4th Sunday of Advent
St Barbara’s; 18.12.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
When you think of heaven, what do you think of?
White fluffy clouds? A choir of thousands of winged angels? Our imagination of what heaven is like is often shaped by the artists who have tried to capture it.
Or think about when you would use the word “heaven”. After eating a delicious meal, we might say “That was heavenly!”. Or on visiting a particularly beautiful part of the world, we might say it was “heaven on earth”.
Whatever heaven is, we know it is something better than our normal run-of-the-mill experience. It is something special; something worth looking forward to.
The last two chapters of the book of Revelation give us a glimpse of what is to come. Over the last three weeks we have travelled through the pages of this book, reading of a vision of Christ, a challenge and encouragement to the church; and the great confrontation between God and evil. But now we get to the climax of the book. Evil has been defeated, and we hear of a new heaven and a new earth. It must have been a huge encouragement to the first-century persecuted churches John was writing to, and it can be a great encouragement to us too, for whom life can often feel tough too.
John provides us with a series of surprising images and metaphors to help us catch a glimpse of what is to come.
Firstly, in his vision of the new heaven and the new earth there will no longer be any sea. This may be a cause of disappointment for those of us who love the sea. Indeed, in our Thursday evening home group we identified that one of the things that made many of the group happy was the sound of the waves. But a beautiful beach with gently crashing waves is not what John has in mind. Imagine instead a huge storm out in the middle of the ocean, churning the deep, huge towering waves crashing down, destroying everything in its path. Or imagine the people of Israel fleeing from slavery in Egypt and coming to the waters of the Red Sea, a seemingly impassable barrier to get to safety with Pharaoh’s chariots rapidly approaching. Or imagine the sea as the place of first-century nightmares and horror stories, the place from which all mythical beasts of evil emerge.
For John and his first-century readers, the sea stood for chaos, evil, destruction, for all that opposes God. So in a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no sea is a way of saying it will be a world where evil is no more. Indeed, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” We can look forward to a future where there will be no more death, no more grief, no more pain, no more suffering. A group of us were sharing the other night, and in a small group of just 7-8 of us, it was striking how much sadness and suffering we knew about – people unwell, people grieving, people lonely.
The promise of God here in Revelation is that these things do not last forever, their’s is not the final word, no matter how all-prevailing they feel at points in our lives. What last forever is love. The vision of the future that Revelation gives us is one where love, goodness, grace, mercy triumph.
Whatever our own storms, however we may feel like we are being tossed about by the tumultuous waves of life, take heart. It will not be forever. It will end. Love will triumph.
The second metaphor John uses to give us a glimpse of what is to come is equally surprising. The new heaven and the new earth will be like a city. My guess is most of us would prefer a garden or a beautiful countryside as our metaphor – it feels more natural, less sullied and manufactured by human hands. After all, way back in the beginning of Genesis, before human sin crept into the world, Adam and Eve lived in a garden. Can’t we return to that pre-Fallen state? And cities have rarely had a good press in the Bible – think of Babel; or Jerusalem itself, with its unfaithfulness and the place where Christ himself was killed.
But no – the metaphor we are given is of a city. Heaven and earth are being renewed, not replaced. The old world is not being wiped out but redeemed. Not all that we have done as humans has been bad. There are good things about our world, about our interaction with one another, that point beyond ourselves to God. Everyday, we catch glimpses of what a new heaven and a new earth will be like, in the love that people show to one another, in the acts of compassion and concern, in the creativity and generosity of spirit. These things will not be done away with. They will be refined, made even better, to form the building blocks of the new heaven and earth.
Cities at their best are places where people can flourish, where people can interact, and build communities of interdependence and trust; where faith, understanding and hope can be shared. A place of community and relationships.
And that gives us our glimpse into what a new heaven and a new earth will be like – a place of vibrant, loving, trusting relationships.
It is an encouragement to us today to value relationships, to notice and give thanks for all that is good within our church community, within our community of Earlsdon, of Coventry itself. To affirm, and to work towards ensuring our relationships reflect what we will become in the time to come. Trusting, loving relationships will be at the very heart of the world to come. Let us make it a part of this world too.
And let us take heart that though we may experience great hurt and pain from broken relationships now, a time will come when all relationships will be healed and restored.
John’s third metaphor of the new heaven and the new earth also contains a surprise. For all Revelation’s extraordinary cosmic visions of the awe and grandeur and majesty of God, the overwhelming impression of God’s presence as he comes to dwell with us in a new heaven and a new earth is that of loving intimacy.
Presence can take many forms. We can be present in a room with someone who we are at odds with, where the tension can be cut with a knife, and where trust or openness is minimal. We can be present in a room with someone where the relationship is entirely impersonal – maybe to witness the signing of a legal contract. We can be present in a place where the other person’s status or position is so much greater than our own – the CEO of the company, the monarch of the land – that we are cowed into silence.
But if we are looking to describe presence in the form of loving intimacy it would be difficult to find pictures more intimate than the ones John uses here. Firstly, John describes God’s presence with us as being like a wedding day and the relationship between the bride, beautifully dressed in her wedding dress, and the groom. Just this week Sarah and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary and looking back to our wedding day, there was something distinctively unique about the intimacy of that day, as others of you, remembering your own wedding days, may be able to identify with too. This is not the relationship of some distant and slightly stuffy older relative tolerating the presence of an errant nephew. This is love of the most personal kind.
The second metaphor is no less intimate: “he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” This is not an action that can be done roughly. It is an act that requires empathy, compassion, physical proximity. It is the gentle, compassionate gesture of a parent for a child, not a king for a lowly subject. Indeed, at the end of the passage, God calls us his children.
The new heaven and new earth will be a place not just where evil and death will be no more, not just a place where relationships will be healed and life-giving, but also a place where we are in the very presence of the loving intimacy of God. However distant God may sometimes seem to us now, a time will come when we will brought into the very heart of his presence, and we will be lost in wonder, joy and praise.
That is something to fill all our hearts with hope this Christmas. The One who came and dwelt among us, will come and make his dwelling among us once more, and like the shepherds, the wise men and Mary, let us fall down and worship him.