All Saints’ Day - 2023
Old Testament - Isaiah 25:6-9
New Testament - Revelation 21:1-6a
A Map of the Future
So several years ago I bought this neat little book called All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.
As the title implies, the book provides a reflection for each day of the year on one of the many Saints that have been part of history. Mentioning some of those first Saints like Paul, Peter, and Mary, the book even includes contemporary reflections on people we might consider to have been “saints” - if even informally. There is a daily reflection, for example, on Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as one for Karl Rahner, who was a famous Catholic theologian from the 1960s and 70s.
And then there is a daily reflection for the British poet and artist from the late 1700s and early 1800s William Blake. Although living during the Enlightenment Era, which prized reason and rational thought above all else, Blake was sort of an anomaly. Blake, you see, valued the power of imagination above everything else.
And by imagination I don’t simply mean creative or fanciful thinking. No, for Blake imagination was about insight. It was, in other words, about the ability to see deeper meanings and purposes in life than just the objective, rational world people see with their eyes. Behind the material world for Blake was a whole nother world imbued with spiritual meaning and significance. And while it wasn’t always easy to see, it was there nonetheless for those who were willing to look for it.
Is it any wonder, then, that Blake, who from early childhood reported having visions of angels, created assorted pieces of art over the years depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation. Many of which, as you might imagine, are quite dramatic and striking.
ONE: John of Patmos, after all, well…he had one pretty vivid imagination, right? For like Blake, he too seemed to have the ability to see deeper meanings and purposes in life behind the material, everyday world.
In the spirit on the Lord’s Day, as John claims, he gets dragged up into a heavenly vision full of all kinds of odd sights and images. There’s that dragon with seven heads, those four riders of the apocalypse wreaking all kinds of havoc - the first on a white horse, the second on a red one, a third on a black, while the fourth rides around on a pale green one.
And then let’s not forget about that woman wearing the sun for a dress while also using the moon as a footstool, the Lamb perched on top of that throne, and last but not least, that beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads of its own. Talk about your visions!
No wonder the Book of Revelation has been a source of debate and confusion from the moment of its writing. Why even the early church didn’t know what to do with it. There was, after all, heated debate within the early church as to whether or not Revelation should even be in the Bible as a sacred text. It should hardly be surprising, then, to learn that Revelation, while last in the Bible, was also the very last book to actually be included as part of the cannon.
And then there was Martin Luther in the 1500s. Turns out he wasn’t sure what to do with Revelation either. When discussing the Book of Revelation, he actually wrote that he didn’t see where Christ was “taught or known in it.” And John Calvin? The forefather of Presbyterians, who wrote extensive commentaries on every other book of the Bible, chose, rather conspicuously, not to write one on Revelation.
For the visions that John of Patmos ends up having are all just too strange and bizarre, aren’t they? While William Blake may have seen angels when he was a child, his visions didn’t come close to what John of Patmos saw.
TWO: And yet, amidst all of John’s crazy visions there are also some images tucked within the pages of Revelation that are, well, kinda nice and even touching and poignant.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” says John, “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Written at a time when Christians in some locations were experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman Emperor Domitian, Revelation at its heart is meant to be a book of consolation and hope. Yep, amidst all the strange imagery and talk within the pages of Revelation, intertwined within all the odd and otherworldly visions, are words of promise and expectation for people who were literally dying for their faith.
“Fear not,” says John amidst the literal trials and executions, “for a day is coming when the home of God will be among mortals. God himself will be with them, and God will wipe away every tear drop with a handkerchief. And what’s more, that old scourge death, well, death will have also been sent along its merry way to own its death never to be heard from again. For the first things will have passed. And because of that, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
It’s a marvelous image, isn’t it? No wonder John’s words are often used for funeral services and that one man has called the entire book “a map of the future.” For Revelation, at its core, is all about the sovereignty of God.
Amidst the struggles and the difficulties, amidst a fallen and groaning creation, which just like humans, is in need of redemption, Revelation asserts the good work begun by God in Jesus Christ will one day come to completion. Some day, one day, a new Jerusalem is going to come tumbling out of the sky, and all those woes, sorrows, and tribulations that have for too long plagued humanity and creation will be banished for good.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” says a misty eyed John. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
THREE: Now here is the thing that I have always loved about the new Jerusalem that John claims to see falling out of the heavens.
When you crunch the numbers, when you sit down and start figuring out the dimensions of the place, well, it turns out it is anything but small. You see, just a bit later in chapter 21 of Revelation, around verse 16, an angel shows up to measure the new Jerusalem with a golden rod. Flitting about with its measuring stick in hand, the yardage and numbers compiled by the angel end up being a bit astounding.
First, it’s worth noting the new Jerusalem based on the angel’s measurements actually appears to be in the shape of a cube. At its base the city is 1500 miles in length by 1500 miles in width. What’s more, its height on each side is also the same - another 1500 miles for each.
Now admittedly, just hearing such numbers doesn’t mean we can easily grasp their import. So here are a few comparisons to keep in mind. The new Jerusalem, if it were to be placed over America, would cover close to 50% of our nation with its base.
In terms of the city’s height of 1500 miles, remember, the International Space Station orbits at about 250 miles above the earth. So imagine a city stretching beyond the Space Station for another 1,250 miles!
What’s more, if you happened to be 5,000 miles away from the city, it would still appear 130 times larger than the moon. And for the New Jerusalem to appear the same size as the moon on an average night when looking at it with the naked eye, well, you would have to be roughly 160,000 miles away. And we thought places like New York City and Paris were large!
The point behind such cosmic and fantastic talk, of course, isn’t to provide us with a literal description of what the new Jerusalem will look like. Instead, the point, as is so often the case with the Bible, is to help us to think theologically about God and God’s nature.
And so what else are we to assume from such imagery but that God is probably a whole lot more generous and welcoming and loving than people tend to often claim? For if the new Jerusalem in volume is well over 3.5 billion miles (as my basic math skills have led me to conclude), well, then there is either going to be a whole lot of elbow room in God’s new kingdom, or a whole lot of people. One or the other.
And me, personally? Well, whenever gazing at that cross, I can’t help but think it’s going to be the latter of the two options. Meaning, and much to my own displeasure as an introvert, heaven is going to be bursting with people.
CONCLUSION: Of course, before us right now is another image of God’s intentions and plans for the world.
And while it is surely waaaay smaller than the New Jerusalem depicted by John of Patmos, that Lord’s Table is, nonetheless, also a map of the future, right? For at that table, we see yet another symbol of God’s plans for a world made right, good, and true.
For someday the people will be gathered together in a grand and beautiful city where death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And amidst them all will be God.
But until then? Well, until then we get to, thankfully, gather together at this table as a remainder.
And now may blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.