Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

The New Jerusalem

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 3, 2017)
Revelation 21:1-6; 22:1-5 – “The New Jerusalem”

Today we’re wrapping up this four-part sermon series on the book of Revelation. If this is your first time with this series, let me catch you up. The writer of Revelation, John the Seer, as he’s often called in tradition, lived a generation after Jesus and was imprisoned on the island of Patmos and writing to seven churches in Asia Minor urging them to not conform their ways to the ways of the Roman Empire. This is resistance literature, if you think about it. We’ve explored some of the major symbols in the letter to see what relevance they have for our life of faith today. So far we’ve covered the church at Sardis, a Lamb and the four winged creatures, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the saints robed in light, and now the New Jerusalem.

The Lectionary reading for today is a combination of passages from the 21st and 22nd chapters. This is the end of John’s dream that he describes when he writes…

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. 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. 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.”

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.” 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.”

Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

Have you ever started reading a book and just skipped right ahead to the last chapter to see what happens?

In a sense, that’s what we’re doing today by reading these passages from Revelation 21 and 22. We get to see how The Story—that grand, sweeping narrative of God and God’s people in history—ends. This is how the Bible ends, with this image of the new creation, the New Jerusalem. It’s unfortunate that people don’t read Revelation. I get it, because it can seem pretty strange and scary, and some interpreters do some very bizarre things with it, but I think we miss out of one of the most inspiring passages in all of Scripture.

Try picturing this for a moment. A new heaven, a new earth. The redeemed city of Jerusalem descending from the clouds. Every tear wiped away. No more crying, no more pain, no more death. A river of life-giving water flowing from God’s throne. The tree of life, “leaves for the healing of the nations.” No more darkness. Light eternal. “God will be all in all.” [1]

Let that sink in…

I’ve said it before, but I think it’s significant that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, alpha and omega. History comes full circle back to the good creation that was originally intended, but it looks differently. It’s a city—a vibrant, bustling city teeming with life. A city saturated with the loving, healing presence of the Creator. It’s not some disembodied paradise and there are no angels with harps perched on puffy clouds. It’s a community of people who dwell with God and with one another in peace.

Can you see it?

You have to admit, though, that this depiction of a peaceful, reconciled Jerusalem is an absurd one. What other city on the globe evokes more war and destruction than Jerusalem? Jerusalem seems more like a symbol of all that plagues humanity: unending violence, oppressive governments, the tension of intractable conflicts. So this vision is kind of pollyanna-ish, isn’t it?

John was no pollyanna, though. John Buchanan, a former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, put it this way:

John’s world had collapsed. His religion, the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and David, was being systematically stamped out by the most powerful, violent political entity the world had ever known. His new faith in Jesus, the Jewish carpenter, rabbi, crucified by Rome, was also now being systemically [sic] persecuted. Christians were arrested, executed, or imprisoned as traitors to the Roman state. They were weak, powerless, without resources or friends or much hope.

Old John wanted to write a letter of encouragement to his friends under persecution. He looked out that tiny opening in his prison cell, saw the sky, the sea, and wrote striking words that somehow were smuggled out of his prison and given to the world:

I saw a new heaven and new earth. [2]

There are people who, like John of Patmos, have such bold visions of hope in the midst of despairing circumstances. They catch a glimpse of the New Jerusalem and they share it with the rest of us, and it changes us forever. They see a hint of what the world will look like at the culmination of history, the redemption and renewal of all things. Think of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said about the arc of the moral universe: it “is long, but it bends towards justice.” [3]

Can you see it?

A new heaven and a new earth. It’s what will happen when all of creation resembles the risen Christ—alive, healed, transformed. We see hints of the New Jerusalem…

  • When, after a stalemate that’s been going on for years between relatives, someone finally says, “I’m sorry. I love you. What do we need to do to patch things up;”
  • When someone finally gets the help they need after struggling mentally or with addiction and they take that first step toward healing and wholeness;
  • When “a group of brave Texans linked together to form a human chain and rescue their pregnant neighbor who had gone into labor during Hurricane Harvey;”
  • When immigrants families no longer have to live in fear; when children who have lived their entire lives in this country get to stay in their communities;
  • When Christians are known more for our radical resemblance to Jesus, for outlandish love instead of homophobia and sexism; then we will see a glimpse of the New Jerusalem.

Can you see it?

Where do you see it?

With all I’ve read and heard about the book of Revelation, nobody has helped me receive its message than a gentleman in the first congregation I served, Charles Livesay. I was fresh out of seminary then, serving half time as the temporary pastor of a small church in Southwestern Virginia. One week each summer the church would have a Bible school program for adults.

They asked me to do it and, for some reason, I thought that doing Revelation would be a good idea. I thought it might be fun to debunk some of the theories of the Left Behind folks by pointing out what some of the symbols in Revelation meant in their historical context. The Mark of the Beast, “666,” wasn’t a sign of the Anti-Christ, but the Emperor Nero’s face on a coin, for example. I was explaining how Revelation is so obscure and complicated and how you’d have to be familiar with Old Testament apocalyptic literature and the history of the First Century Mediterranean world to understand it. (Arrogant much?)

This man, Charles, came up to me after a presentation and said, in his characteristically gentle way, “Bart, Revelation isn’t hard to understand.”

“Oh,” I said, “It isn’t?”

“No it isn’t,” Charles replied. “I can tell you what the point is in one sentence.”

“Do tell,” I said.

Charles went straight to the point: “Jesus wins.”

Jesus wins.

That’s the message of this letter. Jesus wins over sin and evil. Jesus wins over everything that severs our bonds with God and our fellow humans, and even creation itself. Jesus wins over every enemy, seen and unseen, even the mighty Roman Empire.

But here’s the thing: this vision of victory isn’t a passive one; on the contrary, it begs our participation. We get to join God in what she is already doing to build that city, brick by brick. Seeing that victory of the future motivates us for our work in the present.

I heard a story of a football game in the early 1980s. I believe it was between Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin. (My apologies in advance: college football season is back and very much on my brain!) The game was in Madison, Wisconsin and it wasn’t looking good for the Badgers. The Spartans kept putting points on the board, and it looked like it was going to be a loss for the home team.

What seemed odd though, even as Wisconsin was losing the game, was that a small group of diehard fans kept cheering. They’d even cheer when play had stopped. They jump up and start shouting even during time-outs! It started to confuse the players and the coaches, these fans roaring with excitement as their team was losing.

What the others didn’t know was that these fans were listening to their portable radios. 70 miles down the road the Milwaukee Brewers were winning against the Saint Louis Cardinals in game three of the World Series. You see, the team in front of them was losing, but these Badgers fans were tuned in to another victory down the road.

Want to know the final score? 24-23, Wisconsin by 1 point!

Friends, let us be the ones who, in these chaotic times, are tuned in that ultimate victory down the road of time, God’s new heaven and new earth, the New Jerusalem.

Can you see it?

[1]  1 Corinthians 15:28
[2]  “Memory and the Peace of God” preached on May 27, 2001.
[3]  King wrote this in “Out of the Long Night,” in The Gospel Messenger, the magazine of the Church of the Brethren in 1958, quoting Theodore Parker, who originally wrote those words in the mid-1800s. In context, the quote reads: “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

Featured image: Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino,