Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Walk in the Park: Sermon on Revelation 22:1-3

A month after Easter, the days of April rain had at last left off, so a barrel-chested man in his early sixties went for a solitary morning stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue. The birds had started singing their brightest happy songs. (Listen: Can you hear them?) The grass was luxuriant. And at either side of the massively broad avenue, the trees were beginning to bud. He paused to admire one, a sycamore – he knew it well. After all, he'd planted it, along with many of the rest. Jemmy Maher, out for a stroll in the spring of 1856, had by that point been serving for 22 and a half years as Washington DC's public gardener. He mused as he caressed the fresh buds of the sycamore.

Jemmy – “loud, vehement, emphatic, and intensely Irish,” one paper put it, as Irish Catholic as they come – had been born and bred on the Emerald Isle. He was about six years old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 tried to rise up and cast off the English yoke from his land. His father had been a captain in that rebellion, and when things failed, the elder man had fled to America for self-preservation, leaving his family behind - including six-year-old Jemmy. Jemmy, who'd taken up gardening as a hobby when he was twelve, waited another twelve years to follow his father's tracks. In 1816, Jemmy'd sailed to Boston, promptly taken an oath of allegiance to his new land of refuge, moved to Philadelphia, and within five years got his naturalization papers. He and his wife Bridget moved to Washington in 1833, thrilled to get nearer their hero, President Andrew Jackson, who that autumn appointed Jemmy as public gardener for DC.

Though Jemmy had no easy time of it – partisan politics, power plays, prejudice, and admittedly a predilection for whisky – nonetheless he proved a rousing success in the position. He beautified the grounds of the White House and Capitol with honeysuckle and rose, and all the stretch of road in between and around with a selection of magnificent trees, some of them from his thousands-strong private nursery. Nobody knew plants like “Jemmy Maher, born widout a shirt!” And he loved them as his children. As each winter approached, Jemmy wept hot tears over the thief Jack Frost's abduction of his blossoms. An ambitious man, nevertheless the years rolling by never quite fulfilled his dream of a city flowing with fountains; but he did have many of the broad avenues thoroughly shaded by his sycamores, his maples, his ashes and elms. And as he'd stroll past on mornings like this one, he said, “they speak to me and bow and nod their heads to me as I go along the streets, and bless and thank me for planting and caring for them.” It was a beautiful morning for just such a stroll. And to Jemmy's eyes, the trees were full of joy and gratitude – the birds were giving voice to their spring hymns of thanksgiving. Even in the midst of the city, Jemmy had toiled his life to preserve the beauties of nature, with all his heart and soul.

Not quite three years from that day, Jemmy would pass from this world, six months after Bridget. And during the Civil War, soldiers would harvest many of his beloved tree-children for lumber. But his work would continue, and in the 1870s, the newly-formed Parking Commission would line the streets of DC with tens of thousands of more trees. (Alas, fifty years on, officials would begin chopping down those roadside tree parks to make more room for the automobiles that had begun to pull in between them to stop by the side of the road – hence why we still say we 'park' our cars.) Off and on through the years, in the nation's capital and elsewhere, we've had varying levels of awareness of the importance of what's known as 'urban forestry,' the planting of tree life and other park and garden spaces within city environments. Without maintaining a vibrant urban forest, cities – and even small towns – can too easily become sterile, artificial, and (dare I say) ugly, cutting us off from the nature in which and with which we really do belong, in some measure. Men like Jemmy Maher knew that. Men like Jemmy Maher were determined not to let us get so far from our roots. In May 1845, one DC observer remarked that the lands under Jemmy's care became “a perfect Garden of Eden in appearance.” Three years later, another praised the “Eden-like beauty of the blooming gardens” Jemmy tended. Eden – Jemmy knew, and we know, where we're from.

The Bible's recounting of our roots plants them in a garden – God's garden. We're told that “God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed; and out of the ground, Yahweh God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Genesis 2:8-10). That's the Bible's basic picture of the original paradise: a garden filled with good trees, crowned by the tree of life, and “well-watered everywhere” by its very own river (Genesis 13:10). That's the park where Adam and Eve, the Bible's representation of original manhood and womanhood, were appointed by God as public gardeners, much like their descendant Jemmy. For God took humanity “and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15) – to serve God and guard the garden. It was a high and lofty positionthose are the same Hebrew verbs used in Leviticus for the mission of priests. As a later book says outright, “the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies and the dwelling of the Lord” (Jubilees 8.19). The garden was the original inner-sanctuary of the universe, God's own place of beauty. Adam and Eve were royal priests, tasked with maintaining the garden and expanding the garden until the garden filled the entire world. Their joy was have been to worship God face-to-face there as he would walk in the garden in the cool of the day; their joy would have been to celebrate the beauties of Eden, and to be fruitful and multiply in the garden, and disciple more and more generations of human gardeners, and give rise to a deathless civilization of Eden that would gradually extend the garden to fill the whole earth, lovingly ordering all things to the glory of the one and only God!  That's what Adam and Eve, what we, were put there for.

That's what was supposed to happen. But it didn't go so smoothly. For allowing an unclean serpent to infest the garden, and then for listening to its incitements to mistrust and overthrow God's authority in his own sanctuary, Adam and Eve – having refused to guard the garden lost the Garden of Eden. They were exiled from the garden-temple, and their responsibility to guard it was handed over to cherubim stationed at the east entryway (Genesis 3:24). They exited into a world where the very dirt itself was cursed on their account, cursed to yield with difficulty and diminution, and cursed to one day receive their dusty bones in death (Genesis 3:17-19). Out we went to farm and forage, living off the land, multiplying in a fruitless desert place, until the first city (Genesis 4:17). Down through the centuries goes human civilization until Israel, under Solomon, builds a temple, a new permanent sanctuary. This temple was supposed to be a recreation of the garden – there's a reason King Solomon decorated it with “gourds and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:18), and why “around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms” (1 Kings 6:29), with each of the supporting columns being topped with lilies and pomegranates (1 Kings 7:18-19). The temple was decorated like the garden, a simulated Eden in lumber and gold, a stand-in for the realities of paradise lost.

And the prophets predicted one day it'd grow again. Isaiah heard God promise to “open rivers on the bare heights” and to “put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive..., the cypress, the plane, and the pine together” (Isaiah 41:17-19). Joel imagined that “the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water, and a fountain shall come forth from the House of Yahweh and water the valley” (Joel 3:18). Building on Joel's hope, Ezekiel – a prophet living in exile after the temple, their simulated Eden, was burned down – dreamed dreams of a new temple, bigger and bolder, whose walls and doors would again be decorated with cherubim and palm trees (Ezekiel 41:18-26) and from which would surge an ever-deepening river flowing into the Dead Sea (Ezekiel 47:8). Its purity would be so great that in it would live “very many fish” of “very many kinds” (Ezekiel 47:9-10), and on either bank of the river would grow “very many trees” (Ezekiel 47:7). There'd be “all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12). In other words, it would be an Eden restored, flowing and growing in their own land after all exile was ended. Decades later, a prophet named Zechariah was still hoping for the day when Yahweh would stand on the Mount of Olives and bring “a unique day..., neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. On that day, living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea: it shall conitnue in summer as in winter, and Yahweh will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:7-9), “for there shall never again be a curse” (Zechariah 14:11 LXX).

