“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
We begin with not just one, but two great visions of the end, one from the Wisdom of Solomon, the other from the Revelation to John. How appropriate it is on this evening of new beginnings, that we begin with the end in mind.
Now, many of you will recognize that phrase. If you’re of my generation, it’s likely that at some point you will have read, or at least heard of, Stephen Covey’s influential book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And in that book you’ll find it there, habit number two, “Begin with the End in Mind”.
Beginnings and endings are intimately related. We get a glimpse of that in our reading from the Revelation to John. John has written down for us the great vision that God gave him of the end of time. But if you listen closely you can hear in that revelation that we are being transported not just to the end but also to the beginning. The echoes of Genesis reverberate in what we just heard:
Revelation says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”; an echo of the very first verse of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
In Revelation, there is a river of the water of life which flows from the throne of God; in Genesis, God causes a river to flow out of Eden, a river which rises from the earth and waters the ground, giving the first life.
The tree of life which is found in the middle of the garden of Eden can be found once more in the holy city of the new Jerusalem.
And John’s vision of the end declares, “Look, the home of God is among mortals, he will dwell with them”; do you hear the echo of the words from Genesis: “they heard the sound of God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”
We are not the first to notice how the vision of the end in Revelation takes us back to the beginning in Genesis.
T. S. Eliot, the great Anglican poet of the 20th century, alludes to this echo in the famous final section of the last of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where we start from.”
Begin with the end in mind.
The end is where we start from.
I am so very pleased to have been invited to celebrate this time of new beginnings with you and with Gregor. Gregor is a dear friend. For three years we did our seminary together at St. Paul University, taking virtually all the same courses together, spending much of each day together. We went on retreat, we spent a summer doing Clinical Pastoral Education. We were ordained on the same day, eight years ago. We now live in the same neighbourhood. I know a thing or two about Gregor. Now, much of what I know about Gregor I can’t share with you (though if any of you would like to buy me a drink at the pub afterwards, maybe we can talk ….) What I can share is this. You have an excellent priest. Hard-working. Committed. Faithful. And I for one am very excited to see Gregor here with you in the parish of St. Matthews, and I am looking forward with great anticipation to the mission and ministry that you will do together.
I know from my own experience of beginning in a new parish, and from what others have told me about their own parish beginnings, I know that you will want to tell Gregor about where you come from as a community. To tell him of your history and your traditions. To show him the way you do things, to give him a list of all your committees and their meeting times. And that may be all well and good, and even necessary.
But even more important than telling Gregor where you’ve come from is to tell him where you’re going. To talk and to dream with him about where you’re going. This is a new beginning for you as a church, and the end is where we start from. Begin with the end in mind.
Now, I’m well aware that beginning with the end in mind presents more of a challenge than does remembering the past or observing the present. Starting from the end calls us to be visionaries, to be dreamers, to be explorers. It takes us out of the comfort of present certainties into the brave new world of being led by the Spirit of God. It brings us into the time that the prophet Joel talks about, the time when God promises,
“I will pour out my spirit on all my flesh;
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
Your old shall dream dreams,
And your young shall see visions.”
It’s a challenge. But I urge you to embrace it. We begin with the end in mind because the visions that God gives us of the end are intended to reach back through time and shape who we are today so that we as a church might provide a glimpse of that end and a foretaste of where it is we are going. It is the end that gives us our purpose and our meaning as the body of Christ.
So let’s look once more at John’s vision of the end time.
It is not an otherworldly vision, in John’s vision we are not transported to some other realm which we might call heaven. It is in fact the opposite. Heaven is brought to earth, the holy city comes down out of heaven from God.
“Look, the home of God is among mortals
He will dwell with them;
They will be his peoples
And God himself will be with them.”
And this holy city will have no temple, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb, it will have no need even of sun or moon, for the glory of God is its light. The servants of God will have such an intimate and complete awareness of the presence of God that they will see God’s face and the Lord God will be their light.
And the river that flows through the city and the tree that grows on either side of the river will be the river of life and the tree of life, and they will bear fruit and give healing to the nations.
And God says, I will be your God and you will be my children. And there is praise, and there is worship and there is great joy.
That’s the end. That’s where we’re heading. We are at a new beginning. What might it look like to begin with the end in mind?
What does it mean to be God’s people in our time and place? Can our church be a source of life? That abundant, vibrant life that flows from the river that has God as its source? Might our churches become communities of healing? Might we be able to offer the world a glimpse of God with us, in our midst? Can we live into our vocation as children of God? Can we enjoy moments of intimate awareness of God’s presence with us? Might we be a people who has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of the God is our light? Can our praise and worship join with that of all the saints throughout the ages and in the age to come? Can we offer a glimpse, can we offer a taste of all this? Can we be, as T. S. Eliot writes, a community where God is
“heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything”
Dreaming these dreams, beginning from this vision of the end will not offer us an easy, well-marked path upon which to set out. Our journey will be more like an exploration. But to quote Eliot again:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.”
May God bless you Gregor in your new ministry, and may God bless this new beginning for the parish of St. Matthews.
Homily: Nov 6 2016, All Saints, St. Matthew’s – A Celebration of New Ministry
Readings: Wisdom 5.1-5, 14-16; Revelation 21.1-4, 22-22.5