Maybe you’ve noticed in the past few weeks that we’ve been reading from the Revelation of St. John the Divine for our second lesson. In fact this brief period is the only time in our three-year cycle of readings where we hear anything from Revelation on a Sunday morning. That goes for anybody who uses the Revised Common Lectionary: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and so on. It also goes for Roman Catholics, who use an almost identical lectionary. And in Eastern Orthodox churches you will never hear it read in a Sunday liturgy, not once.
That might be just as well. It was always a disputed book that barely made it into the New Testament. It’s a favorite source for some of today’s most ludicrous and sinister conspiracy theories. And it has tempted Christians to make fools of themselves in every generation for the past 2,000 years, as they proclaimed that the tribulations of their age guaranteed Jesus’ speedy return, only to change the subject when it didn’t happen.
And we might be tempted too. After all, our own time is full of tribulations—a deadly virus that keeps mutating, a war that, if we’re not careful, could become a global catastrophe, mass shootings—not just last week’s—fueled by racist theories, the whole world threatening to descend into utter, violent chaos. How I wish I could just look up and see the new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God.” And I suspect that, somewhere in the deep recesses of your own soul, you wish for that too, no matter how skeptical you’ve grown when people use an ancient book to predict the future.
When it comes to forecasts, we of course ought to be skeptical. We ought to resist the temptation. But don’t discount that deep wish, that longing, that may well turn out to be an essential part of being human in this always-conflicted world. We can’t help dreaming of something like a new heaven and new earth, even if we imagine it in different terms.
Whatever his shortcomings as a forecaster, St. John the Divine couldn’t help dreaming either, and neither could his readers. Convinced that he had glimpsed God’s vision of the world as God wants it to be, he spoke words of warning and hope to the people of his time. He wrote the Book of Revelation as a long letter to help Christians, and maybe some of his fellow Jews, cope with the ruthlessness of the Roman Empire in the light of God’s promised final victory. By the time he wrote, the Empire had destroyed Jerusalem and slaughtered countless Jews, because they had rebelled. Anybody with a connection to Jerusalem was now under suspicion, all over the Empire, and that included Christians. You could be socially penalized for who you were, maybe arrested, sometimes even executed. Christians lived in constant fear of being exposed. Some were giving up and renouncing their faith. Others were trying to blend in with everybody else. John wrote this letter to help them be who they were called to be, to have the courage not to be just like everybody else, especially not like the rulers from Rome.
It’s easy to lose track of what John was up to, because he decided to use a literary device that was popular in his time. Maybe today it would have been a blockbuster movie of the sort that gets churned out almost monthly, full of computer-generated special effects, chase scenes, and at least one humongous explosion. We call that ancient version apocalyptic literature, and like today’s blockbuster people were churning out a new one almost monthly. It was full of fantastic, violent imagery that was sure to get an audience and keep them on the edges of their seats.
John uses that sort of imagery, but here’s the startling thing. He uses it to sneak in a message that’s anything but violent. As it turns out, John’s answer to the ruthless power of Rome is a vastly different kind of power—not the power of a blockbuster, or a superhero, but the power of a slaughtered Lamb. The first time John saw this Lamb in one of his visions, he had just been told by a heavenly elder that the key to understanding God’s ways was “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, [who] has conquered” (Rev. 5:5). So John looks up, expecting to see a fierce, war-like lion, or at least a powerful king like David. Instead he sees “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6). John’s Revelation is all about this Lamb, not a lion. If you’ll allow a little alliteration, the key to what God is up to is not a conquering carnivore but a vulnerable vegetarian!*
John sees two kinds of power at work in the world—the power of governments and armies to win short-term victories with violence, and the power of the Lamb to win the final victory by suffering with the victims of governments and armies. Forces of the Empire are in league with the forces of evil. But those who endure persecution faithfully and lovingly are in league with the forces of the Lamb, the forces of God.
The Lamb, of course, is Jesus, the one who lived out the love of God among us even to the point of rejection and execution, the one who came back, after we’d done our worst, to keep loving us all over again. Blockbuster imagery aside, he never conquers by violence. True, at the end of his letter John shows us a picture of Jesus arriving on a white horse to conquer the forces of the Empire. The picture looks violent, and the authors of that Left Behind series write about it as a literal slaughter of Jesus’ opponents. But they’ve missed the point of that picture. John says that the only weapon Jesus uses is the sword, as it were, that comes out of his mouth (19:15)—Jesus wins not by a literal sword but by his message, his good news of God’s coming reign. He wins by sharing the good news of God’s love for even God’s fiercest opponents. He wins by a love that outlasts every kind of rejection people can cook up, a love that outlasts even death itself.
At the end of his letter we’re shown one of John’s final visions. We heard part of it last week, and another part of it today. Instead of that popular image of Christians getting raptured up into heaven, we might say that John sees the New Jerusalem getting raptured down to earth, and he hears a voice that says: “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3). We see a city filled, not with ordinary light, but with the light of the glory of God, whose lamp is the Lamb. We see whole nations and their leaders, healed and cleansed from any traces of evil, walking in the light of the Lamb, entering through gates thrown wide open. We see a river flowing with life from the Lamb’s throne and a really strange tree that manages to grow on both sides of the river, whose leaves have the power to heal. Everyone is marked as the Lamb’s own forever, and they finally see God face to face.
That’s John’s vision … of God’s vision … of the world as God wants it to be. It’s his vision, again, of what I suspect all of us long for in the depths of our souls. It’s his vision of the reign of God that Jesus preached to the point of getting himself executed.
And just as much as Jesus did, John wants us to see how this future earthly paradise is already coming into the world. John doesn’t want to leave us with predictions about the future. All along, from the very beginning of his letter, John has been telling us that God and the Lamb already reign. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Anointed One” (Rev. 11:15). The New Jerusalem is still on its way, but it’s already begun to arrive. God has already come to dwell with us in the risen life of Jesus and in his Body, namely, us. We, together, are the beginning of the New Jerusalem. If that’s true then it’s high time God’s people started living there—in the new Jerusalem already “coming down from heaven.”
The best part of John’s message is that we can start living in that New Jerusalem right now. We can already live by the power of the Lamb. There’s no excuse for putting it off. When John started his letter he singled out seven different nearby churches and wrote each one of them (Rev. 2-3). And what he says to each of them is basically this: “Why aren’t you living by the power of the Lamb? Why are you letting the power games of ambitious and selfish people get in the way? You are rightful citizens of the New Jerusalem. The Lamb is the power that moves the world, so stop wasting time.”
And that’s what John is saying to us: Why aren’t we living by the power of the Lamb? What keeps us from being the New Jerusalem right here? What keeps us from throwing our doors wide open? What keeps us from welcoming all sorts of peculiar-seeming people to taste the tree of life and the river of life growing and flowing right here?
The home of God is already among us mortals. God already dwells with us as our God; and God’s very presence is with us now. That will be our future, make no mistake about it. But it’s our present too.
*I’m greatly indebted to two very helpful books here: Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), and Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, MA: The Westview Press, 2004).