First Reading Acts 16:9-15
Second Reading Revelation 21:9-11, 21-27; 22:1-5
Gospel Reading John 14:23-29
Sermon “Looking Forward, While Living in the Present”
The passage from Revelation this morning is a beautiful vision given to John about a time to come when all of creation will be renewed, as we heard in the reading last week: Revelation 21:1-3 NIV  Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  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.
A couple of verses later John hears God say “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” The Holy Spirit gave this extended vision to John during a time of severe persecution of the young Christian church under the Roman emperors. Christians were being arrested, imprisoned and killed in horrific ways because of their faith. It still happens in parts of the world today. And wherever those conditions exist, this book is particularly dear. Its outline is given early on where John meets Christ in all His eternal glory and hears Revelation 1:17-19 NIV… “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.
John’s vision begins with messages to be given to seven churches in Asia Minor each of which were dealing with issues of heresy and/or persecution with varying degrees of success. To each were given words of commendation or correction as needed so that they could endure the present circumstances and grow closer to their Lord. Each message closes with a sentence of hope and promise for the future. For instance, to the Church at Ephesus, this message is given – Revelation 2:7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Hope is a powerful thing. Hope of some nature is necessary to sustain life. With hope, we can persevere through all kinds of challenges – Difficult jobs, family struggles, sickness, bullying, all of the struggles that humans face from the cradle, to the school yard, in the work place and on through the end of life. What a comfort it is to know that we are children of God, dearly loved, ransomed from sin and death and invited to live with God forever. That’s the message of the Revelation. Hang in there! Live faithful, obedient lives! God sees and knows both the past and the present and will bring about a glorious future where everything will at last be set right and good as it was originally intended.
The reading this morning includes selections from very near the end of the book. In them, John is shown scenes that leave us breathless with wonder and expectation. The glory of the eternal presence of God is described with such vividness that we can almost see it for ourselves. Far beyond the familiar “pearly gates and streets of Gold”, John describes a place and time when the sun and moon are unnecessary – the glory of God illuminates everything. There is no Night, no need for lamps – everything can be clearly seen in the light of God. Likewise, there is no temple. No special place to go and try to get closer to God. God is everywhere, this is God’s home. John writes in Revelation 21:3 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. This is creation renewed and put right as was God’s original intention. There is no sickness of body or mind there. Sin is no more. There is no curse and separation – only belonging, fellowship and love with each other and our creator. No wonder John closes his record with a prayer for Christ to come soon!
Long before, we have two separate accounts that begin to approach the glory of this one. First is the description of the garden of Eden itself. We are told of a place where there was abundant plants and trees, it was the headwaters of four great rivers and where God would come and walk in the garden with Adam and Eve before the fall. Afterwards they were barred from the garden so that they could not get back to the tree of life, But here in John’s vision, the tree of life is no longer singular, but abundant. It grows down both sides of the river which flows from the throne of God. Those trees produce fruit every single month of the year! The leaves of the tree are said to be for the healing of the nations. (And I think you will agree with me that they need a lot of healing!)
It must have been similar to what Ezekiel saw in one of his visions recorded in chapter 47 where he is first shown a little trickle of water coming from the Holy place in a restored temple – little by little it mysteriously grows, becoming first ankle deep then knee deep, waist deep, and finally a large river that no one can cross without swimming – all with no tributaries. It is a marvelous picture of Grace and abundance beyond any natural understanding just like the gospel. The source is the presence of God. Just as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that He himself was the source of living water – water that gives eternal life, and never runs out, this water is healing and abundant. Ezekiel’s vision goes on to describe the river lined with trees which also produce food every month of the year and leaves for healing. That wonderful life giving water, eventually flows on eastward into the Dead Sea where it becomes transformed – no longer dead and salty – but now teaming with fish!
This scene is wonderful hope to people living a difficult life in a dry and barren land. It seems to be a different world – This is in fact heaven come down to earth just as John describes. Now that’s a different way of thinking about heaven isn’t it? We usually think about Heaven as being somewhere – out there – beyond reach and beyond knowing. But the Bible teaches that heaven is coming here. It teaches that all of this is going to be renewed and made good and holy. The Tree of Life will once again grow within reach. God will be our light! Lord – Come quickly indeed!
Ah, but all that glory is not yet. Yet it is certain to be. In the meantime… We hope… We wait in expectation, but we are not idle. There are wonderful promises for the future but also for right now. Recall again the first reading from Acts, where Paul meets Lydia. She was perhaps the first Christian convert in Greece. Paul found her – yes that’s right – down by the river at a place where the Jews gathered for prayer, since there were too few for a synagogue. That place became a place of salvation and cleansing as she and her household were baptized – likely right there in that river. Her response was instructive. She extended hospitality and asked – no actually it says she insisted that Paul to come and stay at her house. Fellowship and belonging, love and hospitality do not have to wait until the renewal of all things – when the new Jerusalem comes down in all its splendor. No, that can happen right now, as it does here in this place.
The gospel reading also includes words of present tense belonging and fellowship. And not just between fellow believers but with God as well. Listen to those opening words again: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” He goes on to say”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.  I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.”
There it is laid out for us – a bit of a mystery. The presence of God is here now, and yet more fully to come. Present and still yearned for. Once, Jesus walked this earth – teaching, healing, dying and being raised in power and glory. Before he left, he promised the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit – the advocate. The abiding presence of God with each and every believer – who continues to teach and remind us of Jesus and his message. We will celebrate its coming in power on the disciple in a couple of Weeks. The Spirit’s presence is prologue, a deposit which is a guarantee of a future where all will be fulfilled and we will, at last, stand where John stood and see what John saw – We will be with the whole family of God from all ages and all nations at the table of God. What a blessed hope and a powerful reason to live out our faith here – today. For we get to taste a bit of heaven now. We don’t have to wait! There is a poem quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that captures so well the presence of God in everyday life if we but look for it. It goes like this:
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [one] who sees, takes off [one’s] shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
and daub their natural faces unaware.
Let us be aware, and worship in thanksgiving for what God has done. Let us adore and praise God’s name as we celebrate his Spirit’s presence with us and in glorious hope of that time yet to come where we will be in his presence amongst the branches of the trees of life growing beside that wonderful river.