Visions and Reality

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on April 28, 2013.

I remember an evening many years ago. I had just come to a new parish and a member of the parish had brought together several younger couples in the community, all nominal Episcopalians but non-participating, to meet the new Rector and perhaps be drawn back to the church. So we had a good dinner and then, while a recording of the Messiah played softly in the background, we were led into a discussion of why these particular people were not involved in the Church. There were lots of reasons. One didn’t like the church school, one didn’t like vestments, another was put off by something else. Some went elsewhere because their friends did.

Finally it came round to me to say something. And I had been more and more struck by the contrast between the music and the conversation. We had just reached the Hallelujah chorus; you heard it read this morning: “Hallelujah for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth – King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” The incongruity was just too much: the sublimity of the music and the pettiness of the conversation – and I guess I said so. So nothing came of it; but I still recall that night whenever I hear the Hallelujah chorus – or even the text from Revelation which we heard today.

If ever there were a text to embarrass and silence us, it’s this text: there is the vision of God in all God’s glory and here we are in all our triviality and pettiness. We are in the same position as Job after God had spoken. Job said: “My words have been frivolous: what can I reply? I had better lay my finger on my lips. I have spoken once … I will not speak again.”  On the one hand, the glory of God; on the other, the insignificance of humanity.

Think back; way back: suppose you had been a Christian in the years between 90 AD and 100. I wonder if there’s ever been a harder time for the church. The last one of the disciples who had known the Lord had died or was about to die. The first generation of witnesses was gone. The Messiah had not returned. And persecution had reached such a state that it seemed hardly possible to continue. Besides, the Christian Church itself was increasingly divided between different schools of thought, some teaching one thing and some another. Divided, discouraged, persecuted – how could this be the Messiah’s will?

One Christian who lived at that time, a leader in his church, was sent into exile on a tiny island off the coast of Asia Minor. He no longer had even his faithful congregation to sustain him.  And there, in exile from that tiny, discouraged church, he had a vision: he saw heaven opened and the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, and he heard the thunder of thousands upon thousands of voices singing out, “Alleluia, the Lord God omnipotent reigns.” Looking back, we can tell ourselves how true that vision was. We can, if we want, trace the story of the church from that day to this. We can see how that tiny, persecuted church was reduced to the chosen few and how persecution actually strengthened the church by refining it, eliminating the half-hearted, so that it could in the next two hundred years, growing like leaven in a lump of dough, transform the Roman Empire itself. We can see how it went on from that to become the predominant force in the Western world; how it held civilization together through the dark ages and nourished the fire that would burst into flame in the Renaissance and Reformation. We can see how it spread out from the Middle East across Europe and eventually around the world into every country and culture.

We can say, “Yes, look: who could have imagined a church as beautiful as this with music as beautiful as ours and with such rich traditions and ceremonial. Indeed God does reign, and the vision of John has been vindicated.” We can look back and say, “How wonderful it must have been for that tiny, discouraged church to hear this vision and be encouraged to face up to the persecution knowing that God in God’s own good time would bring the vision to pass.” And that sounds very good until we think about it. From the time this book was written, until the end of persecution was over two hundred years. So I wonder how encouraging that really was. They didn’t know, of course, that it would be “only” two hundred years of persecution. They only knew they were suffering and dying. If we get discouraged about the church today, I wonder how much better we would feel to be told in glowing terms that things will be wonderfully better by the year 2213.

But is the vision just a hope for the future or is it a Gospel for the here and now? I’m sure the author of the Book of Revelation was writing for the here and now. He was writing to his congregation.  He was writing to his friends. He had no idea when the vision would come to pass, but he wanted his friends to know about it because it would help them now. And it is in the Bible for us for the same reason: to help us now. It’s there to remind us of how things really are.

Do you know how things really are? I think we live in a schizophrenic age when it comes to reality. We’re big on science, all in favor of getting the facts. We always want to “come to grips with reality.” But we’re also fond of images and manipulation. We’re good at fooling ourselves. Poll takers have documented the growing distrust and doubt that result from this split personality.  We want to know how things really are, but we are also pretty sure that we don’t know the truth. Nobody knows whether there is an energy crisis or not, whether there’s an oil shortage or not, whether the situation in Afghanistan is hopeless or not. So maybe we’re finally learning that the real world is not the world of the New York Times and television; that’s a world of images, often false images. And we may have realized that we can’t blame the media for being like us, because we don’t necessarily let anyone really see us either as we really are.

Do we really know what our neighbors are like? Do they know what we’re like? Do we know the reality of ourselves? Where does illusion end and reality begin? Have you ever stopped to think that the New York Times is illusion and the Book of Revelation is the reality?  Talk about brain washing!  Somehow we’ve been conned into believing that the front-page sensations of the newspapers – stuff you never heard of before and will never hear of again, that you won’t be able to remember a few months later, or even a few minutes later – we’ve been led to believe that that is reality, and the enduring, eternal, unchanging reality which was the same in the year 100 as it is today – we’ve been led to believe that that is illusion.

You know, sometimes when we hear the news we even say to someone else, “That’s unreal.” But somehow we don’t realize what we’ve said, and how right we are. It is unreal, and the vision of Revelation is an attempt to describe the everlasting realities. That’s what the author wanted his friends to see. But that’s not enough, is it? However real the vision of the new Jerusalem may be, however transitory the events that make news, we don’t generally encounter the new Jerusalem in the Stop and Shop or on Bantam Road. The new Jerusalem doesn’t have much effect on our taxes or the rate of inflation. There’s a gap – and sometimes it seems like a chasm – between the vision of Revelation and the world around us. And the result is that we tend to pay more attention to the world around us – however unreal – than we do to the vision, for all its enduring reality.

But the Bible says something about that too and we need to take the Bible whole, keep it in context. The Bible doesn’t just paint visions, it’s always bringing them down to earth and applying them. Visions have consequences. Look at the lessons provided today. We don’t just read Revelation, we also read the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts and Acts talks about our blindness and the divisions among us and the Gospel of John talks about Jesus being glorified and spells out the consequences: “You must love one another.”  In fact, you know, the Book of Revelation begins with a series of short letters to the churches calling for love and endurance and faithfulness. If you’ve seen a vision of the glory of God you have to do something about it. The Bible makes that clear again and again.

I don’t know why it is but I think we give the visionaries a bad name, and we commend pragmatists and practical people – doers, not seers. And yet, what is the doer doing unless there’s a vision? Where are the pragmatists and the problem solvers and the deciders taking us? And what difference does it make in the long run? I would maintain that it’s those who have a vision who have the endurance and fortitude to get there – and get to a place worth going. I think the history of the church bears that out. And I think it’s those who know God reigns who can see through the persecutions and confusions and doubts of the moment, who can ignore the pettiness of superficial things, to keep their eyes on the things that matter. It’s the visionaries who have seen the new Jerusalem who will never be content with anything less. It’s those who know God reigns whose lives are built on the enduring rock of God’s love and whose lives will give God praise.

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