Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6a
Just before the end of the year, The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service released a report that 2016 was going to be one second longer than previously estimated. In response to this revelation, someone tweeted the desperate question, “Haven’t we suffered enough?” While 2016 was of course full of events of both celebration and mourning, there seems to be a sort of cultural acknowledgement that 2016 was a particularly terrible year. One news website actually identified a dumpster fire as the meme of the year. Numerous year-in-review videos and social media posts contain words of mourning and exasperation with 2016 rather than the usual celebration of all that has occurred.
This past year saw far more than its share of tragic events both domestically and internationally. 2016 was the year of the deadliest mass shooting in US history. It was the year of health emergencies such as the Zika outbreak and the Flint water crisis. It was also a year in which protests again erupted after the continued shootings of unarmed black men and the year in which 26 trans women were murdered in the United States. The US saw natural disasters such as wildfires and flooding, and was embroiled in a divisive and toxic election cycle. Internationally 2016 was the year of numerous terrorist attacks in places like Brussels and Berlin. Syria continued to experience an incredibly deadly civil war that killed many and pushed many more out of their homes and country searching for safety. A civil war in Yemen also left children stranded and starving. On top of all these national and global crises, many of us have experienced loss on a deeply personal level as well. In 2016, loved ones died, jobs were lost, relationships fell apart, and health crises were faced. With all of this that happened this past year, many have looked to 2017 as a source of hope. A year that has the possibility for better things. But, our passage teaches us what should be the true source of our hope, and spoiler alert, it is not 2017, 2018, or even 2050.
Revelation is a book that was written during a time of Christian persecution. John of Patmos is traditionally identified as the author who is writing for Christians of the Roman empire while exiled on a small Greek island. While many today attempt to read it as an unfalteringly literal and linear narrative, it is in fact a book of visions and coded messages that were meant as a source of consolation and comfort for people who were persecuted and in a great amount of distress. Today we may have a difficult time identifying with these persecuted Christians, perhaps for good reason. What might we have in common with a heretical wing of a minority faith that was barely tolerated in a brutal empire? American Christianity today looks far different than the experiences of these early Christians. While apocalyptic visions looked comforting to them, they may be more likely to terrify us.
If you, like me, have consumed any popular books, movies, or television shows in the last few years, you have no doubt come across stories about the end of the world. These apocalyptic stories terrify and fascinate us, while also making us more aware and grateful of our current situation. They seem like a bad dream that we gratefully get to wake up and walk away from. Whether it be zombies, large scale natural disasters, artificial intelligence, or even talking gorillas, we look to our current world as far superior and safe. We may also approach Revelation this same way. It has always seemed to me to be a terrifying book. It is filled with dragons and people with far too many heads, not to mention the lakes of fire and end to all the worldly comforts I desperately cling to. This apocalyptic biblical tale often seems about as comforting to me as an episode of The Walking Dead. However, for many in this world, the dystopia isn’t some strange fictional future but daily life. Death, disease, persecution, and insurmountable struggle are far too real. Our world is not a place of comfort and escape. All of us experience struggle, death, and despair. We should never lose sight of our own privilege, but the amazing thing is that Revelation contains a hope for universal humanity. These early Christians whose lives may have resembled the dystopian images we watch on our televisions looked toward a unified future where all are equal as the people of God.
Revelation 21 begins with the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” For those of us who love to vacation at the beach and watch the waves roll in, the fact that God plans to get rid of the sea seems terrible and odd. However, this is symbolic language. Throughout Revelation, the sea is the site of intense struggle, and it is where the beasts emerge. The sea is a picture of violence and chaos. It is a disruptive and threatening force. Many scholars understand this as a reference to Genesis 1. The primordial sea, the formless void, the dark waters over which the Spirit of God swept. This symbolic language identifies the sea as the representation and home of chaos, destruction, and evil power. The sea is the chaotic power of un-creation and anti-creation. It is the opposite of the creator God. The fact that the sea will be no more tells us that chaos, destruction, and evil have no place in the new creation. Along with the abolition of the sea goes death and pain. Those things which belong to the undoing of creation and violent chaos are abolished along with it. This is incredibly good news.
Not only does John see a new creation, but he also specifically has a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. The New Jerusalem is in opposition to the toxic cities of Babylon and Rome. John’s language here actually echoes the propaganda language of these other cities, each of which claimed to be the ideal. Rome’s proud claim to be the Eternal City is found on coins and inscriptions. John subverts these claims and points to this opposite and inclusive New Jerusalem as the true ideal city.
