Revelation 22:1-6, 16-17
The other day my daughter said that she doesn’t think prayer works, because if prayer worked, people wouldn’t die. It’s pretty hard to come back with a quick and satisfying response to that statement, suitable for a 15-year-old’s understanding. Prayers for healing do work, sometimes in very mysterious ways, but still it is only temporary. Death is part of life; we cannot deny the fact that death is inevitable.
In the first scripture reading we heard this evening from Isaiah chapter 25, the poet-prophet imagines the earth having over it a shroud or sheet – a covering of death, weighed down by sadness, loss and mourning. The world is held in the grip of death and has no power to shake it off. But now, the poet prophesies, the Lord of life will bring an end to this crisis, the active power of death that crowds in on every chance for life. The death of which this poet speaks is more than just the fact that we are all going to die. Death encompasses every force that works against wholeness. Death is all that diminishes well-being and prevents a right relationship with other people and with God. That’s who death is, and we cannot by ourselves resist this culture of death. But now the good news from the prophet-poet: God will swallow death like a great sea monster attacking a smaller fish. God will attack death in all its forms and crush it and eliminate it: ‘He will swallow up death forever’. And then, verse 8 tells us, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. This image is a comfort and expectation for the faithful. We read of this promise again in the book of Revelation, written some 700 years after Isaiah, where it says: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”.
Both of the passages we’ve heard tonight from Isaiah and from Revelation 22 speak of a radical, complete transformation of reality as we now know it. In Isaiah, God’s act of transformation includes removing “disgrace” from God’s people – the disgrace of being helpless, powerless, and exploited; the shame of not being able to resist the powers of death; the humiliation that we are ultimately inadequate. Now all of that will be overcome, prophesies Isaiah. What is old and spent will yield to God’s newness. The old city of abuse is radically displaced by the new city ‘on this mountain’. To move from the one city to the other is to move from the shrouded, sheeted desert of death to the abundant banquet of life. There is affirmation, too, from Jesus, of this very vision of God’s generous provision of hospitality, as he tells the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22, and also as he comforts his disciples in John 14, when he says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you”. These are promises on which the Christian hope rests.
The book of Revelation is partly a reminder to the Church that things are not as they should be in this world, but also a sign that things won’t continue this way forever. There will be a fulfilment of the divine promise given in the Old and New Testaments, in which the separation between heaven and earth and God and humanity are overcome when God presence dwells with men and women in a transformed world.
Revelation presents to us a vision, where we’re asked to suspend our judgment and submit ourselves to be informed by the shock of what is unusual, for the sake of a better understanding of reality. Revelation poses some problems of language and symbolism – it doesn’t offer a view of things in any kind of literal way. But we prefer things that are down-to-earth. We want to see things ‘as they really are’. We like people to call a spade a spade and to be practical rather than airy-fairy about things. The accuracy of a photograph or a video – what we see or hear on the news - now, that’s reliable. But is it really? Can we capture reality by sight or hearing alone? What we perceive as real may be far from the whole story. Artists and poets have long recognised that photographs or prose can never do justice to the full dimension of human experience. We must read Revelation as if we were reading poetry or looking at a painting. Provided that we don’t demand a ‘photographic’ quality, we can find in Revelation the most ‘realistic’ insight and understanding of our relationships and the longing of our impoverished world.
Revelation as a whole offers an account that resolves the contrast between heaven and earth, and good and evil, in the dwelling of God with men and women in a heaven on earth – what the bible calls ‘the New Jerusalem’. And the event that brings about this resolution is that which lies at the centre of the Christian faith - the confession that the crucified Jesus is raised from the dead. Resurrection from the dead transforms that which was destined to death into the shared life of a renewed world. The vision in Revelation helps us to see the contrast between earth and heaven disappearing in the new creation, when God’s dwelling is no longer somewhere above us in heaven, but right here on earth.
Heaven on earth is the fulfilment of God’s purposes, where God is immediate and manifest – very much as God was in the Paradise described in Genesis 3. All the inhabitants of the new creation are God’s children and are identified with God’s character and enjoy the divine presence unmediated. And as Paul reminds us in 2 Cor. 5, that new creation isn’t just something to look forward to, because already in Christ there is the possibility in the power of God’s Spirit of bringing about that new creation in individual lives and in communities. In Revelation the vision is of a city – it’s communal rather than individual. From first to last, biblical practice and hope is centred on the healing of relationships, between humanity and God and with one another. In contrast to the destruction of nature and humanity in the middle chapters of Revelation, we now have the water of life and the fruit-bearing tree of life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Placed as it is at the end of the Christian bible, Revelation offers to us the key to understanding the whole story, as it points to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for justice and reconciliation. But looking forward in hope doesn’t mean we never look back, for remembering makes us present to life as it really is - there can be no healing unless we are present to the wound. Remembrance is at the heart of healing and restoration. There is transformational power in remembering, for only by remembering our loss and our grief are we able to embrace the journey into new beginnings. Renewal is a work of remembrance... it is life out of death. What is broken is reconnected.
In the Church, as a fellowship of blessed mourners, we somehow experience peace. At the Lord’s Table, we experience comfort and healing, as we believe in the communion of saints – those who are with us together with those who have died. And our hope lies in Christ, in his Resurrection and in his promise to remember us in his Kingdom. As we remember his story, we hope and pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it already is in heaven. And until then, may our thoughts, words and deeds reflect that time when sorrow and sighing will flee away, and each person will be recognised as equally stamped with the name of our God; and then we shall see God face to face.