Sunday, May 13, 2012

The New Jerusalem

When Europeans discovered the Americas, they called them the New World. And we see that echoed by the fact that one region was called New England and we have lots of states and cities with the word New in their title (New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, etc) to distinguish them from their Old World namesakes. But the addition of the word New also betokened a hope in those who left the original that this place would not be more of the same but something better.

Jews end the Passover Seder with the toast "Next year in Jerusalem." It symbolizes the hope held out by Jews of the Diaspora, Jews scattered all over the world, that they would one day return to their homeland. At our Passover Seder, we modified this to "Next year in the New Jerusalem." And the question from our sermon suggestion box, which I happen to know was prompted by what we said at the end of our Seder, asks "What do you mean by the New Jerusalem?"

The reason we said what we did is because of the Christian hope that one day we will see what has been promised in Revelation 21: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with humans. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new!'"

To fully appreciate this passage and the import of the new Jerusalem, we have to look at each element of this passage. And before that, we have to understand the purpose and method of the Book of Revelation.

The last book in the Bible is a difficult one for us to interpret today. So why was it included in Scripture? Why was it written in the first place?

The early Christians knew persecution first from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme court, which forbade them from proclaiming Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. Ironically, this crackdown on Christians pushed the church out of the Holy Land and into the Roman Empire. Paul and Barnabas, sent as a mission team by the church in Antioch, at first preached to Diaspora Jews in their synagogues. Occasionally they would stir things up to the extent that Roman officials stepped in and threw Paul and his associates in jail for disturbing the peace. But Rome saw these incidents as a dispute within Judaism, which was a legal religion. It didn't persecute Christians per se.

Then a fire broke out in Rome in the summer of 64 AD. After 6 days, it was put out but by then 10 of the city's 14 districts were nothing but ashes. The Emperor Nero rushed back to the city when the fire broke out and directed firefighting efforts. He let thousands of people who were made homeless by the inferno camp in his imperial gardens. Yet some blamed him for starting the fire. People suspected he did it to rebuild Rome to reflect his glory. Nero did what any politician would. He found a scapegoat. In this case, he chose to blame the Christians, who were by then distinct enough to tell apart from Jews, and whose rites and beliefs were seen as weird. Christians' love feasts were rumored to be orgies and they drank blood and ate flesh and they refused to worship the Roman gods, which meant they were atheists! So Nero had Christians torn apart by dogs or burned alive or crucified. Peter and Paul were martyred during this first wave of persecution. After Nero's death, persecution of the church died down for a while.

Then in 81 AD, Domitian became emperor. He didn't want to wait until he was dead to be declared divine. He demanded to be called "Lord and God." This posed a problem for faithful Jews and Christians, of course. In his later years, due to plots against him, he became very harsh. Early Christian historian Eusebius says that this is when he began to persecute Christians in earnest. And this is when the Book of Revelation was written. Domitian executed those who said anything against the empire and so Revelation's real meaning had to be disguised. That's why a lot of language and images from Old Testament prophesy are used. That's why certain figures are represented by fanciful animals and monsters. That's why there is a numerical code to disguise the name of the enemy. That's why there is so much talk about Babylon, the capital of the ancient enemy of God's people, who burned  Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BC. It was code for Rome, the new enemy who burned them in 70 AD. John, the author, was trying to get his message out to Christians facing suffering and death without it being suppressed.

And the message was one of hope. Revelation does not say "take up weapons and fight the persecutors of God's people." Rather it says, "hold on, stay faithful, God wins in the end." Christians are never depicted as warriors but witnesses and martyrs. God fights his own battles. The vision that John is communicating is one of comfort to those who have seen the apparent triumph of evil over good. The book is saying, "Yes, things will get bad. But in the end, God will restore everything."

That's why, toward the end of the book, we get the picture of the new Jerusalem. God recreates the heavens and the earth as good once more, but there is one thing lacking: the presence of God. Genesis gives us a wonderful picture of God walking in his garden in the cool of the day. There is no sense of a great distance between him and human beings. But the result of mankind's sin has been estrangement from God. There was this gap between God's realm and the kingdoms of this world. People longed for a bridge between the two. And that's what the Temple in Jerusalem became for the Jews: the meeting place between God and man, heaven and earth. It was where, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest made sacrifices for the sins of the people, then entered the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God's presence. An image of God was prohibited but he was often envisioned as seated above the wings of the cherubim on the ark's lid. The ark was seen as his throne, or at least, the footstool of his throne, and thus the Temple, Mount Zion on which it stood, and the city of Jerusalem itself, all came to represent the presence of God on earth. So John sees a new Jerusalem that represents God's everlasting presence on his new redeemed world.