Through the centuries after Ezekiel, Jews kept hoping for those living waters and that new garden. One had visions of the whole earth being “cleansed from all pollution” (1 Enoch 10.22) and the entire earth then being planted with “pleasant trees” (1 Enoch 10.18-19), particularly the tree of life growing in the holy place, with leaves that never wither and beautiful fruit and an incomparable fragrance (1 Enoch 24.4; 25.5). Another later hoped for the Messiah to “open the gates of paradise; he shall remove the sword that has threatened since Adam, and he will grant to the holy ones to eat of the tree of life” (Testament of Levi 18.10-11). Their dream was that “the saints shall refresh themselves in Eden; the righteous shall rejoice in the New Jerusalem, which shall be eternally for the glorification of God” (Testament of Dan 5.12). Still later, another writer longed for “twelve trees loaded with various fruits, and the same number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven mighty mountains on which roses and lilies grow” (4 Ezra 2.18-19).

And humbly, John – filled with the same age-old longings as a son of Adam and Eve – steps onto the stage. We already heard much about the New Jerusalem he sees, a city that signifies a whole civilization, the future hoped for every city and every town and every space on the earth to be 'New Jerusalem-ized.' But if what we'd heard thus far were all he said, then we might fear it would be a concrete jungle, a sterile thing of metal and stone, discarding nature in the interests of shelter and security. John does not want us to fear that. Which is why it's important that John adds the verses we've read this morning. John wants to be clear that New Jerusalem is not that kind of city. No, the New Jerusalem he can see is a New Jerusalem with an urban forest that'd put Jemmy Maher to shame. Because the New Jerusalem that John sees is also a New Garden of Eden – both Holy City and Holy Garden, construction and natural growth, in one. All Jemmy's works of love pointed forward to an eternity that's a true garden-city – neither a return to a primitive wilderness state nor an urbanism that alienates from nature.

This is the kind of place we were always meant to live. In a way, you could say that everything from Genesis 3 onward has been a detour, an 'off-the-beaten-path' roundabout way of getting to where God meant us to go quite simply. We were meant to expand the garden, to build up a civilization of Eden across the world, developing holy settlements around the globe, which would have always been in perfect harmony with nature, always have gone with nature's grain, always have seamlessly blended with the flora and fauna we tended. But in our detour east of Eden, led astray in the exile of our sins, we haven't built our world that way. Even since the ancient Sumerians, we've felt a tension between nature and civilization (consider the Epic of Gilgamesh!). Still, even along our detour, God has unfolded his plans in majestic and marvelous ways, albeit in a less fruitful and less beautiful world afflicted by a curse. Yet the destination remains the same as it always has been and always would have been. What John sees, what prophets before him yearned for, is for the curse to be lifted – for a day when it can be said, “no longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:3a; cf. Zechariah 14:11).

For because there was a curse, Adam and Eve were once cast out. But history will have its symmetry. The curse will be withdrawn, its purposes fulfilled. The edict of exile will expire. And those who follow the Last Adam will be welcomed back home – we will go home to the garden, go home to the life we should've been living all along, go home to Eden. But it will not be back to Eden as Adam and Eve first knew it. For they were given a small and limited garden, governed by sun and moon overhead, and tasked to build it up into something, to take it in hand and work it and keep it. They were given an Eden in formation, an Eden with a long mission ahead. But we will go back to an Eden with a long mission accomplished, an Eden already extended, an Eden tended by the gentle hands of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, the best Urban Forester, the perfect Public Gardener. We will go home to an Eden already built up into a Divine Garden-City, verdant and fragrant and radiant. The new creation will be naturally beautiful, liberated into our glorious liberty as God's children; it will be a landscape saturated with God's own glory and populated by flora and fauna all fulfilled in their perfections!

And in this world made new, in this global garden-city, we'll find all the joys Adam and Eve had set aside – yet we'll come to them in mature responsibility, on the other side of innocence. Once, they walked with their God in the garden's cooling breeze. And so will we. For God will be there, walking among us, talking with us. Zechariah declared that in that day beyond the familiar rhythms and seasons of this world, “Yahweh will be king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:9). And he will reign from the garden-city, for “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3b). God will be enthroned in the garden, ruling over every redwood and every rutabaga, every bear and every bobcat, in his New Eden. And he will rule this garden world through us, for John tells us that we “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Nor will the Father rule without his Son by his side, sharing the same throne of authority. Jesus will still be King of Kings and Lord of Lords – and he will still be the Lamb, still be the one we recognize as having been sacrificed for us. He will still be the One who was once crucified, the One who gave up his blood to wash our robes clean, the One whose transfigured scars stream light and beauty into all the world. Jesus will still be our all in all. Our eyes will “behold the King in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17), the beauty that makes Eden itself beautiful. And we will, for all our eternal days in his garden-city, worship Jesus just as we worship his Father (Revelation 22:3).

When John sees this glorious global garden-city, his guiding angel shows to him “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Revelation 22:1-2a). This is the river Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple foundation – turns out that God and the Lamb are that temple, so from them comes the gush of living water. This is the river Zechariah saw spilling from Jerusalem, flowing to the eastern and western seas.

What John sees here is a great mystery, but to start out, it shows us what will someday be true of every river. It shows us that everywhere on earth will be well-watered like the Garden of Eden was. It shows us what that water will be like – this river is “bright as crystal,” clear and transparent. There's no pollution in it. There's no muck or murky disturbance to it. Go stop by the Conestoga River, and tell me how well you can see the bottom. The water's too muddy. Go join Jemmy on the banks of the Potomac, and the water may be a more beautiful blue, but it isn't as bright as crystal. The water John sees is translucent, and with all things filled with life, you could see right to the bottom of it. Magnificent. So, too, the water John sees is flowing water, living water, life-giving water. The prophets had seen how this water, holy water flowing from the sanctuary, would cause life to sprout in the desert, would sustain a bustling ecosystem all its own, would purify even the most sterile waters with its contagious purity, its exuberant purity of life, and make everything live wherever it goes. We can hope for every river to have a share in that – for every river, every stream, every brook and creek and littlest trickle, to sustain life, to set in motion a cascade of ecology, to be the nourishment of nature in every clod of soil.

But, of course, John speaks in deeper symbols. And when he sees a river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of the Father and the Son, he's seeing, among other things, the Holy Spirit, flowing out from them, connecting us all with a divine goodness that gushes in torrents of life. God's goodness, God's life, will flow into us, supply us, refresh us and all creation. This “living water flowing / in soul-refreshing streams,” the Holy Spirit's flood, is the “living water” that Jesus longs to give us when we ask (John 4:10), the rivers that well up within and flow from a heart of faith (John 7:38). The Holy Spirit will one day flood us, flow through our society with the refreshing goodness of God at all times. And John sees his river as flowing down the middle of the city's street, at the heart of the thoroughfare like a Venetian canal, because the Holy Spirit will be central to all our comings and all our goings. There will be no pathway in any of the world's villages where the Holy Spirit isn't torrential, isn't obviously rushing in power, for all eternity bringing refreshment to the highways and byways, watering the earth with the effervescent life of the Father and the Son.

And because the River flows with life, the Tree of Life will grow there – “on either side of the river, the tree of life” (Revelation 22:2b). And we can understand this, first, on a more mundane level. The whole earth will be a well-watered garden, and every garden has to have growth. If Ezekiel saw the river producing many kinds of trees, well, John focuses on the tree of life, the tree at the heart of Adam's longing and Eve's missed chance. As John reviews Ezekiel's visions, John sees that all our trees will be trees of life – every tree will be productive, every tree will be fruitful, every tree will be a source of delight and plenty, every tree will be the fulfillment of our deep longings. (And so, I would suggest, for each shrub, each bush, each vine, each flower, each blade of grass, to partake of something of the character of the 'tree of life.')

