May 20, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jesus kept saying it, kept repeating it that night:
Let not your hearts be troubled.
But it’s difficult to imagine a more troubling context in which to try to say such a thing! Jesus kept talking about peace, but all hell was about to break loose on Jesus and on his band of followers. In fact, the mayhem at hand had already begun. Judas had already fled the table by the time Jesus said the words contained in this lection from John 14. What’s more, Peter’s impending denials of Jesus had also been foretold. The atmosphere was as taut as a snare drum. It was also unspeakably sad.
Let not your hearts be troubled.
As I have noted elsewhere concerning John 14, it would not surprise me in the least if the words Jesus spoke in verse 1 had been spoken even as Jesus’ lips trembled and as tears formed in the corners of his eyes. The Bible almost never tells us how a given line was spoken—unlike novels or short stories or movie scripts, the Bible does not have descriptive adverbs like “He said sternly” or “She said softly.” Nor are we given any “Show, Don’t Tell” descriptions like “As he began to speak, Jesus face reddened as water droplets formed in the corners of his eyes . . .” So we’re left to imagine in what tones of voice various lines were spoken.
In the case of John 14, we often assume Jesus was speaking confidently, strongly, bravely. But what if—having just seen one disciple flee to betray him and having just told another disciple he would soon deny him—what if Jesus’ tone were more sorrowful, a bit fraught with emotion in a tone of voice not unlike the way some of us may speak at a funeral when we’re struggling to keep our own voice from breaking in case the emotion of the moment catches up with us?
Let not your hearts be troubled.
If we can imagine Jesus speaking these words of comfort and peace in a tone of voice that matched the acoustics of that room on that dark night in which he was betrayed, then the poignancy of it all hits home in a new way. After all, even Jesus said he did not give peace as the world gives, and it’s a good thing, too.
This world is, after all, anything-but peaceful most of the time. And so what little peace it has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious. The world cannot finally give what it does not firmly possess itself. A poor man can promise you all the money in the world but he has none to give you in the end. A world in love with war can promise you peace but in the end there’s seldom enough real and lasting peace to go around.
If there is to be peace at all, it has to come from somewhere else. That’s where Jesus comes in, of course. But the fact that he can proffer even this lasting peace in perhaps a broken voice and with a tear or two streaming down his face lets us know for sure that the very features to this world that make us most pine for peace cannot ruin or snatch away that peace. It is possible to embrace Jesus’ peace in the midst of turmoil and woe, and we know that for certain because even the time and place and manner in which Jesus spoke about such peace in John 14 was proof positive that the terrors of- this world cannot cancel the shalom Jesus brought. It didn’t do so that night. You really can believe in lasting peace AND cry in sorrow at the same time.
Nor does the presence of hardship in our lives, therefore, mean that the Holy Spirit that Jesus also promises here has abandoned us. The two can and do co-exist: the Spirit and our hurts, Jesus’ peace and our hardships.
And I suspect we all know deep down in our hearts exactly why that fact is such very good news indeed.
The NIV translates it as “Counselor” but in the Greek of John 14:25 the word Jesus uses is parakletos, or “Paraclete” as we sometimes transliterate it. (But pay attention because Microsoft Word will keep trying to auto-correct that into “Parakeet” and although avian imagery can be used for the Spirit . . . that’s not the bird we’re looking for!) Literally this is the one “called alongside” of someone else.
We’ve all heard various iterations of how to understand this, one of which is an attorney who stands next to her client in a court of law. But in this context the meaning does feel—as alluded to elsewhere in this set of sermon starters—a bit more like a tutor or a prompter on the wings of a stage while a play is going on. The Paraclete stands next to us or near us so that we can be reminded of Jesus’ words and teachings as the Spirit whispers those things into our hearts, prompting us to remember what we might otherwise forget. It’s a dark and difficult world, after all, fraught with sorrow and uncertainty (even as was true in that very room on the night when Jesus spoke these words). The sorrow of it all can make us lose our place, forget what we know. So how good to have a Spirit come alongside us to remind us of the dearest things Jesus said and taught.
As C.S. Lewis once said, we too often substitute religion for God. But that is like substituting navigation for arrival or wooing for marriage. Getting to your destination is wonderful but the trip itself is also valuable. Courtship, dating, the thrill of romance you experience when you are wooing someone to marry you is thrilling, unique, scintillating. But the journey toward a whole, wholesome, and goodly marriage continues long after courtship ends.
The building of a marriage continues as surely in the pots and pans of everyday life as it did in the candles and roses of your early romance. That’s why there is something more than a little shaky about couples who describe their married life as a never-ending string of sizzling romance, pyrotechnic sex, or star-struck gazes at one another across the dinner table at every single meal. What are they trying to prove? Couples who talk like that are either a sign that the rest of us have bad marriages after all or it is a hint that these couples are casting their lives in false ways in the mistaken idea that this is the only way to present a genuinely happy marriage.
As Craig Barnes once wrote, many of us spend far too much time trying to become something we are not instead of just being who we already are. Of course, I realize that this could quickly become an excuse not to pursue the spiritual things of God. But the goal here is not to foster complacency but a greater awareness of how God in Christ is already at work in you and how, by becoming more aware of that, you can become more intentional in following Jesus along the way which you are already traveling with him.
As it turned out, Jesus was the very autobiography of God. He was the Son who was his Father all over again. (Remember from John 1: no one has ever seen God but Jesus, the Word of God, came here and exegeted God for us, explained him.) Jesus was his Father all over again and told that to the disciples. It’s just that the disciples assumed that being with the Father would introduce them to something quite different from the road they had been walking up to that point. Jesus had a different idea about that. In and through everything they had seen in Jesus–the very obviously spiritual and almighty things he had done as well as the very typical and everyday things he had done–they had seen the Father. Jesus had been so completely lost in his Father that, as it turned out, everything he did was transformed. And it was all about love in the end, as Jesus made clear in John 14. Once that love engulfs you, everything is different. Everything!
Author: Stan Mast
This first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter continues to trace the progress of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, as it focuses on an abridged section of Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. I say “abridged” because the Lectionary starts our reading in mid-paragraph leaving out some crucial historical and theological details found in verses 6-8.
There are three aspects of this text to consider. Any one of them would make a good sermon or they could be three “points” in one sermon. There is the historical. Simply showing how the Gospel got to Europe will be inspirational and instructive for struggling churches today. There is the theological. Wrestling with the role of the Holy Spirit in the spread of the early church will help us think about the role of the Spirit in our lives today. And there is the personal. The way God closed and opened doors for these early missionaries can throw light on our own experience of God’s “yes” and “no” on our journey.
To understand the history being told here, we must back up to Acts 15:36. At the Jerusalem Conference, the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, had decided what to do with the question of Gentile inclusion in the church. “Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’” That’s how the Second Missionary Journey began, as a pastoral visit to fledging churches. No new missionary ventures were planned, just a friendly check back. God had other ideas, much bigger ideas.
The whole journey is a marvelous mixture of human strategizing and divine intervention, a perfect illustration of Thomas a’ Kempis’ aphorism, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Paul and his new partner, Silas, start off on the route they had planned, but God had a nice surprise for them in southeastern Asia Minor.
In the town of Lystra, they met a fine young man named Timothy, who became part of their traveling band. And though the Jerusalem Conference had decided not to insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, Paul circumcised the Jewish/Greek Timothy to avoid trouble with strict Jews as they did their missionary work. It was a missionary compromise for the sake of the Gospel. Timothy would become an important figure in the early church.
When this little band reached the end of their planned trip, they decided to break new ground by moving west into the province of Asia along the eastern coast of the Aegean. But the Holy Spirit would not let them preach the Gospel there. So, they kept travelling north and west until they arrived in the region of Mysia, where they decided to enter Bythinia, which is north and east along the coast of the Black Sea. But the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to do that either. What a mystery that must have been to them. Why would God say, “No,” to a good idea? Why would the Spirit close doors to the Gospel?
If you follow their journey on a map, you will see that they have been shepherded along a path that led to the north and west. They ended up in the coastal town of Troas (close to the famous Troy), which was the jumping off point for trips to Macedonia, the nearest part of the European continent. It was as though God was using closed doors to open a brand new one.
Sure enough, on their first night in Troas, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia asking them to “come over… and help us.” Immediately, Paul’s little group of missionaries got ready for their trip to Europe. There’s a curious little note in verse 10. For the first time the writer of this history includes himself in the story; “we got ready at once to leave, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Apparently, Dr. Luke joined the band in Troas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When they arrive in Macedonia, Paul makes a strategic decision. Rather than staying in their port of arrival, they immediately move to Philippi, because it “was a Roman colony and the (a) leading city of that district of Macedonia.” Paul picked an important city sitting on the famous Egnatian Way that linked east and west. This crossroads town was full of retired Roman soldiers, who were free to travel the Empire. It was a perfect launching point for the mission to Europe.
Paul made another important strategic choice when on the Sabbath he went outside the city gate to the bank of the river, where he found a group of women praying. The Macedonian call had come by way of a man, and it wasn’t considered appropriate to socialize with woman, but Paul and his friends immediately sat down and began to talk with these women about Jesus. We know he talked about Jesus, because in a very short time one of them has become “a believer in the Lord.”
Her story is not about Paul’s eloquent presentation of the Gospel; it is about the intervention of the Lord Jesus. Lydia was not a Jew; her name is Greek. She had immigrated from her home in Thyatira, which is, ironically, in the region of Asia where Paul had just been prohibited from preaching. Somewhere along the line, she had encountered the Jewish faith and had become “a worshiper of God,” a proselyte to the Jewish faith. An independent businesswoman, she apparently had some wealth, as she owned a home and had “a household,” which may have included relatives, children, servants, and assorted friends.
The key part of her story is told in few words. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Even as the work of God led to the first non-Jewish convert in Judea (Cornelius), so the work of God led to the first non-Jewish convert in Europe, and she was a woman. And just like that, there was a toehold for the Gospel in Europe, in the home of a Gentile woman. The combination of shrewd strategizing, bold preaching by Paul, the Spirit’s direction and the Lord’s intervention has moved the church into new, fertile ground for the Gospel. That will preach today as we wonder how to spread the Gospel in the foreign land our countries have become.
There is a theological dimension in this story that should be explored. If the spread of the Gospel depended on the work of the Spirit, how are we to understand the role of the Spirit today? The Spirit worked in two ways: directing the progress of the mission (with dreams and visions and perhaps voices and presumably circumstances), and changing people’s hearts. Or to put it simply, the Spirit opened doors and opened hearts. We see both of those activities in this pericope and we’ve seen them in previous stories, like the conversion Cornelius.
We should surely expect that the Spirit still functions in changing hearts. No one comes to Christ in her own power. The story of Lydia is not a fluke, a one-off historical event. It is the way God works in converting lives. The Gospel is preached, the Spirit works in a dead heart giving new life, and the hearer responds with faith and becomes a disciple. The work of God precedes and prompts and opens and convicts and gives the gift of repentance and faith (Acts 11:18 and 13:48).
It isn’t always easy to parse out the interaction of the Spirit’s work and the human response. John 1:12,13 says, “Yet to all who received him (the Word made flesh), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” However we understand the interplay of human and divine, it is clear that the Holy Spirit’s work is essential in opening the doors of the heart.
But how are we to think about the Spirit’s work in directing our path through the world. Does the Spirit still speak in visions and dreams? Does the Spirit still speak in an audible or internal voice? How do we discern the directions of the Spirit in the circumstances of our lives?
Some are absolutely certain that the Spirit still works exactly as he did in this story. Some are Pentecostals who hear God talk all the time, like Pat Robertson who knew exactly what God is doing in a hurricane. Others are Mormons who believe in continued direct revelation, which allows changes in long held doctrine and practice.
Others believe the day of the Apostles is done. Some of the later are deists like Thomas Jefferson who thought that God created the world with its own laws and then left it alone to take care of itself, never intervening. Others who doubt that the Spirit speaks directly to us today are orthodox Christians who say that a closed canon makes it unnecessary for the Spirit to say anything else today. “What more can he say than to you he has said,” goes an old hymn. If you want to hear the Spirit, read the Spirit inspired Bible.
Daniel Clendenin puts it sharply. “How do you experience the fullness of the Spirit but avoid the crazy claims of a Pat Robertson and the colorless deism of a Thomas Jefferson?” That is a big question which this story of Lydia gives the daring preacher a wide-open door to explore. But we must heed the warning of I Thess. 5:19-22. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.”
Speaking of open doors, that’s the third thing your sermon on this text might consider. Without ignoring the historical context and the theological message of this text, you could help people think about the often-puzzling way in which God leads us. Why in the world would God say no to people who were only trying to do God’s will as expressed so clearly by Jesus?
You can draw two lessons from this text. First, God closes some doors in order to open others. We often won’t understand why at the time, but we can be sure that God is leading us somewhere better than we had planned. God doesn’t just say “no” to his children. There is always a “yes” to follow. But we may have to wait a while to find out what the “yes” is.
Second, the door God will open in the future won’t necessarily lead to health and wealth. Remember that this is a mission story. So are our lives. If we are looking for guidance only on questions of location or vocation (where to live and how to earn a living), we may miss God’s open doors. God has sent all of us into all the world to make disciples. Of course, that doesn’t mean we must stop being accountants and athletes. It means that as we live out our callings, we must be alert to open doors for the Gospel. When God’s leading makes no economic sense, when it takes us to strange places, when it results in suffering, we should be looking for the mission opportunities in our circumstances. Preaching this story will help your people think about their lives in a very different, very exciting way.
An old hymn by George Croly asks the Spirit to help us navigate the mystery of the Spirit’s work in us and for us.
Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart,
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as you are,
And make me love you as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.
Did you not bid us love you, God and King,
Love you with all our heart and strength and mind?
I see the cross—there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek you and O let me find.
Teach me to love you as your angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The fullness of the heaven-descended dove;
My heart an altar, and your love the flame.
Author: Scott Hoezee
It can be a little hard to know how to read Psalm 67. On the face of it, this is a pretty simple Hebrew poem. It’s short. It is upbeat for the most part. It aims squarely at the praise of the one true God of Israel.
Yet there are some interesting angles one could take in interpreting this. The psalm opens with a riff on the Aaronic Benediction from Numbers 6: the poet asks God to make his face to shine upon the people. The psalm is bookended with yet another final request for God to bless his people. But in both cases the reason is listed as being—in large part anyway—so that God may be known among the other nations, so that God will become renowned throughout the rest of the earth. Viewed a certain way, this could sound a little like, “Dear God, bless me because, you know, it will be good for YOU.”
This could begin to sound like your going to your rich uncle and saying, “Uncle Jerry, I would like to get a load of cash from you because after you give it to me, a lot of other people are going to think you are such a swell guy!” Oh yes, yes, this transaction will not hurt you at all but the motivation you would be proffering deflects attention from whatever you get out of the bargain and suggests it will be Uncle Jerry who will benefit even more. The circle of appreciation for Uncle Jerry will widen. “So go ahead, Uncle, lay it on me generously. It will be good for your reputation!”
Needless to say, this could yield a very cynical view of a poem like Psalm 67. And if we did take this tack with most anyone else in the world, not a few people would be rather suspicious of our true motivation. But this is not the only place in the Bible where something like this comes up in terms of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. In fact, there is a little-known passage in Ezekiel 36 that displays some of these same dynamics, albeit from the divine side of things.
