The glorious end of the story

Sermon  May 19, 2019  Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Revelation 21:1-8

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

The final two chapters in John’s Revelation are among my favorites in the Bible.  They lay out a wonderful picture of the blessed eternity that God promises us.  They are very appropriate as the concluding chapters of God’s word to us in the Bible.

My initial reaction to reading today’s passage from Revelation was that it serves as a wonderful description of our eternal dwelling place with God.  That is well and good, but as I read more about our passage, I realized that there was much greater depth in this passage than I had first thought.  I also learned that while our lectionary only includes verses 1 through 6, the full passage should also include verses 7 and 8.  Leaving out verses 7 and 8 would be like me leaving out the raisins in a cookie recipe – I might like cookies without raisins better, but they wouldn’t be the cookies that the recipe writer intended.

There are a few really important points in our passage, but what I would like to do first is read through the whole passage, including verses 7 and 8, and pause after every verse to briefly explain what’s going on. 

Let’s begin with verse 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.”  In this first verse, John is setting the stage, making a clear connection to a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.  We’ll learn more about that later.

Verse 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.”  Here John makes reference to the New Jerusalem which is a recurring theme in the Old Testament to refer to the final redemption and eternal dwelling place for God’s people.

Verse 3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  In the Old Testament, we read that God dwelt with his people in the tabernacle and temple.  When the Israelites desecrated the temple, God’s presence departed leading to the temple’s destruction and the Israelites’ exile at the hands of the Babylonians.  There could be no restoration of God’s people without God’s return to dwell in their midst.

Verse 4 and part of verse 5: “‘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.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””  These verses tell us that God will renew all things.  Death came with the fall at the very beginning, and the defeat of death speaks of God’s final triumph.

Second part of verse 5: “Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  This statement assures us that God’s word, as revealed in the Scriptures, is trustworthy for us and true.

First part of verse 6: “He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  “This statement tells us that with God coming to dwell with his people in the new heaven and new earth, history has ended and God’s redemptive work is complete.

Second part of verse 6 and verse 7: “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.  Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”  These verses reflect God’s final blessing.  If one reads the several covenants in the Old Testament, one will see that each covenant includes blessings for those within the covenant and curses for those who are outside it.  And so, here God is promising all of these blessings to his children.

Verse 8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”  This verse is God’s final curse on those who are outside the covenant.  It reflects the other side of the coin from the previous verses speaking of Gods’ final blessing.

Let’s take a look at a few things.  We’ll start with the verses that our lectionary left out that speak of God’s final blessing and curse.  I am guessing that the lectionary leaves these verses out because they kind of ruin an otherwise sweet and uplifting passage.  We read about all these wonderful things, only to learn that they are only for those within God’s covenant.  Things sound pretty grim and horrible for those outside the covenant.  We need to think about the implications of this teaching.

The first question you might have is what covenant is being referred to by John?  That would be the final covenant that God made with us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In Luke chapter 22, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Jesus died for each one of us.  He gave his life to atone for all of our sins.  And so, should this not mean that everyone is within God’s covenant?

This is a very complex issue, and not one I can adequately answer in one sermon.  In fact, I am sure that there are more theological dissertations on this subject than I can read.  But let me leave you with two thoughts.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wrote “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Another image is this.  In the Democrat presidential primary race, a hot topic is their Medicare for all policy proposal.  Never mind your opinion on this proposal, but imagine if it was actually possible – free medical care that you could make use of just for the asking.  Imagine that you broke your arm.  You could go and receive medical treatment and be healed.  However, you could also choose to reject the free medical care and live a miserable and painful life.  God will never force you to become his child, but he is always ready to welcome you home.

The key takeaway from the verses about God’s blessing and curse, is that the people with whom God dwells will be his people, people who love God and who have submitted to him.  This brings us to John’s two references to the book of Isaiah.  The early church would have immediately recognized the references,

John makes reference to Isaiah chapter 25 where the prophet writes that the “Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  Just before that, Isaiah writes “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.  On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”  Isaiah makes it clear that God’s promises are meant for all peoples – not just the Israelites.  We see this fulfilled in the Book of Acts when the apostles preach the Gospel to all nations.

In verse 1 of our lectionary passage, John spoke of the new heaven and new earth and in verse 2, he spoke of the new Jerusalem.  This is a very clear reference to Isaiah chapter 65.  Isaiah was writing after Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians and the Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon and Assyria.  Beloved Jerusalem, the royal city and earthly center for God’s people, had fallen, and they had been scattered to the wind.  For the Jews, redemption would require the restoration of Jerusalem.

In chapter 65, Isaiah writes “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.  For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.  They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.  Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.”

This is the passage that John alludes to as he writes about the new heavens and new earth.  God is gathering his people to himself and will protect them from all harm.  But it will be God himself who will protect us.  God isn’t contracting out the protection either.  No, John tells us that God will be dwelling with us.

This is the last, and perhaps most important point I want to talk about today.  In verse 3, John writes “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  Later in this chapter, John writes “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”  This has some very important implications.

In the Old Testament, God dwelt first in the tabernacle as the Israelites left Egypt and arrived in the Promised Land, and later in the temple that Solomon built.  In 2 Chronicles chapter 7, after Solomon had built and dedicated the temple, we read that “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.  The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.”  God dwelt in the innermost room in the temple, known as the Holy of Holies, separated from the people by a great curtain, and only the High Priest could enter.  Anyone else who would enter into God’s presence would die.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, Matthew describes what happened.  He wrote “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”  The curtain of the temple was the curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies where God dwelt.  When Jesus died, his blood brought us into the new covenant, and allowed us to stand in God’s presence.

And so, when John writes about God dwelling with his people in the new heaven and new earth, he is making two important points.  First, that God is returning to dwell with his people, just as he had dwelt with Israel in the temple in the past.  But second, that God would no longer be separated from his people in the Holy of Holies, but that his presence would fill the whole city.

We often confuse the terms “heaven” and “earth”.  We think that earth is where we live before we die, and heaven is where we go after we die.  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  Rather the Bible tells us that heaven is God’s dwelling place and earth is our dwelling place.  When John speaks of the new heaven and new earth, and God dwelling amongst his people, he is telling us that heaven and earth will be united into one – where we will dwell with God, and God will dwell with us.

Our passage today from Revelation contains a rich message for us today.  Like Isaiah, who experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile and scattering of his people, and John, who experienced the second destruction of the temple by the Romans, the growing persecution of the church, and his own personal exile, we too experience death and disheartening events.  And yet God showed Isaiah and John that death is not the end.  God has not forgotten or abandoned us.  In the end, he will draw his people to himself and dwell with us.  Whatever happens to us in this life, we can be assured that God will redeem us in the end and dwell among us.

This is new worth celebrating and sharing.

Let us pray,

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that we may embrace the hope that John has set before us in Revelation, and look forward to that day when the new heaven and the new earth are revealed and when you will dwell with us.  Give us a spirit of rejoicing and boldness to share this news with others.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

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