Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Revelation 21: 1-4, 6-7, 9-12, 21)
There is a street that winds through a tiny village in the eastern parts of Ethiopia. It is made of dust and dirt and has seen generations walk its path. Flanked on either side of this street are tiny huts – long sticks and other brush, stacked and tied together. They offer protection from the brutal sun and wind that is part of life in this region of Africa. These huts are home to as many as three generations of families. There is no running water, no modern plumbing. Food is scarce – they get their meals wherever and wherever they can.
There is a little girl that walks down the street; she is eight years old. She has no shoes on her feet and for clothing she wears an oversized t-shirt. It’s been almost a week since she had a decent meal. She is kicking a can down the road; the dust from the street puffs up in the air as the can bounces along. It is not the life she would choose, but it is the life she knows. It is her home, her street. A street like so many others that wind through this part of Africa. It is a street without a name.
Some decades ago, a man by the name of Paul Hewson walked that street with his wife Ali. He saw the huts; he met the girl. He was moved to tears by the immense poverty that overwhelmed him in that place; a poverty in which this child and so many others suffer day in and day out.
But he saw something else on that street with no name and the people who lived on it. Something that would seem to be the last thing one would find there. He saw hope – hope in the eyes of the people; hope in the promise of something better to come, even though such hope, such promise would seem brutally unattainable. This contradictory pairing of despair and hope stuck with him long after he returned to his Ireland home.
So much so that, when he got home, he decided to write a song about it. Which he was rather good at doing. See, most of the world knows Paul Hewson as Bono, lead singer for the rock band U2. You’ve probably heard the song before: “Where the Streets Have No Name” kicks off their seminal album “The Joshua Tree” in brilliant fashion, but the song’s true beauty is best revealed in its live performance.
It usually comes in the middle of the setlist, following a lineup of songs whose content delves into struggles, messiness, pain. The song begins with the low hum of keyboards accompanied by this amazing light display which reveals hundreds of flags from countries all over the world ascending and descending in the background. As the song builds Bono, with almost sermonic flair, speaks over the intro; quoting, of all things, the 116th psalm: What shall I return to the Lord, for all his bounty to me? I lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I pay my vows in the presence of God’s people.
As the song arrives at its crescendo with guitar and drums in lock step; Bono sings as if he is walking those Ethiopian streets all over again; still wrestling with that contradictory pairing of despair and hope:
I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I wanna reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name
I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see dust clouds disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name
The city’s aflood and our love turns to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust
I’ll show you a place high on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name
And as the song reaches its conclusion, you almost feel as if you’ve been to church and will carry that sermon home with you. All of this from an Irish rock band and a song written about one man’s trip to the other side of the world where he found the last thing he expected there.
Streets have a way of telling us something about who we are. You meet a stranger and ask their name; and somewhere soon after if the exchange continues it is followed by another question: “where do you live.” Streets reveal some things about our lifestyle – how much money we make (or don’t), whether we prefer the busy-ness of city living or the quiet of the country. Most streets have a name, which means they have an address – a necessary tool to get from point A to point B, or for the mail carrier to deliver your bills.
But there are streets in this world, such as the one Bono sings about, that have no name. Not much is known about them, which oftentimes is the point. Nameless streets have a way of equalizing things, of leveling the playing field, of bringing to light the hope-filled truth that we all are valued the same in the eyes of God.
We find such a street mentioned in Revelation, this mysterious book at the end of our Bible that is more often than not a source of confusion and angst rather than clarity and truth – much less hope. There are plenty of folks who take passages from Revelation and eagerly set them alongside current events as a way to explain the future or offer some up-until-now hidden meaning.
It sounds great, and it’ll sell some books or maybe get you on TV, but the somewhat surprising truth is that Revelation is more about the past and present than the future. It’s a vision that the writer John experienced in the late first century; and it was directed at the young Christian community as it faced a season of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty. To be a Christian in that day meant that you were, at best, setting yourself up for ridicule and irrelevancy; and at worst, putting your very life at risk.
These were challenging, even dark, times for the early church, when nothing was certain and everything was up in the air. And that is why Revelation was such a source of hope to the faithful. This vision of a future age of peace, ruled by God, where all evil forces are defeated. There is a dramatic transformation to the way God intended things to be; and all of creation is fully renewed. There’s a “new heaven and a new earth,” with a “new Jerusalem” – the holy city. This is change on a cosmic scale; nothing is outside the realm of God’s redemptive power.
