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Searching for the Signal 2
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
19 June 2011 • Trinity Sunday
Revelation 21:1-6 & Matthew 28:16-20
21 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“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;
4 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.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, The Beatles, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs…
These people have changed the world. They’ve literally, changed it. Each of them had an idea, a dream, a vision of what might be and they stuck with it, made it a reality. And the world is a different place because of it; our lives are different because of them.
About a hundred years ago, the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…Think big.”[i]
We’re told to think big, when we’re kids. “You can do anything you set your mind to.” “Reach for the stars.” These are the things we tell children and teenagers, especially in this season of graduations. “Think big.”
That’s what Jesus tells his disciples, too. Jesus gathers them together after the resurrection and he issues his last instruction. “All authority given to me,” Jesus says, “Go therefore, and make disciples of every nation.” Dream big! Reach every nation. Make disciples of them all.
The command Jesus uses, in Greek doesn’t translate directly to English so we use “make disciples.” But it doesn’t actually say make them, it says ” disciple them” or “disciple-ize them.” The risen Jesus entrusts the disciples with the task of disciple-izing the nations, which quite literally means to school them. “Disciple-ize them,” Jesus said, “teaching them everything that I have commanded you.” Frances Taylor Gench says, “what Matthew envisions Jesus to command, “is the long, slow and never-ending process of formation, of education, of learning the way of the kingdom at each stage of life and through all human experiences.”[ii]
So then, in Matthew’s gospel disciple-izing means teaching the way of the kingdom, and Jesus had a lot to say on that subject, 5 long discourses, where he described to the gathered crowds the ways of the kingdom, and commanded them to live in that way. “The ways of the kingdom means learning to pray, to give alms – to share our money, to love enemies, to judge not that we may not be judged, to turn the other cheek and walk the other mile. It means learning to deal with our conflict with each other directly – face-to-face — and struggling to embody forgiveness every single day. Jesus’ teaching also emphasizes that the heart of that teaching is righteousness/justice. Blessed, says Jesus, are “those who hunger and thirst for justice” … And of course the greatest commandment: the commandment to love God and to love neighbor as the self. For Matthew, our formation as disciples, our life-long learning process, has to do with action, conduct, relationships, justice, love, and especially with the neighbor in all aspects of life.”[iii]
Preacher Tom Long notes that this final scene of Matthew’s gospel has some comic irony, if you think about it. This instruction is a pretty tall order for this little band of disciples. Long writes,
“If Jesus has been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye could see, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir humming the Hallelujah Chorus in the background, perhaps it would seem plausible. However, Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee with a congregation of 11, down from 12 the week before and even some of them are doubtful and not so sure why they have come to worship this day.”
“Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to lead all the people of earth to Mt. Zion in the name of Jesus, [to teach all the nations to share money and love enemies, to forgive 70 times 7. Telling these disciples to go out and do that] would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, “Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize to unbelievers, and while you are at it, establish world peace.”[iv] [Think big, Jesus said.]
The disciples must have looked at Jesus like he was crazy. I would have. How in the world, would they be able to disciple-ize whole nations? How would they be able to teach others everything that Jesus had commanded? About how to live in the kingdom? They hadn’t even figured it out themselves yet.
Jesus addresses their protests before they even ask. “All authority belongs to me,” he says. It doesn’t belong to these disciples, or to the church or its resources. It belongs to God’s wild investment in Jesus and the willingness of Son to be present always to the church in the Spirit.[v] The last words Jesus says to his little band of disciples, people who, no doubt, look a lot like you and me: different shapes, sizes, abilities. Different skill sets. Different motives. All of them with complicated pasts. All of them with baggage. All of them with doubts. Jesus says to them, “Remember” (or behold!) “I am with you always, to the end of days.”[vi] The promise of the name Emmanuel, given to Jesus at birth, is realized: God is and will be with us, to the end of the age.[vii]
What this means is that we are not powerless in the world, even though we may feel that way. In fact, we can and must, reach for the stars and think big, because we are connected to the creating work of God, the redeeming work of God in human flesh, and the very presence of that same God in the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, and among us, and sometimes outside of us”[viii]
What a tremendous gift to a group of disciples who are gathering for the first time since they have fled from Jesus’ arrest. A group of disciples detached, isolated, along, angry, deserted, depressed, grieving, hopeless, fearful, anxious, wounded, ashamed and tired. What a gift to us. God’s presence will be with us. That’s what gives us the courage to dream big, to even consider going out into the world to disciple-ize all the nations, to teach every person about the ways of the kingdom.
But it still remains that this is a HUGE task. And in order to fulfill a huge task, people need a vision, a dream, an image to carry in mind, and say, “that’s where we’re headed.” “That’s what we want to become.”
That’s what Martin Luther King did so effectively—he offered a vision of American society in which people were judged, not by their skin color, but by the content of their character. It was that dream, that vision that sustained people through the dark and difficult days of civil rights movement, that helped them keep going when it seemed impossible to change anything. Proverbs tells us that “Without vision, the people perish.” We need a vision to guide us, motivate us, sustain us.
The Revelation text you heard read this morning does just that. It offers a vision of the final triumph of God’s kingdom.[ix] It tells us that in that kingdom, all things will be made new. That’s what the one seated on the throne (who is Jesus, by the way), that’s what he says. “I am making all things new.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am making all new things.” He says, “I am making all things new.” That’s an important distinction, I think. God isn’t going to destroy or abandon or give up on everything, but is going to redeem everything, to make everything new.[x] There will be a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem.
