A sermon drawn from Revelation 21:9-25, more or less as preached at a small church in Southern Indiana on the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
We might have caught a couple of things in this text: the “pearly gates.” The “streets made of gold.” This text is exactly where those familiar ideas come from.
Full disclosure, this was a convenient text, because it was the one we were studying in Bible study this week. I realize the talk about foundations might also be a painful subject, though also relevant, so I hope it’s not too painful. Because upon reflection, I think we’ll see there’s an important message in this text, maybe even specifically around that sensitive area, and specifically relevant to the members of this congregation.
Because … something that is not immediately obvious just from the surface of this text, but that is really deeply encoded into the text, is that when we’re looking at the new Jerusalem, we’re looking at a worship space, a place of worship. And that worship space, and what it tells us about worship, and the foundation of Christian worship, is really illuminating – something I think it helps us to know.
Here’s how we know this new Jerusalem is worship space [and I have to admit, some of this I just learned this week]:
Probably everyone knows that Jerusalem is a holy city because it was the site of the Temple in ancient Israel. That’s why it was the Israelites’ destination for religious festivals. And that’s why Jesus and the disciples are there at Passover (which laid the foundation for our celebration of Easter). It’s also why the first Jewish Christians are there at Pentecost (which is also the Jewish festival of Shavuot or “Weeks,” which laid the foundation for our Pentecost).
By the time the book of Revelation was written, that Temple would have been destroyed. For a second time, because it had been destroyed once before in the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Completely destroyed. All that was left of that second Temple – and this is still true today, by the way – is a little piece of the retaining wall that was the substructure for its foundation. When people talk about the western wall, when we see pictures of the western wall, that retaining wall is what they’re talking about.
In that temple, we probably also know, the innermost part of the Temple, the most sacred space, was the Holy of Holies. That was the room in which the ark of the covenant, that was the most sacred symbol of the very presence of God, was supposed to be – “supposed to be,” because that ark had been stolen or captured by the Babylonians back when the Temple was destroyed down to its foundations the first time. The Holy of Holies was the room in which only the high priest went, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
Something we might not know, though, is: that room was a perfect square. Actually, a perfect cube. 10x10x10 in our measurement – that’s about the size of a small-to-average bedroom. So, we can think of that shape, that square shape, as the design of the holiest, most perfect worship experience available to people on earth. It’s the closest someone could be to God. Historically, in real life, it was only ever available to one person, the high priest, and that only very rarely, and after careful preparation.
[But some of us might remember from having been to Good Friday services that Matthew’s gospel tells us, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain that divided that holiest place off from the rest of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. That would have been a sign of intense divine grief, and also of tearing down of the separation between us, humanity, and God. At least, that’s what I have learned from church …]
So – when John tells us the city is a square, and that “its length and width and height are equal,” he’s telling us something important. He wants us to see the whole new Jerusalem as a Holy of Holies. The whole city is that most sacred, most desirable, closest-to-God space. What used to be the most off-limits space is where he sees people living …
Which is why there’s no separate Temple IN the city … John makes sure to spell that out, just in case we hadn’t noticed. He says, explicitly, there’s no temple, because God and the Lamb are the Temple, they are right there, and they are the perpetual light of this worship space.
Something else I learned this week, by the way, because I got curious about these symbolic ancient measurements, the 12,000 stadia and the 144 cubits – this is not a small worship space, either! Twelve thousand stadia is 1380 miles. This is very hard to imagine
It made me realize that I had been thinking about what John is describing really wrong, because I had in mind something like a sacred version of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, where what he’s talking about is something more like … a whole country.
A square that’s 1400 miles on each side across would take up most of the middle of the United States, from Atlanta to Denver, from Canada to Mexico.
More to the point for John’s audience, a square like that would take up the whole space between Jerusalem and Rome – it would cover the center of the whole Roman Empire. It would be the new center of the world.
And as far as that height goes, there is literally nothing in ordinary human experience that prepares us to envision any constructed thing like that. It literally reaches into the heavens.
I understand, honestly, I believe that in the book of Revelation these literal details really are NOT the point; the significance of what we’re are reading mainly lies in the symbols, and in what people would have understood them to be trying to get across. I think John did mean for his readers to see that this city was far greater than any human empire, and that in this new, immense Holy of Holies, there is really no more distinction between “ordinary life” and “worship.” Worship and living have become one and the same. Of course, again, because the presence of God is there.
Then, as John goes on to describe the various architectural features of the city, we keep getting references to the worship life of the people of God. The pearly gates are named for the tribes of Israel, as if they are laid out around the Tabernacle in the wilderness, when God first began making people into “the people of God,” through worship and the way of life of following God.
And the foundations of the glittering wall that surrounds the city seem to correspond to the jewels in the breastplate worn by the high priest in that Tabernacle and then those Temples. They represented “all the people of God,” being brought into God’s presence, symbolically, by the high priest. That all reminds us of the role that sacrifice played in that early worship, and how the role of the high priest was to represent all the people of God in coming before God in that worship. And it reminds us, hopefully, that Christ does exactly that for Christ’s people.
Or it might remind us that the vision has always been for the people of God to be a “kingdom of priests,” serving God continually in praise and thanksgiving.
And then we find out that these symbolically significant foundations are inscribed with the names of the apostles, the people who first proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ, the story of Jesus, the life and ministry of Jesus, and the meaning of Christ’s life and work.
We might think, well, of course they are! Because that Good News that is the foundation of this whole worship space.
The worship that is going to take place in this new holy city Jerusalem is quite simply built on the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what that means for the church. The worship that foundation supports is quite simply the enjoyment of peace with God, and the ongoing presence of God, which is the love and communion that exists between God and God’s people, in the life of the church, whose ordinary daily life is the worship of God in word and deed – the acknowledgement of God’s existence and God’s love and power …
And then if we start to think, hey, wait a minute, we have that now …
Exactly. We already have that now. All Christians already have that now.
John may have wanted his first audience to think exactly the same thing. We think the book of Revelation was written to encourage some first century churches of Asia – to help them keep the faith, and continue to worship God through Jesus Christ, even though they were struggling. Because each one of these churches was struggling in some way. Some were struggling because they were poor; some were struggling with disagreements about doctrine and practice; some were struggling, maybe without even realizing it, with relying too much on their own resources and getting complacent in their sense of security. In other words, those early Christians were a lot like today’s Christians.
This vision, of what they have to look forward to – which is what we, too, have to look forward to – doesn’t seem to have been intended to get them to ignore their lives in the present. Just the opposite. It seems meant to get them to see that what they were doing now – their worship, their living, their getting through their many challenges with the guidance and the grace of God – was all an integral part of God’s building that vision into reality. They weren’t just waiting around for “kingdom come” … God is at work in them, and is building up to something.
The book of Revelation is actually, in a way, trying to get them to see where they are from a new perspective …
From the perspective of the future of something that is already taking place. Because our worship of God, our relationship to Christ, our transformation into the holy people of God, is already happening.
The church is already “the bride of Christ,” being shaped and re-created by God for that envisioned, renewed reality. Already beloved, already in communion with Christ.
The presence of God with the church, through the Holy Spirit, is already a reality. What that means for each of us individually varies, as we learn through our life together what our unique gifts are for service, and as we become more skilled at using those, and as we grow more and more to resemble Christ, in our own unique ways, and in our lives – which, as we know, is one more way we worship God. And then what that means specifically for the people of God in any particular place and time varies. But it’s always fundamentally a matter of worship: of discerning and honoring and following the leading of God’s Spirit.
And of course, we know we’re already standing on the foundation of this life of worship, that was already laid in the gospel of Jesus Christ, proclaimed by those apostles, now proclaimed by the church we are part of – the good news that God loves people, that we can trust that, that Jesus Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves, and brought us into that new Jerusalem, which is yet to be fully revealed.
John’s vision is as if … he’s trying to get the churches in Asia, and also us, to see themselves on a construction site, at work, in the thick of things. I don’t know whether anyone has ever been involved in a construction project, but many people have at one time or another … sometimes a small one, like remodeling a room, sometimes a big one, like building an entire house or a building … we’ve had that experience of walking on the foundation, after the subfloor has been laid down, and maybe after some of the framing has been put up, and imagining how the rooms are being laid out, and what it will look like once it’s all finished.
We might know how that imagination can energize the work, too … whether it’s hanging drywall in a Habitat for Humanity house, or lugging decking boards for a Repair Affair project, or even standing on a ladder painting or stripping wallpaper …
John is trying to get the early Christians [and us] to see what he sees in the distance. That all of this is taking place in God. And not separate from us. We are involved in the work … and the work is worship, which over time shapes us more and more fully into the people of the Spirit we are meant to be.
And between now and then, between here and there, it is still the same worship, taking place in the same place … that is, the space formed by the foundation of the Good News, of God’s love, in Jesus Christ. Wherever we are, whatever we do, that’s the one sure foundation, no matter what specific shape it turns out to take, whether in this world, or the next.
The deepest reality of what is happening in worship is God’s creative presence. The deepest call we have is to pay attention to that, pay attention to God and what God is doing in our lives, individually and together. It doesn’t matter whether that’s going on in a first-century house church somewhere in the middle of Asia minor, or in a basement, or a storefront, or the community center – the essence of the gospel worship that takes place, whether in the holy city or right here, is gathering in the name of Jesus Christ, and turning our attention to God … listening … answering … loving, loving God, loving one another, recognizing the image of God in one another … everything we’re doing right here, to honor and thank God, whom we have been called us to know through Jesus Christ.
[If I had had the wit, I would have said: Worship, wherever it takes place, whatever form it takes – “high,” “low,” or anything in between – really is a little piece of heaven, on earth.]
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Kirchgang in Lundenberg,” Franz Rumpler, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons