Friday, 14 September 2012

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth

Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”


There is something extremely appropriate this evening about the singing of Edgar Bainton's anthem, 'And I saw a new heaven and earth'. 

It was performed at the Hillsborough Memorial Service at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in 1989. 

I am not completely sure that the publication of the report about the Hillsborough disaster was in Peter's mind when he chose the anthem, but I can't say that it is just coincidence. 



The words come from Revelation 21:1-4, and they are words that have been used at countless funerals, memorial and remembrance services as, I am sure, has this anthem. 



It is a vision of the future, of the new heaven and earth.


It is the 'new' heaven and earth, but there is some connection with this heaven and earth. 

Yes, this heaven and earth will face judgement and fire - all that is not of God, of truth, of love will be burnt up and consumed. Jesus talks about that, and Peter, in his letter, is convinced of that.
But there is also continuity. So Paul talks about how this whole creation longs for that day when it will be set free from 'its bondage to decay' and will be set free to be what it was meant to be.
And it is often said that the resurrection body of Jesus is the prototype, the taster, the model of how this present heaven and earth compares to that new heaven and earth. His resurrection body was both similar to his pre-resurrection body and yet completely different: he could eat fish, but he could appear and disappear. He could be touched and felt and smelt, but he could shine brighter than the sun. He was recognisable, it really was him, but he was also bigger than space and time. 

[Elsewhere Paul talks of how that world, our future, compares to this world. He asks himself, ''What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection?' He answers himself: 'What a silly question. It is a bit like two acorns having a discussion deep underground, asking what it will be like to be an oak tree.']

We are talking about a NEW heaven and earth - and you can only have a new heaven and earth if there is an old heaven and earth. There will be continuity, but there will be massive difference.

And we need to remember that because we are talking about a new heaven and a new earth, a future reality that transcends human history, and goes beyond our concepts of space and time, we can only talk about it in terms of picture language. 

[We are a bit like Tom and Jerry asking 'Who drew Walt Disney?' In the world that they live in, the idea that people are not drawn is completely unthinkable]

So, for instance, when John in Revelation 21 speaks of how - in the new heaven and earth - there will be no sea, he is not saying that there will be no mass of water. Who knows? I hope there will be. Rather it is using the sea, as the bible does elsewhere, as a symbol of separation, of chaos and of destruction.  

And do you notice how this city is 'coming down out of heaven from God'. It never actually arrives (cf Rev 3:12; 21:2,10). 
What we are being told is that this new Jerusalem is the joining together of heaven and earth. 
And the voice comes from the throne. Where is the throne? In heaven? No. On earth? No. The throne is in the city (cf Rev 22:1). 
So what we are being told here is this: Here is the new heaven. Here is the new earth. And in the very centre of this new creation is God and his people. 

And what we have here is not a direct picture of what the new heaven and the new earth is like - that would simply blow our mind: 'Ear has not heard, eye has not seen, nor the mind of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'. What we are told here is what we need to know of the new heaven and earth; it is enough to give us a desire and a longing for this new, future world. 

And we are told that it is a place of purity and love, of joy and life.

IT IS A PICTURE OF PURITY
The new Jerusalem is contrasted with the old whore-Babylon. She is described as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 

I came across this illustration - although note that here the bride is coming from earth to meet the bridegroom. John tells us that the bride, the church, the people of God, comes from heaven to earth. But if you notice, the bride's train is made up of countless people dressed in white.

It is John's way of telling us that it is God who has protected and purified his people. 
The church, the people of God, have been kept by God and made pure through faithful endurance to Christ in suffering. That is part of the message of John.

And in the new heaven and new earth there is no more sin. Why? Because sin is the opposite of love. Love unites, but sin separates. There is no place in this new city for selfish pride, for hatred, unforgiveness, bitterness or envy. There is no place in this new city for people who think that they are little gods and that everyone else must worship them or satisfy them. 

IT IS A PICTURE OF LOVE
The bible speaks of the love that there is between God and his people in many ways. 

a) He is the one who loves us as the faithful friend.
He is Immanuel, God with us, 'Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people'.
There are many times when it seems that God has gone AWOL, that he has abandoned us. Sometimes it is because we have walked far from him. At other times we feel we have been faithful to him, and yet he has still walked away from us. The promise here and now is that whatever we feel, God IS with us. The promise in the new heaven and earth is that we will KNOW that God is with us. 
b) He is the one who loves us as a parent loves their child. 
'They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God'.  
It was the promise given to Moses, to the prophets. God's purpose was to gather a people to himself.
And God 'will wipe every tear from their eyes'.
You know how it is: a child falls over and hurts him or herself. He is distraught. His world has come to an end. But mum comes to him, picks him up, embraces him and wipes the tears from his eyes. Mum knows. And as he rests in her arms he realises that it is not the end of the world. There is someone who is bigger who can make it better. It's OK because mum is there. 

That is alright if the child has simply grazed their knee. But for all of us there will have been times when we 'fell over' and no one was there; or when a child or someone you loved 'fell over' and you were not able to be there, or you were - but you were not able to put it right. That is part of the desperation of people who have to go through something like Hillsborough.
The promise that is here, the Christian hope, is that each one of us - small or big - can turn to God. And if we do, there will of course still be many tears here. But He is there. And he is bigger and he can make it better. And one day there will be a day when he wipes away from us every tear. 

c) He is the one who would love us as the beloved loves the lover. 
The language of the bride points us back to the Song of Solomon: 

'Come with me from Lebanon, my bride ..
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride:
you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace. 
How delightful is you love, my sister, my bride'

And she answers:
'My beloved is radiant and ruddy, 
outstanding among ten thousand ...
His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.
This is my bleoved, this is my friend,
daughters of Jerusalem. ..
I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine'.

It is the language of delight and desire, of intimacy and devotion. God knows you and he loves you. And because he loves you, he longs that you and I get to know him, and are united to him, at the very deepest level of our being.

IT IS  A PICTURE OF JOY AND DELIGHT
We are talking about a completely new reality here. 
Those two life denying principles which came in at the time of the fall, which put space and time completely out of kilter - the principles of the selfish gene and the perversion of decay and death - will have no place in the new heaven and earth. Creation will be as it was intended to become. 
Don't think of our future as sitting up there on clouds in heaven. 
Our future is as citizens of a very real new heaven and new earth. 
Isaiah has glimpses of what that might be like, and John echoes some of his words when he writes, 'There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain'.


Please don't dismiss this passage as wishful thinking. Don't dismiss it as an expression of human anxiety in the face of suffering and death. 
The resurrection of Jesus has shown that this vision is ultimate reality. 

The Christian believers to whom John wrote Revelation knew dreadful suffering, and it was suffering because they were believers. 
Those connected with Hillsborough knew and know dreadful suffering; 
Bainton himself was interred in a German concentration camp during WW1 for 5 years: he knew suffering. 
And you will know suffering. Life is, at times, intensely painful. 

But this is not all that there is.
The vision of John, which Bainton put so powerfully into music, is that 'the old order of things', that which we experience now, will - one day - pass away. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. And at the very centre of this new heaven and earth is God, the living God, the God who has chosen us to be his people, the God who loves you and who longs for us to be united with him.                                 

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