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Worship and Sermons
Jan. 1, 2017

 

"History and Horizons" by Dr. Paul Burkhart

Revelation 21:1-6a

INTRODUCTION

It can be argued that we live in a perpetual “present”.  We are strongly influenced by both our past and future, but live in a continually evolving “present”.  The present is a fleeting moment – as soon as we enter it, it is gone.  We enter the present from the past, our history, and leave it by entering our future, our horizons.  So our present time moves from the span of our continuing history into our continually unfolding horizons.

We can fully understand and appreciate the present only as it is inextricably interwoven with both our past and our future.  So we live in the midst of a process of continuing “presents” – constantly becoming history and springing from our horizons.

Our text for this morning, from Revelation 21, focuses on all things new, specifically the new heaven and new earth of apocalyptic times.  And our secondary text from the book of Ecclesiastes states that there is a season, a time for everything.

Today is New Years Day.  This first day of 2017 has sprung from the history leading up to December 31, 2016, and will fade into the horizon of January 2, 2017, in a few hours.  As the old year fades into history and the new year waits on the horizon, it shows the passage of time, a puzzling mystery of its own.  As our consciousness spans from history to horizons, we become aware of the ever-changing present.  Yes, the only thing unchangeable is change itself.

HISTORY

Our text from Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth … of all things new – following the end of days.  But first, let’s focus upon our past, our history.

With the passing of 2016 we have seen many changes.  Some people welcome change and some fear it.  In facing change, the past, our history, is important.  At the extreme, we might talk about beginnings and endings.  In speaking of history, we are looking at things that have been completed – are ended.

The Greeks had a word for it, telos, meaning not merely the end, but the ultimate consummation, fulfillment of purpose and life.  Telos refers not to an empty past, but one which has been full of events – events which have accomplished a holy purpose.

Whether we realize it or not, we are very dependent on the past.  Humans are the only creatures which have a genuine history.  We are beings that can grow from the past and its experiences.  Depending upon whom you talk to, humans are seen as the highest animals or perhaps a whole different dimension of life.  Humans have language, which sets us apart from the rest of creation.  With language we can record the past and project the future.  Of course, it can be argued that other forms of life have language, for they do communicate.  All forms of life have awareness – at least of their surroundings – hot, cold; light, dark.  But I suggest that humans are the only form of life which have awareness of our awareness, and language sophisticated enough to talk about it!  But this is a topic for another time.

The ancient Hebrews were very dependent upon their past.  They still celebrate the great events of their history, such as the Passover, the Exodus.  It was through these events that God revealed himself to His people.  Their history is vital to their faith.  And their history stands on the brink of their horizons.  The major horizon for the orthodox Jew is the coming of the Messiah, and with him deliverance from all bondage.

When we stop to think about it, it seems remarkable that we still talk about the Hebrew people in the present tense!  The entire nation was destroyed, not once, but twice.  Amazingly, after each devastation it came back into existence.  Not only was the nation destroyed twice, but each time the vast majority of the people were taken captive into foreign countries.  Yet, the Jewish people always returned to the land.     All this points to the uniqueness of Israel.  This nation is not like other nations.

And the Greco-Roman world is a large part of our history.  From the Democracy of the ancient Greeks to the Magna Carta, to the “Shining city on a hill” of John Winthrop to the miracle of the American Revolution and the establishment of our own nation, an understanding of history is essential. 

Eric Metaxas, American author, speaker and radio host, in his recent book, If You Can Keep It, has much to say about our American heritage.  He points out, “’We the people’ is an idea of great genius and is the main operating principle by which this nation has stayed alive and has expanded its freedoms for over two centuries.  Much of America’s promise has already been fulfilled – spectacularly.  A government in which the people would govern themselves would be fragile and would require the people’s attention in a way that no other government would.

This government had its beginnings in traditions of British law, back to Magna Carta.  AND religious disparity in the colonies instilled a deep and abiding respect for religious freedom.  And because of their general religiousness many of the colonists had a fealty to their faith communities that made them already likely to be governing themselves in ways that made the reigning governmental authority redundant.”  For example, think of  our Presbyterian Polity.

Up until 1787, there had been two basic types of nations:  a group of ethnically or tribally similar people, like Germans, French, Greek, etc., or disparate groups held together by a strong leader, empires of Alex the Great, Romans, British.

