a sermon on Revelation 21:1-6
preached on April 24, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As most of you know, I spend most Tuesday evenings singing with the New Amsterdam Singers. At one level, this is not a particularly surprising extracurricular activity for a pastor. The church has been involved in singing since before its beginning, and the choral repertoire was built on the music of the church almost exclusively until the last couple centuries, so even in our secular chorus we sing a lot of music that is built on the same topics and themes that I deal with in my day job!
A few weeks ago, as we began rehearsing the music for our May concert, I noted that one of our pieces had a surprising religious content. As I looked at it more closely, I discovered that its words were written by the great hymnodist Charles Wesley, the author of some of the great hymns of our faith such as “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” As a nonsectarian chorus with many nonreligious members, we certainly aren’t singing this piece for the meaning of its words—yet as I read and sang along, the pastor in me couldn’t help but cringe a bit at the theology in them. The words focus on the promise of new life in a world yet to come, insisting over and over:
I’ll sing hallelujah
And you’ll sing hallelujah
And we’ll all sing hallelujah
When we arrive at home.
I wasn’t particularly excited about calling life in the world to come “home,” but then we came to the last verse:
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again
In that eternal day.
This idea of “going home” to be reunited with long-lost friends and loved ones when we die has bothered me for a long time. For all the emphasis that we put on the afterlife as Christians, the Bible is surprisingly unclear about exactly what will happen when we die. In what it does say, I can find little or no suggestion that we will be reunited with loved ones or given a more perfect version of the life we have known in this world, with exactly the same relationships and way of life we have enjoyed here.
Our reading this morning from Revelation gives us one of the clearest biblical views of what is ahead, insisting that there is an entirely different kind of world yet to come, “a new heaven and a new earth,” that is not about meeting our own individual needs, giving us a happy heavenly home, or restoring our individual lives to the way we might imagine them to be perfect. Instead, Revelation insists that our hope for life beyond what we know now is rooted in God bringing about a new creation where the things that make for destruction in the world are themselves destroyed.
For a book that is filled with mystery and uncertainty, this vision from Revelation is surprisingly clear. There is a new and different heaven and earth, for the old ones have been destroyed to make way for something entirely new. The capstone of this new creation, the holy city Jerusalem, comes down out of the new heaven to the new earth, ready and waiting to be made one with God. And not only does this holy city emerge from heaven, it also becomes the home of God and humanity, the common dwelling place of the Creator and the Created.
As these things come together to live in new ways, they take on new qualities. God will wipe every tear from the eyes of God’s people. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” for the ways of life that have enabled these things of death to persist will themselves die. If all that were not enough to convince us of the hope and wonder of this vision of John, this moment closes with confident and hopeful words offered by none less than the one on the throne:
See, I am making all things new….
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
This vision of a new heaven and new earth seems a good bit different from the sort of thing promised to us in the world to come by Charles Wesley and so many others. There’s no mention of reunification with long-dead friends and family, no chance for conversation with philosophers, theologians, and notable persons of different eras, no place for personal rejoicing about all the individual afflictions that no longer mark our days. Instead, there is a simple new creation marked by the absence of death, mourning, crying, and pain—but even more by the presence of God in everything.
This vision is further marked by the reality that these things are not about individual happiness but rather the transformation of the world. The things ahead offer us the world as God intends, setting aside the human destruction of sinfulness that has taken hold of things, reclaiming the way of life in wholeness, hope, and peace for all people that God set forth from the very beginning. The deep relationships of the world ahead come not from being reunited with people that we have known before but from the fullness of life that comes when we can finally dwell without fear in the closeness of God. And the wonder of things ahead will not be built on some foreign, distant understanding of things but on the very creation that we know and love now, restored and transformed with love and hope to be as God intends.
So what does all this mean? Why is it important to set aside a popular understanding of heaven for this more biblical way of looking at things? What difference does it make for us to get what we believe in line with what scripture promises us is ahead? After all, if we recognize that all these things are a mystery to begin with, doesn’t that mean that it is okay for us to go on believing the wrong things about them since it doesn’t matter anyway?
Maybe so. Maybe it really isn’t all that important to worry a lot about what we believe will come in the days after we die. Maybe the differences here really aren’t that big of a deal. Maybe all this is just a question of theology that doesn’t really matter for our everyday lives.
But I am not convinced that we can set this question aside so easily. The reality is that what we believe about the days to come affects how we live here and now. For far too long, Christians used the promise of a better world to come as an excuse for not doing anything about the problems of this world. Slaveholders justified claiming ownership of other human beings by claiming that they were introducing their slaves to a way of life that would enable them to enjoy eternal life in the next world even as they were treated like nothing more than property in this world. The rich and powerful have over and over written off their responsibility for the poor in this world by proclaiming a gospel of hope grounded in the next—with no change in the ways of this one. And Christians have used fear of missing out of the glories of eternal life to destroy the fullness of the image of God in far too many people who live and love differently from what seems to be the norm. If the focus of our hope for the world to come is on our individual lives, on “find[ing] [life or friends] all again / in that eternal day,” then our hope for God’s future is centered in our own desires rather than being rooted in the mutual flourishing of all creation.
Those different ways of thinking bring very different ways of living. If we are focused only on ourselves and the things we want to be different in our eternal life, we ignore the consequences of our actions in the lives of others. We miss the many signs of brokenness in our world that go beyond the immediacy of our individual lives. And we dishonor God’s clear instruction to love our neighbors as ourselves, in this world and the next.
But when we recognize that the things ahead are about the transformation of all creation, we join God in living the resurrection of Christ today, in declaring that evil has been defeated once and for all in Christ, in welcoming others to share the wondrous gift of life that is promised for us in this world and the next, and in proclaiming in our words, in our deeds, and in our lives that God is making all things new.
So may God give us a new vision of eternal life, marked not so much by the things ahead for each one of us but by the wonder of the kingdom of God that includes all creation, that we might celebrate at this table as people who will share this even greater feast even as we join God in working in these days to make all things new in Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.