Easter 6 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
I think the idea of heaven and earth passing away was more troubling to me than the idea of tribulations. How could I understand a phrase like “death shall be no more”? On the one hand, it was comforting to know that death wasn’t the end, but on the other hand, it was unimaginable to think of a world without end. Over the years, I’ve talked with many a young person who found the idea of everlasting life to be a bit terrifying. It is beyond our imagination.
We only know an existence with limitations, so it is difficult to conceive of an existence without the same limits.
C. S. Lewis was the first writer who made this afterlife seem welcoming and safe so to speak. In his book The Last Battle, he describes a new world where old earth and old Narnia have passed away, and yet the new world is familiar. It feels like coming home. The children are greeted by old friends. The children even see the Professor’s house where they first stepped through the wardrobe. They are looking at England within England. The real England. The place their hearts had always longed for. They are beholding the very essence of joy itself.
This world that the children enter is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. When the disciples encounter the risen Jesus, they don’t initially recognize him. He is unfamiliar and yet familiar at the same time. When Paul describes our own death and resurrection, he speaks of sowing a seed in the ground. Our risen body is glorified in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
Back to our passage from Revelation today, John uses familiar images and familiar language to describe an unfamiliar existence. If we follow John’s lead instead of applying some kind of timeless, spaceless set of ideas to Revelation, the story is appealing and wonder-filled. For the sake of time, I am only going to reflect on one image that John uses: heaven and earth.
The first heaven and earth has passed away, and John describes a new heaven and earth. Years ago, I led a retreat with two friends on this theme: the end of the world. What we did on that weekend retreat, I am going to attempt to summarize briefly this morning. Hopefully, this will give us a sense of the familiar image that John uses when he describes the heaven and the earth that has passed away.
There are several images throughout Scripture of the old world passing away. The first time we see the world passing away in a sense is in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve must leave the garden of Eden. They must leave this paradise and begin a new life in the midst of the difficulties of an undeveloped world. In the wilderness, Adam must cultivate a garden, must work the ground, must learn a new way of living and obeying the Lord.
Once humans leave the Garden, they begin building altars to worship. James Jordan has suggested that these altars are recreating the holy mountain, the Garden of Eden, where heaven and earth meet. Noah builds altars. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars. Then when Moses meets with the Lord on Mt. Sinai, he builds a tabernacle, but he still includes the altar. Now the Tabernacle is the meeting place between heaven and earth. In this sense, the place of worship becomes the place where heaven and earth meet. The dwelling place of God and man.
If this dwelling place is destroyed, then it is as though the heaven and earth have passed away. It is a terror for the tabernacle or Temple to be destroyed. When Eli hears that the Ark of the Covenant has been captured, he falls back in his chair and dies. This single most terrifying event in the Old Testament is the destruction of the Temple. The kingdom has fallen. The heaven and the earth have come to an end.
The only way we could get a sense of the horror of this cataclysm is if the nation’s capital were destroyed and we were taken captive to another land, never to return hear English spoken again. It is the end of life as we know it. In his book, Biblical Worldview, Jordan suggests that there are at least six times in Israel’s history that the world comes to an end.
When John describes the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, there is no Temple. John writes, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Rev 21:22). There is no Temple because in the death and resurrection of Jesus, He has replaced the Temple in Jerusalem, and that temple will eventually fall. Jesus is the new heaven and earth. He is the place where heaven and earth come together in perfect communion, and through Jesus the world will be recreated. Thus in Revelation 21, John is speaking of something that has happened in one sense and is still to come in another sense.
This is part of what makes the passage confusing. One way to help us understand this change is to look to Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul speaks of the reality of resurrected life that in one sense has already begun to take old. The old has and is passing away, and the all things have become new. At the same time, people are living in both worlds: the new and the old. In 1 Corinthians 7:31, Paul says that “the present form of this world is passing away.”
Sometimes people have used the language of living in the now and not yet. It might be helpful to say that in Christ, we have already become new creatures and are living in the new heaven and new earth. Yet, this kingdom of Christ has not fully be revealed as it will be one day. So we live in the midst of a world order still build on human striving, political power, injustice, and so on. Until this time when Christ is unveiled as the final ruler of all, we can expect to see kingdoms rise and fall. We can expect to see rulers crush, threaten, and eventually collapse. There will be times when it will feel like the whole world is collapsing around us. After World War 1, intellectuals all across Europe felt like the world was collapsing and lost all hope. That same kind of hopeless permeated the world after the 30 year war, after the 14th century, after the collapse of the Roman empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops throughout the west. Again and again, it has felt like the world was coming to an end. In the midst many of these dark periods, the people of God lived afresh as communities of heaven on earth. They modelled the hope held out in The Revelation. They lived as a people under submission to the King of Love and Life.
They transformed the world around them. We could speak of the desert fathers, the early communities of faith at the collapse of Rome, the Celts who preserved books and Gospel proclamation in the midst of Viking invasions, the communities of disciples who revived the church in the fifteenth century, the Christians who led the way of Reforming the church in the sixteenth century, and on and on. The Lord continues to raise up communities of faith who live as worshipping communities in the midst of a world in darkness.
Even as he raises up communities, he raises up individuals. We are saved into the community of faith and yet are saved as children of God each with unique gifts and graces. Paul communicates this vision of one body and individual people in all of his letters.
So we might also read this story of the end of the world and the beginning of the world through our own life stories. In one sense, every child passes through a series of moments where the old passes away and all things become new. The newborn becomes the infant becomes the child becomes the youth becomes the teen becomes the adult. Our whole life involves leaving one world behind and entering a new world. Sometimes this is painful.
Our worlds can end because of powers beyond our control. Sickness, death of a loved one, job loss can radically alter our world, and for some this can lead to sadness and long-term mourning. Other times our worlds can end because of our own failures and our own mistakes. Regrets can haunt us for years. As we age, these losses mount and some people grow bitter or angry or withdrawn, pining for a past that is gone. Countless people have taken their lives in the midst of one of these deep and dark losses. After the 2008 recession, many wealthy people committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with their losses.
If we read The Revealtion in a personal way, we are being reminded that Jesus is present in the midst of our brokenness and our broken worlds.
In the midst of this very human and very broken world, we live as the people of God who have been adopted into his family and live in light of his promise. I believe this is the kind of encouragement that John is offering in Revelation. He is writing a people who have encountered the Lord and trusted in Him, and yet who are still living in the midst of the confusions of this life. They know firsthand the heartaches of this world. Some of them have been rejected for their faith. Some have faced personal and even community failures. They may be weary, struggling, and even drawn to the power and wealth of the world around them. Some of fallen victim to their own desires in sex, acceptance, money, and power. In other words, John is addressing communities of people just like us.
For people who have known the call of Christ and have also known the struggles of this life, The Revelation is a word of encouragement from Jesus Christ. In the midst of all the struggles and pains and terrors of this world, He has not abandoned them. He is absolutely faithful.
Now when we read that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, we find consolation. His grace comforts us now and points to a day when the deepest aches in our hearts will be forever healed.
This image takes me back to C.S. Lewis and his vision of the afterlife. In his stories, he pictures world that is more home than any home when have ever known. At the same time, he pictures a people who are more real than they have ever been. We are not simply being healed. In Christ, we are finally becoming who He called us to be on that first great and wondrous day of creation. We are good. Very good. And his glory will shine through us in ways that we have yet to imagine.
For now, we lift our voices in praise as we look to the day of the His appearing in fullness. And we eat of the feast that he has spread for us, knowing that only he can feed us with a food that satisfies our deepest longing.
Evil will be fully vanquished. The beastly rulers will be cast down. The Evil One fully and definitively overthrown and consumed. Even death itself will finally be consumed.