But “this new republic was different – a nation held together by an idea and by citizens who bought into that idea.  And the idea was Liberty.  And this liberty is something America offers to other nations.  The exceptionalism of America exists primarily not for America, but for others.”  As John Winthrop said, America is as a “City upon a Hill.”

Declaring that, “We will have no government but the people themselves,”  was a decidedly radical notion, if not a preposterous one.  Government exists to protect innocent people:  both from within, and from without. 

The Founders brought as central to this quest for self-government, a BIBLICAL understanding of things…so that this fallen and selfish human desire for power actually works against itself.  If it is a given that human beings are selfish and desirous of power, why should the founders assume that true self-government could ever work?  The answer, is religion, and freedom of religion.  Each person must govern him/her self.  The religion must be free from state domination – truly free. 

What was required was a virtuous people who were prepared to handle the great freedom being proposed.  The faith and virtue of the American people made possible the most free nation in the history of the world, based on God, faith, morality.  But today we have a misunderstanding of separation of Church and state.  Founders meant a Church free from interference from the state, NOT a state free from the Church.

Our nation is based upon what is called the Golden Triangle of Freedom:  freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, faith requires freedom.  Benjamin Franklin declared that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”  “As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”  The root of vicious is “vice”…full of vice.  So – freedom requires virtue, and less virtue inevitably begets less freedom.  The human condition, according to our theology, is depravity.  But freedom requires virtue. 

Quoted by Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, Alexis de Tocqueville is reputed to have said, Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”  It was the “goodness” of America’s people that made America work.  Liberty cannot be established without morality.

John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  The secret to self-government is that the people must themselves be self-governing.  The ideas for self-government came from the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West.

The colonies were a composite of many sects and branches of Christianity.  It was that very religious tolerance which gave rise to religious freedom.  The nature of religious America is concerned with moral conduct rather than dogma.  So religious liberty was and is, Yes, be religious.  We will not only tolerate it; we will respect it and we will encourage it.  But we cannot take sides or put our thumbs on the scales. 

We have our American heroes, but it is no longer popular to honor heroes.  For example, today people are more likely, when talking about George Washington, to point out that he owned slaves, rather than regard him as an extraordinary champion of freedom and liberty. 

Stories of heroes add an emotional element to our history to parallel the facts of our history.  Our emotions must be as engaged in “keeping” the republic as our minds are engaged in it.  Heroes help us remember who we are as a nation.  When a nation has forgotten who it is at its core, has forgotten not just the important ideas that animated it in the first place, but the heroes who brought those ideas to life, are we not facing the same threat faced by Paul Revere’s generation? 

What has happened with our education system over the past 40 or 50 years?  What is being taught as American History?  What of the Founding Fathers?  What of their faith?  Apparently American History as an academic subject has been gutted of much of the information about the Founding Fathers and has been given a negative emphasis – of what is WRONG with the USA.

Over that past several years I have heard high school and college students and recent graduates being quizzed about their knowledge of American History.  Their ignorance is abysmal!  If our younger generation does not even know their history, how can they keep the Republic?

As Eric Metaxas has written, “It matters little whether the challenge is to bring a nation into existence against overwhelming opposition in the last part of the eighteenth century, or to prevent that nation from violently tearing itself asunder in the middle of the nineteenth or to prevent it from evaporating into nonexistence while no one notices at the beginning of the twenty-first.  Heroes speak to the central issue, which is the same whether we can establish or whether we can keep the republic that has been a beacon of liberty and a promise to the future and to the world.”  

The founding of our Republic grew out of the fervor and commitment of the Great Awakening, with such notable leaders as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.   But our more recent past has found increasing disregard for our history and our Christian heritage.  Now we stand at a pivotal point where our history meets our horizons. 

HORIZONS

When we think of horizons, we think not of endings, but of beginnings.  Beginnings are full of excitement and expectation.  We think of new things, new surroundings, new challenges, new opportunities.  Perhaps new friends and new relationships.  We think of expanded knowledge and experiences.

The first word of our Christian Bible, in the book of Genesis, is, Reshith, “beginning”.  In the beginning….  We think of origins, first steps.  Beginning is related to the Hebrew word for “head”, Rosh.  This can include anything from the physical head of a person, a ruler, the top of a mountain, headwaters of a river, to first in a series – implying there is more to come.

