Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 19, 2019

Revelation 21:1-6 Commentary

Christ’s revelation to the apostle John includes what sometimes seems like an endless series of chilling images.  Nearly all of them portray intense persecution, bloody battles and immense suffering.  It’s a revelation that, if we didn’t know its “happy ending,” we might quit reading after about six or seven chapters.

Some modern Christians assume that the gruesome events Revelation describes still lie in our future.  However, the church to which John first wrote it was already experiencing the kind of misery he describes.  The early Christians to whom John wrote were dealing with great adversity, including martyrdom.

That Christian suffering, however, as Craig Barnes, who gave me ideas for this sermon commentary, notes, contradicted the early church’s expectations.  The first Christians, after all, expected Jesus to return and establish his kingdom on earth soon after he ascended to the heavenly realm.

Yet they certainly weren’t the last Christians to expect Christ’s eminent return.  Ever since Christ ascended to the heavenly realm, at least some of God’s people have assumed the same thing.  Some Christians said, “This is it.  The world is going to end very soon” during the twentieth century when genocide seemed to write out a whole list of potential Antichrists.  One elderly couple whose church I served predicted the world was going to end every time an awful earthquake occurred during wartime.  Twenty years ago, some assumed that since Jesus works only in round numbers, the new millennium’s start would signal Jesus’ return.

Church historian Martin Marty, however, notes that the world is, in one sense, always coming to an end.  After all, the world of the first century was at least figuratively if not literally ending even as John wrote our text.  The Christian world Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches domination ended more than five hundred years ago.  We might say that the United States’ world domination of the twentieth century ended with 9/11.

Yet, as Barnes points out, in a sense it also feels like your world ends every time someone you love and like dies.  The death of loved ones, after all, signals the end of a variety of often-important things.

However, when we bury a loved one, we also want to believe that there’s more for both them and us.  John’s message in this Sunday RCL Epistolary Lesson is that this world is not the end.  Jesus’ death and resurrection signal that the brokenness, heartache and disappointment that we sometimes experience in this world do not get the last word.

John wrote the book of Revelation to encourage Christians who suffered greatly for their faith as they approached what seemed like the end of their world.  In Revelation 21 he does so by describing a time when “the first heaven and first earth had passed away” (1).  We don’t know if he means that God will completely destroy and then remake heaven and earth, or simply renovate them on some kind of grand scale.

God’s people do know, however, that when Christ returns, he will destroy the old way of doing things.  John promises that God will replace the ancient threat that was the “sea” with God’s own glorious presence, symbolized by the descent of the New Jerusalem and God’s dwelling among God’s people.  In other words, some day very soon God will eliminate everything that now threatens us, including mental and physical illness, violence and climate change.

God will replace those threats with himself by setting up God’s throne among God’s beloved people in the new creation.  So the God who acted in history through Israel, Jesus Christ and his church will consummate that history by finally making God’s permanent home among God’s redeemed people.

In a stirring echo of the end of last Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, John promises that in that glorious home God “will wipe every tear from” our “eyes” (4).  God will tenderly wipe away from our eyes each tear that grief, sickness, alienation, anxiety and doubt so often now clouds.

What’s more, John writes in our text, some day very soon there won’t even be any more reasons for tears.  “There will be,” after all, “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (4).  Tears and grief will have no place in the new creation because God will eliminate their causes.

This is a wonderful vision that those who proclaim as well as hear Revelation 21 desperately need.  Death by inches from things like brain tumors, dementia and other incurable diseases pockmark life on this first earth.  Things like failing health, broken families, lost jobs, war and ethnic hatred scar it.

Yet while God’s people sometimes assume that John is only talking about something that’s far away in both time and space, that not a completely biblical assumption.  After all, Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection change nearly everything right now.

Now is already, after all, the dwelling of God with people (3).   Where, after all, do we profess God now make God’s home, by the Holy Spirit?  Isn’t God’s dwelling already in and among God’s people to comfort, strengthen and encourage us?  And aren’t we already by God’s great grace God’s adopted children who now call God “Daddy” and whom God now calls God’s “sons and daughters”?

While Christians sometimes act as though God says in verse 5, “I will make all things new,” that’s not what our text actually says.  God insists, “I am making all things new.”  Look, after all, at God’s wonderful promise to wipe every tear from our eyes.  Of course, that will fully happen only in God’s glorious presence in the new heaven and earth.

Yet isn’t God’s Holy Spirit already comforting God’s grieving people?  How many of those who proclaim Revelation 21, after all, have grieved deeply, but eventually felt God’s comforting grace?  Those who hear and read Revelation 21 still cry, sometimes right until the moment of our death.  God, however, eases our grief, however slowly, already beginning to dry our tears.

And hasn’t Jesus’ death and resurrection already changed the meaning of “death” (4)?  Death is not yet a dead enemy.  Yet now God’s adopted sons and daughters’ death ends our rebellion against God but not our existence.  Christians’ death is now simply a doorway into God’s glorious presence.

John’s vision of the new creation, however, changes not only the way we die, but also the way you and I live. Barnes says, “Heaven exists not just as a future place to go after we die, but also as an inspiration for the life you have today.”  Knowing that Christ waits for us with open arms makes all the difference in how you and I live today.  In fact, it can make all the difference in the world.

Many people who have made a difference in this world believed most strongly in John’s vision of the world to come.  The apostles, for instance, sought the humane treatment of slaves, women and children.  More recently devout Christians like William Wilberforce worked to abolish slavery.  A twentieth-century African American pastor gave us a vision of a color-blind society.

They got part of their vision for this world in John’s description of the new world Christ will bring at his return.  These men and women organized their lives in ways that were consistent with our text’s description of life in the new creation.

So what might “the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them” (3) imply about the ministry of God’s people?  Might it not send us, as God’s representatives, to at least figuratively live alongside hurting people?

John’s God “will wipe every tear from their eyes,” (4) sounds a bit like Paul’s call to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.  It invites us to be active agents of God’s comfort, not avoiding the sick and the dying, but going to be with them.

“The old order of things” (4) won’t just pass away in the new earth and heaven.  They’re already dying wherever a classmate sticks up for a bullied student, people who are incarcerated receive a college education or people learn more efficient and ecologically sound ways to farm God’s creation.

We don’t, of course, confuse life in this creation, no matter how lovely it can be, with life in the new creation.  Yet Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as the Holy Spirit’s presence among us means that we can do things to help this life be kind of appetizer of that glorious life.

Illustration Idea

In Revelation 21:3 John hears a “loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’.”  But, of course, God first came to dwell with people in Jesus Christ.  So how might we compare that experience of “Immanuel” with the experiences God has graciously planned for us in the new creation?

In his book, A Room Called Remember, Frederick Buechner writes, “Who is this God and how is he with us?  ‘The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity’ is the answer to the first.  The One who is with us is the One whom none can look upon because the space-and-time human mind can no more comprehend fully the spaceless, timeless Reality of the One than the eyes of the blind can comprehend light. The One who is with us is the One who has made himself known at most only partially and dimly through the pantomime of nature and history and the eloquent but always garbled utterance of prophets, saints, and mystics.”


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