September 5, 2021
[You can hear a preached version of this sermon on Podbean.]
Rather than read the scripture passage before the sermon this week, I’m going to read it as part of the sermon.
This is our last week in Revelation and we’re jumping from chapter 7 to chapter 21. So we’ve missed a lot: the dragon, the whore of Babylon, the mark of the beast, the venomous locusts with human faces. I hope you’ve been able to watch the overview videos from the Bible Project, and maybe even read through the whole book. Because I don’t have the time—or the stomach—to deal with chapters 8-20 of Revelation this morning.
We are landing in chapters 21 and 22, the very end of the book of Revelation, and of the Christian canonical scriptures. In introducing the book a few weeks ago, I talked about how it is written in the genre of apocalypse—this type of writing that has a lot of political references and symbolism.
Revelation is also an epistle—a letter; in this case, a letter written to seven churches. Seven communities of Jesus-followers each, no doubt, dealing with their own individual struggles about what time to worship and who’s bringing the bread and how they should handle their money. Seven communities of Jesus-followers all, surely, struggling to understand what it means to be this new thing called “Christian,” facing pressures to participate in the Roman imperial cult, and—to differing degrees—facing persecution for their failure to do so.
John of Patmos writes this apocalyptic letter from his own state of exile; he writes it to give these seven churches guidance and hope. As bizarre, and even grotesque, as the images in Revelation are, the underlying guidance John gives is that the churches should stand firm. They should remain faithful to God and Jesus, the Lamb, no matter what the Empire throws at them.
And here, in the last two chapters of the book, is the hope. Those who remain faithful, who live out peace in the midst of violence, who stand up for justice in the face of oppression, who refuse to worship worldly powers; those who remain in relationship with God can look forward to this new heaven and new earth that John describes.
We, the church today, are certainly very different from the first century church in many, many ways. But we still need this hope. I won’t say that we need it more than they did back then. But I’m pretty sure we don’t need it any less. So I invite you to walk through this beautiful vision with me and receive the hope that God offers through the vision given that was given to John and passed on to us. So starting with Revelation 21:1.
“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.”
When what we have is not working, when it’s broken, we want something new. And the heaven here of course is not the “heaven” we go to when we die. This is the heaven, the sky, the cosmos. A “new heaven and new earth” is the totality of newness. Everything is new.
And the sea was no more. For people in the ancient world the sea was a symbol of chaos and death. It was, in reality, death for many, many people. It was a diving force that separated people. So “the sea was no more” indicates the disappearance of this threat and a uniting of things that were divided.
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.”
The thing about the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, is that this vision of hope John gives us is not about us being whisked away somewhere else. It’s about the very space that we inhabit being renewed and transformed. It is transformed from the Jerusalem that has so many problems, so much struggles and pain, to a new, life-filled Jerusalem.
And it comes as a bride adorned for her husband. I will admit that this metaphor is a little off-putting for me because of the gendered dynamics of it all. But in some ways it’s also a really beautiful metaphor. Because this idea of a married couple emphasizes the intimacy and the commitment between God and the new Jerusalem; between God and the people.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home [tabernacle] of God is among mortals. God will dwell [tabernacle] with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God himself will be with them;
This is the vision, right? This is the hope. This intimacy between the bridegroom and the bride. That God will live, will dwell, will make the divine home with us, as God’s people.
The verses we are skipping over this morning at the end of chapter 21 mostly describe the new Jerusalem. It is a radiant city with 12 gates; the angel gives John the measurements of the city (it’s huge) and points out all the jewels that adorn the foundations of the city. It is a stunningly detailed and beautiful vision of Jerusalem, but there is one thing missing from the new Jerusalem, one very important thing—and that is the Temple. Because there is no need for this one sacred place where people go to encounter God when God is dwelling with all the people; when God is making the divine home among us. The city itself is the temple. Wherever we are, there is the presence of God.
God 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.”