The Gospel of John in the New Testament begins with words very similar to those of Genesis, En arche ein ho logos, “In the beginning was the Word….”  We stand at the threshold of a new year.  It lies before us with all its possibilities, opportunities, and challenges, whether they be personal or global.  Here in the United States we will have a new national government administration.  For some this will be welcomed as opportunities for new and wonderful things.  For others, it will be dreaded as challenges to be overcome.

Here at SSPC this past year of 2016 has brought important beginnings.  We welcomed new staff, including head of staff, Don, youth director, John, choral director, Kyle, and other new personnel in our music program.  And in 2017 we look forward to welcoming a new Associate Pastor.

But it seems to me that much of the message of Revelation 21:1-6 can be illustrated by a scene from Paul Young’s book, The Shack.  In this scene God is explaining to Mack, the main character of the book, what God intends for us humans. 

God tells Mack, “By nature I am completely unlimited, without bounds.  I have always known fullness.  I live in a state of perpetual satisfaction as my normal state of existence. 

We created you to share in that.  But then Adam chose to go it on his own, as we knew he would, and everything got messed up.  But instead of scraping the whole creation, we rolled up our sleeves and entered into the middle of the mess – that’s what we have done in Jesus.

When we three (the Trinity) spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.  We also chose to embrace all the limitations this entailed.  Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood.  It would be like this bird, whose nature it is to fly, choosing only to walk and remain grounded.  He doesn’t stop being a bird, but it does alter his experience of life significantly.

Although by nature he is fully God, Jesus is fully human and lives as such.  While never losing the innate ability to fly, he chooses moment by moment to remain grounded.  …  Jesus is fully human.  Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything.  He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being.  He is just the first to do it to the uttermost – the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.

Humans are defined not by their limitations, but by the intentions I have for them; not by what they seem to be, but by everything it means to be created in my image.”

Nationally known cardiologist and writer, Chauncey Crandall, puts it this way, “Like any loving Father, God wants His family complete and gathered together with Him, and so as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, He has instilled eternity in our hearts.  Not in the physical, human heart, but in the soul.”

The human body is “only a container,” according to Bishop Keith Butler – “a priceless, complex, magnificently created container, for sure, yet one with an expiration date.”  Meanwhile, the infinite part of us longs to return to the Eden we lost, where we can once again be in the presence of God, perfectly loved and perfectly safe, forever.  As C. S. Lewis put it, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Whatever difficulty surrounds us now, this too shall pass.  Whatever opposition we face today, it will one day soon be defeated.  “For the form of this world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31);  “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (I John 2:8).  And someday, “God will wipe away every tear … there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.  There shall be no more pain” (Rev. 21:4), and we will be face-to-face with Him.

Perhaps what the writer of Revelation is trying to tell us is that in that new heaven and new earth, we will become fully human, as Jesus was/is fully human … that we will finally regain that state of grace to which human beings were originally destined.  So the new heaven and new earth just might be Eden restored.

CONCLUSION

From the time of the Fall, we humans have had a long and troubled history.  Our past is marred by rebellion and conflict, pride and hatred.  As we begin this new year of 2017, what is on our horizons?  Do we see nation pitted against nation? Do we see the nation of Israel struggling for its very existence?  Do we see riots in our shopping malls?  Do we see mistrust and spite in our governing bodies?  Do we see a vast chasm between God and humanity?

In Jesus, God took a major step to begin to repair the gulf between God and man.  He was called Immanuel, God with us.  Created in the image of God, humans were intended for relationship with the Creator.  Perhaps, as recorded in the book of Revelation, with the new heaven and the new earth, God’s home will be with mortals.  “He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them….”

On earth we live with our past always trailing behind us – often belaboring us – and our future always ahead of us.  At some blessed moment, however, the redeemed will find ourselves in God’s presence, with the weight of our past removed, and our present and future melded into a glorious, perfect “now” that will never end.  In that day everything we find on earth will be replaced with a pure and exalted version of itself – from our bodies to our surroundings to our enjoyments – as the Lord makes all things new. 

But for now, what is past fades into the passage of time.  So, on this first day of this new year, fully cognizant of our past history, immersed in the present, let us look forward to hopeful horizons before us, whether in this world or the next. 

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:41 AM
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