The Beginning in the Ending – Revelation 21.10, 21.22-22.5

May 1, 2016 – 6th Sunday of Easter

Last week’s reading from Revelation began with verse 1 from chapter 21. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” What we hear this morning from Revelation is a continued description of that new Jerusalem and of the God who has come down to live with us.

READ Revelation 21.10, 21.22-22.5

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s how the bible starts in Genesis. Now, in the second to last chapter of the entire bible, we hear, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” So this ending in the last chapters of the last book of the bible takes us to a new beginning.

Mark has reminded us there is a lot of bad theology out there surrounding the book of Revelation.

I remember being in junior high and coming home terrified one night after a youth group meeting. Whether the book of Revelation was the intended youth group topic or whether the conversation wandered there, I remember the dire warnings from my youth leader about how terrible it would be in the “last days” and how we all had to walk the straight and narrow so that we’d be in the first bunch of people raptured instead of sticking around for the tribulation with all the sinners when everyone would suffer terribly. When I got home from youth group that night I ran into my room and threw myself on my bed and cried and cried because I was so frightened about what life was going to be like in “the end times.” It was terrifying.

I didn’t hear anything about the new heaven and new earth God was creating.

Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and writer, says the Revelation is written by John to revive our imaginations. The Revelation is a poetic re-telling of what we’ve been reading since we opened up the bible at Genesis 1. Sometimes when we read the bible, our eyes glaze over; we get bored with the story; we think we’ve heard it all before. The Revelation of John wakes us up again. Peterson says, “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible. The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know. The truth of the gospel is already complete, revealed in Jesus Christ. There is nothing new to say on the subject. But there is a new way to say it.”[1] And then he quotes Wendell Berry who says, “The imagination is our way into the divine Imagination, permitting us to see wholly—as whole and holy—what we perceive as scattered, as order what we perceive as random.”[2]

What John writes in the Revelation comes to him in a vision—and visions are where a lot of divine revelation comes from in the biblical tradition. And, like many of the visions of the mystics throughout history, it is conveyed in deeply theological and evocative poetic language.

John says the Spirit carried him to a high mountain and showed him the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (21.10) Some religious traditions point to heaven and say, “Won’t it be grand when we get there?” “The sufferings of this world will all pass away when we get to heaven.” But the Revelation does not reveal a picture of escaping the travails and tribulations of this world and going off to heaven. What we hear and see in Revelation is a picture of heaven coming to earth. The City of God coming to the city of earth. And not just the City but also God who comes to make a home with us. God “moved into the neighborhood” is how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message. We hear that same language in John chapter 1 that we read at Christmas. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” says the New Revised Standard Version.

This city that comes down from heaven is the fullness—it’s the completion of what is now. It’s the wholeness of what is now partial and broken. God has not abandoned us; God is right in our midst—as God was in the first creation.

In the City of God there is no Temple—no specific location where God is found—because God is everywhere and everything is holy. “All of life is holy and God is present in the midst of the every day, not only at special places and times.”[3] Now God is the dwelling place where we live. Jesus says a similar thing in the fourth gospel. He is preparing his disciples for what is coming and how they are to live. He says he is going away and also will return to be with them. For those who love him, he says of himself and God, “We will come and make our home with them.” (John 14.23)

But what if we don’t want God to come live with us? Visit for three days, okay. But move in? That’s not quite what we bargained for. If God moves in, think of all the house cleaning we’ll have to do. We’ll have to watch our language all the time. Move the liquor cabinet out to the garage. Not watch so many racy movies on HBO. Erase our internet search history

I imagine that some of us like the idea of heaven being off in the sky somewhere as the way out of life on earth. We can eat all the chocolate and ice cream we want and never gain a pound. Everyone will be nice and we won’t have to deal with the co-worker who gets on our nerves or the neighbor who always plays their music too loud. In heaven our children and our parents will be perfect.

But that’s not the vision Revelation holds up to revive us. (That old version of heaven where we’re all nice and float around with our angel wings sounds pretty boring to me—in addition to not being the least bit biblical.)

Perhaps part of the reality of living in the City of God is that we will come to desire what God desires. We will love what God loves and so the idea of God coming to live with us will be a glorious thing.

In the holy city there is no need for lamps or even the sun because the glory of God is our light. You might have heard something like that on Christmas Eve when we pass the candlelight from person to person until the whole sanctuary is illuminated and we read the words from Isaiah 60, “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Holy God will be your everlasting light.” (Isaiah 60.19) It reminds me of Paul writing to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (2 Cor. 13.12) In the holy city, we will see God face to face. And unlike in other stories in the bible where one cannot see the face of God and live, now we will see the face of God and live.

All of the language about the city makes me think how much I like to be out of the city. I love being out in the woods with tall trees and quiet paths. I love being by the ocean, watching and hearing the waves slap, slap, slap against the sand; seeing the endless blue horizon. It is in those places where I particularly find renewal and refreshment.

And yet here at the end of the bible what is made new is the city—that very place that is sometimes abandoned to poverty, deterioration and hopelessness. We are not called out of the city or drawn up into heaven or even led out to the wilderness. God comes down from heaven to live with us in the holy city. And in the holy city there is a crystal clear river of life running right through the middle of it. It’s a very un-city like reality. In Louisville and Southern Indiana, we have a river running right alongside our cities but no one would call it crystal clear.

On either side of the river of life in the holy city is the tree of life which bears abundant fruit every month of the year. No matter what time of year you encounter this tree, there is food to eat. It’s an agrarian scene of abundance—again, not an image we typically associate with the city—and especially not right in the middle of the city. One more thing about the tree of life—its leaves are for healing the nations. One writer characterizes this vision as “a new urban Eden.”[4] And that’s almost an oxymoron isn’t it? The first Eden was a garden surrounded by wilderness. The new Eden is a city with a garden at its heart.

So here we are in the city. The city of Louisville. In one of the oldest parts of the city where downtown business transitions to downtown residential. Back in 1957, we built a new congregation at the growing suburban outskirts—way out on Rudy Lane—but we did not leave the city. This congregation stayed here.

And now, through our ongoing ministry and the discernment of New Beginnings, we are deepening our commitment to our neighbors. We’ll be talking more about that in the next several weeks.

Part of what John’s Revelation reminds us is that God is in the city. God is here in this city. And we are here in this city. We can see the city not as a God-forsaken place but as the very location where God comes to live and where we live with God. This is the very place where God is making all things new.

God is sovereign over not just “the idyllic beginning of humankind in the garden of Eden but also of the complexities of our most intractable problems”[5]—many of which are found in cities.

I love what one commentator on Revelation says about the city. “A city is the realization of human community, the concrete living out of interdependence as the essential nature of human life. In the individualistic ideal, each person is independent, self-reliant, doing everything for himself or herself. In a city the tasks of life are divided up, each one does a part, and the beauty of life is not a solo but a symphony.”[6] That sounds just like the Body of Christ: made up of many parts, each with a gift, a strength, to use for the common good. At times it’s messy, frustrating, ugly, and mean and also beautiful and holy and good. And I remember the refreshment and renewal I experience when I work with others for the common good—building up the commonwealth of God.

And so here we are: in the city where God is making all things new.

May we have eyes to see it. And ears to hear it. And hands and hearts and bodies to be part of what God is doing. Not in some distant time and place but here and now where God has come to live.

* * * * *

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder – The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, (Harper San Francisco, 1988), xi.
[2] Ibid., xii.
[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 218.
[4] David L. Tiede, “The Season of Easter” in New Proclamation, Year C, 2007, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 52.
[5] Joseph H. Britton, “Theological Perspective: Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 490.
[6] Boring, 219.

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