new heavens and earth
By Linda Rex
July 26, 2020, PROPER 12—If we were to examine the many apocalyptic films of the last few decades, we would probably find a common thread. Many of these films begin with people living their everyday lives oblivious to the reality that their world is just about to come to a cataclysmic end. Whether by horrific natural disaster, invasion of evil aliens, or angry divine intervention, the result is often the destruction of all the things we value as humans, leaving only a few people behind struggling to survive.
Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we as followers of Christ often assume things about the end of the world that are based more in our culturally held beliefs than they are in what Jesus actually said about how things would end. We read the book of Revelation as a literal reference book on end-time events rather than as what it is—an apocalyptic book of inspiration and encouragement for believers in the midst of persecution and suffering. When someone dares to question our opinion on how things will end, we become upset and angry—we expect God to come and destroy all the sinners, often forgetting that sinner is a good description of everyone on the earth, including us.
We really are no different than the leaders of Jesus’ day. They and the Jewish people had looked for divine intervention for their people for centuries and believed it would come with the destruction of their oppressors. In Jesus’ time, it was the Roman overlords who needed to be conquered so that the kingdom of God would come—and it was the Messiah who was to come and do this. They expectantly awaited the age of the Spirit, when all would bow the knee to God—and this new age of righteousness, they believed, would be brought in by the conquering Messiah, a Jewish deliverer, who would destroy all their enemies and make their people once again a powerful, blessed nation.
When Jesus began to talk about the kingdom of God, he was set up against some deeply engrained views which needed to be corrected. He needed his people to recognize the Messiah for who he really was, rather than them insisting that he fit their preconceived ideas of what he would be like when he came. Because of their wrong view of how deliverance would arrive, they rejected Jesus. He was God in human flesh, the Messiah they longed for, but because he was not bringing in the kingdom in the way they expected, he ended up suffering a horrific death at the hands of those he came to save.
But none of this was a surprise to God. It was in God’s mind before time began to include all of humanity in his love and life no matter how they might respond to his gift. The eternally existing Word, Jesus Christ, is the Creator of everything. He sustains it all, so that like the yeast in dough, he permeates every part of our existence. The yeast creates small pockets of carbon dioxide (like the divine Breath which gives us life), which when heated, causes the dough to rise, and makes the loaf of bread soft and spongy. Jesus explained that the kingdom of God present in his person, was a hidden mystery, like the yeast hidden in dough, and like a tiny mustard seed, which was progressively filling the world and would eventually be fully manifest in glory in the new heavens and new earth, a large tree in which the birds could find safety and rest.
The way that the kingdom of God would be entered into was much different that the expected view of that day. Jesus used the imagery of a treasure buried in a field and a pearl hidden away in his kingdom parables. These are apt pictures of burial, something which he knew would be part of the process of the mystery of the kingdom of God being worked out in his person as the suffering-servant Messiah. The value of all God had made was more than worth the price Jesus would pay in his death at the hands of his people.
But this brings us up against the hardest question of all—are we willing to share in Christ’s death and resurrection? For the only way to participate in the kingdom of God is by participating in Jesus Christ by faith. Any other path only leads to death. Life, real life, is life in relationship with God through Christ by the Spirit—and we are given this gift by faith in Jesus. What are we willing to give up to follow Jesus?
This means that judgment is set on a totally different basis. We don’t judge who is good and who is evil—God does. And he does this in and through Jesus, the one who died humanity’s death and rose bearing humanity into the presence of the Father, sending the Spirit so we could participate in his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit now and forever. Like the seine which is drawn through the sea drawing everything to shore, God’s love and grace sweeps everything into a new place—slowly, inexorably drawing all towards the climactic ushering in of the new heavens and new earth.
