April 24, 2016 Revelation 21: 1-6
[John Lennon's Imagine...]
What if we were to co-create with God, heaven here on earth? This is what John Lennon is inviting us to do in his song “Imagine.” It’s what another John, two millenniums ago, is imagining in the end of the Book of Revelation. It’s a letter addressed to seven Christian communities in seven cities in Asia Minor. They include an evaluation of each community, threats and encouragement, and a promise, which we find in chapter 21:1-6. It’s probably the most well know passage from Revelation. Please open your bulletins and read it with me.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘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.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then 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 as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
What beautiful imagery! Progressive ministers (and congregations) tend to ignore Revelation, or even dismiss it. How many of you have read it? (show of hands) I wasn’t exactly versed in this final book of the bible, so I had some homework to do. And it proved to be revealing. (pardon the pun)
I learned that I wasn’t the only one ignoring it. Revelation has been controversial from Christian antiquity to present times. It almost failed to make it into the bible. Even leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century had their doubts about it. Martin Luther included it in the New Testament, but gave it a secondary stature. He wished it would be thrown into the Elbe River. Zwingli denied it’s scriptural status, and Calvin largely ignored it. Sooo, I wasn’t alone.
Revelation was written late in the first century by a man named John living on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. If he were writing it today, bloggers would be sending rumors out across cyber space about what he was smoking or ingesting at the time.
But this was the end of the first century. This kind of apocalyptic literature flourished in Judaism from about 200 BCE to 100 CE. As many as 65% of the verses in Revelation echo or allude to passages from the Hebrew Bible. John was probably a Jewish Christian and well versed in his scripture.
In the parts we didn’t read today, John describes a series of visions depicting a battle between good and evil. The present age, his or ours, depending on who you talk to, is seen to be under the rule of evil powers who are overthrown and destroyed by God, ushering in an age of blessedness for the faithful with the second coming of Christ.
It is filled with luxuriant imagery, fabulous beasts, and symbolic numbers. This is not a book that can be read literally, or, without knowledge of the culture and times in which it was written. Even then it’s confusing and controversial. John states, more than once, this was all to take place during their life time. Try to tell that to a millennialist today, anxiously awaiting the apocalypse and second coming of Christ.
But in this passage we are given this beautiful imagery. The bible begins with paradise depicted as a beautiful garden where Adam and Eve frolic in peace with God. It ends with John giving us a glimpse of a new paradise, one yet to come. But wait a minute - no fluffy clouds, or angels with harps - no quiet solitude - no garden?
Instead we are given a vision of a New Jerusalem, God’s city, and we’re invited to be a part of God’s neighborhood - to live in love and peace and harmony with God and each other, much like newlyweds.
The Jewish people of John’s time had known destruction, separation, loneliness and exile. The Jewish-Roman war from 66 to 70 B.C.E. had left Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed; the Jewish population dead or scattered. They knew about cities created in the image of empire, and destroyed by empires. In this New Jerusalem we are not alone or exiled or separated from those we love, especially the One who made us in love and loves us still.
Carl Holladay writes, “Only those with anemic imaginations can fail to be gripped by this vision of a new heaven and new earth. There has never been a human soul steeped in the human condition who has not pined for a radically new world. Whether it is Marx sketching the ideal economic state or Lennon crying for us to “imagine” a peaceful world”, the hope is always for something different and better.”
It’s reflected in our politicians slogans over the years:
Reigniting the Promise of America
A New American Century
Unleash the American Dream
From Hope to Higher Ground
Make America Great Again
Prosperity is Just Around the Corner
This made me think of Dorothy following the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz. It wasn’t there that she found her bit of heaven, it was back home among those she loved.
The sea in antiquity was a threatening place of chaos and evil. In John’s vision the sea will be no more. Tears and death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. One author called this “the dream of God - God’s dream for humankind.” It’s a far cry from most cities we know today. Think of Chicago, Baltimore or Washington, who accounted for over half the increase in homicides last year, or Flint, Michigan, or even worse, Alepo and Homs, Syria. The list goes on and on.
