sermon

Life’s Newness

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

May 19, 2019

Text: Revelation 21:6, Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6

            Beth Shalom Synagogue sits on Beacon Street in Squirrel Hill. In 1970, this Conservative Jewish congregation embarked on a building campaign. The most impressive result of the building campaign lies in the lower lobby.

I took a Palestinian student to Beth Shalom to speak as part of a youth dialogue on Middle East reconciliation, in 1990. When he entered the lower lobby he quietly said in hushed reverence. “These walls are from Jerusalem.”

Surrounding us were huge golden stones, carefully chiseled and mortared. Samer knew them from Jerusalem’s great walls and ancient structures. My Palestinian friend was from East Jerusalem. He lived in the Holy City.

Samer looked at me with a smile and said, “There is no other rock like this in the world. It can only be found in Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s Old City dates before Jesus to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the Second Temple was built. The golden glow that emanates from its stone walls sets it apart from other great cities in the world.

Tread its narrow streets where Jesus walked. Climb the Temple Mount to stand where the High Priest, Caiaphas, offered sacrifices during Jesus’ time. Islam believes the Prophet Mohammed was transported from Mecca to the Temple Mount in the Night Journey. Pray before the Temple Mount’s Western Wall and join the prayers of countless millions who have made the pilgrimage to the Holy City throughout the millennia. Jews, Christians, and Muslims regard Jerusalem as the center of their faith – the center of life.

In 70 A.D., the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem after the first Jewish insurrection. For seven months the Jews bitterly fought four Roman legions under Roman generals Titus and Tiberius. Famine and disease swept the city.

When the Romans finally breached the Holy City’s walls, they slaughtered over a million Jews. Jerusalem was burned. Many walls and buildings that had been erected over 1,000 years by God’s chosen people were dismantled.

The great Second Temple that stood on the Temple Mount was utterly destroyed. Its golden walls were thrown over the edge of the Temple Mount. The hand-hewn rocks from the Second Temple still lie at the base of the Temple Mount, 2,000 years later. Jerusalem lay uninhabited – a place for rodents, animals, and insects to roam.

It was after Jerusalem’s destruction that the historian Tacitus wrote about Rome, “They plunder. They slaughter. They steal. This they falsely name Empire. Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”

The Apostle John escaped Jerusalem’s destruction. So did the Christians who lived in the Holy City. The Church had survived persecution by the Jews for 37 years. But Christians renounced violence.   They abandoned Jerusalem for Pella in Jordan. The Jews were left to fight the Romans on their own.

After Jerusalem’s destruction, John received his revelation from God. He saw an unbelievable vision that defied Jerusalem’s ruins! The apocalyptic world of bloodshed, famine, disease, and death would end. God’s will would change. The destroyed Holy City would be restored by God’s blessing. It would no longer be a city of death. It would once again become the center of life!

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away . . . And I saw the Holy City, a New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

This was a remarkable vision of the future! The Holy City with golden walls that God had permitted to be utterly destroyed would be restored! John’s revelation, for all of its apocalyptic warfare, disease, and death, saw a future time when God would bring new life to a city that lay in ruins.

Imagine your own world being utterly destroyed. Your home, your friends and family, your nation, everything that was important to you was destroyed.   All the building blocks of your own life lie in piles of rubble.

You went to the Boston Marathon and left in an ambulance crippled forever. You were at dinner in West, Texas only to have your home and family blown away in a cataclysmic event. You sent your children to school at Newtown, Connecticut. The secure walls in which you have lived and loved are destroyed.

That is what Jerusalem’s Jews faced – those few thousand who survived.

Today, many struggle to find hope in a changing world. They face changes that aren’t as overwhelming as the events we’ve faced during the last six months. But these changes seem to be the end to the old order. Much of what is new seems like a destruction of the familiar. Some respond by believing in America. But they’ve lost faith in God. Recent polls show an increase in those who don’t believe in God that tops any previous measurement of social sentiment.

