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Revelation III. A New Heaven and a New Earth


Here is the third sermon in Pastor James Clarke’s sermon series on Revelation: “A New Heaven and a New Earth” for Sunday, April 24, 2016. The scripture: Revelation 21:1-16. You may read the text, printed below, or listen to the audio recording by clicking on https://soundcloud.com/cedar-cross-umc/a-new-heaven-and-a-new-earth


A number of weeks ago, my son Kenneth had an English assignment to write a satirical cartoon. In his cartoon he drew a picture of a politician facing forward, screaming about Muslims, while behind him were pictures representing Global Climate change, Poverty and Wealth Disparity, Prisons, Healthcare…. Etc.

The point is, obviously, that politicians often harp on issues that ignite anger or fear in people that comparatively are not really a threat. Meanwhile the things that are really threatening are ignored. And it’s a good point. In general, it is very easy to focus on smaller things than to see the larger picture. Our days are filled with smaller things, aren’t they?

Each morning I write a list of things I have to do that day in appointments and tasks. Some of them of some consequence. Some very ordinary, like shopping. Global climate change doesn’t show up on these lists.

We’ve all probably heard the phrase, “First world problems” like getting a flat tire which interrupts our schedule. It is so frustrating. But what is it in comparison to being hungry in a Third world country where we don’t even have a car? What is the difference between distractions and calamities?

Revelation is about calamities – in a world full of distractions getting the attention of the people of the seven churches – to see the larger picture. Remember John of Patmos starts Revelation with letters to the seven churches in Asia.

The whole wild story with all of is wacko imagery that has brought so much fear and angst to Christians over the centuries was more like a shock and awe letter sent to Christians in John’s day to jolt them back into seeing bigger; being a part of the Empire of God and not the Empire of Caesar. He calls them lukewarm, living in both worlds.

Like us, they too had their list of things to do: cook, clean, shop, work, pay taxes, visit the Temple of Caesar as required, just like everyone else. Surely they wanted to be accepted in their community.

John wants to bring the Empire of God to be on the forefront of their minds so that while they may not have God on their list of things to do, they are including the Empire of God in everything they do. Which means, they would not go to the Temple of Caesar regardless of the cost.

Last week, I said that all worldly Empires end and John of Patmos is saying, contrary to the belief of everyone, that the Roman Empire would end. At that time no one could imagine such a thing. Rome was that powerful. Revelation was written late in the First Century. Rome didn’t fall to the Visigoths until 404 CE.

In that context, I said too that one day the United States would be no more. And as I said it, I felt a catch in my throat. “Will this get me into trouble?” This is the kind of thing that gets people upset. Was I dissing America? Well no, I was just saying that all Empires and nations end. That’s history – and history gives us the big picture.

Today is Creation Sunday. Once a year we take time to consider God’s Creation and our relationship to it. A kind of liturgical to do list. It is kind of like a reality check and it is a part of getting a larger perspective to think of the scale of time in nature rather than politics. It is very hard for us to get our heads around the truth that ecology undergirds economics and politics.

If we want a clear example of this, we don’t have to look far. What anniversary will we be acknowledging in two days? Not celebrating…. Just noting. Chernobyl! And if you saw the front page of The Seattle Times this morning, it said that the contaminated area will not be habitable for 3,000 years!

Have we all heard the word “externalities”? Those are the effects of some economic development that don’t fit in economic analysis, such as cost effectiveness. Pollution is, in economic terms, an externality, and as such, in economic terms, it can be ignored. They will still make money regardless of the pollution, unless there are government regulations, of course. But at a deeper level, from a larger perspective, we know that we cannot ignore or exclude pollution from analysis of development with any integrity.

If we do not integrate our development into the health of the environment, it will come back to bite us because the Creation is more fundamental than economics. Chernobyl is one big shark bite. Then, if we listen to politicians, how much time is spent talking about economic growth verses the environment?

To make matters worse, there are many politicians who deny that human development helps cause climate change and use as a reason for their position… economics. To such persons we must ask, which Empire do you live in? It’s hard to come up with a more clear-cut example of choosing the beast over the lamb. And this willful ignorance is a source of evil in the world. ISIS doesn’t care about the environment either.

I listen to NPR while I drive; it’s amazing how much one can learn by just doing that. This week I learned about a class action law suit against the McCormick spice company because they decreased the amount of pepper in the tin from 4 to 3 oz. without changing the size of the tin. Apparently there is something called “non-functional space fill” that is it is illegal to fill a container with space that has no function.

But on a more serious note, I learned about the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. Did anyone else hear this story? It troubles me that I consider myself environmentally well informed. I know about Greenland’s massive ice, but I had not heard about the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Apparently it is melting faster than previously predicted. Previously it was targeted to cause a rise in ocean levels in “hundreds of years”. That’s probably why we haven’t heard about it ‘cuz we’ll all be dead by then, so why care! This new study says it could affect sea levels within a matter of decades and by the end of this Century it could add three feet (if the whole thing melted it could add 12 feet).

Has everyone heard the story of the boiling frog? That if you put a frog into boiling water it will jump out. But if the temperature is raised gradually, it will stay put and eventually boil to death? It has become an iconic story demonstrated to be overstatement if not simply untrue.

Most of the experiments were in the late 19th Century. In one, apparently they took the frogs brain out and then it didn’t jump out. That makes sense….. for a number of politicians. It is still instructive as a metaphor about how we react to things that are immediately evident. But slowly developing problems are easily ignored.

Essentially, as we are so involved with our “things to do” in life, we are distracted from things that are much more critical to our existence. We live most of our lives in distraction; paying attention to the immediate things; inattentive of the larger vision. And things are, like the frog in the water, heating up.

The people in the seven churches of Asia, whom John addresses, lived distracted too – lukewarm. Unaware, according to John, to God’s larger vision and purpose.

The Big Picture – Revelation is about seeing the Big Picture. Seeing reality outside of our small worlds. Considering the worth of the lives of people who will be living 100 years from now. And not in New York City, because the seas have risen three feet.

John of Patmos presented a vision for the world. Revelation isn’t simply about destruction. It is about hope. He is saying that not only is there another Empire to live in, but in the end this Empire will prevail. He had a vision for a New Heaven and a New Earth. Not a vision of another heaven and another earth, but for the transformation of this heaven and this earth.

In the end….literally, Revelation is not about destruction, but about a vision for the generative power of God. It remains an invitation to participate in God’s Empire and not the Empire of the world of competition, dominance and profit.

I have always tired of the misuse of Revelation, particularly the Left Behind books and movies that focuses on the Rapture – which is not in Revelation, and on the Antichrist – also not in Revelation, envisioning people being raptured out of here. The depraved folk being left behind. The spiritual barbarian Visigoths.

I don’t know about you, but what I read in the gospels about Jesus Christ is that if this happened, he would be willfully left behind. And just as he hung out with the prostitutes and tax collectors, he would be offering God’s love and grace to all those depraved people who are left behind. And then they would work together to create a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Those of you who read the Cedar Crossings (newsletter) may recall that I wrote about Revelation – about how it almost wasn’t included in the Canon of the Bible because of the fear that it might be abused or misunderstood. How did we get to the idea that Jesus leaves people behind?

What I said in the Crossings is that one man had much to do with its inclusion – Athanasius of Alexandria during the power struggles that ended in the formulation of the Creeds.

Athanasius was the winner – Arius the loser. Athanasius was the first to collect Christian texts into a group that was accepted and those not accepted.

Athanasius also used Revelation as a foil against his enemies…. Arius and his followers, the Arian Christians, to call them heretics and to exclude them from the Church. Another form of being “left behind”. It was because he used it for his benefit that he wanted it to be included in the Bible. And since he had power, he could make that decision. In an irony of history, those Arian Christians converted the Visigoths, the very barbarian Visigoths who sacked Rome in 404 CE!!

Athanasius misused Revelation getting it into the Bible, dooming it to be abused in perpetuity. His reading of it was extremely narrow and self-serving; just like the Left Behind series. How dreadful!

Revelation wasn’t written to create heretics or predict the Rapture. It was written as a jolt, to get the attention of the Christians in the seven churches to see more clearly, to enlighten them to the realities of Empire, and invite them to choose the Empire of God.

And it was to offer a different vision than the Empire of Rome. A New Heaven and New Earth imagining a this earth transformed by God – where the Creation is cherished and cared for; where there are no “externalities” no superpowers, no inflated Defense Budgets, no wars, a world without the trauma of wars, a world without poverty, a world without prisons where there is no guile and deception, no “non-functional space fill”, no evil politicking either…. Like with Athanasius and some others we are all aware of – a world where everyone is accepted and no one is left behind.

John wanted his audience to see the larger picture to embrace a larger vision of a New Heaven and New Earth that amazingly could begin here and now. And all the people said…. So say we all.  Amen.




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