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.Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Once again we are at Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). No matter where we go, or how far we have come, we always seem to end up at that troubled city. The city whose name means “peace”, yet has been the center for conflict for thousands of years. For a place which claimed to once house God’s presence on earth in the temple, it’s name is almost an ironic parody of itself. Yet in the Bible we cannot get away from it. We are magnetically drawn back time and time again to that city, even though each time we visit we find it more and more haunted by the the sins of our past, and the sin of our present. Not even John in his exile can escape the ghosts of desolation in that city! In this, his seventh and final vision that comprises our reading today, he is brought to look at Jerusalem by an angel who had carried bowls full seven plagues.
But the city is different. It’s still that same city, with its scars and sordid history, only new. Not repaired, not replaced, but made wholly new. Not only is it new, it is perfect! John walks us through its measurements and they all meet a level of impossible perfection. It’s a perfect cube, it’s streets are made of gold, the gates are made from a single pearl. It is impossibly huge, I have to be grateful for commentary writers that they took the time to do the actual math for this, the city is 1,500 miles wide with walls approximately 1,377 miles high. All of it is described as perfection, symbolized through its impossible dimensions and materials. However, there is something missing from this city. The walls with the gate open represents perfect safety, the streets represent the perfect composition, the trees and the water represent the Garden of Eden restored, but the heart of the city is missing. There is no temple. The home of God is nowhere to be seen in the new city. But it is for good reason: God’s home is the city, and specifically, all the people in it. God’s glory fills the hearts and minds of the people that there is no need for Sun or Moon, there is no nighttime or darkness because the light of God radiates from everyone and every thing. This city is otherworldly perfection superimposed on the physical reality, there is really only one way to describe it: it is the new creation. And what a stunning image it is.
But that’s all for the future right? Something beautiful we can look at when we are distraught and tell ourselves “it’ll be alright in the end”. It gives hope for those who need something beautiful to make it through cold, ugly reality. John after all was writing to churches that were beginning to experience persecution. If it is merely a prediction of the future, then it is a cold comfort at best, and a spit in the face for us who suffer now. Look at someone who is hurting now and tell them, “it will probably be all right in the end, I have an old book written by a guy on an island two thousand years ago who promised God will fix everything in the end.” It’s hardly a comfort. Thankfully, this is not what the New Creation is. What John is giving us here is not a prediction of what future events will be, like all prophecies, he is telling us a vision of what can be. John’s vision is strange and symbolic purposefully to prevent people from thinking it’s just a telling of what is to come. Though by misguided biblical scholarship over the years the symbolism has had precisely the opposite effect.
What then does it mean? This new creation, this impossible holy city, the glory of God radiating from every citizen? Behold! It is here! Right amongst you, you are the citizens of that heavenly city! This is the new creation!…Interesting, I thought that revelation would lead to cheers and songs of joy from all of you and we could go home. I suppose the tacit silence and looks of utter disappointment on your faces means I still have some explaining to do.
Yes, you are the new creation, as I have said many times before God has already saved the world. Through Jesus Christ living, dying, and resurrecting God has given us everything we need to redeem creation, to fix this broken world. When you look around and think, “wait that can’t be right, everything is so messed up!” you’re right, the world is still messed up, but that is because we continue to allow it to be so. When Jesus resurrected he defeated the one thing that prevented creation from achieving perfect harmony with God. Death. True finality and meaningless oblivion are no more, God overpowered Sin and Death by rising from the grave. Sometimes we call that heaven, that when our physical bodies stop functioning we have something that will persist on and have a place to go. Friends, heaven is just a waiting space for when we have finished God’s work. Now that we know that God has won over our oldest enemy we can live without fear that our lives are meaningless, and in practical terms, we don’t need sin anymore.
Sin, suffering, evil, these are things which humanity is addicted to out of familiarity. Especially for us, the comfortable, we know that the world is still rife with sin, but because we’ve made it alright we are afraid to fight to change it for the better. We fear that if we dare to dream and risk for something better for everyone, we will lose what we have managed to carve out for ourselves. When we feel we have to compromise our principles because “that’s just how the world is, and I need to survive” that is living as if there has been no Resurrection. That is why even though we are living in the new creation, we have not yet achieved perfection. Sin, suffering, and evil persist because humanity still lives in fear, we still live as if we have not been made new. We still feel like we have to hoard whatever we can to the detriment of others because we are not sure if we will have enough.
God is good, He is patient with us, which is why He continues to give us time to figure all this out. It’s why He gave John these visions to show us what can be, what will be once we put the work in.
Today we have another vision of God’s new creation here amongst us. We are welcoming another citizen to God’s kingdom, Elizabeth. Baptism is another gift from God to show us, in physical and practical terms, how He has made everything new. We do not baptize this child out of fear that her soul may not enter heaven, for the same reason we do not baptize adults out of fear. To be baptized is not a “fire insurance” card, but to be made a citizen of the New Jerusalem. As a citizen of the new creation, she, and all who are baptized are given the task of healing the world. As John describes, by being a member of this city, this community, she is to be so filled with the light and love of God that it radiates from her out into the whole world. When I put the oil on her forehead in the shape of the cross, she will be fulfilling John’s vision, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their forehead”. She is called to live her life as a ministry and testament to the unconditional, overwhelming love of God that permeates creation.
To all of us, who are already citizens of the new creation who will be reaffirming our covenant but perhaps are wondering how one actually goes about living in the Resurrection, remember the message of John’s revelation: be brave. Love without fear of loss, dare to hope that the world is going to get better, trust in the work that you already do, and challenge yourself to live as the embodiment of God’s love.