Of the many reasons I’ve heard for people not attending church, this one is the best, “It’s just too real…” Seriously, I think that’s the best reason to not go to church. Is this how people would describe your church? Too real?
The unfortunate truth is that many in my generation (Millennials) don’t attend church for the opposite reason; because they don’t believe church is real enough. Many feel like the church is too “otherworldly” or disconnected from the ins and outs of their lives. They get the sense that all churches care about is, in the words of Toby Mac, punching a “ticket to ride to the other side.”
This criticism of the church has come from an anemic eschatology and a particularly inappropriate reading of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-6 does not permit us to perpetuate this brand of eschatology. My seminary professor who taught a class over Revelation was known to say that you aren’t allowed to read Revelation unless you’ve read the first 65 books of the Bible. This sentiment carries for our reading today. To correct poor interpretations and to begin to understand what is happening in Revelation, we need to read the 20 chapters preceding this Sunday’s lection.
Much of the imagery of Revelation 21 is taken from earlier in the Revelation. Right away we see that the sea is no more. Those nautically inclined should not fret for this is imaginative language with theological implication, not literal application. The sea first appears around the throne in chapter 4 when it’s described like glass, like crystal. In the heavenly throne room the sea is not absent but has been tamed. When the 7th seal is opened in chapter 8 John writes in vivid imagery that the sea is a place of chaos; a third of the sea became blood, a third of the animals died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. The mighty angel of chapter 10 is said to be standing on both sea and land; one foot on each. The dragon at the end of chapter 12 is standing on the seashore summoning the first beast who, in chapter 13, comes up from the sea. While there will be a beast from the earth as well, the sea is associated with chaos, tumult, and death. In chapter 16 we’re told that every living thing in the sea died.
This Sunday’s passage describes the sea as nonexistent as a way to indicate that when the new heaven and new earth are united, when the New Jerusalem descends upon earth, the chaos and tumble will be no more.
In chapter 4 we saw that John was taken into the heavenly throne room. This throne reappears in our passage but functions differently than it’s earlier appearance. Unlike the original appearance of the heavenly throne room, John isn’t taken “in the spirit.” Certainly this experience is theophanic, but it’s lacking the distant language.The voice from the throne room proclaims that heaven isn’t a far off, etherial, otherworldly, place, but comes to us. The new Jerusalem, and, thus the throne, comes to earth.
Death has reappeared from chapter 6, only this time Death has lost the authority it once had. During the opening of the seals Death and Hades “were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.”
The first descriptions of the one seated on the throne pointed to the Father, but in the Revelation we’ve come to see that the one with the voice like a trumpet, one like a slaughtered lamb, also sits on the throne. Jesus also shares the divine throne and in 21 he reiterated to John the command to write. In chapter 1 the voice like a trumpet told John to write to the churches, now the voice of the trumpet comes from the throne and confirms the original command, “for these words are trustworthy and true.” Furthering the divinity of Jesus we see the first chapter’s description of God, Alpha and Omega, being applied to Jesus.
While some may claim Revelation has an otherworldly or escapist theological bent, we see in this pericope just how poor that interpretation really is. As we’re coming to the culmination of the Revelation we see that it’s not about us being pulled away from this earth, it’s about God drawing close to this earth! The home of mortals isn’t in heaven, the home of God is among mortals! In the lyric of verse 3 we hear about the incarnation. God “will dwell” with them; skēnō. Literally, God will “tabernacle” with humans. This is the same description as John 1:14, “the Word became flesh and lived among us…”
The Revelation of Jesus given to John isn’t about the faithful avoiding difficulty or being raptured out of tribulation but is about God making God’s tabernacle, dwelling place, in the heart of this earth. God will wipe away every tear. This is the new thing God is doing. And it’s real! For some it may be too real.
Preacher, if you’re going to err in your sermon, err on the side of being too real. Our churches are already perceived as being too disconnected. Preach well the real Kingdom of God; a kingdom which is coming to us, a Kingdom on earth, that God is setting up his throne among mortals. It is not we who, in some rapturous event, go to him, but it is he who comes to us! This is reality. And for those who desire escapism it may be too real. They need to hear it nonetheless.
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