Scripture Readings: John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:1-10, and Revelation 22:1-5.
Excerpt: Then 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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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; 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.” – Revelation 21:1-4
(The sermon is preceded by the song The Golden City from the CD City of Gold, Phil Baggeley et al, Gold Records UK 1998. This album is a collection of songs and poems about heaven, and was very popular in the UK though never made it to the U.S. It is often particularly meaningful to people who have lost loved ones because it gives a vision of heaven and God’s future.)
When I was in school we had a professor who always used to say “Context is king!” It became a catch-phrase among the students: What’s the difference between a nice meal at home and a nice meal at a restaurant? Context! What’s the difference between a vacation in the mountains or a vacation at the beach? Context!
The question of context is equally important when reading the Bible, and he taught us that as we read, we should ask the questions a reporter would ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
These questions become particularly challenging when we approach a book like Revelation. Revelation is literally an apocalypse – a tale of the end of the world – and because of that it’s mystifying, and a bit scary in places. I don’t know about you but I can remember as a teenager having “heavy” conversations with friends about the book of Revelation and wondering what the end times would be like. Would we live to see them? I don’t think any of us had actually read the book at that point, just a few passages that seemed to defy all logic. We used to try to figure out which country was represented by which beast: a bear? That’s got to be Russia! An eagle? That’s got to be the U.S.!
We couldn’t have known it back then, but we were way out of context. The book of Revelation is not meant to be a road-map to the end times. Many people have mistaken it for that. There have been many instances in history where people sold everything they had and went up a mountain to wait for Jesus to return, and it didn’t happen. People thought they “miscalculated”.
The book of Revelation is not a timetable. It’s a vision, and it’s a letter, written to the early church during a time of trouble. And there are two kinds of trouble Revelation addresses: trouble from outside the church, and trouble from inside the church.
The opening chapters of Revelation deal with troubles inside the church. This is not our focus for today, but the messages to the early churches in the first few chapters contain words of encouragement and warning that are just as relevant today as they were then. One of the most touching of these is Jesus’ challenge to the church at Ephesus:
“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love….” (Rev 2:2-4)
These words were written over 2000 years ago but they echo down through all of history to Christians in every time and every place, challenging us to stay loyal to our first love.
But our focus for today is on the last chapters of Revelation, and we need to back up and get some of that context our professor talked about.
The book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, possibly assisted by friends, while in exile on the island of Patmos. It was probably written around 65AD give or take a few years, 30 years or more after Jesus’ resurrection. The generation after Jesus – the Christians born and raised roughly between the years 35-70AD – were raised in a church that was for the most part free of persecution. What little persecution there was usually came from the temple authorities in Jerusalem, not from the Romans (with a few exceptions). The church at that time was still centered in Jerusalem; it still had Jewish leaders (Peter, Paul, and James); and evangelism to that point had been relatively local. The church spread throughout Judea in the south of Israel and Galilee in the north, as well as areas like Gaza, Samaria, and the seaside towns of Joppa and Caesarea.
It was a time of rapid growth for the church. But as the decade of the 60s drew to a close, political unrest began to grow in Israel and in the year 70 the unrest erupted into out-and-out rebellion against Rome that would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, most of which were burned to the ground. Somewhere around this time the Romans – who till now had not paid much attention to this new group called ‘Christians’ – heard a rumor (started by the Jerusalem rebels) that Christians were responsible for the uprisings, and persecution began.
Jesus predicted all of this in Luke’s gospel. He had warned the disciples:
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; […] they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24, edited)
So the Christians living in Jerusalem ran for their lives. (The refugees we hear about today are, sadly, not new in human history.) As a result Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and churches were founded in countries that include modern-day Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
So the apostles started to write letters to keep in touch with the believers throughout the Empire. Paul wrote to the churches he visited; Peter wrote letters (I & II Peter) intending them to be shared among the churches; and John wrote his Apocalypse. All of these written to strengthen believers who were facing troubles from outside and inside the church.
I think it would be fair to say we also are now in a church that is under pressure from both the outside and the inside. We may not face physical persecution here in the U.S., though there is persecution happening in other parts of the world. But for us Americans, many of us remember the 1950s and 1960s when the church in the U.S. was widely accepted by society, and it takes us by surprise when we see church attendance falling and religion getting bad press in the media. When we were kids everybody went to weekend services: our Jewish friends went to temple on Saturday, and everyone else went to church on Sunday. It was expected, it was part of everyday life… but not any more.
What we didn’t realize, those of us who grew up in those days, is: times like these, when the church is the “in” place to be, are actually relatively rare in human history. In the 1400s Martin Luther risked his life to reform the Catholic church back when mass was said in a language people didn’t understand. Congregations back then (when they attended church) had no idea what the priest was saying. Roughly 100 years later, John Wycliffe of England risked his life to translate the Bible into English, and while he managed to avoid being killed, many of the people who helped him paid with their lives. Two hundred years later, also in England, just before the Wesleys came on the scene, one historian writes England was “a moral quagmire and a spiritual cesspool” filled with gambling, public executions, and the slave trade. John and Charles Wesley risked their careers to bring a revival of faith that changed English history – and American history as well. The revival they started resulted in many people returning to God and the founding of hundreds of churches.
There was another revival 100 years later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more churches were built and church attendance went up again. This revival was the one in which our South Hills Partnership churches were built, and its roots were very much in the foundation laid by the Wesleys a century before.
So throughout history church attendance has gone up and down, and the up-swings have been very much linked to times of revival. And as one internet pastor writes: “revivals emerge during times of spiritual and moral decline.” This same pastor also points out that, while revivals are the work of the Holy Spirit and they improve both the church and society, they are also (in his word) “messy”: revivals spark controversy, and they invite spiritual excesses, and inspire disputes among theologians (which makes seminary really interesting!). So good times in the church, times of stability and peace, are relatively rare in church history.
So where does Revelation come into all of this? Revelation is a message to a church that finds itself in tough times. Which, looking out over church history, is most of the time. Revelation shares a vision of the coming of a new heaven and new earth – and comfort and encouragement for those of us who are living on the old earth in the meantime. The point of Revelation’s visions of beasts and battles and angels and horsemen can be summed up this way: the time is coming when evil will be done away with. Jesus, the Lamb of God, the light of the world, and the lover of our souls, wins in the end.
I think Jesus had these things in mind when he spoke the words we hear in John’s gospel today:
“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. […] If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:26-29)
Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will teach us the truth. As we saw last week in the story of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit comes to those who hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and believe. Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)
The Holy Spirit is our advocate with God – the one who takes our part before the throne of grace, and the one who teaches us what God expects. The Holy Spirit never contradicts the teaching of Jesus; the Holy Spirit leads us to God’s truth, never away from it; and the Holy Spirit brings to mind words we need to say that we might never have thought of, and understanding we might never otherwise have grasped.
The Holy Spirit brings God’s peace in every situation – “not as the world gives” as Jesus says. Does this mean we will never be upset by anything? No, of course not. But it does mean that underneath it all we have a foundation of confidence that all things – including ourselves – are safe in God’s hands.
In John’s gospel Jesus says it is to our advantage for him to go to God the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come to us.
The Holy Spirit also gives in Revelation a word of warning to those who do not honor God. I actually like the old KJV translation here, the language is colorful: it describes evil people this way: “the fearful, and unbelieving, the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars”. The Spirit warns these will be subject to ‘the second death’ from which there will be no resurrection.
The ultimate source of all these sins is a lack of faith. Idolatry (which is on the list) is worshiping what is not God; and I believe this is the sin of our age – more than murder, more than terrorism, more than lying or cheating or stealing – because all these other sins are caused by people who desire something more than they desire God… who worship something more than they worship God. Even good things, like food and pleasure and relationships, if they become our masters, end up coming between us and God. They become idols.
So where does Revelation touch our daily lives? Primarily, it encourages us to keep on keeping the faith. And to avoid doing the evil things on that list from Revelation, and do the opposite: Do not be afraid. Do not be unfaithful; do not hate; do not murder but live at peace with others; don’t chase after cheap sex; resist the sin of sorcery, which is the temptation to play God; worship nothing but God; speak the truth.
To those who live God’s way, God promises:
“they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:4-5)
Why would anyone want to settle for anything less?
Shakespeare’s Henry V famously said, “the readiness is all”. And nowhere is that more true than in the book of Revelation. There is a new world coming and we want to be part of it. And we need to be ready. Hold on to that vision, and keep on keeping the faith. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/1/16