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.”
This glorious passage is most often used at funerals. As families gather around a loved one’s casket, these words point to a hopeful future; they whisper “reunion.”
Otherwise, mainline preachers mostly avoid the Revelation of Jesus to John. That is unfortunate.
My New Testament professor at seminary taught us that some of the current weirdness that surrounds interpretations of the Revelation is partly the fault of the mainline Church.
Instead of Progressive Christians offering solid theological reflection on this apocalyptic text, we generally have failed to teach and preach from the book and thus we created a vacuum – a vacuum within which all sorts of odd interpretations of the vision have incubated in the past few decades in American Christianity.
While this prophetic text has been misappropriated by modern day faux prophets, the rest of the church has missed its message of hope.
A vision of hope
The Revelation is a vision of hope for Christians living under the thumb of oppressive governments and under the disapproval of unbelieving societies.
In the first century, the Christians in the 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, they refused to confess allegiance to the gods of the Empire.
So in the vision from the Risen Christ, the curtain of heaven was drawn back and John was gifted with a glimpse of the cosmic story. He was shown the Divine passion against the powers of evil that tormented the beloved children of God.
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 so strange.
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, every once in a while, we too experience the sun turning dark!
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 unique situation.
But then again, of course, the Scripture is written for us.
Many of us Bible students 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.
This is the mystery of the Word of the Lord; the grace of Spirit inspiration; the truth that God is still speaking.
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 war ravaged 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 because death is not the end of the story.
John urges believers to continue to offer witness to the reign of God coming into the world: witness even to martyrdom. (The Greek word for witness has become our English word martyr.)
Be faithful because – within the chaos and darkness – the Creator and Completer, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End is ever working for goodness and shalom.
The Eternal One ever works to make all things new.
You and I may have a hard time imagining the oppression of fellow Christians across the ages across the globe because we modern American Christians live with much privilege in our time and place.
So 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 to all those who have been oppressed and marginalized.
But then again, even those of us who live comfortable lives still sometimes experience pain, 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 consummation.
- God the Creator
- The Alpha and Omega
- The Beginning and the End
- The First and the Last
- God who is All in All …
… bringing into being a new heaven and a new earth.
“A new Jerusalem” coming down from heaven. (Consider how important this image would be for those who had recently experienced the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem.)
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 a key aspect of apocalyptic literature.
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, faith makes no compromise.
- But what stands out for me is the promise that 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. The gates are always open.
That’s where the Church comes in.
Any church that catches a glimpse of this vision has opportunity to align itself with this cosmic, heavenly reality that the Alpha and Omega is bringing into existence.
We all have fresh chances 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 thirst 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 our 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 ever conceives and births new life. May we open ourselves to Eternal Newness.
Living in The Story readings for Week 45