ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 5, 2013
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Exodus 33: 17 – 20; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10 & 21: 22 – 22:5; John 11:45 – 52
This week I received a YouTube video link which I’m going to share in just a moment. It’s entitled “Our Story in 2 Minutes” and was made by a 19 year old American High School student named Joe Bush. It is, of course, history as filtered through the eyes, the understanding and the beliefs of this young man. Perhaps it’s history as many people today would see it. As you can imagine it’s quite an undertaking to summarize human history in a couple minutes so I want to prepare you by saying that the pictures move very quickly (a clear indication that I’m much older than the film maker). They come up faster than you can consciously take them in, so I suggest you simply watch the images on the screen and let your brain do the computing rather than try to think about them. If it’s too much for you please feel free to close your eyes. (video)
Whenever we watch something like that what is not included is as important (often more important) than what is included. Did you notice what some of those things were? First and foremost is the absence of God, our Creator, his son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Following on that is the absence of any religious symbols or leaders. It’s hard to imagine that the cross, the central symbol of the largest religion ever with over 2 billion devotees in the present era alone, doesn’t appear in a history of the world. The closest images were that of the earth held in someone’s hands – perhaps God’s; Adam and Eve which was good to see; Da Vinci’s Last Supper which was included as an example of Renaissance art and photos of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who is there not as a religious figure but as a social activist. The video displays the progression of history solely from a very human vantage point. It takes an “it is what it is”; a “what you see is what you get” approach. What this misses are the parts of human history we cannot see – the purposes of God and the places where God is at work; the behind the scenes design of our Heavenly Father. The film maker ends the video by bringing us back full circle, ending human history as it began – in his view and the view of modern science, we’ll dissolve once again into nothingness; a finite and hopeless conclusion. What this misses is the wonderful life beyond this life that God has planned. You see, the thing is that in God’s Story human history is also about spiritual interventions which we cannot see and it will end not in despair but in hope and joy.
The Book of Revelation ends with God’s version of the culmination of human history. The writer, John of Patmos, was a follower of Christ, imprisoned on the Greek island of Patmos for his faith (not the same John as the Gospel or letter writer). While in this exile God blessed John with a grand vision. Visions in scripture are always difficult to understand. More than being literal images of a far off reality, they are often God’s word to his people in picture form giving us a glimpse of something beyond our understanding – the “echo of God’s hidden truths” as C.S. Lewis would say. John’s vision culminated in a detailed description of God’s final interaction with his creation: the time when God will create “a New Heaven and a New Earth”. Within this new plane of existence God will create a new holy city, “The New Jerusalem”. In the passage we read today John took his readers on a tour of the New Jerusalem.
John started by describing this breath-taking place – a place like nothing we’ve ever known or imagined. He described it in terms of its beauty and value – the whole edifice is covered in ornate gold and priceless jewels. He described it in terms of its structural perfection – a four sided complex with 3 entrances on each side. And he described it in terms of its symbolic significance – each of the 12 doorways is inscribed with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and its 12 foundations bear the names of the 12 apostles of Christ. Most of all he described it in terms of its spiritual substance – the entire city is filled with the glory of God!
We might think John would have continued in this way, telling his readers about all the positive attributes of the New Jerusalem, but he didn’t. He wanted to tell us about the important things that are not included. So John began by pointing out what is lacking. In the New Jerusalem there is no temple, no sun or moon, no day or night, no doors, no lamps and nothing unclean or accursed. These things were needed at the beginning of human history, or they entered human history at some point in time, or they were gifts of God at a certain point in history for a certain purpose. They are excluded in the new holy city because they will no longer be needed.
The first absent item is the thing Jews and Jewish Christians of both John’s day and ours would most expect and hope to see in a new version of Jerusalem – that is: The Temple. The Temple was important to all Jews for at least two reasons. First, it was the dwelling place of God who lived there within the Holy of Holies. In the book of Exodus, God said to Moses, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (33:20). And so, for a time God’s presence on earth was relegated to a special container – The Ark of the Covenant – within the temple. This area was divided from the rest of the temple by a curtain. Once a year the high priest would go behind the curtain into the presence of God and make sacrifices on behalf of the people so they could be cleansed from their sin. So the second reason the temple was important was because it was the place of sacrifice and therefore of atonement, forgiveness and salvation. So why is there no temple in the New Jerusalem? Does God not live there? Is there no provision for forgiveness? The exact opposite is true. In the New Jerusalem the glory of the Lord permeates everything. The city “has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.” (Rev 21:11) God is everywhere! Furthermore, “his servants will worship him; they will see his face.” (22:4) How can that be? Well, when Jesus died on the cross he became the last and ultimate sacrifice for human sin. Like the Passover Lamb, Christ’s blood now keeps death away from our door – through him we live. You may recall that at the moment of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38) Because of Jesus’ sacrifice there was total forgiveness of human sin; as completely forgiven and spiritually cleansed people we will be able to stand again in God’s presence and even to see God face to face. The New Jerusalem has no need of a temple.
The New Jerusalem also doesn’t have a sun or moon, day or night. The glory of God shines so brightly here that it would outshine the sun. It is so consistent and strong that night no longer exists. Likewise there are no lamps because Jesus himself, the Lamb of God, is its lamp. This would tell a society that made idols out of planets, stars and orbiting rocks, that the one true and Triune God was going to KO their idols. In the end, God alone will reign – the true source of life, the everlasting God, the Prince of Peace.
The new holy city may have twelve entrances but its gates are never shut. They are open by day, and night doesn’t exist. This is a picture of the very heart of God – open, welcoming, waiting, hopeful, embracing, gracious and merciful. Through these gates pass a variety of people from all nations, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women (cf. Galatians 3: 28). They’re free to come and go. Unlike a communist country that keeps its borders closed and prohibits travel for fear their people would never come back, God isn’t worried. This new creation is so incredible the traffic only flows one way. Yet this is also a place that is free from sin. Nothing unclean or unholy can exist in the actual presence of the Most High and Holy God. Any form of sin and particularly that which is in the heart of those who have denied and persecuted Christ and his Church will not exist in this new creation. But when all is said and done, God will open his doors to embrace any who trust in Christ and all whose names are “written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (21: 27)
Human history started in a garden and it will end in a garden in the midst of a city. Through that garden there runs “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” “On either side of the river is the tree of life” – the same tree which was once kept from humankind and guarded by an angel with a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24) will be available to all. It has “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month.” It is the source of life-giving abundance. Never again will humanity know hunger or want. There is more than enough for all. And while the fruit of the tree nourishes each individual, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” In the New Jerusalem humanity will finally be at peace. We will know the depths of the shalom of God as wounds are healed and divisions end.
Capping it all, at the throne of God and of the Lamb, his servants will worship. We will gather with our loved ones, our brothers and sisters in Christ, friends and strangers, to pour out our love to the One who loved us from before the foundation of the earth, and who will love us when time as we know it draws to an end.
This is God’s Story and so it’s Our Story. Norman MacLean begins his book, A River Runs Through It with the words, “Long ago rain fell on mud and it became rock. But even before that, beneath the rocks are God’s words. They came first. Listen.” He ends it by saying, “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the earth’s great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are [ours].” God’s story and ours, God’s Eternal Word and our words; the two will never be separated. What began in love and wonder will end in glory and splendour.