About christopherjoiner

A husband, father, and pastor living in Franklin, Tennessee.

Sermon on Eve of Eclipse

This is the sermon I preached on August 20th, 2017, the day before the “Great American Eclipse,” as it is being called. The eclipse comes at a time when we continue to struggle in our nation with the light and dark we see in others and in ourselves. The text was Mark 8:22-26. This was also the last in a series of sermons based on themes from a book by David Brooks called “The Road to Character.”

“Character in the Age of the Selfie”

“I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

Jesus doesn’t seem to get it right the first time. That may be why Matthew and Luke – who had Mark in front of them as they wrote their gospels – leave out this story, and why the lectionary committee that assigns the readings we use throughout the year, omit it as well.

The blind man’s friends bring him to Jesus, begging him to heal their friend. The blind man says nothing. He continues to say nothing as Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him, presumably alone, out of the village. It is there, in that alone place, where honesty can happen. After spitting in his eyes (the NRSV cleans it up a bit), and laying his hands on him, Jesus asks, “What do you see?” Here is where we expect the blind man to announce he sees perfectly.

But no. He’s honest. “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

I’m not so hung up on the fact that Jesus’ first touch doesn’t heal the man fully. What I love about this text is the blind man’s honesty. He knows his healing has begun, but it is not complete. He knows he sees only in part. He knows he sees people, but not as people. For now, they look like trees, walking. He is on the way, but he needs a second touch.

I don’t know about you, but I think we are all of us standing in the same spot as that blind man out there alone with Jesus, awaiting the second touch. We come here Sunday after Sunday, listening for the Word, trying to make our way in the world by the light of Christ, and then something happens, and all we thought we knew changes.

My friend John tells the story of a man coming out of a funeral service and asking him, “Pastor, is cremation a sin?” John replied that he, and the PCUSA, believed that it was not. The man said, “Well, it used to be. What happened?”

We’ve stood at many moments like that in the church, especially one like ours that is 206 years old. There are a lot of used-to-bes. Used to ne that playing cards was a sin, dancing was a sin, drinking alcohol was a sin, marrying someone of another race was a sin, owning slaves was not a sin, and it was a sin to ordain a woman as an elder or minister. What happened?

Well, I think at least part of what happened is that we recognize afresh in each generation those blind spots we have, that we see people, but they look like trees walking, and as the times change and the church stands faithfully in the presence of Jesus, asking for the second touch, we are given eyes to see the ways God is at work, we see more intently, more clearly.

That’s what I believe is happening now in the church and in our country. It is happening across political lines, across racial lines, in every region of the country. We are being jolted into an awareness of who Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself. We know that we must stand and say in this moment, without equivocation, that white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazism is antithetical to all we believe as Christians and as Americans. One of the most heartening things to happen in such a disheartening time is seeing Republicans and Democrats and people from the south as well as other parts of the country, come together in this assertion, saying something most of us never dreamed we’d have to say in 2017.

But, as your pastor, that’s the easy part. It is easy for me to stand in this pulpit and denounce white supremacists and Nazis. And it is necessary. But there is something else necessary as well, and not nearly as easy.

Not long ago, I was driving in East Nashville and stopped at a light. I saw three African Americans walking up the sidewalk. I locked the car doors. And instantly I remembered my friend Perryn talking to me years ago, at Bethel College, where we were both students, telling me that as a white man I would never know the feeling of hearing car doors lock as you walk down the sidewalk.

Just last summer, I was standing in front of a book store in Portland, Maine. Kim was about to take my photo, when out of the corner of my eye an African American man approached. I flinched. He put his arm around me and smiled, wanting to get in the photo. But my first thought was fear, a fear I suspect would have been absent had he been white.

Wendell Berry, in the novel Jayber Crow, says that hate happens quickly, but the work of love is long and slow. It is easier to let my fears take control than do that long, slow work.
This is the hard part. The honest part. The part where I tell you I see people, but they look like trees, walking.

