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“No Expiration Date, Good Anywhere”

Date: September 8, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Revelation 21:1-7

I’ve never been all that great with coupons.

When I was in college, and first out of college, and didn’t have a whole lot of money, I clipped coupons religiously. Every Sunday when the paper came I would pull out the slick stuff and cut out the coupons for anything I thought I might use. I even had a little organizer for them, which I took with me whenever I did my grocery shopping. I was on a very tight budget, and a few coupons could mean a couple dollars I could spend on a treat of some kind.

Once things weren’t so tight, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for clipping coupons.

To some extent, it turns out, coupons are a bit deceiving. They’re always for name-brand stuff, and in a lot of cases you can save more by buying store brand than you can with coupons. (There are some things, like canned tuna, where you really want to buy a name brand; but for a lot of items, store brand is just fine.) So I don’t really see much point in coupons nowadays, given the way I generally plan and shop for groceries.

But for some other people, they’re a very big deal.

Several years ago a friend of mine got into “extreme couponing.” She would post pictures on Facebook of all the stuff she’d gotten for next to nothing by using lots and lots and lots of coupons. I’m not even sure where a person would go to get that many coupons, and even if I knew, I probably wouldn’t do it, because I have a really low tolerance for things I find tedious—and clipping coupons is really high on that list. (Plus I don’t really have a place to store ten bottles of shampoo and such that you get with extreme couponing.)

But back when I did use a lot of coupons, I noticed a few things. There are two kinds of coupons, manufacturer’s coupons and store coupons. Manufacturer’s coupons are good anywhere the products they’re for are sold, while store coupons are generally good at just one store. (Sometimes a store would advertise that they would honor their competitors’ coupons, but it wasn’t very common, if I remember correctly.)

There were some stores—I don’t know if this is still the case—where they would double any coupon you brought in, so if it was for 50¢ off something, you would get $1 off instead.

You had to pay attention to the expiration dates on the coupons, too. Now and then one would be inside the package, and when you took it out you’d discover it had already expired. And whatever coupons you clipped, you had to go through from time to time and toss anything that expired before you used it. (Always found that part really tedious, too.)

The very best coupons—and they were pretty rare—were manufacturer’s coupons that didn’t have an expiration date. If you found one of those, it was a little bit like hitting the jackpot.

This summer we have spent time with one of the most important concepts in Christian—and Jewish as well—theology: covenant. We’ve learned about four major covenants in the Bible. There are more, but they’re generally pretty specific to one person and one time and place—like when God promises to protect Cain, Adam and Eve’s son, who was the first human being ever to murder another, from vigilante justice (Genesis 4:1-16). The four major ones were made with Noah and all of creation after the flood, with Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants, with David, and with Moses and the Israelites after they were freed from slavery.

That covenant is the most important of the four, and the one that has no expiration date. It’s summarized in one sentence: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Technically it’s conditional; Deuteronomy tells us that God promises to be our God as long as we keep God’s commandments. But God’s people haven’t done a very good job of that. And oftentimes we’ve heard the prophets call us to account, telling us at times that God is ready to let us suffer the consequences of our actions.

But throughout the Bible what we also see is that, even though we have repeatedly broken the covenant, God has never abandoned us entirely. God continues to reach out to us, seeking to bring us back into the covenant.

The Torah, the Law that set out the expectations for how God’s people were to live, is itself pretty realistic that we are going to mess up. There are provisions right there in the Torah for how we go about turning back to God when we sin; there are offerings to be made as signs of our repentance and commitment to being reconciled to God.

The prophets continuously called for the people to turn back to God, and warned them of what would happen if they didn’t. But even when the people failed, God never stopped trying to restore the covenant.

Eventually God took a drastic step: God’s Son, Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, was born as a human baby and lived among us, showing us what God is like and, on the cross, how far God was willing to go to restore the covenant relationship with us.

