A sermon on Revelation 21 and 22 by Richard Keith on Sunday 7 May 2023
I like to describe myself as a cheerful pessimist. I’m not an optimist. Optimists are those poor miserable wretches, always saying, “It’ll be alright.” Always thinking, “What could possibly go wrong?” when a thousand things at any moment could go wrong. And often do. I feel sorry for optimists. They must be so disappointed all the time when things don’t work out how they thought.
So, I’m a pessimist. Bad things will and do happen. But I refuse to be gloomy. I refuse to be glum. Because when you have the courage to look on the dark side of life, when you stop and consider the worst that could possibly happen, and realise that it’s not all that bad and very unlikely anything else is an improvement. I’m a cheerful pessimist because I am constantly surprised by how much better life is than I expect.
We are looking today at the end of all things. The goal towards which the world is moving. And we discover that despite what my mother used to say it will not all end in tears. Instead, every tear will be wiped away, and there will be no more crying or mourning. Death will be put to death and hell will be thrown into hell. Judgement will be judged and condemnation condemned. It is the ultimate happily ever after. Because the world will not end in pain or grief or loneliness or weakness or frustration. But it will end with hope and love and joy and life in the presence of God. And this cheerful pessimist looks forward to an eternity of being pleasantly surprised.
Today we are looking at John’s final vision in chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation. In this final vision he saw a new heaven and a new earth. Just as the whole Bible began with the story of creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” so it ends with the story of recreation, proclaiming that the world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but with a new work of God.
The first heaven, the old earth had passed away. They had become redundant, out-moded. This created order in which we live, which for all its beauty is mixed with ugliness, which for all its laughs is mixed with tears, which for all its happy endings never ends with everyone living happily ever after, this created order will be swept up and packed away to be replaced with the all new, updated, fully renovated, version 2.0 creation.
What this means is that our universe is not destined for destruction, but reconstruction. The last word will not be death, but life. Yes, I admit, that this book of Revelation does contain visions in which stars are swept away and mountains thrown into the sea. But they are not visions of mindless destruction, but of dismantling, of clearing the way for something better. For the forces of evil that plague our lives will not be allowed to go on forever, but they will be defeated so that God’s original purposes for his creation may be fulfilled.
Notice that it is a new earth as well as a new heaven. We talk about heaven a lot. The place where people go when they die. But at the end of all things there is a new earth as well. Our destiny is not to live as ghosts or angels in some cloudy place in the sky. But our destiny is to live as real human people in a new human environment. It will not be the same as life around here, because it will be made new, perfected, fulfilled. But it will be recognisable as truly and fully human. I look forward to being made new in the kingdom of God. But I will still be me. You will still be you. We will know each other and we will be our true selves as we were meant to be.
John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. The world began with a garden with the tree of life and with a river that brought water and life to creation. But the world will end with a city. Not just a room with room for me, but not for anyone else. Not just a house with room for one family, but not for any more. Not just a village with room for one neighbourhood but not for two or more. But a town, a city, a human community with room for all the families, and for all the neighbourhoods, with room for all of us. With room for me and with room for you.
Now, I admit that the promise of a city doesn’t exactly excite me. I grew up in Sydney and to me it’s still a beautiful place but I wouldn’t want to live there. And the best view of it is through the rear vision mirror as I drive out of it. But this city at the end of the world is no urban wasteland, no sprawling slum. The river of the water of life will flow through its middle and on each side of the river stood the tree of life. It is a city with a garden, or maybe even a garden with a city a Garden of Eden with more than just room for two. In it the tree of life will grow and its leaves will be for the healing of the nations. A place where the human environment and the natural environment will find peace and live as one. Where the lion will lie down with the lambs. Where the swords will be turned into plough shares. There will be no more war or fear or pollution or cancer. But instead there will be blessing.
And yet the greatest blessing, the blessing that includes every other blessing within it, is the promise of the presence of God.
Now the dwelling of God is with human beings, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
Imagine all the foolish things that we strive for. Wealth, fame, success, validation, they are a poor second, they are a distant last compared to this: that the creator of all things would be with us, that he would be ours, that he would belong to us, that he would share his life with us, that he would include us in the possession of his glory, and that we would be his, that we would belong to him, that we would be his people, his children, and the heirs of his kingdom.
Is not this the great gift of the gospel? Is not this the reason that Christ gave his life for us? Is not this even better than the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, the filling of the Spirit? Is not this what we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper, true fellowship with each other when we have true, lasting, eternal, holy communion with our creator? Is not this the blessing that church is preparing us for, that all that we possess in Christ is just a deposit, a down payment, an entrée, promising more? That we might have God. That God might give himself to us. That he would include us in his life. That we would see him and bathe in his kindness and love. Is this not what it means to live?
Oh, people say they want to live. They say they want to live forever. They want to live on in their achievements. They want to live on in their legacy. They want to live on in the hearts of their children. They want to freeze their bodies and hope that some future generation will thaw them out and cure them of their diseases. They want to turn into angels and float around in some palace among the clouds, wearing white and playing harps. Is there not more to life than these meagre hopes? Don’t all these petty desires just simply lack ambition compared to the promise of God in the gospel of his Son? That we might see God. And know him. And live a real, human life in his presence in the fullness of created existence.
To emphasise this promise, we find that there is no temple in the new heaven and the new earth. A temple is a place where heaven and earth are meant to meet. A place where human beings can come together with God. A place of refuge from the storms of chaos and evil where people can taste for a moment what true life is meant to be.
In the Old testament God commanded that his temple be built on top of the mountain in Jerusalem. There he would be worshiped. There he would be with his people. But in the new Jerusalem there is no temple because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb, his Son Jesus Christ, are its temple. The old Jerusalem was just a shadow. A poor copy. A child’s scribbled drawing compared to the reality that we are promised. The new Jerusalem will not need a temple. It won’t need second best. For it will be the dwelling of God, the original and best. It will be the place where human beings and God come together. So filled with the glory of God that it will be the only light the city needs. And that light will cast no shadows.
This is the end of all things. But of what practical use is this vision of the future? Speaking for myself, I can think of three things. Firstly, it is a reason to hope. The bad things in our world are only temporary, but its joys, its blessings are permanent. So I’m a cheerful pessimist. I have looked long and hard at how bad things can be. But I have also read the book of the history of the world and I have read the last page and I know that it is all going to turn out all right. So whatever life throws at me, even if it should kill me, I know that it is not the end of me. But by grace of God and through faith in Christ, I will live in the city of God. And all my tears will be wiped away. And so as long as I live, I will live with hope. I will fight today’s battles knowing that the final victory belongs to God.
Secondly, it is a call to live the new life now. If the foundations of the city of God are love and peace and joy, then we are summoned to live by those values now. To answer hate with love. To bring the peace of God into all our relationships. And to be sustained by joy so that even if life’s tragedies break our heart, they do not break our spirit.
Jesus Christ calls you to take up your cross and follow him. By his life and death and resurrection we are dual citizens of the present town of Corowa and of the future city of God. And he calls us to live in the present in Corowa by the values of that future city.
And thirdly, it is a call to prayer. I am still very much in love with life and with this world that God has made. But at the end of all things is something even better, the home of righteousness. the dwelling place of God and his people. And so this vision calls us to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Come today. Come now. Come this very minute. Come and make all things new. Come and make me new. And if this not be the hour or the day then make me ready for the coming of that new life and give me grace that I might start to live it today. men. Come, Lord Jesus.