In Jesus’ parable, the net draws everything in the ocean onto the shore. This may include an old shoe, a broken bicycle, hundreds of plastic bottles, and every different type of sea life. In the same way, God is inevitably moving all he has made to an end, bringing about the culmination of his divine purpose and plan and ushering in the new heavens and new earth. Because Christ has been raised from death, every human being will be raised—to face the sorting of the fish who will be thrown back in the ocean or the fish who will join Jesus in eternal life. The one making the decision of who stays and who goes is Jesus, and his angels carry out his divine will. It’s obvious that trash does not belong in the ocean—there is a lot of evil and junk which never belonged in this world—it must be burned up and gotten rid of.
But the fish and other sea life dependent upon the salt water are a different story. Sea life of this kind if left on the shore, will die. In order to be a part of what the fishermen are doing in this parable though, the fish or sea animal has to remain on shore, be placed in a container and carried away, and by extrapolation—die. In the same way, the only way we can have eternal life is to participate in Christ’s death. If we insist on continuing our existence on our own terms, on staying in the ocean and swimming about to our heart’s content, we will miss out on real life—on the new life created for us in Christ Jesus which is only possible through sharing in his death and resurrection.
We must die in Christ to sin, self, and Satan, and share in Christ’s resurrected life—living in the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children. We are members of a new household now. All that was before is gone, having gone to the grave with Jesus. We have new life in him. We are members of Christ’s body, the universal church of believers, who follow Jesus wherever he leads. What we believe is essential, then, and will determine how we face our eternal future.
The kingdom of God, then, is not a political kingdom. It is not a place which honors power, authority, privilege, or any of the temporary human values we venerate, but values humility, service, love, grace, and sharing. The judgment of who is worthy to participate in this kingdom isn’t based on performance, but on grace—on the compassion and mercy of the One who believed each of us valuable enough that he was willing to set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity to bring us into life with himself. This kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and it is even at work in our world today by the Spirit—a hidden mystery which will be fully revealed when Jesus returns in glory. And may that day come soon!
When we look at the kingdom of God in this way, we do not need to be afraid. We can joyously anticipate the day when all Christ accomplished for us is fully manifested. We look forward to when we will shine as stars in the new heavens and new earth. And we live in the kingdom of God now, as citizens of God’s new city, following Jesus wherever he leads, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us. For he will not rest until he has accomplished what he intended before time began. Praise God!
We may need to ask ourselves, then, what is it we believe about the kingdom of God? What do we believe abut Jesus Christ? Do we need to reframe our reference when we think of the end of the world? If everything erupted in nuclear war tomorrow, what would be our response? Would it be fear, anxiety, depression, anger? Or would we remember that God is still at work in this world, death has no power any longer to create fear, and we have hope for a glorious future in and through Jesus our Lord?
Lord, you are the king of the kingdom, and you have drawn us to yourself, to be citizens in your kingdom. Taken from the kingdom of darkness, you have set us in the kingdom of light. Grant us the grace to live fully in the light of your love and grace, to walk in your paths, to give ourselves fully to your will and purposes. We know this is all in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB
See also Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52.
By Linda Rex
This week as my daughter and I were experiencing the unique dimming and darkness of the total eclipse, I could not help but express how cool God is. An eclipse is one way in which the sun, moon, and stars participate in bearing witness to the glory of God—this God who set planets and heavenly bodies into motion and who holds them in their particular relationship with one another.
And God made it so we each could have this extraordinary experience of a total eclipse in which we might see our smallness in comparison with the magnitude of the cosmos in which we live. It is a blessing, though, we live in a generation which isn’t intimidated and frightened by eclipses. Not too many centuries ago this type of event would have been accompanied by great fear and distress.
I thought it was wonderful how this day actually became a holiday of sorts in America. I know it might have made us look a bit ridiculous to other nations, but to celebrate the wonders of the heavens is not in itself a bad thing. It actually is a way in which can we point out the goodness, power, and glory of our Creator and Sustainer to one another.
Unfortunately, I heard some say this eclipse would be signaling God’s judgment on America because of the error of her ways. Why create fear in the minds and hearts of people over something which is meant to point us to the power and glory of our amazing God—something in which we can celebrate his majesty, glory, and power, and his ability to do all things, including saving the human race?
