Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reflections on the Text - Revelation 21


Read the text here: Revelation 21:10-22:5
A Tale of Two Cities
What do you think of the city?  For much of human history cities have been played a very important role.  In the world of the Bible, the city is central to a people’s identity and sense of community.  Cities such as Rome and Jerusalem were more than just places where lots of people lived.  They were the seats of power and the homes of Kings and Emperors. Cities accumulated great wealth and drove the economic life of the nations.  In the Bible many of the characters we meet are defined by their home city – David of Bethlehem, for example, who then goes on to establish Jerusalem or Saul, later Paul, of Tarsus, for example.  In Revelation John of Patmos writes to the churches that are located in 7 major cities of Asia Minor.  As we prepare to enter into John’s final vision we need to understand that the city was a central part of life for people living at this time.
And so, we have come to the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. But to understand the power of this final vision of the New Jerusalem we need to go back to chapters 17 and 18 to re-acquaint ourselves with John’s earlier vision of yet another ancient Mesopotamian city – the City of Babylon.  The Assyrians had destroyed Babylon some 600 or so years before John wrote his apocalypse.  But that traumatic experience suffered by the people of Judah still made Babylon a powerful symbol of the lust for power that ultimately will consume itself.  John uses this ancient name to represent the city of Rome. Rome was built on 7 hills and so Babylon is pictured as a harlot seated on a beast with 7 heads.  The harlot Rome goes about the world seducing people of all nations by her outward glory and power and wealth.  But underneath it all she is rotten to the core, says John.  That glory and power and wealth is accumulated by devouring the poor, the powerless and the weak and is completely dependent upon violence.  Ultimately Babylon will destroy herself.  Her insatiable need to accumulate wealth and treasure and her dependence on violence to maintain its glory and power will be her undoing. 
So then – believers in Christ, those of you who have been called by the Lamb - why do you allow yourselves to be seduced by this faithless harlot of Babylon?  Why do you insist on putting your infinite trust in possessions, luxury and the accumulation of wealth?  Why do you depend on violence upon violence to make you secure?  Why do you glory in the unstable power and fleeting glory of this seductive beast? 
Contrast that then with the vision of the New Jerusalem. The wicked city of Babylon is a harlot who seduces and devours and represents unfaithfulness; by contrast the New Jerusalem is a Bride who is a pillar of fidelity.  This Bride is adorned in a magnificent garment woven from the righteous deeds of the saints while the harlot drinks the blood of those whom she has devoured and is adorned in a splendor that comes from the exploitation of other people.  The New Jerusalem is a city of light where God is the only light needed to illuminate the city.  Babylon is a city of darkness where the darkness hides the evil human destroying activities of the city.  The New Jerusalem has 12 gates which stand open inviting and welcoming all to enter into God’s presence day and night; the foundation of the New Jerusalem has the names of the apostles inscribed indicating that it is built on the work of the human Apostles, while the beast Rome eats and devours humans.  Babylon is filled with impurity and deception, but there is nothing impure or false in the New Jerusalem.  In fact, in the center of the New Jerusalem grows the Tree of Life whose fruit is now available to all and whose leaves will heal the wounds of all who suffer.
Central to John’s description of the New Jerusalem is this: there will be no Temple! For his original audience this would have been shocking (Ezekiel’s description of the restored heavenly Jerusalem included a Temple – Ez. 40).  Every city had a Temple in the ancient world.  How else could you communicate with and experience God’s presence? But in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem there will be no need for a Temple, because God will be constantly and eternally present to all who dwell therein. You will no longer need to seek the Lord, because God’s presence will permeate all of New Jerusalem.  And to make this point even more profound John sees that the name of the Lamb will be inscribed on the foreheads of all the faithful.  Which means that all of the Saints will be High Priests and will have constant access to the presence of God.
We will look at the amazing conclusion next week.  But for now please consider two things.  First, to which city do you belong? Do you put your trust in the power and wealth of Babylon; do you look to luxury and possessions for meaning in life and do you count on violence to provide security?  Or can you open yourself to the Lamb who was slain and look to God’s love, mercy and grace for meaning.  What does that mean in practical terms? On what do you place your trust? What gives your life meaning and purpose?  Do you live in ways that reflect Babylon and conspicuous consumption or Jerusalem and unconditional grace and love for all?
Second, worship is woven into the very fabric of the Book of Revelation.  The response of the faithful to God’s love and grace as shown forth in the Lamb who won the victory through weakness is non-stop continuous worship.  This raises questions for us as well as to how we set our priorities and how we define our stewardship of God’s gifts.  Too often stewardship is defined only as having to do with giving money to the church.  But Revelation calls on us to see that true stewardship has to do with the setting of priorities that are responsive to the gift of life and salvation that comes from the Lamb.  John of Patmos calls upon us to give of ourselves fully to the service and worship of the Lamb.  How will you respond to this call?

This amazingly beautiful work is textile fabric art by Karen Goetzinger.

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