Grace Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2022, Easter 6C
They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun
The problem with the whole “skip to the end of the book” idea about reading and hearing from the book of Revelation in this season is that inevitably things happen out there that drag us back to the dark places of this world, the things that drove us to look for that good ending in the first place.
The news of mass shootings last Saturday and Sunday – one in Buffalo, NY, and the second in Laguna Hills, CA – gashed through the headlines and consciences of readers and watchers like a blast of cold air on a hot day, a wake-up call that has had to be sounded too many times for too many years now. As more news emerged about each attack, it became clear that both of them were acts of hatred: the Buffalo shooter, was an all-too-familiar figure, a white man killing blacks out of racial hatred; the California shooter, while fewer details are clear yet, was apparently of Chinese background and apparentlyacted out of hatred against Taiwan in attacking the members of a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church housed in the facility of a larger PC(USA) church in Laguna Hills.
If we ever needed a reminder that we have not drawn all that near to the Holy City of John’s vision in these final chapters of Revelation, there’s one for you.
While the reading for today continues in describing this new Jerusalem, much of the more detailed stuff is omitted from the lectionary selection – detail about the measurements of the city and the specific precious stones that parts of the city were made of. These had meaning to John and his immediate readers, but are less significant for our modern understanding of this passage, frankly.
The arresting detail is introduced in 21:22, one which provides the thematic backbone of the whole reading. In surveying this Holy City coming down from on high, the vision-receiver John sees no temple.
In that age gods lived in temples. No matter what religion or cult you spoke of, one could point to some kind of temple, whether a place in nature or a human-built edifice, gods lived in temples. Even among the people of Israel the capital-T Temple in Jerusalem had come to be regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, God Most High, even if God’s own self sometimes protested against this in their history. That particular interpretation of the Temple suffered a tremendous blow in the year 70 after the Roman destruction of that Temple. To borrow from Psalm 42, “where is your God now?”
Instead of any building, John reports, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” To borrow a phrase from Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, “God’s promise is not place; it’s presence.” The point of this new Jerusalem is not a building to which we go and perform all our religious rituals; the point is living directly, without mediation or obstruction, in the presence of God.
The next verse amplifies this one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The direct presence of God, it seems, is without darkness; the light of God pervades everywhere, in every place in this new Jerusalem.
Chapter 22 introduces more features of this city, one of which helps fill in references earlier in the book such as 7:17 or 21:6; we now see the “river of the water of life,” the same river that provided the inspiration for the last hymn we’ll sing today. The tree of life, with its multiplicity of fruit and leaves “for the healing of the nations,” is also there. At the absolute minimum these do remind us that just because we’re in the Holy City and not the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean that creation has no place in it. They also remind us of the harmony of humanity and creation that was meant to be, before human fallenness and corruption spoiled that harmony, and creation with it.
Amidst all these scenes of splendor there are a couple of cautionary notes sounded. Back in 21:27 we are instructed of this city that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood…“. Then, in 22:3, we see that “nothing accursed will be found there any more…“. This is the kind of passage that some preachers might be tempted to use as a pivot to a lengthy discourse on Hell or something like that, but here in this reading we are told nothing of what becomes of “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood“; we simply learn that such cannot enter the Holy City.
This probably sounds like warning enough, but in fact to John’s readers this also serves as reassurance. Remember, we are speaking of John’s audience as people who live under the increasing threat of oppression, either from Rome directly or from their own neighbors seeking to prove their allegiance to Rome. Either way, this word comes as reassurance that the oppression and persecution looming now will not be able to enter the new Jerusalem. One can safely interpret that those of later times and even our own time who faced such trials can take the same comfort from this vision. One might also suppose that those who practice such persecution or oppression (those who seek to bind and punish others based on their own religious beliefs, for example) would be among those who cannot enter the Holy City. What is unclean, what is accursed or abomination or falsehood, simply cannot exist in the direct, unmediated presence of God.
What we read here in the remainder of this passage recapitulates some of the greatest glories of John’s vision so far. God’s servants see God’s face and worship God, with nothing in the way, with no temple to hold in God’s glory. Night is no more; “they need no light of lamp or sun,” as John describes with great poetic flourish. “The Lord God will be their light,” John tells us.
So is the glorious hope awaiting us, the ones who endure and (as we were reminded in chapter 7) keep bearing faithful witness, not dissuaded or distracted by the pressures or the lures of the empires around us vying for our worship.
Amidst the darkness and abomination around us, amidst the falsehood glorified in everything from our politics to our leisure to, frankly, our practice of Christianity in far too many cases these days, we are called to bear witness. That’s what gets into the Lamb’s book of life that comes up in 21:27. It is not about going out and conquering anything; it isn’t about being warriors or conquerors or any of that stuff; again, it is about bearing witness. And we have hope for what awaits us when we do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #403, Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty; #375, Shall We Gather at the River