New Beginnings: In The End
Scripture: Romans 8:18–8:25, Revelation 21:1–21:17
How many times have you said something like, “In the End, it will all be worth it.”? Or, “We’ll be so thankful we did this In the End.” Or even, “In the End, it doesn’t even matter.” We have a tendency to look to the end of something for a whole host of reasons. While the mantra of “the end justifies the means” is problematic as an encompassing life philosophy, all of us have a firm awareness of how significant an ending can be. There are times, even whole chapters of our lives when we fix our eyes on a goal and work toward that end despite the labor it requires. Those covered in drywall dust and surrounded by the scattered tools and supplies needed to renovate or remodel a home will say it will all be worth it when the work is done and the project is finished. We might endure the all-too-familiar sounds of bickering kids in the backseat and seemingly endless expanse of highways roads just so we can make it to that vacation destination that we’ve been thinking about for weeks. The trip might have its brutal moments but, In the End, it will all be worth it, we say. And sometimes, we use the end as a sort of balm to rid us of our frustrations and remind us that there are better, even more important, things ahead. Maybe with those occasional irritating encounters, we have with another person or those inevitable moments where we make a mistake and need to start over or even when we’ve burnt that batch of chocolate chip cookies we were so excited about. In the End, it doesn’t matter. We’ll move on. And we say that because the end means a time removed from the now, often a time that is free of the stress or frustration we’re handling at the moment.
Whether it’s wanting to know what happens at the end of a movie, skipping to the last few pages of a book, or starting a conversation with a phrase like “let’s cut to the chase”, all of us have a fascination with endings. And that even includes our faith. As long as people have followed Jesus, we have wondered about what things will be like In the End. In the last few decades, that’s especially been true. Christ-followers of virtually every variation and persuasion in recent years have likely looked into the end times or, at the very least, heard it mentioned in some church context. The popular fictional book series, Left Behind, captivated its readers with a fictional imagining of what it could look like if the events from the pages of the book of Revelation happened in real life. Again, I need to emphasize here: that the Left Behind series, entertaining as it may be, is fictional. I say that with some personal conviction because in my first few years as a Christ-follower, I was obsessed with end times stuff and the book of Revelation. In fact, and I think I’ve shared this before, Revelation was the first full book of Scripture I ever read from start to finish. I would not recommend that to newcomers to the faith, by the way.
This morning, we are finishing our New Beginnings message series and it might seem kind of weird that in a series about beginnings that we’re talking about endings. But, as we’ve seen the last two weeks, endings don’t always mean the same thing to God as they do to us. Lazarus’ life might have ended but it also had a new beginning. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones being restored to a mighty army offers an amazing example of how we, as the people of God, can never say or think that God is done with us. And what is true for individuals, like Lazarus, and what is true for God’s people, is also ultimately true for this wide and wonderful world where we live. Because even when we go to the very end of Scripture, to the book of Revelation, we find that In the End, God is still all about New Beginnings. Let’s look at Revelation 21:1-7.
This is it. In our text we come to not only the end of the collected Scriptures, but we come to find what will take place In the End of it all. And there is a lot for us to notice here but understanding the context of this passage is supercritical. It’s one thing to take Scripture out of context. It happens all the time. Anytime someone has quoted “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” and then tries to do something like lift a car. That sort of thing is as silly and it is off base. But the book of Revelation has been the victim of extensive, widespread, and, unfortunately, too often than not abusive misinterpretation.
So, let’s start with the basics. John, the apostle and disciple of Jesus, is the author of Revelation. This is the John who we hear was fishing with his father and brother when Jesus called out to him and his brother. One of the first followers of Jesus. Years after Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, John is on an island called Patmos. There he receives a vision from God. That vision contains many, many things. From messages to specific churches to images of the apocalypse. There are angels, trumpets, scrolls, beasts, and battles. When you read the book of Revelation, it becomes easy to see why it draws so much attention. But what we see described In the End in chapter 21 is a part of that vision.
After the battles have finished and the enemy defeated, John is given a vision of something brand new. John is given witness to a new heaven and a new earth. A world without the chaos that so casually exists in this one. Also missing in this new world is the definable separation between God’s dwelling place and the fabric of this world. The presence of the Almighty is near and felt in everything and everywhere, like the air we breathe this very moment. God’s presence is intimate, palpable, and perfect in John’s vision. Death and crying and pain are gone, no longer holding any existence or purpose. The Lord offers life to all who are present like water that gushes from an endless spring. The world is reshaped. The people are redeemed. And it is all resplendent. In the End, our God fosters the final and most stunning New Beginning.
Our blessing and struggle are to determine what we are supposed to do with and in response to this breathtaking vision. There have been those who have become almost lost in wondering and yearning for what is to come in the next life. There have been followers of Christ that had become so enraptured with the prophetic heavenly promise that they essentially vacated all the presence and calling our God had created them for. Getting “lost in the clouds” doesn’t only apply to kids who daydream during class but could be said of anyone who spends all their thought on a time beyond this world. I don’t believe that’s the right response to the vision God gives John at the end of Revelation.
Jesus absolutely spoke about the afterlife and what is to come beyond this world. But the messages our Savior offered on those subjects were also always in proximity to or connected to our lives here and now. Jesus did not foster this sort of separation or dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. It is a both/and, not an either/or. One my theology professors in college, Dr. Chris Hall, always talked about the kingdom of God as being already but not yet on Earth. That means that we can marvel at and rejoice in the presence and miraculous power of God that we see in the world around us but also that the fullness of the Lord’s kingdom was and is always imminently approaching and that we have a calling and part to play in that through our own faithful loving of God and neighbor. To ignore what we can do to show and share Jesus here and now so we can dream of what the next life might be like would be to ignore our identity as the followers of Jesus.
But the opposite extreme has also plagued parts of the church. A messaging that says we should ignore heaven and the next life altogether. That what happens In the End really doesn’t matter in the here and now and so it is, to a degree, pointless. I also believe that line of thinking is off. I love the way C.S. Lewis considers this. He says, “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Lewis then offers this awesome caution: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in aim at earth and you get neither.”
So that is the balance we must strike as followers of Jesus here and now. As members of this community of Bloomington-Normal and as a part of this family of faith here at First Pres. As we finish off this series on New Beginnings, we can absolutely look forward to the life after this one. The promise of eternal life that Christ made possible and the vision revealed to John offer us an astounding assurance in the faithfulness and goodness of God. But we also can be encouraged to remember that the very God who fosters heavenly hope has likewise called us to participate in bringing that hope here. So, as the followers of Jesus, you can see we are given both promise and purpose when it comes to what happens In the End.