In the presence of God, in this new Jerusalem, people will experience a new reality free of death, pain, and sorrow. This is our hope: for ourselves—whatever pain, physical or emotional, that we have, we want it to be gone. This is our hope for people that we love. This is our hope for people we’ve never met that we hear about on the news. For the people whose homes are burning down in the wildfires and the people whose loved ones were killed in the flooding, and the people of Afghanistan—those stuck in the country with the violence, those who have gotten out and are struggling to make a new life.
This is what we want, it’s what we pray for together every Sunday—and probably what we pray for on our own during the week; for healing, for justice, for comfort, for peace; for death to be no more, and mourning and crying and pain to be no more.
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.”
6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
God is making all things new. We know God is making heaven and earth and Jerusalem new, and in case we didn’t catch it, that means all things—including us.
And God is the Alpha, the first letter of the alphabet and the last. The beginning and the end. God is the totality. Whatever else is there, there is God. This is our hope.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”—(that is what the voice on the throne says. Then after the description of Jerusalem, here is another vision)
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 2 through the middle of the street of the city.
This water is a central part of the hope. It is flowing and beautiful and glorious. It is flowing right in the middle of the city. It is the living water that Jesus talked about, that Jesus offered in his earthly ministry. It is the water that sustains us in body and spirit and soul, and its source is in God.
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.
I love this tree producing 12 kinds of fruit. Have you ever seen a tree like this? They exist. They are sometimes called fruit salad or fruit cocktail trees. One tree that grows a variety of fruit. And the only way you can get a tree like this is by grafting different kinds of fruit trees together. And that is part of John’s vision, of our hope. That the tree of life is made up of different trees. As we’ve been told before in Revelation, the people of God come from every tribe and race and nation—all kinds of people from everywhere.
And this tree provides fruit twelve months of the year, which I’m not sure is agriculturally possible, but is a beautiful idea, that at any time you can just go pick fruit off of this tree to nourish your body, your spirit.
And, of course, this language about the tree of life reminds us of the beginning, of Genesis and the Garden of Eden which also was perfect and yet was spoiled by sin. And here at the end of scripture is another perfect place whose fruit is not forbidden, that is open to all; a new heaven and new earth that will be forever.
3 Nothing 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; 4 they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads.
So that’s a little weird. We skipped the part of Revelation where the people serving the Empire have the mark of the beast put on their foreheads. This vision is the answer to that—while those who are serving empire have the mark of empire, those who are faithful, who serve God, will carry God’s name on their foreheads. They will be identified with God.
And this image also communicates that all the people are priests with direct access to God. They will see God’s face. Not just the special priestly holy people who are allowed to go in the Temple, but everyone will see God’s face. And not only the specified priests will have the name on their forehead, but everyone will carry the divine name.
5 And 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 forever and ever.
I think it’s hard for us today to really feel the full impact of the metaphor of night and light in the first century. These words were originally for people who lived before electricity, before light bulbs. People for whom having light at night meant having to burn oil in a lamp or wood, people for whom creating light required valuable resources. In that context, imagine what it means to hear that you do not need a lamp or campfire, because God is your light.
“And they will reign forever and ever.” It makes me very uncomfortable, actually, to think about Christians “reigning”—being in charge. But this is not a vision of a Christian nationalistic state. This is setting up a contrast to the world as John’s original readers experienced it–and as we currently experience it. A contrast to a world that is ruled over by the elite powerful who have only their own interests in mind; who prioritize issues of economics and power and nationalism over care and compassion and life. This is a promise of a time when those who reign will be the true people of God, united in bringing a just reign; united in overseeing a place that is equitable and life-giving for everyone.
That is the hope that John gives us at the end of this stunning book of Revelation. That we will live fully in the presence of God, with no suffering, no death. That we will drink the living water and eat the abundant fruit.
As followers of Jesus today, we live within the not-fully-realized promises of God. This hopeful, beautiful vision of the new heaven and new earth—it’s not our reality yet. Not fully. Of course. And also, we do catch glimpses. As Jesus told his disciples, “the kingdom of God is among you.” We experience newness, God’s presence, nourishment, healing, light. Not perfectly. Not all the time. Not fully. But this promise of God, this hopeful reality, is peeking through. May we have eyes to see it. May we have hearts to continue in hope.