A Reading from Revelation 21
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his people and God himself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more.
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Then he said to me, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
Our home Bible study group has been studying the book of Revelation recently. Several in our group admitted they have never read the last book of the Bible before. And I had to laugh because some of them confessed they haven’t read it on purpose and they still don’t want to read it. But here we are, digging into it together and learning some fascinating things.
Revelation definitely is one book in the Bible that has an interesting history in the church and in the biblical canon. And it also has a decidedly mixed reputation among Christians (and non-Christians) today.
My New Testament professor at seminary says some of the current weirdness that surrounds interpretations of the Revelation is partly the fault of the mainline Church. We have avoided offering solid theological reflection and we have failed to teach the book and thus have created a vacuum. It is within this vacuum that all sorts of odd interpretations of the vision have incubated in the past few decades in American Christianity.
We really should not be put off by this book. Yes, it’s odd but it’s not really that hard.
The Revelation is a vision of hope for Christians living under the thumb of an oppressive government and under the disapproval of a suspicious society. The Christians in these seven churches in Asia were outsiders, pariahs. This dynamic developed because of their stubborn conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar was not. Because of their confession of the One True God and their refusal to confess allegiance to the gods of the Empire.
In this vision from the Risen Christ, the curtain of heaven was drawn back and John glimpsed a part of the cosmic story. He was shown the Divine passion against the powers of evil and on behalf of the beloved children of God.
So it’s really not that hard to understand. And then again, some of it is pretty hard to read. I think the original readers recognized the symbolism and understood the message without much trouble. Our first century sisters and brothers were steeped in this genre of apocalyptic visions and they would have been quick to interpret the metaphors.
Not so much for us. The images seem bizarre, startling, violent; quite strange to our modern sensibilities. But maybe they shouldn’t be.
Because we too are familiar with stories of fire breathing dragons and spectacular battles between good and evil. We know something about the devastations of earthquakes, fires and floods. We see violence and hate and hubris all the time. Why we even had a recent experience when the sun turned dark!
This all does sound pretty apocalyptic, doesn’t it?
It’s always tricky to do faithful biblical interpretation that reaches across the ages from the 1st century to the 21st century. But appropriate interpretation is a vital practice for today’s Church.
So here is one important interpretive principle: the Revelation was not written to us. This vision was revealed to John as a timely message for particular congregations in a particular circumstance of history. It was a word of hope for them in their situation.
But then again, probably all of us have had the mysterious experience of being addressed by the Word of God through the words of Scripture. Sometimes we will find a message that is exactly the word we needed to hear at a particular circumstance of our own lives. So yes, of course, all of Scripture is written for us.
Here are some examples: even though the Revelation was not written specifically to us, consider how this vision must have offered hope to oppressed Christians in the slave quarters of early America; to imprisoned Christians in the camps of Nazi Germany; to frightened Christians in the killing fields of Cambodia; to persecuted Christians in Syria.
When the world all around is in chaos and darkness, the message of the Revelation gives insight into the chaos and glimpses into the future. The message of John is: remain faithful, faithful even unto death. Continue to be witnesses to the reign of God coming into the world. Witness even to martyrdom.
Because within the chaos and darkness, the Creator and Completer, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End is always working for goodness and shalom.
The message of John is that death is not the end, and one of these days, death itself will die.
You and I may have a hard time imagining the oppression of fellow Christians across the ages across the globe. We are fortunate to live with such privilege in our time and place. So sometimes it’s a good exercise to read these texts with the lens of our oppressed sisters and brothers. After all, the Bible was written by people on the bottom of society for people on the bottom.
That’s why the gospel is such good news.
But then again, even those of us who live comfortable lives still sometimes experience pain and grief; hopelessness, confusion and uncertainty.
So yes, of course, the gospel is good news to all of us.
The text above is from Revelation 21, the final vision of our ultimate future. It’s a glorious picture of hope as we hold on to faith that the Creator is bringing all creation to a good and perfect conclusion.
God the Creator. The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. The First and the Last. God who is All in All…
…is bringing into being a new heaven and a new earth. A new Jerusalem – the perfect city of God coming down to us from heaven. We don’t do anything to make this perfection come into being; it is gift and grace.
This city that is foursquare; and there is no night there.
This city that IS the temple.
There is no sacred here and secular there; everywhere and everything is holy.
And in the walls of this heavenly city, there are 12 gates that are 12 pearls.
And the gates are always open.
I have a confession to make. I cheated on the above Scripture. The part we read at the first is beautiful, hopeful, joyful. But the very next sentence that we didn’t read says this:
As for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Startling, isn’t it?
Again, this is the nature of apocalyptic writing. In this genre, there is only good and evil, only right and wrong, only light and darkness. There is no grey. There is no middle ground. For John, there is no compromise to the faith.
- But what stands out for me is the promise the God is making all things new. Even those who are faithless and cowardly can be made new.
- What stands out for me is the image of the holy city with all the gates flung wide open. Even those who were polluted by deception and infidelity can be redeemed and renewed and invited in.
- What stands out for me the message of welcome and hope for anyone who is willing to come, to turn, to enter and to be made new.
That’s where you come in, Church.
Any church that catches a glimpse of this vision has opportunity to align itself with the cosmic, heavenly reality the Alpha and Omega is bringing into existence.
As we move into our future, we all have fresh chances now to shape our own kingdom life into the contours of the reign of God;
- to cultivate communities that are open to newness; that hunger and thirs for newness;
- to be a people who do not give into fear and faithlessness but who live into courage and commitment;
- to offer the witness of good news, to BE the good news for your neighbors who struggle with uncertainty and hopelessness;
- to make sure our doors stay wide open for everyone because we believe in the promise of the One who makes everything new.
So may we trust in the Spirit who is conceiving new life and may we entrust ourselves to the One who is always making all things new.