We’ve been reading from the Book of Revelation during this season of Easter. This is the only sustained engagement of the lectionary with the last book in the New Testament. That’s a shame, I suppose, because the richness of the other readings and the difficulties inherent in interpreting and preaching Revelation divert our attention. Looking back through my sermon files, it’s hardly a coincidence that my sermons in the Easter season rarely deal substantively with Revelation before the Fifth Sunday of Easter. There’s another reason for the sudden appearance of Revelation in my preaching in the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter. It’s because, the lectionary readings for those weeks introduce John’s vision of the New Jerusalem.
As a reminder, on earlier Sundays we heard from the very beginning of the book (Rev. 1:4-8) and two different visions of heavenly worship: Rev. 5:11-14 and Rev. 7:9-17. Taken together, these readings along with those for the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter do little to provide a full introduction to this complex, important, and enigmatic work. And I can’t do that in a blog post, either. Barbara Rossing’s commentaries on Working Preacher offer some introduction and her books also provide understandings of Revelation that go beyond the sensationalistic end-time prophecies of Hal Lindsey and Left Behind.
I spent a good bit of time during my academic career both as a scholar and a teacher, thinking about apocalyptic literature and the apocalyptic worldview. As a preacher and pastor, I have been especially interested in the contrasting images of human community and urban life presented in Revelation. There are two cities described in the book. One is the city John sees coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem. We only catch a glimpse of it in this week’s reading but God, speaking for the first time in the book since its opening verses, has this to say:
“See, the home of God is with mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
A fuller description of the New Jerusalem is provided in later in chapter 21 in 22 (excerpts from which are the reading for next Sunday). The key feature highlighted by the lectionary is the absence of a space set apart for God: “I saw no temple in the city; for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.”
The New Jerusalem is the second of two cities in Revelation. The other is Rome. We see its fullest description in Rev. 17 when John sees a vision of a whore clothed in purple and scarlet, with the inscription “Babylon the Great, Mother of whores.” She is seated on seven mountains, a clear reference to the seven hills of Rome. Revelation is a text that seeks to instruct its readers in the evils of Rome and in its eternal and totalistic enmity toward the Christian faith. John’s readers were meant to receive assurance that their suffering would be rewarded and that at the end God would prevail.
The vision of a city filled with the divine presence and filled as well with people from all the nations of the world joined in their worship of God redeems the overwhelming biblical understanding of the city as evil, from Genesis, where it is said that Cain founded the first city although through to Revelation itself. The New Jerusalem though is a redeemed and re-created city, inhabited by God and mortals, a community where there is no religious, social, or ethnic difference.
We have all sorts of ideas about ideal human community. In the twenty-first century, we might think of the nuclear family as the model for human community and many of us think of the church as “family” as well. I would guess that few of us would imagine a city as an ideal human community. Cities are dirty, noisy, full of crime. But cities are also redemptive and places where God’s grace is present. They might also be places where God is present everywhere and not just within the boundaries of the buildings or boxes within which we try to confine God.