A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 6 ~ Revelation 21:10, and 21:22 to 22:5
(part 4 of a 4-part series – please read the whole series!)
We’ve been delving into the last book of the bible, a book called Revelation, for the whole month of May.
Primarily, it’s a book about encouraging 7 churches who are struggling to keep the faith in the midst of an overwhelmingly oppressive Empire that threatens to suck them in and knock them off their spiritual path.
The genre of the Book of Revelation is called an apocalypse, which uses fantastically wild, sci-fi, end-of-the-world-battle imagery to paint a picture of how dire the consequences are if one doesn’t do the thing, and how beautiful and rewarding it is if one does. The ‘thing’ in this case is to endure, to keep faith, to hold fast!
I suggested that I like to think of the book as a one person, tour de force, Broadway show with a lone actor spinning a fantastic tale and mesmerizing the audience, for the purpose of encouraging them and teaching them.
In the first week we explored the ‘Jesus as the Lamb of God’ language – which I suggested does not have to mean sacrificial substitutionary atonement theology that says Jesus died to appease an angry God. I reject that.
Instead I offered a lens that sees the Lamb language as something like an honorary title, almost a reverent nickname that imagines Jesus, after the fact and upon reflection, as the ultimate fulfilment of the sacrificial system – not to appease God but to reveal God’s presence everywhere and always.
Next we explored the ‘great ordeal’ of the oppression of Empire and focused on Chapter 7’s lovely, peaceful, worshipful time in the midst of the cataclysmic destruction going on.
We saw how endurance, holding fast was key, and how a life of faith is a strong and helpful way to face the challenges of Empire and oppression – even as we come to realize that in some ways we are actually complicit with Empire and are part of the problem.
We are reminded that no matter what we face, no matter how hard our own personal great ordeals may be, that we are not alone. We are known and loved by God – marked by our baptism and our faithfulness.
Last week we described the great battle between good and evil and learned how Jesus is the hero who defeats the evil enemy (Empire, Caesar) not with force and violence but with the “sword of his mouth” – the Word of God.
We were introduced to the idealized city of God – a physical imagining of the kingdom of God – and how the ultimate purpose of God is to live with God’s people and help us flourish. That means ultimately heaven isn’t ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ somewhere – it’s right here!
And we don’t have to wait for the end of the world as we know it – that kingdom is emerging here and now. God’s home is here among us – a new heaven and a new earth – in our midst, within us, now!
It’s been a wild ride so far. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
If you haven’t been here all month I strongly encourage you to go to our website and read the whole series.
I’ve really liked diving into this book in this way. I’ve learned a lot too!
And today we get to have some final thoughts, about the final chapter, of the final book of the New Testament.
I doubt the author had any clue they were writing the big finish of the bible. They were just trying to offer encouragement to a group of 7 struggling churches.
But the message caught on in wider circles, and when it came time to assemble the canon (250-300 years later), to decide what books and letters got to be in the New Testament and in what order, this book got the final word.
Let’s hear some of those final words!
In Revelation chapter 21 our narrator is given a vision of the renewed holy city of Jerusalem emerging. Interestingly, there’s no temple. That should strike you as odd because the temple was a fundamental spiritual touchstone of the Jewish people, and its destruction (by Empire) was utterly devastating. But we don’t need a temple in the New Jerusalem because God and the Lamb reside in the city all the time. The whole city – the whole renewed and transformed earth – IS a temple.
Revelation 21:23-24 And 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. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
The city needs no external or artificial light because, again, God resides there, and God’s glory shines brighter than any other light imaginable. And God’s light will light the way of the ‘nations.’ (Whenever you hear ‘nations’ it means the diversity of people apart from the Jews. It means all ethnicities. It’s a radically inclusive word.) All the nations, all the diverse ethnicities, are included under God’s light.
The gates are always open – suggesting welcome and inclusion – and there is no night there – suggesting perpetual light. And the only people who would be there are those who choose to live in that light. Now, that may sound exclusive, but its logic is pretty sound: if the city is holy, and God is utter holiness, then only those who accept that holiness and allow that light to envelop them would want to be there. It doesn’t mean one has to be perfect – it means one has to be open.
Then we get the description of abundance that comes in God’s Presence.
Revelation 22:1 describes a holy river flowing down the main street. Then verse 2,
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.
A beautiful image of abundance.
A reminder that when one lives in the light of God good spiritual fruit grows in abundance.
Notice that the fruit is in constant harvest, and even the leaves of the tree heals the people.
This is another link to the beginning – to Genesis – to the Tree of Life at the centre of the Garden of Eden – a tree of abundance that humankind turned away from. And here at the end of the bible, the invitation to abundant life that has been present all along is sounded yet again, and those who repent, who answer that knock at the door, who choose Jesus’ Way instead of Caesar’s way, reclaim paradise.
How’s that for encouragement!
22:3-5 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
(Remember, we are marked by our baptism and our enduring faithfulness!)
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.
As we wrap up our study of the Book of Revelation I’d like to ask you to trust me, and to go with me as I take you on a bit of an interpretive leap.
I encourage you to try to let go of the literal image of a physical city being constructed in the clouds and floating down to rest here on earth.
I want you to let go of the descriptions of the jewel encrusted walls, the golden pavement, the pearly gates, and the highly symbolic stuff about 12 gates for the 12 tribes of Israel and all that.
I want you to let go of worrying about where that city might land, who gets to live there, who gets to enter in.
I especially want you to let go of the idea that such a city is the inevitable outcome of life here on earth, and that it will only come at the end of time, and that the whole purpose of this Christian religion thing is to secure a place in that city so you can live eternally.
I want you to let all that go because that’s not what this book is about.
It’s all symbolism.
It’s all highly colourful and fantastic imagery designed to paint a picture of something beautiful and hopeful, but most importantly something meant to be immanently helpful in the here and now.
The book is trying to reveal something to us all right – it’s revealing what the fully realized Kingdom of God looks and feels like.
But we must remember that Jesus taught clearly and repeatedly that God’s Kingdom isn’t out there somewhere far away, waiting to come down – it’s here.
The kingdom of God is within you! Within you! Which means, logically, that if the kingdom is in you then so too is the king – meaning God.
And if God is in you, if God’s Spirit lives in you, then you my friends are the New Jerusalem.
Here’s an ‘out there’ thought to wrap up Revelation.
What if the New Jerusalem is just a grand metaphor for you? For your renewed heart?
You are the city.
You are the temple.
You are the place that has God’s light within you and needs no other light.
You will walk by that light, and inspire the “nations”, other people.
Your gates will never close – and when you in your Spirit-filled openness encounter and welcome others their response will bring glory – will reflect the glory of God!
And you’ll be better equipped to live steadfastly in faith – not giving in to Empire – holding fast!
And the river of the water of life flows right through your ‘main street’ – through the heart of you! Refreshing and revitalizing you.
And there is tremendous, bountiful, abundant fruit produced – the fruit of the Spirit – that feeds and nourishes you and others, and helps to heal the nations (people).
And in that city (your heart) there will be non-stop worship – and you’ll see the face of God and know God intimately.
And God will be your light – and reign in you – in God’s kingdom – forever.
You are the holy city.
You are the bride of Christ to be joined in holy union.
You are that through which God’s light shines!
Under Empire, we feel cut off from the presence of God. So we’re reminded that God lives in us.
A renewed creation is needed.
So great is the transformation required from Empire to God’s Kingdom that it’ll feel like a new heaven and a new earth are being formed – even as we realize that it is we ourselves who are being renewed!
Of course we’re not fully formed, we’re still undergoing transformation, and Empire cannot be defeated in one fell swoop – so imagery of emergence dominates, with visions of heavenly worship punctuating the battle.
And God’s kingdom in you is like a new Garden of Eden being formed – a garden which represented the fresh and pure hope of the possibility of living unendingly within God’s real, abiding presence – with God walking alongside us.
This is not just a vision for you and me personally, but for all of us together – for all the nations, all the peoples, all of humanity’s diversity, all are invited to transformation and renewed life as God says, “See, I am establishing all afresh!” [Rev 21:5]
And then the last word.
The Book of Revelation, and our bible, ends with the words “come” or “I am coming” ringing out 7 times in the last chapter.
Maybe you can picture the scene?
The lone actor has been waving their arms around, spinning this wild, crazy, fantastic, sci-fi fantasy story for hours, dazzling and mesmerizing their listeners.
And by the end of it all, having ridden an emotional and spiritual roller-coaster, the audience is desperate for an assurance, a blessing – so they close their eyes and they open their hands take in all they’ve heard
– to receive the power and peace of the light of God
– to gorge on the fruit of the Tree of Life
– and to drink deeply of the river of the water of life flowing through them
– strengthening and encouraging them to return once again to the great ordeal so they can hold fast and endure
– and so they can live faithfully, embodying the light of God that fills them up and shines through them.
And they hear these words from Revelation 22:20-21 (the last words of the bible)…
Jesus says, “Surely I am coming without delay.”
(And the narrator responds for us all…)
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.