“How’s your vision?”
Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson Church of the Intercession
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Texts: Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Great Fifty Days of Easter are, of course, dedicated to commemorating and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. But these Fifty Days also celebrate something else, although you have to pay close attention to the Sunday readings in order to see exactly what: we are also in what we might call the “Season of Visions.” Our readings since Easter have been centered on stories of visions given by God to Jesus’ disciples.
Look at what our lectionary has given us since Easter Sunday. We have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles instead of from the Hebrew Scriptures for our first reading, and from the Book of Revelation instead of from the epistles for the second. This is the only season of the year when the lectionary departs so drastically and consistently from the customary shape of the Liturgy of the Word.
There is a good reason for this. Since Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven, where he will remain until he comes again, we need to be taught about how the persons of the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) communicate with us during this period when Jesus is physically absent from us. Note that I said “physically absent” – he is still very much alive in our world, but obviously he’s not still walking around teaching and healing in the Middle East.
One of the primary ways that God communicated with disciples after Jesus’ Ascension is through visions. So what is a vision? First let’s say what a vision is not: a vision is not a dream. Some visions might occur during dreams but the vast majority of dreams do not contain visions at all. Now for what a vision is: a vision is the replacement of our physical sight and consciousness of this world by spiritual sight, consciousness of images and information that is normally invisible to our eyes. When one “sees” a vision, we don’t see it with our biological eyes but rather with an inward sense of sight. Yet these visions are just as real as what we see with our eyes – even more so. And most important is that visions have a purpose: they are meant to convince us to do something for God. The main defining characteristic of a vision is that it is sent from God for a specific purpose. It is not a manifestation of our own desires, fears or concerns, which what most of our dreams are: our mind trying to make sense of what was on our mind or heart the day before the dream, or maybe even for the longer term traumas or desires that remain unhealed or unfulfilled.
Now God of course can send any type of communication at any time God chooses, but the main time the Bible says that visions occur is during prayer, and far less frequently during sleep. This makes sense, because those are the times we would be most open to
receiving a vision – when our minds and consciousness are disengaged from the physical world and our own concerns, when we turn our attention both inward and upward.
Now in our own day and age, visions are considered fantastical and unreliable, like drug hallucinations. But one quick glance at the Book of Acts tells us that back in those days, visions were considered the best possible source of information about reality and concrete directions on taking specific actions. Take the visions we have already seen in the past few weeks from Acts: first we had the famous vision that Paul had of Jesus himself, which knocked him down on the Road to Damascus and struck him blind.
This is immediately followed by an equally amazing – but much less well-known – vision given to a disciple named Ananias, telling him to go find Paul and heal him. This vision is remarkable for its specifics: God tells Ananias to go to a particular street – the street called “Straight” – ask around until he finds someone named Saul of Tarsus, then go lay hands on him and heal his blindness. But God doesn’t stop there: he tells Ananias that at that very moment Paul is also receiving a vision telling him that someone named Ananias is going to come to restore his sight. And still further: when Ananias complains to the Lord that he knows this Saul and that he’s a no-good terrorist out to murder Jesus’ disciples, God tells him that his plan is for Saul to become the Apostle Paul: “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” So maybe it’s not surprising that in today’s reading from Acts, when Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help, he and his disciples immediately set off for Macedonia. They are aware that God clearly has a purpose and far more information than they do, so it’s best to follow the vision!
Then remember that last week we heard about Peter’s vision of the sheet filled with various creatures repeatedly raised and lowered to earth while Peter hears: “Arise Peter, kill and eat,” and “What God has made clean you must not call profane” three times. This strange vision convinces Peter to go the home of a gentile and eat non-kosher food in order to preach the gospel to that Gentile man and his household.
What all of these visions have in common is that they took the recipient of the vision’s understanding of God’s world and smashed it to bits, which in turn creates a new opening to a transformed future. Let’s put it this way: Paul would never have associated with Jesus’ disciples, let alone become one, without the vision on the Road to Damascus. Ananias would never have gone anywhere near Paul unless God told him about the apostle that Paul would become. And there was no way Peter was going to eat non- kosher food with gentiles unless God himself told him that it was His will to include gentiles in the plan of salvation. All of these men – Paul, Ananias, Peter – had to be shown a vision of God’s plan for the future. Without it, they never would have been able to there.
That’s true for all of us, too – if we cannot imagine something, if we have no vision for the future, then we cannot conceive of a life or a world that is different than what we believe to be the settled order of things, and so we will never go there. And unfortunately, our world is becoming more and more entrenched in our hardened, angry,
us-versus-them present. What would you say if God gave you a vision that told you to go happily eat in a house filled with, say, our current President’s cabinet – yes, all of them, including our Attorney General? But that’s exactly the sort of thing that God has a history of doing. Our judgments about what is required of us as obedient, faithful disciples are not God’s judgments – they are often not God’s will, and they are based only on our own desires for stability and comfort. But God says, “My ways are higher than you ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” And God also says: “without a vision, the people perish.”
That’s from the Book of Proverbs – the King James translation says, “Without a vision, the people perish, and become ungovernable.” Does that sound like where we are today? Without a sense of direction for the future, people will perish after becoming ungovernable, because vision, disruptive as it can be, is what gives us hope. People without hope get angry and depressed and resentful and blind to possibility. If we can never imagine getting far beyond where the world is now, we will never have a different world in the future.
So what vision can help us achieve a transformed future? For that we turn to the Book of Revelation, which, of course, is one massive vision from beginning to end, one that is both incredibly disturbing yet ultimately hopeful. Last week we heard:
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, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
That’s the reading directly before our one today. Last week and this week we are in the closing chapters of Revelation, which means that we are very close to the end of the New Testament, for us the conclusion of the entire Bible, and it all ends with a very surprising vision: a new earth, a new planet, replacing the one we know as our earth. Let’s be clear: God, through John the Divine, the author of Revelation, is prophesying a redeemed material world that supplants the one we are living on right now. This is not a vision of where we’re going when we die, this is a vision of life here – and like all of the other visions we have spoken about this morning, it is about a transformation of the world as we know it, the world as we assume it will continue. This is a statement of growth and change: God’s plan for the world, and for us. And like every other vision in the Bible, it contains a message for our role in God’s plan of salvation.
Now I’m the first to admit that I have a lot of trouble reading let alone understanding the Book of Revelation. All of the creatures and symbolism and murky prophecies in it make large parts of it incomprehensible to me. But today’s reading is different. Take a close look and you’ll see why: this is a reading about our partnership with God. In this new Jerusalem on this new earth, God will be the light, and the lamp will be the Lamb (Jesus). But look who provides the glory for this gorgeous, fruitful, peaceful and celebratory city! The Bible says that “the kings of the nations” will bring in their glory and that they will reign forever. These “kings” are not the few throughout human history who have had a royal title or worn a crown – no, these “kings” are us, the royal priesthood of Christ, those written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, who have served and believed and worshipped
faithfully here on this earth. If we partner with God we will reign and worship and live in God’s presence for eternity. That is God’s promise.
Without such a vision, we, God’s people, will perish. Without hope for the future, we will remain, angry, depressed and fearful. Without a sense of purpose and partnership with God, we can’t imagine a new earth. Yet God is telling us that it is his command to us to do just that. So may I ask you today: Can you see the vision? Can you imagine the future? Are you up to the task?
How’s your vision?