SERMON - Rev Brian Moodie
SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation Week 10 - A New Heaven, A New Earth, Eden Restored.
I have begun to wonder whether there may be more jokes about St Peter and the Pearly Gates than any other jokes:
There are certainly plenty of Cartoons Featuring St Peter and the Pearly gates.
One that I really enjoyed this past week was St Peter standing behind his podium with the book open. There before him on a puffy white cloud is a little dog looking up at him. And St Peter with an open smiling face says: Well, what a good dog you are!
There was also one for cat lovers. The caption at the bottom of the cartoon says: “How cats came to have 9 lives”.
In the cartoon itself, St Peter is standing next to the pearly gate, which he has half-opened. Sitting in front of the gate of heaven is a cat with St Peter saying: Make up your mind! Are you going in or not?
In the last 10 years or so, it seems that the Book of Life has now been exchanged for a computer. In one of the cartoons, a you boy is standing in front of St Peter and St Peter says to him, “Don’t worry, this is just a near-death experience, but while you’re here, would you help me with this computer?”
As we continue our exploration of the book of Revelation, it is interesting to note that the idea of the pearly gates comes from Revelation 21 where the New Jerusalem is described as having 12 gates and each of those gates is made of a single pearl.
Last week we explored Revelation 20 and the lake of burning sulphur or the lake of fire and brimstone. Examining the passage more closely, we explored the possibility that the lake of fire and brimstone is a symbol of spiritual purification rather than a symbol of eternal damnation and torture. One of the biggest clues is that the kings of the earth who waged war against Christ in Revelation 19 are are then seen bringing their splendour into the New Jerusalem in chapter 21:24. And this occurs after the lake of burning fire.
Having explored the Lake of Burning Sulphur last week, I would now like to explore Revelation 21 and the opening verses of chapter 22 which introduce us to 4 images: The New Heaven and the New Earth, the Wedding of the Bride and the Lamb, the New Jerusalem, and Eden Restored.
Last week I had said that a deep fear of Hell as a place of eternal divine punishment is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience. Today as we look at Revelation 21, it is perhaps worth noting that studies also suggest that belief in a supernatural heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness, and greater life satisfaction. In short, belief in some kind of heaven can actually have a positive influence on one’s life in this world.
And that brings us to Revelation 21 and the beginning of Revelation 22. These passages perhaps more than any other in the Bible have been the basis for much of Christian belief in heaven. But what is interesting about them, is that they don’t actually give a literal description of heaven at all. Rather this section of Revelation provides us with 4 major symbols that describe the end of evil and the consummation of history, so that history finds it’s fulfilment, it’s final resolution in union and communion with God.
The first image that we encounter is the image of the New Heaven and the New Earth. It is an image that John draws from the writings of Isaiah 65. For the Jews to whom the prophet was writing, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth was poetic language expressing the Jewish hope of how life would be transformed when God would finally restore the glory of Israel and the glory of Jerusalem following after their exile in Babylon and their return to a new and rebuilt Jerusalem. When this promise was never fulfilled as they had hoped it would be, the symbolism of a new heaven and a new earth remained a metaphor and a symbol expressing their ongoing hope that one day God would intervene and re-establish the glory of Israel.
By the time that Revelation was written, the new heaven and new earth had come to be associated not just with the restoration of Israel, but with the renewal of all things when Christ would come to bring all of history to it’s consummation.
The second image that we encounter is the image of the New Jerusalem. Again, this was a symbol and a promise that went back to the Babylonian invasion of Judea which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and led to the Jews spending around 70 years in exile in Babylon. It was in Babylon that the prophet Ezekiel began to plant seeds of hope into the hearts of these exiled Jews, painting a description of the restoration of Israel like dry dead bones being brought back to life. In a passage designed to inspire hope for the future and a return to a restored Jerusalem, Ezekiel writes of being given a measuring rod with which he is instructed to measure out the dimensions of a New Temple in the restored Jerusalem.
But the glory of the new temple was never actually restored. The dream of a renewed Jerusalem remained a deferred hope for the future. In Revelation, this image of hope for the future is utilised by John. In a similar scenario to Ezekiel, John is handed a measuring rod of gold with which he is to measure the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. What he measures is a perfect cube – it is meant to symbolize the holy of holies in the old temple in the earthly Jerusalem which contained the tabernacle of God’s presence. Now in the heavenly city of Revelation 21, the whole city has become the holy of holies in which the fullness of God’s Presence is manifest.
