Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2022
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 Commentary
Revelation 21 is the last stop on the RCL’s “tour” of the book Revelation. That tour is so short that I sometimes wonder if those who constructed it were impatient to get to its happy ending. It’s almost as if they so tired of Revelation’s horrors that they decided to hurdle most of them so that they could land in chapters 21 and 22’s glorious New Jerusalem.
Revelation’s Jerusalem is clearly not the city the Romans have trashed (or will soon trash, depending on Revelation’s precise dating). The Jerusalem John describes has “come down out of heaven from God” (21:2, 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” Jerusalem’s.
Revelation most importantly links both Jerusalem’s to God’s presence. After all, at least some people came to think of the first Jerusalem as not just David’s, but also God’s city. Revelation 21, however, links the New Jerusalem to God even more closely than the old. It, after all, 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).
Yet this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might choose to focus on the continuity and discontinuity that exist in the “nations’” (21:24, 26; 22:2) relationship to the old and new Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem was, of course, the capital of the nation of Israel. Israelites viewed it as central to their national identity.
Yet by the time John writes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, the Romans have conquered the nation of Israel and, with it, Jerusalem. The Israelite nation exists largely in name only. Now it’s strongly linked to the Roman “nation” that occupies it.
Jerusalem remained a place to which the scattered Jews diaspora returned for major religious celebrations. So on the first Pentecost, for example, Jews from “nations” like Egypt, Libya and countless other parts of the known world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Weeks. Their presence gave the city of David a decidedly Jewish but international feel.
21st century Jerusalem may have an even more international flavor than the first Pentecost’s. After all, both Jews and non-Jews live there. Many Arabs live in today’s Jerusalem. People from all over the world make at least a temporary home there. However, the “nations” also live there with each other uneasily. 21st century Jerusalem is a flashpoint for major religious and ethnic conflicts.
That’s part of the reason why this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is so hopeful. Its new Jerusalem shares a very international flavor with the old one. Revelation 21 and 22, in fact, mentions “the nations” three times. But the nations (ethne) enter and live together in the new Jerusalem in the shalom for which God originally intended and created them.
That may come as something of a surprise to people who are familiar with the rest of the book of Revelation. The nations, after all, don’t get much “good press” in it. They’re allied with Revelation’s “beast” and, in some senses, work for its Babylon. They even menace God’s people.
While those nations were “devoured” by fire that “came down from heaven” (20:9), the inspired John envisions God as somehow graciously resurrecting and perhaps reconstituting “the nations” so that they have a place alongside God’s people in the new Jerusalem. N.T. Wright (Revelation for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) points to Revelation’s earlier hints of God’s redeeming plans for the nations. The suffering Church’s witness results in the nations coming to glorify God (11:13).
In Revelation 21, however, the nations form not a choir, but a virtual parade into the new Jerusalem. That may help explain another discontinuity between the old and new Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem was relatively small. The new Jerusalem is unimaginably huge. What other place would be, after all, large enough to contain not only God’s glory but also all the nations?!
In that massive new Jerusalem John promises that the nations will walk by the light of the glory of God. The nations’ kings will also bring their splendor into it. Edwin Walhout (Revelation Down to Earth, Eerdmans, 2000) suggests that means that “Communal life in this perfected world is such that a perfected human race lives in perfect harmony with God and nature.”
Instead of bringing weapons of violence and destruction as they did into the old Jerusalem, the nations will bring glory into the new Jerusalem. Instead of plundering and taking things out of it as they did the old Jerusalem, the nations will bring their honor into the new Jerusalem.
All of this helps explain another thread of continuity between the old and new Jerusalem’s. The old Jerusalem had a city gate. So does the new one. Yet the new Jerusalem’s gates will never close. They are, in N.T. Wright’s lyric imagery (ibid), “for decoration rather than defense.” In the new Jerusalem, after all, nations will no longer declare war on each other or God’s good and loving purposes for them. So they will no longer need a gate to protect them from their enemies.
Yet 22:1-4 offers this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s perhaps most hopeful of all messages about the nations. There, after all, the Spirit inspires John to envision “the river of the water of life … flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … On each side of the river stood the tree of life … And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
21st century Jerusalem, as well as the rest of the world, desperately needs healing. Conflict doesn’t just rage within Jerusalem as well as various nations. Violence also wreaks great havoc between nations. Wars have left damaged and scarred nations in ways that will take generations to heal.
In fact, the nations won’t fully heal until God graciously brings them into the new Jerusalem. There they will no longer have to defend themselves against aggressive nations or figure out how to arm themselves for war. The new Jerusalem’s citizens will devote our resources to working for the shalom of everyone and everything.
Those who focus on the nations’ relationship to the new Jerusalem may also want to point to several other features of that glorious city that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson describes. While God’s temple played a prominent role in the old Jerusalem, in the new it’s completely gone. There’s no need for its 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. The sun and moon that shone on the old city also no longer shine in the new. After all, the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb light the new Jerusalem.
But even more is “missing” from the new Jerusalem. It will be so completely a community that anything that hinders 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.
Of course, if there were no room in the new Jerusalem for anyone who ever murdered, committed adultery, or lied (cf. 21:8, 27), its population would be just one: the triune God. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will want to wrestle with that difficult issue.
But perhaps there’s no 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). God’s amazing grace has finally overwhelmed not just death, mourning, crying and pain (4) but also the sin that has so often caused it.
As we’ve repeatedly noted on our tour of the RCL’s Revelation “sites,” Revelation points not just to the future, but also speak to God’s work in the present. The Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations (HHTN) workshops are attempting to open the way for the Spirit to conform Christians’ 21st century lives to the reality of the new earth and heaven.
HHTN’s website describes how the Spirit transformed Eliyah and Gaston. Both are Rwandan Christians. However, while Eliyah is from the Hutu tribe, Gaston is from the Tutsi tribe. Eliyah admits that during the Rwandan genocide, he both facilitated and participated in the murders of members of the Tutsi tribe. He confesses he hunted Tutsis “as if they were animals.”
Gaston, on the other hand, had many family members and friends who were murdered by Hutus like Eliyah. He, in fact, survived his attackers’ throwing him into a deep pit and leaving him for dead. Yet Gaston professes that he was able to forgive Hutu people during a HHTN workshop. While he’d viewed forgiveness as impossible, he came to realize that if he does not forgive, he will not be forgiven.
Eliyah, in turn, helped facilitate Gaston’s forgiveness. During a workshop, he stood and asked for forgiveness for what Hutus like him had done to Tutsis like Gaston. Eliyah had, in fact, murdered members of Gaston’s extended family. Yet God empowered Gaston to tell Eliyah that he’d forgiven him.
As a result of that reconciliation, Eliyah and Gaston became close friends. Gaston even served as Eliyah’s best man at his wedding. Together they’ve become passionate advocates for healing and reconciliation among their fellow Rwandans. Eliyah is even trying to make a kind of restitution to Rwandan Tutsi survivors of the genocide. He has made windows and doors for them for free. Gaston has also tried to build houses for genocide survivors who have nowhere else to live.
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