John sees that the tree planted by the river will have healing leaves – “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2d). Ezekiel saw that, how the leaves of all the trees he witnessed would be “for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12). That doesn't mean people will keep getting sick for all eternity, will keep needing medical attention for all eternity. It's to show us, again and again, under all kind of images, just how lavishly committed God is to doing away with everything wrong. He wants us to know just how many benefits there will be. And so he gives images of abundant healing. Some ancient Jewish readers of Ezekiel interpreted the healing leaves as being either a digestive aid or a fertility treatment (Midrash Rabbah Canticles 4.12.4). John doesn't get into that. The main point he wants to get across is that the 'healing' from Ezekiel is for the nations.” God intends to gather the world around the tree – Americans and Russians, Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Turks, the discipled from every people and party – and bring us all together in the garden, heal us all together in the garden, help us all grow into a new world together in the garden.

John's one other observation about the tree of life is that it bears “twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month” (Revelation 22:2c). Ezekiel had already seen the trees as “bear[ing] fresh fruit every month..., their fruit for food” (Ezekiel 47:12). Both want us to have the image that God's provision never gets stale, never gets tired, never pales, never becomes insufficient. Never will we have to depend on last month's leftover grace! There will always be a new flavor of grace, a new species of grace, waiting for our fingertips to stretch forth and effortlessly take what he offers. The world we know can't measure up to the fruitfulness of what God has in store! Each tree is pictured as bearing its fruit for us all the time, a rotating crop supplying us with a diverse range of freshness, ripe for the picking. God's gifts are not only sufficient, they will be super-abundant. All this world is stuck in dreary winter in comparison to the bloom that's ahead of us. Jemmy's gardens and our gardens are only the barest pointers to what lies in store. The world will really be as beautiful as John tells it. We really will find all around us that “everlasting spring abides, and never-withering flowers.”

But as we ponder this tree of life John sees, we should see it with the eyes of the church. And for a very long time, the church has understood that the cross of Jesus Christ is our tree of life – for from the crucifixion of the Lord, there grow all the blessings our spirits can savor. Over sixteen hundred years ago, Christian poets were already saying things like, “Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life when it beheld Adam stolen away from it; it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden, to burst forth and reappear on Golgotha; humanity, like birds that are chased, took refuge in it so that it might return them to their proper home; the chaser was chased away, while the doves that had been chased now hop with joy in paradise.” The church long ago started singing lines like, “The church has been revealed as a second paradise, having within it, like the first paradise of old, a tree of life, your cross, O Lord: By touching it, we share in immortality.” Now, as an old Christian poet said, “the very Planter of the Garden has become the food for our souls.”

Jesus' cross is a tree of life, whose every leaf is a healing balm for hurting souls and who perpetually yields fruit for our food, never becoming barren. Jesus is always fruitful, and Jesus will always be fruitful – John sees that! John sees that it is exactly as the crucified-and-risen Jesus, exactly as the slain-and-standing Lamb, that Christ will be enthroned with his Father as our everything in our paradise regained. Jesus alone wins our paradise!

And we begin to taste this paradise now as we come to Jesus for the healing of his leaves, as we pluck the fruits of his atoning sacrifice and eat them, letting him make his life a part of us, and one day the whole of us. (And only at the cross of Christ, the tree of life, will all the nations find healing for what ails them.) For it's not for nothing that “in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb..., [and] they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41-42). And it's not for nothing that he rose victorious over death in a garden, and not for nothing that the first eyewitness to encounter the risen Lord Jesus “supposed him to be the gardener” (John 20:15). Gardens have everything to do with it. If you thought Jemmy Maher was good, wait 'til you see what this Gardening God can do with the New Jerusalem's New Eden, where the Tree of Life grows and the River of Life flows from God's own throne!

The cross shows us that the long history of sin has not been allowed to finally sidetrack humanity from the great and glorious destiny God has always had planned for us; nor does the long history of death's curse finally keep creation back from its destined blessing! Eden lies, not just behind us, but ahead of us. The world will be the garden-city it was always meant to be. Every place – be it New York or New Holland, be it Detroit or desert – will be filled with the lush verdure of Eden's spring, not erasing what we've built but reforming and conforming it to the design of Christ. The world will then one day be perfectly beautified; we will then one day live in perfect harmony with all creatures great and small; we will then one day sit under the shade of our own trees and our own vines, amidst our own flowers and our own fields; we will then one day savor all Eden's choicest fruits and fragrances; and best, we will at last one day walk with God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as our sole supply and closest companion, face-to-face in the New-Eden Garden-City of God. For “Yahweh comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3). Forever, through the grace of Christ our Gardener. Hallelujah!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Lamb our Lamp: Sermon on Revelation 21:22-27 + 22:4-5

The scene: London, a June evening in the year 1662. It's before the Industrial Revolution. There are no light bulbs. No street lamps. Nothing but darkness. Samuel Pepys, a 29-year-old administrator on the board of the British Royal Navy, gets home from work, his mind troubled by his conflicts with Admiral William Penn, father of our state's namesake. Slipping into bed, Samuel tosses and turns beside his wife Elisabeth. He can't stop thinking about the government funds entrusted to him. He calls for a maid to go light a candle in the dining room, a sign of residence to scare away potential thieves. Only then can he fall asleep. Twenty-five months pass by. Feeling ill from drinking too much mineral water, Samuel, now 31, slips into bed. The clock strikes eleven, and his body begins to sweat. Paranoia sets in over the government money. And as he hears a noise, he nearly melts. He rings the bell again and again, but can't rouse the maids, starting to wonder if a thief in the night has slipped in and gagged them. Only after his maid Jane rises and assures him the noise was just the dog could Samuel slip off to sleep. Another thirteen months go by. It's a Monday night in August 1665. Samuel, 32, has little choice but to walk the unlit streets of London at ten o'clock, and all is blackness. It's a plague year, but though that scares him most, he can't stop thinking about the prospect of being waylaid by robbers and rogues. It takes him an hour to get home, and he collapses wearily into bed next to Elisabeth. Thirteen more months pass, and throughout a September week, a great fire rages through the city. But it, too, fades to history. Then, fourteen months later, comes the close of November 1667. Samuel, 34, wakes early one Friday morning, seven o'clock, stirred by a crashing noise in the late twilight. Sure that thieves are inside the house, he and Elisabeth cling to one another until after sunrise. Even when all's clear, he's left to ponder whether his house is haunted.  The dark can play with our heads.

Such are not uncommon fears at times today, and such were hardly uncommon fears before the installation of the artificial lights we take so readily for granted. Before the Industrial Revolution, people routinely plunged off docks, tumbled into ditches, hit their heads on signs, crashed into open cellars, while thieves and murderers roamed in bands, exploiting popular superstition to add to their fearsomeness. Night was, for many, a source of unease. Nearly four decades before Samuel was born, another Londoner – Thomas Nashe, a pastor's son who became a friend and collaborator of Shakespeare's – wrote about “the terrors of the night,” saying “they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil's black book wherein he records all our transgressions. … When Night, in her rusty dungeons, has imprisoned our eyesight..., the devil keeps his audit in our sin-guilty consciences..., the table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us. … Well have poets termed night the nurse of cares, the mother of despair, the daughter of hell.” All manner of unpleasant things could happen in the night. In the dark. How haunted our lives can be by the darkness!

