Sermon for May 5th, 2013
17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well. 24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Revelation 21:1-6, 22-27, 22:1-5
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then 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.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
22Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
A New Heaven and a New Earth
For someone who grew up in the middle of the El Paso desert, I have a strange fascination and love for the sea. On my bookshelf, you can find books about sailing, sailboats, and stories of sailors who circumnavigated the globe...some of them in tiny boats with not much between themselves and the sea. I love the idea of the sea.
And so, I tend to get a stuck in the very first verse of John's description of the New Heaven and New Earth in today's scripture passage: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more." Wait...what??? No sea??? That's not just bad news for me, but I guess Shamu and all your favorite residents of Sea World are kind of out of luck, too -- I'm guessing the river of life might feel a bit cramped for a 170 ton blue whale. Besides...any place that doesn't have dolphins couldn't possibly be heaven.
But that's not all...we read later that in the new heaven and new earth there will be no more night. Besides being extremely bad news for all nocturnal animals, no night and no sea...means no midnight walks on the beach by the light of the moon. No more wishing upon a shooting star. No more star-gazing. No more camp-fires, no more chasing fire-flies, and no more breathtaking fireworks (at least not any that you could see). I'm not so sure that John's new heaven and new earth are sounding that attractive anymore.
This is, of course, the danger of being overly-literal when reading the Book of Revelation. Some readers are perfectly willing to interpret all of the bad things--the monsters, the terrors, the apocalypse--as symbolic, but then when it comes to the good things--streets of gold, heavenly mansions--we want those things to be literally true down to the last detail. We also have a tendency (with the good and bad alike) to detach the Book of Revelation from the first century context in which it was written, and from the perspective of the individual who wrote it.
John tells us that he wrote the Book of Revelation while in exile on the Island of Patmos. Patmos is a small Island in the Mediterranean sea, not too far from the shores of Asia Minor, but like all Islands, surrounded by the sea. I imagine that every day of his exile, John looked out longingly across the sea toward his beloved home, his people, to the churches he wrote his letters to, to the place where his ministry and life had been. And the only thing separating John from all that he loved and longed for? The sea. In John's perfect world, there would of course be no more sea.
There are other symbols and metaphors in John's vision of the new heaven and new earth. Verse 2: "And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." Apparently, John's high school English teacher (or would it have been his high school Greek teacher?) never taught him that it was considered bad style to mix metaphors. We have a holy city dressed as a bride. Take a moment imagine that; it would take one huge center aisle, and a really long train, I think. But here I think one metaphor can actually help us understand the other: Throughout the gospels and the other books of the New Testament, this metaphor of the bride and bridegroom appears. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, and in Ephesians, Corinthians, and Romans, Paul teaches that the bride is none other than the church. We are the bride of Christ. The holy city, the new Jerusalem that is coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband...Look around you: That's us. We are the new Jerusalem.
Ok, hold onto that thought for a moment; we're going to come back to it. Now, for the past four weeks, every time we've come to something symbolic in the Book of Revelation, I've made a big deal out of asking the question, "Does this refer to the past, the present, or the future?" and not just assuming that everything in the book of Revelation is about the future. And by this time, we've seen evidence of all three: some of John's vision is from his past, some things are his description of the events happening around him, and some things represent his hopes, dreams, and fears about the future. So here's your final exam question: Which one is this?
"And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them."
Past, present, or future? It's a trick question. The answer is yes. Past...present...AND future. God came to dwell among mortals at the birth of Jesus Christ. Through his work, and the work of his followers, the church was born in John's lifetime. That's the past. The new Jerusalem is described as "coming down out of heaven"--that's not only present tense, but present continuous...it's ongoing. "The home of God is among mortals." Again, present tense. "He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them." There's the future. So the church is God's presence, God's representation on earth, in the past, the present, and the future. We are the new Jerusalem.
I believe that at the heart of this passage, there is a challenge to the traditional, time-honored understanding of what we call "Heaven." Bear with me for awhile, and know that what I'm about to express is by no means the final or definitive word on the subject of heaven, but is just one theory suggested by this passage and by some of my own research into the biblical idea of heaven over the past few years. Rather than a certain and irrefutable "this is how it is," think of this as a humble and tentative "what if?"
