The Book of Acts tells the story of the cripple from Lystra, a man crippled at birth. Most of society ignored him -- he was a beggar, after all. He would sit all day in his invisibility and watch people pass by. But there was one who truly saw him. The Apostle Paul recognized him as a man of faith -- and healed him.
The people of Lystra saw all this and thought that Paul and Barnabas were ancient gods of Greece, come to earth to peform miracles. In fact, they thought Barnabas might be Hermes and Paul, Zeus. In fact, they were so sure of it they began to prepare to offer sacrifices to these two "gods." But Paul and Barnabas told them, "We're not gods, we're just folks like you, and we bring you some good news. You want it? Turn from the gods of your religion to the living God who made all things. In days gone by, God allowed you to do things your own way, but even then God was good to you, kept you fed and supplied your needs and made you happy, even though you weren't among the Chosen. Our God has been good to you. So come on with us."
The folks from Lystra still wanted to make that sacrifice -- because they just did not get it. But even in their confusion, they were aiming toward God. The reality that Paul and Barnabas pointed to was greater than anything they could understand, but they were not out to do evil. They were simply offering their best from within the limits of their own understanding.
We have the same experience in our own encounter with the truth of Scripture. The Book of Revelation talks about the reality of heaven. And nothing there fits with the way we understand things in our cities and towns and communities. In the Heavenly City, there is no temple. There's no church building. There's no sun, no moon. There's no shutting the city gates in the daytime; gates are for protection from enemies, and open gates symbolize perfect safety. So the gates are open all day, and there is no night; people can come in anytime and bring into the city of God all the glory and honor of all the nations of the world. Only thing kept out is unclean stuff that brings about destruction and death - because this city is for those whose names written into the Lamb's Book of Life. These are all the ones who have been redeemed for God. They will enjoy Christ's companionship on earth and be acknowledged before God in the City of Heaven.
Flowing down the middle of all this is a river -- the channel of God's blessing. There are 12 trees on either side, bearing fruit 12 months a year, and bearing leaves used to heal the nations. This is the same river that is described in the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 47: "Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, it will become fresh, and everything will live where the river goes. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fall, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water from them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing." In Jewish mystical tradition, the number 12 is the number of completion. In the Heavenly City, all things are had in their fullness, in their most complete state. Nothing -- no good thing -- is lacking -- and people are free to be in the presence of God in worship, in perfect peace and without fear, because they live under divine Protection. The sign of their safety is the name of Almighty God, written as a seal upon their forehead.
This is a vision of a perfect world, and we, too, strive for this perfection. But we live in the here and now. We are not perfect people, and we do not live in a perfect world. The world in which we live contains all the beauty of good and the terror of evil, and it's all mixed up together, by God's design. In the world in which we live and move and have being, good and evil grow up together; we must choose between them, and we do not have forever to make up our minds. In the fullness of God's time, evil is always separated from good. Evil is destroyed, good has the victory -- and that's the good news of the Gospel. We are not talking about what happens after we leave this earth, about something that will not happen until the second coming of Christ. Jesus did not come here and leave here so that the People of God could just sit down and do as they please until his return, waiting for him to come back and fix everything.
In the Gospel of John, our Lord and Savior tells us to keep his word if we love him. He assures us that the Holy Spirit will be present to teach and guide us in pathways of peace. And he warns us of the presence of evil in our midst while we await his return: "So I give you my peace, not as the world gives, because the ruler of this world is the Evil One. Don't be troubled or afraid, because I told you that I am going on, and I am coming back. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going on to be with God, because God is greater than I. And I am telling you this before it happens, so that when it happens, you will believe."
What does it mean for us, in this day and age, to believe? Surely it does not mean that we can take it for granted that God is going to take care of us, so we can just kick back -- as if it's someone else's job to advance God's program on earth. Yes, God's program is going to go on, because no human power can thwart God's plan. But what does this mean? Are we "in"? Or are we "out"? And where's the assurance?
As usual, we are asking the wrong questions. Because the real issue is not whether we will be counted among God's own when Jesus returns. The ones who will be counted among God's own will be the ones who lived their lives because of God's marvelous acts on behalf of humanity -- God's people never play God cheap. God's people do not take God for granted even though God's promises are free. They know that God's love is not like the utility company, which turns on the power when you pay the bill, or shuts it off when you don't, or sends you a notice so you can figure out how many days you have to play with before God puts out the light.
This is not the way it works in the Dominion of God that we hear about in the Revelation account of the Heavenly City. It does not work that way because the book is not talking about what happens to us when we die. It's talking about right here, right now.
We daily enjoy the fruits of God's providence, in the here and now. We walk protected by God in the midst of our troubles -- in the here and now. We receive unmerited grace of the love of God who redeemed us with the blood of Jesus Christ -- in the here and now. We don't get the promise later, we are living in the promise NOW.
So let our lights so shine, in the here and now, that all those who are looking for God may find the peace of Christ in us. Let us strive, in the here and now, to live in obedience that witnesses to the world the saving power of Christian faith. And let us ascend with Christ in the here and now, with hearts and minds set on giving the honor, glory, and worship that are God's just due, not in the next world, but right here, right now, in this world, in this place -- and let all the people of God say AMEN.