When we turn, not to Nashe's devil's black book, but to God's holy book, we find that in the beginning, “God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), for “he dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) from everlasting to everlasting; but in the created world first begun, “darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Only then does God, from the very start, declare “Let there be light,” and suddenly light burst into the darkness (Genesis 1:3; cf. John 1:5). In the course of creation, God appoints the sun to be a lamp for ruling over the daytime hours and the moon to be a lesser lamp ruling over the hours of the night; the pair will thus give the world a rhythm and grant those below visibility and warmth and health and joy (Genesis 1:16-18). And we, once created, need this sun and this moon, because we need light. A neuroscience study done 11 or 12 years ago showed that extended light deprivation can not only induce depression but even cause brain damage. Researchers who've spent prolonged time isolated in darkness for months have lost track of time, taken 30-hour naps, suffered hallucinations, and simply started to break down. One researcher, interviewed after several stints living in underground caves, told the interviewer: “It is dark. You need a light. And if your light goes out, you're dead.” Indeed, without our lamps in the sky, life on earth would soon be extinguished. Were the sun to vanish, the average global surface temperature would plunge under zero within a week, and over the course of that first year would edge its way to a hundred below. During those first weeks, most plants and animals would die off, and we would freeze with them. We depend so heavily on the sun and moon – it's no wonder eclipses terrified civilizations throughout history, who – without understanding their causes – feared the sun threatened.

And yet, for all our reliance on the created natural lamps that pass through our sky, creation has always longed for the light of God himself. Late traditions imagined that Adam and Eve were originally clothed with garments of pure light in the garden, but that their sin led them to realize their nakedness because it extinguished their light (Sirach 49:16; Genesis Rabbah 20.12; Leviticus Rabbah 20.2; Apocalypse of Moses 20.1-2; Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 24; Ephrem, Commentary on Genesis 2.14). And so, banished from the garden, they wandered out into a darker world. Worst of all, it came to pass that their descendants “loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil” (John 3:19), even though “one who walks in darkness doesn't know where he's going” (John 12:35). As a prophet lamented, “We hope for light, and behold, darkness! And for brightness, but we walk in gloom! We grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes, we stumble at noon as in the twilight..., for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities” (Isaiah 59:9-12). But those very same offspring of Adam and Eve had the promise that one day, they might be clothed in light again: “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above” (Daniel 12:3), “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

And they would always pray for God's light to shine on them. When God formed his elect people, their high priest was taught to bless them by saying, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). Their psalmists longed for that blessing, praying things like: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us” (Psalm 67:1), and: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3), and: “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD (Psalm 4:6). And God promised that “the upright shall behold his face” (Psalm 11:7). One later Jewish book would even praise God by saying, “In your heavenly dwelling place, there is an inexhaustible light of an invincible dawning from the light of your face” (Apocalypse of Abraham 17.19). But down through the years, in the meantime, sun and moon and stars kept shedding light down onto the earth, preventing total darkness from plunging us into endless night.

To cherish the light, Israel built a tent called the tabernacle. The tabernacle was like a model of the universe – the colors of its curtains were the rich hues of space and sky (Exodus 26:1), and it it was a great seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, whose lamps represented the sun, moon, and visible planets (Exodus 25:31-40; Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things 45). These were set up at twilight each day and freshly dressed each morning, at the times of the twice-daily incense offerings (Exodus 30:7-8), with “seven lamps” to “give light in front of the lampstand” (Numbers 8:2). It was a constant feature of Israel's life, to ensure that they had light at all times (Leviticus 24:1-4). Later, when Solomon built a temple to replace the tabernacle, he lavishly commissioned not one but ten lampstands, placing five in front of each side of the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 7:49). One of the saddest reports Hezekiah, a later king, could give was that the prior generation had so forgotten God and world that they'd “put out the lamps” in the temple, starving their model universe of its light (2 Chronicles 29:7). And when the Babylonians burned down the temple, they stole the lampstands away (Jeremiah 52:19). All this time, at least Israel still had sun and moon overhead in the sky, but their temple was lost, and the nights were still so very dark. They – and we – were limited in our visibility, our warmth, our health, our joy. No wonder some Jews dreamed of a coming day when they'd have “immortal light” (Sibylline Oracles 3.787), talking of a time to come when there'd be “neither weariness, nor sickness, nor affliction, nor worry, nor want, nor debilitation, nor night, nor darkness; but they will have a great light, a great indestructible light” (2 Enoch 65.9-10).

And then, into that dimmed and darkened world of groaning, “the light of the gospel of the glory of God” was announced (2 Corinthians 4:4), with the goal of reaching people like us, to “open [our] eyes, that [we] may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18). So although the temple had burned, John sees a temple rebuilt here and now – it's the whole gospel-enlightened people of God, in whom each local church is like a lampstand which Jesus our High Priest tends (Revelation 1:12-20), though faithless churches are in danger of having their lampstands removed from that holy temple (Revelation 2:5).

And now, as John bids us look ahead to the New Jerusalem, to that glorious eternal destiny set before us, we might expect to see a temple... but there's no temple shaping the landscape: “I saw no temple in the city,” John writes (Revelation 21:22a). But only because we don't need a temple, don't need a special building. The entire city he sees – the whole worldwide civilization of the saints – is one massive Holy of Holies, as you might remember from last week. God's presence will be at home everywhere just the same – with us: “Its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb,” John explains (Revelation 21:22b). And that's all the temple we need. John beholds no gleaming temple marked out and built up, because everything is temple once God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

And then, John tells us something fantastic, something else we could hardly believe if he hadn't seen it and if we didn't trust the Spirit who spoke through him. He writes: “There will be no night there” (Revelation 21:25b) – that “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5a). And yet this is not to be brought about through the created intermediaries of light like sun and moon, the familiar sky-lamps that have been our constant companions since the Bible's first page. We learn that “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it” (Revelation 21:23a) – that “they will need no light of lamp or sun” (Revelation 22:5b). That does not tell us whether the sun or moon will exist in the new creation; it just says that, so far as our human civilization will be concerned, they won't be relevant. And that should perplex us, because in this present creation, we know how desperately we depend on them! Everything in our lives is organized around sunrise and sunset. The moon creates the tides that keep our ocean from stagnating, the moon reflects the sun's light to guide our nights, and the sun itself is truly vital each and every day of our lives. How could we ever say to the sun, “I don't need you”?

But John goes on to explain. “The glory of God gives it light” (Revelation 21:23b) – “the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5c). The sun and moon are relativized because God himself shows them up, because God himself steps in as a light source. And here, John is only celebrating what Isaiah already heard long before him, when Isaiah announced to Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you; for behold, darkness shall cover the face of the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you, and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:1-3) – “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Isaiah 60:18-20).

When Isaiah says that, you can hear the profundity of the personal connection: your light has come, glory has risen upon you, sun and moon are no longer your light, but the Lord will be everlasting light for you. Those who have refused a relationship with God may be exiled into “the outer darkness” for “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12), but as for you, you who know God, you who trust God and hope in God, these promises are for you. God is talking to Isaiah's Israel, and through them to the New Jerusalem, and pledging to have special relationship with them – a relationship of active transmission, the Light to the lit. It's divine light! For “with [him] is the fountain of life; and in [his] light shall we see light” (Psalm 36:10). If we belong to that city and persist on our journey with Jesus, we will see all light in God's light. Sun and moon will not matter – the light will be from the Lord our God himself. Neither thief nor terror can haunt where God makes bright.

But it gets better. Before John even wrote, other Jewish writers hoped that the Messiah would have something to do with this bright picture. And one of them wrote that the Messiah would “shine forth like the sun in the earth; he shall take away all darkness from under heaven, and there shall be peace in all the earth” (Testament of Levi 18.4). And John knows the truth in that hope. The Messiah, the Christ, will take away all the darkness. It will give way to his shining light. And in his light, flowing from God's everlasting light, will be world peace.

So now John tells us what he's seen: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and... its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). There, in that last phrase, is our key. This is the same Lamb who shares a single throne with the Supreme Majesty, for we read about “the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1, 3). This is the same Lamb who is a single temple with the Supreme Majesty, for we read that “[the city's] temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Revelation 21:22). This Lamb, most unquestionably, is everything great that God is. This Lamb is Jesus. And Jesus evidently shines together with his Father a single divine light, since another author tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). God's light is not in competition with Jesus' light; but all God's light is shining from Jesus!

And didn't Jesus tell us in advance that he was “the Light of the world” (John 8:12)? Didn't John already call him “the True Light” (John 1:9)? For John opens his Gospel with the declaration: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; he was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The True Light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. … To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory … Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:1-5, 9, 12, 14, 29). Jesus, Lamb of God, is the True Light: his shining will either attract us or repel us, but it cannot leave us neutral.

But Jesus didn't just tell us that he was the Light of the World. He showed us that he was God's Light. We read in the Gospels that Jesus climbed a mountain with three of his dearest disciples, Peter, James, and John. But what happened then on the mountaintop while they prayed? Jesus, deep in conversation with his Father, “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). It was no light from outside. It was the True Light shining through, shining with his own glory, showing and revealing his blinding brightness. Down through the centuries, the church – especially the eastern church – has reflected on what this scene must mean. And in the fourteenth century, the medieval church was embroiled in a controversy over this story – over whether the light that Peter, James, and John saw on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration was a created light like the kind the sun gives off, or else an uncreated light intrinsic to God's very own self, the unapproachable light in which God dwells, the Light which God himself is. And that was the option the eastern church chose, lead by a theologian named Gregory Palamas who preached that “the light of the Lord's transfiguration does not come into being or cease to be… This light, then, is the light of the Godhead, and it is uncreated,” being “the glory that proceeds naturally from his divinity.” And just the same, Palamas insisted, the very same “divine light” radiating from Jesus will still, radiating from Jesus, be the “unchangeable and never-setting light” of our “everlasting future city.”

And in that, Palamas was right. Jesus' eternal light will be the light that lights up everything in the future stored up for us in eternity. In what John sees, the Lamb will be our lamp! Jesus will be our Lamp, our source of all the things we need, the One who sheds on us not just light, but immortal light, unchangeable light, everlasting light, divine light. Jesus will illuminate everything. In his light, we'll see light. Jesus will be the center. Jesus will be the source. Jesus forever will be where we'll turn. Jesus forever will be where we'll look. Jesus forever will be how we find our way, even when shines that “one eternal day.”

Now, in this life, the sun gives us visibility. But Jesus will be our visibility. It's by Jesus and in Jesus that we'll be able to see each other, really see each other. It's by Jesus and in Jesus that we'll see the terra firma under our feet, that we'll see the colors of the sky above, that we'll see the rocks and rills around us. It's by Jesus we'll look and know that we're fully in our Father's world. It's by Jesus we'll see anything and everything. And just as our sensory inputs now shape and train our brain how to interpret the world around us, just as the way we see shapes the way we think and dream, so Jesus will completely govern the way we think and dream then. Jesus will be our visibility. We will walk through eternal life by his light, and by no one else. The Lamb will be all the glory of the new creation.

In this life, in this old creation, the sun in the sky gives us warmth, sheds its heat down on us, keeps us and our world from freezing to death. But in the new creation, Jesus will be our warmth. The heat of his love will fill all things and keep everything alive. The heat of his love will make the world flourish. And as the flowers by instinct tilt toward the sun in the sky, so in the new creation will all things tilt toward the warm love of Jesus, the warm love that Jesus is, the love of God incarnate to dwell forever among us. Conditions will never freeze us, never chill us to the bone, with Jesus as our warmth – he will warm us to life, eternal life.

In this life, in this old creation, the sun in the sky gives us health – its ultraviolet radiation helps us synthesize vitamin D in our skin, contributing to bone health, and it helps us absorb certain minerals and builds immune health and even releases compounds that help with our blood pressure. We know that. But in the city that's coming, we'll have no need for the sun, because Jesus will radiate health for us. “The Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in [his] wings; you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2). In the rays that shine from Jesus, there is health for us. Jesus will be our health throughout eternal life.

In this life, in this old creation, the sun in the sky brings us joy – it triggers our brain's release of serotonin, a mood-improving hormone, and it lets us glimpse beauty that otherwise might be obscured. But in the city that's coming, it won't be a star overhead bringing us joy. Jesus will be our joy. Jesus will radiate joy into us, shed his joy on us – he wants his joy to “be in you, that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). In Jesus, our True Light, we will find joy that surpasses the best we can know under the sun and moon's rule. Life can only be ultimately lived and ultimately enjoyed through Jesus Christ, the True Light, the Lamb our Lamp. And as much as we know that now, and strive to live into that now, we will effortlessly have Jesus radiating his visibility, warmth, health, and joy into us in the world that's coming. Because he will be among us, walking and talking with us, filling us with God's light – he will be the Divine Lamp in our midst.

You might ask, “Why does it all matter?” Well, there are terrors in this world. There are secrets in this world. There is evil in this world. There is danger in this world. For there is night – physically and spiritually – interrupted only by the gracious gifts God placed in creation to keep our darkness at bay. And yet there will be a day when those gifts will have completed their thisworldly mission – even the sun and moon. Because the sun has never yet done for you all that God is going to do for you, and the moon can never achieve for you what God is preparing to give you. The supreme light of God will change everything. There will be no terror, no evil, no danger, no secret. Everything will look different in his light. “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons [and daughters] of light” (John 12:36). “At one time, you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8) – and the light you will be, we can only imagine.

As we come to the close of our passage, we read that with God and the Lamb turning our whole world into a Holy of Holies for a universe-size temple, “his servants will worship him” like the Levites did in the temples of old (Revelation 22:3c). And “his name will be on [our] foreheads” (Revelation 22:4b), just where Israel's high priest carried it – each and every last one of you, if you follow Jesus all the way into the new creation, will be a high priest and then some, and will be conformed to God's character so that his likeness is all over your face. And we “will see his face” – will see the very face of God (Revelation 22:4a). The prayers of priests and psalmists will be eternally answered. We will always live in God's light, always be shown God's favor, always receive his blessing, always enjoy the Beatific Vision. Our ultimate blessing, our highest joy, will be to behold the Father face-to-face, to his glory and our benefit; to be in complete and perfect relationship with him, not in theory or in the abstract, but through a direct and constant encounter, unveiled, knowing in full, seeing in full; for all our senses and all our faculties to be wrapped up in him; to have him as our eternal focus and as the lens through which to see everything else. To be fully blessed by seeing God, not once, but continually beholding the most perfect Truth, perfect Goodness, perfect Beauty which only he can be – glory, glory, hallelujah!