The third image we encounter is the image of the wedding of the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The bride is the New Jerusalem itself, and thus, the New Jerusalem is more than a city, but rather a symbol of the very people of God. The image and symbol of marriage is one that runs throughout the whole of the Bible. It is an image that is constantly used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. The Jews had come to believe in their epic history and sacred story that when God had rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them out to Mount Sinai where he had given them the 10 commandments, that this was a kind of a marriage ceremony where God pledged to be their husband, caring for them and protecting them. But time and again, prophets, like Hosea, wrote of how Israel had behaved like an unfaithful spouse. But the promise and hope remained that one day the remarriage and consummation between God and his people would take place.
For the earliest Christians, the hope of the return of Christ was looked forward to as wedding feast in which the final consummation of all things would be like a moment of communion and union between humanity and the divine. God would dwell with them. They would be his people, and he would be their God.
The fourth image that we encounter is the image of Eden Restored in the first 5 verses of chapter 22.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
This passage is a combination of imagery from Ezekiel 47 and Genesis chapter 2. The river of the water of life is described in Ezekiel as flowing from the midst of the temple that makes abundant life flourish where-ever it flows. It is as though this river restores the life and joy of the original Eden. In verse 3 we are told that there will no longer be any curse. And this takes us back to the mythical garden of Eden where after Adam and Eve in disobedience to God eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they bring a curse upon themselves and also upon the whole of God’s creation. But in Revelation 22, we see that the curse of Genesis is now turned around and removed. And in the renewed Eden, in place of the tree that brought a curse upon them, there is instead the tree of life that brings healing to the nations.
This is all symbolic language, and I believe it is meant to point to the intuition in the heart of every human being that there is a realm or a spiritual dimension to life where there is a true refuge and a solace from the struggles, pain and turmoil of this world of birth and death in which we live.
There are some who suggest that Revelation 21 and 22 is ultimately not about the end of historical time at all. Rather the symbolism in these chapters speak of a mystical or spiritual union with the Divine so that even in this world it is possible that we can be in touch with a spiritual dimension to life in which we are so in touch with the infinite peace of God that the pain and struggles of this temporary life taken on a whole different perspective. It is like being in a traffic jam. When you're in the midst of it one can feel desperate and frantic. But if you were in an airplane looking down on that same traffic jam, it would look and feel completely different.
Whether it be in this life or the next, what Revelation 21 and 22 reminds us is that we were made for a life of union or communion with the Divine. That is our final destiny. It is the true meaning, purpose and consummation of life. As the writer of Ecclesiastes so poetically puts it: God has placed eternity in our hearts. And if it is eternity, the world of the spirit, that is our truest destiny, our truest meaning, and our truest purpose, then our hearts will never truly be fulfilled with anything less than that.
May we remember that this world of impermanence, this world of birth and death will never fulfil our hearts truest and deepest desires. Only the infinite life of God’s Spirit can do that. May we remember that our truest and deepest purpose will never be fulfilled by any temporary glory that a city in this world can offer. Our truest and deepest purpose and satisfaction in life will only be fulfilled by that which is Eternal that dimension to life that is beyond time, beyond birth, beyond death and which is symbolised by the eternal city, the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21. This is a promise not just for a future world. Even in this world, we can begin to see with the eyes of the New Creation, the New Heaven and the New Earth right here in our midst.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
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SERMON TEXT: The Fire and Brimstone of God's Love?
What is the real meaning of Fire and Brimstone?
Looking back over my life, I have come to realise that much of my early life had been lived with an underlying fear of hell. It seems strange to hear myself even say this, because I did not grow up in a conservative evangelical church where sermons of fire and brimstone were preached. Quite the contrary, I grew up in a church and under a minister who consistently preached of the wide embracing love of God. One of his most memorable statements I heard as a teenager was the following:
“There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more than God loves you right now. And there is also nothing that you can do that will make God love you any less than God loves you right now!”
And if you hear me quoting time and again from Matthew 5 about God’s love that shines on good and bad alike, then it is almost certain that you are hearing the preaching of the Rev. Ray Light echoing down the years through my own preaching today.
And yet despite this, there was still a deep fear of hell and separation from God, the source of love.
This underlying fear of hell perhaps became most pronounced in my life when at the age of around 21 in the late 90’s I slipped into quite a deep depression. I was becoming aware of the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, and that I had grown up in a life of relative privilege and that in effect my privileged existence as a young white South African had largely been built on the foundations of systemic injustice and oppression. Not only that, but I had also recently read a book on ecology that highlighted the looming environmental crisis and which highlighted how our modern industrialised life-style was destroying the planet and God’s beautiful creation.
