Sunday, 24 November 2019

A tale of two cities: from New York to the new Jerusalem

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 24 November 2019

Revelation 21.1-10; 21.22-22:2

Isaiah 65.17-25; 66.22-23
It feels like a lifetime ago, and for some people it is,
            but, a bit like (I’m told) the assassination of Kennedy,
            those of us over a certain age will always remember where we were
            on the day of September 11th, 2001.

Surely the defining moment of the opening years of the twenty-first century
            was the terrible terrorist atrocity perpetrated in New York City,
when two aeroplanes were deliberately flown
            into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

The subsequent attacks on the Madrid train network on 11th March 2004,
            and the London public transport system on 7th July 2005,
whilst not on a comparable scale in terms of their death-toll,
            have nonetheless acquired similar symbolic importance.

The years 2014–16 saw more people killed by terrorist attacks in Europe
            than all previous years combined,
with Brussels, Paris, Nice,
            Toulouse, Istanbul, Manchester,
                        Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen,
            St Petersburg, Stockholm, and London twice more,
all featuring in the list of cities experiencing terrorism in recent years.

These events have raised many questions,
            and provoked responses that span the globe.

It is interesting to note that the seminal events of New York, Madrid and London
            and the other cities that have followed,
have dominated the international arena
            in a way that other deaths on a similar scale have not.

For example, most of us who travel on buses or the tube,
            have a residual fear stemming from the 2005 London attacks,
in a way that we don’t have a fear of crossing the road,
            and yet we are far more likely to be killed in a traffic accident
            than in an act of terrorism.

It seems that there is something symbolic
            about these attacks on internationally important cities
            that transcends the death-toll statistics,
                        however horrifying those statistics may be.

In the popular imagination, these cities
            have come to stand for more than the sum of their parts.

In terms of New York, the ‘Big Apple’ is, for millions of people, more than just a city:
            it is a dream, a symbol of happiness and prosperity;
                        it is the gateway to the promised land, to the New World.

Similarly, the World Trade Centre was more than an office block,
            it was a symbol of Western capitalist success.

Tragic though the deaths in New York in 2001 were,
            the attention that they attracted far exceeded that
                        attached to similar levels of death and suffering around the globe
                        that do not carry such symbolic power.

This symbolic function of cities,
            with their ability to represent more than the sum of their parts,
            is nothing new.

Since the earliest days of civilization,
            cities have represented the best and the worst of humanity.
They represent both humanity’s greatest achievements
            and also the scene of its greatest evils.

In the book of Revelation, John recognizes this
            and uses the image of two cities
            to represent the best and the worst of humanity.

To this end, he juxtaposes Babylon and Jerusalem.

Of course, the real city of Babylon
            had been long destroyed by the time Revelation was written:
the great and beautiful city of ancient times
            with its hanging gardens and its impressive architecture stood no more.

No longer was it a place of cruelty and evil,
            where captives were killed for the pleasure of the citizens
with countless hordes watching in fascination
            as innocent people were murdered in front of their eyes.

But Babylon as an image still lived on in the Jewish imagination.

It had come to represent all that was evil and corrupt;
            to stand for those aspects of human society
            that were opposed to God’s ideal for humanity.

In Revelation, John uses this image of Babylon
            to signify the satanic tendency of humanity
to construct idolatrous empires
            that challenge the lordship of the one on the throne in heaven.

He uses it as a powerful reminder
            that no matter how great and beautiful human achievements may be,
                        no matter how powerful and impressive the cities that are constructed,
            evil still remains a part of the human experience,
                        raining death and destruction on innocent people
            through the imperial pretentions
                        of those who deny the kingdom of heaven.

In recent years it has been the claim to establish an Islamic state
            that has grabbed the death-dealing headlines,
but in years gone past the imposition of Christian states
            has been every bit as bloody and coercive.

The image of Babylon in the book of Revelation
            is there to tell its audience
            that there is nowhere where they are completely safe from the threat of evil.

Even in the great cities,
            places that inspire feelings of safety and security,
            people find no true protection from death and suffering.

John’s deconstruction of the mythology of the imperial city,
            through his identification of Rome as Babylon,
demonstrates that no matter how hard humans may try
            to construct heaven on the earth,
ultimately all that is achieved is idolatry and suffering.

It is against this bleak vision of humanity
            that John gives his audience another picture,
                        another image, another city,
            in his description of the new Jerusalem.

Traditionally Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel,
            was regarded as the city of God,
            the place where the Jews had their focus of worship in the temple.

In Jewish understanding,
            Jerusalem represented a city of hope, a city of peace,
            and was the place where God lived among his people.

Jerusalem, too, was a city that had come
            to stand for more than the sum of its parts.

In reality it was simply the capital city of Israel,
            beset by fighting and difficulty just like any other human community.

But in the popular mindset, in people’s imaginations,
            Jerusalem had come to stand for a lot more than this.

It became a symbol of hope
            that one day God would right the world’s wrongs,
and that it would itself become a place
            where people would live at peace with their God.

John picks up on this image
            and tells his audience of what he calls the new Jerusalem,
which he depicts as the heavenly alternative
            to the city of Babylon.

He holds before his first-century Roman audience an alternative reality;
            a vision of a city that subverts everything Babylon stands for.

To people facing despair at the evil of the world in which they live,
            to those who fear they are trapped in Babylon
                        and will never find their way out,
            to those who look at the world and weep
                        with anger and frustration and pain
                        at the evil that seems so unavoidable,
the vision of the new Jerusalem presents a hope
            that the world will not always be like this.

For those in John’s churches,
            struggling against the might of Babylon expressed as the Roman Empire,
John’s picture of the people of God as the new Jerusalem
            provides an alternative vision of humanity,
            where God is in his rightful place among his people.

In this way, the vision of the new Jerusalem
            gives the heavenly perspective on the lived earthly reality:
            it is God’s alternative city.

Revelation presents the tantalizing vision of a world transformed,
            a world with different priorities.
It encourages its audience to persevere and overcome
            when confronted with the true nature of Babylon.

And John invites his readers to see themselves as citizens of the new Jerusalem,
            as citizens of the dawning kingdom of God.

He invites them to become participants with Christ
            in bringing this new city into being.

Those in John’s churches, in this way, become the seeds of good news
            planted among the ashes of destruction,
freedom fighters of peace
            in a world of fighting and unrest.

To those who look at the world and see Babylon all around,
            John presents the option of saying
            that in Christ, this is not the way it should be.

And he offers these two stark alternative realities,
            inviting his audience to make a choice
            as to which city they will inhabit.

They can either keep their citizenship
            in the attractive, cosmopolitan,
                        seductive, exciting,
            frightening, and ultimately satanic city of Babylon,
or they can align themselves with the small and subversive,
            with the hidden and the dangerous,
            and start living as citizens of the new Jerusalem.

But the choice to move citizenship from Babylon to the new Jerusalem
            does not come without its cost.
John’s first century audience
            faced both economic hardship
                        and the possibility of persecution and even martyrdom
            for taking their stand against the might of the satanic empire.

Martin Luther King, Jr. took this idea of a battle against an empire
            fought without bombs, guns and terrorism,
and he applied it to the civil rights struggle
            of the mid twentieth century.

To those who were seeking to use violence against him, he said:

[T]hrow us in jail and we will still love you.
            Threaten our children and bomb our homes and our churches
                        and as difficult as it is, we will still love you.
            Send your hooded perpetrators of violence
                        into our communities at the midnight hours
            and drag us out on some wayside road
                        and beat us and leave us half-dead,
            and as difficult as that is, we will still love you.

            But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer
                        and one day we will win our freedom.
            We will not only win freedom for ourselves,
                        we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience
            that we will win you in the process
                        and our victory will be a double victory.[i]

Those who have sought, in any age,
            to establish their version of the kingdom of heaven on the earth
                        by the use of force
            have inevitably ended up re-inventing Babylon
                        in their own day and age.

This is John’s great insight into the human tendency to construct empire.

Even those kingdoms which begin with the best of intentions
            end up as idolatrous alternatives to the one on the throne in heaven,
                        and are therefore fundamentally satanic.

The battle against such destructive idolatry can, according to John,
            only be won by those
                        who choose to place their citizenship with the new Jerusalem,
            and who work for its establishment on the earth.

As we’ve seen in a recent sermon,
            Jesus compared the coming Kingdom to yeast;
                        small, invisible, hard to understand,
            and yet that which ultimately transforms
                        the entire batch into bread (Matt. 13.33; Luke 13.20–1).

This call of Jesus finds resonances in the theology of John,
            who encourages his audience to become those
            who participate in the coming of the kingdom of God to the earth.

The new Jerusalem is described by John
            as descending from heaven to the earth (21.2, 10).

As we saw in an earlier sermon on Revelation,
            John has structured the book rhetorically
                        to draw his first-century audience
                        from the earth into his vision of heaven.

And here in Chapter 21 he returns them back to the earth again,
            as the heavenly manifestation of the Church descends to the earth.

