Life with God has Begun
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb”. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed – on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27 ESV)
The ELCE held its Holy Land trip last February. By all accounts and pictures it was a memorable time to walk in the places associated with Jesus in the company of friends and relatives even enjoying devotions and worship together. With the Lutheran emphasis on the presence of God through the Means of Grace that minimises the necessity of going to a place to be saved – there are no essential ‘you must go to Wittenberg once in your lifetime to be a Lutheran’ requirements precisely because God comes to us – there is still something nice – exotic even – about going to the latitude and longitude of the Bible pages. Places draw us.
We like having our own place. Now that might be a house but it could be a desk at work, a shed, a favourite chair, anything for us to be located, have a location. A place is nice but a ‘space’ will do. We like having our own ‘space’.
This is true of the church and it seems incongruous to me that we can be so associated with a place of worship. Maybe it’s my background in not having the one church building all my life. When I was a teenager my church was cut down the middle – lengthways – stretched out a few metres and had a new roof and floor section put in! (Church growth!) You’re right if you’re thinking that it wasn’t the biggest of churches. Churches come in all sizes. My last church in Australia – we called it a chapel – used 6 days a week not just once on Sunday could seat – and did! – over 700. Churches are big and small. That’s especially so here in the UK where we can go from cathedrals down to cloisters. At the moment the three congregations I’m associated with here are either repairing their church building a fair bit, demolishing it to start again, or renting. The local pub in my village is up for sale – it’s pretty big and got quite a bit of land attached to it, should we buy it and set up church there? No matter these situations – and precisely because of them – places which strictly are not essential – Jesus meets us through words, water, bread and wine – nevertheless touch us deeply. People mightn’t want to go to church but they want the church to be there and that starts with a building they can enter and sit down in.
As we near the end of the Easter season, thinking about the consequences of Jesus’ resurrection, our readings from Revelation draw us almost on a tour to the real ‘holy land’ and to our place in the heavenly realm. In the resurrection of Jesus we have the defying of biology, physics and spirituality which began with the incarnation and now is the best example of the ‘new creation’ Jesus has achieved for a world infected, dead, and fossilised in rebellion and sin against God. Jesus has a body; he eats and can be touched and held and yet he can vanish at the blink of an eye. The same yet very different. Not a bad summary of life with God here on earth.
John writes at beginning of this last book of the New Testament, that he is in the Spirit, on the island of Patmos, which we understand to mean that he is in worship and receives this revelation from Jesus – messages to the churches and which is then revealed scene after scene and he is told to ‘write what you see’. No matter who appears tough, what dragons or serpents or monsters do to mow people down, God protects his people so that they can stand – that’s a strong motif – standing because you only do that when you’re alive. He also sees another side of God – the one who says ‘Vengeance is mine’ and who will come to the aid of his people – a point necessary for John to see and write down because injustice and evil and death so often seem to have the last word on this world. It isn’t so we discover in Revelation for after the lake of fire and sulphur and the second death, we now have Revelation 21 – the first part we heard last week and this week the second part.
The holy tour continues with a tour guide – one of the angels who had a bowl of plagues – and John is shown a person – she’s called the Bride – so we’re expecting a person and we’re all going ‘aw … lovely’ … ‘cause all brides are beautiful – but then we hear that she’s ‘the wife of the Lamb’ – and now we’re not so sure what’s going on – as we’re transported with John in the Spirit to a high mountain and there he (and we) see ‘the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God’, the glory and light and there’s perhaps a sensory overload of beauty, size, perfection – sure, maybe a ‘wow’ if you’re an architect! – but we all can appreciate the powerful message contained. The Lord who in chapter 1 began his revelation by standing among the lampstands – he is in the midst of the church – now in the epilogue – another picture of life with God in which he has prepared the Church as a beautiful Bride to live with her Husband forever. Revelation has a mercurial or chimera quality at times where images almost run over each, the words perhaps trying to convey things beyond the senses – and here with Bride, Lamb, Jerusalem, high walls, many gates (a mixture of security yet openness), pearl, gold, jasper, and light that is none other than God himself present with his people for the means of worship like we have here – words, water, bread, wine, buildings of some sort, clergy of some sort – give way to perfect communion with God – and that has to be a sensory overload for who can look into the face of God and live? Only those who are with God, prepared by God, rescued and made alive by God. The scene conveys power, security, happy ending sort of things where each moment is better than the one before (an idea from C S Lewis). God has done this and it is very good!
The resurrection finds its home here. Hope directs us here. John sees in these last two chapters where God’s plan of salvation has been heading all along. But is it too far away? Too remote? Is it in fact cruel to give us this picture if life here is hell?
And now comes the mystery again that we with our five senses – locked in with our five senses – we who default into thinking that our experience of things defines reality – find the revelation of the resurrection of Jesus striking home – to us here in 2013 – no matter the walls or the ceilings or suburbia outside – this scene isn’t remote at all! The church is built on the work of the Old and New Testaments – the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles – and they have as their centre or cornerstone Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29); Christ who loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25b-27 ESV). Paul reminded the Corinthians that we live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is what happens at each worship service – no matter the building – Jesus is living with and working with people and helping his people live with him and each other – now! Yes, the walls might change – they are a helpful focus after all – and one day we will be in the new Jerusalem – strictly we will be the new Jerusalem and God’s presence will be with us and on us – and then we will look at the face of God without squinting or in terror but in love and adoration.
There’s a connection between that scene and us here and now. We’re not delusional or idiots – no matter what the 5 senses world says – for we see by the light of an empty tomb – that death is broken and life with God has already begun.
- Revelation 21:9 - 14
- Revelation 21:21 - 27