Reading: Revelation 21. 1–14
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
The Bible sometimes presents a world that seems very different from ours, and not just because it’s old. Two examples in tonight’s second reading, from the kaleidoscopic book of Revelation.
When I was a child, the great moment for me after we had set off on holiday was the first glimpse of the sea, say at the end of a street in Broadstairs or as the train approached Weymouth and the ferry to the Channel Islands. It might have been because the sea offered a prospect of immensity that was hard to discern in suburban southeast London where I grew up. Anyhow, it was a heart-skipping moment, one I’ve never quite lost touch with.
In my sea-view euphoria I was in good company, as I was to discover at school. I heard the story of the ten thousand Greek mercenaries who fought for Cyrus the Younger in his bid for the throne of Persia and then set off on the dangerous trek home. The writer Xenophon recounts how, after endless marches across inland Asia, they climbed a mountain, saw what lay ahead and shouted, ‘The sea! The sea!’ That moment was nearly two and a half thousand years ago, but in my childish way I knew the feeling.
Not everyone does, though. Five hundred years later, John the Divine finds himself exiled on a Greek island that one of those mercenaries might have called home. He has a vision of a world transformed, a world free of corruption and threat – a new heaven and a new earth, he calls it – and a great thing about this new earth is that there is no more sea. For him, the sea speaks not of limitless possibility but storms and chaos and death.
The second moment of difference in his vision is found in what comes next.
Sometimes when I want some distraction at my desk I flick on to YouTube and watch a bit of ‘Pandemonium’, Danny Boyles’ remarkable opening to the 2012 Olympic Ceremony. There are many things going on in that rich sequence, but one is the deconstruction of an English myth, the ‘green and pleasant land’ as England’s original, natural, ideal state. Boyle seems at first to play into the myth, as ominous drums and menacing roars herald the uprooting of rural life with the industrial revolution, but he then goes on to show that the fruits of the revolution were not all bad – grime and drudgery and mechanised warfare, yes, but also votes for women and the Beatles.
I suspect that many are still not convinced. For them – for some of us? – there is a nostalgia for a supposedly purer, simpler life that the country seems to promise. But one thing you can’t accuse the book of Revelation of is nostalgia. It looks resolutely forward, and the future it sees is urban – John’s vision of the new heaven and earth takes the shape of a city, a holy city, descending from heaven to earth, the new Jerusalem, and he goes on to describe its construction in amazed and loving detail.
There is a nostalgia version of the gospel that sees salvation differently, as going back to the garden innocence of Adam and Eve. It’s beautifully put by Charles Wesley
My heart, thou know’st, can never rest Till Thou create my peace; Till, of my Eden repossessed From self and sin I cease.
This is surprising, because Wesley usually ends his hymns with hopes of completion, not reversion. Where does he get this idea from? He’s an utterly scriptural writer, and there may be echoes here of Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb feeding together (Isaiah 65.25), but it is far from the scene in the book of Revelation. Closer to that, though much worse poetry, is the ditty you may remember from Sunday School if you are of a certain age:
God has given us a book full of stories, Which was made for his people of old, It begins with the tale of a garden, And ends with the city of gold.
If, as a former Bishop of Kingston put it, religion is about what we do with our longings, the passage tonight prompts us each to ask, where do my deepest longings lie? If I want to follow Jesus, in which direction do I rather hope he will lead me? Am I in the end an apostle of nostalgia or of hope?
Faced with the bewildering complexity of life it is easy to feel the lure of nostalgia. What to do about the ghastly kidnapping and forced conversion of the girls in northern Nigeria? What to do about the bleeding of Syria or the near chaos of Ukraine, where the bad guys cannot be isolated and dealt with like the black hats in an old-fashioned western? O, for a ticket back to purer, simpler times. It seems, though, that whatever God is striving so long to accomplish among us, it’s not a trip back to Eden, to a time before choice and responsibility. It seems rather to be an onward journey, leading to a kind of city – a glorious version of the places built by restless, resourceful, complicated people, people like you and I – though the journey may take us through another kind of city, through Pandemonium, the name John Milton gave the capital city of hell.
The holy city is John’s version of what Jesus calls the Kingdom, that empire of love which, he says, we shall never see unless we become like little children (Matthew 18.3). But what are the childlike attributes that will equip us for this journey? Wonder, yes; trust, God certainly wants us wants us to have that, but to trust is not to be naïve. As Thomas More may have put it, speaking from his experience of the urbane vipers’ nest of Henry VIII’s court
God made the angels to show him splendour, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.
Ten thousand Xenophon’s account is in his Anabasis.
Pandemonium 2012 www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6NBHx80ovY . John Milton coins the name in his Paradise Lost.
Longings See Peter Selby, Belonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church.
The tangle of his mind The words are from Robert Bolt’s play about More, A Man for all Seasons.