In Ezekiel 36 God tells Israel that he is going to restore her fortunes. After duly punishing the people for their apostasy and syncretism and everything else, God will once again help them. But in a curious twist God repeats several times in that prophetic passage, “But don’t think I am doing this because you deserve it or because I am first off interested in helping you out. I am doing this for ME! I, your Lord and God, am trying to salvage my own reputation here among the nations because at the end of the day what you have done in your sinfulness was drag MY name through the mud!”
So what is going on here? In Ezekiel 36 God says he will perform some saving acts for his own sake. In Psalm 67 the psalmist asks God to bless them so that his own divine reputation among the nations will be enhanced. Is there anything about this facet to God’s relationship to Israel that is relevant to the church today? What are we to make of this somewhat transactional aspect of the covenantal relationship between God and his people? Is it the case that even in God’s eyes his own reputation is more important than his love for his people and their welfare?
Let’s admit that we mostly do not think along these lines. We seldom pray for God to heal someone or deliver us from some bad circumstance or in some other way to bless us but then root out appeal or request in the notion “Because if you do this, O God, it will make you look better. Never you mind if it benefits me, let’s focus on what this will do for your reputation!” It might even feel oddly disingenuous were we to pray this way.
Maybe this is due in part because we seldom acknowledge about our relationship with God what we know to be true in pretty much the rest of our lives: relationships are complicated. Once you bind yourself to another person in some way—whether by getting married or deciding to have a child or signing a contract of some kind—suddenly a whole web of things comes into existence. You will spend the rest of your life—or however long a given relationship lasts—negotiating all kinds of cross-currents and bumps along the way as well as a welter of emotions.
It was no different for God once he decided to create a cosmos of other creatures. And then once things went sour in that relationship—again, relationships are complex—he further made himself vulnerable to the vicissitudes of relations by entering into a covenant with Abram and then with all Israel through which he intended eventually to do what also Psalm 67 points to: bless all the nations of the earth. God even “cut a covenant” with Abraham eventually in that odd scene in which the presence of God passes between the two halves of a cleaved animal carcass, a symbol that God was saying that if his covenant failed for any reason, God himself would take the heat and die as a result. But can God die? Well . . . cf. Golgotha.
Relationships are complicated. And for God and Israel, there was a tug-of-war between God’s lavishing blessings on Israel because he really did love his people and wanted to see them flourish AND the fact that God had indeed bound up a good bit of his divine reputation with how things turned out with Israel. It was both. God was enthroned on the praises of Israel but at the same time Israel needed to be faithful to God so they could be a showcase display window of divine grace. When Israel behaved badly, therefore, it was as much—if not more—God’s Name they were besmirching as their own reputation.
We forget this in the Church today. If something bad happens in our congregation, our first thought is seldom “Oh no! Think of what others will think of Jesus now that we screwed up!” No, we tend to worry about our own reputation, whether we will lose members, whether financial giving will take a hit. Worrying about Christ’s reputation among others on account of our actions is a little ways down our list of concerns more often than not.
Whether we would ever be comfortable asking God for this or that blessing on account of how it would benefit God, the fact is that we are bound up in a relationship with our God in Christ. We are supposed to witness to the world as a result of God’s having blessed us so richly. And we are supposed to see the connection the psalmist saw: how we respond to God’s blessings and how God is viewed by the wider world depends on us and in the complex give-and-take of our relationship with Almighty God.
The disciples were startled on that night in the upper room to hear Jesus say “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” What became more startling still after Pentecost was a further, related truth: if the world sees the Father at all, it will be through what they see in now us. Psalm 67 may seem at first to be a rather left-handed way to remind us of that truth, but it is a truth worth savoring and pondering and maybe even fretting over a bit more than we typically do.
In the movie As Good As It Gets, actress Helen Hunt plays Carol Connelly, a waitress at a small New York City restaurant. But the main thing we soon learn about Carol is that she is a single mother of a young boy, Spencer, who has been seriously ill with a chronic breathing difficulty almost since birth. Carol’s life is consumed with caring for Spencer, and sometimes doing so takes her away from her job at the restaurant. Meanwhile, one of Carol’s regular breakfast customers is an utterly unpleasant man named Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson. Melvin is a well-known author. But he also has obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, few people who know him can generate much compassion for him seeing as Melvin has a personality that resembles curdled milk.
Through a series of events, however, Melvin finds out about Carol’s son and so arranges to have her meet with a very expensive doctor. Melvin takes care of all the expenses and what’s more, the doctor finally puts Spencer on the road to long-term health. Carol is overjoyed to the point of not even being able to find the words with which to say thank-you to this unlikely hero in her life. But at one point she asks Melvin directly, “Why did you do this for us?” Melvin replies, in essence, by saying, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me. I wanted you to be able to come back to work so you could wait on me.” Carol responds, “You got any idea how creepy that sounds?” But that really was Melvin’s motivation—he arranged things so Carol would not be absent from the restaurant so often. His obsessive-compulsive nature meant he needed things to stay the same every day, including Carol’s being his waitress and not someone else.
I don’t know if any of you have ever had something like that in your life. But if you ever did run across someone who did something nice for you but only, as it turns out, for some ulterior motive related to his or her own self, I’d imagine you would find words of gratitude sticking in your throat. You’d still be thrilled to have received some good thing. But the notion that your own benefit was not really the motivating factor behind it would very likely strike you as, well, to use Carol’s words, a little “creepy.”
We see this dynamic in the Bible occasionally. God does something good for Israel but then says it was a much for his own sake and for his reputation among the nations as for Israel itself. At other times we see this in a place like Psalm 67 where Israel asks God to bless them on account of his doing so will benefit the divine reputation among the other nations of the earth who might then rise up to praise God, too.
Of course, in the movie, it turns out that Melvin loves Carol very deeply. Life is complicated as were Melvin’s motivations in helping Carol. But at the end of the day it had been about love all along. It is, of course, no different in the end with God.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Author: Doug Bratt
If we were to ask our hearers for a list of the books of the Bible that most puzzle them, at least some them would likely list both Ezekiel and Revelation. So it may intimidate those who follow the RCL to know that its Easter Season’s next to last Epistolary Lesson is a passage in Revelation whose foundations lie in a passage from Ezekiel. Talk about a mystery wrapped in an enigma!
Revelation 21 is the next to last stop on the RCL’s “tour” of the book Revelation. That tour is so short that I sometimes wonder if those who constructed the RCL were impatient to get to its happy ending. It’s almost as if they got so tired of Revelation’s horrors that they decided to leap right over most of them so that they could land in Revelation 21 and 22’s lovely New Jerusalem.
It is a rather striking landing zone. Revelation’s Jerusalem is clearly not the city the Romans have trashed (or will soon trash, depending on Revelation’s precise dating). No, the Jerusalem John describes has “come down out of heaven from God” (2, 10). This at least suggests that just as both continuity and discontinuity existed between Jesus’ pre- and post-resurrection bodies, some kind of continuity and discontinuity also exist between the “old” and “new” Jerusalem’s.
Among other things, Revelation links both Jerusalem’s to God’s presence. After all, while God’s Old Testament children thought of it as the city of David, once Solomon built the temple in it, at least some people came to think of it as God’s city. The New Jerusalem is linked to its God even more strongly than the old. It shines “with the glory of God” (11). The “Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” are the new Jerusalem’s temple (21). “The glory of God … and the Lamb” light the new Jerusalem (23).
One more thread of continuity runs between the old and new Jerusalem’s. The old Jerusalem had a city gate. So does the new one. Yet the new Jerusalem’s gates will never close. They are, in the lyric imagery of N.T. Wright’s Revelation (Westminster John Knox Press: 2011, p. 194), “for decoration rather than defense.”
This subtle discontinuity between the nature of the old and new Jerusalem’s “gates” opens the way for more discontinuity – all of which, we might argue, is good. The new Jerusalem, in fact, seems a bit like Jerusalem 2.0 – a kind of new and improved version of the holy city.
The old Jerusalem was relatively small – far smaller than I imagined as a child. The new Jerusalem isn’t just huge. It’s unimaginably huge. It’s not just that, as Wright notes, its footprint is about the size of John’s Roman Empire (ibid). It’s also that the new Jerusalem is fifteen hundred miles (nearly 2500 kilometers) high! What other location would be, after all, large enough to contain God’s glory?!
While God’s temple played a prominent role in the old Jerusalem, it plays no role in the new. In fact, it’s completely gone. “I did not see a temple in the city,” John marvels in verse 21, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” There’s no need for a temple’s symbol of God’s presence in a place where God is not just graciously present, but is also completely at home and totally fills.
Yet it’s not just the temple that graced the old Jerusalem that’s gone from the new Jerusalem. It’s also that the sun and moon that shone on the old city no longer shines in the new. But that doesn’t leave the new Jerusalem plunged in eternal darkness. In fact, even darkness seems to be part of the old creation that God has excised from the new creation.
The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb don’t just replace the old Jerusalem’s temple. They also light the new Jerusalem. “The glory of God gives it light,” says John in verse 23. “And the Lamb is its lamp.” Earlier the apostle insists that the new Jerusalem “shone with the glory of God” (11). He gives us the sense that God’s presence is somehow so radiant that the new Jerusalem doesn’t need any ambient lighting. God Almighty and God’s Son the Lamb are more than enough to light up the entire enormous city. In fact, night will be one aspect of the old creation that God banishes from the new (22:5).
Yet John adds a couple of perhaps peculiar notes to descriptions of the new Jerusalem. He insists the “nations will walk by its light” (24). Is this perhaps an allusion to Revelation 9’s startlingly diverse multitude that already stands and worships before the Lamb’s throne? Or is it perhaps at least suggestive of the wide diversity of the new Jerusalem’s citizens – not just people from those nations but also the very nations themselves? Add to that verse 24’s promise that “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor” into the new Jerusalem and you have an almost unimaginable array of citizens of the new creation.
But there’s even more is “missing” from the new Jerusalem. It will be so completely a community that anything that hinders such community will also be completely absent. Nothing that leads to the kind of death that God has killed will be allowed to wreak havoc within it. “Nothing impure will enter” the new Jerusalem, John says in verse 27. “Nor will anyone who is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the book of life.”
So what are those who proclaim Revelation 21 to make of this? Especially when we combine it with 21:8ff’s insistence that “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars[‘]” home will be not in the new Jerusalem, but the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” (8). How do we reconcile such an apparently exclusively holy picture of the new Jerusalem’s citizens with God’s grace that’s the only “ticket” into it? If there were no room for anyone who ever murdered, committed adultery or lied in the new creation, its population would be frightfully small – as in one, the triune God.
Those who proclaim Revelation 21 will want to wrestle with such questions. But might we tentatively land on something like this: there is no such vileness in the new Jerusalem because the Lamb’s blood has graciously washed it away from those whose names God has written in God’s “book of life” (27)? That God’s amazing grace has overwhelmed not just death, mourning, crying and pain (4) but also the sin that has so often caused it?
The “Lamb’s book of life” (21:27) is an evocative image of something that also didn’t exist in the old Jerusalem. It’s a picture of an almost unspeakably huge book that’s full of the names of the people God has redeemed. It’s full of famous, less famous and perhaps even, by God’s grace, infamous names. The Lamb’s book of life is filled with names nearly everyone knew as well as those virtually no one knew. The names of those everyone remembers as well as those everyone has forgotten are perhaps written in the ink that is the blood of the Lamb that was slain to rescue God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his memoirs he entitled, Self-Consciousness, John Updike wrote, “Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish . . . to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of the biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do? …
“The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of a dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation . . . Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe. We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news, or a Last Judgment not subject to pages of holier-than-thou second-guessing in The New York Review of Books.
“The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.”