A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 2, 2010.
Imagination is what the artists have on display at the Brookside Art Festival this weekend. Wanda and I love the creative array of a wide variety of art forms familiar and new and it’s obvious some of you also love it because sometimes we’ve seen you there. We enjoy the show the art, the artists, and the crowds that attend! Imagination creates the music in the brain that results in new songs, new lyrics, poetry put to rhythms, and even the creation of whole new ways for sounds to come together in mesmerizing melodies that help us feel something vital about life. Imagination is what the storyteller draws upon by taking nothingness and turning it into stories that illuminate our own stories and how we make meaning of them. The internal muse of the mind creates dialogues that never existed and creates events and storylines that make those conversations have rich meaning.
Imagination is what drives the architects to seek in intentionally designing on an empty pallet every cubic inch of emptiness turning it into a physical space that meets a desired purpose. In that manner, imagination is what architect Maya Lin utilized when she designed the interfaith Riggio-Lynch Chapel on the campus of the Children’s Defense Fund in Clinton, Tennessee. So inspired was she by the mission of saving children, that the chapel resembles a huge ark. The chapel’s simple, soaring shape evokes an ark of protection carrying all of the world’s children to safety. Maya claimed the organization’s prayer moved her: Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
The Bible is filled with stories of building projects God inspired the design and building of things. There’s the Ark of the Covenant and the traveling tabernacle ordered for Moses and the people of God. Again, these things were built by intentional design. The box, or the Ark, was built to contain the tablets of the Law that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai. It was covered with gold and the representational figures of the cherubim mounted dramatically on top. The Ark was an object so holy it was carried on poles that ran the length of it so the Ark itself was never touched by human hands. Do you hear the sermon it was preaching? Fear and awe about the Law of God and the holy Otherness of God were the themes of that sermon.
Ultimately the Temple of Solomon was built in the ancient city of Jerusalem, a city atop the central highlands, which was the unifying force of King David in uniting the tribes of Israel. Solomon had very specific details about the architecture and the materials that would be used to construct the building. And, like the others before it, each piece of it represented something about the message that the building itself preached to the people. The Temple was built to house the Hebrew sacrificial system because of the sin of humankind and the absolute holiness of God. Once a year the High Priest would to into the Holy of Holies to offer an annual sacrifice to God and thus appease God’s anger toward our sins. All of this was ritualized in liturgical form and served as a sermon to the people of God about how to live in covenant relationship with Yahweh.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that in this last book of the Bible God promises to build a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem. The missing verses from the passage that was read are the specific details of dimensions for the New Jerusalem. In highly metaphorical language it is to be built of jewels and gold and will be cubic in shape 1500 miles in length and width and height. The wall will be made of jasper and the foundations of the city will be adorned in jewels and the streets will be paved in gold. There will be twelve gates, each made of a huge pearl. There will be no sun or moon. Light will be everywhere. The luminescence of God’s presence will illuminate everything. There will be a river flowing through the streets of the city.
John tells us the river will flow with the waters of life, bright, as crystal, and it will flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the main street of the city. Could this be a representation of the living waters Jesus spoke of when he promised the woman by the well of water that will quench every thirst? The streets will be made of gold. Most commentators suggest that even those things we consider of great value will merely be commonplace in the new city. Most construction sites I’ve ever seen are littered with common materials like sand and gravel and bits and pieces of lumber and broken bricks. On those sites, you’d do well to watch where you step because there are usually nails or screws left on the ground that you might step on. In the city God is designing for eternity, the building materials themselves will be precious jewels and gold.
Surprisingly, there will be no Temple for God will be fully experienced everywhere. On this side of creation, a Temple was necessary in order for humans to experience God. In Christ, the presence of God was gifted to us and by the Holy Spirit the presence of God is among us in everyday ways to lead us and guide us. But in the new city, that presence will permeate in such a way that there will not be a need for a structure to represent the worship of God. We will live with God and every place will be experienced as a place of worship.
Doug Ezell, one of my professors at Southwestern Seminary, wrote a wonderful little book about John’s Revelation. He says this final book is written during what was believed to be the last days, during a time when the first Christians were holding on by the thinnest of threads. They were hounded and ostracized until they were at the breaking point. They were unsure whether they could withstand the pressure to bow down to Caesar or whether to stand firm in their faith and allegiance to Jesus Christ.
This is what the Book of Revelation is about. It’s not about the fictional scenarios of a future where the believers are mysteriously and narcissistically pulled out of the time of trials as if God would wave a magic wand over us to protect us from such things. Instead, it’s about the terror of standing firm for God when those trials come our direction. It’s about the assurance we can draw upon the power of the Lord to sustain us when those threats come. The Book of Revelation is about the reality of that kind of pressure and its message comes across the ages to us as a message of hope and encouragement in the midst of a very real terror of suffering for our faith.
What does all this teach us? Knowing this book was the product of a time in which the church was severely persecuted gives us the clue as to how to begin to think about its meaning for us. In this time, it is the confidence that while we may suffer in various ways in this life, God is already drafting the blueprints of a world for those who stand firm in their faith.
We will one day awaken to a reality that John could only hint at. For John on that lonely outpost of a prison island, stretching language to its breaking point was the best he could do in helping us see that the Builder God had already designed the city in which we would celebrate for eternity. John’s new Jerusalem coming down from heaven is artistically similar to stunning final coda that resolves the Beatles’ frenetic use of a modulating symphonic crescendo with a thundering piano chord in A Day in the Life from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.
That vision helps us see that it will be a place where the presence of God is energy enough to sustain all things. The amazing thing is that we are invited to join God there. It’s the message God has been pronouncing in every building project in this amazing story of faith described in the Bible.
But until then, we have work to do. Never were we meant to sit around uselessly talking about these things in speculating idleness. The promise of a New Jerusalem was never meant to distract us from the call of God to share God’s love with the world. It was meant to give us the courage and power to endure while we do that work. In that vision, the Builder God has not left us as orphans but has acted in the world to redeem us from our sin. In response to our redemption, we’re invited to put on our hard hats and our steel-toed shoes to partner with our redeemer in building the Kingdom of God right here where we live while we have time to do so.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).