Grace Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2022, Easter 5C
The Holy City and the Missing Sea
While our short visit in the book of Revelation has not included much of the strangest material in the book (the stuff that would take more time to unpack than a sermon allows), know that it’s there; seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls, all bringing about hardship on the earth; various beasts or dragons rising up out of the sea, with highly symbolic numbers of heads and horns; and ultimately the vanquishing of those various beasts and their allies. By the time we get to chapter 21 and today’s reading, it’s all over but the shouting – in this case, shouting of praises and glorification. We really are at “the end of the book,” where we see that all does get made right at the last despite all the horror that came before.
Even so, those basic rules about reading Revelation apply – nothing is straightforward, everything is in code. That said, there are some interesting aspects of this part of John’s vision that are potentially illuminating for us modern readers, once we sort through John’s colorful metaphors.
One of these is right there in the first verse, something that must seem very strange to those of us who live in a state mostly surrounded by water. “A new heaven and a new earth,” sure, particularly if as he continues “the first heaven and earth had passed away“; but what is this business about how “the sea was no more“??? What’s that about?
There are a lot of different potential levels to this description. The history of the people of Israel had included a lot of enemies who came from over the sea. In current times and all across the Mediterranean, the sea was largely the domain of – you guessed it – the Roman Empire, and much of the trade in goods and precious rarities – and yes, slaves – happened across the sea. In short, it was the scene of a lot of bad things besides the ordinary ship-wrecking storms that any traveler faced. Perhaps on account of these perils, John’s vision of all those beasts and dragons tends to indicate that they come from the sea. The sea was, in this vision, a place of turbulence and threat.
God isn’t playing out some vague animus against oceans here; to speak of the sea being “no more” becomes a coded message that those things that threaten the faithful are gone. No more Roman Empire. No more slave-trading. No more oppressors coming out of or across the sea. Those things that threaten are removed from the world.
This aspect of the vision is amplified in verse 4. When the loud voice from the throne of verse 3 declares that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” it reinforces the release and rescue suggested in the passing of the first heaven and earth and, yes, the absence of the sea. “Mourning and crying and pain will be no more” because the things that cause mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
To be sure, the missing sea is not the highlight of this vision; for John and for those reading or hearing, it’s all about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.
The rest of chapter 21, after our reading is completed, is devoted to a description of this city as seen in John’s vision. It’s full of precious gems and stones as building materials, and streets of pure gold that were also translucent like glass. Next week’s reading will pick up in verse 22, so we’ll save that part for then. But even right here in verse 2, there are two highly significant aspects of this Holy City that we should not miss.
One such thing that seems to be overlooked often is that this new Jerusalem comes down in all its glory. Notice that in this passage there isn’t anything about anybody “going up.” Much as verse 4 amplified verse 1, so verse 3 fills in the implications of verse 2: “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…”
Note several things here: the use of the plural “peoples,” which fits nicely with that multitude of every tribe and language of last week’s reading from chapter 7; the echo of the tabernacle that moved with the Hebrew people on their exodus from Egypt; the use of the word “dwell,” with was often used of that tabernacle as the “dwelling place of God” and indicates that the one dwelling – God, in this case – is there to stay.
God comes down to dwell with God’s people. This is, as this vision has it, the shape of eternity.
Now let’s not overlook that other aspect of verse 2; what comes down, this home of God among mortals, is in fact a Holy City. And even this has implications that we might not expect.
There is sometimes a tendency to think of “paradise,” or whatever term one uses for the blessed kind of eternity, as some kind of restored Eden, some manner of bucolic garden setting. Even on a more earthly level, think of how often someone’s “dream vacation” somehow involves “getting away” not just from the mundane life of work and home, but also “getting away” from, frankly, other people. Then we end up all disappointed when where we’ve chosen for this “dream vacation” turns out to be even more crowded than back home. There’s a part of us that wants to get away from other people sometimes.
That’s not what happens in a holy city. The implication of living in a city is that, inevitably, others are unavoidable. Unless you’re going to hole yourself up in your house or apartment and never ever ever leave at all, you’re going to encounter other people. It can sound pretty awful for an extreme introvert, to be sure, but city life inevitably involves negotiating some way to live with one another.
Even at the last, life in Christ, under God’s reign and supported by the Spirit and all those other ways we describe it, is in community. Remember that Jesus didn’t walk the earth alone; the community of disciples (twelve and otherwise) were his constant companions. Even in eternity we don’t live in isolation. God’s dwelling place with mortals and all the peoples is going to be, well, crowded in the way a city can be. Paradise is not a personal retreat away from everybody else. The children of God will remain a plural entity for all eternity. Even here at the end of scripture, the principal pronouns are “us” and “we,” and frankly, we’d better get used to it.
God comes down to dwell with us.
God comes down to dwell with us.
God comes down to dwell with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.