You Make Beautiful Things – a sermon

Sunday, May 24th, 2015 – Pentecost Sunday
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21, Revelation 21:1-7
Hymns: “O Worship the King”, “These Thousand Hills”, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God”, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “10,000 Reasons”, “God Be With You”
Special Music: “Beautiful Things”, by Gungor

“You Make Beautiful Things”
It all started with a match, lit by a desperate man.
On June 18th, 2002, unemployed firefighter Leonard Gregg did the unthinkable. Going to the rodeo grounds on the edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Cibecue, Arizona, he intentionally lit a small fire in the forest. The logic and thought process that guided him had him convinced that as a seasonal firefighter, he would be called up to fight this fire. It would take a couple of days to contain, but it would be put out, and he would be paid handsomely for his time, as seasonal firefighters in the southwest tend to be.
Mr. Gregg, however, had made one horrifying miscalculation in his logic. He had failed to take into account that, after the torrential downpours of the El Niño season of 1997, which had caused everything to bloom and grow everywhere in Arizona, the state had gone into a cycle of drought, and everything that had grown so rapidly five years earlier had now become a tinder box, just waiting for a spark. And he, along with a lost hiker who lit a signal fire some fifty miles away, provided just that spark.
Over the next three weeks, the Rodeo Fire would merge with the Chediski Fire to become the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, and together, they would burn an area larger than the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area, an area larger than the Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas combined. Though the Wallow Fire of 2011 would surpass the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in size, it did not have nearly the impact on the towns and cities in Arizona’s White Mountains that the Rodeo-Chediski Fire had. To date, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire remains the most destructive natural disaster to befall Arizona in recorded history.
For the rest of that summer, the Mogollon Rim was a barren, blackened, charred wasteland. Residents of the communities throughout the White Mountains spent years afterwards on edge, just waiting for the next disaster to come along. But what came along instead was something remarkable.
You see, for all its destructive power, the charcoal left in the path of a fire can serve as remarkable fertilizer. Indeed, the seeds of the Ponderosa pine – the predominant flora in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest – will actually sprout SOONER and grow more quickly if exposed to the extreme heat of a wildfire. So it was that in the spring of 2003, greenery began to poke its head back above the ground across a swath of eastern Arizona. And while it is far from recovered, the Mogollon Rim is well on its way to being the verdant, wild forest that it was before that fateful day thirteen years ago.
It is amazing, is it not, the power for the creation of God to renew itself? All old things become new again. The old passes away, the new takes its place. And in today’s passage from Revelation, we hear of the old heaven and the old earth passing away, replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.
One of the most interesting things about this passage is the fact that in verse one, we are told that “the sea was no more.” Can you imagine? The sea being no more. Just gone, vanished.
But throughout Revelation, John of Patmos has leaned upon imagery from the book of Genesis to weave this apocalypse of the eschaton. Time and time again, he calls back to the creation story, to the story of the banishment of the deceiver, to the story of the fall of man, to tell this amazing story of Revelation. And here, when he speaks of the sea, this is not the sea as we know it. This is the sea that was there in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. This is the waters over which the Spirit of God was hovering in those very first days. This is the sea that would yield forth the earth that was given to us by God, but which has been hurt, damaged, scarred, beaten nearly to death by the people placed upon it. This is the sea out of which all creation emerged, and this is the sea out of which human beings learned their sinful nature.
And now… that sea is gone. It is no more, and the new heaven and the new earth have been prepared for us.
John specifically tells us of the new Jerusalem, and oh, to think of all that has taken place in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the city where God came to dwell among His people. This is the city where the Son of God was crucified, and then three days later raised to new life. This is the city that saw the Son of God lifted up among the clouds. This is the city where the Holy Spirit came to dwell around, among, and in the people of God.
This revelation of the new Jerusalem is just as much the day of Pentecost as it is the day of the eschaton. When the disciples gathered together and the Holy Spirit came down and rested upon them in tongues of flame, it wasn’t just God gifting them with the ability to communicate with all people. It wasn’t just the opportunity for Peter to have possibly the most quotable line in all the Bible – “You think we’re drunk? It’s only nine o’clock in the morning!”
No, this was a promise by God, a promise that God would come to dwell among the people, a promise that when the end of days was accomplished, the damaged, wounded earth would be made new again, and so too would the heaven that has been inexorably linked to that injured earth throughout all eternity. That original water that gave birth to both good and evil would pass away, and all that would remain would be the perfection of God’s creation, with God dwelling among the people.
Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
And yet, too often, we look all around us, and we despair that this place in which we live could ever be made new again. Consider, nearly fourteen years ago now, the days after September 11th, 2001. For days, weeks, months afterwards, we lived in a state of constant fear – fear that the terrorists would strike again, fear that every major city in the country could be their next target, fear that any of us could at any time fall victim to the kind of horrors inflicted that day in New York and Washington.
But those fears did not come true, and as time passed, they fell away. We grew bolder and more confident once more, but saw our boldness and confidence washed away again in the devastating waters that deluged the coastal South on August 29th, 2005. The fury of Hurricane Katrina all but submerged Louisiana and Mississippi along the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it over a thousand lives. Once again, people feared the worst – would a hurricane strike New York City? Could such a weather pattern spawn a tornado that would wreak havoc upon a city?
Troublingly, the answer has been yes, time and time again. Hurricane Sandy proved devastating to the New York City area in late October of 2012, and it seems that a summer does not pass that we do not hear of an insanely powerful tornado rampaging through a town or city, leaving a wake of destruction in its path.
And when scientists tell us that there’s a good chance that we human beings may have brought these changes in weather patterns upon ourselves, it just makes our fear worse. We lash out in dozens, hundreds of different ways. Fear causes people to blame one another, to blame the scientists, to blame the Democrats, to blame the Republicans. Fear causes people to blame the devil, to blame our ancestors, to blame what they believe to be immorality, to blame the war…
But curiously, blame is rarely ascribed to God. And perhaps that’s because we know the redeeming, renewing power of God to bring back life to those places where it has been destroyed.
In Genesis 9, Noah received the promise of the rainbow from God, a covenant between God and mankind that God would never again strike the known world with an all-encompassing flood, but would instead refresh and renew the earth. When Jesus broke the bread and shared the cup with His followers, He gave them a new covenant that would provide for the renewal of their lives unto all eternity. And on that day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and rested upon the followers in that room, it was a new covenant between God and God’s people – a covenant that said that where we dwell, so too shall God dwell. The place in which we live is the place where God lives, and what both man and nature destroy, God will put life into those places anew.
“You make beautiful things,” Michael Gungor wrote in the song we heard a few minutes ago. “You make beautiful things out of dust, you make beautiful things out of us.”
For just as the new heaven and the new earth will mean a washing away of the old, a doing away with of the original material that gave birth to sin, a renewal of the places we know to new life in the presence of God Almighty, so too will we be renewed. God will take our forms and from our sinful, fallen bodies, we will be made into new creations. God will indeed make beautiful things out of us.
This is the final covenant, spoken in Revelation 21. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, will give water to the thirsty as a gift from the spring of life. The old things will be made new again, and we will be lifted up, out of death – both physical and spiritual – into new life in the city of God. It will indeed be our eschaton.
You ask when that day may be, and the truth is, neither you, nor I, nor anyone on this earth knows. As we were reminded by Jesus in Matthew 24, about that day or hour, no one knows – only God knows. But until it arrives, we are given the call in the covenant of Pentecost to live as though it is already here. God has come to dwell among us, and so we are to live as a people of Pentecost, not looking ahead to the new heaven and the new earth, but living on the earth that we currently have in the hope and belief that it will someday be the new earth, and treating it as the fertile ground for new life that God has created it to be.
Eleven days from now will find a pair of rented vehicles passing through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Zack Craft will be at the wheel of one, I will be at the wheel of the other. Four other adults and ten youth from this church will be passengers as those vehicles ride down Arizona Highway 260 along the Mogollon Rim. Indeed, we will be passing through the heart of the devastation of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, passing just a few miles from Ground Zero of the Chediski Fire portion.
And as we drive through, there will be many areas that still remained charred and blackened, thirteen years later. But in those same places, new life will be found. Shrubs, wild grasses, and young trees have grown anew in the midst of the wreckage. All around, life has sprung up from that wounded ground. Out of chaos, life was indeed found. We will bear witness to those beautiful things, knowing that they serve as a microcosm for the renewal of our world that is found in the glory of our God.
The old will pass away, and all things will be new again. Beautiful things will be made out of the dust.
Amen.

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