The Temperature of Hell
Sermon preached at Enmore, 5th Sunday of Easter, 24th April 2016
Reading: Revelation 21. 1–6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.”
Revelation is all about visions. It begins with the words, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” Being a book of visions and images it is not always easy to understand. The Book of Revelation is undoubtedly the most difficult text in the New Testament and a book that has been fertile soil for the growth of all kinds of strange interpretations and predictions for the future. In our own day it has spawned the very popular ‘Left Behind’ novels with their frightening descriptions of life on earth after God’s elect are beamed upwards into heaven leaving the hapless inhabitants at the mercy of the anti-Christ. Alarmed by such bizarre and unhelpful theologies many Christians past and present have simply avoided Revelation as being both difficult and dangerous and hence better left alone. John Calvin wrote commentaries on all the books of the New Testament but gave up on Revelation. But to take Calvin’s option is a pity because despite its strangeness this book contains passages of great beauty like the one we have read this morning and also, in my view, it does have a message very relevant to Christians living today. Looking at the text before us I want to consider the questions: “What does it tell us about heaven and does it matter what we believe about it?” But first let me give some brief background to the book.
Most scholars believe that Revelation was written towards the end of the first century, around 90–95A.D. It is a pastoral letter to Christians in Asia who are confronted with a critical religious and political situation. Much of the imagery used in the book is taken from the Apocalyptic books of the Old Testament like Ezekiel and Daniel and these images would have been familiar to many of the hearers. The author, John, writes to encourage Christians at a time of change and upheaval in the Roman world. The empire was troubled by war and rebellion like the one in Judea that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Even the earth seemed unstable: there were earthquakes that devastated parts of Asia in the sixties and in 79 Vesuvius erupted burying Pompei and neighbouring towns and creating a pall of darkness that sent fear throughout the empire.
Christians were also coming under increasing suspicion from many of their neighbours and also from the political authorities. They refused to worship idols, many of their members were from lower classes in society and they followed a leader who had been publicly executed as an enemy of the state. Furthermore as Christianity grew it became more and more a Gentile religion and was disowned by the Jewish community. At times this general suspicion developed into outright hostility and persecution — Christians were easy scapegoats as Nero had found during his reign. The reign of Domitian brought a new crisis because he developed the idea of the divine Emperor, insisting on divine honours and making everyone who addressed him in speech or writing begin with the words “Lord & God.” To refuse to acknowledge the Emperor’s divinity was to risk imprisonment, exile or even death.
This is the context in which John writes and he does so with the intention of helping Christians to make sense of what is happening around them and to understand that God has a plan for his world which will not be thwarted by human machinations. John also writes to give fresh interpretations of the Easter event and the reign of Christ in the light of current circumstances. He writes to affirm that despite the apparent chaos and confusion of our world, God remains faithful and the future is in his hands. The passage read today comes at the end of the Book and in poetic language describes what that future will look like. Given the symbolic nature of the writing one must take heed of Reinhold Niebur’s statement that “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” Marcus Borg described Revelation as a book “to be taken seriously but not literally.” Nevertheless the symbols can give us important clues that point us in the right direction.
John’s final vision is of heaven.
In the popular imagination, heaven is the perfect place, somewhere up there in the sky where we hope to go when we die and earth is the second rate, slightly tawdry place where we currently live. We got that view from Plato not from the Bible. John’s vision is of a fresh beginning with a new heaven and a new earth, joined together completely and forever. “The heavens and the earth” means simply everything in the whole creation from the bottom of the deepest ocean to the most distant star in the solar system. Some commentators have taken this to mean that the old heaven and the old earth will be disappear or be discarded but this is not how the vision unfolds. The vision is of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem coming down to earth and renewing it. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don’t like but by the renewal and transformation of the place where God has placed us. John’s vision fulfils the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer – in the union of heaven and earth, God’s name is hallowed, his kingdom come and his will is done ‘in earth as it is in heaven.’
But in some ways the vision is not what we expect. The Bible began with a garden, a place of verdant abundance. We expect the end will be a return to Eden, a place of peace and serenity but instead we find a city. Cities are noisy, crowded, messy places and Jerusalem was the city that Jesus wept over, the city that rejected him and crucified him. How can this be a model for heaven? But God can transform even that rebellious city into something beautiful. John writes, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” It’s a powerful image. Three weeks ago Rosemary and I witnessed our son’s wedding. Andrew and Carly were married in St. Philip’s Anglican Church in York Street — it’s a church with a very long aisle, so we could watch Carly coming down the aisle with her eyes focussed on Andrew and we could see Andrew who had eyes only for his wife. That’s the picture John gives to us — God choosing to come and dwell with us, his wayward, often rebellious children. God making all things fresh and new.
God is committed to his creation and we should be too. We are frequently being reminded of the fragility of our environment and the terrible damage we have done to it through our greed, and our carelessness. John’s vision helps us to imagine new possibilities for a world renewed, where there are no hungry children, no exploited workers, no domestic violence, no detention centres and where the city becomes a place where communities flourish and people care for each other. For us city dwellers, John’s heavenly vision opens our eyes to the beauty around us. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words: “Earth’s crammed with heaven/ And every common bush alive with God/ Only he who sees takes off his shoes/ the rest sit around and pick blackberries.” God calls on us to be involved in making God’s dream come true in his world.
We are still in the Easter season so we take note of the words of ‘the one on the throne’ in verse six of our passage: “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” In John’s narrative of the crucifixion Jesus cries out “I thirst.” John gives us the word in the present continuous tense, ‘I am thirsting.’ Jesus continues to thirst, in the one in nine people world-wide who do not have access to clean drinking water. He goes on thirsting in the one billion people who live on one dollar a day or less. On the cross Jesus proclaimed humanity’s need. Today’s reading tells us that all thirst, physical and spiritual- is slaked by the abundant grace of God with his everlasting spring of living water. We are commanded to attend to the world’s thirst. As Resurrection people we are drawn into God’s future and encouraged to work for it with all our being.
Your kingdom come, Lord, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen