Sun, May 19, 2019
What on earth?
Revelation 21:1-6 by Craig de Vos
Series: Sermons

A Uniting Church person dies and waits in line at the pearly gates.

The first person in the line approaches St. Peter.

“Name?”, St. Peter asks.

“Mavis Brown”, she replies.

“Denomination?”

“Anglican”.

“Okay, just go down this corridor and you’re in room number nineteen.

But, whatever you do, don’t make any noise as you go past room eleven.

The next person approaches.

“Name?”, St Peter asks.

“Patrick O’Connor”, he replies.

“Denomination?”

“Roman Catholic”.

“Okay, just go down this corridor and you’re in room number seventeen.

But, whatever you do, don’t make any noise as you go past room eleven.

This goes on for some time.

Finally, it’s the Uniting Church person’s turn.

“Name?”, St Peter asks.

“Rachel White”, she replies.

“Denomination?”

“Uniting Church”.

“Okay, just go down this corridor and you’re in room number twenty-one.

But, whatever you do, don’t make any noise as you go past room eleven.

By this stage, she’s bursting with curiosity and asks, “Sorry, but I’m dying to know—

what’s in room eleven?

And why do we have to be so quiet going past it?”

“Oh”, says St. Peter, “that’s the Pentecostals—

they think that they’re the only ones here”.

 

All jokes aside...

I doubt that any sane, intelligent person would picture heaven as a physical place…

with pearly gates…

let alone corridors and numbered rooms…

or filled with harp-playing angels.

And even if we eschew the traditional notions of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’––

for good reason––

most of us probably still cling to some notion of an after-life.

But how do we imagine it?

Even for those of you who can construct mental images…

I suspect that what you imagine is fairly diffuse, and undefined, and quite fuzzy.

Perhaps it’s thought of less as a physical place or space…

and more in terms of feelings and relationships.

Many times, sitting with grieving family members––

following a bereavement–– 

I have heard people say something like…

“Well, it’s okay really.

Mum’s gone to be with Dad.

They’re together again, at last. 

But, in a way, I know that she’s still with us… 

looking down on us…

and, one day, we will see her again”.

It’s also common for those grieving, in speaking of the deceased, to add things like “at peace”…

“no more pain”…

or “whole again”.

And, indeed, the sense that the deceased is now “whole” is particular common with those who…

in life…

suffered from some form of disability…

or, at the end… 

from some form of degeneration or dementia.

In other words, the way that many people think of post-mortem survival… 

seems to involve some sort of renewal or restoration…

a rebirth…

almost a re-creation.

And, in many respects, this morning’s reading from Revelation seems to support those ideas.

Indeed, this reading crops up every three years in the lectionary for All Saints Day;

and it’s not uncommonly chosen for funerals.

And, frankly, it’s not hard to see why.

Assuring his readers that God is with them––

come what may––

John proclaims that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more”…

and that God is “making all things new”.

And while these are appropriate sentiments for a funeral––

or for All Saints Day––

that’s not what John is talking about here.

Indeed, this reading…

this vision…

is not addressing notions of ‘heaven’ or an after-life––

not even in a symbolic or metaphoric way.

Note how the reading begins:

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth”…

which is followed, closely, by a “new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven”. 

Now, when––

in ancient Greek––

the word translated here as ‘heaven’ is used in combination with the word ‘earth’…

it’s not referring to the dwelling-place of God…

nor to some spatial location of the after-life.

It’s referring, rather, to the sky––

what we might refer to, slightly poetically, as ‘the heavens’.

In other words… 

John’s vision, here, has nothing to do with ‘heaven’ and an after-life.

Rather, it’s concerned with this world…

and with this life.

His vision of heaven, in a sense, is entirely earthly.

His vision, his dream, his longing is for a world made new––

both literally and metaphorically.

Unlike traditional, pious, pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die hopes and yearnings––

which were conjured up in the Middle Ages as a means of social control…

and which have long been foisted upon us by religious conservatives––

the promise here is not that we, somehow, will go to be with God;

but, rather, that God comes to dwell with us.

And it’s through God’s intimate dwelling with humanity––

and note, with all humanity…

because there are no qualification or exceptions;

it’s through God’s intimate dwelling with humanity…

that the promise of no more death… 

no more mourning… 

and no more pain… 

is made.

And yet, there are nuances in the Greek, here, that our English versions miss.

The word translated as “pain” can also mean ‘toil’ or ‘labour’.

But it can also mean ‘war’.

And, clearly, some of those nuances are, indeed, intended here.

After all, this vision of John’s follows a number of other visions––

which the lectionary has conveniently skipped over––

visions that describe death and destruction…

oppression and war…

and the sorts of sufferings that we humans continue to visit upon one another…

especially upon the weak, powerless, and defenceless.

These things, he says, “will be no more”…

because, literally, ‘the former things have passed away’…

and God is making “all things new”. 

Writing to people who were suffering;

people who were frightened and fearful, unsure of the future;

people who felt like the world was falling apart…

and who were struggling to cope––

this vision of John’s was his ultimate word of hope and encouragement.

This, he proclaimed, is God’s plan…

God’s intention.

This, he proclaimed, is God’s ultimate salvation for humankind.

It’s a vision…

a hope…

that is altogether more expansive and inclusive.

It’s not narrow or insular––

like the usual, traditional doctrine of personal salvation. 

It’s not small or selfish––

like the popular notion that, by believing in Jesus, I’ll spend eternity in heaven…

but those who don’t believe, won’t.

Rather, for John, salvation is corporate, global, and cosmic.

It’s a hope…

it’s a promise…

that all things will be made new––

restored to right relationship.

The God in whom John hopes––

the God whom John proclaims––

is One who will not stop short of anything but a new heaven and a new earth…

a new creation.

And that new heaven and new earth––

that new creation––

begins, he suggests, when God dwells among us…

and God dwells with us;

when we become, truly, God’s people…

God’s children;

and when we recognise that everyone else, without exception, is God’s child as well.

That new heaven and new earth––

that new creation–– 

begins…

he suggests…

whenever we put aside the things that lead to mourning and wailing;

whenever we put aside the things that lead to pain and human suffering;

whenever we put aside the things that lead to oppression, conflict, and war;

whenever the former way of doing things passes away.

That, John declares, is the Christian hope of salvation.

And it has nothing… 

whatsoever… 

to do with what happens to us when we die.