The covenant was originally made with a particular people, in the Bible sometimes called Hebrews, sometimes Israel, and finally Jews. The people were meant to be holy, set apart, God’s own people separate and distinct from the other peoples in the world. Jesus was born into this people, and when he walked the earth, his ministry was almost exclusively to them. Some of them recognized him as the Messiah they had been waiting for, but many did not—and still to this day do not.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and became the church. Before he ascended, Jesus told them that the ministry he began was now to be extended “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). No longer would the covenant only be with the Jewish people; now we Gentiles were to be welcomed in as well.

But this did not mean the Jews were out.

The dangerous, but unfortunately quite popular, Christian belief called “supersessionism” says that God has rejected the Jews and made the New Covenant with us through Jesus. Supersessionism has had many horrible consequences for Jewish people and for relations between Jews and Christians over the centuries. And it’s not really Biblical. The Bible, particularly the 9th through 11th chapters of Romans, is quite clear that God has not and will not break the covenant made with God’s people, Jew and Gentile alike.

And today, in the book of Revelation, we find out that this covenant is operative through the end-times and beyond.

I love the book of Revelation, even though a lot of us mainline preachers are oftentimes afraid to touch it. I don’t love the ways it’s been used to scare people into faith.

The imagery found in Revelation—beasts with horns and extra heads, bowls of wrath poured out on the earth, and so on—is terrifying to us, because the style it’s written in, called apocalyptic, is not as common today as it was in the centuries immediately before and immediately after Jesus’ life on earth.

Some say that apocalyptic writing is in code, to be understood by oppressed people but not by their oppressors, who dismissed it as insane ranting. Nowadays we have lost that code, so Revelation and other apocalyptic writings (like parts of Daniel and Ezekiel) are hard for us to understand.

Revelation is meant to be a message of hope and a call to endurance, addressed to people who were being mistreated because of their Christian faith. But we aren’t, in this country, at least, mistreated because we are Christians, certainly not in the way Revelation’s original hearers—it’s a letter, meant to be read aloud—were. So when we try to interpret Revelation, we miss the point, and oftentimes we do harm.

It needs to be read, as the liberation theologians would say, “from below.” We need to use our imaginations and try to understand what it would have been like living as a Christian in the first century Roman Empire: never sure whether local rulers would tolerate Christians in their region or decide to try and do away with them through torture, exile, or death. Oftentimes they wouldn’t know who could be trusted and who couldn’t, wondering when someone didn’t show up for worship whether they had been taken by the authorities, fearing they might be tortured into giving up the names of their fellow Christians. Standing firm as followers of Christ would have been tough, and dangerous, in those days, in ways utterly foreign to us living in 21st-century America.

To a congregation in Asia Minor—modern day Turkey—in, say, 90 ce, Revelation would have had this message: Yes, times are hard right now. Yes, some of you may die—some of your brothers and sisters have died—because of your faith. But those who die in Christ will be in God’s care, and will be guarded against any further harm, while Christ fights against the forces of evil that now wreak havoc on earth and in the spiritual realm. He will win, and when he does, heaven and earth will be made new, and God will dwell in our midst, in the center of the New Jerusalem, which God, not humans, will build.

The last two chapters of Revelation describe the new heaven and earth, and among the absolutely beautiful imagery found in those two chapters, we find something that’s rather astonishing.

The covenant God made with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai, clear back in the book of Exodus, goes beyond the end-times. When the new heaven and the new earth come, and the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to take its place in their midst, God promises this:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.”

This language is lifted right out of Ezekiel (37:37), but with one small but very important change. That change is from people in Ezekiel to peoples in Revelation. The new Jerusalem where God will dwell in our midst isn’t a city where a faithful few are welcome; the covenant isn’t made with only those faithful few. The gates are open, all peoples are welcomed in, regardless of their race or ethnicity or nationality, or any other of the varieties found among humanity.

The covenant stands even after the end of the age, and all of us are and will be part of it forever.