The God who Restores - Revelation 21
Our world can be a pretty depressing place.
Last week has reminded us that we face increasingly the threat of shocking terrorism on the international stage. World poverty & the AIDS epidemic seem insolvable. Closer to home there is growing social disintegration & family breakdown. And all this off the back of the bloodiest century in world history.
Specifically as Christians we seem to be living in an increasingly secular society that wants to push God & his ways out of public life. Across the world many believers in Jesus have a very, very rough ride for their faith & indeed recent decades have produced more Christian martyrs than ever before.
In our own lives many of us face discouragements, disappointments, struggles & anxieties. We all face issues that even the after glow of the best international sporting success for a generation will not be able to mask for long!
How do we as Christians deal with living in such a world as this? Well as we conclude our series on Who is the true God? we're going to encounter the fact that the living God is the God who restores. This world as it is now is not how it will always be there is hope of something better far, far, far better.
Please find a Bible (if you haven't already) & turn to Revelation ch 21 p1249. The Original hearers of this final Bible book, were early Christians facing a very tough time. They were being persecuted & experiencing great suffering for being Christians. The book is the record of a vision, a 'revelation' given to Apostle John revealing truth to be passed on & written down. Firstly it was given to encourage these early believers but then it is God's word to us who come after them. The message is in the face of difficulties hold onto Jesus' victory won on the cross. And keep holding on until that victory is fully experienced, when Jesus returns to earth.
In Revelation ch 21 we have nothing short of a vision of heaven. As we look at it this evening we're going to discover some tremendous & perhaps surprising things about what heaven is like & how that will help us as we live in this world now.
1) God is going to Restore Creation v1
I don't know if you've ever seen the BBC programme Fantasy Rooms? It is yet another(!) home improvement show. In Fantasy Rooms guests challenge experts to realize their interior design dreams. On a recent edition one guest asked for her room to be made like heaven. This was the 1st time the designer had been asked to do this & it made him do some serious thinking.
Everyone's perception of heaven is likely to be different so he wanted to be sure what the guest was really asking for. He asked her 'it pearly gates? Is it fluffy clouds? What do you want?' As it turned out he ended up painting an evening sky with wooly clouds & few twinkling stars.
As an attempt at interior design it was highly effective, as an attempt at presenting the truth of God, it was a disaster!
The majority of people seem to think of heaven rather like that interior designer. Even Christians seems to have fallen for this concept of a vague realm which, though happy, is purely mystical, a place with no substance to it. The cartoons of people with haloes, wings on their backs, harps in hand standing up to their knees in cloud, is what often comes to mind & it is frankly pretty unattractive. But actually nothing could be further from the truth of how the Bible describes heaven.
Look at what our passage says. v1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any seav5He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'
-Heaven is not a place of shadows if anything this world is the place of shadows heaven is the ultimate reality & a reality that is physical & material.
v1Then I saw a new heaven (here meaning sky) and a new earth. God is going to restore creation into a new world.
This is gives Christian believers something real & definite to look forward to as we live in this broken world, but it is very important for us to know now. That fact that God will restore the universe through Jesus & that heaven will involve real, physical reality nails the myth that this physical world is unimportant that God is interested in souls only not bodies - an idea strong in Eastern religions & influential in the western world through Greek philosophy.
Now we should already know this truth as Christians. We do after all believe in Jesus God Himself come to earth with a real flesh & bone existence & we believe in Jesus raised from the dead; raised with his physical body. The Bible leads us to recognise that Jesus is now at God's right hand with a physical body. Jesus has taken a glorified, transformed but nonetheless material body into heaven.
Such a truth affects how we view bodies now, how we view this world. This world is not all there is, so all our efforts will not be invested in this world, yet needs here are to be met, practical love & caring are to be offered, health & healing is something to be valued & worked towards. No wonder then that Christians have been at the forefront of such activities down the centuries. Knowing that heaven will be material & physical gives worth to those realities here & affects our attitude to our work, our bodies, the environment, our family life.
This is why focusing on heaven is not escapism. Here is a vision to inspire hope, which enables better living now. Here is a vision of future reality, which encourages action now.
-God is the God then who restores creation so he has certainly not given up on this broken world. God's great plan of salvation, of rescue & restoration means he continues to love his creation. In our 1st reading we heard about God's first creation of the world, which included the Garden of Eden a garden that was to be spoilt & broken by the human decision to push God out of the centre of the world he had made.
Did you notice the similarity of language of Gen 2 & here in Rev 21? In both places there is a river running through, there are trees & gold & precious stones.
This vision of heaven is meant to help us grasp that God will restore & transform this broken world, God will undo the effects of the 'fall'; human rebellion that infects the whole universe.
The great Christian hope of Heaven is that the God who restores will remake this world so that heaven will be like this world & yet better, indeed better even than the splendor of the garden of Eden.
It will be better because as we shall see later the fullness of the presence of God will be there, but also the good things of this world will be rescued & transformed & brought into it. v24 'The nations will walk by its light (light of the glory of God & Jesus), and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. & v26 The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it.'
Heaven will not just include what we think of as 'religious' things but the creativity & culture of human beings made in the image of God from many parts of the world & many times in history will be there. Some may think Rugby will be played in heaven I suspect Cricket is more likely myself but that's pure speculation, but do you see the point -nothing will be wasted that is of value. Heaven will have the fullness of all that is good & wholesome, pointing to the glory of the creator who inspired them.
-Yesterday was a special day & J not just because it saw the English beat the Aussies at something for the 1st time in what seems decades!
On Nov 22nd 1963 President JF Kennedy was assassinated. What is less well known is that on the same day 40 years ago the great Christian academic & writer CS Lewis died too. In the last of the Narnia books (many know from schooldays) Lewis brilliantly helps us capture this sense of the new world God will bring about when Jesus returns.
The final chapter is called Farewell to 'Shadowlands' - the point being that the earth is the shadow & heaven is the substance. The children in the story are amazed by what they see. It is the same as it had been in Narnia. It is familiar, but only better in an indescribable way;
'Those hills ' said Lucy, 'the nice woody ones & the blue ones behind aren't they very like the southern border of Narnia?'
'Like!' cried Edmund after a moment's silence. 'Why, they're exactly like. Look there's Mount Pire with its forked head, & there's the pass into Archenland & everything!'
'And yet they're not like' said Lucy. 'They're different. They have more colours on them & they look further away than I remembered & they're moreI don't know
'More like the real thing' said the Lord Digory softly.
God then, is going to restore creation; Heaven will include real life in a renewed, transformed new world. But also;
2)God is going restore human community v2
v2 'I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.'
Heaven as a city is perhaps a surprising image to us in the industrialized western world. We tend to associate city living with negative images old ladies being mugged in the concrete jungle, polluted air in the urban sprawl, loneliness in the isolated towerblock. If we can get the chance we try & escape the city & if we come into money we aspire to a little place in the country why would heaven be like a City? Well we need to understand what's behind the image here.
The idea of a city is that heaven will be a place of community. It will not be about isolated individuals, but rather one great, truly happy family uniting people from every background; 'tribe & race, nation & language' (Rev5:9)
Heaven will be a 'holy city, the new Jerusalem'. Ancient Jerusalem was the place that had the temple of God's OT people where God was understood to dwell in a special way. Jerusalem was the place where God's people had special celebrations & festivals. Just as our present world points forward to the restored world of heaven, so Jerusalem points forward to the corporate, communal, dimension of heaven. That's why this city is described at end of v2 as 'prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.' Heaven will be a great gathering of people, united in Jesus who has got them there, being finally & fully related to him together.
Life on earth may have it's times of isolation or rejection sometimes these may be profound, but in heaven there will be no loneliness whatsoever. There will never be times when we ache to share with someone else & are denied or prevented from doing so, there will never be those moments when even though we have many people around us we don't feel anyone understands or can help.
Sadly at times human relationships in this life can be the greatest source of stress & pain to us. Isn't that partly because we know deep down that they could be a great source of joy & purpose & fulfillment? In the 'holy City', the 'new Jerusalem' which is heaven, human relationships will be so transformed that loneliness & disappointment will be no more perfect community will be shared. (P)
Before we move on to the final aspect of this vision of heaven this eve, it's important to remember that because of Jesus death & resurrection, because he has sent his HS to be with his people, there are aspects of heaven that in some much smaller measure can & should be known on earth, as we wait for this new world. Surely community is a key example.
The local church on earth as a gathering of people around Jesus & his word is (according to the Bible Hebs 12:22f) an outcrop of heaven. Part of what that means is that as we wait for heaven, we should be growing as a community human isolation is meant to be met in & through loving Christian fellowship.
This is why it's so important to have times when we meet together to encourage each other & look out for one another. This is perhaps best facilitated in a small group where needs can be recognized & addressed. But in our larger gatherings like tonight can I remind us (as we all need at times) to not just look out for our established friends, but to widen our networks, to look out for those without anyone to talk to, to help build the community we represent here.
Practical Christian caring is a pointer to the full community life God is going to restore in heaven amongst those who trust in Jesus that brings us to the final point this eve;
3)God is going to restore humanity's relationship with Himself v3-4
We've already recognized that many (often unhelpful) things come to mind when people think of heaven, but the fundamental reality the Bible speaks of is that heaven is where God is. v3 'And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.'
Three times in this short verse God is said to be with his people. In heaven there will be nothing to obstruct or distract God's people from their fundamental purpose to know God & be known by him, in all his loving glory & majesty.
This is reemphasized towards the end of our passage v 22 John says 'I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.'
In OT times the temple in Jerusalem was the place associated with the closest access to the presence of God on earth. But there will be no temple in heaven because God himself & Jesus focused on here for his victorious death as the 'Lamb'- will be its temple. God will be fully known, fully knowable.
Those who trust in Jesus are given a relationship with God that begins in this life, in heaven it will be perfected & completed, & part of the consequence of this is that all that is broken, spoilt & damaged by sin & pain & suffering in this world will be removed & God will personally apply the benefits v 4 'He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'
The fallen, old world will be transformed & all the brokeness we experience now will be mended; the pain of being rejected for following Jesus, emotional struggles that affect more of us that we usually let on. Physical & psychiatric illness will be completely healed. Discouragement's & disappointments & broken dreams will distress us no more. (P)
Reading this wonderful vision you can't help noticing that despite what most people seem to believe; that everybody (with the exception of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin & Saddam Hussein) will be in heaven! No, heaven is not going to be populated by everybody.
There are chilling words of warning here; v7He who overcomes will inherit all this, (new perfected relationship) and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulpher. This is the second death.'
At the end we're told v27 'Nothing impure will ever enter it (heaven), nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.'
I have to ask this evening if you have the hope of heaven what is it based on?
Heaven will not be everyone's final destination Jesus is very clear about this too with his images of judgement & choice broad road that leads to destruction, or (as we saw last week) goats separated from the sheep who will be rejected. Heaven is beyond anyone's reach on their own. No one can get there by being good enough or spiritual enough.
No, everyone who gets to heaven will get there because of Jesus. Jesus, the 'lamb' who died on the cross, did so in the words of the opening chapter of Revelation to 'free us from our sins by his blood' (1;5). There is no other way to stand in the presence of God; we are all rebels & deserve hell not heaven we have turned away from the living God that's the root cause of the grisly list in v8.
Yet those who accept Jesus' offer of forgiveness of sins receive the gift of heaven they are enabled to because their 'names are written in the Lamb's book of life.' The reality of this is seen in that they v7 'overcome' in this world by God's undeserved kindness.
It is then the result of recognizing need & humbly holding on to Jesus & his offer of forgiveness that such a person will v7 'inherit all this' the life of heaven.
In March next year we have a special week of evangelistic activities to help us in our ongoing attempts to share our faith more later - but our guest speaker is to be Rico Tice who is in big demand across the country for this kind of thing because God has given him great gifts in clearly explaining the Biblical gospel in a way our contemporaries can connect with.
I recently saw Rico on video & he made the striking comment that '99.999% of the blessings of the Christian life are in the world to come.' That's not of course to say that what we can know now is insignificant but rather to encourage us that there is so much more to come God is going to restore creation, human community & relationships with him.
I mentioned earlier that yesterday was the 40th anniversary of CS Lewis' death let me close with the very final words of Lewis' Narnia Chronicles.
If you're unfamiliar with the story the Lion, Aslan represents Jesus and the children - Lucy, Peter and the others, Christians who in this world have been in a train accident.
They enter into the final days of Narnia, when Aslan creates a New world. We read: 'Aslan turned to them and said, 'You do not look as happy as you should be.'
Lucy said, 'We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.'
'No fear of that, ' said Aslan. 'Have you not guessed?' Their hearts leaped and a wild hope arose within them. 'There was a real railway accident,' said Aslan softly. 'Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.
'And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover of the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter 1 of the Great Story which no on one earth has read: the story which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.'
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