Delivered: April 28, 2013; Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6
The writer O. Henry once penned a story about two young women, best friends, who went to Greenwich Village and established a little studio in a shared apartment, hoping to pursue their dreams of becoming famous artists.
However, in the cold and damp autumn, one of the women fell quite ill with pneumonia.
It was an illness that had been plaguing their community as many people shuffled to and fro in the terrible winter and lived in drafty apartments without the pleasures of heat… but it seemed such a young woman should be fine.
Except she wasn’t.
She grew more ill by the day. And she grew more weak.
It was the doctor who finally revealed to her worried friend and roommate that the young woman had simply given up.
As the young woman laid on her bed, she would look out at an ivy branch–a beautiful site she had many times meditated on when it was vibrant with life in the summer.
Now, during her illness in the fall, she would count the leaves. With each day there were less leaves left. And she knew—she just knew that when the last one fell, she would let go of her claim on life.
Her friend, heartbroken by this refusal to want to live any longer, tearfully retold the story to a downstairs neighbor.
He was a gruff, rough, grumpy old man who had come to the Village many years earlier for the purpose of painting his great masterpiece. But after several decades all he had to show were too many empty gin bottles and an empty canvas at the edge of his room.
The masterpiece had never come.
He couldn’t accept that a beautiful young artist, with so much hope and talent laying before her would give up so early in her life.
That evening, as the sick young woman slept, the old man gathered up his unused paints and ventured out into the worst of autumn storms.
The wind whipped.
The rain poured.
The air was cold as ice.
And the old man spent the night in that horrid weather.
When morning came, the sick young woman was shocked to find that the last leaf had managed to hang on through the terrible storm. Convinced it’s time was near, she lay there and watched and watched, expecting it to fall at any moment.
Yet, when the sun rose on another day, and the sick young woman saw that the last leaf was still clinging to its vine, she began to realize that perhaps she had been a fool.
This leaf—this lone, determined leaf–had shown her that.
What right did she, in the prime of her life, have to will herself to die when that leaf, at the end of its life, fought so hard to survive?
And so the sick young woman, infused with a new determination to get better, fought her way out of the depths of illness.
When the doctor came the following day to check on her and give her the good news that she would survive—he also carried the sad news that the old man who lived downstairs had taken quite ill with pneumonia himself after having ventured out into that storm like a fool. His advanced age and the rapid onset of his illness meant he didn’t stand a chance—the doctor had come to move the old man to a hospital where he could die in comfort.
What was it that had driven the old man out into the storm?
Apparently, after fifty years of failing to produce the masterpiece that was always waiting for him to begin, he had gone out into the cold night to produce the greatest painting anyone could paint: A leaf—clinging by a thread to an ivy branch… a leaf that would never all…a leaf that would hold on against all odds and inspire those who gaze upon it to do just the same.
The old, grumpy, hard man downstairs had given his life to give the hope of life to another.
O. Henry’s stories have captivated audiences for more than a century, having not gone out of style because behind each tale is a simple truth that none of us can deny.
In The Last Leaf, he latched onto something that we all know—when we are given a proper vision to cling to, we can accomplish seemingly impossible feats.
The the young artist in his story, the vision she had been watching unfold before her was of a vine, withering away—of life blowing away with each gust of harsh wind—she lay in her bed, fighting off death and watching death lay claim to the thing of beauty just beyond her window.
What the old man gave her—the great masterpiece he had waited a lifetime to paint seemed so simple, so easy… but it meant so much because what he gave her was more than a leaf, it was life itself—he gave her a vision of hope, of determination, or a relentless will to live.
Now… if an old gin-soaked failed artist can give a vision like that, imagine how much more our God can give us.
Much of what we see when we look at the book of Revelation is confusing and often frightening… And yet, we have this vision—this portrait painted of a new heaven and a new earth that suddenly captivates our attention and offers us something to look at apart from all the devastation and heartache.
It is a vision meant to strengthen us for the journey that we are on—a journey that is somewhere between the beginning and the end—somewhere in the middle, in all of that unchartered territory that seems so difficult to navigate.
But it is not the sort of vision that we should stood stand back and look at from a distance—it’s not the sort of thing we just glance at and move away from—its not the sort of vision that we dismiss as being beyond our reach and still far off…
It is meant for us, here and now—even in the hardest moments of our journey.
It is the very vision of heaven itself.
And the great thing about heaven in this vision that had been given to John, and then shared with all the generations of believers since, is that it’s not something that beyond our grasp.
The same Jesus who opened heaven to us at his baptism—the same Jesus who turned his face to heaven and cried out, “It is finished!” just before giving up his life for us—the same Jesus who taught his disciples one last time before ascending into heaven—is the same Jesus who looks at John and proclaims himself to be “The Alpha and the Omega.”
The beginning and the end.
And everything in between.
Heaven is where Jesus Christ—the Lamb—God—is.
And that heaven comes nearer and nearer until it descends upon the earth and the presence of God is right there with us—making all things new—making all things whole—united all things together, bound together by the grace and love of God.
How John’s mind must have been blown when he looked up and saw heaven becoming one with earth—how amazed he must have been when he realized that the very place where God’s presence is was coming into contact with the place he was—that it was all being united—that what had been began so long ago at the start of creation—and what had been thrown off course by our human frailties and sinfulness, was finally coming to completion in this blessed moment he was fortunate enough to witness.
Now, you might assume that when the vision was lifted away, John would be so disillusioned by the sight of reality that he would just collapse—just give up after all.
But that didn’t happen.
John had been so moved by the vision that he had seen, that he felt more compelled than ever to share the story with everyone he could.
The vision was never meant to be a comparison between heaven and earth, but a promise… a promise that if we continue to walk in our faith we will come closer and closer to heaven until at long last it bends down and touches our lives and we become a part of it.
It is not a vision that gives what we need to continue on a difficult journey—it gives us what we need to face the ugliness that might be around us and to keep us marching straight ahead because we know what is waiting for us up ahead.
O. Henry knew the simple truth: that if we have a vision worth living for even the simplest vision would give us the will to live.
O. Henry wasn’t some genius who came up with this notion all on his own—instead, he learned it from a pretty tremendous source… God has given us a vision… one that we know is more than a vision… one that, if we never let go of it, we know we will live into one day—in that place where there are no more tears… where death and pain and mourning and sickness are no more. Where the things that try to steal away our lives here in this world no longer exist and where we will simply be able to live in God’s presence forever.
So the question I have for us today, is what will we do with that vision?
Will we glance at it and keep going on our own way?
Will we look at it and say, “Oh, how nice,” and walk away?
Will we take the time to drink it all in just to forget it once we walk away?
Or, will we look at it every chance we have, make it a part of who we are, march toward it with every step we take, and do all that we can to live into it here and now?
Will we let it make us new?
Or will we just keep going on in the same old ways?
Are we making the vision of God our vision?
Resources that helped me plan for this sermon: