This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on Sunday, 11/1, All Saints' Day. The text was Rev. 21:1-6a.
Our reading from Revelation is one of the last chapters in Revelation. It is like the unexpected twist at the end of a good mystery story. After all our talk and concern about "getting to heaven," in the end, heaven comes to us. Should that really surprise us? After all, in Christ "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). God is the God who always comes down.
The book of Revelation uses apocalyptic or end time imagery to express the terrifying situation of the early churches at the time when the Roman Empire required the worship of the emperors as gods. It also conveys the faith that God is their ultimate salvation.
God's action of renewal includes 3 aspects: Location--the new Jerusalem, the presence of God with God's people and the demise of death itself.
The first aspect of God's action of renewal is the new Jerusalem.
The new Jerusalem was the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city. Authors of scripture, like John, relate their experiences of what they "saw." However, the portrayal of the new Jerusalem is not like that of a news reporter. John's literary composition is the means of expressing, in symbolic theological terms, the meaning of the revelation of the nature of God's goal for the world.
We might have expected God to return everything in the end to the way it was in the beginning, before humans messed it up with sin. However, instead of the Garden of Eden, God dwells in a holy city. Instead of abolishing history, God redeems it. A city represents communal life together. This end of the age existence is not individualistic, but a community. New doesn't mean that God destroys the previous creation and starts all over again. Rather it refers to the end of the age renewal and fulfillment of creation. That this newness comes down from heaven (v. 2), demonstrates that it is not a result of human effort. It is the gift of God that brings the goal of history.
John tells us that "The sea was no more" (v. 1). The sea was considered to be the frightening domain of monsters. It is the depths from which the dragon arises to torment the earth--the opposite of what our creator God does. The sea represents the chaos over which human beings have no control. Evil will have been irrevocably overcome. A city replaces a garden.
Another way to consider the imagery of the sea is that earlier in Revelation (4:6), it is part of the heavenly worship scene, part of God's good creation. The sea separated John from his churches while he was on the Isle of Patmos. In the end, however, there is no more separation.
In the end, we don't meet a cataclysmic event, but a Person--the Lord Jesus Christ. All the statements in Revelation about the end are statements about God.
The second aspect of God's action of renewal is the presence of God. Despite the great celebration of the new Jerusalem, the central promise of the vision is "the home of God is among mortals" (v. 3). God is not distant, but lives with God's people in the city. For John, God is not merely one thing in the new Jerusalem, God is the end of the ages reality who embraces all things. John's words echo that of the prophet Ezekiel who declared, "The name of the city...shall be 'the Lord is there;" (Ezek. 48:35).
For God's people, there are no more tears in the Father's presence. This would particularly be true for the martyrs mentioned earlier in Revelation (7:17). But one does not have to be a martyr to be at home with God. Everything is wiped clean and made new. Regrets belong to the old order of life. I love the image of God wiping away our tears. God isn't telling us, "Don't cry," but he is telling us it is ok to cry and he will wipe our tears away. It will be even better than being able to have a good cry with your very best and closest friend. Almighty God promises us, that all things that rob us from having a fulfilled, joyful, vibrant life will be gone from the transcendent reality into which God leads us.
We have God's promise that he will use us--our talents, abilities, interests--our whole being--to further God's will. This not only gives our lives meaning, but also conveys tremendous significance upon our daily routine. These roles are where we take our stand as God's co-workers and partners to literally do God's holy work.
The third aspect of God's action of renewal is the demise of death itself.
Like taxes, death is one of the certainties of our life on this earth. Not only will we die one day, but we experience its pain as those dear to us die. But death does not have to terrify us. It does not have the last word. We are promised a share in Christ's resurrection. While we may mourn the death of loved ones, we can also celebrate their triumph and victory as they now rest from their labors and live with our Lord in glory.
Our reading from Revelation concludes with these words of triumph, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (v. 6). God stands at the beginning and the end, not only of human lives, but of history, and of creation itself (6a). The work of God is completed full and final.
What awaits us at the end of all things? God. The new Jerusalem is God's home with God's people. God makes us his own in our baptism and he is with us forever in eternity.
Today, we remember and celebrate all the saints--those who have joined the church triumphant and those of us who are still living bearing the name of Christ. We remember the acts of Christian martyrs and the deeds and works of "canonized" saints. We also celebrate the lives of all the faithful, living and dead, for whom the new Jerusalem is their ultimate destiny.
The good news for us as we celebrate All Saints' Day is that no matter how much we mess up, we still belong to the Lord and he calls us saints, holy ones because of what Jesus did on our behalf on the cross. The good news at the heart of Revelation-that God is making all things new-is already going on in our troubled world today. We don't have to wait for the end of time. God comes down to us everyday--in scripture, in the waters of baptism and at the table. All we have to do is join him.
M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary.
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year B.
Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year B,