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!

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