Home | 5th of Easter

Revelation 21:1-6

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. (CEB)

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This text is most often heard at funeral services, and we’ve had a few of those this week. While it is an appropriate text to hear and ponder as we experience grief a person’s death, there’s an aspect of Revelation that we don’t often consider. John’s vision does not merely point to the pie in the sky after we die, but also to God’s presence with us in the here and now.

We may forget, at times, that God is still at work. It isn’t the case that God redeemed the world with Jesus and went to the beach for a break until God decides to send Jesus back. We aren’t waiting for God to finish the glass of holy lemonade before God gets busy with us again. God has been working to redeem and save from the moment creation fell into sin. In fact, God has, is, and will continue to work for the restoration of the whole creation. Apocalyptic literature envisions newness through restoration and transformation, not annihilation or obliteration.

Earth has and continues to be the primary focus of God’s concern, activity, and care. God desires and is working for the healing of all creation. Paul wrote about that, too, how creation itself will be set free from the decay that we human beings subjected it to when we fell into sin. In fact, creation longs for that day. (C.f. Romans 8:18-22).

One thing the visions of Revelation definitely do not support is escapism. The idea of a rapture where all the good and faithful Christians get an emergency evacuation from earth to heaven before things get bad down here simply cannot be supported by the text or by the theology of this book. God created everything for the good of the human race, whom God created in God’s image. Why, then, would God want to get any of us out when this is the place God intends to be? God does not intend to abandon the earth. Rather, God intends to restore the earth and all of creation.

“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:2-3 CEB).

Surely we realize that God has done this pattern before. God’s Son, Jesus, was sent to earth to be with us. God the Word came to Earth and, as John 1:14 put it, “the Word became flesh and made his home among us” (CEB). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and was poured out and passed around on all kinds of people. God has an already established pattern of coming to us. What John sees in his vision in Revelation 21, is not human beings going up to heaven to be with God. Rather, John sees a restored creation, a new city made by God, coming down out of heaven to be here with us and for us. This is a city where people live together. It’s a perfected embodiment of what human society and culture could be—indeed, what it’s supposed to be.

God has prepared a place for us, a home not made with human hands (Acts 7:48). God is making all things new. The old passes away, but God raises heaven and earth to new life: a new life where death no longer has a say because the sea is no more.

The sea is an important image in Revelation because it symbolizes chaos and disorder. This is no ordinary ocean. This is the sea of primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea” (CEB). God’s act of creation brought order to the chaotic primordial sea. This sea is where Leviathan dwells. It’s where the dragon emerges in Revelation. This is what Isaiah saw in his own vision which says, “On that day, the LORD will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 CEB).

Psalm 74:13-14 also speak of how God will split the sea and crush Leviathan’s heads. These symbols of chaos continually threaten God’s creation. So, when there’s no more sea, there’s no longer a threat.

It’s curious how the beginning of creation prefigures the end. Yet, also how Revelation speaks not of an end so much as a beginning. In much the same way, Paul used the first human beings as a prefiguration of Christ when he wrote, “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 CEB).

So, New Jerusalem is the place—the city—where the God we love and worship stands beside us and lives with us. This is the place God will call home, because it’s with us. God’s home is with us. It almost requires a re-orientation of our imagination, doesn’t it? People always talk about going to heaven, but the vision of Revelation is that God will bring heaven and earth together so there is no longer a barrier between the two. In fact, the two shall become one, like a bride and groom.

Admittedly, Revelation employs some troubling assumptions about women. If we’re going to read the Bible and take it seriously, then we need to be honest about what it says, suggests, and how it portrays things. Revelation only sees women in terms of their sexuality. Cities like Babylon are personified as women who experience sexual exploitation and violence: a prostitute who is burned and devoured by her clients (c.f. chapters 17-18). New Jerusalem is personified as the virginal bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9). The woman clothed with the sun is pregnant and gives birth (c.f. 12:1-17). A woman of Thyatira, whom John identifies as “…that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet…” whose teachings conflicted with John’s, is portrayed as a prostitute who will be thrown onto a sickbed and have her children struck dead (2:20-23).

We have to admit that there are problems with this kind of imagery. At the same time, we can’t ignore it. Lynn R. Huber argues that, I few do ignore it, then we lose the power this imagery conveys (c.f. Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258).

The bride, who is beautifully dressed, suggests her preparation for a transition to a new identity, which is revealed in faithfulness to Jesus Christ that rejects all forms of idolatry and exploitation of others. The bride’s modestly contrasts with Babylon’s opulence. Babylon (which is Imperial Rome) gained its luxury through conquest, exploitation, slavery, and violence. The bride (which is New Jerusalem) provides goodness, safety, and security for all people who call it home.

The imagery also reminds us that weddings are not endings. Weddings are new beginnings. A wedding creates a new family and a new home. This particular wedding creates these things, too, in a restored creation where chaos and sin and death no longer exist.

The bridal imagery should also remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ must be embodied. We have to live it. Our faith should become who we are. Wedding celebrations are full of revelry, food, drink, dancing, and pleasure. I don’t know why we have these stupidly ridiculous images of heaven where people are floating on clouds and strumming on little harps when the image Revelation gives us is a city with streets to walk, life-giving water to drink, and food to enjoy.

If you read farther in chapter 21, you find that the streets are paved with gold and the foundations are set with gemstones. And, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to say that this new city is so opulent that it’s decorated with riches that are almost beyond comprehension. The other way is to say that the things we value on earth are so worthless in the New Jerusalem that they use them as building materials to pave the streets and hold up the walls. Who needs gold and jewels when we have the Living God with us?

In this city, our new home, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death, and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more because the former things, themselves, have passed away. In essence, death has died. We’re told in verses 7 and 8, which the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out, that those who conquer will inherit these things while sinners get tossed into the lake of fire and experience a second death.

Yet, there are also suggestions that God’s promise is incredibly inclusive. The nations walk in the illumination of God’s glory, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (21:23-24). The gates of the city remain open (21:25) so the nations can bring their glory and honor into the city (21:26). The tree of life bears fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).

As one scholar put it, “Dare we imagine that the saints’ victory accomplishes salvation for all peoples?” (G. Carey, in Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258). Dare we imagine that powerless believers can conquer the powers of this world through faithful witness? It’s a potent idea. Revelation strongly suggests that our faithfulness to God has consequences now as well as in the future, and that it has consequences for the nations. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine that our faithfulness—here and now—matters?

What have we to fear of faithful witness, whether it’s to people or powers? In the imagination of Revelation, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to those who follow Jesus. God has already declared: “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6a CEB). God has already accomplished the victory for us even if we can’t see it yet. John’s vision reminds us to repent and to remain faithful.

To me, home—our true home where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new—it sounds pretty good.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Win… By Losing | 4th of Easter

Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (CEB)

Win… By Losing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parishioner tell me that the Book of Revelation scares them. I’ve heard those words in every church I’ve served as a pastor. And, I understand why Revelation is a scary book. The first reason is probably that the style of writing is unfamiliar to us. It’s part of a genre of literature called apocalyptic, which includes Daniel 7-12 and many, many other writings. In fact, I have a book on my office shelves that contains more than twenty other writings in the apocalyptic genre.

Another reason Revelation scares us is because there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there, like the Left Behind series of books and movies. While this stuff is popular, it’s just plain wrong. It’s actually bad Biblical interpretation. And these incorrect interpretations scares some people because we don’t want to get left behind when the rapture happens and have to live through the tribulation with the antichrist in charge of the world. I mean, life is tough enough. We face enough difficulty as it is every day. So, we want out of here before even more difficult times come! We don’t want to live through suffering.

Yet, suffering is and has always been a part of the Christian story. If there is one serious misconception of the Christian Faith that John the Seer highlights in this text of Revelation, I’d say it’s the misconception that one of God’s main responsibilities—the thing that God owes to us—is to keep us and those we love safe from harm. And, if or when God “fails” to keep us or our loved ones safe from harm, then our faith can start to fall apart. We can question and accuse God for not doing the job God was supposed to do, for not meeting our most basic expectations. We ask ourselves questions, like, if God is all-powerful, then why wouldn’t God heal my uncle’s cancer? Was my uncle not good enough? Were his wife and children not good enough? Why did they all have to suffer through his illness and death?

Those are questions that grief asks, and I think they’re okay to ask them. I even think it’s okay for us to be angry at God at times, because I also believe that God takes our anger and grief and lives in it with us. Maybe God even asks those same questions of God’s self as we’re wrapped in God’s love and held tight.

Yet, questions remains for us to consider: why would we who follow a tortured and crucified savior expect that God should keep us from harm when Christ, himself, didn’t escape it?

Why should we expect to be kept from harm when all of the apostles but John was killed for confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord?

Paul was beheaded in Rome.

Uncounted Christians were martyred: Stephen, James, Ignatius, Perpetua, Felicity, Polycarp, Blandina – they were all killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians have experienced hardship in every chapter of the church’s existence. What part about the Christian Faith makes us think that we should be immune to suffering: that God’s job is to prevent suffering in our lives?

John’s vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no one can count, and they’ve all come out of great hardship. They’re in need of shelter. They have experienced hunger. They have experienced thirst. They have experienced scorching heat. And they have tears in their eyes. This gathered throng of people is not made up of people who are feeling all right, who’ve never been touched by hardship or harm. They have suffered.

Suffering is expected as a part of the Christian experience. That’s why Peter wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13 CEB).

“These are not strange happenings,” yet, it seems that even in Peter’s day Christian people were raising objections to their suffering. We do the same thing, which tells us that it’s a normal part of the human experience to reject suffering as something that we—or anyone—deserves.

But that’s true, too, isn’t it? We don’t deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. It’s wrong when human beings or human institutions cause other human beings to suffer. So, we reject the very idea that suffering is an acceptable lot for anyone—but especially us. I mean, we might not be able to personally vouch for those others—those refugees fleeing violence their homelands for instance, but we know that we’re good people. What we know for certain is that undeserved suffering is unjust, and I think (I hope!) that all of us would say that any suffering is unjust.

But, because of sin and how it gets a hold of each person and each institution we build, the world is not a fair place in which to live. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience because it’s part of the human experience of sin.

But thank God suffering not the only part of the Christian experience. While we should expect to experience suffering, God’s promise is to be with us through our trouble: to be present with us right in the midst of it—and to save us by raising us up to new life. And in that new life, God will care for us in all the ways we might need. In that new life, we’ll no longer live under the rule of sin, so all suffering will be a thing of the past.

This is only one part of what John’s vision teaches us. Revelation is one of my favorite books. As wild as some of the imagery and symbolism is, it’s really not scary. Let me highlight some parts of John’s vision in chapter 7. I’m going to include the first eight verses, too, because they’re part of this section as a whole.

The beginning of chapter 7 is where we’re introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Dan, if you’ve never noticed). In apocalyptic writings, numbers are symbolic. This number, 144,000, is a multiple of 12x12x10x10x10. The number 12 symbolizes fullness or completeness with obvious overtones of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 10 symbolizes the completion of a cycle of perfect order. So, the 144,000 is symbolic of the whole, complete number of God’s people: all of God’s people who are gathered together and who have finished their course.

John hears the number of those who are sealed as God’s servants (c.f. Rev. 7:4). But, when John looks in verse 9, he sees, “a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9 CEB). The image begins with the tribes of Israel, but what John sees clarifies that this group of worshippers includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, who speak all kinds of languages, and there are so many of them that they can’t possibly be numbered.

This uncountable throng of people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language should remind us that God’s dominion is more inclusive than our little tribes tend to be, and it should challenge us to strive to love and serve those whom we and our dominant culture would undoubtedly consider the other.

This uncountable, multi-cultural multitude are dressed in white. Colors have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature, too, and white means victory. In Revelation, white does not mean purity, as it often does in our cultural context. These people are dressed as victors. And, they have palm branches in their hands. The date palm was a symbol of the Judean kings, which was why the people waved palm branches when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as their king and Messiah (and probably making the Roman soldiers nervous about the possibility of an uprising).

The multitude of people in Revelation 7 cry out in a loud voice, “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10 CEB). But the word translated as victory here is σωτηρία (soteria), and it means salvation. This is actually a cry that runs counter to the official claims of the Roman Empire that salvation—in the sense of prosperity, peace, safety, and security—comes from the Emperor and the Roman State. One of the titles of the Roman Caesars was Soter, which is Savior.

So, this act of worship by those in white robes who hold palm branches is sedition against the Roman State. But that’s the thing we might not realize about worship. Worship is dangerous. Worship is a declaration of loyalty. When we worship God, we are making a statement that no other claimant for our loyalty has it. If you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you might recall that the beast also received worship. When we worship here, we are declaring that God alone has our loyalty over and above every other government, institution, party, and individual.

Worship is quite a statement, don’t you think?

Then, in a conversation between John and one of the elders, we find out that the gathered worshippers have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. When John first heard of this Lamb, he was described as “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5 CEB). But, when John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah, what he sees is, “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 CEB). That says something about the power dynamics at play in God’s dominion. The mighty, powerful lion appears as a slaughtered lamb, and it’s the Lamb that has emerged victorious.

The robes of the worshippers are washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white. It’s a powerful image and a powerful statement. Remember that, in apocalyptic literature, white means victory. The blood of Jesus that was spilled in his sacrificial death for us is what has won the victory for us.

And it’s important for us to note that every robe needs washing.

The Lamb at the center of God’s throne will shepherd the people. The Lamb will care for those who have come out of suffering and hardship. The Lamb will guide them to fresh water that pours from the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

This is beautiful, not scary.

John the Seer of Revelation reminds us that, if we are God’s people—as we claim to be by our very act of worship—then we can and should proclaim with boldness that salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb. Our witness on behalf of the crucified and risen Savior can and often does bring us into direct conflict with the powers of this world. Yet, no other allegiance matters because victory only comes from the blood of Jesus. New life only comes by dying. Victory is only won… by losing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay