, making all things new, including me.
God’s heart is always to be with his people, in their neighborhood, in their homes, right smack in the middle of them. Like the person who sits down in the middle of a crowded dinner table so they can see and hear everyone, God wants to be right in the middle of all we are doing.
God’s greatest desire was to heal hurts, to wipe away tears, and to bring about new life and fresh starts, leading us away from death, back to life, as many times as it takes.
And it seemed to me – a little seminary-students daughter in the early 1980’s, living in an apartment in sketchy part of Memphis, – that what I saw in those verses were examples of what God’s love looks like. Those verses sound a whole lot like the bible stories my mother told me about Jesus, they sounded like the simple songs we sang in my little Baptist Sunday School classes, and they reminded me of the bedtime prayers that my mother and I prayed. To my child’s heart, it seemed to me that the very same love, that Jesus- love, that filled my mother up from head to toe with a bright shiny light, was the same love found in those special verses in Revelation. It was a love that wiped away tears, that came to sit with people in their sadness, that brought love of fresh starts and new beginnings to any and everyone, no matter who they were.
And so, as a six, seven, and eight year old, I read those verses in Revelation as a promise of not only what would be, but also of what already was.
Just as Spring is the season of new beginnings on earth, baptism is a season of new beginnings as well. On Sunday we baptised a little bitty baby named Abraham. We poured the water of new life over his sweet little head, blessed him with oil, and said prayers together – marking his new journey as a member of the Church.
But this act of Baptism is not just a formality, it is not just something to check of the Christian life to-do list. Instead, it is a sacrament – it is the outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace, that we are all invited to take part in. Baptism is a joyous new beginning for everyone present, a chance for everyone present to remember again, what it means to love each other as Christ loves us.
You see, at each and every baptism we are all starting fresh again. Together.
On Sunday, as part of the baptism, everyone present renewed their own baptismal covenant, saying the vows together, once again committing themselves to live as Christ. We also, as the Church, in those vows, promised to be Abraham and his mother’s people. Like Ruth to Naomi, we committed ourselves to be home for them, promising to wipe away tears, to celebrate new beginnings, and to be present in their lives.
And this being present, this loving each other like Christ, this sharing of the Holy Spirit with one another, I think this is how we begin to create a new heaven and a new earth – for each other – here and now.
We begin by loving each other the way the God of Revelation 21: 1-6 loves us: By wiping away tears, by celebrating new beginnings, and by sitting ourselves down, smack in the middle of each other’s lives. This is the gift of community that Christ left his disciples in John 13, and the gift they have passed on to us, the gift we are to continue passing along.
it is the belief that ultimately, above all else, we all belong to each other.
And that it is through this belonging, by our choosing to truly love one another, to live out the actions of love that we see in Revelation 21, to remember our baptism promise, to Christ and each other, that we will find God smack in the middle in our midst, giving water to the thirsty, setting the lonely in families, and making all things new for each of us – again and again and again.
-Jerusalem Greer, Project Evangelist