A Sermon for Christian Aid Week 2022
After watching the video Christian Aid film about Janet Zirugo in Zimbabwe
There is no single meaning for any biblical text, even though we may fool ourselves into thinking that there is. Instead, the ‘meaning’ of any Bible passage arises from the interaction between the words on the page and the interests and experiences that we bring to it. So, for example, when in the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another, just as I have loved you’ (13:34) that doesn’t mean the same thing for us that it did for them.
They were being asked to love the fellow members of a small group that went around with Jesus for three years or so. If that’s all it meant for us then we would not have to do anything for those disciples are all dead and gone. But of course, for us, Jesus’s words have a different meaning. We are challenged to apply them to our own situation, which means loving a different, much larger group of people; at least the multi-million-member worldwide church, and perhaps the worldwide population, of which we today are aware but they, in the first century, could not be.
So the same biblical words will have a different, though often related, meaning according to your situation. And that got me thinking about another John and another Bible reading – John the Divine, and his vision in the Book of Revelation: ‘then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away …’ (21:1) Instead of asking myself what I thought of today’s reading from the Book of Revelation, I wondered what Janet Zirugo might make of Revelation 21:1-6.
Now it’s bit cheeky for me to suggest to you what Janet might make of this Bible passage. After all, I’m a privileged white, European male, living in a politically stable, well-off nation, being paid to be a church minister, which isn’t the worst job in the world. Janet, on the other hand, is a black Zimbabwean woman. She’s a mother of ten (which leaves me exhausted just thinking about it), a grandmother of twenty-eight, and great-grandmother of eight. She has to work incredibly hard, in a time of long-lasting drought, to see that her family are fed and educated, so that there is hope for the future. Still, if I’m serious about loving others, like Jesus says I should, then surely a small step in the right direction is to ask myself, “what would Janet think?”
What would Janet think about Revelation 21:1-6? What might catch her attention? What might give her hope? Well, I had a read back through Revelation 21:1-6, trying to imagine myself into Janet’s situation and viewpoint, and here’s what occurred to me. And in all that follows in this sermon, when I fail to do Janet justice, and I’m sure that will happen, my apologies to her and to you.
I wondered if the first verse to leap out at Janet would be part of the final verse in this passage – verse six. ‘Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”’ (21:6) I would have been intrigued by ‘the Alpha and the Omega’, but with Janet in mind, it’s God’s ‘I will give water to the thirsty’ that now grabs my attention.
I live in a land where the rain falls often, and where water just pours out the many taps in the house where I live, whenever I want it. Here in North Shields, I so take for granted God’s provision of water that I hardly notice this occasion when it’s promised to me in scripture. If, on the other hand, like Janet, I live in a dry land, with less water supply infrastructure, then a divine promise – ‘I will give water to the thirsty’ – is important news.
Then I wondered if Janet might go back to the beginning of this passage from Revelation: ‘then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.’ (21:1) Previously, when I imagined this vision, my attention was on ‘the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God’ (21:2), and it was all comfortably located far off in the future, most likely when I am dead and gone. Now, trying to read the same verses through Janet’s eyes, things have changed. Now I’m focused on the promise of ‘a new earth.’ (21:1)
Living here in North Shields, in relative affluence and comfort, I feel no immediate need for a ‘new earth’. By and large, things are ok for me they way they are; God’s ‘new earth’ can wait for tomorrow. Reading from Janet’s point of view, however, things are different. From the point of view of those living in deeply difficult circumstances, God’s ‘new earth’ – one that’s radically changed, socially, economically, ecologically and politically – is needed now.
And here Janet’s reading comes closer to that of the first readers of the Book of Revelation than subsequent generations, like ours, which have tended to read it as being about the far-off future. Almost certainly, however, it was both written and read as a veiled commentary upon and criticism of the political, social and economic arrangements of its own day i.e. life in the Roman Empire, whose outlook, beliefs and values were at odds with those of God, as revealed through Jesus Christ.
So I suspect that when Janet reads about God’s ‘new earth’, she thinks that’s something that’s supposed to be brought about today, not left to tomorrow; that the task of Christian sisters and brothers is to start that work now; through, for example the supportive actions of organisation such as Christian Aid.
And that’s when I think Janet will refer people to verse four in Revelation 21: ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ In my life setting I often quote that verse when conducting a funeral service. I do so because these words speak profoundly about the hope we can have about our future beyond life in this world. The ‘mourning and crying and pain’ in the funeral setting references and acknowledges the pain of bereavement. Also, though, it accompanies such acknowledgement with a reminder and declaration about hope for the future.
Now that application of the biblical text (about bereavement and hope) holds true for everyone, for we all face death and bereavement, though with the prospect of eternal life. In Janet’s situation, however, there is an additional, equally profound application crying out to be made. In his vision, this New Testament prophet speaks also to the plight of those in poverty today. Mourning, crying and pain that arises out of losing the struggle against drought, famine and unequal sharing of resources can and should be wiped away in the here and now. And when you are seeing things from the perspective of Janet, tears that arise out of such injustices must be wiped away in the here and now.
And that’s a task for Christians, including Christians like you and me. After all, we’re the ones whose scriptures proclaim that God gives water to the thirsty. We’re the ones pinning our hopes on God creating a new earth. We’re the ones who read and realise that this involves wiping away today’s tears of mourning, crying and pain. And when we see that then we can also look forward to that time when God’s will is finally accomplished everywhere here on earth.