“‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.
Do you ever imagine what the end of the world will be like. I do sometimes. Not too often, though. It’s not the sort of thing I like to think about *too* much.
So, how will the world end?
Well, astronomers and physicists tell us that in around 7 billion years or so, our sun will expand to become a red giant. That giant sun will heat up the earth until it is a sea of molten lava, and the earth will eventually be completely engulfed by the sun. That certainly sounds like the end of the world to me.
Meanwhile, the human race is in the unique position of being able to cause, or at least hasten, its own demise. Nation states have between them amassed sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy the entire human race many times over; nobody really knows the long term consequences of species extinction if they continue at the current rate; and human use of fossil fuels is accelerating global warming at such an alarming rate that fatal rises in sea levels may now be inevitable.
Looking beyond our own planet, scientists are much more divided as to whether the entire universe around us will at some point cease to exist, or whether it will go on and on.
But for now, the end of the earth would mean the end of the world for humankind, and – yes – it is inevitable that the earth will ultimately be destroyed by the sun, even if takes as long as 7 billion years.
What seems really strange to me is that there are groups of Christians who believe that the earth will be destroyed not by the sun, but intentionally by God, and much sooner than in 7 billion years. That in itself might sound strange. Its consequences are positively dangerous.
In this Creation season we are thinking about God’s creation; our role in creation and in particular our role in caring for God’s creation.
However, if you happen to believe that God ultimately intends to destroy the earth, then why bother with anything that slows down that destruction? Let me say that another way – there are Christians who believe that anything we do to look after the environment and protect our planet is a waste of time, because God is going to destroy the earth anyway.
In case you don’t believe me, listen to what one American pastor had to say about this. This pastor’s name is Mark Driscoll. He is, to put it mildly, a nasty piece of work, but he is very popular: he has over half a million followers on Twitter. That is five times as many followers as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anyway, he said:
“I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.”
So this pastor (five times more popular than the Archbishop of Canterbury, remember) justifies driving a gas guzzling SUV because he believes that God will eventually destroy the earth. There is no point looking after something that will end up being destroyed anyway.
Where does this view come from? Well, it comes from a particular interpretation of the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. I don’t know how many of you have read Revelation. It’s not easy to read and not easy to understand.
It gives a vision of what it might look like for God to complete the work that was begun in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. A vision of a time when Jesus will return as the earth’s true ruler, when no-one will be left in any doubt as to who He is and who has sent Him.
The book of Revelation describes a series of visions received by its author. It uses the sorts of images we might see in dreams, or perhaps nightmares. We’ve all had dreams and nightmares where the images we see and words we hear in them don’t always make sense, but may carry some underlying meaning.
When the book of Revelation uses images of fire and destruction and lakes of boiling sulphur – and yes it does talk about those things – it doesn’t necessarily mean those things will literally happen. It is poetic language used for poetic effect.
[Still, all this death and destruction is big money business! An American author called Tim LaHaye wrote a series of novels called the “Left Behind” series based on a very literal interpretation of the book of Revelation. Many of the books have been at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. In total, over 65 million books have been sold. ]
This view that God intends to destroy the earth is clearly popular amongst Christians. Very popular.
Almost every serious Biblical scholar will tell you the same thing about this view: “It is just plain wrong”. There is nothing in the Bible to support a view that God intends to destroy it. Only by taking a small part of the Bible completely out of context could you ever reach this view.
On the other hand, the Bible is positively overflowing with passages telling us how much God loves the world he has created. Things may have gone wrong with the world, things may even get worse, but God’s plan for the world is to renew it, to make it better than it is now.
Take the Isaiah passage we heard this morning. The images used here are clearly of God renewing the earth and making things better, not of destroying anything. These same images from Isaiah are then heavily drawn on in the book of Revelation.
Just as Isaiah does, the book of Revelation speaks of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and of God making all things new. Not destruction of the earth. As one commentator puts it there is no “Big Bang or other act of cosmic destruction”. Rather it is the “powers which have been intent on destroying the earth” which are “consigned to the lake of fire” in Revelation.
The final images in Revelation are of paradise restored on earth. Where the Garden of Eden is lost in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, it is regained in the final book, Revelation.
Lakes of fire, paradise, garden of eden – it’s poetic language again, but the meaning is clear. God does not intend to destroy the earth. God intends to heal it, to make it better, to renew it. The only things destroyed are the powers of evil, destruction, and death itself.
The same message is staring us in the face in our gospel passage, only we so often miss it.
This passage from John’s gospel is one of the best known in the whole Bible, but it is so often read in a very limited way.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God loves the world. He sent His Son. I believe in Him. So I get to go to heaven not to hell. That’s the narrow reading.
If you look again, though, the passage talks about God loving the world (not me individually) and sending His Son to redeem the whole world (and not just me). God’s intentions are to redeem the world, not to destroy it.
But what does this redemption of the world, this saving of the whole world actually look like? You could, I suppose, look at the book of Revelation again. The visions describe the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth: a city made of pure gold with walls and gates made of precious stones. There are no lights in the city: it is lit by the glory of God and of the Lamb. Of course the language is poetic; the words are used to paint a picture. This renewed creation will be beautiful, awe-inspiring, actually more than can be described in mere words.
So you could look at the book of Revelation. Or you could look at Jesus.
St Paul, in the passage of his letter to the Colossians we heard today calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead”. Jesus, through his death on the cross and resurrection to new life, shows us what a renewed creation might look like.
And what does that new life in Jesus’s resurrection look like? Well, it can all be a bit confusing! Jesus after the resurrection is both the same and different from the Jesus before the crucifixion.
At first after the resurrection, Jesus was not recognised. Neither Mary nor the disciples on the Road to Emmaus initially recognised Him.
But both Mary and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus did in time come to realise that, yes, this was Jesus with them. In the resurrection life, outward appearances may look different at first. A renewed world may look different from this one, at first sight at least.
Some things will be different; and some the same. It was the most unexpected things about Jesus that stayed the same after the resurrection. You’ll all remember the story about the Apostle Thomas, “doubting Thomas”. He refused to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he had seen the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the spear wound in Jesus’ side.
Jesus, even in His resurrection, even as the first fruits of the renewed creation, bore the scars of His brutal death on the cross. The resurrection didn’t simply wipe away the wounds of Jesus’ earthly life – Jesus was still the crucified Jesus. But Jesus was no longer bound by those wounds; he was freed from them; he was freed from even death itself. A renewed world may still bear the scars we have inflicted on it; and yet be freed from those scars.
Far more interesting, I think, than thinking about what the end of the world would look like, is thinking about what the resurrection life, what a renewed creation, would look like in our own lives.
St Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians tells us that for those of us who trust in Christ we are already part of that new creation; the old things have already passed away and all things have become new for us.
New creation and God’s renewal of creation is not just something for the future. It’s something for now as well. I think Jesus was getting at the same thing when he said that the Kingdom of God was among us. The Kingdom of God, the resurrection life, the new creation, paradise restored: these are not just things to look forward to after we die.
These things are all for now. God’s renewal of creation has not yet been completed. What was begun by God in the person of Jesus Christ will be completed by God in the fullness of time. We are all invited to be part of that new creation breaking into the world. What will you do with that invitation?