Revelation 21:1-6

This has been, and continues to be, a fascinating presidential election season, shaping up to be one of the more memorable ones in the history of the United States. Though it’s possible that things could settle down, there remains a possibility that both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions could be open or brokered conventions. Rare in modern electoral history, brokered conventions were somewhat commonplace before the advent of the primary election season.[1] Perhaps some of here can remember that FDR was the product of a brokered convention in 1932, Pat Williams, a Democrat, who lost to Eisenhower, came out of a brokered convention in 1952, and in 1976 Gerald Ford beat out Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination just before the convention. Those familiar with the Netflix show House of Cards also saw a fictional portrayal of a brokered convention.

Via Kappit.com

Beyond the possibility of making history with brokered conventions, there is the uniqueness of the candidates themselves. Perhaps you saw the Facebook meme declaring this will be a historic election no matter who the winner is. We could have the first female President, the first Jewish President, the first Latino President, the first Canadian President, or the last President of the United States. I’ll let you guess which moniker applies to whom… Indeed, we have some unique candidates for the Presidency, some of which myself and others never thought had a chance. For the longest time I was sure Jeb Bush was going to come out above the fray, yet he exited the race back in February much to my surprise.  Myself, along with much of the so-called “political establishment” couldn’t imagine “outsider” candidates like Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and most notably Donald Trump capturing the attention of so many Americans.

But as we have continued to see, it is their “outsider” status which makes Sanders and Trump so attractive to many voters who are frustrated and disillusioned with a political system which seems increasingly dysfunctional and corrupt. And, oddly enough, though Cruz began the race as an “outsider” candidate, he is becoming overwhelmingly viewed as an “establishment” candidate.[2] On both sides of the aisle, voters are increasingly attracted to candidates who seem to be a “Washington outsider.” And both Trump and Sanders have flourished in that role, though certainly coming at it from different perspectives. As an outsider, Trump is trying to show the country that the U.S. government is weak and ineffective, and needs a strong leader to broker better deals on the global stage. Whereas Sanders is trying to show America that wealthy individuals and businesses have far too much power and influence in Washington, and need to be reined in. They are, in many ways, seeking to reveal truths (or at least their version of the truth) to American voters. As “Washington outsiders,” they are trying to pull back the curtain and reveal the dark, hidden truths corrupting our government. They are not so unlike the man we know as John, writer of the book of Revelation.

DSC04004-Greece Patmos Chora from Flickr via Wylio

The Island of Patmos today © 2007 Lyn Gateley, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

John was an outsider, living on the periphery of society symbolically and literally, for he said he was living exiled on the island of Patmos.[3] Like Trump and Sanders, John was seeking to reveal some dark and hidden truths about the corrupt Roman Empire.[4]  “Rome exerted its imperial control in Asia Minor by political, economic, and military means, but especially through the manipulation of religious practice and imagery in order to represent its rule as both inevitable and divinely ordained.”[5] Let us remember that “Revelation” comes from a word meaning, “to reveal.” As we have seen examples of in past weeks, the book of Revelation was written in a genre or style of writing called “apocalyptic,” in which an author sought to “reveal” a deeper meaning to perspective readers utilizing symbols and motifs so as to maintain some level of plausible deniability.[5] The book of Revelation was John’s attempt to reveal to his readers the consequences that the Roman Empire would eventually reap because of their evil acts of idolatry, murder, economic exploitation, and injustice.[6] Like Sanders and Trump who seek to reveal the “truth” about Washington while calling them to act another way and vote in support of their candidacy, John wrote the book of Revelation to Christians, seeking to reveal to them the true evil nature of the Roman Empire and insist that they live another way.

Here, in Revelation 21, we get a glimpse of what that different way of living looked like. If you’ve ever heard that there will be no crying in heaven, this is from where the assertion comes. Yet, understanding the genre or writing style of the book of Revelation and realizing that John’s symbols and images were not meant to be taken literally, but instead “reveal” a deeper truth, we can understand that “his portrayal of the new Jerusalem is not a reporter’s description of what he ‘actually saw.’ It is a literary composition as the means of expressing…God’s goal for the world.”[7] John isn’t trying to literally say there will be no crying in heaven, he’s trying to explain that God’s dream for the world is that everything that now deprives life from being joyful, vibrant, and fulfilling will be gone.[8] In God’s new world there will be no more death, because the “old things” of idolatry, murder, economic exploitation, and injustice will have passed away. While death and the things which destroy life may be a fact of life in this world, it is not part of God’s dream for the way things should be.[9]

In this vision of “the new Jerusalem,’ John explicitly contrasts God’s dream for the world with the world as it is (or was). The Roman empire claimed that the city of Rome was the eternal city,[10] yet here John explicitly says otherwise. Despite the misdeeds of Rome, and counter to the beliefs of some that God will rain down fire and brimstone on the earth and destroy it, destruction is not part of God’s way of doing things. Death is the way of Rome; Life is the way of God. God is making all things new and John imagines a “new heaven and a new earth,” in “terms of transformation and healing, not obliteration.”[11] Being as Earth Day was last Friday, it’s nice to know that God’s plan isn’t to destroy the creation but instead renew it.

 

In John’s view, “the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city. Cities constructed by human beings, even on the magnificent scale of…Rome, are at best only fragmentary realizations of the divine reality.”[12] God’s dream is to redeem the things that are wrong with this world and make them right. “All that has hindered, hurt, and hampered us will be gone. What will be left is a life with God, filled with relationships of joy and strength with God’s people;”[13] a universe filled with God’s presence.[14] In contrasting the two cities of Rome and the new Jerusalem, John is inviting his readers to come out of Rome and live according to God’s values.

While John wrote this book to Christians many years ago, addressing their particular time and place, we view these writings as sacred because we believe that despite being written long ago, they continue to speak to us.  Though we do not live in the Roman Empire or the symbolic city of Babylon, we still often encounter idolatry, murder, economic exploitation, and injustice in our world today, and I believe that the call of John to come out of Rome extends even to Christians today, to no longer participate in systems which, like Rome, practice idolatry, economic exploitation, and injustice. Even today, I believe the call of John to enter into the symbolic city of the new Jerusalem extends even to us today, to live in the way of God, a way of life that brings grace and justice, love and mercy, hope and faith to all who take part.

There are many within our denomination, the United Church of Christ, who are seeking to practice the ways of the new Jerusalem in the here and now. Though these faith practices can sometimes be perceived as “politically motivated” or “promoting a liberal agenda,” it’s important to understand that these actions are grounded deeply in faith. And while we may not always understand or agree with the beliefs and opinions of others, understanding that their beliefs and perspectives are extensions of their deeply rooted faith can inspire and encourage us to live out our values, whether they look the same or not. Christians are called to the work of reconnecting the world to God, something the apostle Paul referred to as “the ministry of reconciliation.”[15] Each Sunday, we pray that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Putting into practice God’s ways of peace, justice, and love is essential, I believe, to following the way of Jesus.

Fittingly for this political season, we are left with a choice. Like Sanders and Trump who call on Americans to abandon the political establishment that has, according to them, corrupted and weakened our democracy, John calls Christians to abandon the ways of the world which lead to exploitation, injustice, and destruction. Like Sanders and Trump who call on Americans to choose a new vision for governing, John calls Christians to choose a new vision of living, a way of justice, mercy, and compassion. Like Sanders and Trump who call on Americans to change the votes from their competitors, John calls on those who may be following the ways of Rome too closely to come out of Rome and come into the new Jerusalem, reminding that the gates are always open, God’s welcome never ends, God’s grace is unbounded.  Beyond all the scary symbols and images, John reveals to us a deeper truth. God’s ways lead to life and hope, the other way leads to death and destruction. John invites us, even today, to choose the way of life.

 

[1] Ariel Edwards-Levy, “The History Behind Brokered Conventions,” HuffingtonPost.com <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/brokered-convention-history_n_1370763.html> (accessed April 22, 2016).

[2] Ariel Edwards-Levy, “Ted Cruz Is Now An Establishment Candidate, According To GOP Voters,” HuffingtonPost.com <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ted-cruz-establishment-candidate_us_57193b81e4b0d912d5fe0d94>

[3] Leonard L. Thompson, Revelation: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 32.

[4] “Revelation,” in The Word in Life Study Bible: Hebrews through Revelation (New York, Guide Posts, 1993), 910.

[5] Stanley P. Saunders, “Revelation 1:4-8: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:391-393.

[5] “Revelation,” in The Word in Life Study Bible: Hebrews through Revelation (New York, Guide Posts, 1993), 900.

[6] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyer, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 1999), 157-183.

[7] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 215.

[8] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 217.

[9] Erik M. Heen, “Revelation 21:1-6: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 466.

[10] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 214.

[11] Greg Carey, “Revelation 21:1-6: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 467.

[12] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 214-215.

[13] Dana Ferguson, “Revelation 21:1-6: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 466.

[14] Richard H. Lowery, Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 54.

[15] 2 Corinthians 5:18

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