Sermon for Retirement Suites by the Lake – September 28, 2008 – “A New Heaven and a New Earth”
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 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. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 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." 5 He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 He said to me: "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 is a powerful passage of Scripture that has meant a great deal to millions and millions of people. It’s been quoted in movies, it’s been read at hospital bedsides, songs and hymns have been written about it.
I think that one reason a lot of people find this meaningful is that it’s a very visual passage on the one hand and it’s a very relational passage on the other hand. It’s been very meaningful to me personally as along with my parents Eleanor and Lewis and our family I have mourned my brother Craig who passed away from cancer in January of 2007.
The book of Revelation was written by John when he was in exile on the island of Patmos. John was someone who experienced life and experienced God in a very creative and/trailblazing way.
Much of the book of Revelation reflects this artistic side of John and his profound way of imaging what he experienced of God.
The early church, after reading John’s book, felt that the book faithfully expressed the heart and emotions of God. So for that and some other reasons, it’s part of the book we know as the Bible. The book of Revelation actually bookends the Bible. The book of Genesis is the other bookend.
So…back to our passage today.
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
John is speaking of a sight that he witnessed in his mind, a vision of sorts that put into perspective for him his current life and his current place in life. There were limitations to John’s experience of life. Exile is not a fun place to be. As he spent time on the island, he had time to pray and experience God’s voice and God’s heart.
And so we have John’s first vision, and it’s a new layer of existence…a new heaven and a new earth. The ‘heaven’ he refers to here is what we think of as the sky and the stars.
John sees something that is beyond what he experiences in his day to day life, but, very importantly, not disconnected from what he knows. He says the first heaven and earth have passed away, and there is no longer any sea.
That which was familiar and perhaps comforting to him, something he was able to grasp and understand, was giving way to something fresh and new. How often are we challenged to let go of old ideas and consider embracing new ideas, new understandings of life and love?
Old ideas can sometimes, as life progresses, come to feel a little empty and impoverished when we’re face with new situations, new levels of pain perhaps…grief, despair. But here is something new:
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. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
There are a lot of different literary style in the Bible…there are historical books, there are legal books, there are letters to the churches, there are the gospels…and there are books of poetry. Poetry does something of course that a science or math textbook cannot.
Poetry doesn’t seek to explain the details of origins and the mechanics of the sub-molecular world. Poetry always touches on matters of the heart. Poetry is language used to attempt to convey mysteries of life and of love and of existence.
In this sense, the book of Revelation in general and these passages we’re looking at today in particular, meet the criterion of poetry.
John writes about the dwelling place of God, the Holy City of Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, and coming to and connecting with the earth…the new earth.
That which is the stuff of dreams and hymns and lofty imagination and passionate faith, becomes less abstract…actually comes in a recognizable form to earth.
And then John writes something that’s really pretty disarming if you think about it. This place of God’s dwelling, this holy and beautiful and perfect living space of the most high God enters the atmosphere “as a bride beautifully adorned for her husband”. What?!?
The presence of God, the relationship of God with humanity is like…a wedding? A uniting of hearts, a combining of lives? Do you find that surprising at all, that the Holy Scriptures should compare our eternal relationship with God as a kind of marriage?
We know that marriage ends up defining you us a person and describing our soul. Marriage is a promise to be there, one for the other, no matter what happens. Is that something of the picture that John is painting?
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 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."
OK. So we’re talking about a profound relationship…and John is describing our eternity with God in a way that reflects the most profound relationship that humans can know…that of marriage. “Now the dwelling of God is with men”: Something new is happening.
There is distance now between God and humanity. Of course that distance is mainly in the distinctive character of God compared to humanity…that character or characteristic is holiness…utter, uncomplex and uncompromised holiness. And here, on our globe, there is a lot of utterly complex unholiness and selfishness.
Simple stats like how in North America we, with 20% of the world population, consume 80% of the world’s resources…simple, stark facts like that make it pretty clear that there’s a serious problem here on earth.
