May 15, 2022 Fifth Sunday of Easter The text is Revelation 21:1-6a.
1 I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I recognize that I’m going out on a limb this morning, making the decision to preach on the Book of Revelation. This is a first for me, that after around 16 years or so of opportunities to deliver sermons, I’m mustering up the courage to delve into what is arguably the most misunderstood biblical book, and one of the most often misused in Christian Scripture. More than one doomsday cult has referenced Revelation as the reason for its beliefs about the end of days, and the misunderstanding that this book of Scripture often causes has led to more than a few tragic outcomes.
You may remember the story of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and the carnage that ensued when that group felt threatened by the authorities. And more recently, the Heaven’s Gate cult donned their Nike sneakers and purple face coverings, and committed mass suicide, as they attempted to accelerate their ascension to a higher plane. And, in less dramatic fashion, there is the widespread accepted thought that Revelation prophesies the end times, and that its verses are a prediction of what is to happen at some point in the future. This is most definitely not the case, but you might understand why I might have some reservations regarding preaching a sermon on this final book in the Bible. We can come back to the actual writing of, and the meaning behind the Book of Revelation in a moment, but first allow me to tell you why I’ve decided to go in this direction today.
Well, one of the other options offered in the lectionary for this morning was to once again discuss Jesus giving the New Commandment at the Last Super. But since we delved rather deeply into this just a few weeks ago on Maundy Thursday, perhaps it might not seem quite so timely, considering that we are firmly in the season of Easter. Another option was Peter’s vision in the reading from Acts; but I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of trying to explain the meaning of the heavenly tablecloth coming down from above. So, rather through the process of elimination, it appears that Revelation is our topic for this morning. When viewed in the context of its time and circumstances, its writer, and what he was attempting to illustrate, Revelation, and especially this morning’s verses speak to the ultimate effect of the events of Easter; Jesus has risen from the grave, and there is a new heaven and a new earth.
The title of the book, Revelation is the English translation of “apokalypsis”, and simply means “revealed”. The presumed writer of these verses, John of Patmos is “revealing” to his readers something that he envisions they haven’t seen before; or, that they are aware of but that may need further explanation. However, in keeping with some of the rather disturbing scenes in a great portion of the book, the word apocalypse has taken on a meaning that was never intended.
The catastrophic end of the world scenario that is conjured up when we hear “apocalypse” is simply a mistranslation of a much less cataclysmic word; in the Book of Revelation things are simply “revealed”.
Rather than a prediction of what will occur during the lifetime of those who read these verses, Revelation speaks to the situation that the seven churches that John addressed his writings to were facing. They were located in the area of what is now western Turkey, rather distant from the center of Christian life in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. They were facing great struggles within the wider society, dealing with corruption, and many were falling away from their faith in Christ. But the biggest challenge came in the form of persecution by the Roman Empire. These early Christian converts were being constantly harassed by Emperor Nero and the Roman authorities. And putting Christians to the sword was prevalent in the communities to which Revelation was directed. In fact, the often-quoted reference to “the number of the beast” is directed squarely at Nero; the “666” often referred to was the result of assigning numbers to the Hebrew letters that spelled “Nero Emperor”. John of Patmos was attempting to reassure the churches he oversaw that in spite of all the persecutions they were facing, that they must remain true to their faith in the risen Christ, and that by his resurrection, the “new heaven and new earth” are promised to all who believe. The persecution at the hands of Rome, notwithstanding.
And, while Revelation was not intended to be prophetic for the future, there is no doubt that the sufferings of the people in John’s time do continue in our own. Illness, death, pain, tears, and mourning are all part of human life on this earth. Revelation was meant to assure John’s readers that the story of God’s will for the world will come to its ultimate conclusion; “all things will be made new”. For them, and for us, this is a call to acknowledge that, by his work on the cross, our risen Savior has defeated all that would seek to cause the suffering of God’s people. Revelation’s verses are a source of encouragement for those of the faithful who may experience the oppression, persecution, and feeling of powerlessness in the face of those who would do them harm.
John isn’t telling us how to avoid the suffering brought about by the so-called “first things”; which are the realities of the fallen, broken world in which we all live. Instead, he reaffirms the reality of suffering and encourages his readers, and us to live into that suffering, and to come through it with faith and trust, as we are enabled as followers of Jesus.
These “new things” are represented by the dwelling of God among God’s people; Jesus has come among us and the way to the new holy city, the realization of the supremacy of God’s reign is clearly manifested through Christ’s resurrection. The timeline for the wiping away of all tears, of the ceasing of mourning and pain, and the defeat of death may not yet be fully revealed, but “all things have been made new”. God keeps God’s promises! In Revelation we are told how the story ends. It is revealed to us that God has completed what God set out to do; the Easter resurrection of God’s Son is the culmination of all that God’s intends for Creation.
This is a book of hope; the timing of the coming to fruition of the Kingdom of God isn’t really the important part of the story, it is that the Kingdom will come! “It is done!” God assures John. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”. This new Jerusalem, this holy city that the world will be made into won’t be the actual transformation of anything current into something different; it is rather the coming of God into the world as it is. While at some point, we each envision a time when we will ascend into heaven, to be with our God and our Savior, the message of Revelation is that God has already descended to come among us. Christ has experienced the pain, the mourning, the tears, and the death that we all undergo. But the new heaven and new earth that God promises have been brought about by Jesus’ resurrection; just as he was present at the formation of the “first things” John writes about. Jesus has now brought forth the “new” ones.
Creation may not yet have been fully restored to that way that God wishes it to be, but the relationship that God’s people have with their Creator has been reconciled through Christ Jesus. “All things have been made new”.
So, rather than succumb to some “end of the world” prediction based on a misreading of Revelation, let us rejoice that the world as it is, has been made into a new creation. One in which God dwells among God’s children. A world where, in spite of all that plagues humankind, there is the hope that what has been revealed to come might just already be here. Jesus’ rising to live again on Easter is the only revelation we need.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, you have revealed yourself to us in the person of your Son. Help us to live lives that reveal our faith and trust in you as our beginning and our end. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose Easter rising reveals the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!).