[This is the seventeenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 13, 2013—Revelation 21:1–22:5
Kathleen and I love to read to each other. We sometimes struggle a bit in deciding what to read, though. She wants to read serious fiction and nonfiction. Stuff that is actually literature. That would make us think. That would give us genuine insight into the human condition. You know, Moby Dick. War and Peace. The Brothers Karamazov. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The attraction of happy endings
For me, on the other hand, it’s different. I mainly just want something with a happy ending. Not that much genuine literature has a happy ending. So, we read mostly stuff that’s not genuine literature. Books by someone like Carl Hiassen, where you know who the bad guy is from the start by the kind of music he listens to….
It is probably true that books with happy endings have sold a lot more copies than books with tragic endings. And we tend to read the Bible this way. Even though a lot of people don’t like the book of Revelation all that well, it does have a pretty happy ending, depending on how you interpret it.
I’m finally getting to the end of the book of Revelation with my sermon today. Maybe simply to be done with Revelation will itself be a happy ending—though I do plan one more sermon to kind of summarize things next month.
Revelation does end happily, with a vision of paradise. The book contains several allusions going clear back to Genesis, and I think we are meant to read Revelation as in some sense the conclusion to the entire Bible. Let me read a condensed version of chapter 21 and the first part of chapter 22.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 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 homeof God is among mortals. God will dwellwith them; they will be God’s peoples,and God will be with them and wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Then an angel said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” He carried me away to a mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a rare jewel, clear as crystal. It has a great wall with twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side is the tree of lifewith twelve kinds of fruit and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servantswill worship him;they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. [Revelation 21:1–22:5]
Revelation is about now, not the future
I like this vision. It makes feel good. But for somewhat different reasons than it used to. I checked back on the first book I wrote, published in 1987, that was about Revelation. This is something I wrote back then: “The affirmation of Revelation 21 and 22 is that this fulfillment, this conclusion of history, will be worth all the pain and struggle which humankind has experienced throughout the ages. The completion of God’s work is the New Jerusalem —the establishment of the holy city—within which God’s people will reign forever and ever.”
I’m not sure I would say the same thing now. That is, actually, I won’t be saying the same thing—at least not exactly. Back then, I read Revelation in some fundamental way to predict the future—not the details like the rapture, antichrist, millennium, and all that, but in a more general sense I read it to assure its readers that indeed everything will end up okay. There will be a happy ending. But I don’t quite read it that way now. It’s not that I don’t hope for a happy ending to the human project—but I think Revelation is all about now, not about what will, for certain, be in the future.
When I read this vision of the New Jerusalem, I see three key points that I want to talk about that have to do with now. First, this vision affirms that the brokenness of the plagues that dominates much of the book of Revelation is not the truest picture of reality. The vision envisions healing. And, second, the point of the vision of resolution is not predictive so much as exhortative—it does not so much say, this is what will be. It says, more, this is the direction you should live toward. And, third, the vision re-emphasizes that Revelation’s main concern is method, not future gazing. It’s not that God has this set in concrete plan for the future where the dragon and beast are defeated and the kings and nations healed. It’s that God shows us how to go about the work of defeating the dragon and healing the nations.
The New Jerusalem as a true picture of reality
Part one: This vision insists that the plagues, chaos, and conflict of the earlier visions are not the truest picture of reality. The plague visions in chapter 6 through 18 picture (from a certain perspective) human history in the present time. The present time—looked at from a certain angle—is a time of sorrow, of pain, of domination, of oppression. In Revelation’s way of saying, it’s a time when the Dragon and the beast exercise a lot of power.
It’s like how a speaker at EMU portrayed things the other day. His parents were Holocaust survivors who settled in Israel. This speaker loves peace, but he believes ultimately that life requires violence—the bad guys are still at work, he in effect said, and we have to be able to fight better than them to survive.
Revelation 21–22, though, envisions an alternative way to see human history. It’s a history where the plagues and turmoil can end, even now. It’s a history of healing. There are people who remain humane, who—in Revelation’s terms “conquer.” They conquer the brokenness and cycle of retaliation with love. They reject the ideology of necessary violence as a way of life. Follow the Lamb’s way of peace instead. They do this even when they suffer as a consequence. Revelation 21 promises vindication. The conquerors will be made whole.
Something else, though, is that those human actors who had tried to conquer the humane conquerors with their violence will also find healing, according to this vision. The kings of the earth also find healing. When the spiritual forces of domination, the actual destroyers of the earth, the great Dragon, and its minions, the Beast and the False Prophet, are themselves destroyed, the end of the Dragon sets free those humans who had trusted in its distorted picture of reality. Then these human beings, still created in the image of God, may find their way to wholeness.
And the nations are healed as well. The kings of the earth catch up the biblical tradition of human leaders committed to opposing God. Biblically, we go back to the Pharaoh in the exodus story, to the leaders of the Assyrian empire that crushed the kingdom of Israel, to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who destroyed the temple and the kingdom of Judah and on down to the Roman Empire’s puppet king, Herod the Great who massacred new born sons out of his great fear and to the various Caesars who oversaw the killing of Jesus and of Peter and of Paul. Throughout the Bible, the kings of the earth indeed do side with the Beast in gathering their forces to crush God and God’s people. But in Revelation 21–22, the Beast is gone, the kings find healing. So too do the nations themselves, the human collectives organized so often to exploit, to buy and sell even human souls, to shed the blood of prophets. The nations find healing.
So this is point one: A vision of healing—there is resolution in face of the plagues. But I don’t think it’s a prediction here. I kind of wish that this vision were a sure prediction of what will be. But I don’t actually think that that was what John’s vision meant to him. It’s more, a vision of what can be. It’s a vision that tells us that the kings and the nations are not inherently broken. It tells us that the witness of the Lamb can indeed find a response in the world. We should never become fatalistic and give up hope. Witness is always possible—and always can bring transformation.
I still have memories of that amazing time back in the 1980s and 1990s when the Iron Curtain was torn down, when apartheid ended, when the Pinochet dictatorship was overthrown—each, against every expectation, without bloody warfare. No one thought those systems of domination could go down peaceably. Those transformations didn’t usher in the New Jerusalem, many, many problems still remain. But what happened shows us that our world is not a closed system—change is possible.
The New Jerusalem as an exhortative vision
So this is the second point: The vision of resolution in Revelation is not predictive so much as exhortative. It’s not telling us about the future so much as challenging us about how to live in the present. It pictures the nature of reality even now—worship amidst chaos. And we are called to live in light of the world seen in the worship visions—a world of solidarity and healing.
An interpretive key here is the close parallel between two city visions. First, in chapter 17 is the vision of Babylon, the city of the world of plagues. John is told by an angel, “Come and I will show you…” And he sees chaos and violence. Then in chapter 21, he is told by this same angel, “Come and I will show you….” And he sees healing and worship.
The judgment of Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 is now seen, in chapters 21 and 22, as the healing of the nations and their kings. The judgment leads to the destruction of the powers behind the kings, the Dragon and Beast and False Prophet. And, as we see in the New Jerusalem vision, the judgment leads to the healing of the kings themselves and their nations. Let me suggest that we may actually be seeing here two visions of the same city at the same time—the time of John’s present—and in a genuine sense, our present too.
What the two visions of the contrasting cities show, then, is two ways to interpret the present. There are plagues and there is worship. There is violence toward prophets and the vulnerable and there is healing. There is warfare and there is reconciliation.
Remember John’s number one agenda in writing this book. He wants to challenge people in the churches to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Do not give your loyalty to empire. The book of Revelation gets its name from its first verse—“the revelation of Jesus Christ.” This word, “revelation,” in Greek is apocalypse. But its original meaning is simply “unveiling,” not catastrophe, not punitive judgment.
“The unveiling of Jesus Christ” has two senses, I think. One sense is unveiling who Jesus is and who God is—paradoxically and with a profound challenge, they are seen most definitively in the resurrected Lamb. The second sense is that of unveiling what the Lamb wants of humanity—persevering love.
What John wants his readers to see is that they have a choice—the way of the Lamb or the way of the Beast. He tries to “unveil” the reality of both ways—conquer through force or conquer through love. The city that is most real is the city of love.
So, my big point number one from this vision of paradise is that Revelation 21–22 pictures a true alternative to life as all about power politics. The New Jerusalem is more real than Babylon. Big point number two is that the vision is not predicting the distant future but is exhorting us (exhorting all of John’s readers throughout all time) to live in the New Jerusalem now.
The priority on method
And my third big point is that this vision, then, is about method. How is the Dragon defeated? How is the Beast resisted? How are the kings of the earth converted? How are the nations healed?
The book of Revelation makes it clear what God’s agenda is—transformation, in history, from brokenness to blessing, from alienation to wholeness, from the cycle of violence to the cycle of reconciliation. And there is only one way for this transformation to happen. That’s the message the book of Revelation proclaims: the message that is revealed in Jesus.
Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Return hatred with love. Welcome vulnerable people. Counter the tyranny of the great ones with care and compassion. Refuse to let the domination system shape your values. Resist empire. Even to the point of suffering.
The final vision in Revelation, the picture of the New Jerusalem, gives us some powerful images, images—we could say—of paradise. These images mean to inspire us to live in paradise now—not to wait and hope for something in the future while we endure the present. Or, perhaps more pointedly, these images challenge the tendency of many Christians in comfortable circumstances to remain complacent in the confidence that God will work things out in the future.
Here’s one nice image: The door to this city is always open. As Australian folksinger Paul Kelly asserts in his song, “God’s Hotel”: “Everybody’s got a room in God’s hotel, everybody’s got a room. You’ll never see a sing hanging on the door, saying ‘no vacancies here anymore’.” The invitation to return, to turn back to God’s true city, to find healing, this vision is permanent. It’s for everyone.
Another nice image: Even the kings of the earth, even those Tom Waits calls “the shamefuls” in his song “Down There by the Train” that the bulletin quotes, the most unlikely people may find healing. “I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.” If no one is beyond the pale, Jesus’s call to neighbor love extends to everyone.
One last image I want to mention looms very large in the context of the Bible as a whole. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). God is present everywhere—not contained in some restricted institution, not protected by some spiritually elite guardians, not only accessible through authorized rituals. God is present everywhere, to everyone, at all times. And, God is present in the form of the Lamb—gentle, persevering love. This is paradise; this is now.
A “paradise” story
Let me close with a story about paradise in the midst of the plagues and chaos of present history. It’s about an eight-year-old girl who lived in San Francisco in 1906. She lived through the great San Francisco earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
It was terrible. Many died, much of the city was destroyed. But, amazingly, in the midst of the chaos, people came together. The caring, compassion, sharing, solidarity were remarkable. This is believable to me. I remember the 100-year flood that devastated my hometown in Oregon almost 50 years ago—and how people joined together in amazing ways to help each other.
For this young girl in San Francisco, the earthquake, paradoxically, was a time of joy amidst the carnage because genuine love and caring, the impulse to help and share, were enormously powerful.
This experience of a kind of paradise remained a living memory for this girl, whose name was Dorothy Day. Twenty-some years later, motivated in part by a desire to embody that same kind of solidarity, Dorothy Day founded an amazing movement that she called the Catholic Worker.
Locating itself in the midst of the endemic carnage and chaos of Depression-era inner-city North America, the Catholic Worker has and continues to bring a little bit of paradise into the present—showing indeed that following the Lamb wherever he goes is possible and that such following leads to witness against war and violence and that it leads to witness for the healing reality of radical hospitality.