Rev 21:1-7, 22:1-5
At St Peter’s last week, I gave a talk on Hope: our Human Longing for Home. I wanted to share it with us at St John’s as I believe the topic is so relevant and helpful for us as we face these uncertain times. The talk at St Peter’s was part of a talk series Jon Tearne has been taking them through on an overview of the Bible. I also did the first talk on ‘Origins’ which explains the reference below. It is based on a book by Andrew Ollerton, ‘The Bible: a story that makes sense of life’. It’s a really great read, and I encourage you to get it and read it if you are looking to go deeper with scripture. It’s written in a very readable style without losing any depth.
In it, Ollerton says,
As our human story began in a beautiful world, so our future hope returns us to it.
Right at the end of the Bible, Rev chapters 21 & 22 deliberately loop back to the opening chapters of Genesis which is where the biblical story begins.
Our future hope is of a creation restored to or even beyond its former glory; this renewed creation is described in Rev 21 & 22.
Today, we are going to look more closely at the nature of our future hope and then consider the implications for us in terms of how we live our lives now.
Let us begin by casting our minds back to that first talk we did on Genesis. If you remember, one of the things we said was that God’s purpose in creating the heavens and the earth was to create a shared living space in which he could dwell with his people. This word ‘dwell’ or ‘dwelling’ is important and crops up at key moments in scripture. Another word we use for ‘dwelling’ is ‘home’; God was making a home which he and we could share. But the great tragedy was that sin an evil invaded this world. Humanity was then driven out of ‘Eden’ their home and have ever since have lived as exiles, disconnected from God and from a true sense of home.
The picture painted by Rev 21 & 22 is of our ‘home’ being restored. Consider verse 3,
‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
Our future hope is that we will literally ‘come home’ to God. Let’s look at this idea more closely.
We have all been singing about coming home quite a lot in the last few weeks… in fact the immortalised words of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner song in a way connect with our Christian hope,
Thirty years of hurt Never stopped me dreaming
It's coming home It's coming Football's coming home
It’s now of course 55 years of hurt and counting… but point is we live in a hurting, broken and disconnected world. Deep down, we all have a longing to return home that’s much deeper than football!
All this football talk reminded me of where I was during the 1996 Euro’s when England went out to Germany in the semi-final. I was spending a year overseas working in Zimbabwe. It was an incredibly challenging year and very painful – I was working with small-scale farmers living in poverty and at a young age I found it incredibly difficult to witness this. Halfway through the year, I had to come back to England for two weeks for an interview. During that time, I went home – back to what was familiar. It was the most amazing experience – being with those who loved me as I was, having the home comforts and being in a place where nothing was demanded or expected of me other than just to be. It was such a tonic to my wounded soul.
I wonder what you associate with being at home…
The metaphor of ‘coming home’ is one Jesus used a lot. The idea is central to one of his most famous parables: the prodigal son. The son returns home to the embrace of his compassionate father and has his identity and purpose restored.
Right at the start John’s Gospel, we read,
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Here is this word, ‘dwelling’ again – this is literally saying, God came as a person making his home among us. Jesus then repeatedly used this metaphor to illustrate what happens when someone turns back to God, for example,
‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’
The invitation of Jesus is for us to come and be at home again with God. But the reality is that no matter how intense our experience of this right now, it is still a dim reflection of the experience that is to come. We live in what theologians call the ‘now and not yet’ period of history: it is possible to experience this sense of being ‘at home’ with God, but only in a partial way. The full experience is yet to come.
We are going to look a bit more at what the fullness of this experience will be like: firstly, we consider the foundation of our hope and then the nature of our hope and then the implication of our hope.
Foundation of our hope…
Last Sunday night we all ‘hoped’ for an England win! More than that, we had a genuine optimism that they might – optimism was such a strange experience for an English football supporter!
But optimism and wishful thinking are different to biblical hope. Desmond Tutu, famously said,
I'm not an optimist. I'm a prisoner of hope.
The Bible speaks of a sure and certain hope where the outcome is not in doubt.
But how this possible?
The Bible’s response to this question is to point backwards to a historical event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the basis of hope. As Paul puts it to the Corinthians,
‘…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ 1 Cor 15:14
It’s interesting that the first encounter with the risen Jesus was in a Garden – so much so that Mary at first thought Jesus was the gardener. This moment seems to connect the garden of Eden with the new creation described in Revelation. The resurrection was a moment of new creation, the future was somehow pulled into the present. Tom Wright wrote,
‘The new age burst upon the scene while the present age [was] still rumbling on’.
It is because Jesus rose from the dead that we can be certain of the resurrection of the dead and the new creation. Andrew Ollerton says,
The resurrection announces ahead of time the victory of God over all our enemies – sickness, sin, evil, Satan and death. The cosmic battle of good and evil that was expected to be decided at the end has been resolved upfront.
Our resurrection hope is about the whole of creation and it’s also very personal. Rev 20 describes Judgement Day. It may seem old-fashioned to talk about judgement, but it is far more relevant than we might think. Many of us carry a kind of double-sided questioning. On the one-hand we question what will happen when we die, fearing the idea of judgement. Then on the other hand, we carry a deep desire for justice, that the perpetrators of evil will not get away with it.
Our resurrection hope for judgement day answers both questions.
Rev 20 describes a heavenly scene involving the opening of books. These books symbolise a record of all we have done, good and bad, in public and in private. I don’t know about you, but the idea of all my dirty laundry being exposed like this is deeply unsettling.
How could my name appear in the book of life given all I have done?
The answer is that due to the death and resurrection of Jesus, I can be sure. When Jesus died that terrible death on the cross, he took the judgement I deserved. Therefore, it is like my slate has been wiped clean. Jesus said,
‘Whoever hears my word and believes…has eternal life and will not be judged’ John 5:24
Because of what Jesus did, the day of judgement is something we can look forward to.
Forgive me for a flippant illustration of a serious topic, but I don’t know if you like me found at times watching England play Italy that the tension was unbearable. How might it have been different on Sunday if we had the sure knowledge upfront that England were going to win! I would have less grey hairs now that’s for sure.
In a similar way, we can have confidence about judgement day because of what Jesus has done.
Of course, we cannot avoid the reality that if some names are written in the book of life, then some are not and its belief in Jesus that makes the difference. Hell is a biblical reality. Mystery shrouds this, and many questions remain but remember it’s not our job to work everything out; our job is to take responsibility for ourselves and trust God with the unknown. If accepting this truth does nothing else, then it provides huge motivation to our mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all.
So that’s the foundation of our hope, now let’s consider the nature of our hope.
Nature of our Hope
Right from the start, the vision of Jesus in revelation is as King. At the centre of heaven, is the throne of God, symbolising divine power and authority: the ultimate control centre from where the supreme ruler conducts the affairs of the realm. In Rev 5 & 6 a scroll sealed with seven seals is described. Jesus is the only one worthy to open the seals. The scroll and seals symbolise God’s perfect plan for the cosmos.
This plan reaches its culmination in the later chapters of Revelation. Rev 18 describes the act of divine judgement that leads to the destruction of evil once and for all. This represents a deep purge and clean, ridding the world of all that corrupts.
Then in Rev 19, what is often referred to as the second coming of Jesus is described. The language of ‘coming’ is not helpful. When Jesus ascended into heaven in Acts 1, he did not ascend to a place up there in the sense of outer space. A better biblical understanding of heaven is the ‘heavenly realm’ that exists in parallel with our physical earthly existence – Jesus is currently out of sight, not far away. The word the Bible uses for the second ‘coming’ is Parousia which literally means ‘appearing’. Jesus will appear, this time, not as a weak vulnerable baby, but as a majestic king riding a white horse. On his robe and thigh will be written,
‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’
…and every eye will see, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In Revelation 21 & 22 the new creation is described. The Bible does not culminate with what might be a popular understanding with people going up to heaven. But rather with people coming down to populate a restored earth. Our ultimate home is not up in heaven, but down here. Heaven is like a half-way house, where people go when they die awaiting their resurrection in this restored and new earth.
This new earth has some key features:
· Firstly, it will be a pristine new creation, more physical than we would dare to imagine without any risk of relapse into corruption and evil. It will be a place where we can delight again in God’s good creation. We will have resurrection bodies with real flesh and bones but transfigured in glory. For anyone who has experienced long term sickness or mental health problems, this is a glorious hope.
· Secondly, it will be a sociable place where we will live in relationship and community with all God’s people from every tribe and language and people and tongue. This is symbolised by the arrival of a new Jerusalem. God’s people will finally fulfil God’s vocation to exercise authority and creativity over the world.
· Thirdly, and most fundamentally, the defining feature of the new creation is that God will again dwell with his people. Do you struggle to feel close to God? I think we all do, but a time is coming when we will experience God with us in a full and unencumbered way.
Quite a vision – I encourage you to reflect on this and allow this vision to take root.
Implications of our hope
But as we close, a few thoughts on the implications of this for the present moment. I think there are two.
Firstly, we can have confidence in the face of uncertainty. We have all lived with so much uncertainty over the past 18 months and continue to do so. But our hope is that come what may: sickness, loss of our job, hunger, not getting the grades, poverty or whatever, our ultimate hope remains unmoved. The Risen Jesus guarantees our destiny and promises to be with us all the way home.
Secondly, it gives us motivation and courage to make a difference now. The more confidence we have in our future hope, the more motivated we are to realise it now. Our Christian vocation is if you like, to pull the future into the present. Jesus told many parables about our future hope. In one, the parable of the weeds, he describes the kingdom being like green shoots. When we do anything today that works towards God’s kingdom coming (share our faith with a friend, contribute to the development of church, work for truth and justice) its like the green shoots of the age to come; a prophetic sign that points forward to that fuller reality. I am reading a book just now about Celtic Christianity called ‘colonies of heaven’ it describes communities of faith as colonies of heaven – such a great description. Our churches are colonies of heaven; prophetic signs pointing forwards to what is to come.
In closing, I invite you to reflect on all these truths further particularly in these uncertain times. And share with me your stories of encouragement and hope – how has this word encouraged you, what questions and thoughts does it trigger