I wonder how many people could say that tomorrow, at a little after 1 p.m. They say that as the moon effaces the sun, at totality, crickets, which are normally quiet in the day time to avoid predators, will begin chirping. Cows and horses and birds will all, in their confusion, begin behaving as they do at night, scrambling for the barn, heading for the nests.

I mean, we have the benefit of preparation. The eclipse seems to be the only thing that can overshadow President Trump in news coverage. We buy viewing glasses, scout out the best location to be in the path of totality, close school systems, listen to safety warnings, and, yesterday on the way to Memphis I saw road signs every few miles warning motorists not to stop on the highway or park on the side during the eclipse. We are ready. But the poor animals, it hits them cold.

And yet. Annie Dillard, in a classic essay she wrote after viewing a total eclipse in Washington State on February 26, 1979, describes standing in a field close to Yakima. “It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away.

“Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know. From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world.”

And she was ready. Appears there’s nothing like an eclipse to help you see how little you see.

This blind man stands at the beginning of a section of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus will tell his disciples three times he must die, and three times they show by their response they do not understand. They argue about who is the greatest among them, they clamor to sit at his right and his left in the kingdom, they long for power. They do not see. But they are the most dangerous kind of blind persons, the ones who believe they can see, perfectly.

We are living in that eclipse moment, the moment between the first touch and the second, when we see people in the murky, fading light, but they look like trees, walking. And the thing that may be needed most – beyond outrage and condemnation, beyond hate and blame – is humility and relationship. I think David Brooks’ book could easily have been called “The Road to Humility.” It seems that at the root of all the people he has explored, the thread that holds them together is the hard-won realization that they do not see perfectly, that they need others, they need someone outside themselves, to see more clearly. They need a second touch. In the age of the selfie, when it is so easy to create spaces where the self is the ruling authority, where all we see, hear, or say is geared to affirm what we already think we see so clearly, this is a task that will not be easy. He calls it the crooked timber tradition, the acknowledge that we are all made of crooked timber. It is a tradition that says, in the words of Bayard Rustin, “The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.”

That’s why I need my friends to take me to Jesus, to beg him on my behalf to help me see. That’s why I need time outside the clamorous lives we live to be alone with the One who has already touched me, has already begun that healing work in me, so I can be honest and say, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” I need the second touch.

The good news is that Jesus is ready to give it, as surely as the moon will slide on by the sun tomorrow and the light will return, and we will take off our glasses and look at each other and the world, and see, really see. May it be so. Amen.



They say that great poets should never have to explain their poetry. I’m exempt from this rule due to my not being a great poet. So, a little introduction to this poem. It was inspired by a recent pastoral visit where the person surprised me with a response she had never given before. Frankly, she rarely lets on to how she’s really feeling, no matter how much space I try to give for sharing. Her response opened out into a conversation of vulnerability and grace. As I was leaving, she said, “Thank you for listening to all that. I just carried on about my problems the whole time. But I do feel lighter”

The whole conversation and my subsequent reflections on it gave rise to this poem, which I hope conjures the shadow of the cross, recent troubling events that show the darkness that can still reside in the human heart, the coming eclipse to this part of the world on Monday, and the grace of Christ, who bears with us as we bear up. 

But, all this explanation notwithstanding, I pray you hear what you need to hear to bear up through these days. 

Bearing Up

“I’m bearing up,” she said, in response 

To my pastoral call. 


It is preferable, stylistically,

To carrying. 

It is better by far

Than lifting. 

It is – speaking just for myself –

More bearable

Than taking up. 

To bear it, shoulders collapsed by the

Sadness of it all,

Heart breaking open by the 

Violence within and without. 

To bear it

Until we come to the point

Not quite the breaking point,

But close – 

The sky darkens at noon

Over the God-forsaken one,

The midday stars proclaim

To all who are bearing up, and listening,

“My burden is light.”

The Danger of Certitude

There was a time, not long ago in the scope of history, when it was considered laudable – honorable even – to entertain the idea you might be mistaken. 

