Easter Season: Marked By Absence
The liturgical season of Easter begins and ends with absence. At the beginning, we mark the absence of Jesus’s body from the tomb. At the end, we mark the absence of his body from the earth after his ascension. At both of these bookends to the Easter season, this absence is not a simple case of a missing object. Rather, it is the kind of absence, the kind of missing element, that causes us to revisit and redefine everything we though we knew about everything. The fact that Jesus’s body is no longer in a tomb outside of Jerusalem means that God’s good (new) creation has slipped out of death’s cold, icy grasp. We must rethink everything we thought we knew about death’s finality over everything, and this can be startling. The fact that Jesus’s body is no longer immediately present to us post-Ascension means that he has ascended to be enthroned at God’s right hand. Though he no longer walks the earth, he rules in righteousness over both heaven and earth (see Heb 2:8-9). The fact that Jesus reigns over heaven and earth means his way is supreme, and calls into question all the other ways we are tempted to organize our lives and communities here on earth.
This week’s reading from Revelation, then, is a perfect choice for the Easter season, for it brings to our attention a series of absences in the New Jerusalem that, if we have ears to hear, causes us to re-evaluate the way we live in the here and now. All throughout the Book of Revelation, just as with the resurrection, things become a bit unglued—certainties of our world and our era start to shake at the foundations. This is good, gospel work. After all, the resurrection was accompanied by an earthquake (Matt 28:2), and in Revelation, the presence of God in creation is pictured in terms of world-shattering earthquakes (Rev 8:5; 11:19; 16:18; see also Heb 12:26-28).
“The First Things Have Passed Away”
While there have been absences hinted at throughout the last third of the book (see Rev 16:20; 18:21-24; 21:1-4), it is in this Sunday’s lectionary reading that the absences really pile up. A cursory glance reveals this list of things that won’t exist in the new creation:
No temple No sun No moon No shut gates No night No unclean thing No practice of abomination/falsehood No tree of knowledge of Good and Evil Nothing accursed No need of light/lamp
A clear theme begins to emerge that, in the new creation, many things that defined the old creation by their presence, prevalence, or inevitability will be gone from the new creation. As the loud voice from the Throne announces at the beginning of John’s vision of the holy city, “the first things have passed away” (21:4 NRSV). It is certainly not the case that these absences should be read strictly literally, as in the case of the Left Behind-Dispensationalist crowd, whose own Tim LaHaye speculates that the “new planet won’t waste any space with oceans or mountains or deserts, since such landscapes are uninhabitable and therefore ‘worthless.’” These images in Revelation are symbolic, or better yet, theological, describing more God’s intentions for renewing and restoring the created world so that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is not that the sea is bad and needs to disappear; it is that the sea, in the biblical imagination represents the powers of chaos which threaten God’s good ordering of the cosmos. Describing these absences as theological realities means hearers and readers are caused to think of the way these anti-God forces make claims on their lives now, and how those claims will be utterly dissolved in the new creation. Therefore, the power of these images is their invitation to a re-evaluation and renunciation of the holds these forces have on us as we follow Jesus in the here and now. Though we live in the world of “the fist things” we live in it according to the logic of the new creation.
Preaching Absence as Longing and Living for the New Creation
How might one go about preaching this text? Perhaps thinking through the absences of this text can be a productive way to get the church to imagine what faithfulness to the way of the Lamb might look like. I recently ran across a political cartoon that pictured a synagogue, a church, and a mosque standing side by side, with a thought bubble emanating from each building saying, “Finding time for all our prayers is difficult when we have to practice active-shooter drills.” We live in a world wracked by violence and animosity, where even places of worship have become the sites of mass shootings driven by hatred and bigotry. This situation has become so common that once the shock wears off, most people shrug and move on. John’s vision of a new creation with no temple shows a reality where every place is a place of worship, and this worship is uninterrupted by violence and hatred, for the kings of the nations come to the heavenly city, not to conquer or to stoke civil unrest, but rather to share their glory. Having seen a vision of future worship that doesn’t have to contend with violence, the present church that does contend with violence can remain steadfast in its prayers, standing against the threat of violence not with beefed up security and displays of power, but with bold witness to the Lamb’s way of peace.
Similarly, we live in an era of unprecedented human displacement and migration. In the midst of this, nations have begun to be suspicious of outsiders and refugees. Nationalistic leaders fan the flames of fear and bigotry, encouraging hostility to those seeking refuge from economic hardship or threats of violence. The church who hears this text from Revelation, can witness the absence of closed gates in the heavenly city and seek to call into question the prevalence and purpose of walls and gates in the present. The church can be a community that welcomes the foreigner and demonstrates neighborly kindness to all.
Another subtle, but perhaps important, absence is the lack of toil needed to produce the verdant growth of the tree of life on either side of the river running through the heavenly city (22:2). The tree produces twelve kinds of fruit, either alternating fruit by month, or producing all twelve each month. This kind of abundant growth stands in contrast to agricultural effort under the curse of sin, where the ground is cursed and crops only grow ”in toil” and “by the sweat of [the] brow” alongside “thorns and thistles” (Gen 3:17-19). In the new creation, the crops of the tree of life grow seemingly all by themselves, and the leaves of the tree provide a healing balm for all the nations. If the current time is the “six days” of labor, the new creation is the cosmic Sabbath where God’s people find their rest (Exod 20:9-11; Heb 4:9-11). Hearers of Revelation can orient their labor and toil toward the coming new creation. Though the work is hard—and especially the effort it takes to embody the ethics of the coming kingdom—they can be assured that their “labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Finally, the church hearing this text on a Sunday morning might notice the absence of the practice of falsehood and the absence of cursed things. Recognizing its absence in the new creation can encourage the church to refuse the practice of falsehood in the present. In all of these symbolic and theological absences, the church is called to re-evaluate its relationship with things that seem “inevitable” or “just the way things are.” We are those who follow the Lamb into the new creation, and on that journey the practices of the old world can safely be left behind. In my state of Wisconsin, a popular retail store located throughout much of the Midwest has this slogan: “If Fleet Farm doesn’t have it, I don’t need it.” Imagine the radical kingdom loyalty if the church were willing to say, “if the new creation doesn’t have it, we don’t need it.”
Whatever absence the church notices in the new creation, the central thing to notice is the presence of God and the Lamb at the center of renewed reality. The church can do without whatever is missing from the new creation, only because the presence of Jesus in their midst is absolutely everything. A church that centers on Jesus alone will stand out in an era marked by violence, exclusion, and falsehood, but this is precisely the point of John’s Revelation, to create a community capable of bearing witness to the Lamb and his way. In doing so, the church offers a foretaste of the “new things” of new creation (Rev 21:5) that is so desperately needed in this world of “first things.”
 Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, transl. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 44-45. Moltmann suggests that at the end of Mark’s gospel, the women flee in terror not because they are afraid of resurrection, but because the resurrection upends their belief in death’s certainty.  Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 6.  See Jonathan Moo, “The Sea That Is No More: Revelation 21:1 and the Function of Sea Imagery in the Apocalypse of John,” Novum Testamentum 51 (2009): 148-167.  This has recently reminded me of the Vampire Weekend lyric from “Hannah Hunt”: “Though we live on the US Dollar, you and me we got our own sense of time.”