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Sermon for Sunday 26 May 2019

First Reading                                           Acts 16:9-15

9A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 11So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Psalm                                                            Psalm 67

1May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. 2Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. 3Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations upon earth. 5Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 6The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us his blessing. 7May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

Second Reading             Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27

9Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed — 13on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. 22And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25and its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. 26They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Gospel                                                    John 16:23-33

23{Jesus said to his disciples,} “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. 25I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. 26In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” 29His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! 30Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” 31Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”


Grace, mercy and peace to you this Memorial Day weekend from God our heavenly Father and from Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

I came across a report the other day from the United Nations that must have more to do with other countries than the US, but it still fascinated me.  According to this report, more and more people are moving from rural areas and subdivisions into urban areas and big cities.  That’s surprising because there are so many jokes about the drawbacks of living in a city.  Many of you know I’m not one for living in the city.  My motto is, if the stop light works, it’s time for me to move.  Comedian Anita Weiss says, “I moved to New York City for my health.  I’m paranoid, and it was the only place where my fears were justified.”

In a standup routine about traffic in Boston, Massachusetts comedian Lewis Black said, “The last person to get across that town in under three hours was yelling, ‘The British are coming!  The British are coming!’”  I bet many of us here today would agree with comedian Jason Love’s opinion of Las Vegas: “All the amenities of modern society in a habitat unfit to grow a tomato.”  And my favorite putdown about cities is from comedian Richard Jeni: “This is how Chicago got started.  A bunch of people in New York said, ‘Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough.’”

I’m sure none of you are surprised at my aversion to large cities.  For me big cities make no sense.  Big cities breed dependence; they’re noisy, crowded and everyone seems to be in a hurry.  People say they move there for the culture, the night life, the people, yet they’ll move into guarded complexes, gated communities and high-rise buildings where you feel like an animal in a zoo.  I call them concrete jungles. 

You have no room for workshops, you’re forced to depend on others for everything and if you wanted to grow a tomato plant, it’d have to be on a window ledge.  I’ve known people that to let the dog out meant you had to ride the elevator downstairs and go out front of the building where there was a little patch of grass so small you could mow the whole thing with a string trimmer.  And please don’t get me started on the parking and traffic!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness . . .” Many of you may recognize this as the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities.  The two cities that were the focal point of Dickens’ novel were Paris and London during the days of the French Revolution.  Today I’d like to focus our attention on two cities, the city of man and the city of God.  Interestingly, the Old Testament also reveals a certain prejudice against cities.  

Recall if you will, in Genesis 4, after he slays his brother Abel, Cain is driven out of the presence of the Lord, and the first thing he does is build a city.  Then again after the days of the great flood, the people gather to build a city, and in the middle of that city they built a great tower–the tower of Babel.  You remember the result.  Because of their arrogance, God confuses the language of the people and then God scatters the people across the face of the earth (Gen. 11:7-11).

Consider the negative connotations around such Old Testament cities as Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh and Babylon.  There seems to be a certain sinfulness, a certain grimness, a certain detachment from God, that’s associated with cities.  Yes, crime, poverty and immorality are everywhere, but why is it that these things seem magnified proportional to the size of the community?  In the 10 years I’ve been here, the bigger Charlotte gets, the more the problems arise.  The first quarter crime statistics for 2019 show that overall crime is up 4.6 percent, property crime is up 3.4 percent, violent crime: up 11 percent, aggravated assaults: up 11.8 percent and leading the tragic stats is, 33 murders in 93 days.  “Hell,” wrote the poet Shelley, “is a city much like London / a populous and smoky city.”

There’s that old story about the lady in New York City who died willing all of her money to God.  A probate judge broke the will with the declaration that “after due search, it has been determined that God cannot be located in New York City.”  People in rural areas have always regarded so called city slickers with suspicion.  That’s interesting when you realize that the word “pagan” originally meant “country folk.”  

As I admitted a moment ago, no environment today has a monopoly on problems.  Some of the highest suicide rates, highest divorce rates, highest alcoholism and opioid addiction rates in the United States per capita are found in remote rural areas.  As we used to say in the Air Force, “You can run but you can’t hide.”  However, when you stop and think about it, we all live in one big city now–no matter how far it is to a neighbor’s house.

Television and social media are tremendous cultural homogenizers.  The secular values formerly associated primarily with our big cities are brought into nearly every home in America every day.  For better or worse modern technology has made us one big city–the city of man.  We can, however, contrast that city–the city of man with the city of God. 

St. John here in Revelation describes a city coming down from heaven from God that’s amazing in splendor.  As described, it’s an enormous city, 1500 hundred miles on every side.  It has perfect symmetry and is large enough for all whose name is found in the Lamb’s book of life to enter.  It has walls 216 feet high and there are 12 gates, 3 per side.   The city rests on 12 foundations and on those 12 foundations are carved the names of the 12 apostles.  This is the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven.  God is coming with heaven to be with us, His people.

