“The Beginning and the End” Colchester Federated Church, May 15, 2022, (Revelation 21:1-6) Fifth Sunday of Easter

This Sunday and next we’re going to explore the end of the New Testament book of Revelation.  Back in the day, I took a semester long class in seminary on Revelation and our New Testament Professor Dr. Herzog taught us that Revelation has been tragically misinterpreted.  Mainline Protestants like us have just left the book to the Fundamentalists to interpret as they will.  Christians like us are left with people who love Revelation and are all about the rapture and wondering who will be left behind, trying to identify who is the anti-Christ and the woman seated on the scarlet beast and all sorts of science-fiction horror story interpretations.  We studied Revelation in our Tuesday morning Bible Study class here at CFC not long ago, and I’m not sure if anyone particularly liked this book by the end.  But maybe there was some appreciation for its message of hopeful resistance to empire. 

Because in actuality, New Testament scholars (well, the ones I trust anyway) believe that John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation toward the end of Roman Emperor Domitian’s reign while exiled on the island of Patmos.  John of Patmos wrote this book to help his Christian community weather the storm of Roman persecution.  John could have been on the island because he simply traveled there to preach.  Yet he also could have been there because Domitian had launched a systematic persecution of Christians.  That’s the historical theory that makes the most sense.  At that time, Christians were being charged with a variety of crimes including (ironically) atheism.  In this historical context that meant that they failed to worship the Roman Emperor.  Some Christians stood up for their beliefs by saying that they had no Lord but Jesus.  Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. 

As Nicole shared in her children’s message, during these periods of persecution, Christians used secret symbols to identify one another like the ichthus (the Jesus fish).  Christians even wrote to one another in coded language and we can go through the Book of Revelation and see how over and again John of Patmos is trying to shore up and empower his community.  Though he can’t outright say that the Roman Empire is evil, not if he were to survive for another day.  So John is preaching through his apocalyptic visions that evil (the Roman Empire) will not triumph over good (persecuted Christians) forever.  Why?  Because God and God’s heavenly forces will ultimately prevail.  This is part of the reason these texts come up in Eastertide—we just witnessed Jesus’ triumph over political persecution and death itself on Easter Sunday. 

Okay, so Revelation is apocalyptic literature where a visionary (John of Patmos) received visions and wrote them down, visions filled with symbolic language.  It served as a reminder that God is always faithful, even when God’s people are not.[1]  And God is still with us, even when it seems like the entire world is against us.  The book has a glorious conclusion.  This glorious vision of the new heaven and new earth.  This is the seventh vision in the series of visions.  In this vision, John sees the holy city—the New Jerusalem.  The New Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God, “made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[2]  (Please note that I am just following the lectionary as to the timing of this story)!  Though yes, the New Jerusalem is compared to a beautiful bride.  A voice cries out from the throne, explaining that God’s dwelling place is here with humanity.  God will dwell with us.  Those present will be God’s people and God will be their God.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.  Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  For all the former things have passed away.  God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Here’s what is amazing—in this vision, John is not transported to some other realm.  This is not like Star Trek where you beam down to some other planet through the transporter.  No.  This is a vision about a transformed heaven and earth where God and God’s people dwell together.  New Testament Professor Barbara R. Rossing wrote this fabulous book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (which you should totally read if you are interested in learning more).  Professor Rossing explained, “God created the mountains and deserts and called them ‘good’—they are not worthless to their Creator.  Earth’s atmosphere too, was created by God, and God laments over it when we destroy it.  The atmosphere is under assault today from ozone depletion, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide that cause global warming, and other wounds—but these are wounds caused by humans.  The atmosphere is not the abode of Satan.  The view that total planetary and atmospheric destruction must take place on earth before God’s renewing vision of ‘New Jerusalem’ can come into the world is not biblical.  It leads to appalling ethics.”[3]  Amen Professor Rossing.

We are being offered a vision today of a new heaven and a new earth, the New Jerusalem where God fully dwells with humanity.  This is the language of covenant.  Remember in Genesis when God makes a covenant with Abram to give him many descendants.  Or when God covenants with Moses and the Israelites to free them from their Egyptian captors and bring them to the land of Canaan.  Or when God (through the Prophet Jeremiah) reminds God’s people that they must obey God and “follow the path I mark out for you so that it may go well with you.”[4]  The language we hear is a promise.  It’s about the promise of restoration to a time before suffering entered the world and people persecuted one another.  It’s about the promise of no more tears, death, mourning, or pain. 

In the end, we are allowed to not love the book of Revelation.  It can absolutely be read as a sci-fi horror story.  But there are some redeeming qualities, there are some messages of hope.  We remember that God cares about God’s good creation.  God cares about the mountains and the deserts.  God declared God’s creation good, and that included declaring human beings good.  When God gave human beings dominion over the earth and its creatures in the beginning that was a message about stewardship.  That it’s our responsibility to be co-creators, to help God take care of this earth that we call our home.  We have a Ministry of Stewardship at our church whose job is to be stewards of our church assets and properties.  Same idea.  We can’t think that it’s okay to trash the planet because it doesn’t matter and God will give us a new one anyway.  That is not biblical or ethical, come to that.  Instead, let’s remember that the whole of creation is longing for renewal.  The earth is the dwelling place of God, too.  We are given the holy responsibility of stewardship.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Catherine A Cory, Revelation Introduction, in The CEB Study Bible, pg. 497-498 NT.
[2] Revelation 21:2, CEB.
[3] Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, 7.
[4] Genesis 17:8, Exodus 6:6-8, Jeremiah 7:23, CEB.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash