My husband Matt and I have been married for nine years and mark each anniversary with a simple tradition: we open a bottle of nice wine that’s been sitting on our buffet counter for the last 365 days and toast to the year we’ve just shared.

And it is replaced on the shelf by a new bottle we’ve purchased together, and often marked with a post-it note that says something like, “Do not open until June 27, 2018.”

I think it began a trite and jovial prize, a reward for the little milestones along the way. But soon it became something much more. We more than earned the bottle shared when we toasted three kids under four!  I’m slowly learning that marriage is more than promises at the starting line – every year is filled with moments that ask you to buy in again, to put down the scoreboard, to say sorry, to lean into each other with great vulnerability and hope. And every year is worthy of a toast to the complex and faithful ways it shaped your life.

Before we continue I invite you to picture a marriage you admire, not because it seemed easy or flawless and not because they stayed together even though they were miserable. I’m talking about a couple who weathered real and hard stuff while being changed by their decision to be together in the real and hard stuff. Dear friends of mine live their marriage by the Dag Hammarkjold quote: “For all that has been…thanks. To all that shall be…yes!”

Our reading today is not unlike the 70th wedding anniversary celebration of the couple you have in mind. So much has happened between the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Promises have been kept and broken. Anger, joy, sorrow, grief, disgust, and contentment have been known. They have wandered or kept silent, but they have also run out onto the road to greet each other in reconciliation.  This love is kept in breaths and heartbeats, prayers and sighs too deep for words.  This relationship is up close and fleshy, filled with both minty fresh and morning breath moments along the way.

In the New Jerusalem, there is great relief, for everything that once challenged or contorted God’s love is gone. Heaven and earth are no longer distinct or different or set apart by because, in Christ, God has reconciled all of creation. All of the rules about life and death pass away so that something brand new can begin.

The New Jerusalem would sound a little too “happily ever after” if Revelation was the only biblical story we had: angels and lampstands, bloody lambs and thrones, dragons and wars, beasts and a harlot, singing and sun that does not set.

But we know there is more to these promises fulfilled. We have been along for the journey standing close enough to the marriage to notice tension and affection, wrinkles and private jokes vows that have come alive in thousands of different ways. The New Jerusalem was neither earned nor did it find us by accident. It has been unfolding since the beginning of time, the fruit true love bears when God so loves the world.

So in honor of the marriage, you’ve been remembering and in honor of God’s marriage to us and all of creation, let’s celebrate the milestones together. Today’s sermon is a love story, the five major covenants that carry us from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Life Everlasting.

Noah and Creation

Things got rocky early on. When original sin took hold in Eden everything changed and God’s expectations were rarely met. People lived for hundreds of years and most had little interest in a relationship with their creator. Violence and devastation ruined relationships and the earth until God resented having created humans in the first place. God sent a flood to cover the whole earth, destroying a vast majority of what had been. One family was chosen to survive, to remember this bleak chapter and act with courage and faith for the future, always remembering God’s power to create and destroy life.

When the waters receded God’s emotions had quelled a bit and a tender promise was made, not just to Noah and his family, but to the whole world. God set a rainbow in the sky, the prism of light that can be seen when storms fade into sunlight:

Whenever you see a rainbow in the sky, remember this part of our story and I will too. Remember the way emotions flared and we destroyed what we loved. Remember that we drifted apart and it was horrible. And then remember my promise: I will never again use water to destroy the whole creation. Water is life. And, from now on, I will use it to save.

Abraham and the Nations

Then there was that job transfer out of state. God came to Abram, who was doing well for himself in his dad’s homeland herding and farming with his tribe. God said, “Get up and go. Leave everything you have and everyone you know and start walking toward the place I’m going to show you.”

Everybody thought Abram and Sarai were crazy for listening to their God and changing their names and setting off toward the unknown. What would they do without family nearby? How would they pay rent? But the road trip turned out to be good for them. They left the naysayers behind and discovered a lot about their relationship – with each other and with God. When Abraham was on in years, God led him outside to look at the night’s sky.

