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Beyond Chronos Beyond Chronos

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Jeanne Gay · 11 years, 5 months ago

Beyond Chronos

Sermon preached by Jeanne Gay

May 13, 2007        Summit Presbyterian Church

John 5:1-9      Revelation 21:10-22:5

I’ve seen some of you this week, and you’ve wanted to know all about my trip to Tunisia, but since I had lost my voice, I couldn’t say much. But now I can tell you that it was an amazing trip. Flowers and palm trees and white-colored houses under a blue, blue sky, with the Mediterranean just down the way. We visited the ruins of a couple of ancient cities—one called Dougga and Carthage, itself—and they’re open to be touched, climbed on, whatever. My niece and nephew had a great time leaping from seat to seat in Dougga’s amphitheatre and climbing to the top of broken columns in Carthage.

The languages in the country are French and Arabic, and the country’s Western enough to seem familiar but then tantalizingly other. I noticed that the men tend to dress much more formally than Americans tend to, almost never appearing without a suit coat. Twice I even saw men in suit coats riding donkeys!

There are police at almost every intersection, reminding us that Tunisia, although it has a democratically elected president (now in his fourth term), is essentially a police state. Officially it is an Islamic country, though fundamentalists are strictly forbidden. No burkhas or similar head-to-toe coverings for women are allowed, and I’m pretty sure I heard that men are forbidden to grow beards.

But the Jews and Christians have mostly left the country—as far as I could tell there are only two churches, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican. It was an odd feeling, but I found myself missing the familiar sight of churches and crosses—it was a lonely feeling.

And perhaps that is why, when I started reviewing the lectionary texts for today, the sixth Sunday of the Easter season, I was struck by the second verse of this selection from Revelation: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”

The Book of Revelation. Did you know that this is the only time in the year when the lectionary focuses on this book? I know preachers who have gone years—decades even—without dealing with this book; it’s tempting to skip because of its association with Left Behind kinds of end-times theologies. We’ve all heard the predictions that all of the signs of the Second Coming are being fulfilled and that the end of the world will happen on … you fill in the date.

When will it happen? That’s the first question that comes to mind when we look at a text like this one. When will the New Jerusalem arrive?

Of course, we’re Westerners, and Westerners have long “believed in” time—linear time—chronos. Time is real, time can be measured, time can be divided between past, present and future. In English we codify time in verb tenses: had happened, had been happening, happened, was happening, has happened, has been happening, happens, is happening, will happen, will be happening, will have happened, will have been happening. All of them have specific meanings, and it’s important to us when we hear a sentence to know when.

But imagine a language, like many of the Asian languages, that have no tenses. For the Chinese, time is something that may be important but isn’t necessarily, and one can always add a yesterday or tomorrow to a sentence if it is.

Imagine a world view, like that of the Native Americans, in which not chronology but geography is important. The question is not when the Kingdom of God will come but where.

The question of when about the New Jerusalem is, I think, not the right question. It is outside of chronos, in God’s time, kairos—that intersection with eternity that is both now and not now.

If not when, then, let’s look at what the New Jerusalem is as described in this passage. It’s a city lit by the glory of God, a city with no night, a city with no gates that need to be closed against the fearsomeness outside. A city in which we see God’s face. A city containing the river of the water of life and the tree of life. Do you notice some Eden imagery here? It’s Paradise. But this time it’s a city rather than a garden—not the romanticized simplicity of two individuals but the complexity of community.

And who is there in the New Jerusalem? We know that nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor to it. It’s interesting to know the Greek word that’s translated splendor here—it’s doxa, the same word that gives us “doxology”—glory, glory, glory! This is not the splendor of jewels and precious metals—or of neon lights and glistening Cadillacs—this is the same splendor as God’s splendor, God’s glory—true magnificence.

Who else is there? No one who is shameful or deceitful—no one who shames his neighbors or deceives the people, but only those whose names are written in the book of life. The book of life. Now I suppose you could argue that this is a fore-ordained list, one full of the names of people who are predestined to be God’s chosen—and there are some strict Calvinists who might well argue that. But I see the book of life as being the listing of those whose lives are about living, about giving life and improving lives, about being present in the lives of their people … about fighting for better lives for the disenfranchised and downtrodden … about celebrating the lives of their grandchildren and of the children down the street and the children across town and the children on the other side of the world … people who live the life God gives them, and live it to its fullest. The Book of Life!

These are the folks who are the servants serving God in the New Jerusalem, the ones who see God’s face and have God’s name shining out of their faces.

Okay, we’ve been through when, what and who. That leaves where, how and why, doesn’t it? I think the answer to where is almost the same as the answer to when: here and not here. John tells us that he was carried away “in the spirit” – which was as good for that day as unfocused camera shots are in today’s media at telling us that this is a dream, a vision. And he saw the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

It’s from God, but it’s not entirely of God, for it’s filled with people. And I think that brings us at least part-way to the answer to the question how: We have a part in the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God.

Remember our other scripture reading this morning, about the man by the pool hoping to be healed by being the first into its waters when they bubbled and stirred? And he’d been there 38 years? 38 years – almost the 40 that always means “a long time” in the Bible – so long that the days and nights must have melded into each other so that time no longer marched in a precise, chronos way but ebbed and flowed … and Christ stepped into a kairos moment and healed him.

Now this healing is one of the signs in John’s gospel of Jesus’ divinity, and Jesus did heal him, but this morning I’m thinking about something else in this story. I haven’t had anyone to carry me down so I can be first in the water, the man told Jesus. For 38 years he hadn’t had anyone to put him in the water for healing. The “system” had been letting him down, for 38 years. There was no one whose name was listed in the book of life who reached out to him to care for him.

The New Jerusalem. In Revelation John says he saw it coming down from heaven, and he says that God and the Lamb are there in the city. But they are not alone. Their servants, whose faces shine with God’s name, are there. The kings bringing their doxa are there. The people whose names are listed in the book of life are there.

That’s the how of the New Jerusalem. It’s not just God zapping it down from heaven, but it’s also us participating in it, both now … and not now.

And that leaves just one more question: Why? The answer is unfathomable, and it’s also something we all know: For God so loved the world.

The New Jerusalem. The Holy City. Now and not now. Here and not here. And sometimes in places we least expect it. Remember my telling you that I was hard pressed to find crosses and churches in Tunisia? That’s true, but there was another sign of God’s kingdom—one we talked about on Easter Sunday—one that is ignored and trampled and cut down and paved over—and this one I saw all over Tunisia. Yup. Dandelions. Growing out of the 1500-year-old ruins of Roman cities, blooming amongst the litter on the side of the road, lifting their sunny yellow faces on a hillside by the sea. The New Jerusalem—the Kingdom of God—it’s here and not here, now and not now, when and where we least expect it.

Thanks be to God.


copyright Jeanne Gay 2007

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