And we “will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5d), as “a kingdom and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:10), with the Lamb as our Lamp. Even now, looking ahead to that day, we can gratefully say with David and Paul: “You are my lamp, O LORD, and my God lightens my darkness” (2 Samuel 22:29), “for God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). John wrote elsewhere that “the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8), and whoever follows Jesus “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12) – so how much more then, in the new creation unveiled, when the Lamb of God will be our perfect Lamp! Jesus is the True Light – Light from Light, True God from True God, flowing from the Father in unparalleled divine splendor for all eternity. As our Light and our Salvation (Psalm 27:1), he is everything we need to find our way, now and in the endless new creation. He will be the only Light we'll ever need, and that Light will be our Life. Light isn't light, life isn't life, without him. Jesus alone can make even eternity glorious and bright – how could we ever live without him now? Shine on us, O Lamb our Lamp!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Urban Planning for Saints: Sermon on Revelation 21:9-21

It was nearing the middle of the twelfth century, and at a monastery in eastern France, the Benedictine monk Bernard sat, his back cramping, hunched over his manuscript, quill in hand. Through his head swirled thoughts of lament and woe – the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket. Bernard felt gripped with disgust and dread at society in Europe. “Realms are seen to totter,” he scribbled, and even “Rome seems to fall backward.” He was convinced – more than convinced – that “now the last days are really near. … It is the final hour; the times are most wicked.” What else was there to do? He knew St. Paul had told him to set his mind on things above (Colossians 3:1-2). So Bernard, quill scratching Latin onto parchment, let his thoughts wander up to “the country of light which knows no storm,” to the heavenly city of God, whose descent he was waiting for at the end of that final hour. The poem spilled from the monk's restless heart:

Here is madness, here wicked divisions and scandals, 'peace' without peace, but on Zion's height is peace without contentions and without sorrows....
O good homeland, sober eyes watch for you! At your name, sober eyes fill with tears!
To say your name is an anointing for the heart, a cure for sorrow, the fire of love for souls desiring heaven!
You are the place unparalleled, you are the heavenly paradise....
The walls gleam with jasper, they are bright with bronze; on this side you'll have a carnelian, there a topaz, here an amethyst....
Your God himself is there, and your wall of defense is a golden stone, invulnerable, insurmountable...
Your Bridegroom, the Lamb, is there; and you stand in beauty before him....
Your work is to be glad! Your duties are to live now without death!...
City of Zion, noble city, land of harmony, land of light, sweet land, you lead pious hearts to your joys!
Jerusalem, you are the pious homeland, not the journey.
A beautiful wide street, the path of virtue is the way to your gifts.
Golden city of Zion, homeland flowing with milk and adorned with citizens, you overwhelm every heart....
The halls of Zion are full of rejoicing..., bustling with citizens, abiding with the Prince, bright with light....
O new mansion, the pious assembly, the pious race fortifies you; it constantly exalts, enlivens, increases, perfects, and unifies you....
O brilliant court without excesses, flourishing homeland without grief, homeland of life without contention, renowned city of Zion, homeland set on a safe shore: I seek you, I revere you, I burn for you, I desire you, I praise you, I hail you!...
O good homeland, shall I not see you and your joys? O good homeland, shall I not have your full rewards?

Bernard's poem has descended through the ages – it inspired the hymn with which we'll end today's service. Yet both Bernard's poem and most of our pop-culture versions of heaven have one common inspiration: a vision seen by John over nineteen hundred years ago. John opens by declaring that he saw a “holy city” (Revelation 21:2). John had known cities: he grew up in first-century Jerusalem, he settled eventually in Ephesus, he went from city to city, and no doubt heard descriptions of Rome from those who'd been there. The typical city in John's world was filthy – waste dumped into the street, disease so rampant that cities constantly had to import people from the countryside to balance out the death rate. Cities were not really so pleasant – not Jerusalem, not Ephesus, not Rome. Yet John can now see a holy city “coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10), and what he sees is perfectly clean, blessedly sanitary and unpolluted (Revelation 21:27).

And when he sees it, he calls it “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2; 3:12). John wasn't the first to dream of a Jerusalem made new, a Jerusalem beyond all strife and chaos. The prophets often spoke of Jerusalem having a pleasant destiny someday. Ezekiel saw a city rebuilt as a perfect square, centered on a temple and serving as the centerpiece of a bigger holy district (Ezekiel 40-48). Zechariah saw Jerusalem restored after a war and expanded (Zechariah 14:10-11). Centuries later, some Jewish author praised a rebuilt Jerusalem that would “be rebuilt with sapphire and emerald, and all your walls with precious stones; the towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold, and the battlements with purest gold; the streets of Jerusalem will be paved with rubies and stones of Ophir; the gates of Jerusalem will sing hymns of gladness, and all its houses will cry out, 'Hallelujah, blessed be the God of Israel for all ages!'” (Tobit 13:16-18). Others mapped it out in even greater detail. 

Some said it already existed – like the author of Hebrews who called it “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22), or the other writer who said all the prophecies were about a city in heaven “already prepared from the moment [God] decided to create paradise, and [God] showed it to Adam before he sinned” (2 Baruch 4.3-4). 

But here, John hears that the New Jerusalem is called “the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9). And he sees it through the ministry of the same angel who earlier showed him a different city, a darker city called Babylon (Revelation 17:1-3). But now this New Jerusalem is the opposite of Babylon, opposite of civilizations rooted in seduction and greed, exploitation and violence.  None of that has a place in the New Jerusalem.

And the shape of the city John sees is worth noting. We're told that “its length and width and height are equal” – it's a cube (Revelation 21:16). It's just like the Holy of Holies that was in the old temple (1 Kings 6:20). Back then, only the high priest could ever go into the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year and with immense caution and foreboding. Certainly, the high priest couldn't move in! But now the entire city becomes God's very throne-room, God's innermost sanctuary; and every single person in this city is roommates with the Lord God Almighty! (Can you imagine: really being God's roommate?) The residents can only be entirely-sanctified saints, each of whom have privileges exceeding the holiest high priest in Aaron's line! Behold the church's future!

But the old Holy of Holies was not a terribly large space – thirty feet in each direction, meaning 900 square feet of floor space, or 27,000 cubic feet of volume. Yet the Holy-of-Holies City that John sees, by the measurements he gives, is well over twelve quadrillion times bigger! If John were seeing a literal city, it would be so tall that the International Space Station would fly through the bottom fifth of it, and the volume would be so vast that all the water on earth plus all the air on earth could not fill it. The length of one side is about the distance from Jerusalem to Rome, the length of distance from corner to corner could nearly stretch from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, and more to the point, the ground area it covered is about the same size as the total territory controlled by the Roman Empire when John was writing. In other words, he sees not merely a city but a priestly empire.

Like everything else in Revelation, the “holy city” of New Jerusalem is a symbol. It is a symbol of the church – we already know that. Specifically, it's a symbol of the perfected church, the fully exalted church, the church of God's future. But this church is, to John, the size of a world. It is a world: the perfected church is the destiny of human civilization. Rome falsely claimed to be the “eternal city,” but the church is the future of civilization: New Jerusalem is the church's final form as the Eternal Christendom. The New Jerusalem we see here is what the church is promised to one day become, and what human society itself must one day become. The New Jerusalem is the heavenly pattern according to which the church is called to grow, and which will eventually descend and conform all civilization and all culture fully and finally to itself. 

