by Daniel Harrell
Revelation’s depiction of the bedazzling New Jerusalem, with its jeweled foundation and pearly gates, always reminds me of the Emerald City from the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. When you think about it, this beloved movie is something of an Easter story itself. You’ve got the heavenly city everybody’s hoping to get into, an Almighty deity who sits on a throne, albeit with more of an Old Testament temper, a St. Peter of sorts guarding the gate. There’s a humble Christ figure along with a few disciples, a long yellow-bricked road of life, with plenty of twists and turns, temptations, setbacks with a little grace thrown in, (though the grace in this case, the snow used in the famous Poppy Field scene, was made from 100% industrial grade asbestos). There’s a personification of evil, of course, packing plenty of fire, who’s destroyed in the end by the savior, who with three clicks of the heels, a salvation by shoes, rises up, up and away to live happily ever after, albeit in black and white. It’s close enough to the Easter story I thought about showing it instead preaching. But then you’d miss brunch. Besides, you’ve probably seen the movie a thousand times.
Not that you haven’t heard the Easter story a thousand times too. It’s in its 2015th year of syndication, yet still people fill churches today more than on any other Sunday. You’d think that if folks were going to skip church, this would be the Sunday to do it. I’m sure none of you woke up wondering, “Gee, you think they’ll find the tomb empty this year?”
However, you may be wondering why you’ve not heard the Easter story here this morning. No empty grave. No shiny angels. No overwrought then overwhelmed women with spices. No bewildered disciples. Instead we bring you a golden city, bedecked as a bride for her husband, descending down out of the sky, pearly gates and all, populated to the rafters with people from every nation, without a ray of sunshine but no nighttime either. “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
If you’re a Colonial Church regular you know we’ve been making our way to this day for many months. Since last fall we’ve traveled Revelation’s own long and winding yellow brick road, haunted by bizarre multi-headed creatures with wings and eyes in places you’d never expect them to be. There are all kinds of numbers that never add up and weird looking angels wielding fire-laden scrolls and lamps and bowls and horns, waging war against dragons and demons and beasts from the deep, until finally Jesus himself rides to the rescue, morphed from a bloodied little lamb into a majestic white rider, galloping in on a fiery white steed with a sword sticking out of his mouth. (This last scene inspired Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.). The whole thing would make a great movie. Its imagery is a kind of ancient apocalyptic sci-fi you find throughout the Old Testament. Jesus used it too. Still, Revelation can be so confusing that Martin Luther thought it shouldn’t be in the Bible.
Determined to decipher the confusion so as not be left behind, prophecy bloodhounds scour Revelation’s pages and scrutinize every geopolitical crisis and technological advancement, searching for clues as to the end of the world. One impatient Christian sect in Jerusalem, convinced the end of the world depends upon Israel rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and re-instituting animal sacrifice, has already drawn up blueprints, fashioned priestly garments, sharpened knives, gathered wood and flocks of sacrificial sheep. The only impediment remains a seventh century Islamic shrine, the golden Dome of the Rock, which occupies the Temple mount. According to the Christian group, the shrine’s removal needs either the Antichrist to persuade the Islamic world to tear down it down, or the UN to negotiate with Israel following a war with Russia, Lebanon and the Palestinians just before the rapture that will elicit such an outpouring of Christian zeal amongst Jewish people that they will clamor to rebuild.
According to this morning’s passage they’re wasting their time. There’s no Temple in the New Jerusalem. No need for it since the Lord God himself and the Lamb, meaning Jesus, are the Temple now. In Old Testament times, the Jerusalem Temple was God’s home address; it represented the Almighty’s tangible presence on earth. But in the New Testament, Jesus showed up and said tear it down. Said he’d build it back in three days—a not-so-subtle hint to the fact that he’d come to take the stone Temple’s place as God in the flesh. The Temple would be leveled to the ground by the Romans, as was Jesus himself, crucified dead and buried. But unlike the Temple, Jesus rose from the dead in three days, like he said he would, and then sent his spirit to make his people God’s temple, living stones born again by grace into a flesh and blood presence of the Almighty on earth; the church as the body of Christ here and now. “See, the home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them.” The church is heaven on earth, in a way, an eternity that’s already started. Easter was just the beginning.
Not that church is always heaven, don’t we know, nor this world all that there is. “See, I am making all things new,” says the Lord; a new heaven and a earth—new but not necessarily so different. There is a fundamental continuity between rebirth and resurrection, between creation and new creation. Ours is not a throwaway planet anymore than our bodies are mere jars of clay to be carelessly tossed aside. Christians confess the resurrection of the body patterned after Jesus’ own resurrected body. Moreover, as the body of Christ together, we rise as a people, or more specifically, a community, a civilization, an eternal city, a marriage match made in heaven between the Lamb and his bride. You can’t be a Christian all alone. There are no gospels according to me. Ours is a faith forged over centuries by believing communities who worshipped together and worked together and loved and served each other, fought and failed and found forgiveness from each other over and over again. In Christ, as the body of Christ, we live and die and rise as one.
And yet our resurrection is not so much about our going up as about God coming down to us: whether in a pillar of cloud and fire, in a Tabernacle and Temple, as a baby at Christmas, as power at Pentecost, or with the New Jerusalem in the end lit up solely by the light of the Lord.
There will be an end, one way or another. Personally or cosmologically, the sun will disappear from our eyes. 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—or munchkin—big enough to engulf every other planet in our solar system. One day we’ll need a new earth. [OFF]
But we won’t need a new sun because with the new city, “the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Jesus told everybody he was the light of the world. He went on to make us the light of the world too. “A city on a hill that cannot be hid.” In the new city there will be no more tears, no more death, no mourning, no crying, no pain; no more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more casualties or conflict, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. No more “problem of evil” because there is no more evil. No more “suffering allowed” because there is no more suffering to allow. No more cowardice or faithlessness or corruption, no more violence or senseless killing or betrayal or infidelity or sorcery or false worship. No more lies. No more doubt because “the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
And no more sea. Ancient apocalyptic imagery understood the sea to be the satanic abode of chaos—the birthplace of disorder and darkness that separated heaven from earth. But no more. New heaven and a new earth come together as one, the new city a bride adorned for her husband. Time and eternity converge, the wedding goes on and the Lord’s prayer gets answered: Thy will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven.
We’ve read this in the Bible before. More than prophecy, Revelation is really the fulfillment of prophecy. Back in Isaiah, God declared, “Behold, I will create (future tense) new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever … for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. … the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” In Revelation, we read, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth (past tense)… and I saw the Holy City (past tense), the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” The past tense indicates the surety of God’s promises—so sure that they’re already kept. “It is done,” says the Lord, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, started and finished.”
Christian hope is not for a future that may happen, but on God for whom the future has happened already. Our sure hope is such a sure thing we can endure whatever troubles come our way in the meantime. This hope is not the same as saying, “I hope the Wisconsin Badgers win the NCAA Basketball Title tomorrow night (and what a game last night).” Beating Duke tomorrow night is a future that may or may not happen—though as a Carolina fan I will be rooting the Badgers. I was hoping my University of North Carolina Tar Heels would have made the Final Four. But Wisconsin made sure that didn’t happen. I bet a Badger fan in this church that the Tar Heels could pull off a victory, but not being too sure, I took the points. Vegas gave me 6.5. And the Badgers won by seven. Half a stinking point short. That’s what a preacher gets for gambling.
North Carolina has won the championship before, five times in fact (not that anyone’s counting). One of the most memorable was Dean Smith’s first back in 1982 when I was a junior. A freshman named Michael Jordan hit the winning jumper over Georgetown, a victory compounded by the huge mistake after on Georgetown’s part. Fred Brown passed the ball to James Worthy as time was running out. Carolina won!
I recorded this game on a trusty videocassette— for those under 50 a videocassette is this plastic rectangular box with black tape that you’d pop in and out of this metal machine called a VCR and watch on a TV with a tube. I watched the game again the next morning to be certain that I hadn’t been hallucinating. I watched it any number of times after that, just for the joy of it all, though each time I still felt anxiety and stress at the end of the game even though I knew the final outcome. I felt all the same anxiety and stress—except that I never worried about it—because no matter how anxious I got whenever I watched that videocassette, even 35 years later, Jordan hits that jumper and Fred Brown throws to James Worthy! Carolina wins every time!
This is what Christian hope is like. In the end, no matter how troubled and anxious and stressful life gets, God always wins.
There was a nice editorial apropos to this theme in the newspaper last week—for those under 50 a newspaper is these big folded sheets printed with information and pictures in ink, delivered to your door every morning. The editorial was written by Joel Warne of Plymouth and is probably being quoted in many Easter sermons. He writes about how Easter threads through the fabric of all life. Things live, they die and they’re reborn into something profoundly new.
He described a time 15 years ago when, against his wife’s pleading, he lost what was for them a major boatload of money in bad investments. “This loss exploded like a bomb in our marriage, setting off land mines we had crept around for years. A great deadness soon fingered us. I really feared we were done. … But then we discovered a surprise. Each death comes pregnant with a resurrection. And we must make a choice. We can spend our energy trying to get back to the way things were before our deaths and cling to a fantasy life we wish was ours. Or we can make peace with our real life and move ahead with God in trust that a rich new quality of life is being sown in us.” New creation. Heaven and earth coming together. God always wins.
Easter threads through the fabric of all life. Things live and they die and they rise. There’s no workaround. Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. You cannot escape your deaths, big or small, existentially or literally. You can’t raise yourself up. But you can hope in a hope that does not disappoint—a sure hope that pushes past wishful thinking and sees suffering and death for the tragedies they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross: Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end to be feared, becomes the gateway to life everlasting, both now and then. Easter weaves life’s hardships into its beautiful tapestry of resurrection, anticipating that day when all things will be made new. Our hope is in God who has already done this, started and finished, beginning and end. We’re just waiting for our experience to catch up to reality.
Whenever I watch The Wizard of Oz—now available on DVD and streaming on Netflix for your tablet and phone—I love how all Dorothy ever wants she finds she’s had all along. In the movie, Oz was all just a dream. In the books, however, Oz is a real place, which is how it is in our book. Revelation reads like a dream, but the reality it opens to us is more real than we could ever dream. In Christ, all we’d ever want is what we already have, it’s been here among us all along, so good we can taste it already. “See, the home of God is now with his people.” Yes it is. And as we know, there’s no place like home.