Sermon: Holy City

Photo of at least nine keys of various sizes on a compact carabiner

May 26, 2019
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

by Eric Anderson

The Revelation to John is popular with some Christians, and really unpopular with other Christians. Based on what people shared during our Bible studies this week, and on the time our Sunday morning group studied the book, I would guess that it would be fairly unpopular in this congregation.

Is that pretty fair?

I have noticed that, by and large, we are not big fans of out-and-out judgment and condemnation here at Church of the Holy Cross. Not a single person has encouraged me to preach more fire-and-brimstone sermons about the divine wrath of the Ultimate Judge.

Mind you, if that is what you’d prefer, you can let me know. I can get to work on it.

Any takers?

Let’s face it: the Revelation to John is a pretty judgmental book. It spends one chapter on introduction, then two chapters on a series of pretty judgmental instructions to seven churches, then seventeen chapters describing what will happen to end the sinful world. It closes with two chapters of a new heaven and a new earth, which is where we find our passage today – but the proportions are pretty impressive: Nineteen chapters of judgment and destruction, three chapters of… something else.

You and I may not find Revelation comfortable reading, but we are wait-in-line-all-night-for-concert-tickets fans compared to Roman officials of the late first century, when the book was written. They really disliked Revelation, because they knew it had been written about them. Christians suffering persecution during the reign of the Emperor Domitian yearned to be vindicated, to see the power of their oppressors broken, to see justice done on those who perpetrated injustice on them. It’s that yearning for peace and security that underlies the imagery of Revelation.

That might be why I’m starting to feel more of an affinity for this book.

Joyce Hollyday writes (in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): “Revelation unfolds as an indictment of the domination and corrupting power of the Babylonian and Roman empires and, by implication, of all empires. In 1960, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of Americans ‘frantically avoiding recognition of the imperialism that we in fact exercise.’ In the decades since, and especially in the post-9/11 era, the notion of American Empire has gained currency among theologians and social analysts.”

Writing in 2011 or 12 [Pastor’s note: this was an error; the writing would have been in 2007 or 2008], and reflecting on eight years of war in Iraq, Rev. Hollyday continued: “in this empire, unilateral decision making rules, preemptive war is admissible, ‘occupiers’ are labeled ‘liberators,’ torture is redefined, and the world’s goods are ours to exploit. The war on terrorism is pitched as a righteous clash between good and evil, and God is on our side. The notion of America as the ‘new Israel,’ God’s new chosen people – first embraced by the founding Puritans – has been resuscitated in this era. It is a far cry from the new Jerusalem – an image of justice and consolation for the exiles, the captives, and the oppressed.”

Let’s see. Unilateral decision making. The justification of preemptive war. “Occupiers” called “liberators” – for that matter, oppressors embraced as allies. Torture as “enhanced interrogation.” The world’s goods should be ours: America First.

Does any of this sound familiar?

What would John have written about us?

Nineteen chapters of judgment, perhaps?

Beyond the judgment, John’s vision continued. In his time, the hope for justice was not enough. Beyond justice, John hoped for a community, a society, a realm that would no longer oppress and abuse. A new heaven. A new earth. A new city. A new Jerusalem.

If you stop with retributive justice, you’re left with destruction – literally, a scorched Earth.

John hoped for renewal.

What does this renewed city look like?

In the verses omitted by the lectionary, we learn that it’s beautiful and it’s big. It’s a square nearly 1400 miles long on a side. That’s 1.9 million square miles. That’s a big city. It’s three Alaskas. Plus Colorado.

Unlike the Jerusalem in Judea, there’s a river running through it: a river in a part of the world where water is scarce and precious. Forget the jewels gleaming in the walls, this is the true treasure of the New Jerusalem. Alongside the river grow trees that don’t just nourish, they heal.

There’s no temple, no church, because a temple is where you go to find God. But God lives in the city, and furnishes its light. In fact, there’s never night, never shadow, never that time of lawless threat.

The city has walls and gates, but it might as well not – because they’re never shut.

Brian Peterson writes, “Other apocalyptic texts such as 4 Ezra 7:60-61 declared that salvation would be a small and exclusive club in the end (‘I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved… and I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish’). John’s vision, by comparison, is startlingly expansive. After the last 2 battles described in Revelation (19:15, 19-21; 20:8-9), we might expect that we had seen the last of the nations. Yet here they are, walking in the light of God’s New Jerusalem.”

Wait, what? Didn’t we also read that there will be none admitted who lie and do vile things?

Well, yes. Apparently, nobody will lie and do vile things any more. I have to admit that sounds pretty good.

So the gates never close. “Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”

Walls and closed gates are not attributes of paradise.

Let me say that again. Walls and closed gates are not attributes of paradise.

LeAnn Blackert writes: “The open gates of the Holy City welcome all who choose to enter. This is not a place for walls of separation. This is not a place where value is assigned to human life by virtue of wealth, skin color, country of origin, sexual orientation or gender. This is God’s kingdom, come to earth, offering a safe place for all persons. The mantra of the United Church of Christ comes to mind: ‘No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.’ The Holy City is the place where this is finally realized.”

Walls and closed gates are attributes of prisons. Walls and closed gates are not attributes of paradise.

There’s a part of me that enjoys the judgment, the pleasant sensation of knowing that what someone else is doing is wrong, that I am right, and that some day they’ll get what’s coming to them. There’s also a truth that the judgment must be done. Evils must be named, and they must be opposed: jailing asylum seekers, especially children, for following the procedures is wrong, and it must end. Children should never have been ripped from their families, and they must be reunited. Women should have access to the health care they need. Emergency powers should not be invoked to sell billions of dollars of armaments to Saudi Arabia.

A national emergency should not fund a wall.

Walls and closed gates are attributes of prisons. Walls and closed gates are not attributes of paradise.

I may enjoy the judgment a bit too much.

But it is not the judgment for which we live, and work, and pray, and hope. It’s not for that. It’s for the Holy City, for the water of life, for the trees that heal, for the glory of all nations, for the gates that never close, never keep anyone away.

Open gates: those are the attributes of paradise.

For this we live, we work, we pray, we hope.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Holy City

Still making some things up as we go along… hopefully not while doing math.

Photo by Eric Anderson: If there are no gates, who needs keys?

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on May 26, 2019

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