Which means the New Jerusalem is not destined to be one spot on a map – not even a very large spot. The New Jerusalem is God's dream for every city, every town. The dream is for Berlin and London and Tokyo, Jerusalem and Varanasi and Mecca, DC and NYC and LA, Philadelphia and Lancaster and Narvon and Bowmansville, to all one day be fully 'New-Jerusalemized.' It will really happen, in places just like where we are: a heavenly reality on earth, in which we as resurrected people will really live, really eat and drink, really work and play, really share society and make culture, as New Jerusalem. John's vision shows us the dream of a New Jerusalem, an Eternal Christendom, in the direction of which we're called to cultivate human life and society now, because the church is the seed of a new world, which will bloom when the pattern “comes down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). 

That may be a lot to take in. I know. But it means that this is a picture of the world's future everywhere, and the world's future is for the church to fully disciple civilization itself; and with this picture of our perfect future, we know which direction to lean and grow now, as we wait in hope for the fullness.

So what can all these symbols tell us? First, there are the foundations and gates of the city. “The wall of the city had twelve foundations” (Revelation 21:14) – “The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel: the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst” (Revelation 21:19-20) – “and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:14). So the city's founded on twelve bejeweled foundations marked with the names of the twelve apostles. And then “the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl” (Revelation 21:21) – and these “twelve gates” have “at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed – on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates” (Revelation 21:12-13).

The walls and gates come from Ezekiel, who also saw gates for each compass direction; though one of the Dead Sea Scrolls has a vision of New Jerusalem with twelve gates named for the twelve tribes, and rabbis told legends about angels carving pearls into gates. The angels come from Isaiah 62, where God sets “watchmen” on Jerusalem's walls, who became angels in some Jewish readings. The jewels combine the list from Exodus 28 of what was on the high priest's breastplate plus the list in Ezekiel 28 of jewels from the garden of Eden. This foundation can only be laid by God, not by us. And that foundation is the apostles, supporting the wall in which the tribes – now symbolic of the whole church, Jewish and Gentile – have their entryway. Which tells us that one day, all of civilization will be rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ, the message the apostles announced, a good news that fulfills the prophets' promises to expand the blessings from the “twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” to every tribe and tongue. And that's good news, because it means that some day, everyone in the world will live in a world based on the work the apostles did, which was to disciple whole nations by going and baptizing and teaching the teachings of Jesus. The church now, if it's to live for that day, needs to stay rooted in the apostles' teaching, which ties the New Testament and Old Testament together. We can't afford to neglect either. We can't afford to deviate from our apostolic foundations. No, even at our widest limit, the apostles are our foundations, and if we try to build something in the church that isn't rooted in what the apostles taught us, then it can only fall by the wayside, because that wouldn't be New Jerusalem. And because the twelve tribes on the gates are the church, the church is the gateway into the society of the blessed. If we aren't coming through as the church, don't expect to be a part of the civilization God's dreaming of. Although we can come from any compass direction, we must live as – and come as – the church.

Then there's the wall itself. John calls it “a great high wall” (Revelation 21:12). He later measures the wall and finds it to be “144 cubits by human measurement,” or 216 feet high (Revelation 21:17). That certainly is a high wall – put it in perspective, that's 4.5 Great Walls of China. Isaiah predicted the walls of New Jerusalem would be called Salvation (Isaiah 26:1; 60:18). Zechariah predicted that God himself would be “a wall of fire all around” (Zechariah 2:5). All the images add up to one thing: protection. God's presence will provide complete and total protection, security, as well as beauty like precious stones of fire. The New Jerusalem will be safer than anywhere has ever been in all of history. The New Jerusalem will be safer than the old Jerusalem, safer even than Eden, and certainly safer than we are right now, though our spirits are sealed.

But if there were only a wall, then we'd run the risk of being locked out. Which is why it's good that there are gates. And though these gates are overseen by guardian angels – the church even now has angelic guardians, as ancient Israel did – we're told that New Jerusalem's “gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:25). The gates are therefore always open. These gates never shut! No matter which direction you'd come from, there's always a way into the New Jerusalem. No resident is locked out or blocked out. No resident is ever separated from another. Everyone who belongs has free access. New Jerusalem invites all who can to enter in, and poses no obstacles – and yet “nothing unclean will ever enter into it, nor anyone who does what is detestable and false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 21:27). There is a wall for protection, the gates are open wide, and yet the open access policy has no risk of contaminating life on the inside. There will be no slithering serpents worming their way in. There will be no importation of chaos from some shadowy fringe. New Jerusalem invites all to come, yet only the clean who receive life from Jesus can ever enter it. And that's good news! Because one day, when every town and city are 'New-Jerusalemized,' it means that nothing can dirty or stain or pollute our community, yet nothing can ever exclude us – we can travel as we please, without risk of separation or quarantine.

And for the church today, it reminds us that the church must seek to be pure, but not by exclusion. The church can never shut her gates, because the church is the gates. The church is called to a life of radical hospitality, a life of inviting all the world to come and not just bask in the comfort of the shade of her walls, but to actually come in and find a strong and secure refuge here. The church is already spiritually secure (Revelation 11:1-2), and we must keep our walls firm but our gates invitingly open.

So we read that John saw an angel with “a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod: 12,000 stadia” (Revelation 21:15-16). Square, just like the high priest's twelve-jeweled breastplate (Exodus 28:16). Perfect symmetry. Most cities John knew were irregular in shape, especially the old Jerusalem. But there is nothing at all irregular in New Jerusalem. Its measurements are all perfectly balanced. Its proportions are all equal, and it looks fundamentally the same from each direction. All its measurements are multiples of twelve: 144-cubit wall and 12,000-stade side. Earlier in Revelation 7:4-8, the population was symbolized as if '144,000,' twelve times twelve times a thousand. Now the city with twelve foundations and twelve gates has a floor plan that gives it 144,000,000 square stadia. Every measurement is spaciously proportioned to the population. Just like the square temple and square city Ezekiel had seen (Ezekiel 45:2; 48:16), the square New Jerusalem tells us that the civilization of God's future will be well-ordered and perfectly balanced – which tells us that we will be able to learn and navigate our world in harmony and calm. There will be no getting lost amid the twists and turns. And there will be room for all of us – at the stated measurements, even if every person who ever lived were there, each would have over four billion cubic feet of space! (I dare say we'd never feel overcrowded then...) Spacious and harmonious – that's the impression John wants us to take away.

Which, for the church today, reminds us that the church should strive to be orderly in worship and practice. We know that Paul taught us how “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul did not allow the wild rush of the Holy Spirit to be used as a pretext for turning the church into chaos. And as much as we're prone these days to idealize 'messy' things, the church is supposed to seek good order and balance, even though there's a lot of space to tame. Our goal is symmetry, but we're too often tempted to be lopsided – major on this side but not that side, grow that direction but not this direction. “Let all things be done for building up” – and building up evenly and in order (1 Corinthians 14:26). Our foundation is the orderly symmetry of the apostolic foundation, and on that foundation “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21), striving to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

And not only will New Jerusalem be orderly, but it will be complete and well-supplied. Looking back to Isaiah 60, John now sees how “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it … They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations, but nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:24-27). That diverse wealth of riches isn't just material wealth; it's glory, it's honor – it's philosophy and art and literature and music and cuisine and technology and science and architecture and spiritual depth! And no surprise: think of who lives in that city. See Peter and Paul strolling 'round the block, swapping thoughts with Isaiah and Abraham. Picture the park in which Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante trade new stories. Listen as David composes music with Bach and Mozart and Wesley and Watts. Behold Bernard and a billion saints basking in their wildest longings. And meet luminaries from a thousand cultures, of whose brilliant talents we've not yet heard – for into this civilization will flow the cultural treasures of America and Europe, but also of the Middle East and Latin America, of Russia and East Asia and Africa. There is nowhere on earth right now that is as culturally diverse as 'New Jerusalem.' But that's what the future holds. The future will see even more cultural exchange – without dilution – in the world to come. And as people learn from each other and invent and combine and refine, life will only get richer and fuller, never losing the old amidst the ever-new. We will gain the greatest expanse of experience. The great cultural treasures will all be there, from every nation, yielding beauty and goodness and truth.

