It is said that we human beings are the only creatures aware of the fact that one day we will die. I don’t know if that’s true, but we know that death is an issue we all face. And we know that sometimes we humans handle death well and sometimes we don’t. If you were an important enough ancient Egyptian you got mummified in preparation for your journey to the next life. Some native American tribes built large funeral mounds. The Vikings set bodies on fire and put them adrift in a boat.
If you’ve never seen the movie Little Big Man, staring Dustin Hoffman, see if you can find it. It’s sort of a precursor to Dances With Wolves, where Dustin Hoffman’s character bounces back and forth between a native American tribe and the Anglo culture of the west in the nineteenth century. The chief of the tribe, whom he calls grandfather, keeps thinking it is his day to die and makes the appropriate preparations. But to no avail, he keeps living. Every time, though, he says, “It is a good day to die.”
That’s not the worst attitude to have about death. But to fear death is neither uncommon nor necessarily unhealthy. We want to live to see our grandchildren, or at least see our children off into the world and doing well. Or maybe we want to live long enough to accomplish certain things, or to check off the items on our bucket list. And we worry we might not make it to those goals. We say things like, we don’t want to die before our time.
The Bible often deals with death in a matter of fact way. Right off the bat, God tells Adam that if he eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he will die. And we know that eventually, he and Eve do die. Psalm six includes the thought, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” For at least most of the First Testament, the prevailing notion is that after our bodily death everyone goes to the place called Sheol, which is neither eternal torture nor eternal bliss. You’re just sort of there. The notion of hell is an import from Persia, I think it was, which starts making the rounds of people’s thinking by the time of Jesus.
And even in the Second Testament we have to be careful. The word “heaven” is used a lot. Two hundred forty-eight times, to be exact, in the New Revised Standard Version. But the word does not always apply to where we might end up after we die. Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven in ways which suggest that it is both yet to come and already present. For Jesus God’s kingdom seems to be a set of conditions, where all people are valued and cared for. In the New RSV, by the way, the word “hell” appears thirteen times and “hades” ten times. So there’s a lot more talk about heaven than there is about hell.
And then there’s the book of Revelation, where we find today’s Second Testament lesson. Some have argued that the book doesn’t even belong in the Bible. They talk about how out of character it is compared to the gospels and the letters. They mention the very vivid imagery found there, and all the very symbolic descriptions of things supposedly yet to come, like seven bowls and seven plagues.
But Revelation wasn’t written to be scary or overly mysterious. It was probably written around the end of the first century, when the early church had grown big enough, at least in some places, to attract the attention of leaders in other faiths and governing authorities. For example, in the year 112 of our era the Roman governor of a province that is now in Turkey writes to the Emperor Trajan in Rome, asking for advice on dealing with Christians. And we know that in places Christians are persecuted for their faith in Christ.
So along comes John the Revelator. We don’t know much about this John, who probably lived a generation after Jesus and the apostles, except that he has a vision while on the island of Patmos. One heck of a vision. And he says that he shares with other Christians in being persecuted, likely being in exile on Patmos on account of his faith. He also has words for seven specific congregations, which comprise the first three chapters of Revelation.
Then, starting in chapter four, he relates what he saw in his visions. The introduction to the book in my study Bible says his visions “repeat with kaleidoscopic variety certain great principles of God’s just and merciful government of the whole creation.” The literary category of Revelation is called apocalyptic, such as the book of Daniel in the First Testament. In fact, a majority of the verses in Revelation contain some sort of reference to something in the First Testament. You almost always need to know something about the First Testament to have an appreciation of the Second.
My introduction also says, “Many of the details of its pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression, and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism.” What that means is that through the centuries people have gone nuts trying to identify things John mentions. Things like the “mark of the beast,” what the number six six six means. Hint, the number seven in the Bible stands for wholeness or completeness. So six six six is something not godly or holy.
The bottom line is that Revelation is not meant to scare people. Just the opposite. Its intent is to say to Christians, whatever happens, hold on, keep the faith, because in the end, God wins. Good triumphs over evil. It is true that apocalyptic literature is not something we read every day. But the book of Revelation has an important message. Or two.
Today’s reading comes from near the end of the book. It contains some familiar images, like pearly gates. But it is also worth a closer look. For example, what John is describing here is not heaven, but the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.” It’s a little bigger than the Jerusalem of Bible times. John says it is fifteen hundred miles wide and fifteen hundred miles long. And despite its size, it does not have streets of gold. It has only one street. Just when you think you know what heaven is like. While he describes various things in heaven, John in fact never describes what heaven itself looks like. Just the new Jerusalem.
The pearly gates and the street of gold get the most attention, but there are some other really interesting details found in John’s description. For example, there is no temple, which was the central feature of the historical Jerusalem, up until its destruction by the Romans in the year 70 of the common era. The reason for no temple is there is no need for a temple, where God was said to dwell, in the holy of holies, the inner sanctum. There is no need for a temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” In other words, God and Christ are there. People will even be able to see the face of God, something not ever permitted previously.
Then John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” What’s interesting about that is that throughout the rest of Revelation, when John says “the nations” he’s talking about all those folks “out there,” not those who believe in Jesus. Does he mean something different here? It doesn’t seem so. He continues, “Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” There’s that “nations” thing again. What’s he getting at?
If I’m not mistaken, and how could I be, John is saying that God gives people eternal chances to enter the holy city. If “the nations” means essentially everyone, if the gates are never closed, if “The nations will walk by its light,” then in spite of all that he has described up until this point, the story of people’s eternal destiny is not over until they decide to enter through one of the pearly gates.
John makes clear that there is one criterion for entering the city. He says “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” For John, abomination and falsehood mean worshiping false gods, not accepting the love and forgiveness God offers us through Jesus the Christ, the Lamb.
In the new Jerusalem, the river of the water of life flows through the middle of the street of gold. John then sees “On either side of the river is the tree of life…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” It’s sort of a reversal of the tree in the garden of Eden which caused problems for Adam and Eve, isn’t it? Now the tree provides not expulsion but inclusion, healing. It sounds very much like God wants the nations – everyone – to enter the new Jerusalem. And the gates are never shut. Amen.