5th Sunday of Easter (C)
April 28, 2013
William G. Carter
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 as their God; 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. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
"Some passages, like this one, should be read and left alone." That's advice from Charles Rice, who taught preaching at a Methodist seminary for many years. "Just read the words. Put them in the air. Let the words do their work."
It's true that some texts need no commentary. Either the time is right, and we are ready to hear the words. Or the text has enough voltage to create its own current. My friend Charles says, "Just read Revelation 21 and leave it alone."
Generally that is good advice. But I'm a preacher. And I have 19 more minutes yet to go. What can I say about a passage should be left alone?
Particularly a text like this one. If the 23rd Psalm is the favorite passage that most lay people want read at their funerals, the first six verses of Revelation 21 are among the favorite verses for ministers. When I planned my funeral a number of years ago, I made sure that this text will be read when I die. If possible, I want a sermon to be preached on this passage. It's one of my favorites, and for a number of reasons.
The chief reason, drawing on the final line of the text, is that I am thirsty for its promises. I am tired of death and mourning and tears. I am weary of never seeing God face to face. The old creation can be painful, so give us a new one!
Years ago, I was assigned to preach a sermon on this text by the Alumni/ae Association at Princeton Seminary. Actually it went something like this – I slipped down the hall to go to the men’s room and they needed someone to preside at a memorial service. So I got the assignment, to preach as the names were read of a hundred-twenty-five seminary graduates who had died that year.
I didn’t know most of those people. But as soon as I read the Revelation text, peace and hope passed into the room. We heard the promises God had for them and for us: "a new heaven, a new earth, a new city coming down, every tear will be wiped away, death will be no more, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more." I can't explain those words. Any attempt to reduce them or manage them would be in vain. They are simply too big for us to comprehend. But I can tell you that they are true.
What I'm getting at is this: the words we hear this morning point to a realm beyond the harsh suffering of this life. In short, they point to something we call "heaven."
And when I say that word "heaven," I need to say very clearly that I'm talking about something that's way over my head. We can tell stories about golden harps. We can paint pictures of other-worldly beings with wings. We can even tell jokes about the three guys who met St. Peter at the gate. But the fact of the matter is, when we talk about heaven, do we have any idea what we're talking about?
Most of us would agree that whatever heaven actually is, it's vastly different from anything we know. I recall the advice given by a Scottish cleric to a group of young preachers. "When you speak of heaven," he said, "let your smile widen, your eyes sparkle, your countenance shine. But when you speak of hell, well, your every-day face will do."
It's difficult to say what heaven is like, other than it's nothing like anything around here. As one of Garrison Keillor's friends once asked on a radio joke show, "Do you know why New Yorkers are so depressed? It's because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey." We want something different. We pray that heaven will - somehow - be different.
A lot of people think of heaven as a place of eternal rest. They're so busy in this life, they want to relax in the next life. "Rest in peace." In fact, that picture has so dominated our thinking that it's raised some questions.
My good friend Guy Griffith spent some time with a task force that wrote a church catechism that our confirmation class is now working through. A catechism is a question-and-answer document to be used in teaching Christian faith.
The catechism is a solid piece of work, but Guy says when it was first written, there was one question that strikes people as being out of place. It's question 88. "Won't heaven be a boring place?" The answer, of course, begins with the word "No." The answer begins, “No, heaven is our true home, a world of love…” But I think it's telling that such a question would even be asked, much less printed.
What do we expect? Eugene Peterson writes, "Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go to Florida - they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is the invasion of the city by the (Holy) City. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don't like, but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us.”
According to the writer of Revelation 21, heaven is a holy city that comes down here. God makes a home within our midst. We are not snatched away into the clouds; rather, the Mystery beyond the clouds comes down and draws near to us. As Peterson continues, "There is not so much as a hint of escapism in St. John's heaven. This is not a long (eternal) weekend away from the responsibilities of employment and citizenship, but the intensification and healing of them. Heaven is formed out of dirty streets and murderous alleys . . . a city, but now a holy city."
Perhaps you heard about the church that wanted to clean its stained glass windows. They had a glorious window of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. Everything sparkled and gleamed, and they hadn't realized that the glass was so covered with dirt and soot. As they wiped away the grime, something astonishing happened. They could see the buildings of their own community through this window. Because of that, some of those church people couldn't look at their own community quite the same way again. They started a soup kitchen, because in the final city of God, every person will be fed. They started a tutoring program after school, because in the New Jerusalem, every child will have the full knowledge of the children of God. They began to see their city through the lens of God's eternal city.
What do we expect of heaven? Words fail us. When the writer of this book talks about heaven, his language is poetic, not sequential. Every sentence is clipped. But he points to the promise that God is coming to be with God's people.
According to the story line of Revelation, "the funeral is over and a wedding is in progress." Ever since chapter 6, we have heard a rhythm of woes, plagues, calamities, and disasters, countered at every turn by triumphant saints and songs of praise. The old world is fading, gasping and moaning all the way. By chapter 21, all of that will be over, and a new creation is on the way. The bridal feast between God and the church is announced. The new heaven is born, a new earth is given, a new city comes down. The pictures clash with one another, to be sure, and we stretch for words which describe it.
But the one thing we know is that there will no longer be any distance between God and God's people. No longer will we have to say "God is here" when God is nowhere in sight. No longer will we live by whispered assurances. Remember that curtain which was ripped apart when Jesus died? The day is coming when the whole thing will be taken down, and what we have caught in glimpses shall be seen face to face.
If God can come that close, every tear will be wiped away. Every sorrow will be satisfied. This side of the Jordan River, it is impossible for us to know how. But thanks to what we've seen God do in raising Jesus from the dead, it is possible for us to know Who. What has been done for Jesus shall ultimately be done for us.
I met a retired man who reminisced of taking the famous theologian Paul Tillich to the airport one time. Tillich had just finished giving a brilliant but somewhat obtuse lecture to a group of ministers on the topic of eternal life. The airport was two hours away, and Jim thought he could spend the time talking to Dr. Tillich and figuring out what he had just heard.
They started out for the airport and conversation didn't go very well. Jim kept asking questions that made less sense to his guest than the lecture had to him. Finally Dr. Tillich looked at him in considerable dismay. In a thick German accent he said, "Look, all it means is that God is going to win.”
That's the one thing we know for certain. God is going to win. We cannot know how, but we can trust Who. The city that crucified Jesus shall become the New Jerusalem. All that God has promised us in whispers shall be shouted from the rooftops. All that God has given in glimpses shall be seen in complete splendor. Indeed, "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."
Heaven is still a matter that remains above our heads. But we can speak of what we know, in the full assurance that it is promised in Jesus, our Lord, and shall be completed in the power of God. So let me close with some words from St. Augustine:
Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security . . . We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend.
God's praises are sung both there and here,
but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security;
here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever;
here they are sung in hope, there in hope's fulfillment;
here, they are sung by wayfarers, there by those living in their own country.
So then . . . let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure,
but in order to lighten our labors.
You should sing as wayfarers do - sing, but continue your journey . . .
Sing then, but keep going.
And God said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
 Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) 174.
 ibid, 174.
 Rudolph W. Raber, "Expository Article: Revelation 21:1-8," Interpretation: 296-301.
 "God is Going to Win," James E. Andrews, The Protestant Hour, PRTV, Atlanta, 12 June 1977.
 As quoted in Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 368.