A Sermon for New Year's Day
January 1st is a day of new beginnings. A new calendar on the wall, resolutions of how this year will be different, and a blank canvas that will we soon begin to paint upon. And yet, we know that today isn’t all that different than December 31st was. The problems of last year are still the problems of this year. The heartache of yesterday is just as real today. As much as we might enjoy the feeling of a new year, there is a part of us that wishes for something truly new. There is something within us longing for a world we’ve never known, yet hope for nonetheless.
(Holding the Bible) These 66 books, written over the course of thousands of years and dozens of authors have led us here- from creation to new creation. John’s apocalyptic vision of cosmic battles, the destruction of all things, the judgment of the living and dead, has led to this climactic scene. Let us turn in our Bibles to Revelation 21:1-6,
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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among humans.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
she 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.”
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.” 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I first began to read to Revelation 21, all I could see was the Earth. This vision of a new heaven is not merely a spiritual utopia; it is a physical, economic, and ecological vision. This new heaven and new earth have trees and fruit, a river and spring. The creation care advocate inside of me leaps for joy at this vision. But I suddenly started to read this passage with new eyes when my grandfather passed away in November. Although he had lived a long and wonderful life, his passing has left our family in mourning.
You cannot read Revelation 21 after the death of a family member and think, “this is a great text for Earth Day.” And perhaps it is, but in the face of death, there is no line in scripture that tugs so deeply at the heart as verses 3-4 “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Is that not what we so desperately long for? This is what my family longs for as we mourn the loss of one we so dearly loved.
Our mourning is complicated because we are equally grateful that his pain is over. Living to the age of 97 is an incredible gift and a heavy burden to bear. My grandfather watched most of his friends and siblings die. The last time he and I were together last summer, in a moment of his signature humorous frankness, he told me that the best days of his life were behind him. My first response was to encourage him that it wasn’t true, but I realized that he had the guts to say what many of us know to be true; there will come a time in our lives when the best days will be behind us. The parts of life that gave my grandfather joy were things he could no longer do. Dick Jones was a cowboy. He fought in the Calvary on horseback in World War II, started a Christian summer camp with horseback riding, and owned a horse until late into his nineties. A life without horses, without manual labor and a purpose to his work was not a life he enjoyed living. For my grandfather, a new creation that is just floating spirits in a never-ending worship service in the sky was not the new creation he longed for.
The vision in Revelation 21 of new creation is startling in the face of the loss of my grandfather. John’s vision in Revelation 21 and 22 is full of rich details of heaven on earth. There is no rapture up, but instead, God is raptured down to us. The holy city of God comes down to Earth. To the Earth my grandfather called home. And the one who is seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.” John’s vision of new creation is what the people of God have been waiting for, for generations. The prophet Isaiah records God’s promises to Israel in Isaiah 65:17-19:
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
This is a God who keeps their promises. The promise God made to Isaiah is the same promise that God made to John and to the church today. God points to this new creation, not as something God made in 6 days and left to its own devices and not something that God will do someday. Our God is making all things new. That includes today. God did not create this world and call it good, only to walk away until God decided to start over again. God is still making all things new. Even as we mourn the death of a loved one, God is making all things new. As we fight against the cloud of depression that seems never-ending, God is making all things new. As we trudge through the monotony of season of uncertainty, God is making all things new. God will continue to make things new until new creation comes in full.
To what end does God make all things new? So that God may dwell among us. This is a vision of a new Jerusalem that is for all people, where the gates are always open so that all may choose to walk into the holy city. This vision does not include a temple, as the Jews and early Christians had long expected. There is no temple because finally, finally, there will be no barriers between God and humanity. Our hope is not in a place without death and mourning, but in a God whose very presence erases death, erases pain, erases mourning. God herself will wipe the tears from our eyes.
People of God, hear the good news- new creation is on its way. God is making all things new. That includes you. God is doing something new inside you, in the midst of your pain, in the midst of your confusion, and in the midst of your tears. Perhaps you cannot see it yet and it feels as though God could not possibly be doing something new. Not in you, and certainly not in the midst of places in our world seemingly devoid of hope.
When we cannot see all things that God is doing in our midst, we can look for a glimpse of eschatological glory in the creation that is constantly being made new around us. Each year, the changing of the seasons takes me by surprise. No matter how many times I see it, the bright colors of fall stun me each year. Then the long and barren season of winter when it seems that life has gone for good. And once again, the explosion of spring, with flowers and bright green leaves and sunshine spilling over the world again. The beauty of the ever-changing creation gives us a glimpse of God’s hands at work in this world and the world to come. John’s vision of the new heaven continues in the final chapter of Revelation,
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
New creation is our true home. Where the thirsty will drink from the spring of the water of life without cost. Where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. Our true home is not just streets of gold, it is on the banks of a river. It is in the dirt where the tree of life grows. It is in the light of God’s glory. New creation is coming to Earth.
Perhaps on this New Year’s Day, you have resolved to make things new. Making things new, in our own corner of the world, is how we live in between Creation and New Creation. From the time that God created us in God’s own image and gave us every plant and tree that grows upon this earth, to the day that the tree of life is beside the river of the water of life—from creation to new creation—we get to participate in making new creation to come to earth.
On days when new creation feels too far away for you to bear, tend to a garden. In the face of death, ride a horse. In the absence of hope, plant a tree. In the soil, caring new for the living things, be reminded that God’s home will be among us on Earth. There will be a day when death will be no more, for God is making all things new. But until that day, plant a tree. For even if today is the very last day, the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. Plant a tree and together say, Come Lord Jesus.