A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 22, 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner

Reading for address: Revelation 21-22

Imagine you’re at work. You’re not having a great day. It started with an argument with your spouse over who should unload the dishwasher. Now you’re at your desk, someone from a different department has sent a passive aggressive email to you copying in half the senior team. One of your fellow workers is taking the credit for your project. And a junior member of staff ignores your fifth chasing email to do something that’s a core part of their job. And to top it all the printer has broken.

However these things don’t really matter today. You give your attention to trying to resolve them but they don’t throw you as much as they would normally do.

This is because you have just completed your online check in and first thing tomorrow you will be on a plane taking you to a far-flung beach for a couple of weeks on the holiday you’ve been planning for months. You’ll go snorkelling and feel the warm sun on your face, sip a cool beer as you watch the sun go down and all the office politics and dishwashers will be a distant memory. Psychologists say even planning a holiday relieves stress.

Perspective doesn’t make your problems and pain smaller but it brings other things into view.

Perhaps you would love just to have these, so called “first world problems”. The book of Revelation was written at a time when everyone who identified as a Christian was under stress. Almost everyone who lived in first century Palestine lived hand to mouth, even if you were rich, you were subject to volatile whims of the Roman occupiers. On top of this, coming out as a Christian meant being rejected by your community and losing almost everyone who would stand up for you if someone treated you unfairly or help you out if your crops failed that year. Some faced active persecution, being beaten and killed as easy targets for scapegoating.

And in this context, John, the author of Revelation, is taken up a mountain to get a longer perspective. This is intended to give you a feel of what Eternity with God will feel like. It bubbles over and over with more and more. What John sees are the things that will remain when everything else is a distant memory.

What are those things?

The first thing he sees is a city. This isn’t just any city. This is the city of dreams. Forget Dick Wittington’s London, paved with gold. There are jewels twinkling everywhere and it’s more beautiful even than the temple that was prophesied by Ezekiel. It’s more beautiful than the dream of restoration and certainly better than any that they had built before.

You are invited to live in the city of God.

Ever since God’s promise with Abraham, ever since Moses led them out of slavery and they became a nation, God lived with them.

To start with this was in the Arc of the Covenant, a box that they could carry around with them. But although it was mobile, it was so holy that if you bumped into it, you died. When they settled, they built a large temple. God was most present in the inner sanctum, the Holiest of Holies were just one priest could go into once a year with a rope tied around his ankle in case he died and had to be dragged out. But at least ordinary people could get somewhere near to it. Families who lived outside of Jerusalem would make a pilgrimage once a year so they could visit God at the temple. A lot of the Psalms were written as pilgrimage songs that they would sing along the way.

When they were invaded by surrounding nations, they were taken far away from the temple, far away from God. Then in a final act of destruction by the surrounding nations, the temple was destroyed.

They eventually got back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple hoping to regain that specialness, but it wasn’t quite the same. And in 70AD – about twenty years before we think this was written, the Romans destroyed that temple anyway.

When Jesus walked among them he pointed at his body calling it the Temple. When Jesus was with them the presence of God had legs and could walk around. It felt like the Temple was in your ordinary living room, the temple could be with you in the market place, on the road.

But Jesus went back to heaven… so where is this temple in Eternity?

God gets rid of the middle man. The glory of God is the light of this city – everywhere the light falls, there God is. Think about what sunlight is doing in this room or the room where you are at home. There are shadows and interest, there are colours that reflect the light in different ways. God’s presence is like this in this city.

What about the dark corners where the sunshine can’t reach? For those there is the Lamb. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, is with this city bringing warm light to all it’s (and your) dark corners.

And there isn’t any night. There is no time when this light fades or goes out. You can never be away from God’s presence. Think about Psalm 139 – “where can I go from your presence Oh Lord, if I go up to the heavens you are there, if I made my bed in the depths even there your right hand will hold me fast.” To the Psalmist this was a hope. God lived in the temple in Jerusalem. But now, from the perspective of the mountain top, we see that in eternity, there is nowhere you can go where God will not be. God is as present as sunshine and the lamb is illuminating every dark corner.

