Revelation 21:1-10; 22;5
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
As we embark upon the season of summer, it seems people’s attention naturally turns to “time away”. We might find ourselves looking forward to spending time at a family home on the shore; or gathering with loved ones at camp or house by the lake. Some of us might plan to venture a bit farther afield, using the summer months to explore a place we haven’t yet been. Perhaps you’ll be bringing “flat Jesus” with you, to photograph and post the pictures to Facebook as you go.
This morning, I would like to invite you on a trip—a small tour, if you will, of the heavenly city of Jerusalem as described in the Book of Revelation. Alongside the Book of Ezekiel, Revelation, for many of us, is something of a puzzle. To modern ears and rational minds it is a mystery, and more often than not, what we focus upon are scenes of battle, beasts, plagues and lakes of fire and Sulphur. Rather than considering this a place to visit; we might, turn instead to the more practical task of issuing not simply a travel advisory, but a travel warning. If this is the place you’re planning to visit—think again. Yet, if this is all we saw in the Book of Revelation, we would be missing something grand, and hopeful indeed. So, join me this morning as we explore the Holy City of God.
To begin, the book of Revelation is a vision, and the words John uses to describe the heavenly city are heavily endued with symbolism. This picture, then, of the heavenly city, is presented to us in words of poetry, symbol and metaphor. To put it simply, John is employing the limits of language to describe the indescribable. Read by those of us almost two thousand years later, its meaning isn’t readily discernable without the use of a guide. So, this morning, think of me as your tour guide to the heavenly city.
The first thing to notice about this city, is that this is the City of God. Earlier in its history, Jerusalem was known as the city of David. After Solomon built the temple, people began to think of it as God’s City. However, the New Jerusalem, as described by St. John, in this morning’s epistle reading, links this city with God even more closely than the old.
As you look around, I hope you notice a few things. In this city, there is no temple to be found. Almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Even in our modern era, following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the most important, and well-known place in the city of Jerusalem for many people is the “Temple Mount and the western wall.” Surely, we might think this new city would have an even more grand and resplendent temple taking center stage than the Jerusalem of old. Yet, the temple has no place here. None at all. That is because the temple, in Jewish tradition, was the abode of God. In fact, in the actual temple, few people, save for some priests, would have entered the actual temple, most would have gathered in the various outer courtyards. The actual temple building, this was reserved for God, and only a few priests entered it each day. The purpose of this arrangement was to separate God from the people. God is holy, but people are sinful. And it would be wrong for people to approach God in such a state. So, while God chose to live among the people God loved, God had to be separate, residing in the “holy of holies”.
But here, in the heavenly Jerusalem, there is no temple. God is not separate from the people, but lives and dwells among them. No longer is there any reason to separate God from the people; because through Christ we have all been made holy—worthy to live in the nearer presence of the Lord.
However, we do see one sign of continuity, like the Jerusalem with which John’s listeners would have been familiar, there are gates and walls around this city. Yet, while there are gates, they are always open. As N.T. Write puts it, these gates are “for decoration rather than defense”, because they are always open. This, it seems, is a place of security and welcome.
What’s more—this city—it shines. It is bright with the glory of God. In verse five of chapter 22 John writes: “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.” Think of it this way, Darkness, akin to human sin and evil has been excised from this city. Here there is nothing that cannot be shown in the clear light of God’s holy gaze. There is nothing here that needs to be hidden.
Now, look around, this city, it’s huge. The old Jerusalem was relatively small. But this city, it’s not just big—it’s unimaginably expansive. As John describes it in verse 15 (part of the reading not included in the lectionary today), the basic footprint of the city itself is the approximate size of the entire Roman Empire—the world, as far as the people of John’s time were concerned. Imagine, a city as large as the known world. And, what’s more—it’s high as well—2500 kilometers high. Impressive, huh. About as large as John could conceive—to hold the glory of God.
And there is a book, the “Lamb’s book of life.” In it are written the names of all those whom God has redeemed. We imagine that those listed therein are the famous, less famous, and perhaps, by God’s grace, infamous names as well. In it are listed the names of those nearly everyone knows, as well as those virtually no one recalls. It is a reminder that the Good Shepherd loses none of the sheep, but brings each one safely home.
And there, in the center of the city is a river, flowing from the throne of God, and a tree of life. And now, we recognize where we are: You see, we are standing in the midst of the redeemed Garden of Eden. In this, the final two chapters of Revelation, we discover that the end truly is the beginning as well. And the tree—unlike the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, whose fruit was forbidden to eat, this tree bears fruit in all months of the year. Not only is the fruit good for eating; but the leaves are for the healing of the nations. The abundant fruit and medicinal leaves symbolize the completeness of Christ’s salvation for all.
Today’s tour in miniature of the beautiful, vast and glorious city and garden of God might leave us at something of a loss. John Updike, in his memoirs, writes: “Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news, or a Last Judgment not subject to pages of holier-than-thou second-guessing in The New York Review of Books.” He goes on to write that despite the barrenness of much of modern thought as relates to heaven “the yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.” (Self-Consciousness)
John’s City of God is both different and the same as the world in which we live today. My hope is that it prompts you to explore and cherish—a bit more deeply, this world in which we live, the world that God has made. Look at it with eyes of faith, filled with joy, wonder and gratitude, and not leastwise—hope, for the resurrected life we have been promised in Christ. In Jesus’ name. Amen.