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The City, the Temple, the River, the Tree

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 22nd of Fifth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5 & Psalm 46

Good morning, Friends!

Revelation 21:10, NRSVUE: And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

21:22–22:5: I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The Quaker scholar Wess Daniels has written a fair bit on Revelation, on the passage that we just heard, and the book as a whole. One of the things that he says about Revelation is that it's good to approach it with bafflement, because the Revelation of John is a baffling part of the Bible, and it's important to admit that there are things in it that I just don't understand—that probably most of us don't understand. And so the state of reading this text is sometimes a state of bafflement. And that's okay.

One of the things that baffles me about this passage in particular is the light. Where does the light come from? It says that [in the New Jerusalem] there's no need of sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. Revelation tells us of a time in the future, at the end of all things, when the natural order as we know it has been changed so completely that there's no need for sun or moon. That's hard to imagine.

Stephanie and I just put in a raised bed in our garden. She's been wanting to do raised bed gardening for years, and so we finally got around to ordering one online, and I put it together, and it looks lovely. And we went and got a bunch of stuff out of the brush pile for the bottom layer, and then we went and took all the compost that we have been saving up for the last three years, and dumped it in there, and that got it up to about maybe 35% full. So now we have to go to Menard’s and buy a bunch of soil, which is lamentable, but we'll get it filled; so we'll have provided the soil, and there's plenty of water. (Actually, we found out yesterday the hose doesn't quite reach all the way around the house, because we only have one spigot in the back, and it doesn't quite go all the way around to where this bed is going to be. But that's okay, cause it rains so darn much these days that we may not ever have to water it ourselves.)

So we'll get the soil. We have the place. There's plenty of water; but we can't provide the light (unless, I suppose we were growing it indoors under grow lights…) Light is the one thing that we can't provide; that's provided by the God of creation, in the form of the sun. And yet in this baffling text that we've just read, there is no longer any need for the sun. I don't have a resolution for that; at this point I just want to hold that up as one of the bafflements that we see in this text.

Now, our friend Wess Daniels suggests that Revelation is all about “remix,” which you might remember if you read his book, Resisting Empire, with us in 2020. He points out that the author of Revelation, identified in the text as John, a prophet, is drawing on the tradition of the Hebrew Bible as he writes his letter to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But as he does so, he's not just drawing on it, but is re-mixing, re-interpreting, applying the imagery and the narratives and the ideas of the tradition to his present context so that they are transformed in various ways.

You might remember that the context for the early Christian church is one of persecution. John is in exile on the Isle of Patmos; he is writing to these seven churches who are on the mainland, in what today would be Turkey, and he's writing what he hears from God at a time when the Empire has come down upon the Christian movement in some pretty ruthless ways. So much of the imagery of Revelation is violent imagery; it's imagery that reflects the state that the church was in at the time.

Now, in the Psalms, as in the psalm we read this morning (and in many other places in the Hebrew Bible), Jerusalem is the holy city, the dwelling place of God; John takes that and remixes it in Revelation. The assumption of the Hebrew Bible is that if the faithful wanted to be in the presence of God, they needed to go to a particular place—they needed to go to Jerusalem, and to the Temple—the center of worship for faithful Jews. And in the prophets, that place becomes a center of universal worship for all the world, not just Israel; Isaiah writes in one place of all people streaming to Mount Zion to worship Israel’s God (Isaiah 2:2), and in another place, “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (56:7, NIV).

In John’s remix, the people do not come to the holy city, the holy city comes to them. What John sees “in the Spirit” is “Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God” (Rev 21:10–11). In this vision, the people are no longer bound by a particular geography, for God will bring Jerusalem to them, and dwell with them in it.

This vision, by the way, stands counter to much of our popular understanding of “the end”—both what happens at the end of our individual lives, and what happens at the end of all things. The Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, among others, points out that the promise of the New Testament as it concludes here in Revelation is really more about the resurrection of the faithful to a new existence with God, than it is about being transported away into heaven at the moment we die. Again, this text says that God comes to be with us, rather than our going to be with God. This distinction has important implications for our faith, but it’s also something we’ll have to leave for another time for a full treatment.

Because there’s so much more to say about John’s remix here: in the New Jerusalem, the Temple also gets remixed. The city is holy not because of the Temple within it, but because of the manifest presence of God: “...its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). The city has no need of a particular holy structure, for God and Christ are present throughout. Here, of course, there is resonance with our tradition; rather than needing to be in a particularly special place, for Friends, the encounter with Christ within can happen anywhere, as long as our hearts are prepared for that encounter. We have learned that, of course, during the pandemic, when we couldn't be here in this place—which is admittedly special to many of us, but which is not required for true worship.

John also remixes the river. The main reason we’re reading this passage today alongside Psalm 46 is in what they both say about a river flowing through the city. Commentators point out that the earthly Jerusalem, unlike many other ancient cities of the Near East, did not have a natural river running through it. In fact, water had