Every story has a beginning and an ending. The Bible's story is no different. God's story begins in Genesis with a Creator who molds us from clay, blows the creative breath into our newly formed bodies and calls us good. After generations of struggle and delight with the "good ones" God creates, God decides to take human form in a man named Jesus. As Jesus, God recreates the miraculous, real presence of faith, hope, light, and love. He dies on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem to show the world and each of us how a love can be so high and so broad and so deep that not even this death can stop God from loving us!
As amazing as this story is, God's story does not end on the cross. After God raises Jesus from the tomb of death, God's story continues in the "body" created by Jesus out of the stuff of his miraculous, real presence. That body is called "The Church." Through more generations of persecution, peril, and sword, the so-called "body of Christ," struggles in Jerusalem, in Rome, and throughout Rome's empire to become a living witness of Jesus' love.
It is not until the Revelation of John that God's written story finds an ending. This end story comes to the heart and mind of John. He is a prophet and a prisoner (in the darkest times the two often come together). Because John has refused to bow down and worship Rome and call Caesar Domitian "Lord," the Romans have banished John from Ephesus and have imprisoned him on an island named Patmos. His brothers and sisters in Christ who he was forced to leave in Asia Minor are in great danger. If they refuse to bow down to the empire, they too risk persecution, imprisonment and death.
"Isolated in his exile, John is consumed with terrifying questions. Why is Domitian so powerful? Why does God allow the forces of evil to be so strong? Why does God let evil persons prosper and good persons be persecuted? Who is in control after all? Who will win the battle in the end? What will happen to the churches (to the body of Christ)?" (H. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, 1998, p. 305).
In the midst of all this questioning, God gives John a story. It comes from visions brought by angels. It is a wild, fantastic story with terrifying animals, flying creatures, destructive plagues, mysterious persons, glimpses of heaven and hell, the darkest of all darkness and the greatest light of eternity ever seen and written down by a human. It is a story with an evil marked Beast and a glorious and beautiful Lamb who bears a sword to destroy the Beast. It is a story of the final battle between good and evil. In the end, it is a story which ends on the city streets of the new Jerusalem - which has come down from the clouds of heaven - alive with rivers and trees, endless days whose light is cast from no sun but from the light of the Lamb of God who sits upon the throne.
At the end of this story, the Lamb of God speaks and says, "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end ( 22:12-13) . . . It is I, Jesus who sent my angel to you with this testimony to the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star . . . ( 22:16) . . . Surely, I am coming soon. ( 22:20)."
God's story ends with these words, "the grace of the Lord, Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen." Nevertheless, you cannot help feel this story has not ended. You feel the Amen marks a new beginning. Throughout the last chapter of God's story, you feel like John is offering a two-tier story of revelation. On the first level, it is a survival document for a persecuted church. It is God's message of hope to the downtrodden. It is a secret document written in codes - an animal code, a number code, and a color code. It is an underground document written to reveal the meaning of history to the afflicted while concealing the same history from the persecutors. Like the Book of Daniel, Revelation is an apocalyptic glimpse into the dark and terrible times of God's final victory. Because of this, there is an apocalyptic temptation in every generation to translate and appropriate Revelation to tell the end of our time, through our interpretation of our historical circumstances.
I must admit, as I look upon Babylon (now Iraq) today, I feel like am looking into the heart of darkness - a darkness into which our nation's leaders, troops, and public have been drawn and held. As I look upon flag-draped caskets which our government doesn't want us to see and view the pornographic torture and abuse of prisoners by our soldiers and now the beheading of an innocent civilian by their terrorists - in a war that seems to call for a bottomless budget in the billions of dollars, while we struggle at home to find hundreds of thousands for health care, education, housing and jobs, I have to wonder if the end of time is slapping us in the face. I have to wonder if we have lost our way in the malaise of the insanity of war. Certainly, we are in search of a Savior to deliver us from the madness and lostness of this time. I pray Lord God Almighty, save us from ourselves and help us to find our way out of this web that seems to have no weaver.
Beyond the level of secret codes and apocalyptic, predictive temptations, this last chapter in God's story functions on a second, and much deeper level. "This book reaches to a region deeper than our conscience reality. It reaches to a level of archetypes and symbols where God still walks with us in the cool of the day. In the mysterious unfolding of images and characters is the message that the forces of good will not be defeated, that God will win the final victory, and that there will be a healing of all things." (Ibid, p. 307). To use J.R.R. Tolkien's phrase, this story is a "Eucatastrophe" or "the good catastrophe." It is the sudden joyous turn and the sudden miraculous grace." In his words, "revelation denies (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of this world . . . " (Quoted in F. Beuchner's Telling the Truth, p. 81).
The good news in John's Revelation is that heaven comes to earth. God's reign comes down from heaven as a beautiful city. Revelation 21, in the eyes of this artistic-theologian visualizes the words of the Lord's prayer - "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The NEW Jerusalem is not simply a place we go when we die. It is also a worldwide political and economic arrangement that God is bringing into reality for those who follow the Lamb rather than the Beast. John portrays the City of Roman captivity becoming the city of God. There in the heart of the New Jerusalem is the River of Life flowing, the Light of God glowing, the Tree of Life blooming, and Leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. There is no longer a Temple - because the Temple of God is within each human heart. There is no more sun and no more night because God is the light that will reign forever and ever.
How deeply I long for this image in our city today. How deeply I long for the coming of the kingdom of God. The River of Life. The Light of God. The Tree of Life. The Leaves for the Healing of the Nations (plural - not singular) - ALL the nations of the earth.
I find myself tired of people fighting for crumbs from the rich man's table. I am tired of people arguing over who is better and who is right. I am tired of a political climate of mistrust and turf protection. I am tired of unkind words spit out with hurt as the intended result. And I can only imagine, if I feel this way and (my guess is) many of you feel this way, can you imagine how God feels? At the beginning of God's story, God created us in His own image. God created us to be better than all this senseless bickering and arguing and picking and poking. When our God bent down and molded us from clay, and blew the creative breath into our newly formed bodies and called us good, God meant what He said and did! We were good. We are good! We are still created in the divine image. And we have been placed by God in this city, in this time to be God's good news in this story beyond the Book.
I hope and I pray, that you and I will be a part of God's creative and prophetic imagination in the heart of this city. In the new Jerusalem, the city has no sun because the Light, Life, and Hope of God creates brilliant beams of grace for all time. Each day we are called to make a choice to stand in the light of God and thus become part of the brilliant beams of grace for this generation and generations to come or we can choose not to. It makes a historical difference and real eternal difference how each of us choose to reflect the light of God to others. So do it. Do it daily. Do it with Joy beyond the walls of the world (to quote Tolkien). Christ's love made manifest through suffering will prevail in the eloquence and beauty of his redemptive grace.
Despite time and place, God seeks a prevailing victory over the darkness of this world. God seeks a victory that is true and good and beautiful. Not only does God seek this victory, but comes to the city to do it. The city - which at the beginning of God's story is the place established by the murderous Cain and cast with a mark of evil by the end becomes the holiest place of all. From the breath of God at the beginning of God's story to grace of God in the final words, this story is God's story. It is wrapped in love and sealed with the kiss of the Risen Christ.
So, what is good and beautiful and true? God is. God has created you to be as well. Go and be the one God has creatively breathed into you to be. Go into the city with no sun and shine as God's good news. Amen.