A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 5 ~ Revelation 21:1-6
(part 3 of a 4-part series – please read the whole series!)
The Book of Revelation is so convoluted and complicated with layer upon layer of imagery, and double meanings, and numerology, and symbolism, that we could take dozens, maybe hundreds of different approaches to it and still claim to say something authentic.
Or, like many of the loudest voices seem to do, say something inauthentic about it.
One thing’s for sure, you can’t cover all the bases. You have to choose your lens, your theological interpretive tool, and go with it.
We’ve been looking at Revelation all through the month of May and if you’ve been following along you’ll know that my lens has been the way Revelation critiques Empire – how Empire crowds out the recognition and flourishing of God’s Kingdom – how Empire wreaks havoc on the lives of Christians – and how the struggle against Empire represents our “great ordeal” in life and how we need strength to keep on keeping on.
So today’s reading, Revelation 21, the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth is a dreamy envisioning of what it would look like if Empire had actually been defeated, and God’s Kingdom was able to flourish.
But the great problem we have, because we use the Lectionary that only does little snippets of scripture at a time, is that the new heaven and new earth seem to appear out of the blue and we miss out on how we got there and what it all means.
Last week we did chapter 7 – this week we’re on chapter 21. Do the math! We’re missing most of the story.
Some of you may have been adventurous and went ahead and read those chapters this week. If you need some counselling I can recommend some names! Because it’s crazy, wild stuff. There are plagues and cataclysms that destroy a third, or a half of the planet, and there’s a massive war with dragons and beasts, and the amount of killing and bloodshed is overwhelming.
It’s pure mayhem.
And it’s 100% fiction.
It was never meant to be taken literally in any way, shape, or form.
Whoever wrote it may very well have been at a party and ate from the wrong tray of brownies!
But if you strip away all that sci-fi wildness there’s actually a remarkably simple and theologically profound message.
And I’m going to tell you what it is. Soon.
First, I’m going to talk about the arc of those skipped over chapters.
At its heart it’s a simple good vs evil story and in the end good prevails. Jesus is the hero, of course, and he even rides into battle on a white horse as he defeats the beast. Who’s the beast? – the Emperor, Caesar, and symbolically Empire itself.
But check this out – in the description of battle-Jesus Revelation 19:13 says, “…and his name is called the Word of God”, and the wicked are slain by the “sword of his mouth” – in other words, the Word.
So what defeats the wicked? Ultimately, it’s the word of God!
Aside from the Emperor who are the wicked?
Revelation 11:18 says it’s those who “destroy the earth!” – economically, environmentally, socially.
In other words, it’s anyone who participates in or is complicit with Empire. In particular, it’s the accumulation of wealth and privilege at the expense or oppression of others that seems to invite judgment. (That ought to catch our breath and give us pause.)
But judgment is not absolute – over and over there are opportunities for these people to repent. In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock!” After each wave of mayhem the text laments that despite seeing the destruction of those around them because of the evils of participating in Empire (in oppression) the people still will not open the door; they won’t repent.
To repent is to turn from one way and live a new way – to let go of the old and embrace the new.
And the heartbreak of the Book of Revelation is that no matter how terrible people’s lives get because they’re clinging so hard to the evils of oppression they won’t let go.
In contrast, we have the faithful.
Remember, Revelation is a book written to encourage the faithful in the face of a great ordeal – namely, the power of the Roman Empire and its threat to undermine one’s holding fast to Jesus’ way.
Most of the book is about the devastation unleashed by the angels, but in chapter 12 the Devil gets his due. In Revelation 12:17 it says that the Devil, the dragon, “makes war…on those who keep the Commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” It’s personal!
And over and over again there is the encouragement to endure in the face of such a great ordeal.
The words ‘endure’ and ‘hold fast’ are sounded repeatedly – and the whole point of the entire book is explicitly stated twice:
Revelation 13:10 literally says, Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
And 14:12 says, Here is a call for the faith of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.
Now, because ‘all mayhem all the time’ would become boring, the deluge of destruction is interrupted every couple of chapters with an interlude of the multitudes worshipping God and the Lamb – reminding those struggling (the first audience of this book) (every audience of the book!) that if they keep faith they can do that too.
Those who get to join the worship are those who have (Revelation 12:11) “conquered him (the Devil) by the blood of the Lamb (which we’ve talked about for the last two weeks) and by the word of their testimony!”
Again, evil is defeated by the Word!
To conquer means to prevail, to resist, to overcome.
