The Grace of the City of God

Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. We don't use it as often as we do other parts of the New Testament. Despite the readings for this week and last, we don't find it listed frequently in the lectionary. We usually don't dabble in it for leisure, and we certainly don't read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more. Lord, have mercy!

Yet despite its fairly bizarre contents, the book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It is one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. Much literature reflects the pervasive power of this text, for example, in the poetry of Dante, John Bunyan, William Blake, T.S. Eliot; the novels of Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, and more. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel's famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Many commentators assert that Revelation tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. Apocalyptic themes pervade popular culture today. Films and television programs regularly portray tales of the end of time, as does the incredibly popular Left Behind book series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Consumers can't get enough of apocalyptic literature.

Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, says that

Few writings...have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation...Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation...its arcane symbols...have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing. [1]

If this book is so misunderstood, why is its influence so pervasive? Why has it fired the imagination of writers, artists, and more ordinary folks like us for centuries and popular culture today? The answer, I believe, has two parts. 

The first is that the world can be a really scary place--not always, but enough of the time to fuel plenty of anxiety and apocalyptic imagination. Revelation is written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It's in the form of a letter from John, a Christian in exile on the island of Patmos, to Christians in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. It was then still part of the Roman Empire. Many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because some refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. Many Christians, however, succumbed to the temptation simply to accommodate themselves to the prevailing religious and cultural rituals in order to avoid social ostracism and economic deprivation. 

In the midst of such problems, the letter of Revelation was sent not to foretell the end of time but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God's presence with them. John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.

We, too, live in a scary time. In the last year and a half, we have lived through the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. Unemployment has soared. The loss of a job usually means the end of decent health insurance, too. Foreclosures have become almost normal, as many lose their homes. Meanwhile hunger and homelessness are ever more pervasive.

Our nation is at war in a number of places, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. Most communities in our country have lost someone or had their loved ones return from war with physical or psychological wounds. We see the names and faces of those in the armed service, some alive, some dead, on the nightly news. Yet, their extraordinary sacrifice has not yet really made us more secure or given us a sense of peace and calm about the future. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis have died from the war's direct violence as well as the breakdown of basic services like clean water and access to health care. In addition to the human toll, many experts believe these wars will end up costing upwards of a trillion dollars. There seems to be no clear end in sight.

We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I could list more, but I don't need to recite them. You are already well acquainted with them.

The worst part, however, is that much of this death-dealing destruction is done in the name of religion. Those who blow themselves up on airplanes or in markets, busy streets, or mosques have a religious vision, as do those who seek vengeance and retribution for such attacks. Those who preach a gospel of prosperity and blame the jobless and the poor for their plight have a religious vision, as do those who would deny food and healthcare to children.

We who call ourselves conscientious Christians also have a religious vision. Has your religion ever gotten in the way of you offering love and grace to a wounded world? If you are like me, I bet it has. One of the problems with deeply religious people like us is that we are sometimes so clear in our convictions that we try to mow down anyone who gets in the way of our carrying them out.

We live in a scary world. No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions! No wonder folks speculate about the world coming to an end. One of my favorite bumper stickers, those occasional theological sound bites that we read in traffic says, "God is coming and she is mad!"

God have every reason to be mad! We're making a colossal mess of things here! We choose to glorify in all the wrong stuff: war; humiliating our adversaries; shaming the immigrant; ignoring or neglecting our children and families; consuming goods that possess us rather than us possessing them; going through the motions of our religion rather than cultivating spiritual disciplines that help us listen carefully and prayerfully to God; and so much more. These are all choices we actively make, but we don't have to choose these things--a lesson also found in Revelation.

The second reason that the book of Revelation remains a profoundly powerful text despite being so bizarre is that it acknowledges the hardship and suffering of daily existence while it also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for life in all its fullness, healed and whole.

In the passage from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not always be with them. He is speaking to them about their fears, anxieties, and despair. He offers them a choice. He says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." Eugene Petersen renders this last part of the passage more colloquially, stating that if we keep God's word, God will "move right into the neighborhood!" God shares the neighborhood with us, but only if we choose to live there! We choose to live there by embodying God's love for the world. "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid" (14: 27b), Jesus says. Christ will be with us, even in scary times, if we genuinely strive to love one another and live life in all its fullness.

The passage from Revelation 21 and 22 offers a similar choice. Throughout the book, Babylon serves as the primary symbol for the Roman Empire complete with its injustice, violence and oppression. Candler scholar of New Testament, Gail O'Day, says, "...the goal of Revelation is to invite the churches to move out of Babylon and into the grace of the city of God."[2]

And what a city it is, this new Jerusalem! The city comes "down out of heaven from God" (21:10). There's no need for a temple because God's presence permeates everything. The gates are always open and the gifts of creation are abundantly available to all--all the nations and rulers of the earth. The Tree of Life is planted on each side of the river of the water of life and produces twelve kinds of fruit; "the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (22:2b). Professor O'Day claims that "The only way to be excluded from the city is to choose to practice falsehood and deceit (21:27; 22:15), practices which by definition do not belong to the city of God."

Kindness, justice, truth, grace, love and righteousness on earth! What a vision. We speak of it every time we pray the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Those of us who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ need desperately to live out our belief that God intends to reclaim, restore and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention. If ever there was a time when the world needs the healing, saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is now.

The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die, although we certainly don't discount that promise. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now, a life that basks in God's presence now, a life that keeps God's commandment to love one another and mirrors God's glory today and every day! God has moved into the neighborhood! Revelation is powerful precisely because, in the midst of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, our dreams for a future life with God break into the present. Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death--all here and now, as well as in eternity.

Is there any tangible and plain proof that God has moved into your life? Does God's glory--the weighty, powerful, radiant presence of love, grace, healing and wholeness--shine out from your house and your church? Does your faith light up your neighborhood?

We must choose every day to demonstrate concretely and visibly our love for Christ, for each other and for the well-being of our communities. When we do, we actively choose to live in the grace of the city of God, the place that embodies the fullness of God's hope for the world and for lives grounded in love. 

Will you pray with me?

God, help us move out of the city of Babylon with all of its temptations and its destructive influence in our lives and that of others. Help us move into the city of grace where we embody your love and hope and healing for ourselves and for the whole world. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.


[1] Timothy Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament,

[2] Gail R. O'Day, "Revelation," in Theological Bible Commentary, Gail R. O'Day and David L. Petersen, editors, p. 473.