One of the consistent messages of the Book of Revelation is that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. To borrow from Aristotle, God is the first cause. Or, as the Prologue to the Gospel of John puts it: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And, everything that exists was created through and by this Word. Finally, a few verses later we learn that this “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:1-18). Not only is God the beginning of all things, but according to the Book of Revelation God is also the completion of all things.
If God is the beginning and the end of all things, should we not also say that God is also present in all things at all times? As Rick Lowery reminded us yesterday in his sermon at the Festival of Faith, in a moment of theological crisis, the people of Israel learned that God is not limited to a piece of land, but that God is the God of all places and all peoples. No matter where you go, God is there with you. You may not always fell like God is with you, but that doesn’t mean that God is not there.
When John writes this apocalyptic letter to the churches of Asia, he knows that some of his readers are feeling abandoned. They may be wondering where God is as they face persecution and even death because of their faith. John responds to their cries for assurance by painting a picture of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, descending from heaven to the New Earth. In this picture of the descent of the New Jerusalem, a voice calls out from the throne of God: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3).
This promise of a new heaven and a new earth is closely connected to the promise of Easter. Greg Stevenson puts it this way: “The concept of resurrection lies at the heart of Revelation’s apocalyptic theology because resurrection is all about new creation.” He goes on to say that “It is death leading to life; the destruction of the body ushering in a new creation body.” [A Slaughtered Lamb, p. 214]. In the context of our reading from Revelation this promise of a new creation is a reminder that “despair turns to hope.” It is, Greg writes, a reminder that “in light of the resurrection, suffering and evil do not get the last word” (p. 214).
When God dwells with us in the New Creation, “death will be no more.” That is of course the promise of Easter. Death has met its match. It has lost its sting. Even though we will experience physical death, and perhaps suffering in this life, death’s hold on our lives has been extinguished. Physical death may overtake us, but death as the final word will not overtake us. Therefore, “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Yes, God will wipe away all our tears. Therefore, we need not live in fear. Instead, we can go out into the world with boldness, sharing the good news that God is in the Land.
Earlier in our journey through Revelation, we heard the invitation to enter God’s presence and share in the worship of God with the whole company of heaven. Last week we heard the invitation to drink from “the spring of the water of life.” That same invitation is present here in Revelation 21. In fact, it occurs regularly in the Book of Revelation. What we hear in today’s reading is that God is going to dwell with us in a new way. This results in a new creation.
This vision of the old becoming new is revealed in the final volume of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series. In The Last Battle, Lewis describes how the Old Narnia, the Narnia we encounter in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, comes to an end. Old Narnia faces its greatest challenge from within as treachery and deceit enters the land when a talking ape named Shift comes across the skin of a lion and convinces Puzzle the Donkey to become a false Aslan. Shift uses Puzzle to gain influence and power during a moment of crisis in Narnia. Unfortunately for Narnia, this leads to disaster. In the end the real Aslan will step in, but not before it’s too late for Old Narnia. But even as the day of judgment comes upon Narnia, Aslan opens a doorway into a New Narnia, the true Narnia. Aslan leads the citizens of Narnia and many other lands into this new realm. According to Lewis this New Narnia looks a lot like the Old Narnia, except that the “new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” The Unicorn put it this way:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the Old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!” [The Last Battle, p. 213].
Lewis borrows a bit from Plato to conceive of what he calls the “real Narnia,” but even if we don’t know our Plato, I think we can understand the connection between the two realms. Our experiences of God reflect a deeper reality where God is known more fully. As Paul puts it, at this point in time we see as through a mirror dimly, but some day we will see God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Lewis offers us a truly universalist message in this final volume. Everyone is invited. They just have to trust Aslan enough to go through the doorway. Once they go though the doorway, they have another choice. Will they stay close to the doorway, or will they go deeper into this new Narnia. Those who continue the journey arrive at Aslan’s Land. Lewis describes this new reality as a Narnia within Narnia. Like the layers of the onion, as we go deeper, we discover the deeper meanings of the divine presence.
That is the invitation that John holds out to us. Won’t you enter? Once you enter, won’t you go deeper? In the closing chapter of The Last Battle, Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy, Eustace and Jill, along with all the rest of the characters we meet along the way in the Narnia stories, face the choice. Do we stay where we are, enticed by this deeper beauty of new Narnia, or do we go deeper in? They make the choice to go deeper and farther, and in the course of their journey, accompanied by characters such as Puddleglum and Tumnus, and even Reepicheep the brave mouse, they find themselves in Aslan’s Land. What is the difference between this end point and staying at the entrance? It is the presence of Aslan. In terms of the picture painted by John in Revelation, it means entering fully into the worship of God.
But this journey doesn’t wait for our passage from life to death. It begins now as we enter into a deeper and fuller relationship with the living God. In the Gospel of John we regularly hear the message of eternal life, which according to John results from believing in Jesus. As we’ve been discovering in the Wednesday Bible Study, belief is not the same thing as intellectual assent. It’s not that belief lacks substance, but ultimately belief is really about trust. It is ultimately about experiencing intimate fellowship or union with God. We see this message revealed in a rather stark way in John 6, where Jesus feeds the five thousand. When the crowd demands that he give them manna from heaven like Moses did in the Sinai, he tells the crowd that he is the Bread of Life. He tells them that if they want to experience eternal life, then they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This is really radical stuff. But it is also a powerful reminder that abundant life is found in our participation in the life of Jesus. That is, when we share in Jesus’ life, we share in the life of God, for Christ is the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus, God made a home in our midst. Here in Revelation 21, the imagery has changed a bit. John speaks of the New Jerusalem as the way in which God tabernacles with us.
The one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, has chosen to dwell in our midst. Therefore, every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more. Yes, “mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Let us, therefore, go deeper and farther into God’s new creation so that we might drink from the “spring of the water of life.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 24, 2016