Sermon for September 19th, 2021
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 honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
22:1 Then 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
Revelation chapter 21 famously describes the riches of heaven, and I'm reminded of the story about the rich man who, nearing the end of his life, prayed to God and said, "Lord, they say you can't take it with you when you die, but I've worked so hard for my money--would you consider an exception for me?" And to his surprise, God spoke to him and said, "Ok, fine. You can bring one suitcase. Make it count." On the appointed day, when the man reaches the pearly gates, somewhat exhausted from carrying the heavy suitcase, St. Peter stops him and says, "you mind if I take a look inside?" The man opens up his suitcase to reveal 24 shining bars of the purest gold. St. Peter looks at the gold, looks at the street behind him leading into heaven, then looks back at the man and says, "Really? You brought...pavement?"
When I read John's description of the New Heaven and New earth in the Book of Revelation, I tend to get stuck in the very first line: "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??? I love the sea. I love sailboats and the smell of salt-water. One of my proudest achievements this summer was helping my eldest son to get his sailing license before his driver's license!
No sea in heaven isn't just bad news for me...what about Nemo and Dori? What about Ariel and Sebastian? What about Flipper and Shamu? I'm guessing the river of life might feel a bit cramped for a 170 ton blue whale.
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 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 just off the coast of Modern-day Turkey, and like all Islands, it is 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." That's what your high school English teacher would have called a really bad mixed metaphor. A city dressed as a bride. But I think one metaphor can actually help us understand the other: In the gospels, 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...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 several weeks, every time we've come to something symbolic in the Book of Revelation, we've asked the question, "Does this refer to the past, the present, or the future?" and we've resisted the temptation to assume that everything in the book of Revelation is about the future. 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.
At the heart of this passage, there is also a challenge to the traditional, time-honored understanding of what we call heaven. What is that traditional view? Heaven is a place you go after 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 Apostle's 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 everlasting. 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 its 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 turned over a new leaf." 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 like new again.
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 God is the one who makes all things new, I did say WE have a lot of work to do. That's because throughout the Bible, God 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 computer programmer and the cardiologist, to the teacher and the truck driver, to the astronaut and to the artist, to the builder and the bartender, to the poet and to the pastor--these are the ways God is continually making all things new.
I want to close with a true story: When I was about to graduate from seminary, and I was being interviewing for the position of pastor here at First Presbyterian Church, the chair of the search committee asked me point blank if I would leave the first time some other, larger church in a bigger city came looking for a pastor. I told her no, that I intended to stay for a long time (and I have--it's been almost ten years now since that interview). But I also told her, honestly, that there might be one exception to that: If the people of earth ever launched a mission to colonize Mars, and if they happened to need a Presbyterian pastor for that expedition, I would have to give it serious consideration.
Most of us, by now, have seen pictures of Mars taken by various machines that have explored its surface. It looks familiar, and yet very different--mountains and valleys, rock formations, dirt, sand...basically a lot of red earth. The sky looks different, too. There are still clouds, but the dust gives the sky a butterscotch color. At night, most of the stars would look familiar, but there would be two moons. Polaris, the "North star" would be missing, and one new star would be visible, a bright bluish-green one--actually the third planet from the sun.
The first settlers on Mars will experience a "new earth" and "new heavens." And of course, the sea that once covered the surface of Mars ceased to exist a long time ago. For me, all that could be a beautiful fulfillment of John's prophecy. But maybe now I'm taking his words a little too literally, myself.
Still...if the imagery, and the symbolism, and the poetry found in the Book of Revelation is broad enough to give hope and purpose to a first century middle-eastern political prisoner, as well as to a Presbyterian pastor half a world away in the 21st century, then maybe it has a remarkable staying power. Maybe it has a message for all people in all times and places. Yes, there are frightening things in the Book of Revelation, but that's because there are always frightening things around us, in our past, present and future.
The final word in Revelation, the most important one, and the final message in the Bible is one of hope, victory, light overcoming darkness, and a God who always comes back for his own.