Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
On the first day of creation, God said: “‘let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:3-4a). Every day when the sun rises the darkness flees, and we rejoice in the goodness that the light of the sun brings to our lives. As the Psalmist declares:
15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout,who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;16 they exult in your name all day long,and extol your righteousness. (Ps. 89:15-16).
When I chose to preach on this reading from the Book of Revelation, I didn’t know that this would be the week that our new lighting system would be installed. I call it providential that we’re celebrating God’s light on the day that this room, which has been rather dark in recent years, gets bathed in new light. As we contemplate the new brightness of the room, we can imagine for a moment walking in the light of God’s countenance.
Last Sunday we watched as the New Jerusalem descended from heaven to the New Earth. We heard the message that God had chosen to dwell among us. This morning, we hear that the Spirit has taken John to the top of a great mountain. From this perch, he can watch as the holy city of Jerusalem descends to earth. John invites us to use our spiritual imaginations to envision the breadth and length of the city, as well as the glory that radiates from it. If you take a look at the verses we skipped, you will get a good sense of the magnificence of this holy city of God.
To get a better sense of what John was seeing we might want to imagine standing atop a promontory, where you can see over vast distances. Back when we lived in Santa Barbara we would occasionally hike up to Inspiration Point, high above the city. From this promontory we could see the Old Mission, Stearns Wharf, the University, the High School, and the Arlington Theater, just to name a few points of interest. Even if the hike was difficult, the view was worth the effort. From these heights we could see the glory of the city.
When John looked out across this vast city that lay below him, what he saw were jewel-encrusted walls and twelve gates, each of which was made of a single pearl. But more important than what he saw was what he didn’t see. When he looked out across the city, he discovered that this New Jerusalem lacked a Temple. This is important, because before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Temple dominated the city, just like the Dome of the Rock does today. Before it was destroyed, the Temple was the focal point of the city’s life. Everything revolved around it -- both the religious and civic life. Amazingly, the Temple was gone!
The reason John couldn’t find the Temple, which was the place where people went to encounter God, was that in the New Jerusalem God was the Temple. That’s not the only amazing thing in this picture. Not only isn’t the Temple present in this City, but the sun and the moon are absent as well. That’s because the “glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (vs. 23).
In Genesis 1 we hear that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is within them. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we hear that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Just as God said, let there be light, John declares that the Word is the light that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).
In John 8, Jesus makes a rather powerful declaration: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). Frederick Buechner reminds us that we can’t see the light itself. What we can see is what the light illuminates:
When Jesus says that he is the Light of the World (John 8:12), maybe something like that is part of what he is saying. He himself is beyond our seeing, but in the darkness where we stand, we see, thanks to him, something of the path that stretches out from the door, something of whatever it is that keeps us trying more or less to follow the path even when we can hardly believe that it goes anywhere worth going or that we have what it takes to go there, something of whoever it is that every once in a while seems to lean toward us out of the shadows.
In this vision of the New Jerusalem, God and the Lamb is the Light that lights the city. This city never experiences night. Day always reigns. Therefore, we can see everything that lies in front of us. Since night never falls, there is this strong sense of security. That’s why they never have to close the city gates. After all, in the ancient world, you closed the gates at night to prevent enemies from slipping into the city under the cover of darkness. Therefore, since we always live in the light of day, there’s nothing to fear from the Enemy!
In the New Jerusalem, there is plenty of light, because God is the light. Because night never falls, we can always see where we’re going. The pathway is lit, and that’s a good thing. Not only that, but when it’s light, and the darkness has not overcome the light, we feel safer. There is greater security. There’s no reason to fear things that go bump in the night! That is an important point.
With a clear vision and a sense of security that overcomes all fear, we discover that since God is the Temple, and the gates to the City never close, we have a clear and unobstructed pathway to God. Every barrier is removed. There is no need for mediators. Greg Stevenson puts it this way: “to be in the city is to be in the direct, unmediated presence of God and of the Lamb” (Slaughtered Lamb, p. 221).
When we come to worship God, whether corporately or in the privacy of our own hearts, it is good to know that there are no barriers that keep us from enjoying God’s presence. There is mystery, of course, since God is more than we can imagine. We might not see the Light that is God, either, but God’s light illuminates our lives. In that sense we see the face of God. Not only can we see God face to face, but we can enjoy the blessings that come from “the river of the water of life” that flows from the throne of God and from the Lamb. As we take in this sight, we also see that sitting on both sides of the river is the Tree of Life. This Tree that we first encounter in Eden produces twelve kinds of fruit, even as its leaves bring healing to the nations. This Tree of Life is the Tree that we first encounter in the Garden. The good news is that we can once again eat of its fruit and enjoy abundant life in the presence of the Living God. Therefore, as we walk in the light and are fed by the Tree of Life, we can devote ourselves to the worship and service of God.
The invitation is set before us. The one who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is also the Light of the World. In a moment we’re going to sing a song written by Jim Strathdee, who took that message to heart. In his song “I am the Light of the Word,” he invites to sing: “If you follow and love you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.” Indeed, because God is our Light, we can see the path forward, so that we might find hope and peace and joy, and therefore come before God with singing and praise! As we sing out our praises to God, we discover our vocation. That vocation is this: we will reign with God forever.
Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 1, 2016