Monday, November 03, 2008

Sermon on Revelation 21:5, 21:9-22:5, for All Saints Day

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s reading, we experience the visual feast that God revealed to John. The vision of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. We peer into the future in this text that is overflowing with vivid and colorful images that express the vibrancy of heaven. Heaven will not be dull or drab or boring, as so many wrongly assume, but will be a paradise greater than Adam and Eve knew in Eden. In Revelation we encounter a spectacular vision of the new heavens and new earth, and all the images of this paradise spill over each other like a sparkling, tumbling, rushing waterfall, pouring over the reader with cool, life-giving freshness. Much like a glimpse into a kaleidoscope provides a rush of colors and moving images faster than the eye can take them all in, the glimpse of heaven that John sees is rich and full-textured, but beyond what words can fully capture.

Nevertheless, we must try to capture some of it, and make sense of the flood of images in the whole book of Revelation. We need an anchor point to tie it all together. That anchor point is the throne of God. All of the visions should be understood in light of God and the Lamb, who are seated on this heavenly throne, and from it rule over all the events in time and eternity. God and the Lamb, Father and Son, who both bear the title “the Alpha and the Omega” which means the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Sharing this and other divine titles, and together receiving worship on the throne of God—it’s unmistakable that the Father and the Son are fully and truly equal and united as One True God.

God addresses John from the throne, describing what he is seeing: “Behold, I am making all things new!” The heavenly vision unfolds, displaying God’s new creation, beginning with the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Not the earthly city of Jerusalem, in its present state or even in a rebuilt and re-modified earthly state. Rather, it descends out of heaven from God, a new creation! “Behold,” God says, “I am making all things new!” A city unlike any other human city, brilliantly illuminated with the glory of God, sparkling like a precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. Walls of jasper, foundations of 12 precious stones, and 12 gates made with giant single pearls; the streets and the city are made of pure, transparent gold. Yet the book of Revelation is not the first place this glorious city appears. In part it’s depicted in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, and other prophets, and yet as we mentally tour this future city, we see things that draw us back all the way to the beginning of creation, in the book of Genesis.

Peering into the furthest glimpses of the future that God gives in Revelation, we might be surprised to see things that echo back to the first creation. We find that the first and last books of the Bible have some surprising connections. Genesis: the beginning of all things, the Creation; and Revelation: the end of all things, what we call Eschatology, or the study of the end times. Creation and Eschatology are like the bookends to the Bible and all of history. Sandwiched between them is the human story of our salvation history, with glimpses of the eternity that lies beyond this present creation that is wearing old like a garment. Once the old heavens and earth pass away and are destroyed, God from His throne will be making all things new in the new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:18).

Even though the old creation will have passed away, there are still echoes of the original paradise. For example, in the vision of the glorious new city, the city has no need of light from the sun or moon, for God and the Lamb will give it light. A subtle echo to the first chapter of Genesis, where God created light and darkness on the first day, but didn’t create the sun, moon, and stars till the fourth day of creation. Where did the light came from the first three days of creation? Most often it’s suggested that God Himself was the source of the light, just as He is here (cf. Is. 60:19-20). In the New Jerusalem, God and the Lamb are the sole source of light for the city and peoples. No need for the sun or moon or any lamps. In contrast to the first creation, there will be no darkness or night! With that, the gates of the city will never be shut—there will be no threat of war, or invaders, or evildoers coming through its gates. Unlike the earthly Jerusalem that has faced millennia of invaders and warfare, the heavenly Jerusalem leaves its gates perpetually opened in peace, because there will be no threat of darkness or evil. All is made new in the light of God’s glory and the lamp of the Lamb. The nations of the earth will walk in this light of God, acting in community and harmony.

Next, there’s a river of the water of life in the New Jerusalem, flowing down the streets. And where’s the source of this river of life? Nowhere else but issuing from the throne of God and of the Lamb! Much like the river that arose in the garden of Eden and split into four different rivers that watered the first paradise. Truly a life-giving river, the prophets say it waters all the desert lands, turns salt water into fresh, bearing abundant fish and sea-life, it produces plants and lush vegetation, making all things new as it flows from God’s throne.

Yet there appears to be a contradiction between John’s vision of the new city and Ezekiel’s vision. In John’s vision, he explicitly says that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, and the source of the river is God’s throne—but in Ezekiel the temple itself is the source for this great and mighty river. So which is it? John resolves this difficulty by informing us that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem because there is no need of a temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. So it agrees with Ezekiel when the river of life flows out from the throne of God and the Lamb, the same who are the Temple of the Holy City! Further we add to this the truth that Jesus said to the Jews, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought of the earthly temple, but Jesus was speaking about the temple of His body, which they would destroy on the cross, and He would raise from death in three days (John 2:19-22). So Jesus Himself is the temple, and from Him and God’s throne flows the living water, the water of life. Add on top of that the fact that Jesus described Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well as being the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Christ makes all things new by granting eternal life from His wellspring of living water.

