Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 26, 2019
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 Commentary
If we were to ask our hearers for a list of the books of the Bible that most puzzle them, at least some them would likely list both Ezekiel and Revelation. So it may intimidate those who follow the RCL to know that its Easter Season’s next to last Epistolary Lesson is a passage in Revelation whose foundations lie in a passage from Ezekiel. Talk about a mystery wrapped in an enigma!
Revelation 21 is the next to last stop on the RCL’s “tour” of the book Revelation. That tour is so short that I sometimes wonder if those who constructed the RCL were impatient to get to its happy ending. It’s almost as if they got so tired of Revelation’s horrors that they decided to leap right over most of them so that they could land in Revelation 21 and 22’s lovely New Jerusalem.
It is a rather striking landing zone. Revelation’s Jerusalem is clearly not the city the Romans have trashed (or will soon trash, depending on Revelation’s precise dating). No, the Jerusalem John describes has “come down out of heaven from God” (2, 10). This at least suggests that just as both continuity and discontinuity existed between Jesus’ pre- and post-resurrection bodies, some kind of continuity and discontinuity also exist between the “old” and “new” Jerusalems.
Among other things, Revelation links both Jerusalems to God’s presence. After all, while God’s Old Testament children thought of it as the city of David, once Solomon built the temple in it, at least some people came to think of it as God’s city. The New Jerusalem is linked to its God even more strongly than the old. It shines “with the glory of God” (11). The “Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” are the new Jerusalem’s temple (21). “The glory of God … and the Lamb” light the new Jerusalem (23).
One more thread of continuity runs between the old and new Jerusalems. The old Jerusalem had a city gate. So does the new one. Yet the new Jerusalem’s gates will never close. They are, in the lyric imagery of N.T. Wright’s Revelation (Westminster John Knox Press: 2011, p. 194), “for decoration rather than defense.”
This subtle discontinuity between the nature of the old and new Jerusalem’s “gates” opens the way for more discontinuity – all of which, we might argue, is good. The new Jerusalem, in fact, seems a bit like Jerusalem 2.0 – a kind of new and improved version of the holy city.
The old Jerusalem was relatively small – far smaller than I imagined as a child. The new Jerusalem isn’t just huge. It’s unimaginably huge. It’s not just that, as Wright notes, its footprint is about the size of John’s Roman Empire (ibid). It’s also that the new Jerusalem is fifteen hundred miles (nearly 2500 kilometers) high! What other location would be, after all, large enough to contain God’s glory?!
While God’s temple played a prominent role in the old Jerusalem, it plays no role in the new. In fact, it’s completely gone. “I did not see a temple in the city,” John marvels in verse 21, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” There’s no need for a temple’s symbol of God’s presence in a place where God is not just graciously present, but is also completely at home and totally fills.
Yet it’s not just the temple that graced the old Jerusalem that’s gone from the new Jerusalem. It’s also that the sun and moon that shone on the old city no longer shines in the new. But that doesn’t leave the new Jerusalem plunged in eternal darkness. In fact, even darkness seems to be part of the old creation that God has excised from the new creation.
The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb don’t just replace the old Jerusalem’s temple. They also light the new Jerusalem. “The glory of God gives it light,” says John in verse 23. “And the Lamb is its lamp.” Earlier the apostle insists that the new Jerusalem “shone with the glory of God” (11). He gives us the sense that God’s presence is somehow so radiant that the new Jerusalem doesn’t need any ambient lighting. God Almighty and God’s Son the Lamb are more than enough to light up the entire enormous city. In fact, night will be one aspect of the old creation that God banishes from the new (22:5).
Yet John adds a couple of perhaps peculiar notes to descriptions of the new Jerusalem. He insists the “nations will walk by its light” (24). Is this perhaps an allusion to Revelation 9’s startlingly diverse multitude that already stands and worships before the Lamb’s throne? Or is it perhaps at least suggestive of the wide diversity of the new Jerusalem’s citizens – not just people from those nations but also the very nations themselves? Add to that verse 24’s promise that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the new Jerusalem and you have an almost unimaginable array of citizens of the new creation.
But there’s even more is “missing” from the new Jerusalem. It will be so completely a community that anything that hinders such community will also be completely absent. Nothing that leads to the kind of death that God has killed will be allowed to wreak havoc within it. “Nothing impure will enter” the new Jerusalem, John says in verse 27. “Nor will anyone who is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the book of life.”
So what are those who proclaim Revelation 21 to make of this? Especially when we combine it with 21:8ff’s insistence that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars[‘]” home will be not in the new Jerusalem, but the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” (8). How do we reconcile such an apparently exclusively holy picture of the new Jerusalem’s citizens with God’s grace that’s the only “ticket” into it? If there were no room for anyone who ever murdered, committed adultery or lied in the new creation, its population would be frightfully small – as in one, the triune God.
Those who proclaim Revelation 21 will want to wrestle with such questions. But might we tentatively land on something like this: there is no such vileness in the new Jerusalem because the Lamb’s blood has graciously washed it away from those whose names God has written in God’s “book of life” (27)? That God’s amazing grace has overwhelmed not just death, mourning, crying and pain (4) but also the sin that has so often caused it?
The “Lamb’s book of life” (21:27) is an evocative image of something that also didn’t exist in the old Jerusalem. It’s a picture of an almost unspeakably huge book that’s full of the names of the people God has redeemed. It’s full of famous, less famous and perhaps even, by God’s grace, infamous names. The Lamb’s book of life is filled with names nearly everyone knew as well as those virtually no one knew. The names of those everyone remembers as well as those everyone has forgotten are perhaps written in the ink that is the blood of the Lamb that was slain to rescue God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his memoirs he entitled, Self-Consciousness, John Updike wrote, “Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish . . . to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of the biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do? …
“The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of a dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation . . . Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news, or a Last Judgment not subject to pages of holier-than-thou second-guessing in The New York Review of Books.
“The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.”
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