IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT (AND I FEEL FINE)
A sermon on Revelation 21:1-6
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
May 19, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
At the end of the book of Revelation, the very last book of the Bible, the author, John, describes a most extraordinary sight. First he describes the appearance of a new heaven and a new earth, then a city descending from heaven. The vision is certainly startling, but it is not meant to horrify or impress. This vision has an altogether different intention. It is to give us a fresh perspective…a new realization about God…and a new insight into life and why we are here…
John begins his description of his vision by writing, “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 then these words: “And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…”
Cities are not just places where people live. Cities are places where many different kinds of people live together. People of different races, people of different ethnicities, sometimes speaking different languages, sometimes following different customs and traditions—all in the same place. Notice here that John does not see several cities. Instead he sees just one city—the heavenly city. He identifies it as the New Jerusalem.
I have never been to the Holy Land, and so therefore, I have never actually visited the city of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is in the news on a fairly regular basis, isn’t it? It always seems to be at the center of some controversy of one kind or another within the state of Israel. Whatever else modern day Jerusalem is, like much of Palestine, it is a divided city with both its inhabitants and outsiders staking claims on it.
It is interesting to note that these divisions are not a new development. It seems that it has been this way for thousands of years. In the section of Jerusalem known as “The Old City,” the city has been divided into four quadrants: the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Each quarter has its own people group. Each quarter has its own character and speaks its own language. There are differences in religious practices—even within the same quarter. And even those who profess the same religious faith do not always get along with one another within the same quarter of the city. In the Christian Quarter, Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Christians are sometimes at odds over holy sites and various places within its borders.
Jerusalem naturally seems to be a magnet for a lot of terrorist activity. Over the past few years, Jerusalem has been the scene of dozens of bus bombings, vehicular attacks, suicide bombers and shootings of all kinds. And it seems like the frequency of these kinds of acts of violence is increasing—not decreasing. Hardly a month seems to go by without the media reporting some new atrocity—some new violent attack against the citizens of Jerusalem and against the many tourists who come to visit—often with civilian casualties. It seems to me to be more than a little bit ironic that a holy place revered by three of the world’s major religious groups should be the scene of so much hatred and violence…and there seems to be no end to the fighting in the foreseeable future…
The New Jerusalem that John sees is different. Jerusalem is no longer a battleground where different people groups struggle for supremacy or seek to take revenge on one another for past acts of violence. Those days are over. Instead, God declares in verse five of today’s text, “See, I am making all things new.”
You see, the world as it currently exists was not God’s intention. It’s not the way the he created it nor is it what God desires. There is a lot of discussion in Christian circles as to how to interpret the creation stories in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. Some want to believe that those stories are best classified as historical narrative—that is, the stories of creation and of Adam and Eve literally happened exactly in that way. Some want to describe it as allegory—that is, it is a story where truths are symbolically represented by the characters and the actions of those characters mentioned. And in between those two positions, there are plenty of variations in opinions of people as to how those chapters of the Bible should be best interpreted.
Regardless of where one comes down on those questions—and there is a lot of passionate debate on all sides of the question—the story teaches us this important lesson about which there is no debate: God created the world and it is sin that messed it all up. Sin—our disobedience to God, our insistence on doing things our way, the selfishness that lies at the core of humanity—not only messed up the human condition, but it also affected the natural world as well. The Apostle Paul teaches us this when he writes in Romans 8:21 that, when the future glory will be revealed, nature itself “will be liberated from its bondage to decay.”
This is God’s ultimate plan for the world. Our God is in the business of creating and recreating. That includes lives, that includes people, and eventually that includes the entire created order. And God doesn’t do anything halfway either. He will not leave anything untouched by his healing and recreative touch. He is making all things new…
There is a remarkable statement in verse three to which I want to call your attention. It says, “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, [Note that—peoples with an “s” at the end] and God himself will be with them.’” God will make his dwelling with his peoples and he will live with them. One of the things that makes this new creation truly new is that God will be living among his peoples…
We read about it every year at Christmas time. For most of us, it has probably become so routine and predictable that is has lost some of its impact on us. Matthew 1 tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him that the child that his bride-to-be Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel went on to say that the child would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sin. And then Matthew makes the editorial comment that this was in accordance with what the prophets had foretold long ago. He quotes Isaiah 7:14, which says, “They will call him ‘Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us.’” And in the opening verses of the gospel of John, we are told that “The Word [that is, Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
Those two gospels tell us that in Jesus, God came to dwell with us. But there was a problem. Not everyone recognized him when he came. That won’t be the case this time. When the new earth and new heaven are created—and when the New Jerusalem comes, everyone will recognize the God who has come to live among us.
What happened through the life of Jesus of Nazareth was just the beginning of what it means for God to be living among his people. It is just a foretaste—just an appetizer, if you will—to whet our appetites for when makes his new creation totally complete. The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus was just a preview—the best is yet to come. John tells us that God will be with his peoples, that he will live with them when he makes all things new. With God living among his people in such a perfect manner, death will be done away with. Verse four tells us, “[God] 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.”
It has been said that the poetry of John Donne is one of the enduring treasures bequeathed to posterity by seventeenth-century England. Considering that his contemporaries included the likes of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and George Herbert, that is no small claim, to be sure. Perhaps one of Donne’s best-known poems is “Holy Sonnet No. 6.” It is the one that begins with the words, “Death be not proud…” At the end, it speaks of the final triumph of God’s new creation over even death, usually regarded as the most fearsome enemy of humanity. The poem goes like this:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou are a slave to Fate, Chance, Kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
The last line of the poem speaks directly to God’s new creation mentioned in the text from Revelation: “Death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” Death will flee away. It cannot remain in the glorious presence of the One who is making all things new…
Verse six of today’s text says, “To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” We all know that water is necessary for all of life. Without water, every living creature eventually dies.
Water is especially precious in Palestine because there is so little of it available. Much of Palestine is a dry and arid land. This is particularly true in areas to the south of Jerusalem and to the east of the Jordan River. Those regions are desert land with little to no water to speak of. The average rainfall in the city of Jerusalem is 23.2 inches. Almost no rain falls during the months of June, July or August. By comparison, that is little more than half of what the annual rainfall in Lynchburg is. God says that anyone who is thirsty can drink freely from the spring of the water of life in the New Jerusalem. For people who are used to living in a dry and parched land where good, clean, abundant water is scarce, that sure is good news indeed.
I think the symbolism is beautiful. The spring represents life. It represents whatever it is that you need—whatever is life-giving to you—whatever it is that makes you whole. God says that, in the new creation that he is bringing forth now and in the future, what you need to become complete is freely available. No need to worry about the cost. No need to be worried that it may run out. That is of no concern. It is an entirely new potential for us. We may become all that we desired, but could not become, due to the persistent taint of sin in our lives and in our world. Nothing now will hold us back. No promises will remain unrealized. What a hope we have. We can finally become all that we were created to be. We can become all that God intends for us.
While the final new creation of God is set in the future, God is not just sitting on his hands in the meantime. Instead, he is busy at work in the here and now to bring that new creation to pass. Notice something noteworthy in verse 2. It is easy to miss if you read it too fast. It says that “The New Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God.” We have the notion that the final creation will take place in a heaven that is located somewhere else. But this passage says it is not we who will be going UP to heaven. Instead heaven will be coming DOWN to the earth. The new creation takes place here—not somewhere else.
Okay…Fine…You may be saying to yourself, “That all may be well and good for a future hope, but what about now? What difference does that make here and now?”
Theologian N. T. Wright talks about this very thing in his book Surprised by Hope. In that book, he writes that the hope of God’s new creation is not just for some future time at the end at the edge of eternity. He links the resurrection of our Lord Jesus with the new creation that God has initiated…and he speaks of its implications for us today. He writes these words: “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is all about.”
As believers in Jesus, we are not to simply await being taken away to heaven. No—in that memorable phrase from N. T. Wright, we are part of “God’s new project…to colonize earth with the life of heaven.” This is the same idea that the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!” The creation of the new heaven and earth and of the New Jerusalem is not only for some time out in the future that only God knows. The recreation has already started. It has already begun in the hearts of those whose lives have been changed by the Risen Christ. We are already a part of the new creation that God is bringing to our earth.
It is up to us to demonstrate that new creation to others. It is up to us to be the people of God that we were meant to be. It is up to us to invite others to be a part of the glorious story of what God is doing in our world—now and in the future. It is up to us to spread that message of hope and faith in a loving God who is making all things new—including you and me. May it be so Lord; may it be so.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 John Donne, Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions and Prayers Ed. John Booty. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), 80.