What's more, the city is described as a bride adorned for her husband. One Old Testament metaphor for God's love for his people is that of the husband for his bride. God is the faithful husband, who forgives his bride out of his great love. Jesus appropriates the image in the Gospels, speaking of himself as the bridegroom. Paul uses marriage to represent the relationship of Christ and his church. And the Book of Revelation leads up to the wedding of the Lamb, making the apocalyptic battles no more than a prelude to it, as the prince only fights with the dragon in Cinderella in order to get to and rescue his beloved. In fact, a lot of the imagery in Revelation has been appropriated by those who write fantasy: besides an evil dragon, we have a prince on a white horse who wields a sword, fights an army, frees his people, marries his beloved bride and they live happily ever after in a beautiful bejeweled city.          

The classic happy ending is a wedding, because, ironically, weddings are beginnings. A new family is formed. Husband and wife become one. The bride becomes a woman, and prospectively, a mother. Life continues. Small wonder Jesus' favorite image of the Kingdom of God was the wedding supper, the biggest event in the life of a village, a celebration that lasted a whole week or maybe two, with feasting, drinking, singing and merrymaking. And of course, after the wedding, faithful love is rewarded, becomes deeper, more intimate, more ecstatic.  
We are to become one with God and with other Christians. This was at the center of the prayer Jesus made for his disciples on the night he was betrayed. As it says in John 17:20,21: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me." A big part of our witness to the world is our unity and love for one another. People certainly notice when we squabble over nonessential things. They notice when we schism.  And it discounts in their eyes the idea that we represent God. Because taking your ball and going home when you don't get your own way, and excluding people who disagree with you, are not divine acts; they are very human and very common. That's what goes on in Congress and in denominations and in other human groups. What's rare is when people disagree a lot on certain things and yet continue to work together for a greater good they do agree on.

Today we like to describe ourselves by adding modifiers to what should be our core identity. People say they are conservative Christians, or progressive Christians, or pro-life Christians, or pro-choice Christians, or gay Christians or biblical Christians. The problem is that the word that comes first in grammatical construction often comes first in their way of thinking as well. If your position on something comes before the word Christian when you identify yourself, it's likely it comes before your commitment to Christ. It might be better if we identified ourselves as simply Christians, and, only if pressed, admit that we happen to be conservative, or happen to be to be  pro-choice, or happen to be vegan, or happen to be evangelical, or happen to be Baptist/Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian/Lutheran. We are Christians first and foremost. Maybe if we stop putting our carts before the horse we might actually get to where we're supposed to be going.

Our primary allegiance should be to Jesus Christ, just as citizens of any kingdom owe their primary allegiance to their king. If we choose anything, however noble, over Jesus, we aren't really Christians. We haven't really given up our rights, or picked up our crosses, the symbols of self-sacrifice, and we aren't following him. We won't make model citizens of the new Jerusalem, which means "City of Peace." Those kinds of division can be found in the current Jerusalem. Those kinds of division exist in every country and kingdom of this world. And they always have. They're old. They're getting really old. Like the death and mourning and crying and pain they cause. And as Revelation says, our God is all about making things new.

We actually have people here who have truly made things new--mothers. They bring into the world new people. And not one of them wants to bring in something bad. No mother looks at her child and says, "I want this child to bring pain and suffering and rage and evil and dissension and arrogance." Every mother sees the promise of good things in her child. That's what she hopes for.

But we've made God's paradise into hell of earth. We're even raising the temperature. Why doesn't God abandon us? Because of his love. He wants us to be born anew, born from above, born into his Spirit. He wants us to become his children, who will obey his words and follow his example, the example of the first-born of his creation, Jesus Christ. And he wants us to be a family, which we are since science tells us we share DNA from the same common mother and from the same common father. But he wants us to be a spiritual family as well, his sons and daughters, living together in peace, loving and forgiving and seeing our differences not as liabilities but as gifts from him to help us do all the different tasks that make up his work in the world. It starts with seeing the world not simply as it is but as it could be, a city on a hill, a shining example, where, as Psalm 85 says, "Kindness and truth meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other."  That is our hope. That is the good news Jesus brings. That is what he wants to see us working on when he comes again. And so we echo the Book of Revelation: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.'…Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"

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