Sermon for Easter 5 – Evensong Sunday 14 May 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Revelation 21.5. And he who sat upon the throne said, Behold I make all things new.
I can try to convert people to Christianity, but I can’t expect to convert everyone to the Book of Revelation.
I like it, from the lakes of sulphur to the gates of amethyst, but the book is not for the fainthearted, and it can be the excuse for all sorts of religious abuse, all the mistakes of over simplification, deranged claims about the Great Beast, the Whore of Babylon and all that. All those lamp stands and golden bowls. So you can take it or leave it. But chapter 21 takes us into a world we can recognise as Easter Christians, a new heaven and a new earth. I make all things new, God says.
Making all things new is not the same as novelty, you will be pleased to hear. It means renewal. From the resources which the Creator has, and always has had, the old creation is renewed. Not replaced, no Rhodes must fall rewriting, but renewed. Those who walked this earth before us knew that only God could do this renewing. This is Creation, the holy city, the world you and I can know as Christians, which will not fall back into chaos, that formless void which precedes the creation of the world. Do you see how this is about our lives? Our efforts to renew ourselves, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, never seem to work out as we intend. Our chance for renewal comes when we give up that ambition, and locate ourselves instead in God’s vision of the world and what it can be, the new heaven and the new earth. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God speaks these words in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, and he waits until now, chapter 21, before saying them again. Why does that ring true to us, why is it somehow comforting, even when we do not fully understand it? How did it come to be written up there above us, looking down on all we do, hearing all we say? I think it is because Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are symbols of God’s vision of the universe. He’s made it all, and we can see his hand in everything, but he is also the final version, not us. The end product is God. The water of life is the eternal life of this new heaven and new earth, which we can drink. The sign of the renewal, a renewal of Creation which God is doing all the time, is an end to suffering, or to the effects of suffering, which is why Revelation Chapter 21 is such a comforting choice for funerals, whether we fully understand it or not: “…he will wipe away every tear from the eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation didn’t spring from someone’s inflamed imagination. There are references to the Old Testament, one of which is the deliverance of God’s people from Babylon. Our lives are the story of being delivered from our captivity; here again is the Easter story, the empty tomb, all those readings at the first Mass of Easter. In Revelation Babylon is paired with the New Jerusalem, we are lifted out of captivity, and are able to see this wonderful city “coming down out of heaven from God”. Stop there, before you get distracted by the Jewellery section, all those sapphires and pearls and emeralds, they will turn your head. The holy city, Jerusalem, comes down from God. We tend to think that we are good enough to build it, and every century there are determined efforts to build a new Jerusalem. Some end in massacres and corruption. Even on the mundane level of church life in England, we can be tempted to think that the new creation will be somehow our doing. It will be better this time, we have new ideas, new visions, we can do it. But those who heard the Book of Revelation in the early days would have remembered that the sin of Babylon, from which we are delivered, was trying to join earth and heaven together with a tower, the tower of Babel. The New Jerusalem comes not from building up from earth to heaven, but comes down from heaven to earth. The Book of Revelation is a challenge to human pride and its effects. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” God is not the worker of wonders in our vision of what life could be like. We are God’s children, made in his image, in his vision of what Creation can be.
No sermon on Revelation is complete without a threat that we shall all be cast into the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. Actually, we do know what that means, it is when, through our own fault usually, we are turned in on ourselves, and we know that we cannot get out of this bind without help but there seems to be no way forward, no way back. Easter, that first light in the darkness, the stone rolled away, the presence of Christ in the locked room of our heart, tells us each year that there is One called the Lord who will take us with him to a new heaven and an new earth, and who will renew the life of each of us, each one of us His new creation.