November 17, 2019: "A New Creation"
“A New Creation”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 17, 2019
The second floor of my grandparent’s home was for many years an apartment for my great-grand parents. After they passed, my grandparents kept the apartment’s two bedrooms and knocked down some walls to turn the rest of the space into a large playroom for me and my brother. We spent many weekend overnights with my grandparents, and after giving them a quick hello and a hug, my brother and I would bound up the stairs, run past the two bedrooms and then stop dead in our tracks to marvel at what was in front of us: a large, open living room with no furniture and lots of toys. My favorite toy was a bucket of Lincoln Logs. It was the Lincoln Log set that my dad had played with a child, and it was so old that Abraham Lincoln himself might have even played with them. I spent hours in that vast open living room stacking the Lincoln Logs together, long ones on the bottom with the shorter ones in different patterns layered across the top. After I was done with each masterpiece, I would run downstairs, grab my G-Dad by the hand, and drag him up to marvel at my creation. “Do you see these great buildings?’ I would ask ‘Aren’t they magnificent?” Each time, G-Dad would nod his approval. Inevitably, though, the buildings would come tumbling down.
Sometimes they fell at the hands of my brother who fancied himself some sort of Godzilla. Other times, I would accidently knock one wing down as I was building another. Sometimes I would tear it all down on purpose just so I could create another masterpiece. There were even times when I pleaded with my grandparents to let my creations live past clean-up time for the night, and waking up the next morning I would sprint out of bed to see if my building were still standing. But even through the night when no one was up or around, my buildings would have sometimes collapsed or tipped over. Faulty architecture, earthquakes, ghosts—who knows. But in my childhood mind, even if it was a brother who destroyed my creations just to be mean, I did not really mind. There was always room and time to create something new.
Besides the verses we’ve heard today from Jesus in Luke’s gospel about the destruction of the temple, we have also heard the great verses from the prophet Isaiah that God ‘is about to create new heavens and a new earth.’ The idea of God creating something new runs through everything we do in the church. We sing about it in our hymns. It grounds our act of confession because we know God is already creating something new within us. The psalmist says over and over, “Sing to the Lord a new song!”. “All things are being made new,” Isaiah proclaims in another place. These phrases, dotting the pages of the Bible and the moments of our faith, conjure up images of freshness and vitality. They remind me of when my family vacations on the Eastern shore of Maryland during the summer. Each morning when we arrived at the beach to stake out our place for the day, the sand would be so smooth and peaceful—a new creation after a night of waves washing it all clean.
But if we are honest with ourselves, change and new creation is not something we easily accept or invite into our lives. In fact, new things are often the battlegrounds where the biggest fights happen in the church. It would be fine if the church stuck with replacing only those things which we want replaced. There is always something that can be made new—new choir robes, new paint in the fellowship hall, new topics from the preacher, and maybe even a new preacher all together. But a new worship style? A new way of praying? Sing to the Lord a new song? No, thanks, that’s OK. The way we’ve always done it suits us just fine. That’s why ‘all things made new’ can be one of the most unsettling and controversial themes in the entire Bible. All of us—liberal or conservative, from a rural or urban background, raised in a large church or small—have a special image of what church and religion is and should be. And we aren’t too keen on that changing. Ever. That image is often what drives us to church week after week, month after month, year after year.
That image, though, has the potential of preventing us from experiencing the truest and most powerful nature of God. Someone once said that the biggest obstacle in the way we experience God is whatever our last experience was. If that experience was of the negative kind, it is often the case that a person will find other ways to use their time on Sunday morning. If that experience was of the positive kind, a mountaintop experience like the disciples had with Jesus, it is often the case that a person will chase after that experience forever and will likely never find it again. The message from the Scriptures today is that whether our experiences are good or bad, with God or the church or religion in general, not a stone will be left on stone…all of it will be torn down. That’s not great news if you like the huge temples built up around you. Maybe it’s the literal structure of the church. Maybe it is a special place you escape to for refuge and comfort. Maybe it is a temple built around a job or a company or your family. The scriptures tell us today that every one of those temples will be dismantled and all things will one day be made new.
