by Daniel Harrell
The end of this sermon series on light has been a long time coming, so it’s only appropriate that we should end it here with the end of sunlight itself. Revelation says that in the end there’ll be no need for sun or moon to shine, which is a good thing since in the end neither will be shining. As an average star, the heat and light churned out by the sun’s core takes about a million years to reach the surface. It’s been cranking it out for around 4.5 billion years and is halfway through its life cycle. Within about 5 billion more years, our sun will have begun to burn out, expanding into a giant hot mass—ironically called a white dwarf—big enough to engulf both earth and moon and most every other planet in our solar system. No worries though since by then the glory of God provides all the light. Jesus said he’s coming back soon.
While the glory of God outshines the sun, sunlight remains a popular approximation of glory. As Yale theologian Kathryn Tanner writes, “Like the sun which retains its purity however degraded the material it lights up, God is not contaminated by contact with and intimate presence to sinful and corrupt creatures [like us]. The distance between God’s majesty and our finite and sinful condition no more prevents God’s bridging the gap immediately and effortlessly, than the sun’s geographical distance keeps its light from reaching us at once. Like the light of the sun, God’s light remains just as it is. Moreover, the whole of God’s light is distributed equally and at the same time to everything, the righteous and unrighteous alike, with differences in its effect on various creatures being a function of their different capacities to receive it, just as the whole of the sun shines in the same way on the tarnished or brilliant character of the surfaces that exist to reflect it.”
We’ve seen a lot of light in the Bible: from creation’s first gleam, to light’s refraction as a rainbow, its blaze as a fiery pillar and its Tabernacle lampstand glow; from its loss to Job to its hope with Isaiah; from its realization in Christ, shining as the light of the world, unapproachable and yet embracing, in all its wave-particle duality and quantum entanglement, all the way to its Pentecostal heat shining inside us. Atop the mountain of Transfiguration, Jesus revealed God’s glory as he changed into his own light; his face shining just like the sun itself. Yet the early church fathers insisted that it wasn’t Jesus who transfigured but the disciples who changed, their eyes finally opened to Jesus’ true identity. They see ‘face to face,’ as it were, for a moment; a foretaste of glory divine, a foretaste of that day when every nation and people and power surrenders efforts at self-glorification to bask in true glory. We will all see the light, St. Augustine sang, and to see will be to love, and to love will be to worship.
These last chapters of Revelation provide what we’ve come to expect by way of heavenly glory: streets of gold and pearly gates. The cartoons post an ancient St. Peter at the reception desk in the doorway doing his best imitation of St. Nick ―checking his list twice to find out who was naughty or nice. To those standing in line, St. Peter says things like, “You had more money than God? That’s a big no-no.” or “Bad timing. He’s in one of his Old Testament moods today.” These are just cartoons, of course, since there’s no Peter guarding the gate here. At Revelation’s gate, the door’s always open and the lights are always on. There is a list, however. It’s called the “Lamb’s book of life” and apparently your name has to be on it. We read that “nothing unclean can enter, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” “Abomination and falsehood” in other Bibles translates as “detestableness and deceit,” or “idolatry and dishonesty.” We all know about dishonesty and deceit. Jesus described abomination as those things “prized by human beings.” That’s a fairly large category.
On the recommendation of a colleague, I decided to buy myself a snappy pair of pants online. It’s not that I necessarily needed them, but I wanted to look good, which would count for both idolatry and deceit. I don’t usually like to shop online because the clothes never fit and you end up having to repack them and reship them and pay more than you would had you just gone to the brick and mortar store in the first place. But this online store supposedly removed all that hassle. Not only did the pants speedily arrive in two days, but they came with a return postage paid label with which to send them back if they didn’t fit. Which of course they didn’t. So after trying them on, I put them back in the box and back into the mail. Just four days later a new pair arrived, and since I knew these would fit, I didn’t even bother to open the box, I just set it on the table with some other boxes destined for the trash. You see where this is going. When time came to clean off the table and throw the boxes out, the brand new pants were still inside theirs, which I only realized once I was looking to wear them.
Now while it is no abomination to throw away a perfectly good pair of pants, it is stupid and embarrassing, which is what sin can feel like, at least when you get caught, with your pants down so to speak. That feeling ultimately originated in Eden with the very first abomination, where God got catches Adam and Eve with no pants, which hadn’t been a problem until now. They compound their sin with deceit, step into the darkness and get kicked out of the garden, having thrown away a perfectly good life for nothing.
So it’s no coincidence that Revelation portrays heaven as a kind of new kind of Eden, complete with a river of life, bright as crystal, flowing down the center. The tree of new life spans the river with abundant fruit year round that now everybody can eat. The new Eden is the New Jerusalem, the garden city of God where people no longer hide their faces in shame or seek refuge in the shadows. The old Genesis curse reversed, people freely and gladly step into the light to look at the Lord. The Old Testament had warned that nobody could see the face of God and live, a danger that required the high priest to identify himself with God’s name on his forehead whenever he stepped into the Temple’s dark inner sanctum to offer sacrifices. However in the New Jerusalem there is no more temple, no more sacrifices, no more shame and no more fear. Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, has taken away the sins of the world to that now everybody gladly wears God’s name on their foreheads.
