22 May – God’s city and ours
Revelation 21:10, 22, 22-22:5
Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber
‘And in the Spirit, he showed me the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God’.
It is a happy coincidence that this text should be before us the day after an election. Our triennial excursion to the ballot box was surely yet again a triumph of hope over experience as we voted not so much for a holy city, but for a better earthly city. In this respect, Christians joined their hopes to those of their secular neighbours.
We did so in these grim advancing years of the third millennium conscious of the present Ukraine horror, not to speak of an alarming future for the planet. But equally, day by day, we increasingly experience what feels like the fraying of a once confident Western culture – politically directionless, morally decadent and intellectually shallow.
As a matter of historical record, equally grim days called forth the text before us today. For it was written at the end of the first century when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. He was successful in erasing the hopes of a sizeable proportion of his empire through persecution, death and destruction. For this reason, this subversive but encouraging text had to be written in code – precisely to prevent a culture hostile to Christian faith from knowing what it means. To which we might add – nothing has changed!
Especially is this the case as we reflect on why it is that this text is given to us in the period between Easter and Pentecost, where we have been confronted by the divine drama that is Good Friday and Easter Day. But most of all, we must not gloss over that profound silence of Easter Saturday marking the end for God’s Son and therefore the end for God. Intellectually, ours too is an Easter Saturday culture. It is unequivocally theological in nature – a culture bereft of divine presence, and indifferent to divine absence.
But be of good cheer – our text everywhere breathes life!
Now our political gaze is directed not to what is, but to the vision in the Spirit of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. First, we must remember that Jerusalem is the literal compound of two Hebrew words ‘Jeru/shalom’. It means ‘vision of peace’. In our day, as did Jesus himself, we may well weep over this failed vision: no peace, no vision. But there must be no permanent lament. Deathly cities will not have the last word, will not have conquered, will not be the future. Rather, the Spirit’s gift of transformed life promises nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth coming in the form of a good city – not some sort of divine fog, a formless cloud, but a solid place where the whole creation is recreated.
To this end, this city offers no cancellation of human works, but rather their elevation. Twice we hear that:
‘the kings of the earth bring the glory and honour of the nations into it’.
It is indeed good news to hear that despite the three-day Easter drama of the horror inflicted on God, and despite all the horrors that nations inflict on one another, it will be the secular kings and nations who will be destined to know themselves players in this reconstituted Jerusalem. Having been at the Good Friday and Easter Day centre of judgement, and there ultimately destroyed as final authorities in the world, now they are to be dispensers of glory and honour – all that has been, and still is the work of the kings and nations – all the produce of nature, all the various human cultural achievements – music and sculpture, poetry and mathematics, philosophy, politics and economics – all enter into this holy Jerusalem to become ingredient in building up this final perfect work. And they do so, not as in some museum, but as an integration into a living whole, a dynamic re-creation. Because everything here is living, and is not closed or ossified, what human beings wished to be our creation with all its problematic outcomes is now promised to be recreated for all time.
‘Everything’ is here? Not quite. Those rejoicing in the decline in our day of what they call religion might be encouraged to hear explicitly that there is no temple here – no church buildings, no ordained ministers, no Church councils, no Synod property officers. But the tension increases even more. It is not simply that with no temple there is no longer any need of a particular place to express or enclose a sacred presence – it is even that the distinction between sacred and profane itself collapses; here each of our contrived divisions become immediate to the other. And this because the triune God is finally revealed to be immediate to all.
But there is yet more. In the vision the sun too disappears, though light nevertheless remains – a reversal of the images in the Genesis creation story, where we are told that the sun appears on the third day whereas light appears on the first. But now it is the light of God which replaces the light of the sun – that light which ultimately must pass away because it is not eternal, but rather comes from a created source.
We are, in truth, with this city – this New Jerusalem, this new vision of peace – in another dimension; in an ‘other’ universe, which has another structure which no longer fits human religious categories. Utopian? Surely not! For the gospel tells us that this city has in fact already been accomplished. We read this text in the Easter season because in a crucified human being the perfect union between God and the world has already been achieved. A new creation is already a present perfect reality awaiting the world’s performance.
In the faithful re-enactment of the worship of the Church, not least in the divinely appointed sacramental symbols of water, bread and wine we confirm the protest at the world’s present disunity which refuses to accept the truth of its own healing – a disunity in which the church also shares. For in this liturgical reality, we are given a union of things visible and invisible, a union of body and spirit, of heaven and earth – present faith raised to the vision of the new Creation.
So it is that already just here, in Christian churches destined to disappear, we not only see, but more to the point, by grace already enter the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In other words, the joy and promise of our text is simply the assurance that endings are in sight for a humanity which surely sooner or later will find that the interminable is much harder to bear than termination.
All that remains for us now therefore is the boldness to confess: to this God, whom the vision of Revelation proposes as the One “who is, who was, and who is to come” – note the sequence of tenses, not who was, who is and who will be, but “who is, who was and who is to come” – to this God be all praise and thanksgiving, now and forever.