by Ellen Sims
text: Revelation 21:1-6
The Book of Revelation often sounds archaic and just downright crazy to folks who have not bought into the “Left Behind” silliness. But rightly appreciated as a special form of ancient literature, this bizarre biblical book has relevance—especially on Earth Day—for people who see a familiar earth dying yet have hope for a new earth to come. The “heaven” promised in this book is, after all, not some place we are transported to in a galaxy far far away after we die. The “heaven” promised in Jesus’s teachings is a reality we can start living into right here and now. He called it “the kingdom of heaven.”
Here’s why I rarely preach about heaven:
1) The Bible’s “heaven” is not the heaven of movies like Heaven is For Real. The Bible, in fact, suggests varied understandings of an afterlife. Ideas about a life after death started developing early in human cultures—as did the idea of a realm where God/gods lived. As the people whose stories and worldview shaped the Bible encountered other cultures, their myths continued to evolve. In a pre-scientific age, the Bible’s authors were expressing meaning and transcendence in the literature of mythology and poetry and theology—not history or science. Now millennia later, after humanity has “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to place a flag on our moon and to send a data-gathering Mars Rover to another planet and to peer into the guts of distant galaxies through the Hubble telescope, it’s no longer possible to retain a biblical map of the universe with pillars holding up a second-story structure above us called heaven where other beings dwell. I can’t preach of that heaven.
2) Nor can I preach about a heaven that is a state of perfection. I’m not sure perfection is possible or desirable. Every time I’ve tried to imagine perfection, I’m disappointed. I remember the first time I thought about what I’d want heaven to be like. I was in 4th grade, sitting on a blanket under my favorite tree in my backyard on a gorgeous spring day like today. In one hand I had a juicy apple, on my lap my latest Little House on the Prairie book, nuzzled beside me, my dog: the Holy Trinity of delight. This is what I hope heaven will be like, I thought. But I now realize that even that scene of perfection would turn to hell if it’s the sum total of eternity. You try imagining the most idyllic scene you’d love to inhabit the rest of your life. Bring into that scenario your favorite people. Plug in all that delights you. I don’t think you can create, even in your imagination, a state of perfection that would last for very long, certainly not for eternity. You’ll get tired of that apple. You’ll grow weary of spring time. Your literary taste will develop beyond Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Oh, you might now be thinking, “I’ll make sure heaven has variety—not enough variety that permits strife or unhappiness or even discomfort, but enough to keep things interesting.” Sorry. Variety requires chance and change, which require growth. And growth always entails some pain, even if it’s the loss of something that needs to go. Either we experience boredom and stasis without problems and conflict—or we know stimulation, growth, and purpose with their attendant problems to solve and losses to bear. All the dystopian novels prove this.
I don’t want to live in The Truman Show. I don’t want to be a Stepford Wife. Can you imagine eternity without dreams and longings and purpose and challenge and new learnings?
The only way I can imagine an eternity without yearnings is through a spiritual state of union in which I let go of all that prevents me from the fullness of Love and plunge into deeper level of connection. Which means letting go of pursuits for perfection to experience a oneness with that which we call God. Ultimately and eternally, ours souls, so say the mystics like Meister Eckhart, will rest trustfully in an experience of God who IS Love, a Love in which we are forever embraced and included and expanded. The only eternal existence in God that I can imagine is one in which I love the wider world as I love my own life so that I fall as a water droplet into the flowing river of Love. I don’t need to intellectualize that metaphor. I don’t need to see a blueprint of heaven. I’ve experienced enough of Sacred Love to trust it.
3) Another reason I don’t preach about heaven is because it diverts us from Jesus’s emphasis. The writers of the Bible were dreamers who were dreaming with wild and crazy images of a WAY to live right now, not a PLACE simply to inhabit in the distant future. Yes, some want to feel that ultimate justice will eventually be done so that the cruel ones who “get away with murder” in this life will be punished in the next–and the mistreated in this world will be given a crown and scepter in the next. But the danger with that emphasis is we disengage from the work of justice. The Bible puts much greater emphasis on making THIS world a more just place.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and God’s children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia . . .” (1)
King was right because Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was on its way, was already being glimpsed here and now, when we loved the least, the last, the lost.
