Wings Not for Flying - thrive UMC Official Blog

Wings Not for Flying

This morning, I just wanted to start off by showing you this picture I took last summer of the city of Jerusalem.  The picture currently sits as the backdrop for our series art, and I picked it because my experience in Jerusalem changed the way I imagine us, and our world, being renewed.  For a long time now, I’ve been convicted that God is present here on earth with us, calling and inviting us to participate in powerful, creative work.  And we can see this stated and reaffirmed very explicitly over and over again in the Bible: in the very first chapter of Genesis, God is here and creating something new.  In the Exodus story, God calls a people out of slavery to create a holy tribe and then a kingdom.  And last week we read from the end of the scroll of Isaiah that God is continuing that creative work by creating a new heaven and a new earth.

Then, in the ministry of Jesus, and in the sending of the Apostles, we see a new Kingdom being brought to life –a kingdom different from any previously seen in history. And then even in the very last book of the Bible, in the book called Revelation, it reaffirms again:

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Which, by the way, sounds a whole lot like the passage we read from Isaiah 65 last week, doesn’t it?  Except in the book of Revelation, the work is seen as being complete.  It’s not an abstract hope, but a vision witnessed as fulfilled.

So, throughout the entire Bible, this message is wildly consistent: God is here.  God is creating.  God is bringing newness and life. And we are a part of it.  Therefore, jump in.  Engage with the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.  Encourage others so that they might be built up.  And then empower them to work lovingly and creatively too. Which, by the way, is the mission of our community: engage, encourage, empower. So that we and the world might be renewed.

But something of the way I had imagined that process working –the picture I had of it coming to life- was somehow a little off, because when I actually arrived in Jerusalem, and when I overlooked this Holy city from the outer-edge, something in me kind of choked.  I mean, it was exciting and beautiful, but definitely not as clean and as straight-forward as I had expected, or wanted it to be.

For instance, probably the most eye-catching feature of this photograph is the big gold dome, right?  In fact, I have a bunch of pictures that are very similar to this one, taken from a variety of angles, and no matter where that dome is situated in any picture, it automatically becomes the focal point.  Something about its reflective metallic shine and its bright blue tiles really grabs your eyeballs –especially since its set among a landscape of trees and otherwise monotone structures.  And it has become an icon for the holy city itself.

Now, I know several of you have been here too, or at least already know what that building is, and I’ll have some questions for you in a minute, but for now I ask you to restrain your knowledge for a moment.  For everybody else who would have to guess –what does that building look like?

I’ll admit that the last pastor I had worked with had a picture of Jerusalem hanging on his wall, and I used to stare at it whenever I spaced off in staff meetings.  And for six years, I had always assumed that gold dome was some kind of a Jewish state building –probably because it kind of reminded me of our capital building downtown, from a distance.  But that’s not what it is at all, is it?

For those of you who know, what is that building in the picture with the gold dome?

It’s the Dome of the Rock, right?  Which is an Islamic shrine that houses the rock where the Muslim prophet, Muhammed, ascended into heaven.  It’s also cited as the stone, on Mount Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, and some believe that rock to be the site of the Holy-of-Holies of the demolished Jewish temple –the most sacred site in all of Judaism.  And that means that it would have also been at least very close to the place where Jesus would have worshipped.  That sacred place is housed in an Islamic structure.

And I’ll be honest, my picture of God’s saving, renewing work did not involve an Islamic shrine in the holy city. In fact, my vision didn’t have any room for Islam at all.  It didn’t involve a mosque built over the site of the Jewish temple (which you can see, if you look straight left from the dome), or prayers belted from megaphones five times a day.  It didn’t involve crowded streets with everybody and their mom peddling wildly overpriced religious trinkets at me.  It didn’t involve military personnel with assault rifles at every corner. It didn’t involve huge piles of trash in the street, or parts of the city that either weren’t open or weren’t safe for me to enter because I am a Christian.  It didn’t involve overwhelmingly complicated politics, and petty squabbles between different Christian sects and traditions that have lasted hundreds of years.  And I’ll be honest, it also didn’t involve modern sky-scrapers.

But here, in a single picture, you can see it all, couched together in a shared landscape.  There’s the Dome of the Rock, and immediately behind it, further in the distance, is the less opulent dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, ascribed as the site of Jesus’ resurrection.  On the other side of Al-Aqsa mosque is the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter of town, where you can find an eight-foot tall menorah made of solid gold, and not much further beyond that, a restaurant selling pizza topped with the thickest, juiciest bacon you’ve ever seen.

Three of the world’s most influential religions have their roots here in this city and yet, according to a 2005 Gallup Poll, 65% of the national population of Israel identify themselves as either “non-religious” or ‘convinced atheist.’  (Meanwhile, paradoxically, 75% of the population identifies itself as Jewish.)

On the horizon you can see the cranes and sky-scrapers marking the on-going construction and rising economic development, interspersed with steeples and minarets and towering synagogues –designations of heaven on earth.  Then, running in front of all that wraps a wall, which encases the whole old city and has been scarred by countless sieges and assaults.  There, you can also see what’s called the Golden Gate, where was predicted that the Messiah would enter and herald the glory of God.  And if this picture would have extended just a bit further to the left, you could also see the Valley of Himmon, just outside the city wall, which is the place that inspired our notions of hell.

Then, at last, we can see in the immediate foreground of the image, a graveyard stretching  nearly the length of the eastern side of the city.  In that space you can find the remains of many of the great Jewish prophets and leaders from throughout history, housed alongside those faithful Jews who could afford this prestigious real estate of the dead, which starts at about $20,000 U.S. dollars a plot.  A bargain, some might say, for those graves lie in wait, to be first in line for grand return of God’s full glory to earth –the final cataclysmic Revelation –a grand day of resurrection- which they believe will take place from the theater of that golden dome.

Hence, it’s all there: a cacophony of houses of truth and commerce, portioned out with a place for the old, and a place for the new; a place for the living, and a place for the dead; a place of varied visions, and versions of the houses of heaven, and out just beyond the wall, Gehenna in the Himmon Valley: the place of hell.

And somehow, that’s what God’s renewing work on earth looks like.  Work involving the hands and minds of those calling themselves Hebrews, and Roman, and Byzantine, and Arab, and Crusader, and Ottoman, and even American, and countless other people-types throughout its more than four-thousand year history, to create rich and disjointed, precious and conflicted, exciting and scary place.

And only when I looked out upon this strange and beautiful city, while standing on a sun-scorched hill last summer, did it strike me that all along I had sort of hoped Jerusalem would only be a kind of museum for Jesus, clean and simple and unchanging.  But instead the real experience of it was messy, and confused, and disorienting, and thrillingly real and thoroughly inspiring.

Now, I bring all of this stuff about Jerusalem up because I think it helps us to envision more realistically and powerfully what our own renewal may likely become manifest, as we move into the future. It will not be clean and simple, with clear lines delineating right from wrong, good from evil, and the saint from the heathen.  Ours will not be a future where God choses us, exclusively, to embody a simple and unified vision. Our path will not be a clean, straight line.  But instead, it will, by probable necessity, involve outsiders and twists and turns.  It will require people we don’t know, people we don’t like, people with plans and values that compete with our own, for our mission to become complete.  And we’ll be called –or even thrust- into events and circumstances that won’t naturally produce joy and thanksgiving within us.  Some of us know this, because it’s already happened.  And indeed perhaps a great many of you have already had days, like I have, where your life, or this community, or our global trajectory seems to you to be stuck or moving in the wrong direction.

I assure you, on that point you will no doubt find plenty of good company in the Bible.  This morning we’ll be reading again from the scroll of Isaiah, which last week heralded the message that God is already at work creating a new heaven and a new earth.  But this good news –this grand revelation- that God is creating something new, came slowly and with great pain to those who received it.  In fact, many biblical scholars hold that the man who was named Isaiah wrote only the first 39 of the 66 chapters in the book named after him.  The remainder, which includes the wildly hopeful and climactic text we read last week, was penned more than 200 years later, by Jewish captives newly returned to Jerusalem after decades spent in terrifying exile.  But this vision of eventual renewal was one that Isaiah himself was never blessed to witness. Instead his was a call to live and speak for God it a moment of great gravity and anxiety.  We can see this in his call story, which is found in Isaiah, chapter six.

So please turn with me in your Bible or Bible apps, to the sixth chapter of Isaiah.  This is what it says:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about.They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

God said, “Go and say to this people:

Listen intently, but don’t understand;

look carefully, but don’t comprehend.

10 Make the minds of this people dull.

Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,

so they can’t see with their eyes

or hear with their ears,

or understand with their minds,

and turn, and be healed.”

11 I said, “How long, Lord?”

And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” 12 The Lord will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. 13 Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.

Now, there just a ton of really crazy and profound things going on in this brief passage, but I’m going to really try to restrain myself by pointing out just three of them. And those three things are: the unsaid prophesy, the wings that don’t fly, and the hope of near-doom.

First of all, I want you to notice the message Isaiah was sent to share on behalf of God.  Obviously it’s not exactly happy news, right? You can reduce the highlights to two basic points: 1.) all your thick skulls will never get anything; and point two: almost all of you will be destroyed. The end.  We have to admit that that would be a tough message to put an optimistic spin on to make it well-received, right?  And indeed, throughout the whole rest of the book of Isaiah, we never find the man Isaiah delivering those specific words he received from God to anyone.

In fact, in the very next chapter, we find God and Isaiah working with Judah’s king to announce, effectively, that everything will be fine.  Which is really weird, because when you read the book straight through, chapters 1-5 of Isaiah are all: doom, doom, judgment, doom, death, and more doom.  Then in chapter six, Isaiah is called and God says here’s some mostly bad news for everybody.  Chapter seven, ‘hey King Ahaz, don’t worry, don’t do anything  -the stuff you’re anxious about won’t happen if you just relax.’  And when we check our history books, we’ll find that, aside from Assyria’s invasion of the lower regions of Judah, Jerusalem itself was fine throughout the rest of Isaiah’s life.  And he never lived to see any of the doom he spoke come to fruition.

Second point: I want you to notice the weird winged creatures that attend God in the passage.  Pop-quiz: how many wings do they have?  Six!  And how many of them were used for flight?  Only two!  The other four –66% of their total number of wings- were used for hiding! Two wings were used to hide their faces, and two to hide their ‘feet.’  ‘Feet,’ here, by the way, is a euphemism for their sex organs. And I don’t know why, but that detail is super-funny to me –trying to picture holy creatures flying around, announcing the holiness of God, all while covering themselves with what we might call modesty-wings.   The other two wings hid their face because they couldn’t look on God and live!  I mean, I can’t be the only one that, upon seeing a bunch of nude, heavenly beings flying around, wouldn’t be able to stop wondering when the other wings are going to flap.

God would go: “Jeremy, pay attention!  I have a prophesy for you!” And I’d be like: “I’m sorry God, I was distracted, wondering what kind of crazy mating rituals heavenly beings have, and whether they involve some sort of feathery burlesque show.”

Because there’s something about having appendages used to conceal that demands their attention, isn’t there.  Especially when they could be used for flight.  But here again we’re invited to notice the strange and ask: why do these beings need to hide their faces and their sexy bits?  Before God, and before a man.

Then finally, I wanted you to notice the strange result of this tender moment in Judah’s history, and what came out of it.  For a while now I’ve been hit by this strange suspicion that we would have never had our Bible, or the any kind of historical memory of the people we now call the Jews, without their experience of the time of destruction, heralded by Isaiah, with its scary judgment.  Eventually, yes, Israel and then the kingdom of Judah were overrun by foreign powers.  And then the foreign powers were overrun and over and over and over again, through a long, messy history.  And yet, somehow out of this great mess, a profound truth emerges: something beautiful came out of the disaster, hardened and pure.

Most of us don’t realize it, but there would be no Bible in our hands, without the loss of this nation, because it was the experience of exile that inspired the remaining people to write down their traditional, sacred stories.  Some of the greatest literature in the Bible, and of all time, came out of their journey through doom, destruction, exile and overdue return.  Because, in a lot of ways, Judah was not a significant kingdom in the ancient political landscape.  But instead, it was a small, middle-of-nowhere kingdom surrounded by what would become world super-powers.  And yet it’s voice, echoing the prophetic tones of people like Isaiah, has endured to captivate the lives and faith and imaginations of nearly half the world’s population, in one form or another.

One last time, I want to invite you to look at this mysterious and messy city.  This is the setting that’s changed the world dozens of times over.  This is a picture of what powerful renewal looks like: messy and often baffling.  But in moments, it is complete.  It gives life and hope of better times, and aspirations of peace beyond the politics of now.  Because it houses a spirit that endures through trouble, uncertainty and conflict. It’s a spirit that thrives through the process of becoming, where even conflicts illustrate a sense of richness sourced in diversity. Its power is not that it established a great technology or a perfect way to share space together –but it’s gift comes in the package of written revelation: it’s the city whose circumstance inspired the writing of the Bible.  A book of hope, endurance, and powerful faith.

So may we again bear witness to the revelation it shares with us: that God is yet here with us, even when we confront a sense of the absence of God.  That God is creating, even through conflict and destruction –to create a new heaven and a new earth.  A thing of which we cannot even yet dream of, or imagine.  And we bear witness to the reminder that we are participants in this renewal –in this process of re-creation.  So may we join in, and receive that spirit of endurance and creativity.

Let’s pray.