We may not place our hope in the literal Rome or Babylon today, but we are often far too similar to those who looked toward these so-called ideal cities as a source of strength and pride. From hometown to state and national pride, we are often quick to idolize our own ideal cities. In the fourth grade, I remember learning all about North Carolina history and why this state was the superior and blessed one. If I remember correctly, this was due in part to its association with Blackbeard the pirate and a mysterious disappearing colony. If you’re like me, you also learned at an early age to locate the Eastern half of NC as clearly ideal due to its people’s enormously superior skill at preparing pork. We sing songs, build museums, and have parades celebrating the merits of our various ideal locales, not to mention participating in a huge international sporting competition every two years where our most talented athletes compete for the pride of America. Perhaps the reason we are so afraid of apocalypse is because we are incredibly comfortable with the way things are in our own ideal cities. However, Revelation tells us a different story. Tony Campolo asserts, “America may be the best Babylon there has ever been, but it is still Babylon.” Neither America, North Carolina, nor Cary are holy cities. The heavenly city of New Jerusalem is the only true ideal.
Jerusalem, an earthly city, is the name which is given to this new ideal city of God. Jerusalem, a name loaded with all manner of historical and religious significance. Jerusalem was the home of the temple, the capital city for the people of God in much of the Old Testament. It was where Jesus journeyed and spent his last days. Jerusalem is the central locale for much of God’s interactions with humankind. This New Jerusalem is not merely a reconstruction of the Jerusalem of the past, much like the historical representations you may see in museums or on low-budget television shows. Jerusalem does, however, carry within it great religious meaning. It shows us the reality that though God is indeed “making all things new,” God is not making all new things. Eugene Boring states, “The divine Author does not break off the earthly story and begin afresh. The last chapter is the culmination and climax of the old story that began in Eden.” God’s history of redemption is not erased in favor of some brand new reality. This New Jerusalem is indeed the true end and purpose of that history. This means that what we do truly matters. We needn’t be nihilists looking toward the day when all that was will be wiped away like chalk. Everything will instead be taken up into God’s redemption.
C.S. Lewis’s last book in the Chronicle’s of Narnia series draws heavily on Revelation. His book The Last Battle is the story of the last great and ultimate conflict in the magical realm of Narnia. As the battle draws to a close, the world of Narnia passes away. However, Aslan who is Lewis’s representation of God, immediately leads the human heroes of the series and all the Narnian people and animals who would follow him into his own land, what they call the New Narnia. Lewis elaborates on this New Narnia:
"It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different - deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.”
While we don’t know any specifics concerning what this new creation will look like, C.S. Lewis does grasp its continuity with what came before. It is indeed redeemed and made new but it is not something that is completely made new from scratch. If we trust in the words of Revelation 21, which declare themselves to be “trustworthy and true,” we should be engaged in doing the work of redemption now. We should not be continuing to ravage the earth, but working towards the earth’s ultimate redemption. Our actions should be centered around making this redemptive future a reality even as we wait for its ultimate and final redemption.
Moreover, New Jerusalem is not defined by its buildings, bridges, and roads, but by its people. New Jerusalem is a city of people, not of things. This city is the home of God. The place where God will dwell with her people. Verse 3 states, “And they will be his peoples.” Revelation here quotes Ezekiel 37 but with a small exception. Instead of the singular “people” as Ezekiel states, our passage changes this to the plural “peoples.” They will all be his peoples. While “people” can also be used inclusively, the plural shift here only emphasizes the emphatic universality of this future. This city is made up of many peoples who will dwell continually with God. A city is not a place of independence and self-reliance but of community and interdependence. A city is where people truly live together, and it is in this community and with these people that God will dwell.
It is this relational aspect, this dwelling with God, where our true hope lies. Our hope is not in a place or a city but in the God who will dwell there. Our hope is in the Alpha & Omega, the beginning and the end. God is both our beginning and our end. God is the beginning and end of all of creation. The word “end” here does not mean going away forever but rather the final purpose and reality. We are not merely ashes to ashes or dust to dust but we rather begin and end with God.
As we worship during Christmastide, the future reality of God dwelling with us reminds us of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus, who made his home among mortals, who called all to be his people. We proclaim that God dwelt with us in Jesus, and that God’s presence continues to be available to us through the Holy Spirit. We are in the time during the church year where we proclaim Christ’s birth and presence with us. However, we look around and see so much devastation. Death, mourning, crying, and pain are all still with us. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We proclaim that Christ makes all things new, but all things are not yet made new. We are caught between the already and not yet. We proclaim the good news of Christ while still waiting for the redemption of all creation. We find God’s words in verse 7, “It is done!” both powerfully true and yet painfully unfulfilled. In Christ is a new creation, let us both celebrate the already completed and sufficient redemption of Christ while earnestly waiting and striving towards the ultimate redemption and fulfillment of that which Christ has already redeemed. Although our human calendar is just beginning anew today, our church calendar began with the preparation for and celebration of Christ’s birth, with the coming of him who truly makes all things new.
Hear again the good news of Revelation 21 for the future upon which we place our hope, “See the home of God is among mortals. 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, for the first things have passed away.” After a year full of heartbreak and desperation, disease and disaster, our hope is indeed found in the mystery of faith, which proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.