Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
As I said in last week’s sermon, on these final three Sundays of the Easter season the lectionary places before us readings from the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation. It is a book written to a church in the midst of crisis, in which—to again cite the biblical scholar Larry Hurtado—“the only good Christian is a dead Christian.” To live as a Christian during the persecutions under emperors like Nero and Domitian was to court death. And yet in his strange book filled with symbols and numbers, violence and fire, John the Divine insistently delivers a message of profound hopefulness to the seven churches in Asia to which he originally wrote. This is all going somewhere, John was saying to them, and it isn’t anywhere that the empire of violence could have possibly anticipated.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
As Revelation moves to its culmination, the symbols just keeping pouring out of John’s pen. For John this is a vision, a dream, a possibility, a promise. What his communities have endured—all those lost lives, all of those severed relationships, all of that fear and all those tears—will come to an end, and a whole new thing will be born. “And in the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” Again, as I emphasized last week, John doesn’t begin to imagine that his people will be swept up to some celestial heaven, but instead he sees the New Jerusalem coming down to meet them, and to be their dwelling place.
“I saw no temple in the city,” John proclaims, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The temple had been for Israel the intermediary place where people could draw themselves closer to God. Through worship, offerings, sacrifices, and under the ministry of the priests, something of God could be approached, seen, encountered. Yet by the time John writes, that temple has been laid waste by the Romans. It was done. A massive structure of such imposing scale that no one had really believed it could be felled was now gone.
“I saw no temple in the city,” John writes, meaning no building or place set aside for sacred things. No temple, no church buildings. Lovely and soul-calming and holy as our sacred buildings can seem, they don’t last forever. They don’t, but what John realizes is that this is all good news, because in the New Jerusalem the “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” In this new heaven and new earth that John envisions, God simply is. “[T]he throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will offer worship; they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads.” They will see the face of God, which is something unheard of in their faith world. In the book of Exodus, when Moses asks to see this God, this Lord who has called him to this impossible task of not only leading the Hebrew slaves to freedom, but also of making them a people, a nation, the answer he receives is, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (Ex 33:20) “No one shall see me and live,” which really means that humans are too limited to actually look at the utterly Holy and survive. Which is true. I’m convinced by the limits and brokenness of my own small self that it is true. But, John dares to see, they—we—will see God’s face. We’ll see, and it won’t devastate and decimate us. Why? Because in John’s words, we are “written in the Lamb’s book of life,” which is another way of saying that it is all by grace. It isn’t because we’ve done so wonderfully at being righteous or signed on to just the right doctrinal statement of faith or dutifully resisted doing a set list of so-called sinful things that maybe we secretly wish we could be doing… it is because your name is on this extraordinarily generous guest list of an inveterately hospitable Christ.
Why do I say this is extraordinarily generous and hospitable? Because as John rhapsodizes about this New Jerusalem, he says that, “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” Do you see that? In the whole story of Israel, the nations and their kings are almost always “the other,” the enemy, and the ones who thwart Israel from being what it is meant to be. In John’s Revelation, the kings and nations have been at least as problematic. As the biblical scholar Brian Peterson summarizes it, “We last heard about the kings of the earth in [Revelation] 19:19, where they were assembled against the Lord. In 17:18, Babylon ruled over the kings, and in 18:3 they were the ones who had committed fornication with the [so-called] whore of Babylon. We had no reason to hope for the kings and the nations, and yet here they are—a sign of God’s amazing grace.” Here they are, walking by the light of the New Jerusalem, their kings bringing their glory right through its gates. That’s wild. That means there’s a place for me and you and everyone.
Or almost… because what is that other line we heard read? “But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” So what does that mean? If the kings and the nations—the ones who have been up until very recently the adversary—are there, why is anyone or anything ruled out? N.T. Wright observes that, “”John is careful to add the warning that this inclusivity specifically does not stretch to those who practice abomination or tell lies. This is necessary,” he adds, “for the same reason that one does not allow smoking in a library or the playing of radios in a concert hall. That which ruins the beauty and holiness of God’s new city is ruled out by definition.” Well, with all due respect to Bishop Wright, those examples may be a bit thin; I am, after all, old enough to remember when the library at the University of Winnipeg had designated smoking areas! But perhaps what Wright is pointing to is the truth that there are things that will need to be checked at the door, and that for some people the cost of doing that will be just too high. Think, for instance of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son; the one who sulks in the garden while the party is going on for his returned, reprobate brother. Just as the father had come out to welcome home the younger son, the father comes out to coax the elder son to come and celebrate the beginning of a new life: “[W]e had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father says, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” The end. As Robert Farrar Capon says,
He gives the older brother no ending. The parable ends with a freeze frame. It ends like that with just the father, and the sound goes dead—the servants may be moving around with the wine and veal—but the sound goes dead and Jesus shows you only the freeze frame of the father and the elder brother. That’s the way the parable has ended for 2,000 years.
The question that hangs over that parable, and over this scene from the Revelation of John, is this: will those who insist on holding on to pride and resentment, or to what John calls uncleanness, abomination and falsehood, drop their grip on those things—die to those things, and just come into the party? Or will they hang on to them for dear life, because they’ve found in them a strange and distorted sort of life-meaning which some can’t let go of? John the Divine sees nations and kings streaming in and relishing the light, the feast, and the glory, and yet with what I think is some poignant sadness, he also knows that some will not let themselves die to the disasters of their own affections, and just join the party. We can be, right to the end, a stubborn sort of creature, can’t we?
Hear then the glory and promise of John’s strange vision, and against it measure the thinness and poverty of what we so often call life. I would, in humility, advise you to trust the vision, drop all pretense, and let the Lamb write your name on the most extraordinarily generous guest list on all of time and eternity. In the end, it is the only party in town.