Twice in the Bible we read of God ‘dwelling with us’.
The first looks back in time when ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) and the second looks ahead when ‘God will dwell with us’ (Revelation 1:3). We live in between the two, looking back to the first and forward to the second.
Modernity is an enticing idea. It suggests that all our hopes are located in the time that is ‘now’. But when you think about it modernity is whenever you live. When the wheel was invented it was modern times, or the dishwasher, or the iPad.
Modernity is always moving – on and on, faster and faster. Go to any electronics outlet and the products are different from just a few months back. Cameras do different things, likewise TVs, and computers. I have the sense of being left further and further behind, helpless to catch up. The machines seem to be getting more complicated. By the time I reach step 4, I have forgotten step 2. Anita loves gadgets and can’t wait to open them. Mine stay in the packet, sometimes for months.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place. We live in a functioning democracy at a time of great medical advance and ease of travel. When I was a boy, like most people we didn’t have the telephone. You had to find a phone box. I wouldn’t want to go back to that.
Modernity looks exciting. It makes church look ‘old’. The world is ‘new’ (modern) but the church is ‘old’. The reality is opposite. Church buildings may be old, but the people inside are ‘new’ – ‘new creations’, people ‘born anew into the kingdom of God’, God’s ultimate and good future. True modernity.
It is the world that is ‘old’. This is because human nature doesn’t change, despite technological progress.
Progress and regress are in lockstep. Man is in the image of God (capable of nobility), but is also ‘fallen’ (capable of depravity).
This means that even good things can be – and are – put to bad use. Dynamite is great for building dams, but also for making bombs. Aeroplanes take you to beautiful places, but they also drop bombs. Photography is great for prompting the memory, but is used in the production of pornography. Social media is great for keeping in touch, but insidious for cyber bullying.
There is a sense that although modernity is exciting it is also boring. Any student of history will tell you that people have always found ways to exploite and be cruel, and that history is the chronicle of the struggle between good and evil. Good has not always prevailed.
It’s not ‘New world, old church’ but ‘new church, old world’. The world is ‘old’, even when modern and apparently so new. But the people of the church – the true believers – are the new people, the people of the kingdom, the people of God’s ultimate and good future.
Modernity without morality is ugly. We ask, who was the modern man in the past century? We might say Einstein, or Marconi. A.N. Wilson said it was Hitler. Who advanced poverty stricken Germany to prosperity? Who provided Volkswagens for all the people? Who built the Autobahns? Who made the trains run on time? Who put on great open-air pageants? Who devised the torch relays we still use at the Olympics?
The same Hitler suppressed all dissent, killed disabled children, attempted the total genocide of the Jewish race, sparked the first global war – that killed over 60 million people. Ironically some members of the moral rearmament movement supported Hitler. Modernity without morality is an unspeakable evil.
Let me return to our two texts.
The first, John 1:14, tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Son of God walked among us, and men and women beheld his glory. An old, rarely used word (pronounced agapay, ‘love’) was infused with new radical meaning because of his others-centred life and sacrificial death. He healed the diseased and disabled. He taught us how to live, loving one another and forgiving our enemies. By his death he reconciled people lost from God to God, and the estranged to one another. Truly Jesus was the Prince of Peace.
The second, Revelation 21:3, tells us what our hope is – ultimate modernity:
The New Jerusalem
The New Heaven and Earth
No more death, crying, pain or injustice
The dwelling of God is with man.He will dwell with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said,‘I am making everything new!
The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. It does not evolve up from us. It cannot, because of human corruption. It is God’s gift. It is top down not bottom up.
here are dangers in man-made, state-sponsored, state-imposed Utopias. Social engineering usually means oppression, loss of freedom. Communism is a failed political experiment. Pol Pot made Cambodia hell on earth. Utopia comes from two Greek words and means ‘no place’. There is no Utopia.
Let me suggest three responses to modernity.
First, be thankful for the good in modernity: medical technology, ease of travel to beautiful places; speed of communication between people.
We give thanks for modernity but are not seduced by it.
Technology changes but people haven’t. We humans are the same mix of nobility and depravity. Good still struggles to survive against evil. We need a police force to protect us, but also agencies to monitor the police. We need ICAC to restrain corruption. We live in fear of Identity Theft. We have more and more laws to protect us.
But I for one am thankful for modernity, living at this stage in history in this place. I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place, except Palestine in the time of Jesus. O, to have been there.
Second, we look forward in hope to the New Jerusalem.
No more death, crying, pain, injustice. No more death. As Paul said, Christ will abolish the last enemy – death. Our hope is not about relating to God just in this life. Of all people we would be most to be pitied if that is all there is, said Paul. Our hope is over the horizon, not just within this life. God is coming down here to dwell with us. God will make his home here with us, and wipe away every tear.
But is it just a dream, a mirage? Jesus rose alive from the dead. A fact of history. That is the pledge of what God will do. God raised Jesus from the dead and he will come back to us. The resurrection was God’s triumph of good over evil.
Third, We look back to Jesus to guide us in the meantime. He pointed to the Kingdom of God and said, ‘Come to me’. We point to the Kingdom of God and say, ‘Go to him’.
He taught the truth to people and we teach the truth to people:
•the truth of the gospel
•but also all truth; it is God’s world. All truth is God’s truth.
He healed the diseased and the disabled and we are committed to all kinds of healing. He reconciled people to God and to one another. We reconcile people to God and to one another. He is our Saviour, teacher, our guide, our moral and spiritual compass. He was the Prince of Peace, the peacemaker. We are missionaries of peace: peace with God, through Christ’s death; peace with one another
So we are not dazzled by modernity. We are thankful for the good in it. But we never forget that it’s not ‘Old church new world’. It’s ‘New church old world’.
The time is coming when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
That is ultimate modernity.