“You have been faithful in following me somewhere new. I will bless your name and your house. Look up, Abraham. You see all those stars? Well, your offspring will outnumber those stars. I will make a nation of your descendants. I will be there God and they will be my people.”

Abraham and Sarah got a kick out of this since they had never had any children. Who was God going to bless? But then the impossible happened and they became parents to Isaac. God was full of surprises and people learned, “Never say never,” when it comes to promises from heaven.

Moses and the Law

Abraham’s descendants were called the Israelites and, many generations later they became slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh used them for hard labor. He wanted great numbers and he got them because God’s promise to make a great nation of Abraham was still bearing fruit. And yet Pharaoh was threatened by the Israelites and worried they would resist their oppressors someday.

Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s home but an Israelite by birth, was called by God to lead the resistance out of Egypt. They stopped making bricks and gathered their few possessions to follow a pillar of cloud and fire someplace else. Their strength and pace were vulnerable, their identity unclear: if we are no longer slaves, then who are we?

When death seemed imminent, God reminded them that water is life. He pulled apart the Red Sea making a way forward where there hadn’t been one. They were transformed on that ocean floor, woven into a story that held them safe and gave them home when the wilderness was unbearable and the wandering made them feel forsaken. God told them again and again until it was written on their hearts: “I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who heard your cries in the land of Egypt and brought you out of slavery.” God gave them laws that set them apart from other nations, weaving together their social, spiritual, economic, dietary, cultural practices as one unique fabric. This new identity did not mean freedom was easy or life was guaranteed, but it did proclaim that they belonged to someone fiercely in love with them who was leading the way.

David and Politics

It didn’t take long for peer pressure to set in once the Israelites were free. They wanted land and they wanted an army, and they wanted a king most of all. “But I’m your king,” God said, a bit hurt. “We know you’re our king and our God and all that good stuff, but people can’t see you. You’re not right here like us. We want an earthly king so we can be like all the other nations.” God tried to explain that kings just tax you without your best interest in mind. And the people seemed to get that. Then God tried to explain that an earthly king would confuse heavenly justice with earthly justice and this kind of leadership would make them less focused on proclaiming and working for heavenly justice. And the people seemed to get that, too. “Please, pretty please?!”

And so there were kings in Israel. And when David became king, God reminded the people to keep looking beyond their earthly rulers for salvation, that one day the Messiah would be born a descendant of David and he would establish a kingdom that would last forever.

The Great Exchange in Christ

People were holding their breath for this Messiah long promised and they waited so long that prophecies turned to folklore. They are looking for him on the inside, with the brawn and great power and the easy answers.

But Christ comes not from God’s brawn, but from God’s long memory of destruction, earth’s sin and the great flood that left a colorful sign of mercy and life instead.

And Christ comes not from God’s great power, but from God’s sacrificial love, the One who hears slaves and moves oceans so people are reclaimed and known and set free for both wilderness and homecoming.

And Christ comes not from God’s easy answers, but from God’s first and always declaration, the one that complicates everything: “I have made you very good. You are mine. Nothing will separate you from my love.”

And so when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God as if prepared for a wedding celebration, we are stirred by a lifetime of memories in the wilderness, held by the promises that have prepared us for the promised land.

This passage is filled with references to the prophets of old, the glimmers of hope God’s people once knew in exile now shine brightly where the people rest in God’s glory, no longer secret or foreign, which fills them with love and gives them the strength to rejoice forever.

See? The home of God is among mortals. They will be together. There will be no more tears because everything is being made new. Write this down because it’s trustworthy and true:

in sickness and in health,
for rich or for poor,
until death parts us and then while life unites us!

I’ll toast to that!

We belong to the Lamb of God, who sits in bright light on the Throne in the city of God
where there is no separation from love
no night to fear
no beasts to slay
but only rejoicing in what was, what is, and what is still to come.

Thank God for the love story, for real hard life, and for promises that carry us home.