Gourock St John’s
The End of All Our Exploring
Revelation 21.1-6a, 22-26 (NRSV)
6 September 2020, Postcards of Faith 12
Then 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 I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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,
and God himself will be with them;
he 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.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’
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 is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.
Over the past three months, we have journeyed through the scriptures, from God calling Abram to leave his house and go to an unknown land, Jacob and his family going down to Egypt to join Joseph, and the Israelites escaping from Egypt through the Red Sea, and then eventually crossing the Jordan into the promised land. We have followed the journeys of the Queen of Sheba going to visit Solomon, and Jonah trying to run away from his calling. We have become like disciples following Jesus from the first day John the Baptist explained who he was, to the hillside where he fed thousands, to the beach where he met us again after his resurrection. We have gotten letters from Paul, telling us about his own travels and exhorting us to continue reaching toward the goal of God’s kingdom. And today we arrive at the end of the book of Revelation, with the vision of God’s reign being complete and beautiful on earth.
As we have traveled through scripture, we have also been traveling ourselves — not the kind of holiday we might have had planned for this year, but a church family one in which each of us contributed toward our progress as we tended our physical and mental health with daily walks or runs or cycles, and as we spent time tending to our spiritual health through prayer and reading God’s word. Together, we walked from St. John’s Church on the shores of the Clyde, to the hometown of St. John the Evangelist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Together our various activities have moved us more than 11,510 kilometres over the past three months! That has taken us across Europe and across Turkey and across the Middle East, around Judea and Galilee, and home again by way of St Paul’s journeys. We have, virtually of course, visited the great medieval Cathedral in Cologne, checked out some of Romania’s national parks, seen the devastation wrought by war in Syria, admired the ruins of ancient Corinth, remembered Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, and prayed at the refugee camps of Calais, on our journey to and from the home of our namesake St. John the Evangelist in Bethsaida. I hope I haven’t been the only one doing a little research on the foods we might enjoy in each place!
We have traveled quite a distance together, both physically and scripturally, so how fitting is it that we now end up at the very place where God intends all things to end up: in the holy city, which has come down from heaven to earth. Not that God takes us out of this earth, but that God comes and lives among us. Just like back in the Exodus days, when it says that God pitched a tent in the camp with the people, and just like in the birth of Jesus when John’s gospel says that God became flesh and lived dwelt among us, the mark of the kingdom of God is that God will live with us in the city.
This city is, like any other city, busy of course. It isn’t a place of perfect quiet and solitude — it’s a community where we will live together, working things out like any community does. But there will be no death, no pain, no tears — can you imagine? A community where people are all so loved and respected the we live together in harmony without the griefs of injustice or loss. God is indeed making all things new.
One of the ways all things are being made new is in our understanding of what this new heaven and new earth will be like. We have all these images in our heads, developed through centuries of art and literature, but sometimes they’re a little bit different than what the scripture actually says. For instance, this chapter of Revelation is the one where we get the idea of heaven having pearly gates — though we didn’t read that part, as it was verse 21 and I asked Mhairi to skip to verse 22! But it says that this holy city that has come down to earth, where all can live together, will have twelve gates made of pearl.
I think it is so fascinating that we have taken this image of pearly gates and placed them in heaven, when Revelation so clearly says that the city is here on earth. And even more fascinating that we have, in popular imagination, made St Peter a gatekeeper, when it also clearly says “the gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.” So the gates of this city are always open! No need for a gatekeeper, as literally anyone can come in as they please — no curfew, no restrictions. And all those nations, all those systems that used to exploit people for the glory and gain of the few, all those kings that have fought amongst themselves for power and wealth, will instead stream in through those gates and give glory to God, living in this new community of justice and peace and harmony.
It of course feels like a far-off vision. It must have felt equally far off to John when he wrote it from the midst of the Roman Empire and its oppressive regimes and persecutions. I don’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or just sigh at the fact that the idea of a city where the gates are never closed, where all are welcome and valued, where no one is seeking their own power and glory, and where we all live together in peace feels just as far off now as it was 2000 years ago.
This new Jerusalem has no temple — indeed, has no need of a temple, even. Because God lives there, the entire city is holy ground. And because God lives there, that means that at any moment, we might run into God. Because God lives there, light shines and the shadows never overcome it, so nothing is hidden or deceptive. Because God lives there, all are welcome.
I keep saying “there” but the reality of this incredible vision is os much more than that: it’s here. Not somewhere far off, where we have to be rescued and taken away from here to finally get some peace. But here, on earth. Just as Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” so the truth of God’s future, and past, and present, is this: that God comes to us.
TS Eliot wrote that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” After all our summer adventures from shore to shore and back again, can we look up and see our place with new eyes? What if God is indeed dwelling with us right here, right now…and every place we go, we might meet God walking about the town, and every step we take is on holy ground? Then it would be up to us to ensure that the community we build here is heavenly too — that we address injustice so that there’s no one left in tears and pain and suffering… that we keep the pearly gates open… and that the way we live together as followers of the Lamb is a light to the nations.
May it be so. Amen.