Acts 16:9-15 and Revelation 21:10; and 22:1-5
Imagine yourself in exile – far from home, from family, from all that is familiar. Imagine yourself living in a makeshift home amid streets of mud, where filthy water streams down the path and into your tent every time it rains. Imagine that the only clothes you have is what you could carry on your back. Imagine not being able to leave that place – not being able to stroll down a beautiful city street or walk along a refreshing river, not able to go out and earn your daily bread, unable to do anything but sit in your tent and wait for things to change. Every day you do go and check on your paperwork, or stand in line to get your daily rations, medical attention, or endure endless questioning about your circumstances, your hopes, your daily existence. Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones – able to rent an apartment, able to pick up some work under the table, able to pay for more than the basic necessities of life. Still, you are far from home, in a country that is finding it difficult to cope with the presence of you and others like you within their borders, with neighbours who may be sympathetic, or hostile, or as desperate as you.
You want to go home, but you cannot – for the home you knew no longer exists. The tree-lined streets, and bustling markets you remember are now a wasteland of rubble. Monuments that have stood for thousands of years are gone. The place in which you once prayed and found some peace is now a place where desperate people cry for aid. The quiet street you used to walk down to visit your relatives on a sunny afternoon has been drowned in blood.
What hope do you find, in the midst of your grief? Perhaps you have a vision of your city, your country restored. Perhaps you imagine the monuments rebuilt, covered anew in intricate coloured tiles, topped with gleaming gold roofs. Perhaps you imagine the barbed wire and the burnt-out tanks and the broken beams and bricks erased, and trees, flowering shrubs and quiet benches placed in the shade. Perhaps you see wide open plazas with bubbling fountains, and market stalls full of every kind of food you might wish for. You see children playing in the parks and old men gossiping on the street corners. You see a dream of how it once was, and how it might be again: cleansed of violence, hatred, conflict – a city that is a jewel among the nations.
That is what we see, in our reading from the Book of Revelation. We see a vision of hope for a people in exile – a people whose spiritual roots are with a city and a temple that have been destroyed by an occupying army, a people who are shaped by a tradition that has been cast adrift in the world. The early Christians, Jewish and Gentile alike, felt themselves tied to the Holy City of Jerusalem by the common inheritance of the Hebrew Bible and the incarnation of Jesus in that sacred land. But Rome had razed Jerusalem, and in a world ruled by Rome, Christians were suspicious exiles, members of a persecuted sect seen to be antiRoman and antiCivilization. So John, the writer of Revelation, found himself exiled on the island of Patmos, a tiny isle in the Mediterranean Sea, where he had visions that inspired other Christians to hope when all seemed lost.
We misunderstand the Book of Revelation if we read it as a warning for unbelievers. Certainly, there are some terrible depictions of what will happen to those who have opposed Christ – ie. the Roman empire – but that is not its primary intent. Its intent is to assure suffering Christians that God is the Lord of History, and that with God at work, history will indeed move towards the end that God intends: restoration, wholeness, healing. For John, this is represented in the Holy City re-invented This city will have an abundance of light – which in the ancient world, means safety. This city will have water flowing through its streets – the source of life. This city will have trees bearing fruit every month – enough food for all. This vision of the Holy City is a metaphor for the renewal of all life: for exiles who find a home, for the despairing who find hope, for the grieving whose tears are wiped away, for the hungry who are fed.
But how do we get from the picture of the homeless exile with which we began, to this picture John gives us? Here, I think the story of Lydia and Paul helps us. It begins by another river, outside another bustling Roman city. It begins with a welcome for a stranger, with human hearts and minds meeting, with good news shared, with hospitality offered and received. It begins with barriers broken down: between Jew and Greek, male and female, the wealthy and the poor. It begins with a shared faith that it is God’s will that the walls that separate us from one another be broken down, that strangers and even enemies may be made friends, that history’s arc bends toward justice and the restoration of all of creation.
It is a long way from a simple gathering by a river to a restored creation, and we must trust in the power of God to lead us there. We need to take care that the vision we hold before us does not lead us into darkness when we try to make it real under our own power. It occurred to me as I was reflecting on the passages today, that the greater the vision, the larger the shadow it may cast. The wild and obscure imagery of the Book of Revelation is like that: a high and lofty vision coupled with terrible images of punishment and retribution. We see a similar dynamic in the crusades of the Middle Ages, when Christians and Muslims vied for control over the Holy City they each thought belonged to them. We see this in the human attempt to build a restored Israel, and the conflict that continues to erupt in that region as competing visions for the Holy Land cost more and more human lives. We see it, too, coming out of another faith tradition, in the so-called Islamic state’s attempt to construct a caliphate – a holy state dedicated to Islam – in the Middle East. All of these goals are about life, and hope – and yet, in the hands of our sinful humanity, they have resulted in a huge loss of life.
The vision of a Holy City, Holy Land, or Renewed Creation must not replace the paramount importance of our day-to-day human relationships. The grand vision for the future cannot be used to justify oppression or inhumanity in the present. The ends do not justify the means. If the ends are holy, the means must be holy too. And what is holy – another word for what is healing – is encounters like Lydia’s and Paul’s: simple, sacred encounters where one spirit greets another, where we see the beloved child of God who stands before us, and we honour that life – offering and receiving what is needed: friendship, community, advocacy, shelter, a listening ear, food, water, a reason to live, a purpose for their lives.
The church of Jesus Christ exists for such encounters: to share in both word and action a vision for human life – indeed ALL of existence! – that is holy both in its means and its ends. We cannot and will not let the shadows overtake us. We will walk as children of the Light. With the Spirit of God moving among us, in and through us, we trust that the arc of history will indeed, lead us further into the Light. Amen.