In short, what I had come to realise at the age of 21 was that sin is not just personal. There is a societal, communal and structural dimension to sin. And here it was that I began to discover that separating myself from sin was not as easy as I thought. There were ongoing sins of injustice that I was a part of that I had little to no control over and yet which I continued to benefit from.
And so it was that I found myself in a spiritual crisis that led me to fall into quite a deep and lasting depression and existential crisis. And it was perhaps only looking back on that experience a decade or so later that I realised that underlying that existential crisis, and underlying that depression was a fear of hell the fear of eternal alienation and rejection by God.
About 10 years ago, I read a book by a psychiatrist who was working with a young Christian woman who was dealing with debilitating mental health issues. Her life had become a living hell of anguish and anxiety. And at the core of the problem he discovered was a deep fear of hell and rejection by God that had made her inner world a living hell of anguish.
I have began to see that this fear of hell and fear of being rejected by God is perhaps far more wide-spread, that there are many others who live half unconscionably with this fear.
This week I saw on the internet a psychological study that suggests that a belief in hell as a super-natural place of eternal punishment, or alienation from God, does have the benefit of creating lower national crime rates, but it also comes with a dark shadow. Studies also suggest that a fear of hell is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience.
And all of this brings us to the lake of Fire and Brimstone or the lake of burning sulphur in Revelation 20. More than any other passage in the Bible, Revelation 20 has fed the popular imagination with the image and the deep fear of being hurled into a burning in hell for all eternity.
Today I would like to invite all of us to hopefully see this passage in a whole new light, because I believe that when you look more closely at the symbolism and imagery of this passage, you will see some very interesting things:
The first interesting thing we see is the description of burning sulphur. In older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible it was translated a brimstone. Brimstone is and old English short-hand for burning stone, and it referred to burning sulphur. What is interesting about burning sulphur is that in ancient times burning sulphur was believed to be able to ward of disease and contagion. And so sulphur would have been used for purifying purposes to purify something.
It raises the question, is the lake of burning sulphur, not a place or a symbol of eternal punishment at all, but rather a place or a symbol of purification?
Secondly, the Greek word theion that is translated as brimstone or burning sulphur is a fascinating one. Theion is closely related to the Greek for theios meaning divinity. And the Greek word theios in turn comes from the root word Theos meaning God. If one were to look at the more literal meaning of the word theion, it is a noun that would more literally mean ‘the substance or the stuff of God’.
The burning lake of fire is made up of God-stuff. And so when we read that the Devil and the beast and all those whose names are not written into the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, it could also be interpreted to mean symbolically, that they are thrown into the fire of God’s substance or the fire of God’s essence. And what is the essence of God? According to John’s epistle, God’s essence is ultimately love (1 John 4:4).
Is it possible that the lake of burning sulphur at the end of Revelation is not the fire of eternal punishment, but rather the purifying fire of God’s love? And the purpose of that purifying fire of God’s love is not to torture those who are thrown into it, but rather to burn away all that is not love within us.
Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is described with two words: grace and truth. It is a reminder that there is no grace or love without truth also. To be thrown into the fire of God’s purifying love is also an encounter with the searing truth of our sin, selfishness and darkness.
One of the most painful things many of us experience in this life, apart from the pain of grief, is the pain of truth, seeing ourselves as we really are. It is one of the most painful things to stand up and be honest and to apologise when we know we have done something wrong. We like to project the best version of ourselves to the world, and try to hide the darker parts even from ourselves.
Last week Wendy and I watched the last two episodes of the BBC drama series called Time, set in a prison in the north of England. Apart from the difficulties of prison life, what the TV series reveals is that perhaps the most painful and difficult thing that many prisoners experience is the pain of owning up to and admitting the truth of what they have done. For one of the prisoners in the series, it is so painful that he slides into the downward spiral of drug abuse to cover up the searing pain of the truth.
Is it possible that part of the searing pain of being thrown into the fire of God’s love is that it will ultimately require us to see the truth about ourselves and what we have done, because you cannot be purified and cleansed of those things that you cannot admit. Even the Greek word which is sometimes translated as torture and sometimes as torment in verse 10 comes from the root word to examine.
Being thrown into the fire of the substance of God’s love can be a painful experience, not because it is meant to torture and punish us, but because of how painful it is to see, acknowledge and admit our sin, in order that it might finally be burned away forever and ever.
Thirdly, isn’t is fascinating that death and hades are also thrown into the fire of burning brimstone.
For the apostle Paul, death was regarded as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). But for the Apostle Paul, death was more than a physical process; it is also a spiritual condition which included everything that separates us from union with God. “This is the second death” of Revelation 20:14. It is the death of death itself and thus the death of all that separates us from God. It is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth of Rev 21 - “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more.”
But along with death, hades is also thrown into the fire. Hades in ancient cosmology was the place of the dead but it was also a word used by Jews to refer to hell. What we see in Revelation is the “Death of death and hell’s destruction” as we sing in the popular hymn. It suggests that God’s intention is that no-one should be trapped in places of spiritual death and hell for eternity. All forms of death and hell are to be destroyed in the fire of God’s love. In the end, even the hell of our own guilt and shame and our own struggle to forgive ourselves will be burned away until only God’s tender love and mercy will remain.
And now I would like to end with what for me is perhaps the most important part of the book of Revelation, and the most profound end to the whole Bible:
It is often missed, a throw away verse tucked away at the end of the book of Revelation is a message of God’s ability to heal, transform and save even the most wicked and rebellious.
In Revelation 21:24, all the wicked kings of the earth, who made pacts with the Beast and waged war against Christ and the armies of heaven are welcomed and included into the New Jerusalem of God’s love. Far from being banished to a place of eternal punishment as we might have expected, the very kings of the earth who made pacts with the beast, and waged war against Christ, now, having been purified and cleansed in the fiery lake of God’s love, are also welcomed and included into the City of God.
And, if there is a place for the wicked kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem, there is surely also a place for you and for me.
I would like to end with a quote from Steven Gray also known as Adyashanti
“The perspective of love doesn’t leave anybody out. Love even loves those who don’t love. The only chance that those who don’t love have to change, is to come into contact with that love.”
SERMON- Rev. Brian Moodie
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SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation Week 8 The Throne in Heaven
Last week we looked more closely at the opening Act of the Book: In which we encountered an image of Christ, the exalted King of creation, surrounded by seven lampstands, symbols of the seven churches to whom he was writing. This was followed by seven short messages to the seven churches. We saw how the image of Christ that John describes is really made up of a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, most especially from Daniel’s description of a heavenly being whom he described as one like a son of man, or the Human One.
Today I would like to explore images from the next section of the book. Again, John draws abundantly from images and verses from the Old Testament.
The first thing that happens is John sees a window in heaven. The Greek word for Heaven could also be translated as sky. John sees an opening, a door, or a portal in the sky, and an angel invites him to come up. The words “Come up here!” echo the words of God from Mount Sinai calling Moses up the mountain.
What John then sees is a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it, and the one seated on the throne has the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne are 24 other thrones and on them 24 elders, dressed in white with crowns on their heads. From the throne are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. Before the throne are seven blazing lamps representing the seven spirits of God. Some translate it as the Seven-fold Spirit of God suggesting the fullness and completeness of God. Before the throne we encounter four living creatures. The first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a face like a human and the fourth flying like an eagle. Each having six wings also covered in eyes and day and night they never stop saying: Holy Holy Holy….
This is a rich picture, full of symbolism again, much of which we find drawn from other passages in the Bible. The two primary passages John draws from as Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel 1. John’s description of the throne of God has similarities to both the images found in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, but there are also significant differences. It is perhaps a reminder that what we are reading here is not a literal picture of heaven. It is a symbolic picture that is meant to communicate meaning rather than give us a literal video-tape glimpse of heaven.
Although we use the language of God seated on a throne, this language is not literally true. It is a human attempt using human language and human imagery to speak of a truth and a reality that words cannot describe.
In ancient times, as a human being, living in a political system where kings ruled by sitting on a throne, if you wanted to speak of a higher authority, a higher law and a higher wisdom that all people and all creation live under and are somehow answerable to, how do you describe that in language that other people can process and relate to? You use the language of a great cosmic king seated in majesty on a great cosmic throne. But Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel that this kind of language is ultimately symbolic and metaphoric and not to be taken literally for he reminds us that God is Spirit, like an invisible, moving life force or breathe that gives life and breathe to all and yet who is not just an impersonal force but is also somehow a Personal Presence. But very quickly one begins to run out of words. Much easier to describe God, the supreme authority wisdom of the universe seated on a throne. This is language that ordinary human minds can grasp. The image is useful and helpful. But we need to be careful of not taking it too literally or we could be in danger of creating another idol in the image of a human being.
I would now like to look at the symbolism and imagery from Revelation 4.
Firstly, isn’t it interesting that the one seated on the throne is not described as a human, but is rather rather described with the imagery of sparking and shining precious stones of jasper, ruby and emerald. In true Jewish tradition, John has resisted the temptation to make an image of the Divine. As one Bible commentary puts it, since God dwells in unapproachable light as we read in 1 Timothy and since God is one whom no-one has seen, John describes God in terms of the reflected brilliance of precious stones.
