5th Sunday of Easter (C)
April 24, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle, which was read a few minutes ago.
Earlier in the year, one of my confirmation students asked me if animals went to heaven. Without thinking about how it might come across, I said “no”. Little did I realize, although I should have, that my answer really bothered her. Now I couldn’t lie to her, that’s not right. The Bible doesn’t give any indication that animals are in heaven. Animals don’t have souls, they’re not the pinnacle of God’s creation, and they weren’t created in God’s image. When it comes to a relationship with God, animals and humans are completely different. What I should’ve done though is elaborated on my answer a little bit because it’s not just Heaven that Christians look forward to. Instead, what we see as we peek in on St. John’s revelation, is that what awaits us, what we look forward to most of all, is the day that God creates for us the New Heaven and the New Earth.
The Book of Revelation is a confusing book that is easily misunderstood with its images of jewels, lambs, crowns, and dragons. Many church bodies read Revelation as a guidebook for what will happen in the future. They see it as a step by step outline of the time leading up to the day Jesus returns. That interpretation though isn’t accurate; rather Revelation is a mixture of past, present, and future visions.
When John wrote the book of Revelation in 95 AD, his primary audience were Christians who were being severely tested because of the faith. The Emperor Domitian had ordered everyone to worship him as a god and those who wouldn’t suffered imprisonment, torture, and death. Christians can’t worship anyone other than Christ and so the bore the brunt of Roman vengeance. I’m sure the Christians had a lot of questions, why was this happening, why them. So John explains why they have to suffer; the Devil couldn’t destroy Christ and he can’t destroy the Church, so he comes after Christ’s children.
Part of what John also witnesses is the chaos, pain and troubles of this life. He sees the pollution and corruption of the world. Instead of the waters nourishing the people, they are bringing death; think Flint Michigan with its lead filled water or Rio de Janeiro with water that literally reeks from pollution. Instead of caring for their people, governments exploit their people for their own gain. Instead of teaching children and young adults, schools and universities are trying to indoctrinate them with anti-Christian beliefs and attitudes.
As John’s vision takes him into the future, he doesn’t, at least initially, see it get any better. Satan will exercise greater power in the time to come, the anti-Christ will attempt to usurp Christ’s power and lead Christians astray. The moral fabric of society will be frayed to the point that it all but disappears. And the suffering of those who received John’s letter will be matched by the suffering that Christians will undergo in later centuries. It isn’t going to get any better, at least that what it sounds like.
But then we get to the last chapters of Revelation and we see that John’s vision has changed greatly since chapter one. John as seen a lot of evil, but as his revelation develops he’s also seen Christ’s victory over all evil. He has seen the Devil thrown into the sea of fire. He has seen Death destroyed as well. So now he gets to see the Church, resplendent in all its glory. He writes, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The holy city is the Church, and Jesus has preserved the faithful in Heaven as they waited for what came next. They have the perfect relationship with God. They’re no longer affected by Sin or Death or Evil instead they’re experiencing incredible bliss in Heaven.
What John sees in this chapter though is something we usually don’t think about, that there is something even greater than Heaven. With Christ’s triumphal return and judgment, with Satan cast into Hell, John writes that the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. Now, it isn’t clear from the Bible why Heaven has to be replaced, that’s just something we don’t need to understand yet. What we do hear plenty about is the New Earth. Everything is gone because the world is full of sin; not just people but all of creation. In Romans Paul says that creation waits with an eager longing for the day that Jesus returns. All of creation needs to be fixed so God who created the first world now creates a second one. He promises that there will be another world where we will fully experience the joy of eternal life.
Heaven is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it is only a fraction of what we’ll experience. God created us to have bodies and souls, so on the new earth, we’ll be resurrected and our bodies and souls will unite. We’ll live the way God originally intended – we’ll be sinless in body and soul. The Resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate every Sunday is the beginning of this new creation. Just as Christ has overcome death in His resurrection, so also we shall overcome death. He has overcome Sin and it’ll never bother us again. He’s done it all. His victorious cry, “It is finished” means that He has conquered all, and nothing will ever again hold power over His people.
We look to the New Heavens and the New Earth where there’ll be no sin, no sorrow, no pain, no anger, no bitterness. Chaos and suffering will be destroyed, and we will drink from the waters of life. God says it beautifully, He promises us, “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” We are His heirs and we will receive the inheritance of eternal life with Him and it will be greater than we can possibly imagine.
In the verse right after our reading, God says, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” The New Earth will have no place for those who seek to kill and destroy. Those who live for today, those who have rejected God will be lost. To base our values and choices of this world on what we see and want is foolish because today is short-lived. Instead we are called to focus on that which is to come, that which God has promised.
And one of the greatest promises is that on the new earth God will dwell with us. He has always been with us, but in different ways. In Old Testament times, He lived in the Tabernacle and the Temple. In the time of Jesus, He lived with us in Jesus. But when Christ ascended we were left alone. We don’t get to see Him so we live by faith, we believe in that which we cannot see. But when God recreates the New Earth, nothing will stand between us and Him. We’ll see His beautiful face. We’ll see Him as the almighty and powerful God. We’ll see Christ as the victor over all things and we’ll praise Him for all time. Everything will be new, and everything will be absolutely perfect.
We have all been touched by death, we’ve all sinned, and we all feel the consequences of our sins – the tears we shed, and the aches and pains that we feel in our bodies. But God says that when He once again speaks creating words, everything bad will not just be absent, it will be destroyed. There will be no place for tears, pain, or sorrow on the New Earth. We will have our bodies back and they’ll be perfect, we will lack nothing at all. Does this mean that even animals will be there? Maybe. In Isaiah God says, “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” If animals bring us joy, and the New Earth is all eternal joy, then they very well may be there. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
But until that day listen to what John describes and look to the day when God makes all things new. Let these promises give you comfort and peace. Let them assure you that regardless of what evil and Sin you see in this world, it’s all going to go away. You don’t get to see the New Heavens and the New Earth yet, but know that you’ll be there. This is what we look forward to; an eternity with God the way it was always supposed to be, and the way it will be all because of our Lord Christ Jesus.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.