And to lean into that, the church now has to strive for its full stature, its greatest development, by being open to “the glory and honor of the nations,” the cultural treasures of art and music, technology and science, literature and philosophy. But we must be discerning to say no to all that's unclean. That's the tricky task of inculturation – we must carefully refuse what's unclean, but insist on taking in everything else. Our churches should never be culturally impoverished. There is little excuse for low-quality music or art, little excuse for weak literature – we need to be open to all the cultural treasures, no matter the direction they come from. They bring us excellence.

What else does John see? He sees a gem-studded golden city. “The wall was built in jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass” (Revelation 21:18). We've heard the twelve gems of the foundation named. And “the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21:21). The clarity and purity just showcase the clean and exquisite brightness of the city, but the preciousness of jewels and gold point to beauty of riches. The civilization of God's future will have no lack. It will have no needs. It will be prosperous, a city of gold. Resources will be unlimited. And because resources will be unlimited, there will be no inequality. In this vision where the whole city and its streets are pure gold, there's no suggestion that there's a richer part of town or a poorer part of town. So neither will there be in any town. Everywhere will be equally splendid, rich, successful. Isaiah had already seen it when God promised Jerusalem, “I will set your stones in antimony and lay your foundations with sapphires, I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncle, and all your wall of precious stones: All your children shall be taught by Yahweh, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isaiah 54:11-13). Later rabbis imagined that any debt could be resolved by just a jewel or two from the fields of New Jerusalem – so what could disturb the “peace without contentions and without sorrows”? We'll be fully satisfied and wonderfully supplied. That will be the future of all civilization.

For the church, we see that we should be beautifully adorned now. Too often, our low-church sensibilities have been allergic to beautifying our churches – we seem to like our sanctuaries rustic and unadorned. Go into a European cathedral, and you'll see gleaming gold everywhere, you'll see designs meant for beauty and not just for utility. We could stand to learn something there. The church is meant for beauty, meant to be adorned. But it goes deeper than our buildings – the church as a people must be beautifully adorned with the real gold Jesus is selling us, pure faith's “gold refined by fire” for the soul (Revelation 3:18). And if John gives us a picture of an equally prosperous society, it means we need to live toward that now – reducing inequality within our midst, exalting all to equal dignity and prosperity. James urges us not to “make distinctions among ourselves” between 'rich' and 'poor' (James 2:4) – the church should work toward spreading our riches now.

Lastly, New Jerusalem is called a “holy city” (Revelation 21:10), reminding us that Ezekiel saw a district that was “holy throughout its whole extent” (Ezekiel 45:1), so that Zechariah saw even the horse-bells and the pots all becoming holy (Zechariah 14:20-21). There will be no sacred-vs.-secular divide in New Jerusalem, no quarantining of religiousness or holiness to special places or times. The most everyday things will be holy and set apart, infused with divine significance. And the entirety of civilization will be filled with God's glory. John sees the city as “having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:11). And the reference to jasper reminds us of John's first throne-room vision in heaven, where God's presence on the throne “had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:3). Since “the throne of God and the Lamb will be in” the city (Revelation 22:3), that's why the city has God's glory, and accordingly, the city's radiance really looks like God himself – that's what John is saying. God is beautiful and splendid, and one day the entirety of human civilization – every city, every town, every smallest village – will look like God, will reflect God flawlessly. We will be perfectly “conformed to the image of” Christ (Romans 8:29), “who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Every place, every local community, will be like God's own perfect mirror, shining with all his splendid glory. And he will get all the praise for our city's beauty, for its “designer and builder is, not us, but God” (Hebrews 11:10).

That tells us now that the church should already be striving for this. The church should be striving to conform to the image of Christ, the image of God. The church should be striving actively to look more like God. The church should be setting aside all frivolous programs and activities that are merely social, merely mundane, and anchoring everything explicitly and boldly and exuberantly in God's glory, through his crucified and risen Son Jesus, in the power and peace of the Holy Spirit! God's glory should be the most obvious thing here, God's glory should be paramount here, and in him we will find our glory. (A nation's glory is not in military prowess, and a nation's glory is not in social spending programs, and a nation's glory is not in technological advancement or economic plenty; a nation's glory is all and only in being filled with the presence of God!  The church's glory is not in a big budget, and the church's glory is not in full pews, and the church's glory is not in a busy event roster, and the church's glory is not in a rock band or an organ; the church's glory is all and only in reflecting the God whom we meet again and again in Jesus Christ!) That's the future of civilization into which the church is meant to bloom. Everything we do should be infused with the splendor of God's own appearance, and our crystal-clear 'jasper' radiance should be great in his sight.

Again, this is the destiny of all human civilization and all human culture, when everything that isn't discipled passes away, and everything from all history that has been to God's glory is preserved, restored, resurrected. We can see foretastes of that future when we look up in the Sistine Chapel, when we visit the great cathedrals, when we read the greatest God-glorifying literature and view the greatest God-glorifying art and hear the greatest God-glorifying music and behold God's glory in one another as we love. These are foretastes of realities we can't yet grasp, realities John has pointed us toward. John offers us a picture of our future – yours and mine – really, truly, the future of the world, once 'Babylon' has passed away, once everything unclean has been purified or shut out. John shows us the safety, the structure, the bounty, the glory we'll have in Jesus Christ – things already being stored up and prepared for us in heaven, from which this immense treasure will one day descend and fill the earth at Christ's return.

And to 'do church' right is to lean into that. It's to practice for that, with our eyes on our future portrait. To 'do church' right is to practice urban planning for saints. It's to steward the treasures of civilization and culture to the glory of God, it's to seek to become a beautiful society, it's to work for justice and sufficiency, hospitality and refuge, as by faith we grow into the full measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, the full measure of the symmetry and splendor of the New Jerusalem, the Wife of the Lamb.

If we keep that vision in front of us, we can always correct the malpractices in the 'urban planning' we do here each week – we can always ask how this or that looks toward New Jerusalem, we can always ask how it contributes to the discipling of the nations, we can always ask how it builds on apostolic foundations and keeps the twelve-fold gates open wide, we can always ask how it beautifies our neighborhoods and fills us with glorious virtues, how it keeps order and purity, how it makes room for all to dwell in safety, how it enriches our culture with greater treasure and exalts the God who wants to make us look like his own unparalleled glory. 

So let us be a church that knows the model set forth for our imitation. Let us be a church who strives after this vision – a church that, even now, exalts and enlivens and increases and perfects and unifies our assembly. Let us be a church filled with longing, like Bernard the monk longed! Let us seek it, revere it, burn for it, desire it, praise it, hail it! We know not if it's the final hour. But we know what comes after the final hour. And we can build and practice now, thanks be to God, as we follow the Lamb whose wedded wife the New Jerusalem shall be. Hallelujah – blessed be the God of the New Jerusalem, and to him be all glory and praise for so long as eternal ages run! Amen!