Remember those protest songs in the 1960s? ‘We shall overcome!’
The purpose of this whole thing is to encourage those struggling Christians to conquer, to overcome, to keep the faith. Is it really so different today?
So now, after all that, I think we’re finally ready to hear today’s reading from Revelation 21 and put it in the right context.
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.
Here’s an important distinction.
It’s not a new heaven and earth that have never existed before and are being formed elsewhere up in God’s workshop to be delivered here from afar.
That kind of ‘new’ would be the Greek word neos – but what we have here is kainos, which means novel, fresh, as in to renew.
It’s a renewed heaven and a renewed earth that are coming forth.
21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Problem. “Coming down out of heaven” sounds like it contradicts what I just said.
In their cosmology God was ‘up’ so that’s the only language they had to draw on. More importantly they say it comes “from God”, and even more important than that are the next verses.
21:3-4 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them; (and) 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.”
That should bake your brain.
I mean, if you’ve grown up with the typical theological imagery that most of us have, you have embedded within you a concept that says God is ‘up in heaven’ and the ultimate goal of everyone on earth is to ‘go to heaven’ to ‘be with God’.
But what does this say?
What does the last book of the bible, the book that paints the ultimate picture, the book that has the final word about God – what does it say?
It says that God’s ultimate home is here among the people, and God will dwell with us – here!
So where’s heaven again? Here!
And when you pair that theological insight with the idea that it’s not a brand new earth but a REnewed earth then that has profound implications about how we’re treating this ultimate home of God. (That’s another sermon!)
21:5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Not, I am making all new things!) Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
“Making all things new” is a problematic translation. Literally, there’s no Greek word “things” here.
The words say, “making all new” – which also can be rendered “establishing all afresh”.
“See, I am establishing all afresh!”
21:6-7 Then God 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. Those who conquer (those who overcome) will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
“It is done!”
Well, no. That suggests past tense.
It’s better as “It is coming into being” or even better, for me, “It is emerging!”
Sum it all up? I thought you’d never ask!
In a word, it’s about endurance. Endurance, keeping the commandments, holding fast to the faith of Jesus.
The message is that: endurance itself is the reward because endurance maintains your communion with God, your immersion in God’s loving-kindness, and your connection to God’s strength and power.
In Luke 17:21 Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you!” – And in Revelation 21 the message I take is that “God’s home is among or in the midst of God’s people – which means within God’s people – which means within you – as long as you keep faith.”
And ‘not’ keeping faith doesn’t mean God has excluded you but that you disconnected.
It’s pretty clear, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21 that the one overarching message of hope in the entire bible is that God is right here, a present help in our times, knowable, accessible, and for our flourishing.
In Genesis, God creates the world and calls it good, and then strolls with humanity in the garden of Eden.
The earth is good and God is present in real ways. (That’s how the bible begins.)
Similarly, in the end, in Revelation the ultimate hope and promise is that God’s kingdom is made manifest in the now, in our very midst.
Revelation 21:3 – “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be (in the midst) of them.”
When we’re overwhelmed by our own great ordeals, it’s vital to remember that God is already in our midst.
As we’re struggling with what Empire means and how we may be complicit, it’s vital to remember that God is already in our midst, and is constantly calling for us to keep faith, resist, hold fast, and keep the commandments to love, love, love.
When it feels like the bad guys are winning, a call to endurance is raised, and it’s vital to remember that the ultimate power to confront evil, and Empire, is the “sword”, the Word of God – the teaching of Jesus, the ethic of the Way of Jesus.
When we’re discouraged because the state of the world seems to be getting worse, it’s vital to remember that the answers aren’t going to come floating down from a cloud – but a different way than Empire is emerging, always emerging, and it’s our task to recognize it and help it flourish.
Taken alone, it’s easy to hear Revelation 21 as a Pollyanna promise that God will make everything ok and we just have to sit back, keep our noses clean, keep praying, and it’ll happen for us.
But that’s not what this book is about.
It’s not a vision of what will be – it’s a vision of what it might feel like if all of us everywhere could keep the faith.
It’s hard to imagine that ever happening.
So our reality, and the reality of the folks in those 7 churches to whom this was written, is that the best we can do is to hold a vision of how God’s kingdom – how God’s renewed heaven and renewed earth – would feel, and use it as encouragement to endure and keep faith in our great ordeals.
God’s home is in the midst of God’s people.
See, I am establishing all afresh. It is emerging. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
It doesn’t take Armageddon to have that be true.
It’s true now. God is home.
Here (this place). Here (in us). Now.