“The Healing of the Nations” Colchester Federated Church, May 22, 2022, (Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5) Sixth Sunday of Easter

The story is told that renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what exactly is the first sign of civilization in a culture.  We might immediately think of tools—a fish hook to catch fish, a spear to hunt animals, or a hammer to build a sturdy shelter.  We might think of clay pots that point to the preparation and storage of food needed to sustain human beings.  But tools are not what Margaret Mead believed to be the first sign of civilization in a culture.  Mead said that it was a femur (a thigh bone) that had been broken and healed, found in an archaeological site 15,000 years old. 

Think about this for a moment, if a creature breaks their leg in the animal kingdom, then they will probably die.  That creature would be unable to run from danger, hunt for food, or drink water.  That creature ends up becoming a snack for some other creature.  It’s the circle of life we might say.  The point is that animals don’t survive broken legs long enough to heal.  So when anthropologists like Margaret Mead discovered that there was evidence of a broken femur that had healed it shows that someone decided to stay with the injured person.  Someone decided to bind up that wound and carry that injured person to safety.  Someone stayed by their side in shelter and tended to them as they recovered from their broken bone, providing food and drink, providing safety and security.  Margaret Mead was emphasizing to that student that helping another through their pain (with compassion) is where civilization begins.[1]

This morning, we are once again engaging with the New Testament Book of Revelation.  We remember from last Sunday that we saw John of Patmos’ vision of the new heaven and new earth, the “New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[2]  We remember that God cares about God’s good creation.  God cares about the mountains and deserts.  God declared God’s creation good, and that included human beings.  When God gave humans dominion over the earth and its creatures in the beginning that was a lesson about stewardship.  That it’s our responsibility to be co-creators, to help God take care of this earth, our home.  Because the earth is the dwelling place of God, too.

Today’s text is a continuation of this vision, focusing specifically on the New Jerusalem.  We read that an angel took John “in a Spirit-inspired trance to a great high mountain” and the angel showed John of Patmos “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”[3]  The vision can be read as exclusionary because only those who are registered in the scroll of life have access to the holy city.  But remember that this was most likely written by someone in exile because of Roman persecution.  So this was a hopeful image for a community under the threat of persecution to know that the New Jerusalem would be a place of no more mourning and crying and pain.  It would be a place where the city doesn’t even need the sun or the moon to shine upon it because the glory of God is the light.  John of Patmos sees in his vision that, “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.  They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it.”[4]  This would not be a place where Christians would need to worship Jesus as Lord in secret.  This would not be a place where secret symbols would need to be used to mark safe places to gather in catacombs.  No, this would be a place where even the rulers of the earth would acknowledge that God is our God and must be glorified.

Scholars Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther wrote a book called Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now.  They present a different understanding of the circumstances that led to John of Patmos writing Revelation.  Howard-Brook and Gwyther believe that it was not written during a time of great persecution, but rather was written to help Christians not be seduced by the might and power of the Roman Empire.  The Church has not always done well when we have been in a position of power.  Power can corrupt people after all.  The authors share, “Revelation envisioned life in New Jerusalem not as a grim contrariness to Babylon but as a joyous alternative to empire, which constituted ‘real’ living.  Authentic community is a place where life can be celebrated, songs can be sung, and human relationships can flourish . . . Revelation shares with the rest of the New Testament the trust that living in God’s presence offers an unrivaled clarity and beauty of vision to all who choose it.  Life in New Jerusalem is like a summer day at the extreme latitudes, extending its long horizon beyond the constricted vista of empire.”[5]  Maybe you can see why that class I took on Revelation in Seminary was an entire semester focused on just one New Testament book—because it’s that complex with scholars having drastically different views on its interpretation let alone the historical circumstances present at the time of this book being written down.

Here’s the thing, we live in a world where nations still attempt to conquer one another, where the idea of empire still lives on.  Some people talk about the United States of America using the language of empire, whether we believe it to be true or not.  Or we can look at the war in Ukraine and some of the beliefs of Russian leaders and the history of the Soviet Union (and the collapse of the Soviet Union).  On our own shores we can look at the sin of white supremacy and the twisted belief that some human beings are superior to others, and the violence that stems from these beliefs.  To think that Revelation has nothing to say to us now would be misguided. 

Because it is easy to get into dualistic us versus them thinking.  It is also easy to become hopeless when we grapple with the violence that we see (or even experience for ourselves)—racism, sexism, homophobia—the icks and isms of society.  But let’s keep in our hearts this vision of the new heaven and the new earth where God fully dwells with humanity.  We are at our best as human beings when we help one another, that is the sign of civilization among us.  Broken bones that have healed, broken hearts that we help each other mend.  Let’s keep in our hearts this vision of the New Jerusalem, where there is the river of life-giving water and the tree of life which produces leaves for the healing of the nations.  This is a vision of hope and healing.  God will shine on humanity and rule forever and always.  We can see this as a vision of the future, and we can see it as our calling to help God make this vision a reality now.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jeffrey Oak, “A 15,000 year old bone and the Fall 2013 issue of Reflections,” October 8, 2013, https://divinity.yale.edu/news/15000-year-old-bone-and-fall-2013-issue-reflections
[2] Revelation 21:2, CEB.
[3] Revelation 21:10.
[4] Revelation 21:24.
[5] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, 191.