It was in the immediate aftermath of World War II – the scent of the gas chambers still in the air, the graves of soldiers dotting the landscape of Europe freshly dug, the bombed-out villages still smoldering, the mushroom cloud over Japan’s evaporated cities still vivid. 

After these horrors, for period of time, something emerged among enough people to make a difference – humility. While that post-war period was hardly a golden age, there was a resisitance of sorts to anything that smacked of totalitarianism. Hitler was the embodiment of that philosophy that some called totalism. It was a way of thinking that painted everything in the hues of in or out, black or white, with me or against me, good or evil. No room for conversation or debate or dissent, no space for nuance, no time for reflection. You had to be, in more modern parlance, “all in.”

In the post-war humility there was space for a national coming to terms with Jim Crow, for the creation of bipartisan consensus on a host of initiatives that improved the nation. 

I worry that we are flirting with totalism again. Maybe it never really goes away, but, like the devil tempting Jesus, “departs until a more opportune time.” 

I’m troubled by the certitude I see in others. I’m troubled by the certitude I see in myself. I worry we are too quick these days to huddle with the like-minded and subscribe to totalisms of the right and left that leave little room for nuance, conversation, or the possibility of change. I’m troubled because we’ve seen in history what totalism does, what certitude wroughts. Down this path is violence. Down this path is annihilation of the “other.”

David Brooks recently wrote, “We live in a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats.” 

I’m writing this as I try to absorb the talk of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. I’m reflecting on these things as I watch a car rush headlong into a crowd of counter protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen. And immediately the same voices start shouting, blaming, condemning; looking everywhere but within for the cause. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little humility. Those of us who take the name Christian say that we are saved by grace, that not one of us is perfect or even good. We are all of us broken. 

Grace. Not certitude. This is the path that leads to life. May God grant me the grace to walk it. 

It Springs Forth

Do you not perceive it?

In the shimmering ebony snake’s sudden plunge from a warming rock

In the mountain laurel on the swollen edge of bloom reaching for the sun

In the easy laughter slipping on the mossy rock drenched in the icy stream

In the rhythmic shake in the packed dance hall

In the sun drenched colors pink white yellow green, new shades each dawn

In cold and clean rain, unexpected grace of an April fire kindled in the stone hearth

In late conversations of old friends, spirits warming the night

In steps long and slow by lakes and trees up hills and down hand in hand heart in heart life in life


It springs forth. 

Do you not perceive it?

What Do You See?

What do you see? 

A bloom of sunburst beauty, illiminating the cloudy morning of a well-groomed yard. 

The carefully cultivated return of spring, seeds planted in the cool of autumn bursting forth after a long winter’s germination. The result of planning and hard work on the part of a faithful gardener.

Look again. 

What do you see?

A weed. It springs up overnight in the midst of slumbering Bermuda; Bermuda which will soon enough assert itself and choke the life out of the interloper, if the chemicals from the lawn service don’t get to it first. 

I have been wanting to pull it for a week now, ever since it jumped from the earth after a long rain. It is embarrassing, I say. What will the neighbor’s think? I exclaim. 

Kim will have none of it. There’s beauty there, she says. Let it have its moment in the sun, she insists. 

Then we read together in our Lent book these words from someone grieving the loss of children in a bombing: “Then she burst into my room and grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Hurry.’ We raced two blocks to an abandoned house where a front yard had just been attacked and overtaken by wild violets, by Johnny-jump-ups. We stood in silence for three long minutes and cheered the victory of beauty.”

It is a grace how beauty finds a way, even in the midst of desolation and dormancy, even in the dark, in spite of all we do to snuff it out. 

Kim is right. We should celebrate beauty even in the most unlikely of places. We should certainly not be embarrassed by it. Sometimes all it requires is perspective, eyes to see. 

So, probably out of fear I will sneak out and pull it up, she brings the weed inside, sets it in a place of honor. 

Soon enough the Bermuda will awaken, the “normal” flowers we planted last year or bought and carefully controlled and cultivated will bloom. But here, especially in this week we call Holy, it is time to contemplate the life that comes unbidden, unexpectedly, completely out of our much-vaunted control, and in its wake a mysterious beauty that hints at a love beyond all telling. 

