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09.18.16 Hope: It’s About Time Revelation 21-22 Sermon Summary

by on September 19, 2016

The experience of losing hope is a painful one. It’s also the path to the true hope of heaven.

Summary Points

  • The “Dark Night of Sense”
  • How lost hope leads to truer hope
  • The false hope of escape
  • The truer hope of presence
  • Psalm 126 as the summary of biblical hope
  • How worship gives us our hope
  • What a “new heaven and a new earth” mean

St. John of the Cross was a 14th century mystic who introduced to us the language of the “dark night” (no, not Batman). Contemporary spiritual literature has popularized the phrase “dark night of the soul,” but John of the Cross actually wrote about two aspects of the dark night. What most contemporary writers are actually referring to is the “dark night of sense.”

The dark night of sense refers to the experience that God is no longer responsive to prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Whereas such activities normally intensify one’s feelings of God’s presence and activity, during the dark night of sense, God feels more distant.

Our first impulse during the dark night of sense is to try harder. Increase our prayers, change our methods, study more, or go on a retreat. When even these fail, as they will during the dark night, it’s easy to lose hope.

Losing hope always feels bad. Hope is the fuel that moves us; it is our motivation for the future. Hope helps us to endure the present when it is challenging. And it is the path out of a painful past. When we lose hope, it feels bad.

But it isn’t always bad. The dark night is designed to deepen our love for God, to make it more sincere. It invites us to love God for God’s sake, not just for God’s benefits. If the dark night is fruitful in our lives, the hope we lose is replaced by a truer, deeper hope.

In Keeping Hope Alive Lewis Smedes identifies a number of false hopes from which we are liberated as we grow in faith and hope in God, our truest hope. One of those false hopes is the hope of escape. Hoping for escape is the natural response to a challenging present, and thus it has been the popular belief of religious people. It actually goes all the way back to Plato and the Greek philosophical dualism of soul versus body. The Greeks taught that the soul is immortal and good. It is trapped in a material body which is temporary and bad.

The Christian church incorporated this philosophy to varying degrees and began to distinguish between this life and the eternal afterlife. We also started contrasting life on earth to life in heaven. Given these dualistic assumptions, our hope got assigned to a location, namely heaven, to which we would escape from this earthly life someday.

The mystics like John of the Cross preserved a minority report, and thankfully their perspective is becoming more mainstream today. The mystics taught that our hope is not in escaping the earth, but in waiting for a person. Christian hope is like what an engaged couple experiences as they anticipate their wedding day. Then, they will start a new life together while not forgetting their individual lives to that point.

Just so, Christians hope for a person: God revealed in Jesus Christ. Now the person for whom we’re waiting isn’t present, of course. That’s the nature of waiting and hope. “Who hopes for what already is?” Paul asks in Romans 8. But Jesus isn’t fully absent either. And this is why Christian hope in God is the truest hope there is. God isn’t fully present now, but he isn’t fully absent either. Our truest hope is for God’s fullest presence.

Our hope would be false if we imagined Jesus, if we made him up in order to have hope. The Bible calls that kind of false hope “idolatry,” and it generates the kinds of behaviors that are condemned in vice lists. In our passage, the lists include such behaviors as sorcery, fornication, murder, lying, etc. All these behaviors result from idolatry—promoting something other than God as God and investing our hope into it.

By contrast, Jesus isn’t an idol. He’s not a figment of our imagination or an idealistic invention. He is a gift from God, a message of the divine, a Word proclaimed, a promise made, a testimony for the churches, a love note from our betrothed reminding us of our upcoming wedding day.

In a short six verses, Psalm 126 summarizes the biblical teaching on hope. It was written following the Exile when the Babylonians deported prominent citizens. After 70 years, when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, the exiles were allowed to return home. Psalm 126 begins by remembering God’s deliverance: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” And it praises God: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

But by verse four, the Psalm acknowledges that the restoration wasn’t complete. The deliverance wasn’t total: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD.”

So it resumes with a prayer: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Finally it concludes with a more defiant and definite statement of faith and hope: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

Psalm 126 begins with the hope of deliverance, with the hope of escape from the Exile. But once realized, it discovers that escape doesn’t satisfy. If not a false hope, their escape was an incomplete hope. The truer hope returns to the LORD.

The deliverance was cause for rejoicing, like a harvest ending the farming season. But another season follows. Our true hope is not in the harvest. It isn’t in the deliverance or in the escape, but in the LORD of the harvest. The harvest is simply a reminder.

This is why testimony is so important. We remember God’s faithfulness in order to deepen hope. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the past is preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the present comes to us through the community of faith.

And this is why worship is so important. Some weeks you may feel you don’t “get anything” out of worship. I’m sure that’s true more often than I wish. But every worship service is a deposit into the bank of memory and faith. And when we need hope, we draw it from that account.

In worship through baptism, we remember the waters of life of which Jesus spoke. He proclaimed that the Spirit and the bride (and the bride is the church, by the way) say to the thirsty, “Come.” He encourages, “Let all who wish, take the water as a gift.” He assures, “To those who are thirsty, I give the water of life.”

In worship through the Lord’s Supper, we remember the bread of life which Jesus claimed to be. He said, “I am the bread of heaven.” And he promised, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (see John 6)

In worship we remember that God is present—in this world, in this life—through things like water and bread and harvests and stars. We don’t have to wait for “heaven” to encounter God. God isn’t just waiting for us in some existence we have after death. “Heaven” isn’t the place to which we escape from earth. We actually deny ourselves the truer hope of heaven with such an escapist view of heaven and earth.

This is why Revelation speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.” It’s because our vision of heaven and earth gets distorted by our dualist thinking. Revelation’s visions are not disposals of heaven and earth, but corrections of our conceptions of them.

Revelation invites those of us with faith to rejoice in God’s presence in this heaven and earth, like those delivered from the Exile in Psalm 126. And we can likewise be honest about God’s absence, which is really just the experience of suffering in God’s presence. Our hope is the presence of God without suffering. That’s what Revelation envisions.

And that is the nature of our truest hope. It isn’t in a location, but in a time. Our hope is in the time when we will experience a fuller measure of God’s presence, in the new heaven and the new earth, where death is no more, where mourning and crying and pain are no more, and where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

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