No matter how old you are, and no matter how much life you have experienced, we each have great buildings that will ultimately fall to the ground. We don’t like to imagine it and we certainly don’t like to plan for it. But, we know the truth that anything and everything we build will fail for one reason or another. Even if it manages to stay standing when our grandparents to tell us to clean up for the night, it might not be standing in the morning. That’s how Jesus reacted when his disciples were admiring the temple in Jerusalem. Apparently, it was a tremendous structure, adorned with precious stones and stock-piled with gifts of all kinds from worshipers. But Jesus knew it would one day fall. He could not say for sure when it would be; but he knew it would be a cataclysmic event. He told the disciples that it would seem like the end of the world and that it would seem like everything they worked for and hope for and dreamed about would be gone forever. This event did take place, about 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection, when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and burned the temple to the ground.
But here is the good news and the countercultural wisdom of the Gospel: Jesus knew that the temple’s destruction would not mean the end of God’s creation. Jesus also knew that it would not be the end of God’s salvation. So, he urged his people to bear suffering with hope and patience. He told them the truth that all people suffer in life, and all people face destruction and tearing down. He even reminded the disciples of the truth that all people go through death, but that not even death is the end. Jesus himself died, but it was not his end. He was resurrected and God’s creative power began again. In my mind, God looks at our destroyed temples like I looked at that wide-open living room full of toys at my grandparent’s house: not with doom and gloom and sadness, but with excitement at what could be. All things are made new—that is what Isaiah promises, and in this is our hope as we wrestle with the complexities of life, when our towers fall, and as we worship and serve a God who over and over and over resurrects us and this world from the dead. Today, we are gathered in one of the most beautiful structures in the entire state of Oklahoma. The blood, sweat, tears, and dollars that have been poured into this house of worship can never be measured. But this structure, and the structures that dot our lives, are not and should not be the ultimate focus of our lives. Jesus made a pretty bold statement later in his ministry, a statement that illustrates this point and pushed the religious elite over the edge on the war path to destroy him. Jesus said, regarding the temple in Jerusalem, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with human hands.” Only the disciples knew what Jesus was talking about—everyone else was so mad they just wanted his blood. Jesus was talking about the temple of his body, resurrected three days after being destroyed on the cross.
Whenever we gather—for worship, or learning, or fellowship—we do so inside some pretty magnificent structures. But these structures only have meaning because they are enrobed and enveloped in it is the greatest temple of all: Jesus Christ. When we gather in Jesus’ name, here or in any place in God’s creation, we are touching something greater than the building or the structure…we are touching Jesus Christ himself. And as we come in contact with Jesus, God is doing this magnificent thing of building a body of believers, a family of faith, that is greater than any church or cathedral. If someone were to ask you, “Where is Jesus today?” you would point not to the buildings that bear his name but to the people who gather in his name, worship in his name, and serve the world in his name. That’s you and me. The body of Christ in the world today is you and me, the community and family of faith, worshipping, learning, serving, sharing meals together, and living the light of Christ in a world that can be at times so very dark. The most critical element of what makes the church the church, what makes the body of Christ alive in the world today, is the relationships we build here, the lives we bring into closer contact with God here, the good news of Gospel we hear in here and then share out there. And as the towers fall and the stones topple one over the other—and it will happen—the greatest structure remains…Christ’s body, you and me, his people in every time and place.
All of this, my friends, is to say that change and new creation and towers tumbling down is not bad news or something to be afraid of—it is not always enjoyable, it is not always easy to understand or absorb, but it is the natural, living rhythm of the people God. God is always doing a new thing, always making things new, always rebuilding. Part of our calling as Jesus’ people is to run towards the new creation in faith and not away from it in fear. That is our calling today: to run with faith and confidence into the new creation of God. Change is never easy. Change is not always welcome. But our lives, the very faith we claim, is all about change. Birth, illness, marriage, death, baptism, communion, prayer—these are the natural elements of our faith and life and each is deeply steeped in the confidence that God is creating through change. Not a single one of these is outside the grace of God, and so we have the chance each day and every moment to change gracefully.
Each day and every moment, my friends, we have a chance to greet God’s new creation. Towers might tumble, and not a single stone will be left on stone, but God will be in the change. God is in the change. God will be providing grace in that change. And all things—all things—will be made new. Thanks be to God! Amen.