When we hear about tragedies of nature—like the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma—or tragedies related to sickness that claim the lives of too many loved ones, or tragedies too numerous to count caused by human sin and evil in our world, we often think, “This isn’t right. The world shouldn’t be like this. This needs to change.”
We all want to change the world, as the Beatles song “Revolution” says, but substantial change often seems difficult if not impossible. But why wouldn’t it be? The problem with the world, after all, is you and me. We need to “change our heads” and “free our minds.”
Easier said than done, I know. But today’s scripture gives us hope.
Sermon Text: Revelation 21:1-8
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Last Monday, an acquaintance of my friend Mike posted the following on Facebook: “After the events in Moore, Oklahoma, can someone please give me a reason to believe in God?” This question reminded me of something that a theologian and blogger from New Zealand named Dr. Glenn Peoples said: “When possible, don’t wait until something goes terribly, tragically wrong until you decide what you think about it.” That’s good advice. We certainly didn’t need the events of last Monday to teach us that many people in our world, including many young children, die tragically as the result of things like natural disasters—and a million other things besides. Some of you know this from painful personal experience. My point is, if the God we worship and serve weren’t good, loving, or just, we shouldn’t need the tornado of Moore, Oklahoma, to convince us of that! Because we’ve thought it through already.
So here are some things that I think about, which help me cope with what happened in Oklahoma. Maybe they’ll help you, too. First, every moment of life—every heartbeat, every breath we take—is purely a gift from God to which none of us is entitled. I don’t like this truth, but it’s true nonetheless. One thing that makes tragedies tragic, after all, is the thought that these victims had so much life in front of them. But the painful truth is they didn’t. None of us does. All that any of us has is this day, this moment, which is purely a gift from God. Will we make the most of it? The answer to that question usually depends on us.
Another thought that helps me is this: Natural disasters like tornadoes are the price we pay for living in a predictable universe. For example, just this past week in Atlanta we’ve enjoyed sunny, warm late-spring weather. “Chamber-of-commerce” weather—which is probably one reason some of you moved here. Regardless where we live, however, about 99.99 percent of the time our planet does an excellent job sustaining life. We can complain about exceptions, like when a tornado strikes and causes great destruction, but keep in mind: the same physical laws that produce the weather we’ve enjoyed this past week are the exact same physical laws that produce tornadoes.
Is it possible to have sunny, warm spring days without also having tornadoes? It’s hard to see how—unless God were in the habit of suspending the laws of physics to prevent us from suffering. Think about it: Gravity works out well for us most of the time. It’s good to know, for example, that when we get out of bed in the morning that our feet will touch the floor. But gravity isn’t our friend when we find ourselves on the wrong side of a fast-approaching boulder. When that happens, we may pray that God would suspend the law of gravity, that in this case gravity would stop working so that this boulder doesn’t flatten us, and maybe God would do that. But… if God constantly answered these prayers, constantly suspended the laws of physics, to keep us from harm, then suddenly we wouldn’t live in a predictable universe. Suddenly we could no longer count on gravity at all.
Finally, and most importantly: Death, no matter how tragic, doesn’t have the last word. God has the last word because God defeated death through his Son’s own death and resurrection. As today’s scripture makes clear, we have heaven; we have resurrection. The lives we live in time and space—even long, full lives—are a blip in light of eternity.
Knowing these things helps us cope with death, but it doesn’t change the fact that when we look at tragedies of nature like the tornado in Oklahoma, or tragedies related to sickness and disease that claim the lives of too many loved ones, or tragedies too numerous to count caused by human sin and greed and violence and evil in our world, we rightly say, “This isn’t right. The world shouldn’t be like this. This needs to change.”
That’s in part what the Beatles’ song “Revolution” is about. And if that’s all it were about, it would be like so many other songs from that era that said the same thing: “Come on, people now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try and love one another right now.” Hippie songs. But “Revolution” is much more complex.
In an era in which many young people believed they could “get together” and change the world into a place of love, peace, and justice, this song said, “Not so fast.” “We all want to change the world…” But show me the plan first. How do you know your efforts to change the world won’t end up making things worse? If your idea of change involves following in the footsteps of Chairman Mao or other people with “minds that hate,” you can be sure that your efforts will make things worse. No, Lennon said. “If you talk about destruction, you can count me out.” We all want to change the world. But not like that!
As you can imagine, this message wasn’t well-received by a lot of young radicals at the time. In fact, after “Revolution” was released, an underground newspaper published an “open letter” attacking Lennon for being so pessimistic about change. In a published response, Lennon wrote:
You say ‘in order to change the world, we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world and then destroy it. Ruthlessly.’… I’ll tell you what’s wrong with [the world]—people. So, do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until you/we change your/our heads—there’s no chance.
Truer words were never spoken. Lennon correctly identifies the problem with the world: It’s right here [point to heart]. I’m what’s wrong with world. You’re what’s wrong with it. You wanna change the world? Better start here! That’s why the song says, “You better free your mind instead.” That’s why Jesus says that if you are his disciples, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That’s why Paul talks about how we’re enslaved to sin, and we need to be set free.
And that’s where the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ begins: right here [point to heart]. When we say “yes” to God’s free gift of salvation in Christ, God doesn’t simply forgive us of our sins; God gives us the power through the Holy Spirit to change our lives. And as we change ourselves, the Spirit also enables us to change the world. We the church are on a mission to change the world. And we have a plan, but this plan isn’t our own. It’s the plan that Jesus gave us when he told us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And we can know that this plan will be successful. Why? Because today’s scripture gives us a powerful glimpse of our future, and we know that this future is good.
But hold on a second, you might say. Today’s scripture is about heaven, isn’t it? What does heaven have to do with what’s going on right now? After all, isn’t heaven all about God hitting the reset button on Creation and starting all over from scratch because we human beings made such a mess of things?
Not at all.
First, we often think of heaven as some place very far away from this wicked, wicked world. A place somewhere up in the clouds; a place where we’ll have angel’s wings and choir robes and we’ll do a lot of singing—an ethereal place. A boring place. But that’s not what the apostle John describes in today’s scripture. Instead of describing heaven as some faraway place in the clouds, he describes heaven as being right here on this earth—albeit an earth that has been remade, re-created, redeemed. It’s a world that’s surprisingly a lot like the world we know today—only much better. A world that won’t suffer corruption, death, or decay. A world that answers our deepest longings when we hear about the events of last Monday in Oklahoma—a longing for justice and peace and love. A longing for a world without tears, or suffering, or violence. A longing for the world to which this Beatles song points when it says, “Don’t you know it’s going to be all right.”
Today’s scripture tells us that, indeed, the world will be all right. More so than John Lennon imagines! It won’t be all right because of what we human beings do or don’t do. The song is exactly right: if it were up to us humans, the world would be in trouble! No. It will be all right because God will make it all right—after the Second Coming, after final judgment, after resurrection.
The apostle Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 15, his lengthiest discourse on resurrection. But he says something more: When he gets to the end of this great chapter—after he defends the bodily resurrection of Jesus; after he describes our future resurrection in some detail; after he offers those rousing words of comfort spoken at many funerals: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?”; he gives us a great “therefore.” “Therefore, my beloved, since you have such a great hope, just sit back and relax because you know God’s got a great future in store for you in heaven”? No. He says, in verse 58, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
Therefore—because of everything I’ve just gotten through saying about the resurrection of Jesus and your own future resurrection—you can be confident that the work you do for the Lord now will not be wasted. The work you do for God’s kingdom on this side of resurrection will help shape the new world on the other side of resurrection. What we do now for the Lord matters for eternity. What we do now for the Lord will last for eternity.
This is a great mystery here. I’m not sure how all this works out. The apostle Paul hints at it in 1 Corinthians chapter 3. He talks about a refining fire that will test the quality of each Christian’s work. He says that if “anyone’s work survives”—by which he means survives into eternity—“they’ll get a reward.” If a Christian’s work goes up in flames, he says, they’ll be saved but it will be as if they had gone through a fire. I want to build something here, on this side of eternity, that will survive into the other side. That’s what the Lord is calling us to do.
I like the way N.T. Wright puts it: When you do the work of the Lord, “You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem and almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.” Wright, who is also a classically trained musician, says, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”
I doubt that Bach set out to change the world. I also doubt that Bach set out to create music that would last for eternity. Rather, Bach was faithful in using the gifts that God had given him for God’s kingdom. And God took it from there. See, that’s the good news about changing the world. In a sense, we can’t do it. It’s not within our power; it’s not up to us. Therefore, we don’t carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. But God can and will change the world through us.
It may not be clear at the time that we are changing the world. It’s going to become clear in our resurrection.
Last week, Larisa and I had to go to a mandatory seminar at Simpsonwood retreat center for us pastors who are moving this year. Oh boy! What fun! Anyway, I happened to run into my long-lost friend Brian, who’s now a Methodist pastor. Many years ago, when I was in youth group at a Baptist church, Brian was this college-aged Methodist who was dating a girl at our church. Brian started a prayer group for us youth on Sunday night. Each Sunday we gathered in the church’s chapel to pray. Brian had a profound influence in my life, on my faith. He helped shape me into the person I am today. I saw him on at that seminar on Thursday, for the first time in many years, I gave him a hug and told him how much I loved him. I thanked him for the good he did in my life. We all want to change the world: I believe Brian changed it for eternity.
Last week, Stephanie went back to her hometown of Paintlick, Kentucky, to celebrate her mom’s retirement after 27 years of teaching elementary school. It’s easy to imagine the difference that Connie made in the lives of all those students she taught over the years. We all want to change the world. Connie changed it for eternity.
At the 11:00 Vinebranch service, we’re going to be baptizing two of Chris and Chuck Keith’s children. Chris and Chuck became parents again over the past five years by adopting five more children. That was after successfully raising two daughters who are now adults. They felt called to do that. We all want to change the world. Chris and Chuck are changing it for eternity.
And what about rest of us? Are you volunteering to help share the love of Jesus with children at Vaction Bible School next week. Are you teaching Sunday school or Disciple class? Are you volunteering as a Sheep-feeder on Wednesday night? We all want to change the world. You’re changing it for eternity. Are you digging a latrine in Honduras, or hanging drywall at a school in Paraguay, or repairing a roof on the Gulf Coast? We all want to change the world. You’re changing it for eternity. Are you foster-parenting a needy child? Are you ministering to people in prison? Are you visiting elderly shut-ins? We all want to change the world. You’re changing it for eternity.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every act of witness; every act of generosity and service; every act of caring for God’s creation and his creatures… We all want to change the world. By God’s grace, we have the power to change it for eternity.
Do you want to change world? It’s time to get started!