Sunday, November 24, 2019

Your Invitation: Sermon on Revelation 22:16-21

And so this journey comes to its close. Every journey must, I suppose. This is the twenty-eighth and final part of our journey through the Revelation. We've puzzled through the perplexities of the present age, and we've plumbed the mysteries of eternity to come. We've wandered the surface of the earth, and we've soared into the heavenlies. We've seen fire and fury, we've seen light and lightning, we've tangled with beasts and angels. It's been a journey, to be sure. A year ago at this time, what came to your mind when somebody mentioned this book? What did you think about the Revelation? Perhaps you found it cryptic – a puzzle whose pieces you felt little hope of unjumbling. Perhaps you found it imposing and intimidating – a book to be avoided wherever possible, deferred indefinitely. Perhaps you found it fearsome, frightening – full of doom and gloom; judgment and terror; woe, danger, and darkness. Perhaps, for one or more reasons, it didn't hold the right appeal for you.

And yet, as I've listened to some of you in the past couple of months, that's not the impression I've been hearing any more. From the sounds of things, we in this church are now thinking and talking about Revelation in a new light. We're finding it exciting. We're finding it joyful. We're finding it hopeful. We're finding it rejuvenating. We're coming away from it with our apprehensions turned to thanksgivings. Because we're no longer assuming that the Revelation is to be filed away in our mental box marked 'end-times prophecy.' We're seeing it as a book given to the church in every generation – a book made relevant to John's churches, a book made relevant to the times of Augustine and the times of Charlemagne, the times of Aquinas and the times of Luther, the times of Albright and the times we live in. It's a book that'll still be relevant to your tenth generation, if the Lord tarries long enough. It's a book that had a message before America came to be, and it's a book that'll have a message to speak after her stars and stripes crumble to dust. This is a revelation for every generation. Because it's not a revelation of future events, primarily. The first words John puts on parchment tell us it's a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1). Jesus is what Revelation reveals. The entire book is about Jesus. He is its, as he is the world's, “Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).

We understand that Jesus is eternally God – that his Father “loved [him] before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24) – that he dwelled in the high stretches of eternity when there was no time and where there was no space. We understand that Jesus is the Word who already was (John 1:1), the Word whom God spoke to call the first heavens and first earth into being (Genesis 1:1). We know that in the fullness of time, after many prophets, God sent Jesus down from heaven and into the universe we know, down even to this very terrestrial ball, to be born of the Virgin Mary. We know Jesus endured the hardships of our broken world. We know that his hardships rose to their highest point at the cross, where he offered up his life as a sacrifice. And yet we are told, in the Revelation, that in this, Jesus “has conquered” (Revelation 5:5) – thanks be given to God!

When the book opens, not only are we told about Jesus – that he's “the Faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:4) – but we get to see him, get to meet him, not in the lowly simplicity that clothes him in the Gospels, but in the glory he's attained with his return to his Father. This is the heavenly Jesus. We've encountered him as the Living One, who was dead but is alive forevermore, and who holds now the keys of death and the grave (Revelation 1:18). We've seen him as the Everlasting Man, the perfect glorified humanity, dressed as a high priest who gently tends the flickering candle of each and every congregation that stands within the worldwide temple called the church (Revelation 1:12-16; cf. Revelation 2-3) – his glory is more than we can now handle (Revelation 1:17), but we know we were meant for it.

As we ascend with John through the open door in heaven (Revelation 4:1), we catch a glimpse of heavenly worship as it had been – we meet the four living creatures and twenty-four elders, ringing 'round the emerald-banded throne of God, and they taught us how to worship like heaven worships (Revelation 4:2-11) – but then we catch a replay of the ascension, seen not from earth as in Acts but seen from heaven as he enters. And so we meet Jesus as a Lamb once slaughtered for the sacrifice, and yet now standing tall, his wounds glorified (Revelation 5:6). And we come to understand that he's the only one truly worthy, the only one who can unfurl God's plans for the salvation of the world, bringing all things to their final destiny (Revelation 5:7). And because all heaven can see it, we listen in on their thanksgiving to Jesus: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Jesus rises to heaven precisely as “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6) – his blood, the impact of his atoning death and vibrant life, washes our lives clean (Revelation 7:14).

Then, as we catch glimpses of history unfolding, we didn't need a vision to tell us that things we dread, things like invasions and strife and famine and plague, are rampaging in the world. We know that, we've feared that. But what we did need a visionary to tell us was this: those things all, somehow, will be made to serve God's good and hopeful plan. Their hoofbeats echo loud and long through history's halls, but they can only plant their hooves where Jesus, unsealing the scroll, grants them permission to roam (Revelation 6:1-7). We still find these tragedies hard to understand, especially when we see them claim the earthly lives of our own brothers and our own sisters, those who've served Jesus and whom Jesus has loved. And so Jesus shows them in heaven, their souls under the sacrificial altar, having been living sacrifices that ended in sacrifice unto death – and while they cry out for an end to the riders' rampage, he tells them to wait until God's calendar of martyrs counts down, and he makes them comfortable in heaven to wait for what's in store (Revelation 6:9-11).

To understand why so much of history and so much of life brutalizes those Jesus loves, we're given a vision of a “great red Dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). And this Dragon, this Devil, wants only to devour (Revelation 12:4). Long did he persecute faithful Israel, the loyal remnant of God's ancient people, which was pregnant with the promise (Revelation 12:1-2). When she gave birth at last to the Child of promise, Jesus the Messiah, the Dragon couldn't devour him after all (Revelation 12:5). “Then the Dragon became furious” and “went to war” against all those whom Jesus adopts as his little brothers and little sisters (Revelation 12:17). The Dragon does this by summoning up beasts – vicious worldly powers – to sic on us, to trick or crush us (Revelation 13:1-18). Beasts like these – they try to pawn themselves off as compatible with Jesus, as similar to Jesus, or as superior over Jesus. But don't be fooled – they bear the serpent's image. They consort with Babylon, the world's corrupted culture and economy, and use her to their advantage (Revelation 17:1-18). And they're convincing. They trick all those who remain outside of the church (Revelation 13:8), and sadly, even many within the church are either seduced by the culture's wiles or browbeaten by the beasts' boasts (Revelation 2-3).

As a result, those within the church who do actually defy the beasts and follow the Lamb – well, they know they may pay a high earthly cost (Revelation 13:15). And yet Jesus seals his true disciples as his own, placing them spiritually under his protection (Revelation 7:1-8) – for the church's outer court – our physical presence on earth – can be trampled down by every nation; yet the inner court, the church's soul, is safe and sound (Revelation 11:1-2). Jesus the Lamb organizes his followers like an old-school army to stand with him on Mount Zion, equipped for a holy war (Revelation 14:1-2) – but our holy war is just to keep testifying to the good news of Jesus. In following Jesus, we're already forming an uncountable international crowd around God's throne (Revelation 7:9). Only Jesus can make that, because only Jesus ransoms people for God from every tribe and tongue. And no matter which tribe we come from, no matter what its customs or what its traditions, we're urged to gather together as those who “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).

If we live this life keeping the faith, defying Beast and Babylon alike, the worst they can do to us – even death – is only the shape of our exodus. Like God's people leaving Egypt for the promised land, so death becomes for us an exodus through the glassy sea into heaven; and in heaven, we'll sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, praising our Savior all the day long (Revelation 15:1-4). That's what each of us can look forward to, if we follow the Lamb. And yet we know the story hasn't reached its end when we get to heaven – getting to heaven is only the middle of your story. It gets so much better than heaven – thanks be given to God!

As the Revelation shows us, several times under several different images, the lead-up to the end, the approach toward judgment, it's called “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) – because Jesus loves human life so much, loves his people's lives so much, that it infuriates him to see any of you mistreated and scoffed at for his name; and there will come the point when he has sworn to tolerate no more of it, and to rebalance the scales. In that day, Jesus will harvest the earth (Revelation 14:14-20), and no one can stand in the face of Jesus' judgment except for those who truly belong to him and stay with him, those who know that salvation is only in Jesus (Revelation 7:9-10). Jesus' wrath against the rest is justified because, as John sees, anybody who doesn't follow Jesus will ultimately, in the way they choose to live, end up declaring war on Jesus: “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them” (Revelation 17:14). The violence of the nations claws deep gouges in culture time and again, and once the worldly powers have torn civilization to shreds and set it ablaze, expressing God's own judgment against a godless culture (Revelation 18:20-24), we hear heaven celebrate (Revelation 19:1-4). For all this chaos, only paves the way for us to see more of Jesus, someday riding in on a 'white horse' will all of heaven at his back (Revelation 19:16-21), letting his word be good news for all who know him, as his word wars against, and decisively defeats, everything that's wrong in the world (Revelation 19:15).

This same Jesus who returns is coming, not just as the Warrior to defend us, but as the Bridegroom to win us – the Bridegroom at the biggest wedding, his union to the perfected church, his Bride; for which God his Father will throw and host an eternal wedding-supper (Revelation 19:7-9) – thanks be given to God! But before this must come the final judgment. And for any one of us – no matter if you've lived like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mother Teresa – the only hope you can have in that courtroom is for Jesus, God's Lamb, to have recorded you by name in his book of life, the only exhibit worth any bearing in your defense, and against which not one protest can be heard (Revelation 20:15) – thanks be given to God!

Following the Last Judgment, we see that where the old heaven and old earth had fled away from God's face (Revelation 20:11), they'll be resurrected as a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). The glorified church will descend from heaven down to the new earth as a new worldwide civilization, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2), and be united with Jesus – this is the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9). When we at last peek over into this new creation, we see that Jesus is the cornerstone of its foundation (Revelation 21:14; cf. Ephesians 2:20); we see that Jesus shares a single throne with his Father (Revelation 22:3); we see that Jesus is the temple where we worship (Revelation 21:22); we see that Jesus is the lamp shedding divine light on the whole universe (Revelation 21:23). And as we return home to an Eden gone global, the Garden-City of God, with a river of life flowing from Jesus' throne and sustaining the tree of life only Jesus can grow (Revelation 22:1-3), we're told that Jesus will be the Shepherd who guides us to the springs of living water and who shelters us in an everlasting perfect peace (Revelation 7:15-17). In eternity, we will live in a perfect creation, but the very perfection of creation is how it resembles the Jesus whom we'll worship forever, when we see Jesus and his Father face-to-face (Revelation 22:4) – thanks be given to God!

Jesus is indeed “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). He really is the long-awaited “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5), the “Root and Offspring of David, the Bright Morning Star” which was to arise in Israel and will shine on us as a new day dawning. Jesus is the Lord who sent his angel, his messenger, to bring this revelation to all the churches, not so that we could keep it as our own secret knowledge, but so that the whole church and the whole world can hear (Revelation 22:16). Jesus is everything. And as John learns the hard way, when he tries to worship the angel who showed him all this: to turn aside from Jesus even momentarily, even to turn aside from Jesus to the best and brightest created thing, is a serious mistake (Revelation 22:8-9). Because what this Revelation wants to show us is that Jesus is so much better and so much brighter than any next-best thing.

The angel talks about how he's a “fellow servant” alongside “those who keep the words of this book.” And we might wonder what that means, to keep the words of this book. But to keep the words of this book means to live according to the picture it sets out for us. To keep the words of this book will lead us to fall head over heels in love with Jesus, to cheer him on heaven's throne 'with all his Father's glories on,' to be a true worshipper and true witness, to be ready to follow the Lamb into a new creation. That's keeping the words of this book.

But will we keep the words of this book? As we come to the book's end, that's the question it sets before us this day and every day. Revelation sets before our eyes a stark choice, just as Deuteronomy did before: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). So, too, does Revelation give us a choice: Jesus or no Jesus; Lamb or Beast; be washed or be unwashed; receive entry or receive exile. Either we can wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb and then follow the Lamb into the eternal city where the tree of life is, or we can cling to the uncleanness of our sin, ignoring the stains or trying in vain to wash them away our own way, which will only leave is outside the city where there is no life (Revelation 22:14-15).

And you might think, “Oh, I'm here this morning – oh, some decade long past, I prayed this one prayer – oh, the destiny is sure.” But Revelation was sent to the churches, precisely because people in the church can fall away, precisely because people in the church can knuckle under pressure, precisely because people in the church can be hoodwinked by the lullabies of Babylon and the serpent's hiss through the mouths of beasts. People in the church, people like us, can subtly let other things loom too large in our mind's eye, and make Jesus out to be too small. Or we can treat him as a figurehead and assure ourselves that our paltry devotions will suffice to please him 'til our journey ends. No – Revelation wants church-folk to see that the choice is an open question for each of you. If we compromise with false teaching and false living, then we're adding our excuses alongside the prophecy, adding to the words of the book – and “if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues written in this book” (Revelation 22:18). And if we back away from the picture Jesus gives us here of how he wants our lives to look, with all the agony and all the hope, then in our rebellion, we're taking away pieces of his word, we're subtracting from the words of the book – “and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and the holy city” (Revelation 22:19). To take either of those courses is to fail to keep the words of this book, keep them as they are and uphold them in life.

And that isn't what Jesus wants for us! Jesus doesn't want us to miss out on what he's offering. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:7)! Jesus carries it to you as a blessing, not as a curse; as a lightness, not as a weight. Jesus hands you this book to remind you of his solemn promise. Jesus is coming quickly, coming suddenly. A thousand years may be just a day on God's calendar, and the Lord may measure time by martyrs instead of months, but Jesus' second advent is the next thing God's got marked on it, the next big thing on heaven's to-do list: “He who testifies to these things says: Surely I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:20). To him, the Holy Spirit is praying for his return, the whole Church is praying for his return (Revelation 22:17). And his return to us is “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). His return is so hopeful because Jesus wants good things for you.

And Jesus wants to give me, and wants to give you, the water of life, the same water that will one day irrigate and flood the cosmos from his throne on earth, the same flow of Holy Spirit he's been pouring out since that one Pentecost, the same issue of life he pours in every age. The prophet Isaiah predicted it long ago:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for what isn't bread, and your labor for what doesn't satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what's good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live! And I'll make with you an everlasting covenant: my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Jesus, “the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16), is our New David, our New Love, our New Covenant. Jesus is the One who invites everybody thirsty to his refreshing waters and satisfying table. Jesus denies no one. Jesus shouts an open invitation to all and sundry. From the ventures and adventures, from the humdrums and doldrums, you can come. From the highs and the lows, from the homelands and the hinterlands, you can come. No matter how dried-up and parched you are, you can come. No matter how sick you are, you can come. No matter how wicked and how stubborn you are, no matter your crimes and no matter your confusion, you can come! You can 'come to the waters' and be refreshed, be satisfied, 'without money and without price.' Why fritter yourself away for things that never satisfy? There's a better deal on the table.

Jesus doesn't charge for it. Hear the words of the book: “Let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). No, Jesus won't charge you. He already paid the price, paid it high, paid it in full. The sole cost he asks is your desire for him. He only wants to give, give, give. The 'water of life,' more valued, more precious than any diamond, more satisfying than a trillion years in utopia, he offers freely. Jesus only will ask you, “Do you want it?” Do you want it? Will you come and take it, when Jesus is the one offering it?