Heaven will not be some nebulous place up there, a place we will go.  God is bringing heaven with Him to be with His people.  We can also call heaven the new Jerusalem, the new Israel.  St. John includes even more details about God’s city.  Its walls are of jasper and the streets themselves are made of pure gold; gold so pure that they’re transparent.  The foundations of God’s city are adorned with every known jewel.   Furthermore, there is no temple in the center because God Himself and the Lamb are the temple, and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb.  It’s a glorious picture God that is painting of our future.  The city of God–the city of man.  

One thing we do need to understand is that much of this language in the book of Revelation is meant to be symbolic in nature.  Therefore, taking into account the obvious difference in physical appearance between the city of God and the city of man, we need to ask, what are the essential differences between these two cities?  Along with discussing the differences, it would be good for us to ask a more important question; how can we make the city of man more like the city of God? 

The first difference we need to recognize is, the city of man drives people apart–the city of God brings people together.  It’s an interesting phenomenon that the closer we live in physical proximity, the more detached we become socially.  Consider that ultimate symbol of the city of man–the apartment.  The very word says it all–apart-ment.  Here in the more rural areas, we get to know our neighbors because, more often than not they, are also family.  However, in larger cities, chances are we don’t know the neighbor on the other side of the wall much less on the other side of town.  I know when Terry and I first moved to Las Vegas, we rented a condo in Henderson.  We lived there for almost a year, and in that time, I only met one neighbor.  One couple, in an entire year, in a complex filled with condominiums. 

Journalist Gregory Favre claims that one of the most important, but least reported, stories of our time concerns our indifference and lack of empathy toward one another.  He quotes Pope Francis, who said, “We have fallen into globalized indifference.  We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”  Globalized indifference—that’s the sickness at the heart of the city of man.  Not so in the city of God!  

As the song “The Holy City” (Michael Crawford 1998) puts it, “The gates were open wide and all who would might enter and no one was denied.”  In the city of God, there’s an unparalleled unity among people, all peoples.  There are no racial distinctions, no class distinctions, no ethnic distinctions, no economic distinctions, even no religious distinctions.  It’s important to note that the City of God is called the New Jerusalem and that it houses the New Israel.

I don’t believe it was an accident that the city John describes in our second lesson has 12 gates–one for each of the tribes of Israel.  John in this vision sees that Christianity is the continuation and the culmination of a work God began with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  One of the biggest misunderstandings that has plagued the Christian church has been a theological prejudice against people of the Jewish faith.  Jesus Himself said that He was sent first to Jewish people (Matt. 15:24) and was very clear; “I am the way, the truth and the Light” (John 14:6).  All who call on His name and whose name is recorded in the Lamb’s Book of life will be allowed to enter.  We will all be one family.  Difference number one between these two cities is that the city of man drives people apart.  The city of God brings people together.  The reason for this difference brings us to the second truth–the city of man is governed by law; the city of God is governed by love.  

I’m not saying that laws are bad.  Paul tells us that we’re to obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1).  The laws of the city of man are meant to protect and restrain sinful behavior.  Legitimate laws are enacted so that one person cannot take unfair advantage of their neighbor.  Of course, for any law to be valid or legitimate for the Christian, it must be in agreement with God’s law.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it moral.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation used to publish a Crime Clock, a set of statistics on how many serious crimes occurred per second in the United States.  The last crime clock they published in 2016 contained the following facts:  A violent crime occurred every 25.3 seconds.  There was one murder every 30.6 seconds . . . one robbery every 1.6 seconds . . . one motor vehicle theft every 41.3 seconds . . . one aggravated assault every 39.4 seconds.  These statistics certainly don’t paint a pretty picture of the city of man.  I feel a bit like Vance Havner.  

Vance says that he and his wife were taking a bus trip through the mountains, and the bus broke down right in front of a hillbilly grocery store.  The woman there apparently had never been anywhere else.  Havner’s wife commented, “I don’t believe she knows what’s going on in the world outside.”  Havner said, “Well, don’t tell her.  I wouldn’t want the poor soul to know.  Let her die in peace.”  Now I am not one of those who believe that our society is disintegrating.  I believe the ills we see have been happening in one form or another throughout history.  We simply now have more access to information and our news is driven by sensationalism and ratings—the adage, “if it bleeds it leads” is certainly true.

If you take the time to study history, you’d find that our time is no better or no worse than others.  The point is this:  Anyone who expects humanity to save itself–whether through technology or education or the social sciences or whatever, is blind to reality.  We cannot save ourselves:  we’re simply to self-serving.  We live by the law of self-preservation, and by our sinful nature we will manipulate, take advantage of and abuse one another.  Without God, humankind is driven by power, greed and self-preservation at all cost.  That’s why we enact laws–to restrain the worst that is in us; but corporal laws cannot save us, as St. Paul so eloquently pointed out.  Only one thing can save us, God’s mercy as shown to us in Jesus. 

