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A New Heaven and A New Earth

Date: 09/08/2015/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

Micah 4:1-5, Revelations 21
(National Day 9 August 2015)

Happy National Day! I want to start with a off tangent comment first before going into my prepared sermon. While we celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee and our nationalistic fervour whipped into heights like never before, I would like to caution against the flip side of nationalism – xenophobia. While I was in school, we were always reminded of how great our school was – and it was always in comparison to the “other” schools. Pride in our alma mater meant that we need to disparage, dislike, and even pour scorn on other schools. I always disliked that. I am proud of what my school has taught me, shaped me, and moulded me. But pride doesn’t mean i have to despise other schools.

Just like being in love with someone – be it our romantic partners or our families – our love for them isn’t diminished when we show respect towards others. Our love isn’t increased when we pour scorn on others. It is only folks who are insecure who need to put others down so they can show they are proud of where they come from, or who they love.

I dislike the word true blue Singaporeans. What on earth do they mean? Am I only true blue when I have a pink IC? Am I only true blue when I am born here? Am I true blue when I have lived all my life here? How many generations must be here before a family can be true blue?

As we celebrate, let us guard against xenophobia. Our love for our country isn’t diminished when we are embracing of others who are not Singaporeans.

This whole year, we celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee or what we see everywhere – on products, on posters, on TV, on Facebook – SG50, i wondered – how do we see this from God’s perspective?

This week’s chapter in our continuing book study is titled The Spirit of Hope, and Brian McLaren writes about the Book of Revelations. In my previous sermon, I said one thing that unifies the many different
books in the Bible is the fact that they were written by oppressed people in a time of oppression. I talked a little bit about Genesis the last time, and today, it is fitting to touch on the last book of
the Bible, Revelations.

When I was younger (much, much younger), I, like many other people, saw Revelations as a coded “history of the future,” and tried to figure out and “decode” what Revelations was saying. I thought about
when the world may end, when judgement will come. Like many people in the 80s, we thought the world will end when the millennium ended, that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the anti-Christ, and just about every natural disaster was a sign that the end was nigh. Of course, I don’t hold the same beliefs anymore. Like Brian McLaren, I have left behind the “roadmap of the future” way of reading
Revelations.

Yes, Revelations was a “coded” book. But we need to look at the context when it was written – it was written when the Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. The author, John of Patmos – not to be
confused with John the beloved disciple to which the fourth gospel is attributed to – was writing “literature of the oppressed.” As McLaren puts it – “the Book of Revelation provided early disciples with a clever way of giving voice to the truth – when freedom of speech was dangerous in one way, and remaining silent was dangerous in another.

Instead of saying, “The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,” which would get them arrested, Revelation tells of a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is
defeated. Instead about saying, “The religious establishment is corrupt,” it tells a story of a whore. Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that
collapsed in failure.”

There are dangers in reading the book today as a fixed plan of the future. Revelations was used, and continues to be used to vilify people and label them as the enemy. That was, as Elaine Pagels
suggests in her book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in The Book of Revelations, how this book that was written against the Roman Empire manage to be included in the Canon. “The Egyptian bishop
Athanasius was the first, so far as we know, to place the Book of Revelation in his version of the New Testament canon, when he saw how to use it as a weapon – not against Rome and its rulers but against
other Christians whom he called heretics.”

I think that God is trying to speak to us. God is trying to tell us of what should be – a roadmap of a different sort. It points us towards God’s will.

McLaren writes :

“Rather than giving its original readers and hearers a coded blueprint of the future, Revelation gave them visionary insight into their present situation. It told them that the story of God’s work in
history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t waiting passively for a future that had already been
determined. Faithfulness means participating with God in God’s unfolding story. God wasn’t a distant, terrifying monster waiting for vengeance at the end of the universe. God was descending among us here
and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.”

What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. That’s why
Revelation ends with the sound of a single word echoing through the universe. That word is not Wait! Nor is it Not Yet! or Someday! It is a word of invitation, welcome, reception, hospitality, and
possibility. It is a word not of ending, but of new beginning. That one word is Come! The Spirit says it to us. We echo it back. Together with the Spirit, we say it to everyone who is willing. Come!

