A Journey through Revelation. #12 – A Tour of Heaven
Revelation 21:9-12, 15-16, 21-27; 22:1-7 – Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf D. Svanoe
Today is Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate our hope that Christ will come again as King of kings and Lord of lords. What kind of king will he be and what kind of kingdom will he establish? John gives us a glimpse here in the very last chapters of the Bible. It is an amazing place that John describes. Over the last ten years, I’ve led tours to a lot of places. So let me be your tour guide as we explore heaven together.
The first thing we notice as we approach heaven are the Pearly Gates. But first I have to pause a moment. I love Pearly Gates jokes, and I just can’t resist telling one. Brett Favre and Fran Tarkenton, two of the greatest quarterbacks for the Packers and the Vikings, happened to be on the same plane when it crashed. When they arrived at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter was there to greet them. He would personally show them to their eternal homes. So, he started with Fran. As they went past several nice homes, Fran would ask, “Is that it? It THAT my home?” And St. Peter would reply, “No, just a little farther.” They continued on until they reached an old shack with a faded Viking’s banner waving in the air. Disgusted, Fran turned to St. Peter and said, “THIS is it?” Just then, he spotted an enormous mansion on a hill with a crisp Packers flag on top. The road up to the top was lined with green and gold flags. “I don’t get it. I get this little shack and Brett Favre gets a mansion?” “Oh, that’s not Brett Favre’s house,” said St. Peter. “That’s God’s house.” (Now you know what that “G” stands for! And you thought it stood for Green Bay!)
We have a lot of fun with those pearly gates jokes. But the jokes usually get it wrong. Usually the gates are closed, and we have to pass some test in order to get in. But the prophet John shows us something else. Heaven has twelve gates. Now gates were important in ancient times for keeping bad things out and protecting the people of the city. The gates of the New Jerusalem are made of pearls, and they are never shut. The pearly gates aren’t there to keep people out, but to let people in. As we enter in through the gates we find we are not alone. People from every nation enter. This is not a place for the privileged few, like in ancient Roman society. Rich and poor alike enter to bring God their glory. They are not defeated subjects forced to pay taxes and tribute, but grateful servants come to worship God.
The first we notice as we tour this city is that heaven is indeed a city. The Bible begins in a garden, with Adam and Eve. It ends with a city. That tells me that our relationship with God, though personal, is never private. God so loved the world, all of it, every single person. We are part of a community from every tribe and people, from every language and nation. And there is something very interesting about this city. This city has some unusual dimensions. John describes it shaped like a cube. uses the number 12,000 stadia. The city is 12,000 stadia or roughly 1500 miles wide and deep and also high. Again, this is hard to imagine, but there is a deeper meaning here. John was steeped in the Old Testament where there is described a perfect cube. The Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple was a perfect cube. It was the place where God’s glory lived and where only the High Priest could enter once a year. So in describing heaven as a perfect cube, John is implying that God lives here. God’s glory fills it. And everyone has access to God all the time. I love the verse that says, “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” (Rev 22:3-4). In the Old Testament to see God’s face was to die. But not in the New Jerusalem. We all look God full in the face and instead of death, we find healing. In the gaze from God’s eyes, we leave behind our guilt and shame, and we experience healing, forgiveness and compassion.
As we continue to tour the city we walk about without a care or worry. If you’ve ever worried how safe it is to walk outside at night, this is one city you will never have to fear. “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” (Rev 21:27). There is no night, no darkness for bad things to hide in. There is no need for the moon or sun. The light of God’s glory fills the city. What John wants to tell us is that heaven will be a place of safety
As we tour the city we notice gold and precious gems everywhere. The street we are walking on “is pure gold, transparent as glass.” How can gold be transparent? Here is another example where John doesn’t mean what he says- he means what he means. This city is a place of abundance instead of the scarcity of the Roman Empire. Rome provided plenty of benefits for the rich, while the poor struggled for life’s essentials. In heaven’s economy, gold is so plentiful they pave the streets with it.
Going further in the city we see a garden, and in the midst of the garden flows the river of life. In ancient times, water was an essential part of a city’s security and defense. You can’t endure a long siege without water. Cities would build long tunnel systems just to be able to access water without going outside the walls. But in the New Jerusalem, a river flows through the city. Water is abundant and available to all. It is the water of life, water freely available to all. Twice in the book of Revelation, we are told to drink the water of life as a gift. We don’t need money to buy it. God gives it freely to all. This water quenches the thirst in our bodies and quenches the thirst of our souls.
On either side of the river we see the tree of life. John tells us something interesting about this tree. It bears fruit each month. Again, it is an image of abundance. There is a harvest to be had all year round and no time when there is scarcity. Fall is harvest time around here. We reap the fruits of our gardens and fields. In ancient times, people had to preserve food to eat the rest of the year. My parents lived through the Great Depression. They knew scarcity. My mother canned fruit and produce from the garden just to make sure there would be plenty throughout the year. That’s what you did to survive. But John wants us to know that in this place the tree of life produces fruit each month, food plentiful throughout the year. Do you remember the story of Adam and Eve being told not to eat the fruit of the tree? Now that fruit is available to all. And the leaves of this tree have medicinal properties. They are for the healing of the nations. We are invited to sit in the shade of this tree and place its leaves in every wound we have, physical, emotional and spiritual. The leaves have the power to heal our deepest brokenness.
Yesterday, I led a small private funeral for a young man who took his own life. He had served in the army and had been deployed to Afghanistan. He was never wounded, but he brought back emotional scars he was never able to overcome. We call it PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How do we heal these deep, deep wounds of war? It is a problem we have to face as a country. I think that all of us bear wounds and scars of one kind or another. Where are we to find healing from life’s hurts and sorrows? John reminds us that the tree of life is there for our healing. God’s kingdom is not built on violence and coercion, but on healing and restoration.
Our brief tour of the New Jerusalem is ended. Like most of the tours I lead, we get just a small taste of the places we visit. There is so much more to see and experience. It is a most beautiful place. Would you like to come again? Would you like to live in this city? I would. That is exactly what John wants to happen. John called on Christians to come out of Babylon, to come out of Rome and resist its evil empire. But John needed a place to call people to. It’s a dream, a vision of the future that God will provide. That vision is still calling us today, calling us from the future to make our world a better place, to make our world more like heaven.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he told them to pray that God’s will “be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we want to know what kind of world God wants us to make, we need only look at this vision from heaven to learn the values at the heart of God. There are no categories of rich or poor in God’s kingdom. One race is not better than another. Men and women are treated the same. There is plenty for everyone. No one goes hungry. All have what they need. We are all beloved and all stand on the same ground at the foot of the cross. We are all sinners who have been given extravagant grace.
The book of Revelation ends with Jesus saying that he is coming again soon. May that be our prayer that he comes with his truth and justice and love to redeem our world. The response of those first Christians was to say a prayer. Say it with me- “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”