There are also things that won’t be there. The sea for one. Or the deep as it was called at creation, the symbol for chaos and anti-creation. The sea is gone. So are tears, death, crying, and pain.[xi] Gone.
And God will make a home among the people. Just like it was in Eden, God will dwell with the people, but not in a garden, in a city, with all the people living together in community. There will be a new life with God, on earth as it is in heaven (Discipleship 2121). All things will be new. That’s John’s vision of what the kingdom will look like. And it’s a good one, a sustaining one, an encouraging one. That kind of vision might just help give us the motivation we need to get on with making things new now! To disiciple-ize the nations. To teach the ways of the kingdom. To think big for God’s sake.
You’ve heard me tell before of Anthony’s vision of the kingdom. Anthony is eleven years old and lives in the South Bronx, with its self-perpetuating cycles of poverty, brokenness, and violence. This is Anthony’s vision of the kingdom:
God will be there. He’ll be happy we have arrived. People shall come hand in hand. It will be bright, not dim and gloomy. All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones.
As for television, forget it! If you want vision, you can use your eyes to see the people that you love. No one will look at you from the outside. People will see you from the inside.
No violence will there be. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house.
How will you know that you are there? Something will tell you, “This is it! Eureka!” If you still feel lonely in your heart, or bitterness, you’ll know that you are not there.[xii]
All things made new. Anthony’s imagined what that might look like for his neighborhood in the Souht Bronx. Impossible maybe, but Anthony is dreaming big dreams, for the sake of the kingdom. And his dream suggests some things about how he might live differently NOW, for the sake of that kingdom. Turn off the TV, spend more time with loved ones. Don’t judge others based on appearances. Work to end violence (and taxes!) Get rid of the loneliness and bitterness in your heart.
I think Jesus would tell Anthony he’s on the right track. He’s thinking big, like Jesus did. He’s wants to change the world.
Jesus tells us to go disciple-ize the nations. That is a big dream. But it’s not so big that it can’t possibly happen. There are times when we teach the ways of the kingdom, when we commit ourselves to the good news that the world really can be made new, and it changes everything.
I want to share with you a conversation between Joe Buford and his literacy tutor Michelle Miller. I think it says something about dreaming beyond what we think possible, in a way that makes all things new.
Nobody in Joe’s family knew how bad it was for him, how hurt he was that he couldn’t read. His wife didn’t know until after they were married. Usually, when the mail came, she’s tell him what was in it and what bills to pay, but one day she gave it to him and said, “here, read this.” And she found out he couldn’t. “That tore my heart out,” Joe says.
At that point in his life, Joe was working in a shop that repaired construction equipment and they wanted to promote him to a desk job. Joe knew he couldn’t do it. He would lay awake at night trying to figure out how to tell them I didn’t want the job. And so he told them he was satisfied with what he was doing. “Most of the time I just tried to stay in the background because I didn’t feel worthy to be up front for anything,” he said.
Then Joe found out he was going to have a baby. He was so excited, but afraid that what was wrong with him would be passed on tot eh kids. “I was so afraid that they wasn’t goin’ to learn to read. The biggest thing I was afraid of was the child getting up into my lap and asking me to read something to her. Just terrified me.”
Joe and his literacy tutor Michelle have been working together for three years now. When she asked Joe what it was that made him decide he wanted to learn to read, Joe replied, “My girls grew up and got married. And I thought now’s the time I really need to do something for myself. And I thought, I’ll give it a year and if it doesn’t start sinking in, I’ll know it wasn’t for me. [After a while I realized I was picking it up. I jumped up. I ran through the house. It made me cry. And I’m thinking “wow, it really is sinking in!” “You was the best thing ever happened to me,” Joe said to Michelle. “You have changed my life.”
Michelle replied, “You’ve changed mine too.”[xiii]
Friends, we’ve been sent out to change the world. Though it may seem crazy and impossible, because God, the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, is with us always, we have the power to do it.
“Go, therefore.” That’s what Jesus said. “Go!” Teach the world the ways of the kingdom.
There is nothing small about the discipleship to which we’ve been called.
Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.
Join God in changing the world, in making all things new.
Jesus said, “Go.”
What are you waiting for? Go.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
[ii] Frances Taylor Gench, in a sermon delivered at the installation of Jessica Tate as the Associate Pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian Church, November 11, 2007.
[iv] Long, Thomas G. Homiletical Essay in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: WJK, 2011, p. 47.
[v] Long, 49.
[vi] Stamper, Meda A. A. Exegetical Essay in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: WJK, 2011, p. 49.
[vii] Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary. 2010, p. 104. The Discipleship Bible. Louisville: WJK, 2008, p. 1748.
[viii] Eason, Steve, Pastoral Essay in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: WJK, 2011, p. 46.
[ix] Boring and Craddock, p. 760.
[x] Boring, Eugene. Interpretation Bible Commentary: Revelation. Louisville: WJK, 1989, p. 220.
[xi] Boring, 217.
[xii] Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace. (New York: Perennial, 1996.) as quoted by Chris Tuttle.
[xiii] http://storycorps.org/listen/stories/joe-buford-and-michelle-miller/ [Thanks to Tom Tate for telling me about the story!]