SCRIPTURE – Revelation 21:1-6
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 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 without cost from the spring of the water of life.
Here Comes Heaven!
April 28, 2013
Of all the books in the Bible, by far the one I get the most questions about is Revelation. What does it mean? Why is it so scary? My well-thought-out, theologically sound answer is usually, “Skip it.” I mean, seriously, trying to understand Revelation is almost impossible, mainly because it raises so many more questions than it does provide answers. Of all the sermons I’ve preached, this is only the fourth time I’ve preached on Revelation, and the other three times ended up being my last Sunday in that church, so we’ll see how this goes.
Not all of Revelation is fire and brimstone…most of it, but not all of it. The last two chapters are wonderful descriptions of God’s kingdom fully realized, and are the source of some majestic, comforting images of our understanding of Heaven. In fact, all the sermons I’ve preached on Revelation have come from these last two chapters. I find it safer to stay in the shallow end of that pool. But even so, these chapters, including our passage for today, present some unique interpretive challenges for us as we seek to understand and apply God’s word.
Let’s step back a second to get a more comprehensive grasp of this book…at least, as best we can. It was written by John, the same guy who wrote the gospel and three of the letters in the New Testament. He wrote it while he was exiled on the island of Patmos by the Roman authorities. While there, he received this vision from God, which he was instructed to write down. That’s how we got the book of Revelation. The easy part is understanding how we got it. The hard part is understanding what it actually means.
Revelation demonstrates an apocalyptic style of writing; in fact “apocalypse” is a Greek word that means “revelation.” This prophetic style is rarely found in scripture, and is characterized by heavy symbolism and a focus on the end of times. Ideally, this style of writing was meant to provide hope for people in the midst of persecution. The problem with something so heavily symbolic is that it provides very few concrete answers and leaves itself open to interpretation. And, believe me, people have jumped at the opportunity to interpret Revelation and then apply their interpretations to our modern world. People have read into this book all kinds of kooky conclusions about the end of the world and the identity of the Antichrist. I remember in high school hearing that Ronald Reagan was the Antichrist because his first, middle, and last name all had six letters. 666, the number of the devil! The writing in Revelation invites that kind of wild-eyed speculation.
That’s the challenge with a book like Revelation: in the absence of answers, we humans will create our own. For example, one of the questions that people think Revelation addresses in some cryptic way is the exact day and time when Jesus will come again. Forget that fact that in the gospels Jesus says nobody knows when this is going to happen, not even him. Prognosticators have conveniently set aside that minor detail and have used complex formulas to come up with the moment of Jesus’ return. And when that moment passes, they recalculate, realize that forget to carry the three and divide by the square root of pi, and then come up with another date. And so on and so on. Such is the consequence of dealing with a book like Revelation. The irony is that people can come across as most certain about their understanding of this most uncertain book.
To begin to reveal some of the meaning behind any part of Revelation, including our passage for today, we have to grasp some of the overarching views of how this book is approached. This is an oversimplification, but there are three basic ways of looking at Revelation: John is writing about something that already happened (the fall of the Roman empire); John is writing about something that is still ongoing in our world (some type of spiritual warfare); or John is writing about something that is yet to happen (the second coming of Christ). Which one of those you choose to believe will determine how you read the events of the book.
I think there are good reasons to believe all three, and the true answer probably lies in some combination of those. But those views have a direct impact on how you understand the coming of the new heaven and the new earth described in Ch. 21. Now, I think we all can agree that this isn’t something that has already happened. I’m reminded of a conversation I had once with a rabbi. We were talking about the Messiah and the different understanding of that concept among Jews and Christians. He said to me, “Our people are actually waiting on the same thing. Christians are waiting on the second coming of the Messiah; Jews are waiting on the first coming. We look out our window each morning, see the death and mourning and crying and pain, and say, ‘Nope. The Messiah has still not come’.”
Our other two options are either this is something that is currently happening, or something that is yet to happen. Here’s where it gets a bit trickier. Let me throw one more apocalyptic concept at you, and then I promise I’ll stop. That’s the concept of the millennium, which is a thousand-year reign of peace that is supposed to happen here on earth. There are two schools of belief about what will start the millennium. One thought is that the millennium will start when Jesus comes again. His arrival will usher in this thousand-year reign of peace. People who believe that are called pre-millenialists. The other idea is that the world must first experience a thousand-year reign of peace, at the end of which Jesus will come again. People in that camp are called post-millenialists. Now, I have armed you with more than sufficient ammunition with which to bore any person within earshot at your next party.
