True North

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Do you ever feel afraid that your life is going nowhere? Like maybe you’re all alone in this world and the universe is just a meaningless series of random accidents?

It’s a pretty common fear, actually. Human beings have achieved more, built more, and learned more in the past five centuries than we had in the preceding five millennia. In the span of the twentieth century alone, we invented flight, mass produced automobiles, cured diseases, split the atom, landed on the moon, and created the internet. I don’t mean to turn my nose up at the great pyramids of Giza, but even the most powerful Egyptian Pharaoh never fathomed the wonder of looking at cat pictures on Instagram.

There can be no question that we humans have pushed the boundaries of information and technology far beyond what our ancestors could have dreamed. One would think that, somewhere in this vast ocean of data we have collected, we must have surely discovered the secret to a happy and meaningful life. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

Our insatiable thirst for knowledge, while helpful in many respects, has had the unfortunate side-effect of eroding our shared sense of meaning. Other cultures, including our own before the modern era, have typically relied on traditional mythologies and religious rituals to help them weave the scattered fragments of their lives together into a unified whole. The cultural story helped people make sense of their individual stories. We, in twenty-first century North America, don’t have the benefit of a single cultural story that imbues our lives with meaning from womb to tomb. We are, as Walker Percy wrote, “lost in the cosmos.” We are adrift in a sea of information without any navigational tools to guide the way home. Under these circumstances, it is quite understandable for people to be afraid that their life is going nowhere and they are all alone in a random, meaningless universe.

But we Christians do not exist under those circumstances. We believe ourselves to be part of a unifying story that weaves the tattered fragments of life, the universe, and everything into a single tapestry that gets longer and longer each day as our individual threads are added to it.

The place where we find this story, this finely woven tapestry, is in the pages of the Bible. The Bible is not just a book; it is a library. It is a collection of legends, poems, memories, and letters that, when taken together, tell the story of our communal relationship with God through the ages. The Bible tells the Church’s family story. And in today’s reading from the book of Revelation, we get a powerful preview of how our family story ends. And here’s the funny thing: it ends in the same way that it began.

The very first book of the Bible is Genesis, which begins:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Compare that with the following from today’s reading, which appears at the end of Revelation (the last book of the Bible):

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

The story begins with the creation of “the heavens and the earth” and ends with “a new heaven and a new earth.” St. John, the author of revelation, did this deliberately. He wants to show us that God’s creation of the world was not a one-time event; it is ongoing. The universe is still in the process of becoming what God intends it to be. In other words, God is not done with us yet.

Next, he tells us, “the sea was no more.” Why is that? Does God have something against the ocean itself? No. This is another parallel image from the first chapter of Genesis. In Genesis, immediately after the heavens and the earth, the very next thing we hear about is the sea. It says, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

For the ancient Israelites, “the sea” was a symbol of chaos and destruction. They believed it was the home of a monster called Leviathan, a creature so powerful and dangerous that only God could tame it. The sea, with its tsunamis and hurricanes, symbolically represented those forces of nature that threaten to undo the fragile project of human civilization. But God, they believed, was in the process of bringing order to chaos.

For the rest of the first chapter of Genesis, we read about God shaping the earth around the primordial ocean by the power of the Word. God speaks forth light, sky, land, and life. These things emerge out of the sea at God’s command.

Fast forward to today’s reading from Revelation 21 and we witness the completion of that work as John tells us, “the sea was no more.” God has finally tamed the destructive power of chaos, once and for all.

John goes on to describe what this looks like in great detail:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

If we were to keep reading into the next chapter of Revelation, we would get a detailed description of this city:

“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 through 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. Nothing 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; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And 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.”

As for the inhabitants of this city, John writes:

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

And then, just to drive the point home even farther, that God’s ongoing work of creation from Genesis to Revelation constitutes one, unified story, we hear the voice from the throne say, “See, I am making all things new…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

God’s vision for the end of history is a garden city with open gates, a thriving, multicultural community of healing and peace.

What John is giving us in this lavish image is a vision of where our lives are going. We are not going nowhere; we are not all alone in a universe that just popped into existence as a random accident. We were meant to be here; we are part of God’s story. John gives us a preview of this story’s end so that we will not lose hope or abandon the faith in the meantime. “Stay with me,” he says in effect, “because I promise this is all going somewhere.”

I think we need to hear that good news today. In this life, when things don’t always work out according to our plans, we humans desperately want to believe that there is some kind of master plan somewhere. We are looking for order in the chaos. We are listening for God to speak into the darkness of our lives, “Let there be light.” The good news for us today is that God is indeed present and active, speaking light into darkness and shaping chaos into beauty. The story of God’s creation is ongoing and we are called to trust in it.

We don’t know the details of how and when this story will reach its climax and dénouement. Contrary to the popular opinions of some Christians, the book of Revelation is not road map for the end of the world; it is a compass pointing us toward the beginning of a new world.

Our task, as the Church, is to not give in to those demonic voices of cynicism and despair that tempt us to wonder whether our life is going nowhere. Our calling is to trust this vision of the multicultural garden city, take our place in God’s unfolding story, and follow the compass as it points us in the direction of True North.

The way will certainly be long and hard, but the destination is worth it. Keep going, and know that your life is not going nowhere and you do not walk alone. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes of the saints of old:

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.’

And God has prepared a place in that city for you, too. Keep going, and I’ll see you at home.

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