[1996–4] The Healing of the Nations

Revelation 21:22–22:5

Salem Mennonite Church, Freeman, SD—Ted Grimsrud—5/19/96

In the final months of World War II, the German army was filled with despair in the face of sure defeat.  The future was unsure, both for the German nation as a whole and certainly for the individual soldiers.  One of these soldiers, still in his late teens, was captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp.  For awhile he seriously considered ending his own life.  He was without hope.  He would be on the losing side of the most destructive war humankind had ever seen.  He could see no future—at least no future worth living.

However, in the depths of his despair, this young soldier discovered something.  He discovered the Old Testament prophets, who wept after the fall of the ancient Israelite state.  They knew despair.  He discovered Jesus, who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  Jesus knew despair.  However, above all, the young German soldier discovered a God who did not abandon those whom he loves.  He realized that God was with him in his despair, that God could reach down even to the hopelessness of a prisoner-of-war camp and touch his heart.

Out of this discovery, this young German did experience a sense of hope.  He realized that just as God gave the ancient Israelites a future even after the destruction visited upon them by the Babylonians, just as God gave Jesus a future even after his crucifixion, so God was ready to give him a future.  With the end of the War, the soldier was released.  He returned home to Germany, and took part in the struggles of that nation to reconstruct itself.  He returned to school, and with his renewed Christian faith pulling him forward, he studied theology and became a professor.

Then in the 1960s, this German theologian wrote what proved to be a widely discussed book.  It was called Theology of Hope.  This book came directly out of his own discovery of hope in the midst of his despair in the prisoner-of-war camp.  He wrote that Christian hope has become an especially crucial, and difficult, virtue in the twentieth-century.  The twentieth-century has been characterized by war after war, killing untold millions of people.  The twentieth-century has seen man’s inhumanity to man on a scale never before even imagined—the Nazis exterminating six million Jews, Stalin’s Soviet Union starving and exterminating millions of their own country people.  It is now thinkable that we human beings could end life as we know it on the earth.

Where is hope in the face of such violence, hatred, and destruction?  This theologian, whose name is Jürgen Moltmann, proclaimed a message of hope, though.  His hope is based on his own experience of God and on his understanding of God’s promises in the Bible to human beings.

In a recent interview Moltmann was asked what he is proudest about in his life and work. “I am not sure I want to use the word proudest, ” he replied.  “But I do know what pleases me most, and what gives me the greatest satisfaction.  It is not my work.  I am most pleased that I came out of the abyss of war and prison camps as a Christian.  I am pleased that even in the face of such things I moved from despair and anxiety to faith.  For that, I am extremely grateful.  It was not my own achievement.  But I was turned around and reborn to a living hope in an age of hopelessness and fear.  It was an experience to which I owe my life.”

Moltmann has continued to write theology books—books filed with hope.  He has gained a world-wide reputation as one of the greatest theologians of our age.  However, I like what he said in response to the question of how he would like to remembered.  “As I always say to my doctoral students, I want to be remembered not as a teacher, but as a friend.”…

Hope.  This is indeed a challenge in our day and age.  Probably it always has been.  There certainly have always been wars and rumors of wars.  Wihtout a doubt, though, hope is a challenge for us today.  It would be nice if, as Garrison Keillor promises on Prairie Home Companion, we could just eat some Powder Milk Biscuits and find the energy to get up and do what has to be done.  But we need more than biscuits.  We need hope.…

I remember back five or six years ago, I was riding my bike between our church and home, and I had a strong sense of hopefulness kind of wash over me that I had not felt for a long time, if ever.  I was thinking about the so-called end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The minute hand on the clock symbolizing how close we are to nuclear war had been moved back further than it had for decades.

I think I did not really realize until then how much growing up under the shadow of the threat of nuclear war had actually affected me.  I didn’t think about it that much, but it was a nagging anxiety in the back of my mind that we could all be blown up any time.  On that bike ride, that nagging anxiety seemed to slip away.  Things felt safer to me.  The feeling that I had was, yes, I can count on a future.  I can think about long-term projects.  I can think of having grandkids.

Now I hadn’t dwelt on the threat of nuclear war consciously all that much.  I hadn’t been aware of feelings of fear and dread.  But my attitude toward the future was affected by the nuclear threat.  My feelings on that bike ride made that more apparent to me.  People in my generation and younger have grown up with this nuclear shadow hanging over us.  We know that the world can be destroyed.

The crumbling of the iron curtain does reduce our fear somewhat.  It makes it less likely that a massive nuclear war will happen.  However, we still must live with the knowledge that the future of the planet is far from secure.  Nuclear weapons still exist.  We had our war with Iraq, and who know what else will come.  And now we know of many other threats—the greenhouse effect, acid rain, AIDs, pollution of the oceans, and on and on.

What does it mean for us to have hope in the future?  I think the feelings of hopefulness I felt on my bike ride were nice, but not really all that well-founded.  The cold war could return, nukes are still here, many other global hot-spots continue to cause fear and certainly new ones will arise.  War is always possible.  I don’t think a hope based simply on world politics will sustain us very long.  But we need hope.  To be creative, growing, caring people we must have some kind of hope, some kind of sense that we are living toward something, that we do have a future worth devoting ourselves to.

As Christians, we have a basis for hope which is much more substantial, much more secure, than Powder Milk Biscuits or world politics.  That is why I love the Book of Revelation.  It helps us better understand our hope based on the work of Jesus Christ, our hope based on the promise of God.

Revelation is helpful because the first readers of the book also faced challenges to remaining hopeful.  There challenges weren’t really all that different from ours.  They basically faced two different kinds of challenges.

