Preacher: James Armstrong
Scripture: Revelation 21:1-8
As a young teenager I was fascinated by the book of Revelation. It was very mysterious, and I wanted to decipher and understand it. The pastor of my church tried to do exactly that. In a series of Wednesday-night Bible studies, he explained what Revelation meant for the 1960’s. In its cryptic images he found the European Common Market, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. As a result, he concluded that the end times were coming very soon. How exciting it was to see the modern world depicted in a book nearly 2000 years old!
My former pastor’s interpretative stance is shared by many who want to link the events described in Revelation to contemporary times. That effort has been remarkably popular. After all, who doesn’t want a roadmap for the near future? Have you heard of Hal Lindsey’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth? How about the more recent Left Behind series of no fewer than sixteen novels about the end-times by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins?
Not all Christians are convinced by Lindsey, LaHaye and others, and they don’t find Revelation especially relevant for today’s world. Let’s face it, it is a very difficult book. It is filled with arcane language, images and visions, and coherent interpretation seems impossible. There are angels, horsemen, dragons, beasts, seals, trumpets and bowls (yes, bowls), all of which appear in crucial but hard-to-understand contexts.
Many Christians are simply turned off by Revelation. It is harsh and violent, and doesn’t have much to say about love, that most essential of Christian virtues. Women don’t come off very well in the book either, symbolizing evil. For example, there’s the Whore of Babylon, who is one of Christ’s bitter enemies.
Some accuse Revelation of encouraging “pie in the sky” thinking, that is, focusing on heaven and the hereafter so much that we become passive in the face of the urgent needs of today. In other words, if God is going to take care of everything at the end of time anyway, where is the need for decisive Christian action now?
Yet, for all its problems – or, rather, our problems with it – we must pay attention to Revelation. After all, it is part of the Christian canon. As Christopher C. Rowland insists in his Introduction to the book in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “What we have in Revelation is the opening of a . . . space for readers . . . to be provoked, to have their imaginations broadened, and to be challenged to think and behave differently.”
In spite of all its harshness and difficulty, Revelation is a very hopeful book, as we heard in today’s reading, a fitting scripture lesson for the season of Easter. In Eastertide we should certainly be in a hopeful frame of mind, because Christ, our salvation, has risen from the dead.
In Revelation 21 we are near the end of the book: the great battles are over, Satan and Death have been cast in the lake of fire, and the last judgement has taken place. What happens next?
John, the visionary on the island of Patmos, sees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth have passed away. We can readily understand the need for a new earth – our old earth is in pretty bad shape, beset by sin and destruction. But why a new heaven? Is John talking only about the sky above us or about the homeplace of God, or about both at the same time? We don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that we have a new creation, with an interesting twist: there isn’t any more sea. Why should this be? In the Bible and in ancient Jewish thinking, the sea was a source of chaos, evil and death, things that will not be a part of the new creation, so on the new earth there is no more sea.
John’s vision continues with the descent of the holy city, the New Jerusalem. It is coming down out of heaven from God, dressed as a bride adorned for her husband. The New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ, the church, prepared to meet her husband. A detailed description of the New Jerusalem follows this morning’s scripture, but we won’t have time to go into that today.
Not only does the New Jerusalem descend from heaven, God does too. In verse 3, John hears a loud voice from the throne of God saying,
“See the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
They will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them.”
God is going to dwell with God’s peoples. Peoples, plural, because they will come from every one of the racial, ethnic, social and political groups that divide us from one another here on the old earth. God is no longer going to be transcendent in heaven, but immanent. That means that God is going to be alongside God’s peoples forever in the New Jerusalem.
In verse 4 it says that God, like a tender mother, will “wipe every tear from their eyes.” These must be lingering tears from the life of travail on the old earth, because it is made clear that in the New Jerusalem “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.” All these belong to the former age with its attendant evils. Former things, our age and everything that is a part of it, have passed away, because, as God says at the beginning of verse 5, “I am making all things new.”