And when, after the long dark night, it springs forth,  we join our alleluias to the host of heaven. 

This week asks the question of us. 

What do you see?


It is the forgotten day

Buried by the Christmas twelve

The Magi journey alone 

Most of us back to work

To the calendar 

Looking forward to ashes

Dancing palms

A piercing cry

And alleluias at dawn. 

But this year

Epiphany dawns white

Sun striking snow upon snow

With brilliance 

And wonder

And we are left

With wise ones of old

In silent reverie

Bearing our gifts


Good Hope

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” writes the author. Most say the first letter to the church in Thessalonica was written by Paul. It has all the trademark signs of his writing. And it is also deeply apocalyptic, proclaiming that Christ’s coming is imminent. The second letter, which in style and tone is quite different from the first, seems to have been necessary because the thing the first letter said was imminent had not yet happened. Years were going by, and still Christ had not come.

“Don’t be shaken in mind or Spirit,” he says. Remember the truth about things. Remember you are children of God, chosen to be a blessing. Do not give yourselves over to anxiety.

Someone told me the other day he was having trouble sleeping at night, because of the election. “If Hillary wins…I just think our country will be ruined for a generation. I’m thinking about moving to Canada.” When I laughed, he said, “I’m serious.” I responded, “You know they have single-payer health care there, right? It’s not a nation known for its conservatism.” “Yes,” he replied, “but they don’t have Hillary.”

And not long after, I had the mirror-image conversation with someone else, about Trump – not sleeping at night, would be devastating to the country, right down to moving to Canada. “Trump will be the destruction of our Republic,” he said, “the end of the American experiment.”

Both conversations put me in mind of a “story” in the satirical newspaper, “The Onion,” with the headline, “Man Who Threatened to Move to Canada Before Election Still Here.” “For weeks before the election, Ron Glick kept saying, ‘I swear if that clown wins, I’m moving to Canada.” “Glick has threatened to renounce his citizenship every four years since 1980, when Reagan’s victory was supposed to precipitate his emigration to Spain.”

This long election season is almost over, and for many across the land it has produced the kind of fearfulness that is reserved for times of war. People are afraid to talk with one another about it because tensions are riding high, families are divided, and church folk are known to drop their heads and walk the other way if the topic is even mentioned.

So, with all that said, here on this All Saint’s Sunday of 2016 I am going to tell you who to vote for. My bags are packed, the car is running outside, my plane ticket to Canada bought, so here goes. On Tuesday, you, along with every Christian you know, should vote for Jesus. There, I said it.

“But,” you might protest, “Jesus is not on the ballot.”

Yes, you are correct. You’re going to have to write him in. But, let me be clear, you’re going to have to write him in after you get out of the ballot box. Somebody besides Jesus will be elected, and some in here will have voted for the winner and some for the loser, but we will all, all of us who bear Christ’s name in baptism, need to be about the business of writing him in, no matter who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We are not the first generation of Christians to experience anxiety about the times. The earliest Christians, who always lived on the edge of persecution, were an anxious lot as well. You can tell by the tone of Paul’s letters. He is constantly telling them not to worry. “Don’t be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed,” he writes, and he could be writing those words today.

For the early Christians, the primary worry was that Jesus had not returned, time was passing away, and so were the apostles. The imminent return that the first letter to the church at Thessalonica had proclaimed was now being updated by a second letter with a new message – don’t be alarmed, be patient.

It is a hard message to hear, and some in the early church were having none of it. They were ready to interpret the things going on around them as a sign that Jesus was returning in their lifetime. Paul may or may not be the author of the letter, scholars say, but it doesn’t matter; the message is clear – don’t fall for it, don’t be shaken in mind or spirit by those who might say the end is near. They might say it under the spell of some prophetic vision (by spirit), or by reason and logic (by word), or by letter (maybe even a fake letter purporting to be from Paul himself). Don’t fall for it.

Paul writes Jesus in. The people of Thessalonica are caught up in fear, and in their fearfulness they are prone to believing, falsely, that something other than God’s grace in Jesus Christ can hold their ultimate loyalty. Paul names the anxiety they are feeling, then he reminds them of the teaching they have received, then reminds them they are God’s beloved children, that God has loved and saved them, then exhorts them to confidence, and prays for their growth. It is a powerful response to fear and alarm, then and now. Paul calls to mind Christ. He writes Jesus in.

What does it mean to write Jesus in? It seems to me it means to be grounded in grace, not lacking in hope, and motivated in all things by love. When we walk out of the voting booth, whoever wins, that is the moment the real work begins – when we have the chance to practice grace, to act in love, to not lose hope, especially when we are among those with whom we might not agree.

On this All Saints Sunday, let us be reminded that our own congregation has been here since 1811. We were here for the War of 1812, when a young Republic was threatened. We were here in 1861, when the bloodshed that was the Civil War visited our town in a momentous battle that cost over 6,000 lives, our then-sanctuary used as a makeshift hospital. We were here when World War I came along, the war to end all wars, followed in short order by a Great Depression that wiped out whole families in our church financially and then another war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. We were here when our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, entering that war. How many of our own congregation lost children, grandchildren, fathers, in those wars? We were here when presidents were assassinated, when the Civil Rights of African Americans shone a spotlight on the South, and we were here when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed just three hours down the road and the whole nation felt as if it was sitting on a powder keg. We were here September 11, 2001, when terror visited our shores.

I do not recite this litany to in any way diminish the times in which we live now, or the importance of the issues we face, but rather to remind us that we have practice in what it means for followers of Jesus Christ to write him in when times are uncertain.

In every period of our history, there were faithful saints who, in the midst of great fear, worshiped God, had their babies baptized, practiced grace, bestowed mercy, communed at the table, and in ways large and small refused to give in to fear, refused to become cynical or hopeless, continued to proclaim that the way of Christ provided a way through fearful times. We remember them on a day like today not to engage in sentimentality, but to draw strength from their witness, to remember that we are not alone.

In 1983 I wrote an editorial for our high school newspaper condemning the United States continuing involvement in Lebanon. A Marine barracks in Beirut had just been bombed, 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel were killed. I wrote a scathing political editorial in which I blamed then-president Ronald Reagan. I was raised in a union family of yellow dog Democrats (they would vote for a yellow dog before they’d vote for a Republican), and so I wasted no time claiming my heritage and laying into Reagan and the Republicans with the fervor and certitude a high school sophomore can muster, which turns out is quite a bit.

I was getting lots of props for it, and somewhere along the line my grandmother had clipped it out and given it to my pastor. When I walked by his office on Sunday, he asked if I could come in and talk for a minute. He said he had gotten my well-written editorial, and he was proud that I, as a young person, cared enough to express myself.

“If you will allow me, though, I’d like to caution you.” It was one of his favorite words – “caution” – that and “grace.”

“Remember,” he said, “that all the things you are writing about are complicated, and the more complicated something is, the better you will need to be at listening to the people who don’t agree with you. They will always have something to teach you, if you’re willing to learn.”

I remember not appreciating his words at the time, thinking this was cautious pastor-speak, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. Now I know he was trying to help me write Jesus in.

I remember being on fire about some hot political issue and going in for my Greek class with Dr. Waddle. It was second year Greek and I was the only student. I was going off, named a couple of students with whom I disagreed strongly, and I called one of them a Neanderthal. Dr. Waddle looked up over his reading glasses and said, “I think you meant to say ‘fellow human being created in the image of God, sinner saved by grace, just like you, right? Could have sworn that was what you meant to say.”

Writing Jesus in.

I’m so grateful for these two saints and so many more who, over the years, have helped me know what it looks like to write Jesus in. My prayer this day is our entire congregation will wake up on Wednesday, and every day, determined to not let fear and cynicism steal our good hope, but instead will write Jesus in, remembering the words of our text, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Amen.