It reminds us that at the heart of life there is a Supreme Divine Spiritual Reality that reigns over us and which is our true source and the source of all that beautiful and precious and pure in this life.
Secondly, surrounding the throne, we read of 24 thrones with 24 elders dressed in white with golden crowns on their heads. The 24 thrones and elders are most probably references to the twelve tribes or patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Christian Church, the communities of both the old covenant and the new covenant. Some would say that this indicates that Revelation was written before the split of Judaism and Christianity when most Christians still saw themselves as being part of the wider Jewish tradition.
But in a wider sense, the 24 thrones and 24 elders represent all people who live in harmony with the Divine Reality at the heart of life, the saints and holy people of every time, place and age. It is a reminder that our humanity finds it’s true nobility and dignity, and meaning and purpose when lived in harmony with the Divine.
Thirdly, we read that from the throne there are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. The imagery reflects the imagery of God meeting Moses on Mount Sinai and conveys the idea that God is the source of all the power behind the whole universe. Even for modern people, lightening and thunder are reminders that human beings are actually very small and that there are powers and forces far greater than us at work in the universe.
Fourthly, this takes us on to the next image, that before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. This image has echoes from Ezekiel’s opening vision of God on a throne, except in Ezekiel’s description it is a vault above the throne that was something like a vault, sparkling like crystal. The image of the crystal sea in revelation is suggestive of a deep peace and tranquility. It is a symbol of the eternal peace and stillness of God that forms the back-drop to the whole of life. All of life emerges out of the Divine stillness and all life returns again into it.
The last symbol I would like to look at is the rainbow that shone like emerald encircling the throne. The emerald colour of green is suggestive of life and abundance, that God is the source of abundant life. The rainbow itself is an image that takes us back to the mythical story of Noah and God’s promise after the flood, to hang up his warrior’s bow and never to bring destruction again to the earth. Which raises a question, why, if God has vowed never again to bring destruction again to the earth do we see in the very next section, three sets of seven judgements being poured out on the earth as each of the seven seals are opened, seven trumpets are sounded and seven bowls are poured out upon the earth?
For me, it is another reminder that when I read of judgements in the Bible and in the book of revelation, I think of consequences. In the book of Romans, Paul says that the judgement and wrath of God is ultimately this: that God gives us over to our own waywardness until we experience the consequences. In the context of Revelation, when an Empire, like the Roman Empire consistently builds itself on injustice, oppression and violence it is built on a very fragile foundation. For a time it make grow strong, but there is only so long that you can defy the moral arc of the universe before it catches up and the system begins to crumble, as the Roman Empire finally did from 376 AD, undermined by its own decadence leading to internal weaknesses, undermined also by war, disease, and famine that led to its final downfall in the West in 476 AD
The four horsemen of the apocalypse that are unleashed with the opening of the first seal of the scroll in chapter 5 are widely interpreted to represent conquest, war, famine and pestilence, or disease. As Tim Mackie says, the four horsemen of the apocalypse represent a tragically ordinary day in the history of humanity. And as Marshall Davis says, these four horsemen are four forces that have always worked together in history to bring down the many empires that have ruled the world. A reminder also that in this world, as the writer of Hebrews suggests, there are no lasting Empires and no enduring cities. Which is why as people of faith, our ultimate fulfilment can never be found in building little kingdoms in this world. Our true fulfilment will come as we live for a greater more enduring purpose, as we live for a truth, or a reality that transcends this world. In the language of our Christian tradition, it is the Kingdom of the Risen Christ.
Getting back to the image of the throne, when I was at university, I became part of a very evangelical organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ. I never quite felt comfortable in the organisation, perhaps because I had never grown up in that kind of very evangelical atmosphere, but I had a really good friend who was part of them who drew me in. In their evangelical outreach, one of the key questions that they would ask in seeking to bring people to conversion and commitment to Christ was whether either they or Christ was seated on the throne of their own lives. While I would still struggle with the rather narrow evangelical framework that Campus Crusade operates within, there is something about that question that still rings true. And I guess, the image of the throne in Revelation 4, ultimately asks us a very similar question: Who or what is seated on the throne of our hearts or the throne of our lives? Who or what claims our highest allegiance and greatest commitment in this life? Who or what is it that is the driving force behind the decisions and plans we make in life? It is the Presence of One who sparkles and shines with beauty and radiance like jasper and ruby and an emerald rainbow, or is it something or someone else?
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