OK, so let’s tie this all together, if we can. New heaven and new earth, no more crying and pain, God making all things new. If these are all things that are yet to happen, we might be tempted to sit back and wait, letting the world go on just as it is, content to do nothing, or at least very little, until Jesus comes again and gets the ball rolling on this process. The responsibility isn’t on our shoulders to make this happen. We can tend to our own little corner of the world until Jesus comes, bringing the new heaven and new earth with him. Until then, we just need to make sure we keep our nose clean and show up to church and avoid the fiery flames of Hell.
When I’m trying to figure out what a passage of scripture says to me, I ask the question, “ Which interpretation will help me be a better follower of Christ? Which one will better reflect my understanding of God?” That’s why I favor the other option, that the coming of the new heaven and the new earth is an ongoing process, and that we have a role to play in making it happen, that the second coming of Jesus won’t take place until we humans have figured out how to live together in peace. Sometimes, when my girls are bickering with each other, appealing to me to step in and resolve their conflict, my response is to say, “Work it out!” In other words, don’t expect me to swoop in and mediate the dispute over who gets to watch TV or eat the last popsicle. God gave you brains, so work it out!
Sometimes I feel like that’s exactly what God is saying to us. Work it out! Does our planet produce enough food for everyone to have something to eat? Sure it does. Is there enough shelter for everyone? Enough clothing? Enough water? Sure there is. Do we have the brains and the desire to find ways to live in peace with each other? Of course we do. I don’t believe God is going to swoop in and clean up the mess we’ve made. We’ve got to work it out.
Now, you may look at our current world, and then look at the idea of a thousand-year reign of peace, and think, “Are you kidding me? Have you watched any news program in the last five minutes? We can’t even agree on a thousand-second reign of peace, much less a thousand-year one.” And you’re probably right. The contrast between where we are and where God calls us to be is incredibly stark, and the thought of bridging that gap is laughable. There’s no way we can do that. But remember v. 3 in our reading: “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’.” Or, as it is translated so eloquently in The Message, “Look, Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!”
God has moved into the neighborhood. Really? HERE?!? What if that’s true? What if God is already here, making God’s home among us? What if God the Creator has already started the process of making all things new? What if the new heaven and the new earth are already on their way, and it’s up to us to give people glimpses of their coming? What if we heard Rev. 21, not as a promise that everything will turn out all well, but as a conviction that everything is profoundly unwell, and we have a role to play in changing that? Amid the death and destruction and hatred around us, we are called to bear witness to and work for the vision we hear in Revelation 21, a vision of hope and peace and the quenching of thirst, both literal and metaphorical. We pray each Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” If we truly believe that God’s kingdom is coming, then it is up to us to pave the way, one act of kindness and grace and peace at a time.
When we provide shelter for a homeless person, we witness to the fact that God’s kingdom is already among us. When we choose to stand up to violence with peace and counter hate with love, we proclaim that God dwells among us. When we choose to speak for the voiceless and defend the bullied, we proclaim that God is doing a new thing. When we choose to imagine a better world than this one, and then commit ourselves to working for that world, we are shouting, “Here comes Heaven!”
I’m reminded of the story about a missionary who was working in Africa. One day, in the midst of caring for a group of seriously malnourished children, she paused, full of anger, looked up to the sky and shouted to God, “How can you let this happen?” And then she said she heard the voice of God ask her the exact same question.
We know there’s something wrong with this world. We see and hear and read about the death and mourning and crying and pain. We can wait, wondering why God isn’t acting, wondering when God is finally going to get sick and tired of it all and come down here and do something about it. Or we can realize that God is already here, with us, within us, giving us the strength and the courage and the conviction to work it out. God is here, in the most mundane things like a loaf of bread and a cup of juice, calling us forward into the new heaven and new earth emerging around us. So what are we doing to work it out? How are our lives pointing to the new things God is doing among us? Are we just sitting back and waiting for God to act? Or do we believe that we have been called and gifted to do God’s work? “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth.”