Normally, when we are discussing the Kingdom of God in sermons, it is starting with the life of Jesus or the other New Testament writers or even the Old Testament writers and then reading forward to the church and how we are meant to live today. We talk about the tension of the already and not yet kingdom of God and how we are to live in the not yet because of the already that is the life of Jesus. The readings from today, especially the Revelation passage, invite us to think about the Kingdom of God from the opposite perspective. We are going to think about the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God and then read back to our own story.
The Revelation passage comes at the culmination of a book that is loaded with controversy and misunderstanding. There are some circles of thought in the church that are consumed by trying to interpret the book of Revelation to determine what is going to happen in the future. They want the book to be a road map. Perhaps, interpreting the book that way gives security or comfort against the unknown. I wonder if that approach misses a fundamental point of the book, that is, to outline the theological truths about the culmination of the Kingdom of God. So this morning we are going to look at the description of the kingdom of God, in Revelation and the other passages, through the lens of theological truths, and not as a detailed road map to the future.
What is the kingdom of God like? John answers this in two parts; physical descriptions that portray a theological reality, and a societal description.
In Revelation we are told that this moment that John is relaying to us is the culmination of the Kingdom of God, the holy city of the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and God dwells on Earth. So the question that we will start with, and thankfully was the question that John seeks to answer in part, is, What is the kingdom of God like? John answers this in two parts; physical descriptions that portray a theological reality, and a societal description. The physical descriptions are primarily concerned with the presence of God and the societal description is primarily concerned with the “nations.”
The Presence of God
Michael Gorman, a New Testament scholar, suggests that the Kingdom of God, as described in Revelation, is characterized more by what is absent than what is present. He points out that in the Revelation 21 and 22 the following are said to be lacking in God’s new city:
- No sea
- No death
- No tears, mourning, or crying
- No evil or unclean persons or things
- No temple
- No sun, moon
- No night
- No closed gates
From this list, the first thing that is lacking that we come across in the revelation passage is that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. This has a twofold significance. First, there is no need for a place that mediates the presence of God because God is present everywhere. In the ancient world, more so than now, the temple was regarded as a sacred place where God’s presence was tangible. The temple was a sacred space. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace writes,
“The significance and relevance of contemporary temples are being challenged today as many church buildings have become peripheral to the neighborhoods in which they exist, standing as reminders of another time in history.”
Temples, sanctuaries, churches, today are more like concert venues or community centers. And there is a purpose for those, especially community centers, but we have less of a sense of the sacred when we enter our sanctuaries. But in the ancient world there was a high regard for the sacredness of the space. The presence of God was within the walls of the temple, in a way that was different than the rest of creation. But in the New Jerusalem there is no need for the temple because there is no divide between the holy of holies and the rest of creation. God’s presence, as it was in the temple, fills the whole city and the whole of the redeemed creation. Justo Gonzalez writes,
“The relationship with God and with the Lamb is direct, immediate and constant.”
For those who prefer more alliteration Gorman said, “[The New Creation] is marked by God’s perpetual perceptible presence.” There is no need for a temple because God’s presence fills all of creation.
But temples were more than just a house for the presence of God, they were also a place where people come to worship God. In the temple in Jerusalem it was a place were sacrifices and offerings were brought, today our sanctuaries are a place where people gather in prayer and song, and hear the word of God. But if there is no temple will there be no worship? Or will our worship be changed? Perhaps, in some ways, worship in the New Creation becomes the work that we have been given, done in the presence of a holy God. Instead of songs in a sanctuary being worship, life in the new city is the worship offered to God by humanity.
But if there is no temple will there be no worship? Or will our worship be changed?
The second physical description that we are given by John is that there is no need for a sun or moon and then later, there is no night either. There is no need for a sun or moon and there is no night because the light of God fills the whole of creation. Will the sun melt away like Amazing Grace describes? Who knows. But there will be no more darkness in which evil can hide. John’s description of light filling the city seems to remove the darkness that humanity has brought into creation. There will be no more hurt, or pain, or sin, or the consequences of sin. Instead the creation that God described as very good, will be very good again. Nothing unclean will inhabit the same place as the lamb of God.
The second description that John makes about the Kingdom of God has to do with who will inhabit this kingdom, the nations. The nations. I think that this is a very intentional and very important word for John to us. The nations broadens the kingdom of God from just the Jewish chosen people, and John would be writing from a Jewish perspective. The Kingdom of God is now not just the Jewish people. We get the fist hints of this in the Acts reading. Paul, in his travels, arrives in Macedonia and begins teaching. And we are not told the substance of his teaching, instead, the author highlights the audience of his teaching, Lydia. Lydia has several things about her that makes her an interesting audience for Paul’s teaching. She is a woman, in a patriarchal culture where women were property. She is a “God-fearer” and not a Jew, possibly a convert to Judaism but a gentile by birth. Gary Charles writes,
“As Paul preaches to a Philippian audience that includes Lydia, Luke expands the audience of the gospel to those with varieties of economic means. The gospel Paul preaches reaches beyond Judaism and gender. This is a gospel not only for Jews and not only for men, but for male and female “God-fearers,” who are ready to be washed in the waters of baptism and called to a new way of life. This inclusive gospel reaches beyond economic, religious, and gender boundaries to create a beloved new community of faith.”
Paul’s interaction certainly makes a statement about the role of women in the leadership of the church, as Lydia is the one who leads her family to convert and be baptised, and she orders Paul around. But it also makes a statement about the expanding of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is made up of men and women, Jews and God-fearers. Those who were considered “other” are included in the nations that reside in the city of God. This is a potent example for the church today. “Sometimes, all they need is someone to cross over the boundary and speak the good news. The church today can follow this example by prayerfully examining what boundaries we have put up. We can also ask God how we might “cross over” into unknown territory to find open hearts waiting for good news.” The church has erected many boundaries to keep out those who we think are outside the community of faith. We have set up boundaries between faith traditions, denominations, between straight and LGBT, red and blue, black and white, evangelicals and catholics. These boundaries have allowed us to hide in our comfort zone with those who look and think like us. When instead we should be “crossing over” to either work with one another or to reach with the gospel those who have not experienced the grace of God.
The psalter makes a similar point about the inclusivity of the kingdom of God, all nations and all people will experience the saving power of God. Will there still be judgement, of course. Does it matter how we respond to the Gospel, of course. But the point is that the Kingdom of God is wider than one nation, it is wider than one ethnicity, and I hope that it is wider than we can even imagine.
John also makes it clear in his description of the people who inhabit the kingdom of God, “the nations” there are two things that they bring to the table. The first is culture. Rev. 21:26 says, “the people will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” All that is good from the nations, that brings honor to God, will enter into the holy city. Gorman says,
“Paradise restored or regained cannot ignore the millenia of human civilizations that have transpired. Thus this “paradise” is not just a garden but and urban garden, or, even better, a garden-city. This tells us that it is not civilization/culture/the city itself that is evil. But the distortion of city/culture/civilization caused by evil people and powers.”
In Genesis, humanity is given the role of co-creators in God’s creation. The question is whether we will make something that contributes to the good of creation or not. The good that we create is a part of the offering that we bring before God. The beauty that we create is an act of worship.
Nothing accursed will enter the city, but there is still healing needed for the nations.
The second thing that humanity brings to the New Jerusalem is implied by what is in the center of the city. In the midst of the city is a river that runs from the throne of God and on either side of the river, on its banks, is the tree of life. This is certainly a reference back to the tree of life that is mentioned in Gen. 2-3. This tree is described as producing its fruit each month which is an abundant crop that will sustain humanity. And it has leaves that are for the healing of the nations. It would seem that there is healing available because there is healing that is needed. Nothing accursed will enter the city, but there is still healing needed for the nations.
We live in a world where healing is desperately needed because there are so many that are hurting. We live in a time when there is genocide, racism, sexism. We live in a time of endless war. We live in the midst of an opioid epidemic. We have generations of kids growing up without parents. We have a generation of kids who are now parents. I’ve started mulling over in my head a topic for another paper that I want to write for a conference. And it has to do with memes made by millenials, specifically all of the ones that have to do with wanting to die. I am a part of a generation that perceives reality and their current situation as being hopeless. The hurt in the world and the wounds that people and nations carry are wide ranging and serious. But John gives us hope that in the new creation there is healing that is available for those wounds.
There is a sculpture that was commissioned by the British Art Museum after the civil war in Mozambique. It is a representation of the tree of life that is in the New Jerusalem, the one with leaves for the healing of the nations. This tree was constructed out of decommissioned weapons that were used during the civil war. To me it is a symbol that there will be a day when the tools of destruction will be turned into a symbol of hope. When the things that we use to hurt one another will cease to be and we will find healing instead. And I think it is also a symbol that the vision of John of the New Jerusalem impacts how the church lives today. It is not just a disconnected and far off future hope, it is a hope that impacts our present reality. Gorman says that this vision of the kingdom of God should inspire us to four things:
- “Worship: giving honor and praise to God and the Lamb for the present and future salvation offered to us and all the world.”
- “Mission: embodying the values and practices of the eschatological reality now, remaining faithful and true even, if necessary, to the point of death.”
- “Prophecy: naming and speaking against values and practices that are at odds with those of God’s coming new creation, whether they occur among God’s people or in the wider world.”
- “Hope: recognizing that this new creation cannot be achieved by human effort or even prayer, for it is foreshadowed now only by grace, and it will come in fullness only in God’s good time and after God’s final defeat of all the powers arrayed against both God and humanity: evil, empire and its culture of death, and death itself.”
The hope of the New Jerusalem gives the nations hope for the redemption of creation. It gives us hope of the day when God’s presence will fill creation, when the darkness of sin will no longer separate us from God, and when healing will be available to all who hurt. And his vision should inspire us to live toward that kingdom of God, to live toward healing, to live toward the restoration of creation. To live with hope.