We return this morning to our mini-series on John’s fantastic vision from the island of Patmos known to us as Revelation. The central feature of that vision which I covered in the first two parts of this mini-series is the lamb who was slain who now reigns over heaven and earth and leads this cataclysmic battle against the forces of evil and defeats them with nothing more than the sword of his mouth, in another words, his tongue.
As Martin Luther proclaimed in the classic hymn of the Reformation, “ A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”,
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; ?their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: ?One little word shall fell them.
This is what New Testament scholar Ward Ewing calls “lamb power.”[i] Hold that image in your mind when you drive up I-5 and you see all those cute little lambs frolicking in the field. That future mutton on the table of my friend Ibrahim Hamide’s newest restaurant downtown is the symbol of the greatest power of the cosmos! (And you thought Monte Python’s killer bunny rabbit guarding the Holy Grail was a bit over the top. Where do you think he got that image? He sure didn’t get it from reading The Velveteen Rabbit!)
This slain lamb however, takes up no weapon other than the power of the spoken word. This is the ultimate divine reversal. The one without any guilt, humiliated, tortured and most painfully executed, is now the one who triumphs over all the guilty by nothing more than proclamation. Talk about the pen that is mightier than the sword! This is the power echoed by the first words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.” Twenty-eight verses later John the Baptist introduces that Word to us when he first sees Jesus, saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Lamb power. The vision of Revelation simply puts that power into story form to show how that power truly is far greater than “the powers of darkness grim.”
Skipping over the bloody parts which read like a Taratino movie on steroids, though mercifully brief, we come to the conclusion of John’s vision of a New Jerusalem on earth. I am going to deal with the first part of that vision next week—yes I am preaching from Revelation on Mother’s Day. That shouldn’t be shocking. Didn’t your mother ever scare the hell out of you? In a good way, of course!
Listen how John describes the appearance of this Holy City:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
A prominent professor of preaching who teaches in an American seminary and wrote a thick book on the art of preaching, once gave a sermon on this text in which, noting the absence of the temple in the New Jerusalem, he dared to imagine a world—unthinkable as it might be—a world without, are you ready for this, without denominations.
Over six billion people in this world, 2/3 of them non-Christians, and the biggest vision we have for the Reign of God simply excludes them?
This is what I find the most amazing in this vision. When we come to end of our Bible, after all of the attention it gives to the religious establishment from the first altar build by Abraham on down to the instructions given in 1st Timothy to the deacons and elders of the church, after all the debate over prayer in public schools and separation of church and state, after million and billions spent on church edifices like this one, after all the meetings, all the efforts to make the church what it is today, for better or for worse, after all the discernment on the ultimate worship schedule for Sunday mornings, when we come to this grand vision—which is, I remind you once again not of the end of the world, but of the completion of creation begun in Genesis one—we find not only is there no temple, but the church we love so dear does not even get honorable mention!
No denominations. Phooey. How small-minded can we be? You see it is not about temple or church or mosque, it’s about religious institutions, the complete lack thereof and any need therefore.
Once again I remind you of the historical context in which the elder John received this vision on the island of Patmos at the end of the first century. Jerusalem lay in ruins, the temple was completely dismantled and Christians along with Jews were swept up in the ensuing persecution. Out of the ashes of that destruction arose the phoenix of John’s vision—a new city, its glory beyond imagination, filled with gold and crystal, and its size beyond comprehension. Verse 16 says this Holy City is 1,500 miles wide and 1,500 miles long, basically the 11 western states from Colorado to California. (And we thought just Oregon was God’s country.)
But get this, this New Jerusalem is also tall, very tall. Remember the tower of Babel from last week? That would just be the front step, because this city is also 1,500 miles high. Keep in mind that the international space station orbits the earth at just 220 miles above the earth. We’re talking 7 times higher than that. Taller than even Donald Trump’s ego. (BTW, this is another one of those clues that literal interpretations of Revelation are just plain silly.)
Whereas the heart of the old city is the temple, the heart of the new city is none other than God. “I will write my law upon their heart,” says Jeremiah, “and I will be their God and they will be my people.” God will be so present, so overwhelmingly present, that we will have no need of temple, church, synagogue or mosque. The whole city, the whole of humanity, will be the dwelling place of God.
Do you know that presence? To use a phrase of Marcus Borg’s, to be “God-intoxicated”, or filled with the Spirit? Some of us know of it, we have known people who are so filled or we have read about such things, but we do not know it ourselves. Some of us have known it, can recall a time when we felt that presence and the memory of it has stayed with us ever since.
And a few among us seem able to dwell in that presence more often than not. You know who they are. They are those folk who seem always to be at peace with themselves and the world, not matter what is going on around them. There can be total chaos but somehow they are able to stay calm. Or there are those who truly are able to love everyone, who harbor only good will towards others no matter what others do to them. And there are the true prophets of our world who are able to see right through the charades and pretensions we put on and thus are able to speak the Word of God by which we are simultaneously judged and saved when we take that Word to heart. These are the ones who are “God-intoxicated”. There will be a time and a place, says the elder John, when that presence of God is known and felt by all. And that presence will put an end to all war, death, crying, suffering and pain.
There was another prophet by the name of John who dared to imagine such a time and place. This is how he described it in his revelation:
Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people,
Living for today.
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too.
Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.
Imagine no possession,
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger,
One family, one clan.
Imagine all the people,
Sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one. [ii]
I used to be slightly offended by that song for it implies that religion is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Well, that may be. As I studied this text from Revelation of the New Jerusalem, I realized that it wasn’t much different from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” When we come to the end of Revelation, there is no more religion, there is simply God. Where John of Patmos imagines only heaven, John of Liverpool imagines no heaven, but they describe the same thing, no more death, no greed or hunger, and a world at peace living as one. Where John the elder says there is no temple, John the Beatle says there is no religion; for both there is no more cause for division, nothing to kill or die for.
The more I study scripture, while simultaneously I get to know people of other faith traditions on the one hand and watch what is going on around the world on the other, the more I am convinced the answer to the turmoil we see is not to convince others that they need to believe as we do, the answer is to accept others as believing as they need to do. That is not to say that all beliefs are created equal. Clearly when one’s beliefs leads one to harm others, be it by bombing a crowd of marathon enthusiasts or humiliating enemy combatants in a foreign prison, then we must challenge the underlying assumptions of such beliefs.
Following the bombing in Boston I went to Friday service at our local mosque. I was struck by several things: First by the packed room of young men wall to wall in prayer. And second by how welcome they made me feel. The sermon given that afternoon, in both Arabic and English, was in essence a sermon on the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” One of the Imam’s statements that struck me was this, remember this is the week after the bombing: “A Muslim does not harm another person in word or in deed.” So there you go.
I am convinced that the biggest problem we face today in foreign policy is not the external threat of hostile powers, the biggest problem is what war and the domination system does to even the best American soldier and the power of the beast that can corrupt any of us.
The real power of this vision of John’s is not that all good Christians are united in this heavenly city, but that all nations can be found there, where there is nothing to kill or die for. Earlier we read in Revelation 5 of a multitude too great to count, dressed in white robes, who come before the throne of God. Anthropologists who study social movements and the growth of new religions tell us that by the end of the first century, there were probably about 10,000 Christians, a very countable number. If John’s vision was intended for those 10,000 believers, then clearly he too must have had a larger group in mind.
Further, note that the gates of this new city are always open. Anyone may come and go anytime they choose. And the leaves of the tree of life, reminiscent of the tree in the Garden of Eden, are for the healing of the nations. The only ones excluded are not those who do not profess correct beliefs, but those who do not live in the correct way. Here they are described as those who practice abomination or falsehood. Earlier they are described as the cowardly, faithless, polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and if that is not enough, liars. We need not get hung up on specifics here, you know, if you tell a lie you’ll be thrown into the lake of fire! If so, we are all in big trouble.
The point John is making is that there are consequences for our actions, and unlike some CEOs of big banks, we will be held accountable. Therefore, let your life be guided by the power of the lamb, self-giving love. This is the way of the lamb and those who live this way, who “wash their robes in the blood of the lamb,” whose lives are guided by the two great commandments to love God with all of your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, they are the ones who will be and who are the citizens of the New Jerusalem.
Can we, dare we, imagine a world where such “lamb power”, such self-giving love, is the rule rather than the exception? Where the way of the cross, the way of dying to this world and being born again to new life in the Spirit, is the way by which not only we are transformed, but the world is transformed.
It is not hard to imagine, especially when you realize that this way of surrendering to God as taught in Islam, of letting go of our attachments as taught in Buddhism, of dying to the world as taught in Taoism, or of being born of the Spirit as taught by Jesus, is common to all the great spiritual traditions. If that is so, could we not, should we not, work together to create such a world where self-giving love is the way by which we all live? What would such a world look like? Can we imagine it?
Yes people of faith will have disagreements on matters of public policy, but surely we can all agree that the call to be peacemakers is central to the vision of Jesus for us and to honor every person as a child of God means we must never associate violence against others with the will of God. When such an understanding becomes the norm in this country, then any kind of abuse, be of a child, a partner or a prisoner, will be unthinkable. Until it does, we will be caught in the unending exchange of an eye for an eye that will only make us more blind than we were before. What if instead we take Jesus seriously and begin to show real love for our enemies? Can you imagine it?
After the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went to Iraq to apologize for what occurred there. It was a big step in the right direction. But I wish he had taken one step further. What if he had gone personally to those prisoners and to their families and said, “I am truly, deeply sorry for what we have done and I ask for your forgiveness”?
During his first year in office, President Obama went to Egypt to reset this country’s relations with the Arab world. He was deeply criticized supposedly for apologizing to Muslims for defending ourselves from terrorism. I strongly disagreed with that characterization of his diplomacy. But I do wish he had gone further. As a Christian he knows the importance and value of asking for forgiveness. What if, in addition to reaching out to Muslims of the Middle East, what if he had looked the camera and those Arab viewers in the eye and said, “I am truly, deeply sorry for the damage we have caused to our relationship and the harm we have brought upon the innocent and ask for your forgiveness”?
Is this not what we teach as our Christian duty? If our leaders did such, would that not do more to change the hearts and minds of our enemies than bombs and bullets? Would that not do more to redeem the death of innocent victims of war than hunting down their killers and assassinating them with remote drones from God’s blue sky? Would that not be God’s will done here on earth as in heaven?
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. If you agree with me, then I hope you will join us, but look not to our leaders, look to your own heart. For the vision of the New Jerusalem, of heaven on earth, begins with each of us.
[i] See Barbara Rossing who quotes Ward Ewing in The Rapture Exposed. See especially chapter 6.
[ii] With no apologies to John Lennon who originally wrote “A brotherhood of man” but who undoubtedly would have used more inclusive language today.