However, the way John describes this descent is interesting:
            following their journey with him through the heavenly realm,
                        when they finally get back to the earth,
            John’s audience find that everything is different.

At the time of their initial ascent with John
            through the door opened in heaven (4.1),
they were simply those attending the seven congregations of Asia Minor,
            living under the dominion of Rome,
            struggling in their faith and their worship.

By the time they are returned to the earth at the end of the vision,
            they are seen to be the new Jerusalem,
            the eternal glorious Church.

Their witnessing of the vision of the destruction of the satanic empire,
            and the salvation of the nations of the earth which followed it,
has changed everything.

John’s vision has its effect,
            transforming its hearers’ imaginations
            and the way in which they perceive and understand the world.

The first heaven and the first earth have passed away,
            and John has taken his audience to a new understanding of creation
where God and people live in harmony with each other,
            where the hold of death is broken,
            and where suffering has passed.

As you may have noticed in our readings earlier,
            John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth
                        draws on a similar vision from Isaiah (Isa. 65.17; 66.22).

My friend Ian Boxall helpfully comments on this, saying:

[T]his is not to be understood in terms of destroying the old or the obsolete
            in order to replace it with something completely different
            (neither Isaiah nor John use the language of destruction).
Rather, John sees a profound renewal of that which is already there …[ii]

However, there remains a question
            as to whether this renewal occurs entirely in the future,
            or if there is also a present fulfilment of this vision of transformation.

There are many who would locate this vision in the distant future,
            as the goal towards which all of human history is heading.

However, against this it is important to recognize that,
            as with all of Revelation’s imagery,
John’s vision of the new heaven and earth
            evokes not simply a future
            but also a present realization.

The one seated on the throne
            declares in the present tense: ‘see, I am making all things new’ 21.5.

Tom Wright suggests that the New Testament language
            of heaven and earth coming to an end, followed by re-creation,
            functions as a metaphor for socio-political renewal:

He says,

[T]here is virtually no evidence
            that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe.
There is abundant evidence that they, like Jeremiah and others before them,
            knew a good metaphor when they saw one,
and used cosmic imagery
            to bring out the full theological significance
            of cataclysmic social events.[iii]

John’s audience are thus invited to realize
            that the existing world-order already has been destroyed
                        (cf. 16.17, ‘it is done’),
            that Babylon is fallen (cf. 14.8; 18.2),
                        and that all things are being made new (cf. 21.5).

And they come to this realization when the earth is seen from heaven’s perspective,
            and suddenly everything is different.

The future hope is therefore seen to be breaking into the present
            through the faithful witnessing of the faithful
            to the alternative heavenly reality of which they are a part.

In this way, the act of re-creation within John’s scheme
            is presented as an ongoing active present-day activity,
                        happening on the earth through the action of the army of the Lamb,
            as creation moves towards its ultimate destination.

In this way the Church becomes the fulfilment
            of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him.[iv]

The spiritual heirs of Abraham, the faithful people of God,
            sing the ‘new song’, that only they can learn,
                        of the victory won by Christ on the cross (14.3; cf. 5.8–10),
            and so proclaim the good news to all nations
                        that Babylon is fallen
                        and the way to the new Jerusalem is open.

Through all this, the challenge that Revelation presents to its audience
            is for them take up their citizenship in the new Jerusalem,
and become those who witness faithfully
            to the dawning heavenly kingdom.

By John’s understanding,
            everything depends on the faithful saints
                        persevering with endurance through tribulation,
            as they demonstrate through their lives
                        the testimony to the Lamb that was slain.

It is only as the Church fulfils this calling,
            exercised through suffering and possible martyrdom,
            that the first fruits become the great harvest.

This is John’s bitter-sweet message,
            and it lies at the heart of his great visionary apocalypse.

So, to conclude our series on Revelation, a question
            which city do you belong to, Babylon or New Jerusalem?
Who has your allegiance, Babylon or New Jerusalem?
            And, if it is New Jerusalem,
                        what does it mean to live as one whose citizenship
                        is no longer with any earthly kingdom?
What difference will being a citizen of new Jerusalem make
            to how you vote, how you pray,
                        how you spend your money, how you relate to others,
                        what you do with your time?

Because New Jerusalem only becomes a reality
            when we live it into being,
            one day, one choice at a time.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to Western Michigan University on December 18th 1963. Accessed 7.11.07.
[ii] Boxall, Revelation, p. 293.
[iii] N. T. Wright, 1992, The New Testament and the People of God: SPCK, p. 333.
[iv] cf. Gen. 18.18; 22.18; 26.4.