a reflection on Revelation 21:1-6 and 22:2-2
I don’t know if books of the Bible have feelings, but if they did, I think the book of Revelation might be feeling a little neglected, at least here in the United Church of Christ. It’s a neighborhood of the Bible we don’t explore together very often. Which is understandable, because this Revelation to John can be a pretty rough neighborhood. Wandering its streets are fierce dragons and warring angels. There are unidentified demons and a seven-headed beast with ten horns. Here we read that the world has been engulfed in the great and final battle between good and evil and that the four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived, waving their swords of famine and plague, war and destruction. Here, even Jesus has morphed into a divine warrior, bursting out of heaven on his white horse, striking down the nations with his sword, and condemning the unfaithful to burn for all eternity in a lake of fire, while a select and righteous few are saved, chosen to reign with Christ in triumph for a thousand years.
I think it’s safe to say that this is not a section of the Bible that can ease you back to sleep in the middle of the night.
This is weird and disturbing stuff. And if the weirdness of the imagery itself makes us uncomfortable, perhaps even more troubling are the ways in which Christians throughout history have used this particular book of the Bible to condemn their perceived enemies to that vast lake of fire, and to condone their own violence in the name of God.
What I’d like to talk about this morning is how persistent and compelling this book seems to be…even for those of us who don’t read it very often.
Take, for example, the hymn we often sing right here on Sunday mornings: I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.
This is John of Patmos we’re singing about! The very same John who claims to have written down this revelation, this vision he received while in exile on the Island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey. John was among the second generation of Jewish Jesus followers. A man who, in his own lifetime, had very likely witnessed the utter destruction of the actual city of Jerusalem around the year 70, when sixty thousand Roman soldiers arrived in Jerusalem to starve and slaughter the city’s inhabitants, leaving the Temple itself—God’s home on earth—burned to the ground, and the city in ruins. It’s no wonder that John is haunted by visions of death and destruction. John is a man who, nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death, is wondering when the Christ of God will finally return to set this broken world right. A man who, in a state of fasting and prayer, receives a spectacular vision of a violent world being painfully restored to God’s peace, and who writes it down for all of us to read.
This is John who envisions the new Jerusalem, and who describes it this way:
“…the home where God dwells with God’s people, where God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
“A city where the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,flows from the throne of God … and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
This is a beautiful thing John sees in his mind’s eye: a vision of God’s own healing presence flowing like a river through the body of creation.
And I’m pretty sure that this is why we’re not willing to give up on Book of Revelation. Despite our misgivings about the way it has been used, the vision of healing that John records here is so beautiful, so compelling, so true to who we know ourselves to be, that we cling to it, even now. We long to walk in that city of peace. We long to wade into that crystal river. We long to eat the fruit of the tree of life. And we sing these visions on Sunday mornings as signs of hope in a suffering world.
So I want to give thanks this morning for our friend John of Patmos: a guy who doesn’t always get his due respect in progressive congregations. And I want to invite us to ask ourselves what, exactly, it might mean for us to sing, “I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.” What does it mean for us, like John, to look beyond the world we know, to look beyond the church we’ve always known, and receive a new vision from God? A vision that is so true to our best selves, a vision that is so aligned with our core values, that it can sustain our hope and inspire us to work, and call us back to the teachings of Jesus. Because just like John, we understand that visions—strange or impossible as they may seem–are essential to our future; a future we can just barely glimpse. And because we can glimpse it—because we can speak it and write it and sing it—we can then begin to build it, together.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that this can be difficult work. That it takes a leap of faith to let go of our old ways and trust that God will move in to fill the space that opens up. Not every church is willing to do this. Mainline protestant churches are dying every day, friends, because it is scary to live into a new vision. In contrast, visionary churches are thriving. Visionary churches all over the world today are watching and listening for what God is calling the church to be in the years ahead. And I’ve been watching over the past few months as this congregation has been living into your calling to become visionary church. A church that is brave enough to listen for the vision that God is dreaming in you. A radical and counter-cultural vision of truly intergenerational community; a vision of justice for the earth; a vision of spiritual renewal. A vision of healing and hope that God has planted in you, for the sake of the world.
The only difference between you and John of Patmos is that you are not alone. John, exiled on that little island, didn’t know whether anyone else would ever see his vision, whether anyone else would help him hold that vision, and fight for that vision, in the face of the armies of fear. But right here, in the hush of a Sunday-morning, we have what John was longing for. A community brave enough, to risk living into a new vision. A community strong enough to proclaim a vision of God’s healing and peace for all the world. A world where the rivers run clean and the fruits of every tree are for the sharing, and the healing, of the nations.
This season, as we consider why this church matters to us, and why it matters to the world, I am giving thanks for our friend John of Patmos and for the radical courage of his vision. I’m giving thanks for every congregation that has the courage to pursue the healing, world-changing vision that God has entrusted to us. I’m giving thanks for the courage we are finding right here to claim and to build that vision together.
Friends, the vision God is dreaming in us isn’t something we just think about . The vision of healing God is dreaming in us is something we live into, day by day, step by step, breath by breath. I invite you now to let the vision, and the visionary, live in you. Let carry you to your feet in body or spirit as we rise now and sing. You’ll find John’s vision in your black hymnal, #616.