The first challenge was for those who were facing hard times in their lives.  Several of the churches the prophet John wrote to were experiencing intense persecution.  They were poor.  Their churches were small.  They faced the temptation to despair—they seemed so powerless, the people persecuting them seemed so almighty.  Their danger was to give in, to worship the emperor, to turn from the ways of Jesus.  Or, perhaps the other danger would be to simply give up, committing spiritual suicide (if not literal suicide).

It is always a temptation to give up all hope in the face of hard times.  A friend of a friend of mine back in Oregon took his own life almost exactly a year ago.  He simply ran out of hope.  I just heard from my friend the other day.  He still feels intense grief and bewilderment.  A folk song, called “Sweet Old World,” is about the singer’s brother’s suicide.  The song asks, “Didn’t you think you were worth anything?…Didn’t you think anyone loved you?”

The message of the Book of Revelation, like the rest of the Bible, is that indeed someone does love us—our creator, the one who affirms that we are worth something.  Revelation tells us that we are worth so much that Jesus came to share life with us and even to die for us.  And God raised Jesus from the dead, the triumph of the Lamb.  That is the basis of our hope and even hard times can not separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.…

The second type of challenge faced by the readers of Revelation was for those who were facing easy times in their lives.  These people struggled to find genuine hopefulness because they were tempted to allow themselves to be cut off from a living faith in God.  They were tempted to believe that the things of this world (money, prestige, possessions) provided them with meaning and security.  They trusted more in their own achievements than in God.  They didn’t have an abiding hope because they saw no need for one.

The Apostle Paul wrote that hope had to do with trust in things not seen (God’s persevering love, God’s unquenchable mercy, God’s promise to heal all things).  “In hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes in what is seen”? (Rom 8:24).  When we see what we value most—our material possessions, our fancy structures—who needs hope?

The loss of hope born out of wealth and comfort is as much of a danger now as it was when John wrote words of challenge to the church at Laodicea:  “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that [spiritually] you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17).  When we are spiritually wretched, we will not have much genuine hope…

The Book of Revelation challenges us to grow in Christian hope.  The Book of Revelation challenges us to grow in a hope which will sustain us through hard times.  The Book of Revelation challenges us to grow in a hope which will confront us when we become too comfortable.  The Book of Revelation challenges us to grow in a hope which pulls us forward, living as creative children of God.

Christian hope, according to Revelation, rests on two foundation stones, both of which are essential.  The first stone is what God has already done to bring salvation—in particular, the work of Jesus Christ, the lamb who was slain and who lives again.  The second stone is God’s promise for the sure future of healing and transformation which is coming.  The two foundation stones—God’s past work and God’s promise for the future.

From near the very beginning of the Bible, the calling of Abraham to be a light to the nations, God has promised to heal the brokenness of his creation.  God has promised to bring wholeness.  That promise is stated the most clearly at the very end of the Bible, the last two chapters of Revelation.  The angel tells John that God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4).  Then John sees a vision of the promised city of healing and wholeness, the New Jerusalem.

“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 12 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.  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” (22:1-5).

The promise to Abraham was that his descendents would be a light to the nations, leading to healing and salvation.  This promise is finally fully fulfilled in the New Jerusalem.  The nations are healed.  People actually see God face to face.  The Lord God himself becomes their light.

The two foundation stones of hope—God’s past acts of salvation and God’s promise—go together.  We may believe God’s promise because of what God has already done.  The true victory of God, the true battle with and defeat of the powers of evil—these are past events.  Jesus has already conquered death.

Our hope as Christians is based on what Jesus already did.  The way to live in hope is, as John writes, “to follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”  If we trust that Jesus reveals God, if we trust that God did not abandon Jesus in his death but through the resurrection vindicated Jesus’ way as God’s way, then it follows that we can trust that God will not abandon us but will vindicate us also as we share in Jesus’ way.

The hope that the Book of Revelation calls for, the hope that is so needed in this century of despair—this hope is possible for Christians.  This hope is at the core of our faith.  God has acted in Jesus to bring about salvation for all who trust in him—salvation which enlivens us right now to live faithfully, salvation which will in the end lead to the complete healing of God’s hurting creation.

Such hope will bear fruit.  Such hope will help us through hard times and challenge us during easy times.  A hopeful person realizes that God is the one in charge of how history turns out.  A hopeful person does not feel burdened down with the need to strive and control and push and pull.  A hopeful person does not feel burdened down with the need to make sure that the right side wins.  God has already won.  We don’t need to win God’s victories.  We simply need to live in light of Jesus’ way—and trust God to complete the work of salvation.

When we live with hope, trusting in God working out his will in his own way, with our cooperation for sure, but not with us being in control, we will be able to be more responsive and flexible.  We will be able to pay more attention to people than to projects.  We will be able to respond to the unexpected.

We will not feel the need to achieve and achieve, gather and gather, hoard and protect.  We will be more content.  Our identity will not be based on looking better than others, on being more impressive, on being stronger.  Our identity will be based on God’s acceptance of us and God’s promise to see us through.

Because God’s love perseveres, we can believe that as we trust in God we will be able to grow into the kind of people whose love also perseveres.  God’s promise which concludes the Bible is that the New Jerusalem will come.  This is where all of us who trust in Jesus as our savior belong.  And the New Jerusalem is breaking into our world right now.  As we follow the Lamb wherever he goes, here and now, we will find ourselves becoming more and more the kind of people who feel at home with God and in God’s city.  And we will live more and more with the strong hope that God’s promises are being fulfilled.

[Let’s pray: We are grateful to you, dear God, for all the ways you show us your love, and how you promise us that your love will never end and can never be defeated.  We thank you especially for how you have, and do, and will, show us your love in Jesus, the triumphant Lamb.  Thank you for the creative ways that the Book of Revelation assures us of your ongoing care and victory.  Help us to live in light of your mercy, so that we might do our part in the healing of the nations, to your glory.]

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