So as I thought about our Jubilee i wondered about what is God trying to tell us about who we are to be as a Nation.

In Judaism and Christianity, the concept of the Jubilee is a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon. In the Biblical Book of Leviticus, a Jubilee year is mentioned to occur every fiftieth year, in which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.

Leviticus 25:8-13 states,

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of
the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. In the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession.

This, oddly enough, isn’t practiced today. Not by Christians. Not by Jews. Not by anyone. Some argue that this laws was only applicable to the Twelve Tribes back then.

I think this is as applicable to us as it was to the Twelve Tribes. Many miracles Jesus performed required the participation of the people – the feeding of the five thousand required the five loaves and two fishes the child brought, the healing of the man by the pool in Bethesda require the man to trust and have the faith to stand up on his own, take up his mat and walk. God’s new heaven and new earth requires our participation.

We do not want to hear what we do not want to hear. I think this is about God’s intended economy and not the market economy – nobody can accumulate wealth over generations if every fifty years debts are
forgiven and the land returned to the original owners. This is like a reset button – nobody can build up an insurmountable head start in such an economy. People would not be gaming the system so that their
descendants would be ahead. The inequalities that exist today have arisen from accumulated wealth and power over generations.

But would those who are privileged – those who benefit from the accumulation of wealth and power from their ancestors – be willing to give them up? No wonder now we say the year of the Jubilee only applies to the Twelve Tribes in ancient times.

Before you start thinking “Miak is a liberal socialist leftist,” I would tell you this isn’t something I come up with from thin air. I learned from the best – Jesus himself. Even the prayer we are taught
to pray by Jesus – the one that every Christian recites – the Lord’s prayer – we say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Are we able to imagine a new economy that is not all about us, not an economy of hoarding but an economy of generosity, an economy of sharing?

When the Israelites were brought out from Egypt, they fed on manna that God provided. They had enough. They were told to collect a measure (an omer) of the manna for each person in the household. Those who collected more saw the excess bred worms and became foul, those who collected less had no shortage (Exodus 16:18-20). God provided enough. Today, what is it that we are hoarding? When we hoard, is it
our hearts that fester and turn foul?

There are many visions in the Bible about how the last days are like. And what is important, is often repeated. This is from Micah 4:1-5, but these verses also appear in Isaiah 2.

Micah 4:1-5

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.
2 Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
4 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.

It is interesting that embedded in this passage the idea of interfaith interaction. “All people will walk every one in the name of their god – and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God.”

In those days, the people believed that their gods resided in the mountains. And Yahweh – the god of the Israelites – will reside in the highest as the first amongst many gods.

May we respond to God’s invitation to Come! and participate as faithful people not waiting passively for the future to happen, but participate with God in God’s unfolding story and the building of a new heaven and a new earth.

As we celebrate, may we move away from a focus on the accumulation of wealth, economic growth and consumption – economism in a nutshell – to one that affirms that human life and dignity has a greater value than that of the market, one that proclaims the rights of peoples as against the rights of business.

May we be a nation that is embracing of diversity, one that celebrates people regardless of race, language, religion, nationality, economic status,gender, age, sexual orientation and gender identity,
educational level, and any identity markers that makes us different.

May we be a nation that is based on justice and equality. A nation that cares about and cares for the least among us. A nation of generosity. A nation of diversity. A nation that is inclusive. A
nation that is a mosaic, not a melting pot. A melting pot reduces all the ingredients to something that is the same. The beauty of a mosaic is in its diversity – the greater the diversity, the more beautiful
the mosaic.

May we work towards a SG100 that all that celebrate.

I close with McLaren’s words –

“There is a beautiful scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is relevant today as it was in the first century. It doesn’t picture us being evacuated from Earth to heaven as many assume. It pictures a New Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth. This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere. It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within. Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures it offers and bring the treasures they offer. From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness. Along its banks grows the Tree of Life. All of this, of course, evokes the original creation story and echoes God’s own words in Revelation: “Behold! I’m making all things new!”