Now I agree—America and her people have some very serious errors going on right now. And the consequences of those errors are pretty profound. Many unwilling souls are experiencing loss, torment, suffering, and even death because of the errors of our ways. And I say our—we are all participants in these evils to some extent.
I believe what we are experiencing as a result of our ways of living is a significant judgment in and of itself. Living in a certain manner has unhealthy and unpleasant consequences—it’s just the truth about living life apart from the reality of our created and redeemed being as image-bearers of the Triune God. We create our own living “hells” when we seek our existence apart from our true humanity in Christ.
And apart from the unifying power and presence of the Spirit of love and grace, we find ourselves divided and at war with one another. Away from the Spirit of humility, service and compassion of the living Lord, we become insensitive and indifferent to the suffering and grief of those around us. When we focus merely on good and evil, we cease to focus on life—the true life which is found in real relationship, in knowing and being known intimately by the God who created both us and the amazing cosmos in which we exist.
God’s purpose isn’t to condemn us. In fact, Jesus himself said:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17 NIV)
God was most concerned with bringing us up into communion with himself in Christ, not with condemning or judging us. God in Christ saved us from evil and the evil one by becoming sin for us—taking on any judgment or condemnation we deserve upon himself.
God in Christ judged all of humanity worthy of eternal life—of grace and forgiveness—of spending eternity within the Father, Son, and Spirit relation. God determined not to be God without us.
However, we as human beings are really good at judging ourselves and judging one another. And we actually condemn ourselves as not worthy of God’s love and grace. We reject Jesus Christ, the One who stands in our place and on our behalf. We believe more in ourselves and our way of living—making our own choices, following our own agenda—than we do the One who created everything and who sustains it by the Word of his power. Here’s how Jesus put it:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:18–21 NIV)
I don’t believe we as Christians need to go around condemning anyone. Yes, we can be discerning. We can tell the truth about what is being said and done which does not align with who we are as God’s children and his image-bearers in this world. We can work to bring about healing, change, and renewal so all people may live together in the unity we have in Christ.
But only God can change a person’s mind and heart, and bring them to faith. Only God can enable someone to believe the truth about who God is and who they are, and what Christ did, is doing, and will do to save them. Only God can change a person’s mind and heart in such a way their actions become different. Only God can truly heal relationships in such a way people live joyfully and at peace with one another.
And God always honors our right to choose—our freedom to say “no” to him and to reject him, and thus experience the consequences of living life in the shadows. Even though the Light has come, people do choose to turn away from the Light and live in the shadows. We can show them they need only to turn back to the Light into face-to-face relationship with the God who made them and redeemed them. But we must realize, God has granted each of us the freedom to say “no” to him.
In this way—by saying “no” to God—we pass judgment upon ourselves. God does not condemn us—we condemn ourselves as unworthy of the love and grace God has already poured out and made available to each and every human being who has ever existed. And this is what breaks my heart.
But thankfully, God is not willing that any person perish apart from his grace and mercy. And so he is patiently at work in each and every human’s life to bring them to faith—into trusting him rather than themselves for salvation—into finding their life in Jesus Christ rather than in the temporary things of this world which will one day be burned away and replaced by a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness (right relationship with God and humanity) dwells.
And I, as well as others, am able to participate with God in this ministry by sharing his life and love with each and every person I meet. This is my small way of participating, along with the amazing cosmos, in bearing witness to the glory of God.
Abba, Jesus, Holy Spirit, thank you for your amazing creation which testifies to your glory and power. You have done and will do awesome things as you work to redeem, restore, and renew all you have created from nothing. We trust you to finish your work, to bring to pass a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Grant, please, that we may participate fully with you in this new life you created for us in Christ and are creating for us and in us by your Holy Spirit. In your Name and by your power and for your glory. Amen.
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3:18 NIV