Think about what happened at night in their day, what still happens at night. Now there is no more time of darkness. What’s more this city is so secure that although it has gates they are never shut. This seems like a conscious decision. If there weren’t any gates it would be one thing. But there are gates. This city has the ability to exclude but it choses not to. There is no end to the resources available in this city so there is no need to stop anyone coming in or going out.

When children who had spent part of their childhoods in the second world war concentration camps were rehabilitated they would still steal bread. The people looking after them wisely decided to buy huge quantities of bread and to keep putting it out. “They need to learn that it will never run out” they said. We too will learn that with the creator God at the centre, this city has resources that will never run out.

Speaking of running, from the perspective of the mountain top John can see that at the centre of this city is a river. A lot of cities, especially in the hot climates of the middle east were built around the moving waters of rivers. The rivers were the source of life for the city.

This river is the picture Ezekiel sees in chapter 47 – the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and Ezekiel sees a new temple with a river flowing from it to the ends of the earth.

This river is the fulfilment of longed for abundance flowing from the Throne and the Lamb to the ends of the earth.

But there’s even more to this river.

Early Christians read this passage and thought this river sounded familiar. What if this river has a name. This river sounds awfully like the Holy Spirit.

In English, the Nicaean creed says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son but it would be a better translation to say the Spirit flows from the Father and the Son. It’s a river word. Not only is God the Lord and the Lamb everywhere without even trying, God is purposely moving out and out into the world.

And remember Jesus cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ The Church, we together with all the others meeting around the world today in palaces and bunkers to share bread and wine with Jesus, we are the startings of the Temple City housing the Throne and the Lamb with the Holy Spirit river flowing out.

This city has a place for you. This is a city of partnership.

The idea of a city is a human idea. God started the world by creating a garden of abundance. Human beings clustered together to trade and capitalise. But God doesn’t force us back to the original blue print as if our ideas about how to do life didn’t matter. The fulfilment of time has the human idea at the heart of it. “OK let’s do a city” God says “let’s look at what I can do with your idea.”

This idea of partnership continues. It reaches out to everyone – on the banks of the river are trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

To Jewish ears the idea of nations would have meant the surrounding nations who had plundered them. It meant Babylon or Rome. In the ancient world, and more recently, cities that have the riches of the world have taken them by force… including London. But here all the nations are willingly bringing their riches to build Jerusalem. This is the reverse of what was taken from them but instead of taking there is willing partnership from all the people who oppressed them. And these nations are to receive healing from the riverbank trees. Psalm 1 talks about the person who follows God’s way of life being like a tree planted by a river. As we seek to live God’s ways and are continually draw on the Spirit what if we are the trees that will bring healing to the nations who once oppressed us?

When I ran Christians at Pride we noticed that the Christian protests always had the same yellow placards. One year we invited supportive Christian leaders to bring red and orange, green and blue placards saying other things Christians think about the LGBT community. But even inviting straight clergy to participate created huge anxiety “What if the vicar who treated me badly twenty years ago, now wants to be an ally and comes?”

The new Jerusalem has a commitment that no one will there who is committed to deceit. The destruction will be over, but this inclusion will involve work from us to let go of the past.

This healing is for us too. God doesn’t force us back to the original, reversing our decisions and experiences. God isn’t looking back to when you were an innocent. This image is all about forward movement. The trees in this city have leaves for healing not resetting your factory settings and wiping your hard drive. God values who you have become, God values the wisdom and humour and understanding that the challenges and even the bad decisions have given you. To put it more simply. God values you. You now.

This city is where you and I and everyone will spend eternity but this isn’t just in the future.

The Kingdom of God isn’t merely an answer to the problem of death. This is a new perspective to hold NOW. If you want to, you can go to the mountain top, you can pull out this passage and glimpse this city that will be where we will spend Eternity. You can live in partnership based on abundance of our creator God in the office, in home, in life, here and now.

Because this reality will grow and grow until one day Jesus will return and all we will see is a world of partnership and abundance and God.