Rev 21:1-7 Behold!
May 15, 2022 Rev 21:1-7 Behold! Rev. Paul L. Escamilla
When I taught classes in worship at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, one student planned and led a healing service to fulfill one of his assignments. At a certain point in the service, which was held in Perkins Chapel there on the SMU campus, he had his dozen or so classmates—and the professor—kneel at the altar rail so he could impose the oil of healing on our foreheads. As he stood before me and marked my forehead with oil in the sign of the cross, I heard him say, “Professor Escamilla, give it all you’ve got.” Those weren’t exactly the words I was expecting, but I received them.
Those words reminded me of Leona Wynne, an active member, a leader in missions’ outreach and other ministries at a church I served in Dallas. Some years earlier Leona had lost her husband to an untimely death. In that wake of that loss, she came to know Ginny, also grieving the recent loss of her spouse. Ginny belonged to the church I was now serving and invited Leona to attend. Leona was cautious, but several months later she finally accepted Ginny’s invitation. and showed up one Sunday morning for worship. Leona said, “The day walked into that sanctuary, not only did I completely surprise Ginny—I was pretty surprised myself.
As I settled into the pew and began to take in my surroundings, right away I noticed the multi-colored stained-glass window on the wall behind the chancel. Beneath the brilliant figure of the risen Christ were the words, “Behold, make all things new.” In the course of the service, I would think to myself, Why am I here? What am I doing? How am I going to make it through this? And I would look up and see those words, Make all things new, and then think to myself, “I have to go forward; I have to keep moving. I have to make things new.”
Something about it didn’t feel quite right to Leona. It was sort of how I felt in that healing service when I heard the words, “Professor Escamilla, give it all you’ve got.” There’s the power of positive thinking school of thought, of course; and the human potential movement—the idea that if something’s going to change, we must be the source of that change.
And yet if we’re honest we have to admit that even in our most virtuous and vital seasons of life we can’t do everything we want to do, be everything we want to be, make the world everything we want it to become. We can give it all we’ve got and still not succeed in accomplishing our goals, in making all things new.
Giuseppi Verdi, one of the greatest operatic composers of the 19th century, had a particular distaste for organ grinders—to put it mildly. He saw it as his mission in life to eliminate the sounds of that particular instrument from the streets of his hometown in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. When he heard one playing on a street corner, he would stop what he was doing, purchase it then and there from the player, and stow it in his vast basement. After he died, hundreds of organ grinders were discovered in that basement.
The story is told that one day he passed a man playing an organ grinder on his way to lunch, but time was short so he couldn’t pause long enough to purchase the offending instrument and lug it home with him. Instead, he simply offered a snide critique about the listless, dragging music he heard as he hurried past: “Pick it up! Pick it up!” After lunch he retraced his steps, and to his shock the man was actually playing faster. To his even greater surprise, he had made a makeshift sign that read, “Student of Giuseppi Verdi.”
Trying to better ourselves or our world all by ourselves is a bit like trying to silence all the world’s organ grinders. Eventually we’ll fill our basement and more will take their place. Sometimes our best efforts to better ourselves or improve something beyond ourselves goes the other direction, leaving us more frustrated than fulfilled. Leaders in the church or society—even within a family—with an unqualified sense of their burden to fix things, repair things, clean up things, correct things, perfect things—often end up trying to force a vision on themselves or other people in heavy-handed ways (and that never works, of course) rather than open-handed ways, which, while very risky, affords the only possibility of accomplishing a goal. Give it all you’ve got is a problematic gospel message. Make all things new—same.
Niebuhr: Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.
It was lifted from the pages of Scripture; it was drawn from the text we read together this morning, in which God draws near to us, wipes away our tears of disappointment, grief, sadness, fear; then makes the most incredible promise: Behold, I make all things new. Leona gazed at that message, took it in.
Leona later said, “That ‘I’ made all the difference in the world. I suddenly had an awareness that I wasn’t alone on my journey, and that it was God who would see me through. Years later, looking back, I can’t really believe where I came from and where I am now. One God moment after another; with God making ALL things new.
Professor Escamilla, the student said as he anointed my forehead, give it all you’ve got.
He moved to the person next to me, anointed him with the oil, and said “John, give it all to God.” Then to the next student, “Rebecca, give it all to God.” I had misheard the student as he anointed my forehead. He hadn’t told me, “Give it all you’ve got”; but “Give it all to God.”
Not—hey, you: make all things new. Get your act together and fix your life; repair your world singlehandedly. But hey, you: I make all things new. Give me your life, and behold the ways I live in you, move through you, empower you to become and to bring to others a new creation.
Behold! It is to apprehend, to discover, to understand. It means to hold. People of God, apprehend this, discover this, understand this; hold this in your heart: You are held in God’s heart. And that makes all the difference in the world.