St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 19, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
St. John’s heavenly vision continues in the lesson we heard from Revelation. Same as last week, it seems to be focused on unrealistic, heavenly things far, far away from our existence.
John saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away. He is describing his vision using imagery that he and every other good Jew knew all too well as found in the latter part of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah quotes the Lord God, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Isaiah wrote these words to the Hebrew people after they’d spent nearly 70 years in exile – in slavery – in Babylon. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple along with it in 587 BC, their entire worldview was utterly and completely turned upside down. The Temple was literally the center of the universe for the Hebrew people. It was their central bank, a sort of flea market if you will, but most importantly, they believed that Yahweh, their god, actually resided there. Within the Temple, the Holy of Holies was where God physically dwelt amongst them. Along with Jerusalem and the Temple, the Babylonian captivity ended the monarchy in Israel despite the fact that God had promised that the Davidic line would be established and maintained forever.
It isn’t really possible for us as 21st century Americans to even begin to fathom how devastating the sack of Jerusalem was to the Hebrews. 9/11 doesn’t even come close. And to top it off, the Hebrews were then ripped from their homes and hauled off into exile. In 538 BC, Persia overtook Babylon and the Hebrews were allowed to begin to come home. But they came home to a Jerusalem in shambles. Their world was upside down and there was no hope for the future.
For the Hebrews, the Temple was the center of creation, and God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth was nothing other than a promise of an entirely new creation. In John’s vision of this new creation, he says, “the sea was no more.” This sea refers to the primordial chaos of creation in the book of Genesis, out of which evil continually threatens to undo the goodness of God’s creation. This passage, from the end of the Bible, returns to the ancient images of the creation stories from Genesis. No more evil, no more chaos, no more shame, no more death.
Yes, like last week, the message is that there is hope in the midst of despair. The orderliness of creation that was turned to chaos by sin will finally be renewed and restored. But it won’t be restored exactly to what it was. It will look different. In Genesis, paradise is not in a city, but in a garden. When Cain kills his brother Abel, he’s banished to a city. The new heavens and the new earth aren’t symbolized by a garden, but rather by a holy city. And cities are full of people and culture and food and resources. And unlike most cities, this one includes a river and trees and ample water. This isn’t unrealistic, heavenly imagery that is solely focused on things far, far away from our world. The new creation will be communal, filled with fellowship with other people, with plenty of resources to provide for our every need.
This blessed city, this heavenly Jerusalem, came down out of heaven from God. Then, John heard a loud voice proclaim that the “home of God is among mortals.” The word translated as home in Greek is the word “tabernacle,” and the word “dwell” is the verb form of the same word. “See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” For the original Hebrew audience, the word tabernacle brought to mind the stories not only of the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, but even further back, of the portable tent where God dwelt physically with the Israelites under Moses in the wilderness.
Quite simply, in this scene, heaven descends to earth. The new heaven and the new earth is the place where God is, and where humans are fully united with God. Unlike in our St. Peter-at-the-pearly gates cartoons and memes, heaven and earth are not separate, unrelated realities. John notes earlier in the book of Revelation that heaven and earth have an open door between them in the present age, and that events in heaven can determine the course of human events, and vice versa. Satan’s expulsion from heaven comes as a result of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (12:5,7), and the same fallen angels work their revenge on the saints of God. In the present age, then, there is a strong connection between the world above and the world below. Last week’s heavenly scene from chapter 7 of the great multitude from all peoples standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, worshipping God with the angels and the four living creatures – this scene reveals the strongest connection of all between heaven and earth: the liturgy of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
“See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”
This word tabernacle is the same word we use in the church today for that box above the altar in which we keep consecrated bread. The altar party, and many of you genuflect or bow before sitting down, or when you pass in front of the Tabernacle. Why do we do this? Because this box, this work of human hands, contains within it the very God who created all things and is renewing all things. In this box is found the One who humbled himself to share in our humanity in order that we might be re-united with God in this world and the next.
A little over a month ago, you and I and the whole world watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, risked his life to go into the burning cathedral to rescue the relic believed to be the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, but more importantly, to rescue the Blessed Sacrament – the consecrated bread in the tabernacle.
Since then, some have been surprised – maybe even shocked – that so many people showed such deep emotion for a building made by human hands when so many people are suffering in the world. And some have decried the amount of money already raised to rebuild it. And some, I’m sure, have thought that it’s ridiculous for a man to risk his life to save a piece of bread.
The Archbishop of Paris said these words in a sermon shortly after the fire:
"We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? Because they could have done something functional. It's far more than functional. And why? Because what is honored there is absolutely splendid, that's what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It's not for the Crown of Thorns, you know? It's for a piece of bread. It's astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy it."
John heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” Amen.
 Isaiah 65:17, NRSV.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 15336, quoting Ps. 74:13-14; Isa 27:1.
 Most of this paragraph comes from ibid 15331.