How many here remember the old story of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?  It was made into a movie that was quite good.  Remember the boy who hired himself out to a Sorcerer to be his servant and to carry his water for him?  Like all boys, tiring of the work, he looked around to find some easier way of getting the job done.  One day when the master was away, he prowled around among the Sorcerer’s magical paraphernalia and found certain books with magic incantations in them.  He learned a few of these and tried them out on the broom.  To his amazement he found that he could command the broom to carry buckets of water.  But after a bit, he detected a little moisture on the floor.  To his consternation he realized that the tubs and basins were all full, and the broom was still carrying in the water.  He decided he’d better do something about it.

He got up and uttered the magic incantation, but the broom continued to carry in the water and dump it on the floor.  As it began to rise around his ankles, the boy panicked.  He didn’t know what to do.  He cried out every magic word he knew, but nothing worked, and the broom kept on carrying in the buckets and dumping them on the floor.  Soon the water rose around his neck, and he began to cry out in anguish, realizing that he hadn’t learned enough.  He was saved at the last moment by the return of the master who, in a few words, cleared up the whole situation.

Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, our only hope is the return of the Master into our hearts and lives.  As we realize the presence and power of the Kingdom of God–as we experience and share with one another His love—that’s our only hope.  The city of man drives people apart–the city of God draws people together.  The city of man is based on law–the city of God is a kingdom of love.  This brings us to the final difference.  The concluding difference between these two cities is, the city of man is based on personal striving–the city of God is a gift from on high.  Within the heart of every breathing person is the desire for recognition and appreciation, for power and position, for material wealth and worldly acclaim.  

Years ago, Wallace Hamilton called it the drum major instinct.  All of us long to march out in front of the parade.  So, we strive for success.  We build up our businesses.  We work our way through the ranks.  We plan and project.  Some of us dream and scheme.  We build monuments to ourselves.  That’s why tall skyscrapers line city streets.  Someone has termed it the edifice complex.   We always want more, even if it means obtaining it at someone else’s expense.

Sometimes even the most conscientious of us may step on someone else in order to climb higher on the totem pole of personal achievement.  Some neglect their children–lay aside a devoted husband or wife–ignore the needs of a neighbor–not because we’re bad people, but because we’re oriented to our own success.  Sin has corrupted our nature by turning us in on ourselves.  It is the sin that started it all.  And even when we finally obtain whatever it is that we’re striving for, we find that we’re still not satisfied. 

There’s only one thing that permanently satisfies, and it comes only as a free gift. You can’t earn it or buy it or even deserve it.  You can only accept it as the free and generous gift of a loving and benevolent God.  John saw the Holy City coming down from heaven from God.  It didn’t rise from the earth.  The kingdom of God never will come from our striving upward.  It comes downward as a free gift from God. 

But when we recognize that it is a free gift, when we realize that we no longer have to strive to prove our own self-worth, when we’re able to relax and receive the love of God as poured out in Jesus Christ, then we’ll be able to accept and love other people as neighbors, as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Virginia Prodan grew up under the Communist government in Romania.  Under the government of Nicolae Ceausescu (chow-chEH-skyoo), citizens were encouraged to spy on one another and report on any “anti-government” activity they witnessed.  Anyone arrested for anti-government behavior could be imprisoned, tortured or killed.  All around her, Prodan witnessed isolation, sadness, confusion, lack of hope.  She hungered for truth and for freedom from her oppressive society.

Prodan earned her law degree and went to work for a government agency.  Through a Christian client, she became a Christian and discovered the peace, joy, truth and freedom she’d been searching for her entire life.  But she immediately faced opposition from others.  Her tires were slashed.  Her life was threatened.   She was beaten by the secret police.  Christians in Romania were often arrested, beaten, imprisoned.  One day a man showed up at her law offices and requested a meeting.  It was a trap.

As soon as she shut the office door, the man pulled out a gun.  He had been sent to kill her.  In spite of her fear, Virginia Prodan decided to share her faith with the man sent to kill her.  She said, “Have you ever asked yourself: ‘Why do I exist?’ or ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘What is the meaning of my life?’  I once asked myself those questions.  You are here because God put you here, and He has put you to a test.  Will you abide in God or in the will of a man–your boss, President Ceausescu (chow-chEH-skyoo), who requires you to worship him?  God has given you free will to choose.”

Virginia shared the message of Jesus with this man.  He put away his gun and agreed to attend church with her.  Today, Virginia Prodan’s would-be assassin is a Christian, and has even enrolled in seminary.  Such things can happen in the city of man where there are persons who also hold dual citizenship in the city of God. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  A Tale of Two Cities.  In which of these cities do we live?  Which city claims our primary allegiance?  Where do we invest our time, our talent, our treasure–the city of man or the city of God?  In the city of man we might find temporary satisfaction, even fleeting fulfillment.  However, in the city of God we have everything we need now and in the future.


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