Hope for a life-filled eternity
So we come to the last week of our series on “Hope from the last book”, our reflections on the message of hope that the book of Revelation, though it was written for another people in another time, carries for us in modern day Australia.
The images of the book – of peoples reconciled with one another and with God, of the renewal of all creation, and above all, of the risen Christ, the loving Lord, the Lamb who was slain, at the centre of all things and receiving the worship of all things – these images carry across the ages, painting a portrait of a much bigger reality than we are able to encounter day-to-day.
And so today we reflect on words from the final chapters of the book, almost the final words of the whole Bible, and on the hope that is eternal. Hope for a life-filled eternity.
But when you start throwing around words like ‘eternity’ one central questions about the book of Revelation come to the fore
[the question Michaela posed last week]
– whether we are to understand the
things shown in the vision of John as future events, or as present reality.
One reading of Revelation – in many Christian circles, I guess, the default assumption about the book – is to read it as a description of historical events that are yet to happen – history, written in advance. That the prophecies in the book are describing what God is going to do to bring about the end-times, to finally overthrow the power of evil and usher in a new creation in which all things will be well, all peoples at peace, all sadness and pain a thing of the past.
This sort of reading, with its talk of the rapture and
the anti-Christ, and the second coming, has always existed in the Christian
Church, but really came to prominence in the early twentieth century,
particularly in the aftermath of the first world war. The sense of growing
human optimism, the belief that humanity could, through its own ever-increasing
rationality, bring about heaven on earth, the Kingdom of God as a complete
present reality, was shattered by war and its aftermath, and replaced with a
pessimism that was only reinforced by the second world war, a pessimism
describing the earth, and humanity, as deeply, fundamentally broken, of evil as
a powerful present reality that required God’s dramatic and ultimate
intervention to destroy all that is evil and bring freedom to all that is good.
And there is no doubt that the first readers of John’s vision shared that sense that the only solution to the evil of the world was God’s intervention; that the force of evil was real and active and powerful; that humanity was not able to bring about peace and justice and equity by their own efforts but only by divine action.
But crucially this intervention was not seen by the early Church as something to look forward to, something that would happen with the second coming of Jesus, but as something that had already taken place. The great overthrow of evil lay not in the future, but in the events of the incarnation; in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Certainly there was an expectation of Jesus’ return to bring all things to their glorious conclusion; although by the time of the book of Revelation the immanence of that day had already begun to become less emphasised. But the fundamental work of Jesus had already been completed.
This was a central theme of first and second century
theology, that “Christus Victor” – Christ, the
victor, had absolutely and permanently defeated all the forces of evil. God’s
dramatic and ultimate intervention had already taken place.
And so we see John’s vision. Back at the start of chapter 21 he began this section in these words: And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It’s described as something that already exists (in heaven, that is to say, in the presence of God) and is coming from God to us. It’s the same sort of language that Jesus used of the Kingdom of God being “at hand” – something real enough to reach out and take hold of.
And then in our reading today we see a series of indications that this heavenly city is not a future replacement for the present world, but is contemporaneous with it.
The nations of the world walking by the light of the city.
The kings of the early bringing their glory into the city.
The river flowing out of the city – out into the world.
And, of course, the leaves of the trees that are “for
the healing of the nations”.
The city, the heavenly city, this image of all that is perfect and complete and good and God, this city is portrayed not as a future replacement for the world, but as being in a dynamic interaction with the world.
It’s like the city is giving to the world the things that it most deeply needs: light, water, food, and healing.
The nations will walk by its light: and its light is the glory of God.
The river of the water of life – an image, of course, that Jesus used of himself and the life that he would give to others – ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ and ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ – for a people in a dry land, water and life were never far apart.
The trees beside the river which bore fruit every month of the year: no times of harvest and times of famine in this image.
And the leaves of the trees are for
the healing of the nations. Here, perhaps most clearly of all, we see that this
heavenly city does not replace the broken world: instead, it provides for the
healing of the broken world.
The vision is of a relationship between the perfection of the heavenly city and the world that is being healed and fed and enlightened by it. And that world, in turn, is contributing to the heavenly city. People are bringing into the city the glory and honour of the nations. That which is good in the nations of the world, that which is honourable and lovely and creative and life-giving, is being brought into the city.
The perfection of the heavenly city is ever being added to. All that is good in the world – and there is so much that is good in the world – is being brought into it. Being celebrated, almost being collected.
The is the image of hope for a life-filled eternity.
Not just eternal life in the presence of God after this life – though most
surely including that – but a life-filled eternity which has already begun. An
eternity which has been brought into being by incarnation, the life, the death,
the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, the lamb who was slain.
Here is hope for life filled eternity that begins today. That there is place in which all is good, in which every tear has been wiped away, in which nothing that hurts or breaks or destroys is present.
The present day hope of the heavenly city, not as a physical location, but as a spiritual reality. The city by whose light we walk, and from which flows all that is needed for the healing and sustaining of the nations. All that is needed for us to fulfil the great mission to which we are called is already present.
And at the same time, the hope that as we continue to live and struggle in this world that is such a mixture of beauty and ugliness, friendship and enmity, reconciliation and conflict, that all the good we create, all the acts of love and generosity we perform, all the healing and creativity and fellowship; that all these things are being gathered – the glory and honour of all the people being brought into the city. Into the presence of God. Into the safety and security of eternity.
What we need now, God has already worked.
And we do now, God will keep safe.
Hope for eternity.