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.

The Great Ends of the Church: Why We Worship

dzhokhar-tsarnaevWe may be New Yorkers, fans of the Yankees or the Mets, but this week we’re all rooting for Boston!

When I heard the news about the atrocity at the marathon, my first inclination was to change this week’s sermon topic.  These are the moments when collective trauma demands a response from the pulpit.  I’ve done it before, especially after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT.  My first thought was that I should diverge from our current series on the Great Ends of the Church and use our time together this morning to offer words of healing.

But then I remembered something that happened to me on September 11, 2001.  I was a senior in college then.  It was a Tuesday and I was late to my 11 o’clock class.  I didn’t usually turn on the news in the morning, so I had no idea what was going on in the world.  I remember looking over my shoulder as I rushed past a conference room and seeing a group of people huddled around a television and there on the screen was the image that would forever be burned into my consciousness: the burning towers of the World Trade Center.  I immediately stopped in my tracks, walked back, and sat down with the others in the conference room to take in what was happening.  Needless to say, I never made it to class that day.

The next day, I went to see my professor, Dr. Hauser, and apologized for missing class.  He had a strict attendance policy and I wanted to explain why I had missed class.  “I understand,” he said, “but your absence will still count against you.”  When I asked him why he wouldn’t excuse my absence, Dr. Hauser said these words, which I will remember for the rest of my life: “Because the goal of terrorism is to disrupt and I refuse to allow them to accomplish that goal, so far as my class is concerned.”

And so, borrowing a page from Dr. Hauser’s book, I have decided that I will not give the Tsarnaev brothers the pleasure of disrupting our church service this morning.  We’re going to continue with our regularly scheduled sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church.  In fact, their actions will only serve to illustrate my point, as you’ll soon see.

This week is the third in a six-week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’re using this old Presbyterian document to answer the question, “Why does the Church exist?”  On the first week, Easter Sunday, we said the first Great End of the Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”  Last week, we said the second Great End of the Church is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”  And this week, we’re saying the third Great End of the Church is “the maintenance of divine worship.”

I actually think today is the perfect Sunday to talk about worship because it is moments of crisis, like this one, that so often lead us to lean more heavily and stand more firmly on the foundation of our faith.  When one part of our identity is attacked, we humans almost instinctively look to ground our collective sense of self in some deeper and stronger source.  I think it’s no surprise that people flocked in droves to churches, mosques, and synagogues in the days after 9/11.  I also think it’s no coincidence that we saw so many ecumenical and interfaith worship services going on at the same time.  Even if it was just for a moment, labels like Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu were being set aside in favor of some larger reality that embraces and connects us all.  This week, we’ve even got Yankees fans wearing Red Sox jerseys (which is the biggest miracle of all, if you ask me).

When we talk about worship, we’re using a word that comes from the Old English term worth-ship.  We’re talking about that which has ultimate worth or value in our eyes.  In worship, we direct our attention toward that which is most important to us in life.  We stop for a moment to orient our little lives within the larger context of the big picture.  It is from this exercise that we draw strength, hope, and courage for facing the days ahead.

Drawing from the resources of our Judeo-Christian heritage, I picked out two passages of scripture that illustrate the act of worship and its power to sustain us in times of crisis.

I’ll start with our New Testament reading.  It came from the book of Revelation, at the very end of the Bible.  Here we read about a vision of what worship looks like from the perspective of heaven.  The author saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”  The author is told that these people are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal”.  Having passed through life’s hardships, they exist in a state of constant, ecstatic worship before God’s throne in heaven.  As Charles Wesley wrote in his famous hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, they are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”  The angel serving as the author’s celestial tour guide says:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

This is the effect that worship has on their lives.  They want for nothing.  They fear nothing.  We’re used to thinking of passages like this one as descriptive of the afterlife, but I see no reason why we cannot experience at least a taste of that heaven in this life.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel tells the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young men who refused to bow down to the idols of the society they lived in and were made to pass through the fire by the powers that be.  It was their worship of God that put them at odds with the values of the dominant culture around them.  They saw their lives as part of a bigger picture than the one made up of the demands and concerns of the Babylonian Empire.  So, when the reigning powers of that empire demanded their allegiance, they said no.  The full weight of imperial sanction was brought to bear against them, but still they refused.

When they were finally cast into the fire, the reality of their faith was vindicated as it became plain to see that these three young men were not alone in their struggle.  Someone was walking through the fire with them, some mysterious person who had “the appearance of a god”, according to those who saw.

As it was with them, so it is with us.  As we pass through the fires and ordeals of this life, worshiping as we go, we discover that we are not alone.  Our God walks with us in the fire.  As it says in the book of Revelation, God shelters us and shepherds us, guiding us toward “springs of the water of life” where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

The purpose of worship is to open our hearts and minds to this grand reality in which we live, move, and have our being.  In worship, we lift our vision higher than our visibility.  We look at our circumstances through the eyes of faith.  We gather the fragments of our myriad little stories and lives into one Great Story told in prayer, creed, scripture, sacrament, and song.

This is why worship has the power to get us through times of crisis like the ones we lived through this week.  Through it, we come to realize (or are reminded yet again) that the deepest part of ourselves is connected to the deepest part of the universe.  “Deep calls out to deep,” as it says in the psalm.

We reach out to feel the bond of this deep connection in moments of crisis.  What we need to do is nurture that same sense of connectedness in our regular, everyday living.  That way, when crises happen, large or small, we have a well of spiritual resources from which we can draw the water of life.

Those who learn how to live from this deep center are often the very same ones who are ready, willing, and able to share their abundance of spiritual strength and compassion with others.  They are the ones who can walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with them.

That’s what the worship-life of the church is here for: to nurture that strength in believers.  We do it together in our weekly services of public worship, but I hope we also do it individually during the other six days of the week.  This is why it’s so important to have a regular, daily practice of devotional prayer and Bible reading at home.  These spiritual disciplines, far from being rote religious exercises, are as essential to the health of our souls as food and water are essential to the health of our bodies.

We need to maintain that sense of deep connection, not just during moments of crisis, not just on holidays, not just weekly, but daily.

That sense of community bonding we saw in Boston this week is available to all of us, all the time.  The purpose of the church’s worshiping life is to maintain that sense of connection in the normal, boring seasons of life so that we can be ready to spring into action as heroes and leaders when these moments of crisis arise.  We can face the flames unafraid because we know that our God walks through them with us.

This week, I believe we saw God walking with us through the flames.  The stories of heroism, goodwill, and sacrifice cannot undo our grief and anger, but they can exist alongside it, reminding us that evil, chaos, and darkness are not, in fact, the only forces at work in this world.  Furthermore, they will not have the last word.  So long as there is still one good person in this world who’s willing to run toward explosions for the sake of other, wounded human beings, we know that “the light [still] shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The worshiping life of the church reminds us of this truth and seeks to grow in us that same kind of strength and compassion, in hopes that we too might become beacons of hope and justice in this world, people strengthened by faith to stand up for love and walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with us.