Sunday morning with a little holy imagination

It’s been a hard week at St. Paul.  We’ve lost 2 friends—at least in this old creation:  brother with a wry sense of humor born in Scotland and a gentle, always encouraging sister.

It helps when we’re missing them to see the bigger picture.  Walter Brueggeman, a Lutheran theologian and biblical scholar, writes the following:

The Bible is an act of faithful imagination. It is not a package of certitudes. It is an act of imagination that invites our faithful imagination that makes it possible to live faithfully. The Bible is an act of imagination that is rooted in memory but that presses always toward new possibility that is in front of us.  

Maybe that’s what we need: a dose of faithful imagination.

The vision of prophets set their holy imaginations going so they could be faithful to what God was calling them to do.  Take Isaiah, for example: he thought he was way too unworthy to be God’s messenger and not so politely tried to decline.  Enter a vision: an angel bringing a hot coal from God’s throne to purify Isaiah’s lips (ouch) and words!  With that holy imagining, Isaiah was faithful, and his words still and and encourage us.

Dishonest Jacob was on the run from his brother who wanted to kill him, some would say justifiably.  Jacob spent that first of many nights away from home sleeping on the hard ground where he had a vision of a stairway to heaven and God saying: I will be with you and will bring you home again. Jacob never lost hope.

Ezekiel knew that imminent slaughter and exile of God’s people by a ruthless foreign nation was near; but in a vision God showed him a desert with scattered bones, bones that started coming together and taking on flesh and become living people again.  Ezekiel could be confident that God would bring his people back together again one day, and Ezekiel could imagine his work wasn’t in vain.

Peter, resting after lunch, saw a blanket being lowered from the sky holding animals unclean for a Jew to eat. Peter heard a voice telling him to eat anyway.  Was it the tempter’s voice?  Or God’s? Or indigestion?  But then “unclean gentiles” came knocking on the door and invited Peter to an unclean home, to eat unclean food and to tell non-Jewish people the good news of Jesus.  Thanks to that earlier vision Peter’s holy imagination kicked in and he was faithful to go preach the gospel to strangers.

But I need to pay attention for a few minutes to the vision of John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation.  He wrote during a time of terrible persecution of the early Church: Christians were imprisoned, thrown to the lions, set on fire as torches to light the city of the emperor.  His vision, the writing of Revelation, is full of violence and threat of evil.  (We wouldn’t read some of it to our children.)  His holy imagination and vision is shrouded in coded words (so that if it fell into the wrong hands people wouldn’t be identified).  In the end, his visions—like the imagination of good poetry, powerful art, creative music—help us see God’s  bigger picture, in this case a time when God will make all things right,  bringing an end to death, evil and pain.

Listen.  This is Rev 21:1-6 from The Message.  See if this holy imagination can help us be faithful even when we grieve:

I saw heaven and earth new-created.  Gone the first heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea.  I saw the Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband.  I heard a voice thunder from the throne:  “Look!  Look!  God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!  They’re his people! he’s their God.  He’ll wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone!” 
The enthroned continued: “Look!  I am making everything new!  Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”  Then he said: “It’s happened.  I am A to Z.  I’m the beginning and the conclusion.  From the Well of the Water of Life I give freely to the thirsty….I’ll be God to them, and they’ll be sons and daughters to me.”

While hearts are aching for a brother and sister in the Lord,  we can’t help but notice that in John’s beautiful vision there is no more death, pain, evil, sickness, grief.  It’s all gone!   While John of Patmos’ persecuted Christians saw a bloodthirsty Rome and a Jerusalem burned to the ground, John’s holy imagination inspired them to also see God’s presence filling a new holy city.

We use this passage of scripture often at funerals to encourage one another what heaven is like, what it is like to live in God’s presence—for Marge, for Andy, for ourselves. But wait!  Did you notice something?  We don’t go to this city.  It is not a place we travel to.  It comes to us.

It seems John of Patmos is saying we do not go to heaven; God’s heavenly presence and rule comes to us.
Someone has written that it is one thing to think that God is preparing a place for us, out there where things are great.  It is an entirely other thing to look around at the very place in which we live, the injustices, improprieties, and problems, the evils and get ready for God to come here, transforming all of it into something new.

If death and pain and evil will be gone; what takes its place?  First John sees  a new creation.  Second he envisions God actually coming to make his home among men and women.  Third a well of the water of life is given freely to the thirsty…those thirsty for life, I presume.

But are we really waiting for this vision to happen?  Haven’t those things already started happening?  Hasn’t the heaven, God’s kingdom already started breaking into the cracks of this broken world?  Paul writes to the Corinthians: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.  (2 Cor.5:17)   Jesus himself pointed the Samaritan woman to the well and said: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in the a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  And at our baptism hasn’t God already proclaimed that God is our God and announced us sons and daughters of God?  And in the Gospel of John, the writer says that the Word became flesh and lived among us!  God in Christ has already been dwelling with us and we  have seen his glory.

So today, holy and hallowed imagination proclaims that we don’t have to go anywhere to live with God; God is living within each one of us who believes in Jesus.  We know the truth of John of Patmos’s vision.  The gathering of Christians is already God’s home.  How’s that for holy imagination?  The life and love of the heavenly presence of God has already been set loose in us. Yes, it’s been a hard week, but God’s new, resurrected creeation is just that much closer to being completed.   We are called to be faithful, and keep on sharing the life and love of Christ, scattering it like seeds into the debris of the old creation around us.  We are the new creation so far, and God will do the rest and finish it completely into something new, something even our holy imaginations can’t fathom.

But the hope of that new creation, the almost unimaginable possibility of God making all things new, feeds our faithfulness to follow the Lord even through the grieving.  Thanks be to God.