Now the writer of Revelation goes to great lengths to paint this elaborate picture of the new city Jerusalem. Picture this: the city descends down from heaven itself, home to God Almighty. It radiates like a rare jewel, crystal clear. There’s no weeping or crying in this holy city; death is nonexistent. The city is fortified by huge walls and gates that reflect its majesty. And the streets are made of pure gold. Streets that have no name because there’s no need for them. Everyone lives together; everyone lives with God. These streets don’t define or divide us like our streets can. In fact, they do the opposite: they unite everyone together. They don’t reveal who is rich or poor, who is red, who is blue; because in this new Jerusalem all are the same in God’s eyes. They are made of gold because even here the streets give glory to God.
It seems appropriate that this magnificent vision of the grand city comes at the end of Revelation. This is, after all, the culmination of God’s incredible work when all wrongs are made right and creation has been re-fashioned to reflect God’s original design.
It was this vision, and the others in Revelation, that kept those early Christians going; it’s what helped them endure the persecution and suffering they faced each day. Remember, Revelation is not about the future but the present. All this talk about what would be gave God’s people something to cling to now; a “north star” to guide them forward. And note that it doesn’t suggest God would make their present problems disappear – rather, it provided them with the means to persevere through those problems; even thrive in them. It assured them that there would come a time when they would be on the other side of their struggles, looking back and giving thanks to God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. That future reality is what helped them see through their present uncertainty.
Which sounds pretty good about right now, don’t you think?
Three months ago we went on sabbatical together. I left this place and left each of you, those here in this sanctuary and those worshipping online. Three months later and now we’re back together, thanks be to God. A lot in our lives has changed since then; and part of my work in these next few weeks will be to get caught up on those things – and I appreciate your patience and grace as I do that.
But for all that has changed, one that hasn’t, most unfortunately, is this virus that continues to linger and the upheaval it continues to cause in our lives. I think when we parted three months ago we both hoped things would be different when we got back together. And it’s not. And that, quite frankly, is disappointing. It’s also exhausting. Do you agree? Not knowing when it will be over; not knowing when we might be turning a corner, is exhausting. Let me get an Amen if you’re with me on this.
It’s exhausting. And then you throw in vaccine hesitation, mask battles, ugly Afghanistan exits, hurricanes and flooding and school shootings and cultural divides that cut deeper and deeper – well, it’s more than exhausting. Our uncertain present makes the future seem even less certain. We are afraid. And friends, when we live in fear, that is a pandemic unto itself.
Now I’m always a little cautious about interpreting Revelation for ourselves, because Revelation was not written for the likes of you and me – people of privilege and comfort and power. Truthfully, Revelation was written as an indictment of those things. But here’s what I can say: the uncertainty of our time, no matter who we are, is why a book like Revelation was written and passed down in the first place. Jesus came to live among us and in so doing faced head-on all the things we struggle with: the fear, the inequality, the sickness, the hate and violence, the uncertainty. And Jesus came not just to take them on, but to offer us an alternative – a new and radical vision of the grace and glory of God, where hope can be found even in the uncertainty of the moment, even when we’re not sure when things will get better, even when we are exhausted.
As our sabbatical began back in early June and as it was coming to an end last week, I read and re-read the book, How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going. I actually quoted this book and four questions from it in my last sermon back in May. If you’re a leader in our church – whether that means an elder on session or working with our youth or serving on a ministry team or singing in our choir or just curious about what lies ahead (in other words, all of you) – if you are a leader in our church, I highly commend this short book to you. Author Susan Beaumont’s book came out before Covid but it is tailor-made for our circumstance. She offers insight into how a church is led in a “liminal season” – those uncertain periods between what was and what comes next; those times of transition when we’re not entirely sure what it is we’re transitioning to. In other words, right now.
Now I’ll let you in on a little secret – we in the church, especially the mainline church, we’ve been in a liminal season for almost half a century now. As culture has shifted and church is changing in all kinds of ways, we’ve been essentially figuring it out as we go along, doing our best to be faithful to Jesus and his calling for us. It has been challenging, to say the least. But the past year and a half? It has been liminality on steroids.
Over the next few months I’m going to share more with you from Susan’s book, because it seems to me that some of the way forward for our church might be found in there. But for now, let me just say this: our calling as the church of Jesus Christ in this liminal season is to embrace that liminality, not run from it. There is hope to be found in the unsettledness and uncertainty, not because it’s enjoyable because it rarely is. There is hope there for us in the same way there was hope in the eyes of that little girl on the streets of Africa that prompted Bono to write his song; hope in a vision that John of Patmos encountered in a time when the church was hanging on by a thread.
After all, visions do not come to God’s people when all is right with the world, do they? No, they come when God desires to show God’s beloved the hope that runs through their struggles and uncertainty like a thread that can never be broken. God will not allow God’s church to experience liminality without also showing them a future promise with hope.
God, help us – in spite of all that’s going on in our present – to bear witness to and hold on to that future hope. Let us walk down the streets that have no names, because it’s there in those unfamiliar places where you remind us that your power and your glory is forever poised to transform our broken world.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.