4) To extend that point, I don’t preach about heaven as popularly conceived because the kingdom of heaven John envisioned in his wild and violent vision is a kingdom that is coming down to earth to replace the old earth with a new one. From today’s reading we hear John testifying: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’” (Rev. 21: 2-3).
According to today’s text, we’re not going to evacuate the earth, despite the fact that the “Jesus is my personal lord and savior” folks have pre-booked a nonstop flight with limited seating to the New Jerusalem. To envision a God who chooses to live here—not on Mt. Olympus, not even on Mt. Sinai—is to understand that Ultimate Reality (another name for God) is here and now. The Gospel calls us to engage reality, not exit it. The Gospel teaches us to re-create, not escape. And we can start right now. We HAVE to start right now.
The confusing Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John, must be read as apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic writings hold out an elaborate dream or vision of a terrifying scenario: the present world situation is ending but will be replaced by a new and better world.(2) Most of the Book of Revelation describes the world falling apart. Today’s reading near the close of Revelation describes the new world replacing the old, where the thirsty will receive water from the spring of life.
The historical context of Revelation is the Roman Empire around the year 95 CE.–a setting not so different from our own. What scholars used to think was happening historically to seven churches in Asia Minor named in the first chapters of Revelation was religious persecution, terrible persecution. However, there’s growing evidence among historians that there was not at the time of this writing “widespread or systematic persecution of Christians in first century provincial Asia.” Instead, Revelation was probably written to churches experiencing “relative comfort” and the problem imperiling those churches was their “seduction by the Roman Empire . . . rather than a terrifying persecution.” (3)
In this regard Western Christians in 2016 are similar to the seven churches named in the Book of Revelation. I argued two Sundays ago that Christians in the U.S. today don’t get to claim religious persecution, especially not when they cry “persecution” in order to deny others their rights or when they are simply made a bit uncomfortable. When Christians see no conflict between our religious commitments and the values of the Empire, when we make no sacrifices in order to help usher in God’s caring kingdom, when we put our own convenience above the care for God’s good earth . . . we know that we “Christians” have betrayed the cause of Christ for convenience and greed.
American Christians should worry not about persecution but about Christian capitulation to Empire. So powerful is this invisible but powerful “empire” we serve that we are able to tune out the scientific community’s warning against fracking and oil pipeline spills and fossil fuel reliance and city water systems that deliver poisons to our children. We are so committed to competing and acquiring that we fail to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We eat an animal-based diet because our love of cheeseburgers is greater than our responsibility to future generations. Our priorities of comfort and convenience and our resistance to change are leading us to apocalypse. We think we can depend on our privileged First World, well-armed, most-powerful-nation-of-the-world status to save us. But only God can save us from our complacency about and complicity with today’s Empire.
In fact at least one environmental scientist agrees that our planet’s problems require a spiritual solution: Gus Speth puts it this way: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.” (4)
If we take the Book of Revelation seriously, we may, friends, have to make serious adjustments to our dinner tables, to our modes of travel, to our national priorities. And when we do, an old world will seem to die. But in response we should not develop a religion based on an evacuation plan from planet earth. We are called to repair our hurting planet. Revelation images God inhabiting this planet with us. Isn’t that exactly what the Jesus story has been teaching us all along? The Incarnation pictures God entering into human history and taking on vulnerable flesh to dwell among us.
It’s not too late to realize God IS with us. In Jesus. In every bird and bacterium and the very biosphere. God is already here. “The Apocalypse is often misunderstood as a timetable for the end of the world. . . . In reality, [it] was conceived as a message of hope and call for resistance to the empire” which the writer understood to be Rome but is today “perhaps any form of human institution, including the CHURCH, that lives for itself and exercises power for its own benefit rather than for the sake of the planet.” (5)
Walter Brueggemann calls us to exercise our prophetic imagination so that we “may now dream of a lowered standard of living among us but with a genuine neighborliness in which all share.” (6) “Walking by faith,” he says, “is to seek a world other than the one from which we are being swiftly ejected.” (7) The writer of Revelation would say we are seeking the New Jerusalem.
(1) Qtd. in Ott, Emlyn A. “Living By the Word” in The Christian Century (13 April 2016) 22.
(2) Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyther. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999) 4.
(3) Howard-Brook and Gwyther, xxi-xxii.
(5) Jenks, Gregory V. The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011) 184.
(6) Brueggemann, Walter. Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014) 127.
(7) _____ . 128.