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Reflection May 10, 2020
"Precious Tears" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
In our recent Sunday preaching, we are encountering the prophets. I hope we’re all gaining a deeper appreciation for what the prophets can teach us. Their ancient voices continue to challenge us and confront us with our inherent sinfulness, our common brokenness.
The prophets, as know, do not try to predict the future. The prophets read the signs of the times. They are, as I preached last Sunday, watchmen who scan the horizon for dangers.
The Book of Revelation could well be understood as a book that scans the horizon as well. Only recently have I begun thinking of Revelation in this way. My study of the prophets has offered me a different understanding of the oft-misunderstood final book of the Bible.
As the Scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, states in An Introduction to the New Testament: “Revelation is widely popular for the wrong reasons, for a great many people read it as a guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given … detailed knowledge of the future that he communicated in coded symbols. For example, preachers have identified the Beast from the Earth whose number is 666 as Hitler, Stalin, the Pope, and Saddam Hussein.”
Now certainly the Book of Revelation is a prophetic commentary on the state of affairs at the time it was written and a profoundly Christian vision of how everything might end. Revelation was written to give courage and comfort to those early Christians who were suffering persecution under the Roman emperors.
Written by John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, sees “a new heaven and a new earth.” This vision obviously echoes the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Genesis 1:1)
John of Patmos foresees a new Genesis, a new creation no longer damaged by sin and evil. The tree of everlasting life is part of his vision. As Genesis 3:22–24 notes: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.”
In Revelation, John of Patmos envisions the tree of life becoming available for all who wish to take from its fruit. As Revelation 22:2 states: “On either side of the river (of the water of life), is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit … and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
There is no longer a cherub, an angel, guarding the way to the tree of life. In Revelation we have come full circle. We have returned to the place from which we were banished. We’re back in the Garden of Eden and the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of all. This is one of the most potent images found in Revelation. It’s a prophetic vision.
Additional prophetic imagery has to do with Jerusalem. The holy city was destroyed in the year 70 A.D. by Roman soldiers after an uprising by the Zealots. A million people were believed killed in the destruction of Jerusalem. At least a half a million pilgrims had entered Jerusalem for Passover when the Romans began their siege.
The pilgrims were trapped in the city. Many of them tried to escape but were captured by the Romans and crucified by the hundreds each day of the siege. The Temple building was also destroyed and to date the building has never been rebuilt. About 100,000 prisoners were taken to Rome where many worked as slaves building the Coliseum. It was “the worst of times.”
But the prophet John of Patmos sees a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband.” I very much look forward to the New Jerusalem coming “as a bride adorned for her husband.” This is a wonderful vision for all of us in the midst of our present crisis.
The New Jerusalem replaces the old Jerusalem. The new city, however, is considerably larger than the old city. The New Jerusalem is 1500 miles long on all four sides. The city is made of pure gold. There is no temple in the New Jerusalem because God is present so there’s no need for a temple. Its gates are never shut. There is no night because the glory of God never stops shinning.
This is John’s prophetic vision. God will no longer be hidden to us. As Raymond Brown writes: “The dwelling of God with human beings is described lyrically, offering hope for all who live in the present vale of tears: no more tears, death, or pain, or night; a city as beautiful as a precious jewel built on foundation walls bearing the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb; a city … immense enough to contain all the saints … As in Paradise of old, a river of the water of life flows through the city watering the tree of life; and the saints shall live there forever.”
I bring this imagery, this prophetic vision, to us as we make our way through the Hebrew prophets. We need a vision to sustain us. We need a vision worth clinging to.
As the Scripture scholar Barbara Bowe notes in Biblical Foundations of Spirituality: “(The) final chapters of the book of Revelation, with their utopian vision of the heavenly city descending, bring the biblical story at last full circle. And, as the story of Genesis began with the narration of the paradise garden so, too, Revelation closes with the garden revisited. But the dream now is of the entire world as one great … paradise … with God dwelling in the midst. This is a vision as much for the earth itself as for all the creatures who inhabit God’s creation.”
One dynamic of this prophetic vision I personally embrace is the promise that God “will wipe every tear from (our) eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” I have shed so many tears over the many years I’ve lived. A goodly number of those tears have been shed during my 12 years as pastor of our beloved church. So many have gone to God during my time as pastor including my beloved Beth.
I await that great day when grief will be gone from our world; that great day when pain will no longer pummel our bodies, our hearts, our souls; that great day when death itself dies and is no more.
It’s no surprise that John of Patmos gets help from the prophet Isaiah. In another week or so, we’ll engage this compelling prophet. Here are words from Isaiah 25:6–8: “On this mountain (Mount Zion) the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines … And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”
Tears continue to flood our world. I have no idea of the amount of tears shed in our present pandemic but I’m sure tears are greatly abundant. But we would do well to keep in mind that tears are precious to God. As Psalm 56:8 proclaims: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (New Living Translation)
As the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross, notes in The Fountain & the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire: “The reference (in Psalm 56) to the bottle for tears refers to an ancient practice of collecting one’s tears and preserving them … tears were regarded as the (sacred remnants) of grief, laughter, and joy. Tear bottles were made of glass … It is possible that the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:38) was pouring out her bottle of tears.”
I see tears as a way of prayer as well as a way of expressing joy and sorrow. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and at the tomb of Lazarus. In Hebrews 5:7 it’s written: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death…” Just as Jesus wept, so we should not be afraid or embarrassed to weep.
How many times a year on average do we weep? In a study of English-speaking people, it was found that women weep, on average, 64 times a year, or more than once a week. Men weep on average 17 times a year. Maybe that’s why women do better in times of crisis than males? We males should remember that tears are precious to God. God collects our tears in a bottle!
As Ross writes: “Tears are the sign of the life of the body linked with our life in God … To weep, to accept the grace of tears takes the greatest strength, which is to acknowledge what the world calls weakness. That weakness is our greatest strength and the window into joy because it is the window by which the light of God comes in: the window of our tears. To yield ourselves, to hand ourselves over to the way of tears even as Jesus handed himself over in the Garden of Gethsemane to pain and suffering … can only lead to resurrection.”
One study done about fifty years ago estimated that women who live to at least 70 years of age shed about 15 gallons of tears in a lifetime while men shed about 10 gallons. This does not include the ten ounces of tears we all produce each day to lubricate our eyes.
So there are lots of tears watering our world. We await that marvelous day when God will wipe away all our tears. On that day God will break all the bottles containing all the precious tears that have been shed since we humans began our journey to God. Perhaps all those endless tears become the river of the water of life seen so clearly by John of Patmos. And the waters of that river will wash us free from pain, free from mourning, free from death. When God comes to wipe away every tear!
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister