Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 2, 2010

2010.05.02 “A Better World Coming” Revelation 21: 1 – 6

Central United Methodist Church

 “A Better World Coming”

Revelation 21: 1 – 6

Pastor David L. Haley

May 2nd, 2010

       “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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 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.” 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.” Then 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.”  (Revelation 21: 1 – 6, New Revised Standard Translation)

     Believe it or not, today’s reading from the book of Revelation is one of the primary reasons I chose to preach this series from the Book of Revelation. It has become one of my favorite Scriptures.

      Before I tell you why, let me say a little about what’s transpired. If you read the Book of Revelation from last week’s reading of Revelation 7, to this week’s reading from Revelation 21, you’re likely confused. Almost everyone who’s ever read it has been, so why wouldn’t you be?

      In fact, you might even say, “Hey, not fair! You’re only preaching the easy parts, the good parts!”  Yes I am; I’m no fool!  It’s true, the lectionary does sometimes skip the more confusing, troubling passages, to focus on the good ones, and so am I. 

      Because, while 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” some parts are more useful than others.  For most people, Revelation 8 through 20 would not be on that list. In fact, you might agree with James Denney, who once compared the Book of Revelation to a tunnel with a light at the beginning and a light at the end, but in the middle, a long stretch of darkness through which lurid objects thunder past, bewildering and stunning the reader.”

      For example, you might be surprised to find choruses from Handel’s Messiah, including the Hallelujah Chorus (19:6). But you would also find much more to be confused by: trumpets, bowls, angels, dragons, beasts, and puzzling numbers. 

      Remember, the book of Revelation was a pastoral letter to Christians of a particular time and place, not a puzzle left to be figured out by Christians ever after. Though, in every generation, this has never prevented the curious from trying.

      As Bart Ehrman says it in his introduction to the New Testament (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings), “In every generation since the book [of Revelation] was written, Christians have argued that its vivid description of catastrophic events would happen in their own day. So far, none of them have been right.”  

      Most recently, the best-selling Left Behind series has done this, being the best-dressed version of an end-time interpretation known as “premillenial dispensationalism.”  This interpretation, based upon a handful of cryptic passages primarily from the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, stems from the work of a disaffected Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby, in 1827, whose theories, even in his day, were called the “height of speculative nonsense.” They were widely popularized in this country by the publication of the C. I. Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, which, as critics said, “was often read from the footnotes up.” Today it’s still spread by places like Dallas Theological Seminary, from which Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) graduated, and Bob Jones University, from which Tim LaHaye, the author of the “Left Behind” series graduated. Unfortunately, it’s the same old stuff, all dressed up and marketed to the insecurities and fears of new generations. (For those who would like to know more, I recommend Barbara R. Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation)

      But back to Revelation.  After much apocalyptic imagery, in chapter 20 the Last Judgment occurs – and surprise – God wins. Contrary to what we might expect, Death and Hell are the last enemies to be destroyed.   

      And then comes today’s passage, one of my favorite passages, John’s vision of a new heaven and earth: 

      “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband.  I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.”  And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new!”

      Now let me tell you why I like it so much. 

      First, I’ve come to appreciate it pastorally.  You see, as a Pastor, one of the great privileges of my life has been to stand before a crowd of mourners and proclaim comfort and hope.

      It’s a time when we find ourselves experiencing the pain of grief and separation and loss – an apparent ending; a time when we find ourselves wondering, not only about the future of our loves ones or ourselves, but of the entire human prospect.

      At just such a time, I’ve come to love the end the reading of the Scriptures with this text, and especially these words: “Behold, I am making all things new!” 

      Often when I do, I confess, a smile of joy breaks out on my face, and sometimes there is an almost audible response from the congregation. The audacity to suggest, at a time of obvious ending and grief and death, that it might also be a time of birth and newness and life?  And yet, that seems to be exactly what John suggests. 

      As we’ve learned, that’s the context in which these words were written: some 60 years after the time of Jesus, to a generation of Christians facing their own crisis of faith, by a Jewish Christian named John, himself a victim of war, in exile, a prisoner in a hopeless situation.

      As a Jewish Christian, his world had collapsed. Jerusalem — the capital of his nation, the home of every Jewish heart, the city of David’s throne and Solomon’s temple, the symbol of God’s love and presence and providence — Jerusalem and its temple had been leveled by the Romans in 70 A.D., its citizens either executed or driven into exile.

      John’s faith in Jesus, crucified by Rome, was also being tested. Christians were being arrested, imprisoned, even executed as traitors to the Roman state. They were weak, powerless, without resources or friends or hope. In such a situation, what possibly could it mean to proclaim God as sovereign, and Jesus as the risen and reigning Lord?

      So it was that John found himself a prisoner on the small island of Patmos near Greece. As I’ve said before, I understand when you visit Patmos, you can visit a monastery on the spot where John was thought to have been imprisoned, and see the cave where he was chained to the wall. Across the dark, low cave on the other side, you can see a small opening through which John could breathe fresh air and see a slice of the sky and sea.

      So when John wanted to write a letter of encouragement to Christians seeking hope, he looked out that opening, saw the sky and sea, and wrote striking words that were smuggled out of his prison and given to the world: “I saw a new heaven and earth.”

      It was not a new idea. John reached back centuries into the history of his people, all the way back to the prophet Isaiah, who, also during a time of exile, described a new Jerusalem:

             I am about to create new heavens and a new earth….

             For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy….

             No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it….

             No more…an infant that lives but a few days or an old

                   person who does not live out a lifetime….

             They shall build houses and inhabit them;

                   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….

             They shall not hurt or destroy….  (Isaiah 65:17-21, 25)

      In words that people who are up against hopeless odds still turn to gratefully, John envisioned a new Jerusalem, a world where God will tenderly wipe away the tears from the eyes of the precious suffering, whomever they are.

      Having come to appreciate it pastorally, as I’ve studied it and preached it, I’ve come to appreciate it even more theologically.  Because what we find there is a big surprise, almost the opposite of what we might expect to find in the last book of the Bible. 

      Because, you see, what we like to dream about, either at the end of our lives or the end of all things, is winding up in heaven.  But I love what John imagines, which is not that earth winds up in heaven, but that heaven winds up on earth.  It’s a world where God is not “making all new things,” but “all things new.”

      Such a theology contradicts those who say, Christians don’t need to worry about environmental concerns, or global warming, or massive oil spills on the Gulf Coast, because, after all, Jesus is coming and Christians are all going up to heaven and leaving the earth like a worn out shoe.  In Revelation we wind up here, not in heaven.  Better get ready, the big cleanup is coming!

      I love it that while the Bible begins in a Garden (Eden), it ends up in a city, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the city of God.  It’s not a garden, but a city which is the realization of true human community, where we live out our interdependence upon each other, as essential to human life.   Urban-dwellers, rejoice!

      I love it that while we may never understand how or when this will we be – how it can be – what we know is that God will be there.  According to the book of Revelation, heaven is not so much a place as a person; and that person is God. I love the way Eugene Peterson renders “The home of God will be among mortals; God will dwell with them” in The Message: “God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!”

      I love it that, in the end, John’s most unforgettable image of God is not as a wrathful God, but a tender God, comforting the sorrows of all people, wiping the tears from weeping eyes, an image even the smallest child can understand. 

      Along with the rest of the Biblical prophets, John dared see a vision that transcended his own situation, a vision of what God has in mind for creation, a bold vision of a new heaven and new earth where there will be no more weeping: no more injustice, no more oppression, no more cruelty and persecution, no more unkindness and meanness, no more war, no more death.  A world where God will tenderly wipe the tears from the eyes of the precious suffering, whomever they are.

      Is this the impossible delusion of an old man? How can this be? Because we dare believe with John that in Jesus Christ God has come to dwell among us, and that in Christ not only the promises of the past but our hopes for the future have begun to be realized.

      Meanwhile we live in the world not as we would like it to be, but the world as it is. Not in the new Jerusalem, the city of God, but the city of Chicago, where, as the late Mike Rokyo used to say, the official motto might be “Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden)” but the real motto is “Ubi Est Meum?” (Where’s mine?). A city where life is sometimes cheap and the innocent – including precious children – are killed by stray gunfire on too many days and nights.

      Having seen John’s vision of the world God will bring, of the new world God is struggling to bring, is it too much to ask that we work for it as best we can, by seeking justice and peace? Where, in emulation and anticipation of our God, we dry the tears from human eyes, in the name of Jesus Christ?

      No wonder Walter Russell Bowie (1882–1969), in the hymn which we sang a little while ago, “O Holy City, Seen of John,” sought to make John’s vision of the Holy City less a prayer and more a project in our lives:

      “Give us, O God, the strength to build

      the city that hath stood too long a dream,

      whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,

      and where the sun that shineth is

      God’s grace for human good.”

      “Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair:

      Lo, how its splendor challenges

      the souls that greatly dare;

      Yea, bids us seize the whole of life

      and build its glory there.” 

      Amen.

 

Acknowledgments & Further Reading:

M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, in the Interpretation Commentary Series for Teaching and Preaching, 1989

John Buchanan, “Memory and the Peace of God,” sermon preached at The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, May 27, 2001

Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, 1993.

Paul Minear, I Saw a New Earth, 1968.

Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, 2004.

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