by Daniel Harrell
The end of Revelation has been a long time coming, both in terms of this sermon series (we’ve been at it since last September) and in terms of Jesus’ return (2015 years and counting). The latter wouldn’t be a problem had Jesus not said “I am coming soon.” He said soon three times in this chapter alone. Some translate Jesus as meaning, “I am coming quickly,” to square with his frequent analogy of coming as “a thief in the night,” emphasizing the how rather than the when (Not that Jesus returns as a burglar—just unexpectedly like one).
Others, more troubled by the delay, interpret “coming soon” as the way Jesus shows up in the crises of life or at the moment of each individual’s death. This interpretation can sound a a little self-centered, Jesus-on-demand if you will, besides adding more difficulty to Revelation than it reduces, and interpreting Revelation is difficult enough already. I think the best solution is the Bible’s own. St. Peter wrote how “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I like that God is willing to wait for everybody. Unfortunately waiting for everybody doesn’t mean everybody responds. While there are those who “wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates,” there remain dogs outside the gates; “all who love to live lies.”
Columnist David Brooks makes the distinction between two sets of virtues: the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you use to get ahead in the world. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful and capable of deep love. To live solely for external achievement is “to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You view humility, failure and dependency as unacceptable weaknesses. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you are good enough. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and the person you could have been. The person who needed some grace after all. Suffering often does this. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.
The Spirit and the bride invite us to deeper, thirsty places where the water of life flows as gift to clean and quench. A tree of life bursts forth with fruit. These are familiar analogies. Water is the Spirit of Christ and we are the tree and its fruit the good and right and beauty produced in us. The picture is intentionally Edenic; the Genesis curse now reversed. The salty sea—that satanic abode of chaos, disorder and darkness that appeared at creation and separated heaven from earth—has swallowed up Satan and dried up itself. Heaven and earth marry and fresh water flows from “the throne and the Lamb,” meaning from Jesus himself. “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink,” Jesus said in John’s gospel. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within.”
It is new creation where creatures no longer hide their faces in shame and seek refuge in the shadows. Washed clean, we finally and freely step into the light and look on God’s face. The Old Testament warned that nobody could see God’s holy face and survive, a danger that mandated even the high priest to identify himself with God’s name stamped on his forehead for protection whenever he made atonement in blood for the sins of the people. With new creation there is no more atonement for sin, no more sin to atone. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. Everyone bears the mark of Christ on their foreheads. Jesus fulfills the promised future—he is the first and the last, the beginning and end, the starter and the finisher, both the root and the fruit, the water source for the thirsty to whom he gives drink free of charge.
Revelation has depicted a world in desperate need of living water. Its apocalyptic warnings ring true in our own time. Political scientists warn of a day when wars will be fought over water rather than oil. Climatologists warn of an earth warmed to uninhabitable degrees. Meteorologists warn of a parched California tapping a pipeline from Minnesota lakes. We live in a epoch environmentalists call the anthropocene, a new creation of our own making as humans, with an irreversible cost of species extinction, polluted oceans, and an altered atmosphere.
Science shows earth’s measurable warming has been caused primarily by human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. The ravages of war and the repeating patterns of oppression and violence are our fault too. The same with every relational break and breach of faith and lie and murder and theft. Viruses may not be our fault, but their proliferation is due in part to the woefully deficient health care endemic to impoverished countries whose poverty has its own roots in social strife and injustice. As one observer writes, earth is home to millions of species, but only one dominates. Human cleverness, inventiveness and activity have modified almost every part of our planet and are the drivers of every global problem we face.
Spiritually speaking, there is a kind of kinship between environmentalism and New England Puritanism. As author Jonathan Frazen observes, both belief systems are haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty. In the case of environmentalism, the feeling is grounded in scientific fact. Frazen writes, “Whether it’s prehistoric North Americans hunting the mastodon to extinction, Maori wiping out the megafauna of New Zealand, or modern civilization deforesting the planet and emptying the oceans, human beings are universal killers of the natural world. And now climate change has given us an eschatology for reckoning with our guilt: coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgment Day. Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth.”
Mercifully Revelation promises a new earth—but the danger here is dismissing the present in exchange for it. 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, a fundamental continuity between rebirth and resurrection, between creation and new creation. The dust to which we return when we die is the same dust from when resurrection and new creation happen. True for creation and the creature. For Revelation’s first readers, faithful Christians tortured with unimaginable cruelty, assurances of divine deliverance poured like fresh water on parched ground. In time, God who rules in sublime majesty would make all things new. And in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God would patiently endure alongside his people. They would patiently wait together.
But do not confuse Biblical waiting with spiritual thumb-twiddling. New England Puritanism may have dispensed its share of religious guilt, and in doing so it was not so different that any other puritanical world view, religious or not. But what made Puritanism different was its stress on piety: the conviction that salvation and grace bear visible fruit for the world: that faith cultivated eulogy virtues of kindness and bravery and mercy and forgiveness and humility and responsibility, a willingness to repent, to change and be changed inside, to be truly loved by God in the hard ways God will love you, these are marks of genuine faith. These days our paragons of faith are too often paragons of success: the Christian who is also the accomplished scholar, the profitable businessman, the prize-winning athlete, the award-winning author, the soul-winning missionary, the popular preacher, the recovered addict, the healed patient, the parent of behaving children. Not that these people aren’t faithful, of course; but imagine if they were the only portraits of faith Revelation’s original audience got to see and hear. For these early Christians, doomed to suffer under the brutal persecution of Rome, their faithfulness looked more like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. To believe got them singled out, insulted, abused, tortured and crucified. Their accomplishments were the horrors they endured. The God who saved them did not save them from suffering. The God who saved them, saved them through suffering. Their loss was their gain. The cross was their hope.
Revelation’s cycles culminate in a glorious wedding between Jesus the Lamb and the “Holy City, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”—just like the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost. The Holy City descends as a beautiful bride—an odd juxtaposition that nevertheless picks up on that ancient language of covenant between God and his people. Marriage is the covenant. The city is the community of people. Unlike popular depictions, we don’t die and go to heaven. A huge slice of heaven comes down to us. The new Jerusalem is both a place and a people, or more specifically, the redeemed of Christ are the place where God now dwells. There is no Temple in the New Jerusalem because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple, and we are too, wedded as one body together in Christ. But like with any wedding, the proof is in the marriage.
You can only tell a tree by its fruit. The tree of life from which we partake provides fruit for healing of the nations. We are the trees through whom God’s river of life flows, the responsibility for this healing lies in us. We have responsibility to care for the earth over which we’ve been given dominion, responsibility to attend to the poor and oppressed and to the widow and orphan, responsibility to be generous, responsibility to forgive those who hurt us and not hurt others, responsibility to pray and make peace, to refuse to tell lies, responsibility to love our neighbors and our children and spouses and brothers and sisters in Christ and to worship the Lord with all our heart. And when we fail at these things, we have responsibility to repent and bear witness to the climate change we need in our souls, to the resurrection of Jesus who makes all things new. The repentant and responsible lives we live are confirmations of our baptism—of the water that has marked us as belonging to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ forever.
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within.” Just like that old camp song: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me!” John explains in the gospel how this river of life from within is the Holy Spirit; a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The Spirit, like the New Jerusalem in Revelation, descended from heaven to fill the first Christians and fills every Christian since. But like any flowing course of water, it cannot remain stagnant. The water that flows from Christ into us must flow through us and out to others, a river of life that speaks truth and grace, loves neighbor and enemy, does justice, loves mercy, serves and suffers and walks humbly with God.
This is hardly easy. In the King James Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying, “whoever believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Most modern Bibles omit the word belly concerned, perhaps, for the intestinal connotations. But maybe that’s where the living water needs to flow from. Out of our gut. It does take guts to follow Christ. It takes courage to bear the kind of fruit faith demands. British author and Christian GK Chesterton described it, ironically, like this: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice … [Christians] seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; we desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” Indeed. The water of life is ultimately the wine of resurrection. It’s always served in a cross-shaped cup.
“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.” Throughout Revelation, prophecy is known by what it does: true prophecy moves people to serve the true God and false prophecy draws people away from God. “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” What sounds like resignation to the state of things, or even like permission to go on doing what you’re doing, is better read, I think, as an acknowledgement of good and evil’s continued existence in the face of Revelation’s hope. This acknowledgement can be enough to make you lose hope, which is why Jesus speaks up again, “See, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done.” This is bad news for the evildoer, good news for the one described as holy and doing right—not better than everybody else, just better than you were before. This is not a salvation earned, but faith confirmed by evidence.
Jesus says, “I am coming soon, I am coming soon.” The Spirit and the bride respond by saying “Come on then,” to which Jesus assures one last time, “Yes, I am coming soon.” John utters his own final “Amen” of trust. But then for good measure, he adds his own: “Come on Lord Jesus.” We are called to follow, and we need help. The final answer to life’s struggles and its evils do not lie in our ability to make a better world, but in God’s power to make a new one. What faith demands, only God can finally provide. Therefore, we pray it too, “Come Lord Jesus.”