Today we begin a 4-week sermon series entitled, “Now and Forever: Viewing the Church Through the Lens of Charles Wesley.” The theme for each Sunday will be based on the days’ lectionary reading from either Acts of Revelation, and supported by the lyrics of a hymn by Charles Wesley. The hymn which will get special focus is “And Can It Be that I Should Gain?” one of Wesley’s most beloved but lesser-sung hymns. Today’s theme is the eternal reign of God. The main point is that our present world will without fail give way to God’s perfect kingdom in which all of God’s people will forever live in joy and light and life.
Scripture Readings: Revelation 21:10; Revelation 21:22-22:5; Romans 8:18
Hymn: Omnipotent King, Who Reignest on High
In early elementary school, my best friend was Gregory Harrison. I’m pretty sure he was an only child, but I know for sure his mom was raising him as a single-parent. I loved spending time with Gregory. I know we played together a lot after school. I remember him joining my family one time when we visited my Grandpa and Grandma Hart on their farm. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was during that trip that we were playing on a big mound of pebbles and he accidentally lost his Batmobile Matchbox car in the stones. That must have been somewhat tramatic since I still remember it!
Gregory and I walked to school together every day. One of the homes along our route had a German Shepherd tethered to the side of the house which faced the sidewalk. And every person who walked by that dog was assaulted with loud barking and snarls. He’d run straight at you and then get yanked back when his chain was extended as far as it would go. Because this happened every day, we stopped reacting to its threats because it was always contained in the end. Except the day that it wasn’t. On that day, the dog somehow either got off the chain or broke it. And when it came at us, it jumped on Gregory and knocked him over and get in his face with its vision barking. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. But I wasn’t terrified for myself. I was terrified for Gregory. And the reason I was terrified was because I was convinced that that dog was going to rip open the surgical car that Gregory had on his chest. It has long since healed, but in my little mind, I envisioned it being torn open and the dog getting at his heart. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The owner must have run out and pulled the dog off because we eventually made it to school.
Well, somewhere between 2nd and third grade, maybe that summer, they moved away. And it absolutely crushed me. I’ll never forget how emotionally painful that was for me. And I have no doubt that that experience had a tremendously negative effect on my ability to develop deep male friendships for pretty much my whole life. When Gregory moved away, my heart broke into a million pieces that were never able to be put back together.
It was during my first year as a pastor in Lake Orion. For reasons I’ll never know, I was called upon to officiate at the funeral of a Lake Orion High School student. That it was a high school student who died made it hard enough to begin with. What put it over the top was the fact that she was a very good student, well-liked by her peers, and she died just days before she was going to graduate…by an intentional self-inflicted gun shot. Our church was packed for the funeral, most of them high school students. And if anything I did or said that day even remotely helped them, it was all on account of God’s grace.
We live in a broken, hurting world, don’t we? I make this point not to be negative or cynical, but to simply acknowledge the truth that for all the good and wonderful blessings there are in this world—and there are a lot—there’s still a lot in our world that causes us pain. Sometimes the pain is the result of choices we ourselves make. And sometimes it’s the result of what others do. Sometimes the cause is accidental, and sometimes it’s intentional. Most of the time, however, whether it’s accidental, intentional, self-inflicted or other-inflicted, it’s the result of sin. And the sin I’m talking about is the one that can be traced back to our original parents. The first sin of rebellion. The sin which broke the world and ushered in everything that’s wrong in this life.
For as long as human beings have been alive, we’ve been seeking answers to questions like, “Why is life so difficult?” “Why do bad things happen?” “Why do people kill each other?” “Why is there so much suffering?” You see, since the very beginning of human history, every generation right up until our very own has had to deal with the fallout of that original sin. The problem is, being able to explain why things are the way they are doesn’t make the struggle go away. When Gregory moved away, I’m sure my parents shared with the reasons his mother decided to make that change. But knowing why didn’t make it hurt any less. And when that young woman took her life, it’s very likely she was suffering with serious depression, which may help explain what was going on in her head and heart at the time. But knowing the why didn’t make her death less confusing and disastrous.
In the story of that original rebellion—which Christians have come to refer to as The Fall—God responded with grace and, yes, love. In Romans 6:23, the Apostle Paul asserts that “the wages of sin is death.” That’s a very, very powerful statement. It means that when we sin, the bottom-line natural consequence is to be separated from life and from God, the source of life. It’s been said that when the man and woman rebelled against God, God was fully within his “rights” to take their lives. Why? Because the wages of sin is death. But he didn’t do that Instead, he clothed the man and woman. And he instilled in them the necessary knowledge and skills to be able to survive in this now-broken world.
But more importantly—much more importantly—the Lord devised a plan to undo the destruction caused by their sin. On the day he sent them out of the Garden, he set that plan into motion, and that plan has been unfolding ever since. Even as we sit here today, God’s plan of redemption is unfolding.
Knowing that we’re born in sin, and that sin separates us from our Creator, God designed a way for us to be reconciled to himself. This was accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore the guilt of human sin, and as a result any who entrust themselves into his care are given the gift of life. Life with a capital “L.” A life wherein the heart of Jesus Christ beats within. Everything Jesus did was a vital part of God’s plan of redemption. Charles Wesley aptly addresses this aspect of God’s plan in the hymn we’ve been singing all month, “And Can it Be that I Should Gain.”
But while his coming into our world did accomplish our reconciliation with God, it didn’t bring an end to sin itself. As crucial as his crucifixion was, it didn’t stamp out suffering and pain and brokenness. Fortunately, God’s plan of redemption is still unfolding, and a day is coming when all that’s wrong with our world will be made right.
This truth was an important part of the vision God gave to John, the writer of the book of Revelation. It’s a vision of the future, the ‘end of days’ as we often call it. In the vision, John sees that the earthly temple—a building made with hands—has been replaced with God and Jesus. A physical house of worship is no longer necessary because in the fulfilled Kingdom of God, we’re already in God’s holy presence. John sees that in the full Kingdom of God, there’s no sun because God himself is our light, as is also the Lamb of God. There’s no night because there’s no darkness. Nothing that’s unclean or unholy exists in the Kingdom John sees. Behaving badly, acting in hurtful, deceitful ways—all gone in the Kingdom John sees. He sees a river of life-giving water flowing down the main street. He sees the tree of life—the one that our original parents were not allowed to eat from back in the Garden—but here it is now in the Kingdom. And its fruit is for everyone to eat. It will be a place of eternal joy, eternal well-being, eternal light, eternal life, eternal worship. No death, no decay, no sickness, no pain, no depression, no sadness. Only joy and light and truly living.
Friends, God’s plan of redemption is a sure thing! Even though we’re not there yet, and even though it’s likely that none of will live to see it come about in our earthly lifetimes, we can nevertheless trust that a day is coming when this plan will be fulfilled—and we will be a part of it! And the description John gave us, using human words and concepts, will surely pale in comparison to the real thing!
Charles Wesley wrote a hymn which alludes to this future Kingdom of God, but it’s not in our hymnal. It’s called “Omnipotent King, Who Reignest on High.”v Here’s the first verse:
Omnipotant King, who reignest on high,
thy mercy we sing, thy haters defy;
we give thee thy glory, though Satan oppose,
and glady adore thee, in sight of thy foes.
In today’s reading from Revelation 21 & 22, the ‘throne of God and the Lamb’ is mentioned throughout. When it comes to the language and imagery of heaven, God as King and Jesus Christ as King is very common. As King, they protect and provide for us, the citizens of heaven.
I also hear in this verse a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that we’re still living in a broken world. It’s a world in which there are people who hate God, who hate the church. And part of what we have to do is stay faithful despite the challenges we face on account of our faith. Who’s ultimately the source of all that tries to assault the church? Satan. We give thee glory, though Satan opposes us.
And shall we not sing our Master and Lord,
our Maker and King, by angels adored?
Our merciful Savior, who brought us to God,
and purchased us favor by shedding his blood.
The first line of this verse harkens back to what we read about last week, where the heavenly throng worshiped God. And shall we not sing our Master and Lord, our Maker and King, by angles adored. Remember, heavenly worship is going to be awesome!! And we’ll never tire of it!
The second half of this verse is gospel. We were brought to God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.
In tumult and noise, we sing of thy grace,
more mighty our joys, more hearty our praise;
our triumphs are higher, and warmer our zeal,
and thee ever nigher than Satan we feel.
Again, the first line reflects the reality that we worship God from a world that’s noisy with turmoil. But even so, our praises rise to God in heaven, and he fills us with an awareness of his holy presence.
And verse 4.
Our Jesus is near, whenever we sing,
among us we hear that shout of a King;
our voices are stronger than theirs who blaspheme,
and surely we longer shall triumph than them.
This verse returns to a theme from verse 1, which is a comparison of sorts with those who live in this world in contempt of God and his ways. In the first verse, we said that ‘we gladly adore thee in sight of thy foes.’ That despite any kickback the church gets from the world—and there’s a lot, right?—we’re still committed to following him. Verse 4 reminds us that it’s in our earthly worship of the eternal King Jesus that we are made strong and bold in our faith. And what will be our “reward”? An eternal “triumph.” A full and glorious triumph over sin and death. That will be ours. We will live forever.
The Apostle Paul suffered greatly in this life. In a few different letters, he lists those sufferings. But then after one of those lists he quickly added this statement of faith: “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). He said this in order to encourage us. By experience, we know the hardships of this life. But by faith, and by God revealing to John the future reality of the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God, we also know that the best is yet to come. And it will! That’s God’s promise. Let’s pray.