But why are we shown this heavenly vision, and what assurance do we have that we may arrive in that Holy City, the New Jerusalem, one day? Today we celebrate All Saints Day, which was November 1st, and we especially remember all the saints, the faithful believers who have died and gone on before us to our Lord in heaven. We remember and imitate their example of faith, trusting in the Lamb who’s seated on the throne. For we and they have been granted a new citizenship to that Holy City—a citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). Through Christ we’re fellow citizens with the saints in heaven (Eph. 2:18-20). How have we and the saints in heaven gained our citizenship? We who were once aliens and foreigners? How’ve we been welcomed into this glorious kingdom, to stand before the throne of Him who’s making all things new, for us? When St. John sees the saints gathered in heaven, worshipping before God’s throne, he notices at least two important details: 1) they’re clothed in white robes, 2) they have God’s name written on their foreheads.

Earlier in John’s vision, an angel asks him who these are clothed in white robes and from where have they come? John puts the question back to the angel, “Sir, you know.” “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:13-14). Here’s the key to the citizenship of the saints! They’re clothed in pure robes, washed white in the blood of the Lamb! Jesus’ sacrificial blood, poured out on the cross, has cleansed and forgiven each of us, washing our sins and making them white like wool. Without this forgiveness, we cannot enter the New Jerusalem, as our reading says, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” But the Lord says: “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:18).

Our citizenship has been bought with the blood of the Lamb. And we wear His clean robe of innocence, the wedding garments that He gives to all who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church (Matt. 22:11-12). Pastor Fricke and I wear these white robes, or albs as we serve in worship as a reminder to each one of you, that believers are clothed in the clean robe of Jesus’ innocence. Washed in the blood of the Lamb, who makes all things new from His throne. In Madagascar, I visited a remote village, a Lutheran community, where all the believers wore a white robe or covering, to remind them of Christ’s righteousness that they wear, by virtue of their baptism into Jesus. His perfect innocence is ours by faith.

This brings us to the second mark of the saints’ citizenship. They had the name of God on their foreheads, that they could see God’s face and stand in His presence. They were sealed with the name of God and the Lamb, and the name of the city of God, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Rev. 3:12). How’ve believers been sealed with the name of God on their forehead? In baptism we were baptized into the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 2 Corinthians describes how we’re anointed by God, sealed, and given His Holy Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:21-22). Ephesians speaks about us hearing the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and that those who believe in Him are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Peter addressed the Pentecost crowd in Acts, telling them if they repented and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, they’d receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). All this confirms that we’re sealed with God’s name by believing and being baptized into Jesus’ name. In the sanctified, living waters that pour from God’s throne of grace, He makes all things new. Renewing, washing, cleansing by the living waters and by His precious blood, we’re sealed, anointed, baptized into His name. Forgiven and holy. Holy ones, that’s what ‘saints’ means—holy not by our works, but by His cleansing and His sacrifice.

Made a new creation in Christ Jesus, new to stand in His Kingdom, we identify a final parallel from the new heavens and earth, to the first creation. The Tree of Life, from which humanity was banished in the Garden of Eden, is restored to the saints. Here at the side of the flowing river of life, is the Tree of Life, bearing 12 crops of fruit for each month, with leaves for the healing of the nations. And the curse, the sin and death that drove Adam and Eve from the garden and the Tree of Life—the cherubim with a flaming sword guarding it—this is removed in the new heavens and new earth. Now we have full access to the Tree of Life, and God’s healing. Our access to this Tree of Life once again comes from the One who makes all things new from His throne—the Lamb who was slain on the tree of the cross (Rev. 5:6). Through that cursed tree, Jesus’ death opened to us the Tree of Life. Restoring what was lost in the garden—we’re once again able to stand and walk in the presence of God. Released from sin, no longer separated, lonely, or alienated from God, we shall see Him face to face.

Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame, flows life eternal in His name;
For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive.
And of this fruit so pure and sweet, the Lord invites the world to eat,
To find within this cross of wood, the tree of life with ev’ry good. (LSB 561)

Image upon image has been layered on this wonderful vision of God and the Lamb on the throne, who are at the same time the source of light for all of heaven, the source of the river of the water of life, they’re the Temple of the New Jerusalem. The Lamb who appears as one who once was slain on the Tree of the Cross becomes our access to the Tree of Life; the one whose blood washes our heavenly robes, and marks His name on our foreheads. Let’s rejoice and sing of that eternal hope, as we gaze into eternity to see our God, who makes all things new for all His saints! Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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