Scripture | Revelation 21:1-6
Introduction to the text
As Trip and Philip and I were planning this summer theme of re-creation, we started playing with some scripture ideas. Our passage this morning from the Book of Revelation was one of the first ones we picked. It was an obvious choice; it’s all about God’s re-creation of this world of ours.
It’s also one of my favorite passages of scripture, but for a different reason. This is one we often read at funerals and memorial services. These verses are words of comfort for those who grieve – which, sooner or later, will be us all.
It is a word of comfort, isn’t it? This promise that somewhere, somehow, we will know love and joy and blessing without pain and sadness and loss? They say the price of love is risking loss, and we all know that’s true. These words of scripture give us assurance that God knows full well the pain this world carries; they reveal the poignant tenderness of God. It is as if God is holding us as we cry, like a mother comforting her child, whispering, “It’s all right; it’s all right; everything will be all right.” And you know it’s the holding and the loving as much as any words, and the comfort of the mother’s soothing voice. This is God holding us close, drying our tears, giving us comfort.
But these words offer more than a moment of comfort. This is God’s promise to us that everything really will be all right. That God isn’t done with this old world of ours. That God still has a vision and a plan and intention, for all that is right and good and beautiful and holy. This vision taps into our longing for that world God imagines. It awakens that longing inside us.
As I was working on this sermon, something unexpected bubbled up, as often happens. This time it was an old song, from the musical West Side Story. You may know the story; it’s a modern-day twist on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in New York city, and instead of two feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, it’s two competing gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Tony and Maria are from opposite sides, and you know from the start that these star-crossed lovers do not have a chance. Their love cannot live in this world as it is.
In the midst of the escalating conflict around them, they sing their hope to each other:
There’s a place for us; somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air wait for us, somewhere.
There’s a time for us, there’ll be a time for us;
time together with time to spare, time to learn, time to care.
Someday, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living;
we’ll find there’s a way of forgiving.
That’s the longing this passage answers – for a new heaven, and a new earth, someday, where God is making all things new.
It’s no accident that these scripture verses come from the end of the Bible, from the last book, in nearly the last chapter. The end echoes the beginning, with God’s first creation of heaven and earth. And if we still don’t see it clearly, the voice from the throne tells us, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Not only was Christ present at the beginning, not only did Christ cause the beginning, Christ is the beginning. And Christ be there at the end; Christ is the ending to the story. The happy ending, where everything turns out all right. The beautiful ending, where the tension resolves, the villains disappear, and every lives happily ever after.
The Bible is a story. It begins with creation, where everything is good and exactly as it should be; and then it all crashes down when sin enters in; and the rest of the story takes us through the drama of God’s work to re-create the beauty that once was. The story moves through famine and feast and faithfulness and failure, until, in the fullness of time, God enters this world and takes on our own human form, in the person of Jesus. And when Jesus faces down the powers of sin and evil and death itself, God reveals that final promise, that death will be no more, and crying and pain will be no more, and God will make all things new.
This passage, above all, is meant to be a word of hope. That, in the end, God’s purpose will not fail, and God’s vision will be made complete. There is a fancy theological term for this; it’s called “eschatology.” The name comes from the Greek word “eschaton,” which simply means “last.” It’s the study of last things.
Eschatology is part of what makes Christianity distinctive. The Bible is not simply a set of precepts or laws about how to live one’s life. It’s not primarily an ethical primer or even self-help book, though it’s often used that way. It is a road-map of time, and it says that time is going somewhere, and that where it is going as good. Creation will not get stuck in futility, circling around and around endlessly. There is an end in sight, and it is good.
But scripture doesn’t speak with one voice about what that ending looks like, or how the people of God should envision it. Last week my friend Karla was telling me about a course she teaches on eschatological hope at the seminary in Costa Rica. She said she was reminded that there are two kinds of eschatology: prophetic and apocalyptic. Prophetic eschatology – like the kind in the Old Testament prophets – comes when people feel like they have power to change the future; it’s a matter of choosing the right path, the path of faithfulness. Apocalyptic eschatology – like the kind in Revelation – is found when people feel like they have no power, like the future is out of their hands.
Now, when we hear the word ‘apocalyptic,’ we think cataclysm or catastrophe, a violent destruction of the world. But the Bible doesn’t use the word that way. Yes, there is destruction, but so new life can come. It is not a nuclear holocaust but more like a forest fire clearing out the old so that a new ecosystem can form on the ashes of the old. The focus is not on God destroying things but on the re-creation that is coming. It is not meant to garner fear, but hope for the hopeless. God will not abandon us; and God’s love will prevail.
Unfortunately, there have been some interpretations of Biblical eschatology that border on destructive themselves. This is no trivial thing; people live their lives based on what they believe. “Dispensationalism” is one that can be especially problematic, and, in fact, the Presbyterian Church declared it “evil and subversive” back in the ‘60’s, not only because of its theological twists on scripture, but because of the world-view it promotes.
Dispensationalism traces back to the 1800s, to a preacher named John Darby. It became widespread in America in the 1900s through the Scofield Reference Bible. It’s still widely taught in many evangelical and nondenominational churches. I never heard of it growing up in the Presbyterian Church; I stumbled on it when I was in college, and a friend invited me to see the movie, “The Late Great Planet Earth” based on Hal Lindsay’s book of the same title.
The basic premise is that current events are signs of Jesus’ imminent return, and we can expect the rapture soon, when Christians will be whisked away before the world’s destruction. Even though world events may be terrible and people may suffer horribly, this is simply a necessary precursor to God’s new age. The message was one of urgency: if the rapture was imminent, there wasn’t much time to save yourself by accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures this theology:
Life was filled with guns and war
And everyone got trampled on the floor
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we'd all been ready
There's no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you've been left behind
We need to be clear that this dispensationalist theology is not apolitical. In the Left Behind novels, for instance, the secretary-general of the United Nations is the Anti-Christ. Jerusalem must be reestablished as the capital of Israel before the rapture. War and disaster are signs of God working in the world. If you truly believe those things, it will surely influence your worldview, and how you live.
All of this comes from a particular reading of the Bible, including passages like the one we read today. But that’s not the way I read scripture; nor do others whose voices I respect.
As I was working on this sermon, Trip sent me an article written by one of his New Testament professors at Columbia Seminary. As Stanley Saunders describes,
In other words, destruction is not God’s intention: re-creation is!
I for one am searching for a word of hope, and I think scripture provides just that. I think these verses reaffirm God’s deep and wide love for the world, God’s desire to refresh us and renew us, God’s vision for community where tears are dried and death will be no more. Someday…. Somewhere…
Let these words of the Revelation do this for you as well… let them reawaken something deep inside you. Let yourself remember your own longing, and feel it, deeply.
Let God’s word draw you toward something wonderful, and beautiful. A vision of what can be.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church