Revelation 21:1-6 “Making All Things New”
The book of Revelation has always seemed to get a bad rap in mainline Protestant churches. Too long associated with the fire and brimstone preachers of the revivalist movement, we tend to ignore this conclusion to the Holy Bible. It is a difficult book to contend with on the surface. John’s Revelation is full of strange and, at times, violent imagery: a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; an angel with pillars of fire for legs; a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns; a beast with a body like a leopard, feet like a bear, and a mouth like a lion; seven plagues that decimate the earth…on and on it goes. Too often people get caught up in the strange imagery and struggle to see God through the midst of it.
I don’t think this is new information for most of you, but just in case it is, the Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which is found throughout the Bible, but Revelation is just one of two books, the other being Daniel, that are book-length. And I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what apocalypse is. People hear apocalypse and think of destruction, the end of all things, and stop there. But in the Bible that is simply not correct. Biblical apocalypse means the end of one thing and the beginning of something new. But the end is described in such way that the world as it is known is destroyed to set the stage for something new to take its place. And that is precisely what the book of Revelation is describing: the destruction of evil in this world and the beginning of a reign of peace, justice, and love. Ultimately, the book of Revelation, and all Biblical apocalyptical literature is about hope – hope that the evil, unjust, compassionless present will be defeated and a new world of peace, justice, and love will take its place. John’s Revelation, written over a period of time that includes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, is a book filled with hope that the pain of his present is not the reality of God’s future. John paints a picture that is steeped in faith of God’s grace and peace, a picture that includes the trust that God has great hope for humanity and creation. Yes, the imagery in the Book of Revelation is strange and can be frightening, but its message is clear: evil, hatred, injustice has no place in God’s kingdom and God has something different in mind. “A new heaven and a new earth;” God with the people, wiping away their tears, no more crying, no more mourning or pain. It is a beautiful, hope-filled message, but does not deny that first the forces of evil and hate must come to an end.
Don’t worry, I have no intention of becoming a fire and brimstone preacher, yelling at you to repent or be burned in the lake of fire. But, I want to talk about lakes of fire today. Because we have travelled to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. While I have not been there, I have been to an active volcano in Nicaragua. I have smelled the sulphur and walked on ground that rumbled with life. Because of the less than stringent safety regulations found in Nicaragua, I was able to lean over the edge of that crater volcano, just holding onto a short concrete pole stuck in the ground. As I leaned over, the wind shifted and just for a moment I could see the bright red/orange glow of the lava below and feel the intense heat on my face. The heat was so intense and the lava so bright, my senses could not handle it for more than a second or two. As I leaned back and stepped away from the edge of that volcano, all I could think was I had just experienced the heat and passion of God that is the center of our earth.
Many of the seminary colleagues I was traveling with that day had a different experience, however. They stepped away from the edge saying they had peered into the pits of hell and felt the rage of the devil swirling below them. I am not sure why my experience was so different. Maybe it has something to do with that when I hear the word apocalypse, I don’t think about endings, I think about beginnings.
Mt. Kilauea, considered the most active volcano in the world currently, sits inside Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. It has been erupting my entire lifetime, 36 years. A couple of years ago it made international news when a powerful eruption sent ash into the sky and lava flowing through neighborhoods that had been built in its shadow. There is no known way to stop the flow of lava, so people had to simply get out of the way. It was a frightening and dramatic event, and I do not diminish the destruction to life and earth that comes in the wake of an erupting volcano. But, Mt. Kilauea is also responsible for creating new land as it’s lava flows into the ocean, cools, and builds up on itself. For those who have been lucky enough to travel to Hawai’i to see this extraordinary event, they have been blessed with watching creation in action.
Holding together destruction and new life, the understanding that for something new to emerge first the old must pass away – is one of the great difficulties of our faith. In Revelation we hear God saying: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Moving past the strange imagery, the Book of Revelation is about God saying there is no place for hate and evil in God’s world, striking it down, and leaving in its place a new heaven and a new earth, a world that does not know what it means to mourn. And going from the last book of our holy scriptures to the first book, Genesis, we see God breathing life into the void, creating humanity in God’s own image, and when that humanity turns away from God and falls into cycles of greed, hate, and discrimination, washes it all away with the apocalyptic story of the great flood and Noah’s ark, which concludes with new life and new hope. And, we see God at the beginning of the life of Jesus, breaking through the clouds saying “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” We see God witnessing the destruction of the crucifixion, and in anger ripping the curtain of the temple in two. And we see God when the stone is rolled away. “Death will be no more” says God in Revelation. God is there at the beginning. God is there at the end. And God is there at the beginning, again.
I am very aware that what I am saying might not sound hope filled. It could be argued that all I am describing is a perpetual, never-ending cycle, the very idea of which is exhausting. But, what I am describing to you is actually the fundamental hope of being an Easter people – that God creates a way out of no way. That the final word of God is not death, but life. God is there at the beginning, God is there at the end, and God is there at the beginning, again. God is there through it all, as we work to make real the Kin-dom of God.
My Beloved Community, it can seem like the world as we knew it is coming to an end. A global pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and making it painfully clear the inequality of human life. The long-engrained systems of injustice and oppression that has held down the lives of black people seem to be breaking. Our lives are drastically changing and the change is happening fast, too fast for many. It can feel like we are living through the Book of Revelation right now, and if that is how you are feeling – then hear me say this: the arc of human history leans towards justice. A new heaven and a new earth is possible, and yes some of what we have become familiar and comfortable with will be no more – but it will make space for something new that this world desperately needs.
At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park you can see creation in action. And we are living in world we were are watching a creation of something new. It is not clear what it will be yet, and that can be frightening – but our faith as Easter people gives us the courage to persevere in and through this change because we know that God says yes to love, yes to peace, yes to justice, and yes to life.
When I leaned over the edge of the volcano, it wasn’t hell that I peering into. It was the humming, powerful heartbeat of God that was literally rumbling under my feet. The heat I experienced was not the work of evil, it was the profound, unstoppable force of God’s love. I think that is why we stand in awe of volcanoes. They remind us that our world is a living and breathing creation. That God is still in the act of creation and as Easter people, we are called to be co-creators of God’s kingdom.