Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 24, 2016
Revelation 21:1-6 Commentary
Among the best experiences I’ve ever had in life was snorkeling over coral reefs off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. My wife and I visited the island several times and each time continued to add to our “life list” of different types of fish and other sea creatures we had seen. Rainbow Parrotfish, Blue Tangs, Sergeant Major Damselfish, French Angelfish: the vibrant life and the astonishing colors to be observed on coral reefs are very simply awe-inspiring. I’ve never been a strong swimmer nor someone who much enjoyed just lolling around in the water and yet I’d get lost for 2-3 hours at a time swimming over those reefs, thrilling to spy the occasional octopus or Hawksbill Sea Turtle among the myriad of other fish constantly darting past.
So I don’t know what I think about Revelation 21’s claim that “there was no more sea” in the preview of the New Creation that John received. It does not seem to square very well with another claim in this same passage; viz., “Behold I am making EVERYTHING new.” Well, the sea is part of the creation’s “everything” and was one of the wonders in Genesis 1 that the Creator God took such delight in both making and then also filling up to the brim with every kind of sea creature and fish you could imagine (and then some). I have long been influenced by theologians like Anthony Hoekema who point out that if the New Creation does not include every created thing God ever made, then that would be like a conceding of defeat to the devil, whose goal all along has been the sullying of God’s handiwork. The redeeming and re-creating of every created splendor is part of the proof that in the end God won and the devil lost.
That seems right. So what’s with the “no more sea” thing? Probably no more than the sea as synecdoche for “chaos,” for the power of creation run amok after the fall into sin. All things being equal there is nothing wrong with deserts either—cacti and the other creatures that exist in earth’s hot places must surely have a future in the New Creation too, and yet the Bible consistently depicts a wholesale transformation of the wilderness into a verdant place after all. But again, in Scripture the sea and the desert are usually referred to less as geographical points and more as symbols of chaos, of the power to take life and not sustain it. Nations like ancient Israel that were largely landlocked feared the oceans. They looked like the end of the world and, in a flat earth cosmology as the biblical writers had, the sea was perceived as literally the place where you could fall off the face of the earth forever. But as a created splendor, oceans—which cover the majority of earth’s surface after all—must be preserved and renewed, too.
In short, I am holding out for Blue Tangs and Hawksbill Sea Turtles in the New Creation.
And just that level of earthy—or pelagic—specificity is the main import of the vision we receive in Revelation 21. We do not get transported into some vapory realm of wisps and clouds and all things ethereal when history’s curtain rings down. No, the dwelling (literally, the skene/“tabernacle”) of God comes DOWN here. As in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, he pitched his tent (skene/tabernacle again) on THIS earth and lived among us right here. The old earth and heavens might pass away but what we are promised over and again in Revelation 21 is not something in their place that will be novel and new (which would be neos in Greek) but something that is REnewed (kainos over and again here in the Greek). The vision is not of creation passing away in favor of something totally different the likes of which we’ve never experienced. No, it’s “all the old familiar places” (to quote a song) of this creation that will be renewed and restored to their original splendor before being sullied by pollution, decay, species extinctions, and the like.
Since we are told that God’s dwelling would be in the midst of all the renewed creation, it is clear that the incarnation of Jesus was just a preview for a longer-term goal of God: dwelling within his own creation. I realize we should not get too ontological based on anything in Revelation, which is finally as much a dream vision as anything approaching literal descriptions of thing. But the notion of God’s dwelling coming down into (and so being, as it were, “inside” the New Creation) speaks theological volumes as to the value God has all along placed on his physical creation. Pantheism and also its cousin of panentheism are justly seen as blurring the lines between Creator and creation in ways that can bring theological confusion. But as C.S. Lewis once said, you’re always fighting on two fronts in this area: no, we don’t want pantheism and so need to tell people not to conflate Creator and creature but on the other front we also don’t want SO much separation that we cannot see God’s loving connection to pandas and heads of cabbage. Don’t confuse them but don’t make them in opposition to each other either.
Revelation 21 tells us that whatever distinction there is for now between God’s realm (“heaven” in popular parlance) and our realm (“earth” in contradistinction to “heaven”), in the end there won’t be such a hard and fast distinction because what we now call heaven will somehow be here on earth. All in all this is a more radical, curious, and wonderful vision of the New Creation / the Eternal Kingdom of God than is appreciated most of the time even by people who are very familiar with Revelation 21. To preach on this passage is to preach not just future hope but future wonder and awe at just how (and “where”) God is going to be with us forever.
Of course, whenever the Lectionary breaks off in a passage that in most Bible translations means stopping in the middle of a paragraph, you can guess that there is something else the Lectionary folks don’t want us to notice or talk about. In this case it is what comes in verse 8 that pronounces a dire judgment on all those who pervert creation, justice, life itself, and the worship of the one true God. Let’s just focus on those who get to enjoy God forever and block out the prospect that not everyone may have that destiny.
No one likes judgment, of course, and so like the Lectionary folks we might find ourselves wishing we could dismiss verse 8 as an unwelcome bad burp from John in the midst of what is otherwise a lyric passage. And yet for a lot of people in history and who live on this earth right now—but not a lot of whom live in the Western world—a longing for justice and a desire to know that God will not merely wink at or casually wave off evil is part and parcel of the hope for a new and renewed (and flat out better) world. It’s not enough for God to wipe away pollution the way a window washer might squeegee away unsightly streaks on the glass. No, those who murder the innocent, those who led people astray in evil schemes calculated to bring suffering—these people need to be confronted, dealt with, punished. As Fleming Rutledge has pointed out in her new book on the crucifixion, God cannot be a God of justice and true righteousness if what has happened in the course of history is not overtly confronted. “In our world, something is terribly wrong and it must be put right. If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends, though, on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God” (The Crucifixion, p. 143). That seems right.
Whether we deem that those consigned to that lake of fire stay there forever is a different topic but let’s not pretend theologically or biblically that the prospect of God’s taking on the unrighteous and the unjust cannot be of a piece with the rest of Revelation 21’s vision of God’s making all things new. Biblically it seems that one without the other would be incomplete. And whatever else the New Creation will be, it will most certainly not be incomplete.
From Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 21-23.
“When you are with somebody you love, you have little if any sense of the passage of time, and you also have in the fullest sense of the phrase a good time. When you are with God, you have something like the same experience. The biblical term for the experience is Eternal Life. Another is Heaven. What does it mean to be ‘with God’? To say that a person is ‘with it’ is slang for saying that whether he’s playing an electric guitar or just watching the clouds roll by, he’s so caught up in what he’s doing and so totally himself while he’s doing it that there’s none of him left over to be doing anything else . . . In other words, to live Eternal Life in the full and final sense is to be with God as Christ is with him, and with each other as Christ is with us.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!