God continues in verse 6, “It is done!” All things are accomplished. The old age is finished and the new age has begun. And God goes on to say, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so God was there at the beginning of time and is here now at its end. However, at the end of time, not everything ends. As we have already seen, there is a new and perfect creation, lacking chaos, sickness, mourning, pain and death.
God promises that “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” Who are the thirsty? Everyone – all people. God has created in all of us a thirst for God, and the spring of the water of life is available to anyone who seeks it. Life with God is a gift for everyone.
In verse 7, God says that “those who conquer,” that is, those who trust in God, follow Jesus and avoid entanglement with the evils of the world, “will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” Being children of God – part of the family of God – is a privilege that is available to all people.
What wonderful promises these are, and what a glorious future awaits us!
However, God’s next words, in verse 8, are troubling to me and perhaps to you as well:
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Who among us isn’t guilty at one time or another of at least some of these sins? I have been a coward, I have acted as though I had no faith, and I have lied, even in my life as a Christian. If these words are the judgment of God on me, where is my hope? My hope, and your hope, too, is in Jesus and in the promise reiterated in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
In his letter to the Romans Paul helps us understand the condemnation in verse 8. In chapter 1:28-32, he draws up a list of sins and sinners similar to the one in Revelation. But he adds a critical piece of information to his description of these lost souls: they are people who “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” And that’s the crucial point, they did not acknowledge God, and thus they lived a God-free or godless life.
Here I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in his book The Great Divorce, where the locks on the gates of hell are on the inside, so that the gates are actually barred by hell’s inhabitants to keep heaven out.
This brings us to the end of this morning’s scripture reading, but not to the end of the sermon. What follows is the “so what?” portion of the message. And I think it is very fair for you to ask “so what?” at the end of my exposition. What I have described today, the new heaven, the new earth and the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven, is God’s doing. The new creation is coming no matter what we say or do. So, there seems to be a risk here of “pie in the sky” thinking, which I mentioned earlier: focusing on our heavenly future to the exclusion of meeting the needs of today.
Given that God seems to be doing everything at the end of time, what is there for us to do now? Actually, quite a lot.
Do you know that the new creation is not only to be found at the end of time? The new creation has already broken into the present age. It is here now. Hear Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 and 20:
“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . . So, we are ambassadors for Christ . . .”
If you are in Christ, you are a new creation, made new by God. We are forerunners of the new heaven and the new earth. We are part of God’s plan both for today and for the future. We have been re-created by God for a reason; God has given us a job to do. Paul describes us as being ambassadors for Christ. What do ambassadors do? They represent others, speak in their name and work on their behalf. And that’s what God wants us to be for Jesus.
Wherever we find someone who is hungry, thirsty or cold, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, to do Christ’s work for them. Whenever we meet someone who has fallen through life’s cracks, we are Christ’s ambassadors to them, as well. Whenever we encounter someone who is struggling with sin and lostness, we are Christ’s ambassadors with the words of Jesus and the invitation of Jesus to share. Wherever we meet with systemic injustice and unfairness, here too, we are ambassadors for Christ, doing all we can on behalf of Jesus to stop the wrong from prevailing. We are ambassadors: we carry Jesus’s message, a message of love and hope, to a world that sorely needs it.
Does that sound like we, the church, have enough to do? I certainly think so. There’s no recipe for passivity here.
Nor, finally, is there one in Revelation, where among the last verses in the book, we hear this invitation, an invitation that is extended to everyone by God. And since it is God’s invitation, it is our invitation, too, because we are Christ’s ambassadors. Revelation 22:17 reads:
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
There are so many thirsty people around us. To every one of them God wants to extend God’s invitation. As Christ’s ambassador, are you offering the water of life to them? Are you offering Jesus’s free gift? Keep in mind, this is your most important job.
We, myself included, need to work on this. We need to take seriously our call as ambassadors for Christ. We are Jesus’s representatives to the world, his voice and his hands. We know about the new creation – we have experienced it; we know about the New Jerusalem – we are the New Jerusalem; we know about the water of life, which is available to everyone as a free gift from God. Let us share our good news. And, remember, we’re never alone; Jesus is always beside us. May Christ give us the courage to do what he asks of us, so that in everything we do God may be glorified. Amen.