Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Revelation 21:1-10, 22-22:5
It was a difficult time for Christians. Nearly one hundred years after the birth of Jesus, a lot has changed. Christianity began as an off-shoot of Judaism, and many early Christians looked and acted a lot like Jews — because they were. However, as Paul and other missionaries continued to spread the message of Jesus to other areas of the world and to people who were not Jews — people like you and me — they came together not on Saturday, but on Sunday for worship. The Roman Empire did not seem to notice these people all that much when they fit in with the Jewish landscape, the Romans saw Judaism as a valid religion and they had relative peace with the Jews. However, once non-Jews began to follow the teachings of Jesus, Christianity was no longer a sect of Judaism and became something else to the Romans.
John was a very common name, just as it is now. John was a follower of Jesus who was living on the Greek island of Patmos. He is exiled there as a result of Christian persecution and has this vision. No doubt this vision includes some battles, after all, the Romans were a warrior people who put military strength above all else. So at the end of this strongly symbolic and metaphoric journey that is called the Revelation to John, we have this passage. This beautiful ending to his vision.
The Book of Revelation is to reveal the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. It is to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.
These chapters make up some of my personal favorite passages in all of scripture. All of scripture presents a story of God seeking out God’s people, people trying to turn away from God, and God turning God’s people back toward God. But here in these passages, that struggle, that dance does not exist. There is no turning away from God. There is no having to experience, sometimes painfully, of God turning us back to Godself.
These chapters share a vision, a vision of what everything will look like when this is all finished. This is a future which is not ruled by the Roman Empire, but by the Kingdom of God. It is a future in which the supreme ruler is not Caesar, but by the Triune God. It is a city which is not protected by the strength of military might, but by the light of Christ that never goes out.
But there is something interesting to point out here. The image here is not of going to heaven, as we typically understand it. You see, many times Christians talk about “going to heaven” and we can sometimes be so preoccupied with going to heaven that we forget about living life here on earth, we disregard life here on earth. We do the bare minimum that we think is required to go to heaven. This, however, is not a biblical concept.
Here, heaven is not somewhere that we go, heaven is not another place, heaven is not separate from the world. Heaven is not somewhere we go, heaven is something that comes.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among [people], He will dwell with them; 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…” (Rev. 21:2-4a, NRSV)
The whole narrative of faith consistently shows God claiming us, before we are able to claim God, God calls us before we are even listening. God comes to us first, and then we come to God. Similarly, we do not go to God, God comes to us. This is one of the most beautiful things about this.
So the city of God comes down to earth, but it is not like the earth that we live in. It is a redeemed earth, a renewed earth. It is a city with no crime, it is a city with no drugs. It is a city with no vacant industrial buildings. It is a city with no foreclosed homes, a city with no condemned homes. It is a city where not windows are broken, where no windows need to be boarded up.
This is a vision which brings the creation full circle. The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible begins with a river, and two trees. A tree of life, and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we see here is a river, with two trees. Only here there are two trees of life, it is even better than it was, and because there are two trees on either side of the river, no one in the city is blocked from the tree of life.
This is fantastic, it is wonderful, and this is the kind of thing that could help the early church continue to keep hope in the midst of a hopeless outlook.
You see the true joy and true wonder of this story is not that we go to heaven after we die, it is not that God will take care of us when all is said and done, it is not that we will trade streets of concrete and asphalt for streets of gold. The true joy and wonder of this story is that God was with them, and God is still with us, every step of the way.
When the earth was created, God was there and active. When people fell away from God, God was there. God was there during good times and bad times. God was there during times of faith and times of rebellion. God was there during times of famine and times of feast. God is there during times of peace and times of war, times of persecution and times of flourishing. In the same way, God will be there in the end.
This hope that Revelation brings is not just for the future — it is that, but not only that. It is the hope that God also brings now. It is the hope that God not only will have God’s hands in things, but that God does have God’s hands in things. It is the hope that God is involved with our lives now, the hope that God is present with us here and now, and it is this presence which allows us to love God and love one another right now.