For starters, let's define the traditional view of heaven: Heaven is a place you go when you die. It is not in or of this world. It is constant, unchanging, and perfect in all respects. That's not, of course, a perfect definition that captures everyone's view of heaven, but I think I probably at least got the most widespread view.
Now, let's go back 2,000 years. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as heaven is Οὐρανός, which means...the sky. Literally, the heavens above us that contain the clouds, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the planets. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word is שמים (shamayim), and it means the cosmos, or everything above the earth. The Ancient Hebrews, the Ancient Greeks (and most ancient peoples) believed that God (or the gods) lived literally in the sky. It was the most majestic place they could think of, and it made sense.
But they didn't associate the heavens with the afterlife. That came hundreds of years after the time of Christ. The earliest Christians, as well as many 1st century Jews, believed something different: After the sermon today, we'll say the Nicene Creed, which is one of the earliest Creeds of Christianity. In it you will hear that God created earth and heaven (or earth and sky), and that Jesus came down from heaven and ascended back to heaven to be with God (because that's where they believed God lived). But then the last two lines you'll hear the early Christian view on the afterlife: We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come. They didn't believe that resurrection, that new life, would be in the sky. They believed it would be here on earth, in the world to come, which is another way of saying...in the future. A better future. A better world.
Back to Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven AND a new earth; for the first heaven AND the first earth had passed away." If heaven is perfect and unchanging, it can't pass away, and there would be no need for God to create a new one. I think John is saying God created a new sky and a new earth, for the old ones had passed away. "And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." A few verses later, God says "See, I am making all things new." Both of these verses use the present continuous. The arrival of the church (the New Jerusalem) and God's "making all things new" are ongoing processes. Later on in Revelation, an angel takes John up to a mountain where he sees "the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God." The holy city isn't just taking it's time coming down...coming down is a permanent part of its description. This echoes Jesus' frequent teaching that the Kingdom of God...is at hand. The Kingdom of God is near. It's here now, and always getting closer.
A common interpretation of Revelation is that the world is getting worse and worse and worse, and then finally it will be so bad that BAM!...God will intervene and miraculously yank us out of this wretched world to a different, perfect one that he has made new from scratch. But that's not the only way to make something new. If you've ever known someone who has turned around a bad situation, started over with a clean slate, we say "he's a new man" or "she's a new woman." This is how God works: He doesn't abandon the old--whether it's people or the world he created--instead he works with the old, transforms it, and makes it new.
My interpretation of Revelation is this: Starting with the arrival of Jesus Christ, with the spread of his message of love and compassion for all people, God has been using his bride, the church, the New Jerusalem, to make the world better and better and better. We're not perfect. We still have a lot of work to do. And yes, although it is God who makes all things new, I did say WE have a lot of work to do.
There's the story of the man who saw the flood-waters rising up in his house, and so he prayed to God that God would rescue him. A little while later, a truck drove by and the driver said, "Get in, and I'll drive you to safety." The man said, "No thank you. I prayed that God would rescue me, and I have great faith that he will." When the waters were up to his windows, a boat sailed by and the driver said "Get in and I'll take you to safety." The man again refused on account of his great faith in God. When the waters were up to his roof, a helicopter flew by, and the pilot offered his assistance. Once again, the man said no, still clinging to his faith that God would answer his prayer. Well...he drowned. And when he got to heaven, he was a bit upset. He said to God, "I prayed to you and had faith that you would come...why didn't you rescue me?" God said to him, "I tried. I sent you a truck, a boat, a helicopter..."
God makes all things new, but he almost always works through human hands and human feet to accomplish his will in this world. It's the divine gift he gives to the surgeon and to the nurse, to the scientist and the teacher, to the builder and the bookkeeper, to the artist and the poet--these are the ways God is continually making all things new. We can't stand around waiting for a miracle, waiting to be whisked away to a different world. If we do, we'll be like the man in the flood, failing to recognize what God is already doing in our midst. We are the church. We are the bride of Christ. We are the New Jerusalem. We are God's hands and God's feet. It's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We have a new heaven and a new earth to build.