Scripture Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 150, Revelation 21:1-8, Matthew 24:29-31
Let us pray: God, we pray that you would come among us this morning as we hear your Scripture. Bless our hearing of it, that we might learn and grow. Speak to us through it that which we need to hear. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
A New Heaven and a New Earth
We long for things to be better. That’s why we form visions of utopias, whatever we think that looks like. That’s why we watch or read stories where everything turns out right in the world, whether your favorite version of that is that the couple ends up together, the world is saved, the main character ends up happy with their life, or justice is served to the villain. We all long for things to be better.
Revelation was written to assuage that same longing–but instead of turning to human stories and human strength for the happy ending, John tells the story of God, and how God will make things better. He tells the story of how our longing will be fulfilled.
I expect most of you have read or heard at least parts of Revelation before, and you may think I’m crazy, because Revelation is full of scenes like a young mother running away from a dragon (Revelation 12), and animals with strange numbers of heads and eyes and probably other appendages (there are a lot of these), and there’s lots of blood and seals and just really strange stuff that I think we can all agree we really don’t long to see in the world.
Underneath all that, though, is the truth that John has been hinting at through the book, and finally revealed here, in our passage for today: God is working in the world, and is working for this ending to human history.
Not literally: I’m not sure what it means for a city to be dressed as a bride and be floating down from heaven, and that’s not really the point anyway. John isn’t trying to be literal. Instead, he’s tapping into thousands of years of Jewish thought, and the ways that early Christians had reshaped it, by using this imagery of Jerusalem, which for Jews was the center of the world, the place where God came down to earth and where humans could most consistently come and be near God. This was because of the presence of the Temple, which at its center contained a room called the Holy of Holies. This was the holiest place on earth, a place where God’s presence was so strong and pure that it could be entered only once a year by a priest who had undergone ritual purification. And so Jews considered Jerusalem to be the most important place on earth, and the most beautiful, the most favored. Jews loved Jerusalem.
Christians may not have found the Temple important anymore–after all, at Jesus’ death the Temple curtain ripped, and we all were granted access to God’s presence (Mark 15:38), and Jesus repeatedly said that He was now the Temple (for instance John 2:19)–but they still used the imagery of Jerusalem, which filled the Old Testament and their imaginations. It was still a place that symbolized God’s presence on earth.
Jerusalem also symbolized the possibility of a better world, and God’s promise to make that happen. The prophets especially are full of promises to gather God’s people at Jerusalem, to make Jerusalem the center of a remade world where everyone would worship God, and Israel would be safe at last from its many enemies. Isaiah 65 is one such promise, where heaven and earth will be made new, and the world will be healed of injustice and war and suffering of every kind. John in fact quotes directly from Isaiah in verse 1, when he sees “a new heaven and a new earth.” Every part of the world will be made new. In Jewish Old Testament thought, saying “heaven and earth” was the equivalent of saying now something like “the entire world” or “the whole universe”–every part of the world is included. That is, God is going to remake, reshape, and renew every single part of creation, so that tears and suffering and injustice are no more.
Notice that God is going to remake our world–not whisk us all away to some other place, not welcome us all into some spiritual, non-physical realm, but remake our world, take this world we already live in and recreate it. This isn’t a return to the Garden of Eden; this isn’t some distant, cloud-filled heaven. No, God will renew this earth, this place, reconfigure it until we can all be with God, until pain and grief and war are no more, until we can all come together no matter our skin color or nationality or language or political party or any other thing that divides us today and worship God together.
John is writing about this, not to make us give up on this world, but to help us live better in it. He wrote during a time of intense persecution and suffering of Christians. They needed hope. They needed to know that their suffering wasn’t pointless, that their suffering was faithful. And so John writes about how God will one day defeat the powers of this world, the powers of empires and war and greed, the powers held by the powerful and the rich and anyone else who uses their God-given gifts to hurt others instead of love them. God will defeat all who work against justice, and love, and God’s own plans for the world, and all those who remain faithful will be welcomed into this new creation of God’s, into this remaking of the world and the city of Jerusalem, where God will be so present that the sun won’t need to shine anymore because God is light, where God is present everywhere, with everyone, so there is no need for a Temple anymore. God will bring about a day where suffering of every kind has been vanquished.
And in the meantime, John reminds us that God sees us. This is a comfort in our sorrows, but a warning, too, to act as God’s children should act, to worship God and love others rather than oppress them. John reminds us that God is ruler of the world, and the one who will one day make all things new. John reminds us that there is hope, always hope, because we worship a God who loves us now, and loves us always, and will one day remake the world for us.
Until then, we are called to live in faith, to live in hope, and to live in love.