So why the image of a city? I doubt that many of you conjure up images of cities when you try to visualize heaven. What do cities say about heaven?
Cities are where we live together in dependence upon one another. It’s where relationships are formed and nurtured. More people live in cities today than in the countryside. This is a communal vision;
“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;”
John was expecting that to happen in his lifetime, and we know it didn’t. Over the millenniums people have anticipated it happening in their lifetimes, and it hasn’t. I met one such woman sitting in a jacuzzi once who told me (with great passion, I might add) “I believe Jesus is coming back and everything will be changed. I’m a big fan of the ‘Left Behind’ series.” I made a hasty exit.
Looking back, this could have lead to an interesting discussion. I’m curious as to why people hold these kinds of beliefs, and then attribute scriptural status to books that were written as fiction.
Has anyone read any of the 12 Left Behind books? (show of hands) They were inspired by the Book of Revelation. They chronicle the Earth’s last days, and they sold in the millions. You might call them modern versions of Revelation.
I worked one summer as a hospital chaplain with a young man, fresh out of seminary, who got upset when we visited a mortuary, looking at the urns. He was concerned about how Jesus would put the bodies back together when he came back to raise them from the dead if they had been cremated. Taking all of this literally can really mess up your thinking.
For me, this passage says as much, if not more, about creating heaven here on earth, as it does about an afterlife, or end times. What a waste of life if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus to come back and make it all better.
Here God is ushering in new possibilities and we are meant to respond. Envisioning heaven as a city honors us. It’s God’s way of saying the human project is still viable. What we create can be good when we partner with God in ushering in something new.
As Christians if we embrace the way of Christ, we are entering the kin-dom of God, which exists to some degree already, but we also inherit the hope of the Kin-dom to come - this New Jerusalem. I believe that God is here, available to us always, alive and present in our lives today. But if we were to feel the full presence of God with us here in Newton, in every part of our lives, what kind of city would we create? What kind of city does God feel perfectly at home in? This would be a good question to discuss over lunch today - to think about this week - to share with our mayor and city council.
Then think about this: If heaven looks like a redeemed city, and we as Christ’s followers are to pursue God’s will on earth as it is in heaven (sound familiar?) how are we to go about redeeming our cities now? Bringing it closer to home, how can we, as a church serve this lovely town of Newton and help it to grow into the image of a New Jerusalem? That gets to the heart of what our purpose is as Christians - as a church.
In one of my many church renewal classes, I heard about a church in Denver whose leadership went out in pairs and asked people on the street and in a nearby park; How could a church in your neighborhood best serve you, regardless of whether you ever wanted to visit it or not? They were pleasantly surprised by the variety of answers they got. What kind of answers do you think we would get?
One they took most to heart was from a more cynical man who said “They could leave the neighborhood.” This motivated them to develop a vision of being the church that everyone would miss if it ever left the neighborhood.
When I was flying back from California last week a young woman sitting next to me asked me what I did for a living. Her eyes widened and she smiled when I told her. She told me she was one of those spiritual but not religious types - “I’m sure you’ve heard of them,” she said. I laughed and nodded. But - she was feeling the urge to find a spiritual community. I asked what she would look for in a church. Her answer was revealing.
“I’m looking for real community, not just Sunday morning - people who believe in a loving God, not a punishing one - who are not judgmental - who welcome everyone - who are focused on service and social justice in the community.” Wow! I told her about the United Church of Christ. She had never heard of us and didn’t know a church like that existed. This was a different kind of Christianity than she had heard about in the news and elsewhere . I directed her to a UCC church near her home. They’re out there folks - looking.
Martin Luther King Jr., in one of his last sermons, spoke of the New Jerusalem as both a future and present reality, a wonderful vision of justice in which believers could participate even now in the present. He said, “Thank God for John, who centuries ago, out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos, caught a vision of a New Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, ‘Behold I make all things new - former things are passed away.’ God grant that we will be participants of this newness...If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together.”
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
-- John Lennon, Imagine