Requiem for My Father

I knew you – really knew you –  late

Which I suppose conventional wisdom

Would say is better than never.

And in this case, conventional 

Wisdom is wise indeed. 

The sages mingle with the masses

And with one voice speak truth- conventional, cliché, clear:

“Better late than never.”

Let it be written in the clouds

Let it be recorded on the limestone

Around which we scatter you. 

(For Curtis Edward Joiner, Jr. 1946-2016)

The Invitation of Finality

I preached this sermon Sunday, August 7, and found myself missing lots of people and places and times, and being grateful. So I thought I would share. Here’s to those things great enough to me missed. 

Preached by Christopher A. Joiner

First Presbyterian Church, Franklin, Tennessee

August 7, 2016

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Revelation 21:1-6 

​During a Christmas Eve candlelight service at the church I served in Alabama, it was the custom to form a circle at the end of the service while our candles were lit and invite people to share. In January, one of the core families in that church was moving across the country. The father spoke up and said, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you for making it so hard for us to move away.”


​It is a blessing that Joan Chittister commends to us all, the one a father said every time he hugged his daughter goodbye: “May every place you be make it hard for you to leave…May every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye.”


​I’ve mentioned to you before our daughter Chandler’s habit when we go on vacation of starting to anticipate the end before it has barely begun. We arrive on a Monday afternoon to the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, just putting our feet in the salt water, and she says, “We will have to leave on Sunday. I don’t want this to end.” I used to try and argue her into recognizing that Sunday was a long way off, but we both knew the truth. It really wasn’t a long way off. It would be here before we knew it. And we knew the week would be wonderful; just being all together in that place, sharing uninterrupted time, Sabbath rest and re-creation. We would miss it for sure. She was just missing it ahead of time.


​And I saw it on the faces of students on Friday as they waited in our neighborhood for the school buses. A mixture of excitement and apprehension, and that telltale look that says, “Where did the summer go?” I sensed it in the scores of Facebook and Instagram photos of students on Friday. All of them a variation on the theme, “I can’t believe how fast they are growing up.” Where did the summer go, where did the years go? If you were one of those students, and you felt a little or a lot of sadness about summer’s end; if you were a parent or a grandparent and felt the sting of tears falling down your cheek as you watched your child enter the school building, then it is a sure sign you were blessed in some way by the thing you miss.


​Chittister says that life is made up of a series of choices, and gradually we build up a scaffolding of those choices, “each of which, sooner or later, one way or another, ends.” And the measure of our happiness, the measure of “our wisdom as we go,” is whether or not, when that period of life which those choices represent comes to an end, it is hard for us to leave…it is hard for us to say goodbye.


​We are sad because that which we are leaving or saying goodbye to is important to us, has become part of us in some way deep within. Often before a funeral, someone will start to cry and apologize. I always try to say, “Never apologize for your tears. They are a sign of the importance of this person to you.” And what we affirm at a funeral we see affirmed here today. Each of these moments in our lives, each of these goodbyes, anticipate a day when our lives will be gathered up into the life of God, when there will be no more goodbyes, no more tears, no mourning over losses. This is the vision of John compiled in the often-troubling and misunderstood letter called Revelation.


​It would be easy here to take a detour through this book’s eerie visions of dragons, lakes of fire, the four horsemen, and lots of other images that feel taken straight from the fertile mind of Stephen King. In reality, many of these images were taken straight from the pages of the Hebrew scriptures and the apocalyptic tradition, which tried to describe metaphorically something that is indescribable. What is it they were trying to describe? The end of days, the day when God would do what we cannot do for ourselves, the day when God would fulfill God’s intentions for the world.


​But today, we have skipped the detour and gone straight to the end of the book. All of Revelation’s seemingly bizarre imagery has been leading up to something, which we see with striking clarity here in Chapter 21. And what we see is that “God does not merely bring the end, God is the end.” God is “all in all.” Our lives and the life of the world will be taken up into the life of God so completely that it can only be called “new.” A new heaven and a new earth. The One we worship we will see, face-to-face.


​When God is all in all, there are certain things which can be no more. Death, the thief which takes those we love away from us, which stalks the world in violence and war, which hides away in cancer cells, which hangs over us as threat, always in the background of every goodbye and every ending, which is the source of crying and mourning and pain, will be gone.


​But true to form in this book of images, all those things that disappear when God appears are summarized in the disappearance of one thing. John writes it at the very beginning of our text: “And the sea was no more.”


​Remember back at the beginning, the very beginning as narrated by Genesis, when God created the heavens and earth and the earth was void and without form, and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. It is chaos, disorder, formlessness. And God creates by pushing the seas back, causing land to appear. The ancient Hebrews believed that it was only God’s grace that held those chaotic waters at bay. We see in the story of the Flood the one time God’s gracious hand was lifted from those waters, allowing them to run free, and chaos and death ensues. The sea represents that chaos. It represents all that is broken in the world, all that threatens.


​“And the sea was no more.”


​I don’t know that I fully understood the power of this image until I stared out through night vision binoculars onto the Aegean Sea. Standing atop a hill overlooking a lighthouse, temperatures below freezing, the chopping waters rising and falling in colors of green, chaos was a word that made sense. As I scanned the waters – up and down, up and down – I occasionally saw the far shoreline of Turkey, knowing that in the deep woods on that other shore there were thousands of people waiting. The smugglers advertised bad weather discounts for those desperate enough to get in flimsy boats, more than likely wearing fake life jackets for which they had paid extra, to make the journey across the sea to where we were, on the Island of Lesvos, in Greece.


​What must that water have represented to the refugees on the other side except tohu wa bohu, formless and void and full of chaos?


​How much more powerful is that promise, standing on top of a cold hill in Greece – “And the sea was no more.” It is not a promise about the literal disappearance of the sea, but about the banishment of what it represents. Refugees drowning in the cold waters? No more. Cancer? No more. War? No more. Homelessness? No more. Broken relationships? No more.


​And goodbyes? No more. All things new.


​It is easy, though, when reading these promises, to begin to pine for that new day, to say things like, “I know it is hard now, but one day, in the future, on the last day, everything will work out.” Not only is that cold comfort for someone experiencing the chaos of the sea now, it is not faithful to the call of the Book of Revelation itself. We are called to live now as if that new day were already here, because, in Christ, it is already present though not fully realized. We catch glimpses of it when we walk in the Way of Christ in the world. We participate in it when we cry with those who weep, when we sit alongside those in pain, when we mourn with those who mourn. We participate in it when we give water from the well of life to those who thirst.


​One of those nights in Greece, Harding McCall saw a boat through those night vision binoculars. By the time the next day dawned, Harding and Tony Inglis were in the Aegean Sea, guiding the boat to the rocky shore, where other members of our team were waiting to tend to babies, help people out of wet and cold clothing, guiding them up to the lighthouse. The refugees were filled with joy, taking selfies with our people, laughing. They had made the journey across the sea. Every cup of water given to them, every bowl of hot soup and mug of warm tea was a participation in that day, that coming day.


​“And the sea was no more.”


​So that feeling you feel when you are sad to see something go, whether it is the summer or the year or a season of life? May you see that feeling as a grace, a sign of the blessing that was, and a foretaste of blessings to come. But may you also see this: a day is coming when all those events and seasons and times, all the love that you have ever given or received, along with the world itself, will be taken up into God.


​Last June was my last time to take classes at Austin Seminary, as I move to the writing phase of the program. From the moment I arrived on the campus for the two-week term, I was saying to my friends I dreaded the end. It was like my toe was barely in the water and already I was anticipating the end. I know where Chandler gets it. My friends were begging me to stop talking about it. It was two whole weeks away. But they knew. We all knew. It flew by. And what a blessing that at the end, it was so hard to say goodbye. And yet, those friendships, that time, it is not gone. It, and all the other times when we have loved and been loved, all of it is taken up into the life of God. So let us live each day by the light of that coming day, let us live each day so that every place you be make it hard for you to leave and every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye. Amen.