Jesus sings in your ear, Jesus sings to your heart, “Let the one who is thirsty come” (Revelation 22:17). Does that touch on anything in you? Are you thirsty? Is there anything in you that isn't perfectly satisfied with life as you've known it? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that understands need? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that feels the contours of the God-shaped hole in all of us, which God alone can fill? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that knows loss or fears for the future? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there still any thirst in you, any desire to do anything but languish in the deadness of self? Then “let the one who is thirsty come!” Come where? Come how? Come to Jesus! Come with desire, come with thirst, having faith that he can satisfy where no one else can! Come to Jesus – run to Jesus like a panting athlete, trembling from the race; crawl to Jesus like a parched man dying in the desert; fall before Jesus, dehydrated by the arid sands of time. Come to Jesus to “take the water of life without price.” Come to Jesus because what he supplies is only what he is – you cannot take the fruit without the Tree, you cannot take the water without the Wellspring, you cannot take the peace without the Prince, you cannot take the grace without the Giver. Come to Jesus – and let Jesus give you the gift of Jesus.

I only don't invite you to come. “The Spirit and the Bride say: Come!” (Revelation 22:17). It's a single invite from both. The Holy Spirit tugs at you, pulls at wherever he can grasp in you, whispers in the cathedral of your soul: “Come on! Come on! Come to Jesus. If you've never believed, if you've never followed, start right here and right now – come to Jesus. If you've been a follower thirty thousand days, but you still have any thirst – come to Jesus. If you've strayed like a lost sheep, if you've been swept under the dirt like a lost coin – come to Jesus. If you're a spendthrift child wasting your inheritance in the far country – come to Jesus. If you're a fruitless fig tree, a branch fallen from the trunk – come to Jesus. If you're chained up in a graveyard of dreams, beset by a legion of fears and doubts – come to Jesus. If you're a boat tossed in a storm of wind and waves – come to Jesus. If you've never seen, been blind for longer than you recall – come to Jesus. If you've checked off the boxes and wonder what more there is to do to be satisfied and get the true life – come to Jesus.”

And the Holy Spirit doesn't speak alone. The Lamb's own Bride – the Church – bids you come. I stand up here this morning, speaking as one of John's brothers (cf. Revelation 22:9), and the voice I speak here is the voice of the Bride of the Lamb herself: “Come! Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches! Listen to what the Spirit says to the hearts! Listen, listen to the Spirit – come, come to Jesus!” The Bride says, “You don't know goodness 'til you've been swept off your feet by my Bridegroom. You don't know truth 'til you've heard my Bridegroom. You don't know beauty 'til you've fixed your eyes on my Bridegroom! You don't know life 'til my Bridegroom's brought you home! Go, go now, go now and wait not a second longer! Come to Jesus!”

Come to Jesus. And when you've come, add your voice to the chorus. “Let the one who hears say: Come!” (Revelation 22:17). It's an invitation of which the hearing of it authorizes you to extend it to others. Go invite your sons and your daughters, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, your brothers and your sisters. Go invite your family and your friends. Go invite your neighbors across the street and down the way. Go invite your workmates and colleagues, your doctors and your nurses. Find out who thirsts, and tell them of the Jesus with water of life to give. Find out who's bankrupt, and tell them of the Jesus who doesn't ask a price. Go invite the world to the Everlasting Man, the Living One, the Lion, the Lamb, the Warrior, the Judge, the Bridegroom, the Lamp, the Star – say to all the world, “Come to this Jesus, this Jesus who changes everything, this Jesus who holds out life in his hands, this Jesus who makes all things new!”

We invite others to come to Jesus, so we may all cry out to him, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). What other hope could we hope for? What else should be our truest desire? The Holy Spirit prays for Jesus to come back down. The Lamb's Bride, the Church, prays for Jesus to come back down. John prayed for Jesus to come back down. And each of us must pray, pray, pray for Jesus to come to us, come be with us, come make all things new. So we pray. “And may the grace of the Lord Jesus be with [you] all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).

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!