There is no Temple in the New Jerusalem because God himself is the Temple from which the fount of every blessing flows. The water and light of life feeds the tree of life and heals every nation, all of whom then join the chorus of praise and share the crown of dominion instead of domination. New creation means a new chance to rule rightly with the power of love. God’s light entangles people into his own existence, his will and ways become our own as the Lord’s prayer is finally answered and heaven and earth are one. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain, no more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. There’s no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no more struggle between faith and science and reason because we “see face to face.” There’s no more doubt because “the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
Have you ever wondered how light happens? The way I understand it, according to Optics for Dummies light happens in one of three ways. The first way is by accelerated charged particles. This process produces radio waves, which we don’t always think of as light, but stop these accelerated particles quickly enough, like in a cathode ray tube, you get electromagnetic radiation, which was how TVs used to work when TV sets had tubes. My parents would tell me not to sit too close to the TV because its light could fry my eyes, but actually the radiation emitted by the decelerating electrons hitting the phosphor screen likely fried my brain as well. Which explains a lot.
Light also happens through atomic transition. Turn on a light switch and a little reaction takes place inside the bulb as negatively charged electrons get excited. With a characteristic desire to return to a low energy state, these electrons emit a photon of light to get there, like a kid who’s had too much dessert has to burn off some energy by running around few minutes before going to bed. (In our family we call this the Moose Rock and Roll.) Same way with a nucleus, composed of one or more positively charged protons. Like electrons, protons need to go to bed too, but the energy they emit to get there is, well, nuclear, which is not that kind of light you want messing around in your light bulb, though it is the kind of light that burns in the sun, at a pressure 340 billion times the air pressure on earth.
In this light, to say that God’s glory outshines the sun may be another way of saying don’t mess with glory, which brings us to the third way that light happens: matter-antimatter annihilation. Though rare, there are these particles called positrons flying around, and if ever they crash into a negatively-charged electron, you get a gamma ray. Gamma rays are the most powerful kind of light, the kind that burns in supernovas and atomic bombs, the kind of light that kills. Gamma rays are used for killing cancer cells, making the light that kills also the light that heals—whether the cancer is one of body or soul.
Here in Revelation we read “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Jerusalem had always been God’s address on earth, its Temple his house. But it was not necessarily home sweet home. Due to God’s righteous hostility toward abomination and sin, the Temple functioned more like self-imposed house arrest. God knew that if his light ever leaked out of the house, his unfaithful people would be done for. Thus the Temple curtains ripping open at Jesus’ crucifixion was no invitation to an open house. It signaled open season on human sin. The torn curtain unleashed the gamma rays of God’s glory that tore into Jesus—the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by taking sin onto himself. The light that killed was the light that healed. There was no more need for the Temple, “because now the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple and God’s glory the light.” The crucified Lamb allows for God’s light to radiate among his people without radiation. “Nothing accursed will be found in the New Jerusalem,” we read. “Only the throne of God and of the Lamb, and we will worship him.”
Still, stepping into the light can be scary. As we heard Jesus say last Sunday, that’s why people remain in the dark: “they don’t want their evil exposed.” Light that heals also hurts. And yet as John also reminded last Sunday, if we will walk in the light, not only by doing right but by making right, confessing our sins and our need for God’s light, “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” and from all uncleanness and abominableness and deceitfulness too. We’ll get our names in the book.
My throwing away a perfectly good pair of pants may have been no sin, but it was foolish and humiliating to do it, just like sin. My colleague who had recommended the online store asked me this week how I treasured my new trousers, exposing my foolishness to the light if you will. I felt so embarrassed. Yet I confessed what happened, my ordering the trousers, the bad fit and my returning the trousers, and then getting a new pair only to treat the new trousers like trash and not treasure. However, my colleague, rather than chiding me for being such a doofus (which was a little hard to do since I am his boss), asked me whether I had called the company and told them about it. What, it’s not enough that I confess my stupidity to you? I have to confess to the company too? How low must my humiliation go? “You should try it,” he said. “They might give you some grace.” (There are all sorts of Biblical analogies here.)
So on Wednesday, finally gathering up the courage to call, I quietly closed my office door and dialed customer service. I then sheepishly bleated what I had done, only to have the customer service rep ask me to re-bleat it, since really, who throws perfectly good pants in the trash? I sounded so repentant about it, and I was sorry I called, but my colleague told me I should, so I did, and now I’ll hang up… “Hang on,” the rep replied, and she put me on hold for a minute. When she came back she said how absolutely they would send me another pair, for free, since these things do happen. And I was like, no they don’t. Did you hear me right? I threw them away! Yes sir, she replied, we’ll ship out the new pair out and clearly I don’t feel foolish or embarrassed anymore and I’ll be clothed in my new pants any day now.
“Salvation is close,” Paul wrote to the Romans. “The night is far gone, daylight is near. Let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the pants of light. Let us live in the day, honorably for all to see, for we have clothed ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” and we shall reign forever with him.