Scripture passage: Revelation 21
I suppose if you are looking in your printed program, you think maybe I don’t know how to properly spell “glow.” Actually, I know that usually “glow” has a “w” on the end, but this “glo” is short for “glory” which there is plenty of in this reading from the book of Revelation, the 21st chapter:
Rev. 21:10, 22-27
God radiates light. And when God’s holy way of living is completely fulfilled on earth, what exists will be whatever is good, honorable, true, and glorious. Nothing horrible, trecherous, or evil will enter the city. The gates will be wide open, but so strong will be the pure light of the presence of God that only those who love the light will be eager, or even willing, to go there. This is the vision presented to us in the last book of the Bible. It is a testament to the power of God’s light.
Anne Lamott, writer and somewhat unorthodox follower of Jesus, was invited back in November to go into San Quentin prison to give a presentation about writing. Built 150 years ago, the walls and gun towers (according to Anne) look exactly like a set from Edgar Allan Poe. The stone and cement are crumbly and deteriorated. Razor wire is everywhere. She is aware that most of the inmates are convicted murderers serving life sentences. The guards are on edge, carrying guns, and keys that look like they could be from the middle ages. (San Quentin seemed to be pretty much the opposite of the holy city vision described in the book of Revelation.) As Anne waited with a group of people to be let into the prison, rain poured down from dark gray storm clouds.
Anne reports she could not helped feeling pretty overwhelmed with a sense of the great violence and fear of the world. “I tried to think about Jesus, and not to worry so much about being taken hostage, or being glared at, or being charmed by someone who is actually secretly malevolent and manipulative,” she says. She wasn’t having much success, until, at the innermost gate, she came to the guard whose job it was to check everyone’s ID one more time, and to stamp each visitor’s hand with flourescent ink.
“If you don’t glow, you don’t go!” he said cheerfully. In that moment, Anne realized she was receiving excellent spiritual advice. “In dark times, and dark places,” Anne suddenly remembered, “our job is to give off light — God’s light! — and to care for the least of God’s people.” She’d heard it said in church; now was her chance to live it out. And the guard was right: without the light of God glowing within her and from her, she would never have the courage to set foot inside such a frightening place. In fact, without warming herself in the light of God, she might not even have had sufficient hope to get out of bed that morning.
I don’t think that anyone would argue the fact that horrifying and deeply distressing things are happening in the world. Not only that, but horrifying and deeply distressing things are being done by people who we expected to conduct themselves according to a standard that would present the best, and not the worst, of human potential. Almost everywhere we look we see appalling images. Indeed, some commentators think that’s part of the problem. Enterainment media bomard both the willing and the unwilling with over-the-top scenes of violence, humilation, and degradation being inflicted on some, by others who enjoy using power and authority to advance their own ends. “It’s no wonder that some people’s real-life behavior descends to the level of what they see in video games and movies and so-called reality TV shows,” says Stephen Cimbala. “The real surprise is that anybody is able to rise above the dismal standards proffered by the worst aspects of our culture and modeled by so many public figures.” And then he adds, “I congratulate and admire those who do rise above — but I wonder, how long will they be able to hold out?”
Not only “how long” but “how”? How do we preserve and hold ourselves to standards of dignity, honor, respect, fair treatment, and even-handed justice? I believe this is a serious question in today’s world. I read an article this week about the genocide that took place in Rwanda ten years ago. The author, David Gushee, was especially troubled because so many who condoned and even took part in the murder of one ethnic group by another were members of Christian churches. “We can’t wait until the horrible things start happening in our midst,” Gushee asserts, “we have to teach ourselves in advance how to resist evil, injustice and oppression when they appear among us. We have to prepare ourselves and our children NOW, so that we will have the strength to stand, and act, for what is right and true and just and good — even when it’s hard or scarey or there might be some cost to ourselves.”
We need to have the flourescent stamp of God’s love on our hands at all times, reminding us that though we go into dark or turbulent places, we go carrying the light of God, and representing God to those we meet. We need to go everywhere with the glo-ry of God surrounding us, protecting us, keeping us humble, and showing us how to act. If we try to live in this mixed-up world without God’s light, we are very likely to quickly lose our way. Going WITH the glo, we have some chance of doing what is right, and we have hope that all is not yet lost.
For the light of God to become a permanent fixture in our lives, a guiding principle and a constant reminder of who we are, we have to steep ourselves in it, soak it up, learn from it, and choose to be lit by it all the time. We come to worship to experience the light (the glory) of God. We probably need that experience MORE often, rather than less often. In the scripture, we find descriptions of not only how the world is, but how it could be if we put God at the center. We need to study the scripture. In our prayer time, we can visualize ourselves in that place where God lights and warms and beckons everyone and everything all the time. We need to pray a LOT. And finally, it is imperative that we constantly put into practice what we know God wants us to do: loving one another and caring for the least and the lost so that gradually, with every act of kindness and justice, we will become more and more convinced that the light of God really can transform the world.
This perscription for how to live right in a world gone wrong is not an easy one. Even those who seem accomplished at doing good, in their honest moments will admit that it takes work. Annalena Tonelli was an Italian woman who spent her adult life in Kenya and Somalia, rescuing, treating, and curing people with tuberculosis and other diseases. For more than 30 years, she cared for hundreds of people at a time in hospitals and treatment centers. She provided medication, food, and hygeine in ways that would be acceptable to the nomadic cultures among which she worked. She drove into war zones to rescue the sick, wounded, and starving. She offended governments. She sought out thorough medical training, and personally trained and supervised a large medical staff. She adopted several orphan children.
“I always feel the presence of God,” she once admitted to a reporter. “The reason more people don’t feel lthis way is that they don’t try hard enough. You have to give it time, you have to be patient; and then, year after year, you will see that what matters is only love. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you were full of limits, you will not be happy.”
Tonelli also said, “Many people speak of this kind of life as a sacrifice. But for me it was never a sacrifice. I often felt there was nobody else on earth who has such a privilege as to live like this.”
It is true that last fall, at the age of 60, Annalena was killed by anoymous gunfire one night as she was leaving one of her hospitals. But the light of God that she allowed to pour into the world through her is not lost. The thousands of lives she saved bear witness to the power of love. And the work goes on. Her family and friends and colleagues and others whom she inspired continue to rasie funds and to support and operate the healing centers.
Living in God’s light is an intentional decision, and requires a deliberate investment of time, attention and labor. Those who give up easily will never see the benefit, but those who make a long term commitment will learn that the light not only shines in the darkness, it dispells the darkness. Iif we are to thrive on the rocky soil of this earth, we will, like a plant, have to constantly turn our leaves toward the light. The light of God will have to be the destination, the source, the focal point of our existence.
We will have to be single-minded and persistent one day at a time. As Eugene Peterson comments on the secret of long-term faithful obedience, as exemplied by someone he had studied closely, “Jeremiah got up every morning with the sun.” In other words, he didn’t fixate on the long road ahead. Rather, he greeted the opportunities of the present moment with anticipation and delight. He continually said, “my heart is willing and my spirit ready to do what you, Lord God, would have me do today.”
It’s people like that who have visions like this: “The nations will walk by the light of the glory of God, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. People will bring the glory and honor of the nations, and no one who perpetuates abominations will mar the radiance of the day.”
Our world seems far from that vision, but that is what we work toward. The vision itself is a reminder of our purpose, telling us NOT that God is going to whisk us away to a better place, but that God’s holy city is meant to be realized here on earth. Our calling as a church is to be the beginnings of that holy city, come from heaven to earth, where the light of God prevades everything, and the gates are always open. Our calling is to live in that light now and take it with us wherever we go.
God’s light is brighter and steadier even than the sun, moon, and stars. Even if all else fails, it will still shine.
Our hope comes from knowing that as we live our lives guided by God’s light, we are running into God’s kingdom with happy footsteps.