a sermon on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and John 14: 23-29
preached on May 5, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
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. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
—Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 (NRSV)
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
—John 14:23-29 (NRSV)
For better or worse, I’ve recently taken to “binging” on TV shows via Netflix as part of my weekly routine. It all started a year or so ago with Downton Abbey, an addiction I understand I share with some of you, and it has progressed through a lot of other interesting shows that are notable on both sides of the Atlantic. My most recent find just this past week is a British series called Call the Midwife, a period drama set in a poor neighborhood of East London in the 1950s. It follows a group of nuns and nurses who work for the health of the whole community while giving their closest attention to women of childbearing age in the midst of the baby boom even as new medical practices and procedures begin to take hold in the community. It is an intense series, not for the faint of heart or stomach, as it provides a quite realistic view of the always-difficult circumstances surrounding childbirth while also dealing with the depth of emotion that naturally comes anytime birth and death are involved.
The work of a midwife, so common for millennia and yet so uncommon in our society today, deals with these in-between times: the time between pregnancy and birth, those pivotal moments when the life of mother and child are at greatest risk, the critical minutes when we know that great joy may lie ahead and yet the path to get there is filled with fear and uncertainty. The greatest gift of the midwives on Call the Midwife is not their medical training or ability to work in difficult conditions but rather their gift of calm and comfort as the storm of childbirth swirls. One of the characters, a tall and stocky woman who seems about as comfortable in her own skin as a platypus dining in a fine restaurant and who has been burdened with the unfortunate nickname “Chummy” for most of her life, walks into a bedroom to assist at a birth and summons an amazing calmness and steadiness that is entirely unlike her presence at any other moment. She was clearly born for this work. Her gentle, kind, and simple words to the mothers embody the best work of a midwife—to provide a loving and healing presence even as anxiety swirls and the things that are ahead seem so uncertain.
Our reading this morning from the book of Revelation points us ahead to a different time and place—to a time and place that seems a lot like the romanticized life we imagine after a baby is born, but it skips over the real and present challenges that are involved in getting to that point. In this reading, the midwife has come and gone, a new life has been born, and there is nothing but sheer joy. In John’s vision recounted here, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, is real and whole and complete. There is no need of a temple, because God is present there. God’s own light does away with sun and moon and night, and there is no gate to keep anyone out. Glory and honor stream into this city to bring praise to God. This city is full of new life, for the river of the water of life flows through the middle of it, by the throne of God, to sustain all things forever. The tree of life grows beside the river, with new fruit each month and leaves to bring healing to the nations. All things in our world that harm and hurt will be replaced here with things that build up and give life.
This new Jerusalem looks to be a wonderful and fulfilling place to live and be filled with new life, life grounded in our experiences of the here and now and yet new and different and whole and complete. Yet as much as we may long for it, as much as we certainly hope for it, this holy city, this new way of life, is not yet here. The vision of a new thing may be clear, but the path to get to it is uncertain, filled with potential for pain and suffering. We can see that there is something new before us—we can see a vision of the new creation, a distant view of the city of God, maybe even an outline of a new and different life ahead—but we can’t quite see how to get there from here. The journey is inevitably marked by anxiety and fear because we do not know if we will make it or if the things that we hold most dear will survive to the new day. These are the moments to call a midwife, to look for someone who can speak to us clearly and honestly, someone to give us kind and confident words to show us the way through our uncertainty to new life, someone to help us see that there is something more ahead that might be different from where we have been, someone to guide us through the seemingly uncharted waters as we seek the new life that we know is ahead.
This kind of presence is exactly what Jesus promised us in our reading from the gospel of John this morning. Not only does he promise that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit… will teach [us] everything and remind [us] of all” that he has said to us, he assures us that peace is with us:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
This is just the thing we need to get through uncertain days, just the presence we need to navigate uncharted waters, just the kind of wisdom we need to see the new thing that is ahead, just the sort of thing that a midwife can bring.
My friends, we are at a critical moment in the life of our church—a moment where we need a promise of peace, a vision of something new, and a midwife to get us there. There are challenges swirling everywhere around us, ranging from the practicalities that we are spending a lot of money on a really small group of people to the bigger challenge that our community doesn’t seem to welcome what we are offering—if they even know about it and feel welcome here. Amidst all this, it is tough to imagine something new for us and our world—and even tougher to sort out how we might get there. It is in this moment that Jesus offers us peace, and it is in this moment that we must call a midwife to help us in that journey, to calm our nerves and ease our spirits, to guide us through to the new thing that is being born even now. Something new will happen here, and it is our opportunity to embrace the Spirit’s leading and journey into this new thing now or choose to wait until we have much less choice in and control of the new thing that is ahead.
John Lewis, a student leader in the Civil Rights Movement and now a congressman from Georgia, recently spoke about on his experiences along that way. In the Freedom Rides on buses from Washington, DC, into the deep South that began 52 years ago yesterday, Lewis was the first to be attacked. Alongside so many others, he faced incredible violence and responded with a real hope for peace and nonviolence. In a recent interview, he reflected on the journey and struggle that defined this journey toward justice and a new way of life:
I wanted to believe, and I did believe, that things would get better. But later I discovered, I guess, that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened…
It’s the power to believe that you can see, that you visualize, that sense of community, that sense of family, that sense of one house…
And you live that you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there.
So as we wait and work and pray in these in-between times, as we make our way through these final Easter days and sort out what the resurrection means in the everyday, as we discern where God is calling us to move and go as a congregation, as we look for a vision of something new, may God guide us in all that we do, and may the midwife of the Holy Spirt move among us to help us through all our fear and uncertainty as we journey toward the new thing that is already done and join in offering our best to help make it real here and now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.