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. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. ~ Rev. 21:1-6
I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard for you to do. I ask you to try, for a little while, to forget everything you have ever learned about the Book of Revelation. Images of Armageddon, or Sunday School pictures of the anti-Christ… planes, trains and automobiles left suddenly driver-less… a certain publishing juggernaut, those books with the lurid flame-colored covers that claim to tell us exactly what it all means, what we can all expect. I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard: forget all that. Put it away, put it aside, and, just for a little while, entertain this possibility: the Book of Revelation is a document that describes the attempts of a community to deal with unspeakable loss.
The community that first heard John’s Revelation was living in a world that probably felt apocalyptic for them… remember the hours after 9/11, or, for those of you whose memories are longer, the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor? Remember that feeling of suddenly living in a different, frightening world, a world that caused you to ask all sorts of questions you’d never faced before. What do we do now? My family, my community, those I love… are we safe? Will my son or daughter or spouse be shipped off to war? For the early Christian community, which we must remember was also, largely, a Jewish community, there was at least a twofold trauma: first, Roman armies had destroyed both the Temple and Jerusalem in August of the year 70 CE. And second, in the aftermath of that destruction, Romans especially singled out followers of Jesus for persecution.
This was a time of tremendous loss. The loss of the Temple was a kind of death. It was the symbolic destruction of more than 500 years of sacred ritual and prayer. It was the death of a way of life, the way of the Jewish priesthood offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. It was the loss of a place that had been central to Jesus and the culmination and goal of his ministry.
And the losses continued, extended into each home, each life. Parents, children, spouses, friends… everyone was touched by death. Everyone was touched by loss. Entire communities were struggling daily with the question of how to face yet another day of persecution, yet another day of uncertainty, yet another day of loss. The early followers of Jesus were suddenly living in a different, frightening world, a world that caused them to ask all sorts of questions they’d never faced before. What do we do now? My family, my community, those I love… are we safe? Will someone I love be snatched up and shipped off to war?
We don’t have to be touched by apocalyptic events to have our own experiences of deep loss. Someone played me a song this week. In a week when my mother has been much on my mind, and on my dad’s mind, it struck a chord. It’s called "Ghost In This House."
I don't pick up the mail
I don't pick up the phone
I don't answer the door
I'd just as soon be alone
I don't keep this place up
I just keep the lights down
I don't live in these rooms
I just rattle around
I'm just a ghost in this house
I'm just a shadow upon these walls
As quietly as a mouse I haunt these halls…
I don't care if it rains
I don't care if it's clear
I don't mind staying in
There's another ghost here
He sits down in your chair
And he shines with your light
And he lays down his head
On your pillow at night
I'm just a ghost in this house…[i]
To me, that song describes so powerfully what it can feel like when someone we have loved is missing from our presence. It can be so difficult and so painful to go on in the face of that kind of loss. But it can be good to recognize that loss is in a sense a part of the DNA of our faith. It was there from the beginning. Think of Jesus’ original friends and followers, watching with horror as his life ebbed away—despite his warnings to them that his death was coming, that it was inevitable. And even after the resurrection, he disappeared again from their sight. Their losses piled up, and they yearned for consolation, and some kind of promise of reconciliation and restoration. They longed for hope.
The Revelation to John is filled with images of hope. The more war-like images have captured our attention (and that of the people who are cashing in on one rather strange interpretation of this book), but to focus on them is to lose sight of the big picture. The entire book can be seen as a glorious worship service, a service enacting the whole of salvation history—the movements from creation, through loss, and on into ultimate redemption. In the face of their own losses, enormous, unbearable, unspeakable losses, the early followers of Jesus cast all their hopes on this glorious promise of heavenly worship in which, as one writer has cautioned, “A few are charged to do judgment; [but] everyone without exception is charged to show mercy.”[ii]
When we are feeling like our losses render us mere ghosts in our own houses, Revelation invites us to a great worship service where we too may hope to get a glimpse of the big picture. When we are oppressed by a sense that our losses are too much for us, Revelation beckons us to that place where we can find that we are already part of a new heaven and a new earth. But even in view of this promise, we are still called to remember. Built into the very DNA of our faith is a command to remember… it’s been there from the beginning. When we gather around the table to break the bread and to take the cup, we are gently reminded that even painful memories, even our most devastating losses, can be gathered together and made holy in community. They are made holy because, as Revelation reminds us, the home of God is among mortals. That is what our communion is about: we do this in remembrance of the One who suffered… who we lost… but who was raised again, and who lit for us the path to new life, life even after loss, life even after death.
I ask you this morning to do something that might be hard for you to do. I ask you try, for a little while, to gather up your memories… the memories of those you have lost, in whatever way you lost them, and I ask you to commend them into the hands of God, who has made a home with us, and in us. I ask you to join me in commending them into the care of the one who has promised to dwell with us as our God, so that we might be God’s people. I ask you to trust with me in the one who will wipe every tear from our eyes, promising that, in the long run, in the big picture, death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for God is making all things new. Thanks be to God. Amen.