Lamb, Light, and Life
John 14Revelation 21
What if I told you that I had a dream last night? Not all that unusual – many of us dream, often in very surreal ways. But what if I told you that God had appeared to me in a dream, that I had seen visions of angels and scrolls, of cities and lambs and streams and light unending?
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that these kinds of experiences are all too real for many Christians, some of them Presbyterians. I’ve also been a Presbyterian long enough to know that most of us would run screaming from such images, whether they happened to us or to someone else.
Which brings us to our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of us in the mainline Protestant world – that is, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian – have very little time or interest in the bizarre language and imagery of Revelation. “Even Luther and Calvin, those great saints of the Reformation, had little time for John’s dreams and visions. Why should we spend any time there at all?”
And then, there are those who revel in Revelation. For them, it seems, Revelation is a magic puzzle to be solved, interpreted in the most literal, militant, triumphalistic way possible. Hearing this, we might be tempted to abandon the book altogether: “If this is what it means, then I want nothing to do with it.” The problems with this abandonment approach are many: first, we now have a book in our canon, in Scripture, which we altogether ignore; it makes us out to be hypocrites. Second, we make it such that the only interpretations being offered are those that proclaim that God’s way is the way of bloodbaths, genocides, and total annihilation. For most folks, the choice between no interpretation at all and a visceral, dramatic one is no choice at all.
So this morning, I want to suggest that we need to take the opposite approach: we need to look more closely at this lesson and to see what it is that these angels and scrolls, these cities and brides, this Lamb, light, and life could be saying to us.
It’s important to set the whole book in its context. The writer, John, is unknown to us, but was probably a fairly well-known itinerant evangelist to the seven churches to whom he addresses the letter. The messages for these churches of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, are quite specific and explicit. He knows them well, and he delivers a message to each of them that challenges and uplifts.
John is clearly writing at a time of persecution for the early Church. These attacks on early Christians seem to have been at the hand of the Roman Empire. And in the midst of this suffering, John has a vision, a dream, a revelation of a very different reality. The Greek word used is “apocalypse”, which evokes images of the end of the world – destruction and obliteration. “Apocalypse” means, literally, an uncovering...a revealing...a revelation of that which had been hidden. And what had been hidden is what John shares throughout the twenty-two chapters of this book.
Our lectionary passage today jumps around a little bit. I’m going to be walking through our text again piece by piece, beginning with verse ten from chapter twenty-one. Some of you may want to follow along in your pew bibles.
The description throughout is of the New Jerusalem, which we examined last week in our previous text. John describes the place with multiple images: by naming it Jerusalem, the dominant image is that of a city. In verse nine, if you look back, he uses the metaphor of a bride – the bride of the Lamb – to describe it. There’s something in this description, of a place that cannot be narrowed down to one image alone, that says something about the ultimately indescribable nature of the place. It is ultimately beyond human language to the point that no single picture will do. The city gives us a sense of the life it carries; the bride lets us know that it exists in relationship with the Lamb, with Christ himself.
And there it is, in verse ten, descending, coming down out of heaven. Whenever the New Jerusalem is described in Revelation, it is always descending, always in motion. We spent a good deal of time last week discussing this “not quite yet” character of this bride/city. I will eventually want to get back to that theme in a bit, but let’s move on through the text.
As we turn to verse 22 of that same chapter, we see this detail lifted up: there is no temple in the city. This point would have stood out to John’s original audience. First, there was the expectation in the Jewish community that a re-established Jerusalem would, of course, have the Temple at its heart. For the early Christian community, which had witnessed the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the rebuilt Temple was simply assumed to be part of the deal eventually. But even more broadly, any community of the Ancient Near East would have had a temple of some kind representing the local cult or religion. A city without a temple would have been like a kingdom without a king.
