Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Big Day

Revelation 21

by Daniel Harrell

Happy Pentecost! I know. It doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen. Perhaps Happy Birthday would be more appropriate. After all, Pentecost is the official birthday of the church. Sadly, Pentecost doesn’t get all the attention that Christmas and Easter do. I doubt that many of you are exchanging Pentecost presents or heading out after church for a tasty Pentecost brunch. Part of the problem there could be that the Pentecost image of fiery tongues descending on people’s heads doesn’t really inspire many appetizing food options. It is a weird picture―though not necessarily any weirder than a virgin birth or a man rising from the dead. And it’s certainly no weirder than anything we’ve encountered so far in the book of Revelation. For three years I’ve been walking us through Revelation during my morning preaching turns, and we’re almost done. Chapter 21, while not a traditional Pentecost text, does supply its own dramatic descent. Only rather than flaming tongues coming down, John writes in verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

For me the best part about weddings in when the bride comes down the aisle. Everyone is poised on the edge of their pews, phones and cameras ready. The mother of the bride dabs away happy tears. The organ swells and the back doors swing open to unveil the bride’s glorious presence. There’s always an audible gasp of delight, always a giddy gleam that crosses the groom’s face as he realizes “this gorgeous woman coming down that aisle is mine!” I’ve seen many a bride come down that aisle—but I’ve yet to see one single bride swing down from the balcony. That would be weird—though that’s sort of how she does it in Revelation 21.

Granted, the bride who descends in Revelation is not a woman but a city as big as nearly half of the United States. Weird again: envisioning a large city clad in a wedding dress stretches the imagination. Nevertheless, Jerusalem always held a special spot in God’s heart. From the time of King David, Jerusalem represented God’s people Israel, the Lord’s beloved bride. Jerusalem was the home address of God’s House; the place where he lived in his holy Temple. Interestingly here, the New Jerusalem has no Temple. It’s been replaced, or better, rendered obsolete. Verse 22: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Jerusalem’s Temple was God’s House, but it was not necessarily home sweet home. The Temple functioned more like self-imposed house arrest. Due to God’s righteous hostility toward infidelity and sin, God knew that if he ever left his house, his often unfaithful people were done for.

That the Temple curtains ripped in two at Jesus’ crucifixion was not an invitation to an open house, but represented open season on sin. The curtains tore as the righteous anger of God against evil finally escaped and tore into Jesus—the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by taking sin onto himself. The Temple was now obsolete. The crucified Lamb made it possible for God to dwell among his people and not kill them. From the earliest chapters of Scripture, God promised that one day he would live and walk among his people again―just as he had done at creation. With new creation, it finally happens. In verse 3, a loud voice announces from the throne that the dwelling of God is now with his people. The wedding is on.

Chapters 20 and 21 portray the big day not just as the big day for Revelation, but the big day for the entire Bible. Revelation is not so much Biblical prophecy as it is the fulfillment of prophecy. Way back in Isaiah, the Lord declared, “Behold, I will create (future tense) new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” In Revelation 21, John writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth (past tense), for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the Holy City (past tense), the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The past tense indicates the surety of God’s promises, so sure that their fulfillment can be envisioned as having already happened. Verse 6 confirms this: God says, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.’” This too fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy; already rehearsed by Jesus with the woman at the well. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” Isaiah said. “Whoever drinks the water I give him never thirst,” Jesus echoed, “The water I give will become a spring of water within (read the Holy Spirit here) welling up to eternal life.”

On the one hand then, Revelation is nothing new. Yet on the other hand, God is making everything new. “New” is this buzzword here, so much so that we probably should call the end times the new times, or even better, the good times, given what finally transpires. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain, all these things are gone. No more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. There’s no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no more struggle between faith and science and reason because we “see face to face.” There’s no more doubt because “the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (to cite Isaiah one more time). There’s no need for sun and moon anymore because the glory of God provides all the light―a light that so shines in the darkness that darkness becomes as day.

It’s literally heaven on earth. Note that unlike popular depictions, heaven comes down to us, we don’t fly away to it. That John sees a “new heaven and a new earth” means that he sees them together as one. The sea―that satanic abode of chaos, disorder and darkness that kept them separate―is all dried up. Heaven and earth wed as the New Jerusalem, a city enormous enough to encompass all of new creation. “New creation” does not imply “brand new” as if the very good of God’s original work somehow went bad. The earth is not a throwaway planet any more than our bodies are mere jars of clay to be discarded when we die. Christians hold to the resurrection of the body, modeled after Jesus’ own resurrected body, by which we mean the ultimate healing and restoration of our actual selves. Paul describes it as a glorified body, freed from the fallout of finiteness. What is true for the creature is true for creation. The dust of creation to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which resurrection and new creation rise. There is a fundamental solidarity between creatures made in God’s image and the creation in which God’s image dwells. There is a fundamental continuity between creation and new creation. In the New Jerusalem, the Lord’s prayer gets answered: God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven because earth and heaven are one.

As with Ezekiel in the Old Testament preview, John gets an architectural tour of the New Jerusalem. Its 12,000 stadia dimensions make the New Jerusalem a thousand times larger than what Ezekiel saw―demonstrating that God doesn’t just keep his promises―he surpasses them. The 12,000 stadia city has twelve angels at twelve gates on which were written the names of Israel’s twelve tribes atop twelve foundations inscribed with the twelve apostles. (Twelve is clearly a very important Biblical number). The city sparkles with every sort of precious jewel: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, topaz, amethyst and the rest (12 in all, of course). There are plenty of pearls too, which make for the Pearly Gates. Unfortunately, once you add the streets of gold you soon start visualizing that stereotype of heaven where everybody wears white robes and wings, plays the harp and flits around from cloud to cloud. Why anybody would want to spend eternity like that is hard to say. Cartoonists depict long lines of people eager to get in with St. Peter at the reception desk doing his best imitation of St. Nick ―checking his list twice to find out who was naughty or nice.

My own recent survey of New Yorker cartoons on this theme found people saying to Peter things like, “You’re kidding! You count S.A.T.s?” or “Wait, those weren’t lies. That was spin!” However, the best lines come out of Peter’s own mouth: “No, no, that’s not a sin, either, silly. My goodness, you must have worried yourself to death.” or “You had more money than God. That’s a big no-no.” or “Yes, but you were the defender of the wrong faith.” or “You’re a theologian? You guys are always fun.” Or “Bad timing. He’s in one of his Old Testament moods today.”

Of course there is no Peter at the gate in Revelation, though there does seem to be a list. Verse 27 mentions “the Lamb’s Book of Life” which presumably does not contain those people listed in verse 8: namely “the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars.” If you’re like me, you read verse 8 and get a little worried. Maybe I never killed anybody, but I have been a chicken when it comes to my faith. I’ve told a lie or two as well. And then there’s my flat screen TV that could get construed as an idol. In chapter 20 a great white throne split earth and sky and all of the dead, great and small, stand before the throne as these books were opened. The dead were judged according to what they had done. This reminded me of being taught how on Judgment Day, God would replay my life as a movie for everybody to watch. It would not be a pretty picture. Which is why the Psalmist asks, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” Except that here in Revelation, God pulls out his record book. It appears that we’re doomed.

And we would be―if not for Jesus. In Jeremiah, God promised a new covenant, one that Jesus sealed with his own blood, shed for you. This new covenant (not brand new but renewed) made it possible for God to promise in Jeremiah, “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” Thus the Psalmist could answer his own question: “With you, O Lord, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” The Lamb’s Book of Life is not the book of good behavior, but the book of undeserved grace. The record books of chapter 20 provide corroborating evidence. As Jesus often said, “you can only know a tree by its fruit.” The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” This pronouncement of final Christian judgment tacitly indicts that ancient tendency to take God’s grace for granted and treat salvation as a free pass to do as you please. While it is true that you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Salvation may have no requirements (aside from a desperate need for it), but it does carry ethical obligations. Revelation labels the faithful as those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom,” Jesus warned, “but only those who do the will of my Father.” You can tell a tree by its fruit.

And yet the Bible also speaks of such fruit as fruit of the Spirit. The God who promised in Jeremiah to forgive and forget also promised to write his law on your heart. And since that might not be enough, God promised through Ezekiel to provide you with a new heart too. What salvation demands, God provides. God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and carefully keep my laws.” We see this at Pentecost as a band of timid disciples turn into inspired apostles. Between the resurrection and Pentecost, the disciples had hilariously gone back to their boats to fish, as if all they had been through with Jesus was nothing more than extended time off (“Wow, that was some trip. OK, now back to work.”). The resurrected Jesus showed up on shore to wave them in, basically saying “Hey guys, we’re not done!” Jesus then had to take off for heaven, but promised to send help: help that comes at Pentecost. Overcome by the Spirit, the disciples become the ones in verse 7 who overcome by the Spirit and thus inherit everything God has to offer.

To overcome is to live for Jesus like Jesus lived―to turn the other cheek, to do good to those who hate you, to pray for those who mistreat you and even lose your life (or at least your lifestyle) for the gospel―things that in this life tend to get you little more than two bloody cheeks, a doormat for a backbone, more mistreatment, less money and an early grave. To overcome, to conquer, is ironic victory. Still, in Revelation, these victories make up the fabric of your bridal gown. Chapter 19 described how “‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous deeds of the saints.)” This same fabric is also the foundation for the New Jerusalem. Back in chapter 3, Jesus said, “I will make the ones who overcome pillars in the city of God… the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from God.”

What seems like such an odd juxtaposition of metaphors now makes more sense. In verse 9 an angel invites John to come see the bride but shows him the holy city. Those who overcome are both a people and a place, or more specifically, the redeemed people of God are the place where God dwells. Rather than us dying and going to heaven, Christ died and comes to us by his spirit so that when we do die, we will abide with him forever, an eternity that has already started. John writes, “I saw the Holy City (past tense), coming down out of heaven from God――just like the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. We’re in the final descent――all that awaits is a safe landing and the joyous reunion.

Dawn, Violet and I fly south to visit family tomorrow to celebrate my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. We’ll go through that familiar drill as the cabin is prepared for arrival. Seatbelts fastened. Seatbacks and tray tables in their upright and locked positions. Land. Listen for the ding so you can leap from your seat like a runner out of a starting block. Knock people in the head with your carry-on luggage. Oh, and call somebody on your cell phone as soon as possible (if only to pretend that you actually have friends in town).It used to be that you couldn’t fake that. Not only were there no cell phones (as hard as that may be for some of you to believe), but they also used to let people through security without a boarding pass. That meant that friends and family would be waiting to welcome you as you came through the jet-way. I used to love the way you’d see all those smiling faces―and scan the crowd to find the ones looking for you, get all happy and hug when you found them. I loved it so much that it made me sad for people who had nobody waiting and looking for them.

So sad, in fact, that as a teenager (living as we did in a rather boring town), a bunch of us kids, for fun, would go out to the airport to greet lonely people as they came off their flights. We’d stand there with wide grins on our faces, waving and looking until we spotted someone who had nobody there to welcome them home. We’d walk up to these perfect strangers, our arms outstretched, and give them a big hello and a hug, telling them how happy we were that they had arrived safely, and how was their trip, and have a nice day in our boring little town or wherever your final destination may be. They’d look at us all confused―“do I know you?”—and no doubt think we were crazy, and yet nobody refused the hug, overcome as they were by our spirited welcome. After their initial confusion, they’d usually hug back, say thank you and then leave the terminal with a shake of the head and smile on their faces―smiles that I like to think they passed on to others.

OK, it was a weird thing for a bunch of kids to do (like I said, our town was boring), but really no weirder than a city in a wedding dress or flaming tongues falling down out of the sky. Overcome by the spirit, the disciples surely had smiles on their faces as they ran out into the streets of Jerusalem to overwhelm everyone else with the gospel (in their own languages no less). The new covenant expanded the original boundaries of God’s people to welcome all nations―strangers and aliens with no one to welcome them home. Everybody thought the disciples were crazy―and drunk. And yet few rejected God’s embrace that day. The good news of God’s grace not only put smiles on their faces but salvation in their hearts. The prophets had predicted this too. In Isaiah we read of the new Jerusalem, “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it…. I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. In righteousness you will be established … you will have nothing to fear.” This has Revelation written all over it. The light of God’s city, the light of God’s spirit within his people beckons all to enter its gates―gates that are always open with lights that never go out.

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