Sunday, May 26, 2019
And 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.
I came across a report the other day from the United Nations about how more and more people are moving from rural areas and subdivisions into urban areas and big cities. That’s surprising to me because there are so many jokes about the drawbacks of living in a city.
In a standup routine about traffic in Boston, a comedian said, the last person to get across that town in under three hours was yelling, the British are coming! The British are coming! Another said, I moved to New York City for my health. I’m paranoid, and it was the only place where my fears were justified. A lot of us would agree about Las Vegas: All the amenities of modern society in a habitat unfit to grow a tomato. And my favorite putdown about cities is Chicago got started, by a bunch of people in New York who said, Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough.
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. I'm sure you recognize 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 want to center our attention on two cities. These two cities are the city of man and the city of God.
The Hebrew Bible reveals a certain prejudice against cities. You will remember in Genesis 4 after he slays his brother Abel, Cain is driven away from the presence of God, 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 build a great tower, the tower of Babel. You remember the result. God destroys the tower and scatters the people out of the city.
Think of the negative references in the Old Testament cities like Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh and Babylon. There’s a sinfulness, a bleakness, a detachment from God, that’s associated with cities.
Such prejudice still exists even today. 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 city slickers with suspicion. That’s interesting when you realize that the word “pagan” originally meant “country people.” 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.
Actually, we all live in one big city now, no matter how far it is to a neighbor’s house. The secular values formerly associated primarily with our great 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. I’d like to contrast that city, the city of man with the city of God.
John describes a city coming down from heaven from God that is altogether glorious. It’s an enormous city, 1500 hundred miles on every side. It has perfect symmetry and it’s large enough for anyone who wants to come in. It has a wall 216 feet high and 12 gates. The city rests on 12 foundations and on those 12 foundations are carved the names of the 12 apostles. This is the New Jerusalem. Within its walls is the new Israel. Its walls are of jasper and the city itself is pure gold. Its foundations are adorned with every known jewel. There’s 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.
The city of God, the city of man. The differences between these two cities are obvious in the physical appearance, which, of course, are symbolic. But, how can we make the city of man more like the city of God?
The first difference is: the city of man drives people apart; the city of God brings people together. It’s interesting 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. Chances are we don’t know the neighbor on the other side of the wall much less on the other side of town.
Pope Francis said, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We’ve become used to the suffering of others: so, 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. The city of God is much more appealing! The doors are open wide and all who would might enter and no one was denied. In the city of God, there’s a unity among the 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. It’s no accident that the city has 12 gates, one for each of the tribes of Israel. John sees that Christianity is the continuation and the culmination of a work God began with Abraham and Moses and David. We’re all one family.
The city of man drives people apart. The city of God brings people together. This is because, the city of man is governed by law, the city of God is governed by love. We have laws. Why? To keep a person from taking unfair advantage of his neighbor.
And, of course, the most tragic of all, school shootings. Certainly, these would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.
It’s not a pretty picture. If you’re a student of history, you know 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 can’t save ourselves, for we live by the law of self-preservation, and by our own sinful nature we will manipulate and take advantage of and abuse one another. That’s why we live by law, to restrain the worst that’s in us; but the law cannot save us, as Paul so eloquently pointed out. Only one thing can save us.
Most of us remember the old, old story of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Disney made it into a Mickey Mouse cartoon and a movie. The boy went to work for a Sorcerer as his servant and he was to carry his water for him. Like all boys, tiring of the work, he looked around to find an easier way of getting the job done.
One day when the master was away, he went through the Sorcerer’s magical stuff and found 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. Then he realized that the tubs and basins were all full, and the broom was still carrying in the water.
He decided he had better do something about it. He got up and uttered the magic incantation, but the broom kept on carrying in the water and dumping 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, 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, we experience and share with one another His love, that is 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. Also: the city of man is based on personal struggle; the city of God is a gift from on high.
There beats within the heart of every man and woman the desire for recognition and appreciation, for power and position, for material wealth and praise. Everyone one of us want 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 skyscrapers line city streets. It’s called the edifice complex.
Sometimes even the most honorable among us may step on someone else in order to climb higher on the totem pole of personal achievement. We may neglect our children, put down a devoted husband or wife, ignore the needs of a neighbor, not because we’re bad people but because we’re placed our own success ahead of others. That’s how the city of man is built. But finally, we reach whatever it is that we’re striving for, and when we do, we find that it doesn’t make us content.
There’s only one thing that permanently satisfies us and we get it as a free gift. You can’t earn it or buy it or even deserve it. You can only receive 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 will never 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 will be able to accept and love other people as neighbors, as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
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 those cities do you live? Which city claims your primary allegiance? Where are you investing your time, your talent, your treasure; the city of man or the city of God?
God's gift is His Risen and Glorified Son.