Add to that our own struggles to be decent and live decently, our own tendency to behaviours that addict us and entrap us…it’s clear there’s an alarmingly great gulf between God as He is now and humanity as it is now. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
So…”Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”. When we understand that God is love, when we understand that God enthusiastically wants this marriage with humankind…that God is a person in Whom all the best we’ve ever imagined dwells…when we understand that, I think this is really a very encouraging and challenging passage.
We continue with a very tender description of how God cares for humanity in this setting.
4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
That’s actually a very intimate action, the kind of thing only a trusted friend or lover could ever really do. This speaks of God drawing near…of God empathizing, of God feeling all that we feel and entering into our sadness.
And then John goes on to describe the way in which mourning and sadness and loss are dealt with by God:
“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
This shouts to me: “This is something entirely new”. That’s because you and I have known death, we have felt and are feeling the pangs of mourning. We have cried…and cried…and we have known the pain…the stifling agony of the loss of those we have loved most profoundly.
But here John speaks of all this collective sadness as “the old order”. It has been replaced in this setting, in this stunning painting of the new heaven and the new earth. It has been replaced.
But…how? On whose authority? Who could possibly take away this pain we have known? Under what administration could this ever be achieved?
We’re in the middle of an election and we’re hearing all the usual promises and all the usual rhetoric.
And we so often find that once elected, the governing party most often lacks the will or the consensus or the power to follow through with their extravagant promises.
But these words in our Scripture passage today…these promises of a very different kind…what’s to say they will ever be fulfilled?
That they won’t leave us deflated and cynical. Again, it comes down to… “On Whose authority are these promises being made and conveyed to us, a thirsty people?”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 He said to me: "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.
OK. So we’re kind of circling around here…back to: “This is all about God and God’s love and God making everything new. So the authority backing these promises is not John the Revelator.
It’s not even the church, as grand and noble or as human and messed-up as it has always been. The authority here…the promise made…is that of The Eternal One, the Everlasting One. The Creator. Maker of Heaven and Earth. The One to Whom there is no comparison. The One whose glory and beauty are, in a veiled way, evident in the best of humanity and the best of Creation. The One is Whom there is no darkness. The One who is, by His very definition, all-consuming and benevolent Love.
The One who sent His only Son in the world because, knowing the alarmingly great gulf between God and humanity, He was willing to do EVERYTHING possible to ensure that you and I would enter this glorious painting that John the Revelator, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has drawn.
It is a picture or sorts, but, as we’ve perhaps seen, it’s not abstract or aloof. It involves and invites us and all of humanity into what is referred to elsewhere in Scripture as a Banquet.
A place or state of joyful and purposeful and creative continuation of life…but as we’ve seen, not life as we experience it here. Rather, it is life where tears of sorrow are replaced with tears of joy, where the brutal finality of death is supplanted by life everlasting.
Where mourning and crying are replaced with the joy of a ceaseless new day and a ceaseless new landscape upon which to run and dance and play…in communion with God and everyone else who has chosen this dwelling with God through Jesus Christ.
Where pain is replaced by a kind of pleasure that’s completely indescribable in it’s breadth and depth…although personally I hope it’s a little like chocolate.
In a moment we will celebrate an odd little occurrence that Jesus started 2000 years ago and which Jesus said should continue to be a regular occurrence until He returns. We celebrate the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper or Communion …however you like to think of it. At its heart it is a tiny, tiny sampling of the banquet Jesus invites us to in eternity.
[Move to Communion Table]
The bread, broken before us, is intended as a stark and yet gentle reminder and experience of the suffering and agony Jesus endured on the cross…His body broken and mutilated by those He came to love and save. The cup, for us today grape juice but originally, of course, wine…
The cup is intended as a savory and yet also stark reminder and experience of the lifeblood of Jesus, poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins, for the removing of that great gulf between us and our Creator, between us and the Lover of our Souls.
So…we’ve been considering heaven today. Ceaseless, joyful and abundant living that triumphs over the grave and unites us with our Maker and His Son AND those beloved who have gone on ahead of us, those we still mourn, who, at this moment…experience all that this gift of eternal life offers us here today.
May we dare to imagine. May we dare to wonder. May we dare to…believe! That God’s words are true, and that He who said: “I will wipe every tear from your eyes” is faithful and able to fulfill each promise to you and to me and all who place trust in the God who is love. Amen.