Instead, John transforms the temple within the city to being God’s very self. Rather than the place containing a hint of holiness, there is a holiness that infuses the place by virtue of God’s presence in the midst of the people. The rest of the chapter is devoted to three elements in describing New Jerusalem: First, it is alive. People stream to it. The gates are always open. Nations bring honor and glory to it. There is an energy, a bustling element to the city. Second, there is this incredible light. The sun and the moon are unnecessary. God is its light. There is no night, no time for fear from darkness. Third, not everyone is welcome there. As with the ancient Temple, there is a difference between clean and unclean. Those who are unclean, by which John clarifies those who practice abomination or falsehood, are left outside the city walls.
Finally, in chapter 22, we come to the water and the tree of life. The imagery here is meant to call to mind the very beginning of Scripture, the Genesis story of ancient Eden with its river and tree. So as we come to the end, we are brought back to the beginning. There is one significant difference here, though: Eden was a garden; we now find ourselves in the midst of the city. The important point here is that there is provision. For an agricultural people, even for the urban dwellers of the seven churches to whom this letter was addressed, these images of ever-flowing water and trees giving endless fruit would have been a clear indication of provision for life and sustenance.
And throughout the whole lesson, we have this Lamb who keeps appearing, the one who is Christ, reminiscent of the Passover lambs slaughtered in Exodus so that the people would be saved from their slavery. For John, it is one of the key descriptions of Christ, this picture of him as the Lamb. And yet again, we have a multitude of images for Christ, each giving a piece of a fuller description that may always elude us: he is the Lamb, our Savior. He is also the king, the one sitting on the throne. He is the source of light, the one who drives out darkness and distress. And from his throne flow these waters, this source of being and life.
Throughout all of this description, we see pieces of John’s vision of this New Jerusalem. It is a place full of strangeness, where sun and moon are gone, as is Temple. And in the midst of this city grows the New Eden. Urban and rural are brought together in life-giving ways. However much is uncovered in this apocalypse, this revealing, this Revelation, as much – if not more – is hidden again through image and metaphor. To read this story as a literal unfolding of history is to miss the point of Revelation. It is meant to be vision to compel the Church – to offer it hope in the midst of hopelessness, to give it an evocative, descriptive, vivid dream of this place called the New Jerusalem.
So where is this place, this New Jerusalem? Some would choose see it as the literal Jerusalem, set in the modern Middle East, a place which is meant to be militarily triumphant in order to bring about God’s reign upon that wondrous throne. Others would see it as a description of heaven, a place utterly beyond, where we live eternal life after we die and are brought to a place of ultimate comfort and healing.
And yet, as I read this lesson again, I have a hard time believing that either of these is fully true, or maybe even partially so. It cannot be heaven, because John sees it descending from, coming out of heaven. Nor can it be of earth, because it isn’t fully descended, either. It isn’t fully spiritual, because there is real physical sustenance and provision in the city, the waters and the tree feeding hunger and sating thirst. Nor is it fully material, because it is full of these strange images of Lamb and light and life that are completely foreign to any reality we know. I feel like I can say more about what it isn’t than what it is. But I wonder: could it be that this New Jerusalem, this descending, heavenly/earthly city, is the thing for which we yearn? Or perhaps the thing for which we ought to yearn?
Maybe calling it a place is part of the problem. Maybe it isn’t a place after all, but a desire, a hope, the vision for which we strive, as a Church, as members of that Church. It is a reality in which needs are met, for hunger and thirst, for relationship with others and connection with the divine. It is a community where worship is not only what we do on a Sunday morning but becomes a way of life in all that we do. I do not for a moment think that the Church fully lives up to this vision of the New Jerusalem. But I do think that the possibility exists for us to hope for our own transformation, that would could be a place with open doors full of light, inviting all into the presence of Christ, whom we worship with all that we have and all that we are. I do think that we can yearn for this table to be a place of sustenance and this font to be the waters of baptism giving life and hope in a hopeless world.
Can you see it? Can you dream it? Then let us be on our way.