Many men and women feel besieged by forces beyond their control. Their familiar world has gone. Some cling to the past like ancient Jerusalem’s Jews. They emotionally fight forces that are destroying the foundations on which they built their life. They remember a golden age that is gone.

Others adapt to dramatic and at times unjust life changes like the Christians moving to Pella, Jordan – trusting Christ would give them new life in an unfamiliar world. They too know the walls of the city have fallen. Yet Jesus has shown them God’s ability to give new life.

In such dramatically challenging times, the temptation is to believe that God is removing His blessing from us. Jerusalem’s Jews saw the Second Temple destroyed. Many Jews gave up on God’s sovereignty over evil.

As far as Christians were concerned, the places where Jesus was crucified, buried, and ascended into heaven were totally and completely obliterated like the Second Temple. They could have believed Jerusalem’s destruction was a sign of God’s wrath on the Church.

John could have had a revelation that was darkened by hopelessness. But no. He saw new life – a new Jerusalem – A new holy city would signal the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth. He did not foresee Christianity’s end or the end of Judaism. He saw God’s blessing delivering a new world where tears and death were no more. Jerusalem would return as the center of life.

John was a child of the resurrection. He had seen enough when Jesus was crucified to know what it means to be in anguish when everything that is near and dear to you is destroyed. It generates doubt in God’s sovereignty over evil.

But John saw Jesus raised from the dead. Since God had the power to raise Jesus from the dead, God possesses the power to restore a community to new life. What God has done for one man, God can do for a city of faithful people who worship Him. Jerusalem’s ruins would be filled with new vitality that would return it as the life-giving community at the center of the world.

There are many Christians who live as if Jerusalem can never be restored. Some live as if it’s impossible to change their personal fate. They put on brave smiles and give the impression of happiness. But they’re unhappy in heart.

They are fatalists who have lost hope in new life. They drink from the brackish well of despair that poisons the soul.

Recent demographic studies of younger Americans show they are losing faith in God. They’re the generation that has grown up with school shootings, terrorist bombings, random attacks on women, children being sold into sex slavery, an opiode crisis created and protected by multi-national corporation lobbying weak legislators, and a public vacuum about the value of faith in God.

They are watching the destruction of public religious faith around the country. They are staying away from congregations because of the political mantra which complains that telling people to repent is intolerant. It’s politically incorrect. Calls for repentance don’t accept people for who they are.

The foolishness of such criticisms of God and Christian faith is foolishness. If people are losing faith in God because of so many social problems across the nation, then doesn’t repentance make sense. Isn’t loss of faith in God the reason why we’re having so many discouraging headlines caused by disillusioned Americans. This is a time when we need men and women of faith, who can see beyond the destruction of the nation.

The Apostle John could have lost faith in God. He saw the great city of God lying in ruins – a monument to death and destruction. But what God showed John on Easter Day, God revealed again on the island of Patmos. God is the God of the living. He always possesses the power to create new life. What God has done for one man will be done for the city of God.

He brings living water in the midst of a new Holy City that will restore the spirit of the fainthearted, heal the weak, and help the afflicted.   He is changing the current course of history by bringing new life in the middle of destruction.

The future of God’s new Jerusalem lies beyond the horizon. It’s beyond our immediate sight of destruction. Beyond the present lies the final fulfillment of God’s ability to bring life from death. Only God can make all things new when people are giving up hope in God.

God is working, not just in the future, but now.

The Church of Jesus Christ flourished despite Jerusalem’s destruction by its faith that trusted God’s plan for salvation. Christians looked beyond the destruction of their old world to see a new world of life that Christ was creating.

Never give in to despair. Don’t quit on God’s power to make all things new. A new heaven and a new earth are being born. The golden place that is the center of the world’s faith refreshes people who trust that God’s goodness and mercy gives new life.

And so as we contemplate the future for our congregation, remember, God is in the middle of us with the ability to give us new life.

We, the Church of Jesus Christ at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church are citizens of the new city of God! Among us lies the river of living water that brings new life to the world – Jesus Christ our Lord.

Where there are people who see Him working, there is a river of life that is flowing among us. From it will come new life!

Amen.

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