The Fifth Gospel (Sermon)

This is an adapted version of my sermon from this morning, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. I am continuing my sermon series on the book of Revelation, which I’ve been affectionately calling “Crazy Uncle Revelation.” Today’s reading is Revelation 21:1-6.

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.

A little less than two hundred years ago, in the year 1830, a new story was invented. This story was called The Rapture, and it was a story about how people and God would meet together at the end of time. It’s a story about how the good people would be taken up off the earth, and fly up to the heavens. And God would take these good people to heaven, while the rest of the world endured terrible suffering. It was a source of hope, I suppose, for people who thought the world was turning from bad to worse. Hope that they would escape, and get to see the world burn. They invented it by taking a few verses from Revelation, a few from 1 Thessalonians, along with a little bit of Matthew and Daniel. They took all these verses out of their context, and mixed them together, and got this story. And it became a very popular story! It took off with certain groups of Christians over the next two centuries, and even led to a bestselling series of books and movies!

But this story, this story of God taking certain people away from this world to save them, would have come as quite a surprise to Christian leaders who came before 1830. It would have been a surprise to Martin Luther, and Henry Muhlenberg. It would have been a surprise to St. Augustine, and St. Francis of Assisi. It would have been a surprise to St. Matthew and St. Paul, who wrote two of the books the Rapture story uses. And it would have been quite a surprise to the author of Revelation.

Now I’ll be honest, Revelation certainly tells its share of crazy stories. [That’s why I’ve been calling it “Crazy Uncle Revelation.”] In fact, our Crazy Uncle Revelation tells us a story about the same topic, about how God and people will meet together. And this story is crazy in its own way. But the story that Revelation tells is completely different from the Rapture in almost every way. It goes something like this:

After witnessing some great suffering on earth, I saw that everything was now new. There was a new heaven, and I stood on a new earth. The old heaven and the old earth were gone! I looked up, and I saw a city in the sky, coming down toward the earth. God was sending a holy city, the New Jerusalem, to the earth. As the city landed, I heard a voice from God’s throne say, “Look! Here is God’s home! God’s home is now on earth. God’s home is now among mortals. God is with us. All the nations will be God’s peoples.

“And God will be busy there. God will wipe away every tear from every eye. God will vanquish death. God will vanquish mourning and crying and pain. Those things are no longer here in the new earth, the New Jerusalem.”

And God’s own voice the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new! My words are trustworthy and true! And now, look. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And I have fulfilled my plan: to give water to the thirsty, water from the spring of the water of life.”

That’s the story that Crazy Uncle Revelation tells us. Did you notice how different it is from the Rapture? Did you notice that God came here to us, not the other way around? And did you notice that it was in the present tense, not the future? And I wonder – did you notice anything that reminded you of Easter? Or Christmas?

Well, I’ll tell you where I noticed all those things. We’ll go through them in reverse. First, Christmas. Listen to verse three again. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” To me that sounds like the Christmas story. Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he will be called Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” At Christmas, the Word of God became flesh, and lived among people. So verse three is Crazy Uncle Revelation’s version of a Christmas story. No shepherds or wise men, but Christmas nonetheless.

And how about Easter? Listen to verse four again. “Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. For the first things have passed away.” I’m reminded of the Easter story: “Why do you look for the dead among the living? Mary, why are you weeping?” Verse 4 is Crazy Uncle Revelation’s version of Easter. No empty tomb or doubtful disciples, but Easter nonetheless.

So this story is telling us about things that already happened, things that Jesus accomplished through his birth and death and resurrection. Things in the past. And that’s when I noticed that so much of this story is in the present tense, not the future.

The voice of God says, “Behold, I am making all things new. My words are true. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Crazy Uncle Revelation isn’t telling us something to look forward to at the end of time, but rather something that’s already happening.

And, it’s happening here. God comes here, to us. The holy city isn’t waiting for us far far away, the holy city is coming to us. It began to arrive at Christmas, and is still arriving today. God is coming to us. Do you know what that means? It means that when you die, you get to live in your old house again. No, I have no idea what it means for the afterlife. We know so little about the afterlife – apart from us being with God, it’s pretty much all guesswork. But I’m not convinced that this story is about the afterlife, anyway. I think it means something amazing not for later, but for this world, for us, right now.

It means that God is moving into the neighborhood. It means that God loves this world, and wants to renew it, make it better. God doesn’t want to take us out of this world. God’s whole plan with Jesus was never to enable certain people to escape, but to renew, redeem, repair, and indeed re-create the whole world through him!

And so, perhaps Crazy Uncle Revelation isn’t telling us here what’s going to happen far in the future, but rather, is telling us in a very poetic, and frankly bizarre, way, what already has happened, where we are now. Perhaps Revelation is actually the fifth Gospel, telling the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection in a way that is much stranger, yet also much deeper, than any of the other gospels.

If so, then perhaps Revelation teaches us here that the resurrection of Christ wasn’t just for the salvation and renewal of humans, but for the salvation and renewal of the whole world. Perhaps Revelation shows us that this world is not beyond hope, that Christ is in fact the hope of the whole world, that we can trust that God is rebuilding and repairing, redeeming and renewing. Perhaps Revelation reveals to us God’s dream for this earth. A dream that God is fulfilling right now, even as we live. Perhaps Revelation reveals to us God’s hope that we would love this whole world as well, and allow God to use our hands to care for it.

The resurrection is good news not just for us, but for everything. The resurrection changes everything. Makes everything new. Everything. My crazy uncle taught me that.

Featured image: Kimon Berlin, 
user:Gribeco [CC BY-SA 3.0

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