Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
From the resurrection of Jesus comes hope—hope of everlasting life with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Out of our second Bible reading this morning, from the book of Revelation, comes a message of holy hope. “There’s a new world coming,” St. John, the visionary, is telling us.
Today let’s take a look at it.
All of the Sundays this Easter season, except for Easter Sunday itself, have had a reading from the book of Revelation. Parts of Chapters 1, 5, 7, and the beginning of Chapter 21 have been explored.
Two Sundays ago, in Chapter 7, St. John gave us a glimpse of heaven. But today we’re much further along in the book – Chapter 21. Here John is describing the end of all things, which is really a new beginning. And this time we’re not looking just at heaven, but the new world that’s coming.
The two are not the same. Which may surprise you. Normally we think that heaven is the ultimate thing, the greatest of all God’s gifts, beyond which there is nothing better. When the Lord welcomes you into heaven, that’s it. There’s something to be said for that, but that’s not strictly true–at least not as far as the Bible is concerned. Remember, Jesus said that there will be new heavens and a new earth. According to the Bible, the eternal home of God’s faithful people may be heavenly, but it isn’t heaven per se. It’s what the Nicene Creed calls “the life of the world to come.” Or what’s described in the book of Revelation as “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” It’s a vision of heaven on earth.
This is how it will happen. Christ, who came to earth once to suffer, die, and rise again, will come again in beauty and power. He will make all things new. The dead will be raised, clothed once again with bodies—glorified, perfected bodies, free of sin, disease, aging, and death. The Lord will transform the living also, to fit them for eternity. He will judge us all. Those who by faith have received God’s grace will be welcomed into the holy city that’s come down from heaven. There they will live in God’s presence forever.
So heaven is not the best God has to offer, but in a sense, heaven on earth.
This can be a dangerous concept, this idea of heaven on earth. We have to be careful here. Down through the ages, there have been plenty of dreams and ideas about heaven on earth. All of these have been colossal failures and some of them downright deadly.
You can go all the way back to ancient Greece, for example. There, the philosopher Plato thought he knew how to build the perfect society. What you do, he figured, is put philosophers—deep thinkers like himself—in charge of everything. Fortunately the Greeks had the good sense not to try it out.
To provide one other example out of many: In more recent times Vladimir Lenin—spring-boarding off the ideas of another philosopher, Karl Marx—claimed to have figured out how to build the classless society, another version of heaven on earth. When he and others attempted to implement their plan, millions of people ended up dead.
Dreams about creating heaven on earth have a way of turning into nightmares. So we have to be careful here.
We Americans have a persistent streak of heaven-on-earth building efforts, too. We don’t call it that, though. We call it politics. How many times have politicians promised that, if only we vote for them, they will save us from this problem or that threat? As if they could.
And then of course there are the religious dreams about building heaven on earth. There’s never been any shortage of these either. Much of the terrorism in the world today is largely inspired by such dreams. So have been all kinds of crusades and religious atrocities of the past, if we’re intellectually honest about it.
So what about St. John’s vision in today’s second lesson? Is it any different?
Well, listen again to what he says. An angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
Notice first that St. John’s heaven on earth is not made by human hands, or even by human ideas. We do not build it according to our own dreams and schemes. In fact we cannot build it. That’s what makes this vision of heaven on earth very different. What we can’t do, God does. Which is why it’s heavenly and perfect.
And since John wants us to look forward to this heaven on earth, this life of the world to come, he tells us what it’s like. His description is extravagant and lush. Unfortunately, quite a bit of it was left out of our reading for today. So I’ll clue you in now.
Consider, for starters, the size of the city. It’s one thousand five hundred miles long, fifteen hundred miles wide, and – get this – fifteen hundred miles high. So, if we try to put that into terms we can attempt to grasp in human terms: Think of the area from Houston to San Diego, up to Vancouver, across to Minneapolis, and back to Houston.
Well, even that extremely large area is not quite as big as the base of the heavenly city. Now, imagine that it stretches just as far into the sky! This city is huge! There’s room enough for us all.
And this vast city is a magnificent work of art. And a work of art usually has a signature on it somewhere to tell us the name of the artist. This city has the signature of none other than God Himself on it. We know this first by its perfection. It’s a perfect cube. All the measurements of the city are multiples of twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ.
God also applies His name to the city and its inhabitants with great generosity. His handiwork is lavish. There is no restraint, but gift upon gift. No holding back as the jeweler’s vault is opened and the walls and gates of the city are set in precious stones.
And these stones, like the city itself, are enormous. For instance, we’re told that each of the city’s gates is some four hundred fifty feet high. And each gate is made from a single pearl. That’s some pearl. John is trying to describe the indescribable. It’s a way of saying that God’s extravagance to us knows no bounds.
The Scriptures give us just a foretaste of this great extravagance when they tell us that Jesus changed water into wine, and when He fed the multitude with only a few loaves of bread and fish. Later, in Jesus’ suffering and death, we learn even more of God’s extravagance when we remember how God gave himself fully for us. He spared not His Son, but gave Him up for us all. Our God is generous beyond all thought or anything we can imagine. And the wonderful good news is that we get to enjoy His generosity forever.
In addition to God’s perfection and generosity, it is also His mercy that makes this heaven on earth. The foundation of the city is the mercy of God. His mercy enlightens the gems, the precious stones, the gates of shining pearl, the streets of gold. All these precious building materials are symbols for people like you and me for whom Jesus died. Just as we are the building blocks of God’s house in this world, sinful though we are, so we will be God’s house in the heavenly city come down to earth.
Do you see it? Do you see and understand how much you are worth to God? You are no longer just simple bricks of clay and hard hearts of stone, but you are the jewels of his holy city.
Jewels are beautiful and valuable, indeed. But they don’t start out that way. They have to be found before they can be transformed into something beautiful. They have to be refined and worked on before they sparkle.
So it is with us. Jesus buys us at great cost and effort. He searches us out, like a miner digging down deep into the depths of the earth. He finds us embedded in the rock of sin, caked with the dirt of selfish desire, covered with the grime of self-deception and sin. In short, in our natural state we are in the grip of death—buried not with Christ in the cleansing waters of baptism, but buried in the devil’s stony claws. We can be broken free only by a powerful and skillful hand.
So Jesus finds us, breaks us free, and brings us to the light of day. He uses this life to purge us; to refine and polish us to prepare us for the life of the world to come. We call it sanctification—of being made holy by the work of the Holy Spirit upon us. We don’t always like it. We often resist. But God who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.
What more could we ask for than this? What else could we possibly want besides what God has already promised us? Forget false hopes and impossible dreams that we can somehow build heaven on earth ourselves, or that someone else has answers or ideas that can provide it to us. Yes, a few improvements here and there are possible. God has certainly endowed us with great gifts and resources and abilities so that we might serve our fellow man and bring the Word of salvation to them. Achieving what we are actually capable of is great, even admirable, and can bring glory to God.
But our ultimate hope resides not in turning earth into heaven, but in trusting that for Jesus’ sake and by His death and resurrection, God has brought heaven to us. Our final rest relies upon and belongs in Christ alone, in whom God gives us the life of the world to come.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.