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We have come through wedding season. Ask a pastor if they prefer to do a wedding and a funeral and you will get a variety of answers. Some will say that they don’t have a preference. Some will say that they actually prefer funerals for various reasons – from the amount of work required (counselling with weddings, the rehearsal, the potential drama or whatever else). As for me, give me a wedding any day. The creation of a new union. The joy. The speeches. The music. The dancing. The food. After the ceremony, there will be drinks and hors d’oeuvres served on the patio with servers constantly going by, and everyone is all “Oh I don’t mind if I do” to get us through to the multi-course dinner and love is indeed in the very air.
Give me a wedding any day. Is it any wonder that the kingdom of heaven is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son? This is where this whole story is going. “After this,” writes John to begin chapter 19 of his Revelation – what was revealed to him. The apocalypse. The drawing back of the curtain. The unveiling. When we’re talking about where this whole story is going, we’re talking about something which is beyond our grasp. Beyond imagining. Too wonderful for words. Remember those words – “In the beginning, God…” In the end, God with us. After this, God with us.
After everything finally being made right. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” is what the angel cries out in Revelation 18. They called Rome the eternal city. The seat of the Roman Empire. We can think of Babylon as any empire, including the empire of the self. Injustice will not stand forever. Listen to the angel’s cry – “The kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury… Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share her plagues… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves – and human lives…The merchants of these wares who gained wealth from her will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud.”
It's the end of scarcity. The end of exploitation. The end of “It always comes back to the money.” The end of me first or my country first. The end of inequality ……. Listen to the voice from the throne – “Praise our God, all you his servants, and all who fear him, small and great.” John falls down at the angel’s feet to worship the angel! The angel says, “Get up get up – I’m a fellow servant just like you!” Listen to the song again – “Hallelujah! For the Lord God, the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her, it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen bright and pure’ – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” All is grace. The holy city comes down out of heaven from God. What we do matters. We’ll come back to this in a while.
One of the noticeable things about John’s vision here as a description of what comes after these things is what is not there. “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 symbol of chaos, of un-creation. “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; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” God with us. There is no sun, moon, night, for the Lord God will be our light. “Nothing accursed will be found there” – no more curse of sin brought about by our own rebellion.
In the end God. God as the all, in all. The marriage feast of the lamb where the bride is a city, and the city is people, and the people are all who accept the invitation:
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev 22:17)
That’s our invitation. Remember when we talked about the life-giving headwaters described in the Garden of Eden? The end is not a matter of getting back to the garden (with apologies to Joni Mitchell) but of a renewed city – a place of interdependence and cooperation – in which flows the river of life from the throne of God through the middle of main street. On either side of this river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing fruit each month: and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.
As followers of Christ, we live in the sure hope of that day. This does not mean that our eyes are only on that day. Let’s hear the cry of the angel – “Come out of her (Babylon) my people so that you do not take part in her sins.” We can view the Christian life as a daily stepping out of Babylon and in New Jerusalem, as the song goes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfSGTlrqPH8
We can view the Christian life as preparation for that day – preparation for the wedding remembering the image of the fine linen with which we are clothed as the righteous deeds of the saints. What we do matters, and the kingdom acts in which we engage have eternal value. Listen to what one writer has to say on this – “The Bride-City is clothed in the ‘righteous deeds of the saints’ (19:8): not only the expressions of piety but actions on behalf of justice. Every ditch dug, every brick laid, every vote cast, every committee decision that has contributed to the decency of human life is preserved and built into the eternal city. And yet the city is not a human achievement, rising Babel-like from the earth, culminating human efforts. Without in the least minimizing human responsibility… he pictures the new Jerusalem as ‘coming down from heaven from God’ (21:2). As important as ‘works’ are for John, participation in the heavenly city is finally a matter of grace, freely given. (21:6)”
All is grace. All is gift, given freely from the Father of Lights, from whom comes every good and perfect gift. Speaking of grace…
All is grace, even when we’re talking about money. We didn’t lead with it, but we can’t not mention it. We’ve been talking about generosity as an all-of-life thing – all that we are, all that we have. Perhaps it would be better to say though, all that God is making us, all that God gives us. We may not like it and say, “There the church goes, talking about money again.” It’s a matter that needs to be handled delicately. Oftentimes things can go awry when money is involved. Questions of “Who do we really trust?” come to the fore when money is involved. Are we relying on our income and assets (as individuals or as churches) or are we relying on God? How are we living that reliance out?
In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul brings up the issue of money to the people of Corinth – a group of churches in southern Greece with a lot of issues. So…easily relatable. A collection for the church in Jerusalem has been on Paul’s heart and therefore on his agenda. It’s not just what’s on our hearts that matters but how we live out what is on our hearts. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells them of he and Barnabas being commissioned for service to the Gentiles – “and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor; which was actually what I was eager to do.” (Gal 2:9-10)
The collection for the church in Jerusalem was on Paul’s heart, and he believes that it is right and proper and fitting that it be on the heart of the Corinthian church. Paul doesn’t begin by describing the Jerusalem church’s suffering or even telling stories of the poverty which he seeks to alleviate (the way so many appeals for money do, scenes of dogs shivering out in the cold and so on). He starts with grace. “We want you to know brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia…” (2 Cor 8:1) The very spirit of generosity that the Macedonian churches (those are the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea) have displayed is the work of God in their hearts (lest anyone should boast). Listen to what has gone on (read 2 Cor 8:2-7) – note the instances of “grace”).
What we do matters. Let love be genuine. “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” (2 Cor 8:8). And then this – “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Emptied Himself of all but love, as the hymn goes. So that we might live in the richness of God’s grace. What might such self-emptying look like for the Corinthians (and by extension us?). Read 10-15.
Material generosity has been called the visible sign of invisible grace. Where is the evidence of the grace that God pours out on us? Someone has put it like this - “When we have been the beneficiaries of such undeserved grace, how can true Christians shut their hearts or purses to brothers and sisters in need or begrudge every penny they may share with others…? God's lavishness in the gift of grace and the depths of Christ's sacrifice requires that Christians be liberal in their giving to others.”
Paul never mentions money here and it’s not just about money. Where is God calling us to be lavishly generous with all that God has gifted us? The things we are good at. Time. Attention. Encouragement. Comfort. Solace. Tasks. (“Is there anything that I can do to help you?”) It needn’t be grandiose, and often the most meaningful acts of generosity are seemingly small ones.
The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding party. The kingdom of heaven is coming. The kingdom of heaven is here. The party’s started. As we look back over these five weeks, may truths of God as our generous host, a deepening relationship with Him, grateful hearts, and trust, lead us into lives that are ever more deeply rooted in the generosity of God. May we be agents of this same generosity. May this be true for all of us. Amen.