A Homily from Reveleation 22:10, 22-22:5
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
May 16, 2004 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
There is an old hymn that has been sung at funerals in my family for years, and will hopefully be sung at mine. It’s Albert E. Brumley’s “I’ll Meet You in the Morning”, and those of you who grew up listening to Bill Gaither might remember it. The song begins, “I’ll meet you in the morning, by the bright river side, when all sorrow has drifted away.” The lyrics go on to describe the open gates, the perpetual daylight, and the streets of gold in the “city that is built four square.”
I remember hearing those words sung here, at my grandmother’s funeral. Knowing the strength of her faith, I realized that she had chosen the hymn as a final message to her friends and family. It was her way of reminding us that we would see her again; that we are all promised a place where old wounds would be healed and old friendships renewed.
By giving us that reminder, my grandmother placed herself firmly in the tradition of the early Church, which preserved the book of Revelation for the same reason. Written in a time when Christians were being executed for their faith, and when a capricious emperor – an anti-Christ – ruled an empire that seemed to control the whole world, Revelation was intended to offer hope.
According to tradition, the author of Revelation is the Apostle John. He uses fantastic images and symbols drawn from myths and stories of the day to remind his frightened readers that – no matter how bad things may seem – the Roman Empire will fall. In fact, all empires will fall. The greed and violence that sustain them will eventually become their undoing. All nations must face the same truth that most mortals already understand: everything dies.
Everything except that which God has touched and made eternal. Our first glimpse of that particular hope came two thousand years ago in the resurrection of Jesus; and the author of Revelation reminds us that the hope promised in Jesus will be fulfilled for all of us at the end of time. Consequently, as we come to the final Sunday of Easter, we honor the Resurrection by reading the closing chapter of Revelation and proclaiming the absolute and final resurrection that awaits all of creation.
Understanding that future promise requires first understanding the Christian view of the world. As Christians, we believe that our world, our culture, our bodies, and our understanding are all inherently flawed. We believe that the pain, violence, and grief in our lives exist because these things are a necessary part of the mortal world.
We also believe that a perfect God, untouched by the limitations and weaknesses of mortality, lives beyond our created world. We gain glimpses of God’s perfection, of what our world could be, in moments of kindness, of selflessness, of passion, and beauty.
Unfortunately, those glimpses only last for a little while. A stubbed toe. An angry driver. A leaky roof. An unexpected bill. There is always something to drag us back to “reality” as we know it.
But it is that other reality, the perfect reality of how the world could be, that keeps us going as Christians. Doing so shifts our priorities. We understand that no matter how many things we buy, wealth and possessions cannot bring true happiness; because they will never last. We focus (in theory, at least) on actions that heal and bring hope. We take the long view, seeking to put our energy into things that are eternal rather than things that will pass away.
Our text for today reminds us that those efforts are not in vain. All of history, every second that passes by, it is all leading us to that moment when the world as God sees it will be as real the world in which we live. Since we are anchored in the mortal world right now, we can only imagine what that will look like.
With that in mind, it is particularly unlikely that we’ll get a realistic image from our text today. John uses vivid, fanciful images throughout the book to make various theological points: boiling, poisonous seas; a fierce dragon, and titanic battles are all used to illustrate the theological and political conflicts of the first century.
Consequently, it is likely that John’s descriptions of our promised future contain more symbolism than literal prose. But what beautiful symbols! Images so strong that, through thousands of years of singing and preaching, they have left an indelible mark on the language of our culture, Christian and secular alike.
Revelation is written as a dream, and in that dream we are taken to the top of a mountain. From there, we watch as a shining city of gold and jewels is lowered from the sky. It is a perfect cube – fifteen hundred miles on a side – with three gates on four sides. Each gate is one enormous, solid pearl, and the wall is seventy-five yards high. The wall itself is made of Jasper, and its foundations are sapphire, onyx, and all sorts of other precious gems. It is a rainbow of color, with streets of gold so pure that they shine like glass.
The city, the new Jerusalem, is a massive, dazzling, flawless symbol of abundance, beauty, and perfection. It is our home, the one promised to us by Jesus when he walked among us as a human being. Since we’ve been doing a constant stream of home-repair projects over the past month; I find the most appealing aspect of that city to be that I’ll never have to replace a roof there.
But there are even more amazing things awaiting us. One thing that is not there, however, is a temple. Every other time Jerusalem had been rebuilt, building the Temple was a priority. It was the only place that God’s people could come into the presence of God, albeit briefly and only behind a veil.
But in the future we won’t need a Temple or a veil, because the fullness of God will be there. There will be no sun and no moon; instead the presence of God and the presence of Jesus will provide eternal light. A city of peace, the gates of the city will never shut during the day; and the daytime will never end.
I spent some time on that passage, since I’m rather fond of the night. I love lying on my back and staring at the stars; or curling up with a good book on a chilly evening. Fortunately, Revelation is a dream, and its author is speaking in metaphor.
It seems safe to picture an afterlife with cozy evenings. What there will never be, however, is the kind of fear that comes from walking through a dark alley; or going into an unlit room. There may be nighttime; but there will never be danger lurking in shadows.
Nothing to fear at all. The gates are wide open; but nothing dangerous can enter them. It’s an interesting paradox. If – even when they are open – the gates keep out all evil; why are they there?
Perhaps they are there to remind us that not everyone gets in. At the time Revelation was written, cowardly or selfish Christians were giving in to the demands of the Romans and denying their faith. It’s hard to blame them, since many faced execution if they did not. Nevertheless, Revelation calls us to honor priorities that have greater significance than even our own lives.
John reminds us that the city is for those who have not sold out to their weaknesses; who have not betrayed the call and command of God. Only those whose names are written in the “Lamb’s book of life” are admitted in.
That part makes me uncomfortable; but it is a message that is found even in Jesus’ own teachings. We are constantly reminded that the path to salvation is a narrow road; and that not everyone will find it.
I suspect that it is actually either much more simple than that or much more complicated than that. Either, in the final analysis, everyone somehow gets in; or – through a convoluted process – those who do not get in are offered other opportunities. I may, however, just be trying to make myself feel better. The only assurance that we find in our Scriptures – and, in particular in our passage today – is that those who place their trust and their priorities and their very lives in the care of the person of Jesus will get in.
I sincerely hope everyone will make it through those gates; but I think we would do well to take the warning to heart. We should not be too flippant; too casual; too entitled in our understanding of our salvation. It is an amazing gift of mercy, an astonishing and miraculous hope, and we should not take it for granted.
When the time comes and we pass through those gates, however metaphorical they may be, we will be glad that we took the gift of salvation seriously. In John’s dream we encounter something there that we haven’t seen since the first chapters of Genesis. In the heart of the New Jerusalem is the Tree of Life.
It is the symbol of life eternal. Its branches draw in the whole of the city, raining down fruit in bountiful varieties. The Tree’s leaves bring healing, and from its roots flow the pure, crystal blue water of life.
Under the branches of the Tree denied to us at the beginning of time, humanity, all of creation, will fulfill its full potential. There is no war, no violence, no hunger. No aches and pains. No mortgage. Perhaps, most importantly for Atlantans, there is no traffic.
There is nothing but peace, joy, and the limitless presence of God. The very presence of God. Perhaps that is the most wonderful image in John’s promise of the future. No matter how strong our faith, we have all questioned on some level whether or not God really cares. Whether or not God is really watching. Whether or not God is actually involved in our lives.
John reminds us that the day is coming when we will never have to wonder that again. When we leave the mortal world behind, it will be to stand in a place where we can look over and see the smile on God’s face.
Yet that doesn’t always keep us from doubting now. In preparing this sermon, I thought about my own doubts and the doubts that many of us are sure to have. After all, it sounds almost like a fairy tale ending. All the bad stuff goes away, the good guys win, and we’re the good guys. We all get to live happily ever after.
In a world of unhappily right now, that’s a little hard to buy into. In a world of terrorists and tyrants, it’s a little hard to believe that such an amazing, perfect hope awaits us.
That’s why I don’t think this is a text for novices or new believers. A skeptic or a new believer should start with the person of Christ. In his teachings, in his mercy, and in his sacrifice we can find a model of how to live today in a way that leads to the tomorrow of the book of Revelation.
In a lifetime of trying to unpack those teachings, I suspect we can hope that they will start to make sense. As we grow older, we start to see that – no matter how much money we have – it never fills the empty places in our lives. We learn that we don’t miss the cars or the houses we have had; but we do miss our friends who have died. We learn that we may not remember our job performance evaluations from last year; but we do remember an act of kindness from decades ago.
A lifetime like that may be enough to teach us that the world cannot be all that there is; and the “common sense” priorities of that world are built on some deeply flawed principles.
Perhaps that is why the saints and martyrs who gave everything for that kind of faith preserved the book of Revelation. Living a life of authentic faith and faithfulness; they had no doubt of the future that awaits us all.
Part of the promise of Revelation is not simply that future. Part of the promise is that, if we seek out the narrow path leading to those gates of pearl, if we honor and follow even the hard teachings of Jesus as the Son of God, if we focus on the eternal rather than the temporary – if we do these things, then the promise of the New Jerusalem will be more than a possibility for us; it will be the one solid truth of our lives.