Joe Neville

Revelation 21:1-6




The Perfect City


In the Bible, there are two great visions of the perfect society.  You might call them the Alpha and Omega. The alpha Vision is the Garden of Eden, described in the first book in the Bible, the Book of Genesis.  The Omega Vision is the New Jerusalem, the holy city, which is described in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation.

In both visions, there is a perfect society.  In Eden, everything is freshly created: brand new and totally innocent.  Adam and Eve, and the animals all romp playfully together in the garden.  Privation, poverty, or hard labor, have not even been heard of yet.  There is no sin and no bloodshed, no theft and no murder, no social unrest or revolution.  Everything fits into its intended harmonious relationship, happily, blissfully together.  It is a perfect community, on the early side of innocence.

In the vision of John the Divine in Revelation, the New Jerusalem is also a perfect society.  Tears are no more.  Death is no more.  Mourning, crying and pain are no more.  What human beings could not create with their vast ingenuity and technical strength, God has brought to pass.  The kingdom of God has come.  God has wiped away every tear from their eyes.

What an astonishing promise!  The future perfect society will be a city!  Some are accustomed to shunning the cities.  Given a chance to live in Danbury or Brookfield, we’ll live in Brookfield; thank you very much.  I put it to you: right now, if you had a choice of living in Los Angeles or in Beverly Hills, which would you choose?  I’ll bet you would choose Brookfield!

Because the cities are places of conflict, aren’t they?  In the cities many races come together.  In the cities there is an endless bustle of activity, with people rushing around in a great fever to make a living.  In the cities there are powerful forces that prey upon the unwary.  There are drugs. There is crime!  Never mind that if you could ever get a human system of that size and complexity to fit well together and to function with fairness, you would have a truly wondrous creation!

Never mind that in the cities there are also wonderful theaters, and symphonies, and museums, and astonishingly great churches.  You can get mugged while you’re going there.  In the cities there are problems.  Poor education, poverty diminishes creative and productive opportunities.  Crime is rampant, corruption is everywhere and opportunities for fiscal mismanagement are rife.

So what should God do?  If God’s gift of a glorious future for humanity is going to be realized in a city, then it’s got to be a city a lot different from any we know.  Or does it?

Let’s put it this way:  The perfect society described in Revelation is a society that appears, not on the innocent side of human misbehavior, but on the forgiven side of it.  In the seventh chapter of Revelation the seer notices a great throng of people robed in white, from every nation and people and kindred and tongue, and they’re all singing!  He asks, “Who are these people, all robed in white, and from where have they come?”  Our book of remembrance hopefully lifts up some of these people.  And the words of William W. How, help us to honor “The saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.  Alleluia, alleluia!”  Who are they, and from where have they come?  The answer is, “These are the disciples of Jesus who have come out of great tribulation.”

Like the D.H. Lawrence poem, New Heaven and New Earth.  He speaks of this new world in this manner: (I was so weary of the world, I was so sick of it, everything was tainted with myself.)  A place where finally one can move beyond one's ego.

There was a church where several of the members wanted to remove the stained-window above the chancel.  The problem, they say, is that the window was too otherworldly, because it depicted the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, descending from heaven to the earth.  From our perspective otherworldly is no worldly good.  But this still appeals to the most basic part of our beings doesn’t it?  All of us have faced pain and suffering.  All of us have prayed for a place of escape and the absence of tribulation, haven’t we?  The vision of a Holy city, a perfect city not only seems to speak to our deepest longing, as we hope for a day when there will be no more death or pain or crying and everything will be bright and good and glad; but, it also speaks to a world of peace; as the Holy City should not have any CIA, FBI or any drug lords dealing in death.  In addition, there should be no more churches . . . no pulpits, no preachers, no spires, no ecclesiastical bureaucrats . . . because who needs church when God is always at hand?

But we still wonder if the vision is too good to be true, because quite often we can fall victim to our own dreaming.  When people are promised ivory palaces and pie-in-the-sky, they’ll put up with the ghetto, the forces of oppression, the waste of prejudice, the horror of revenge and the vanity of manipulation, and feel quite justified as they step over the hungry in this world.  But my friends, if our Christian faith is nothing but a pipe dream to con people into putting up with things as they are, then it’s not faith at all, it’s damnable. 

We recognize that many of our American patriot dreams have turned to dust: (Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-gate, the Great Society, and Iraq continues to deplete our green pastures); Never mind the stateliness in the hope of Katherine Lee Bates:

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam, un-dimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed his grace of thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. 

Yet, even with those shining words, we remain the same men and women we have always been.

That is why the Holy City must come from God!  We are incapable of building it on our own.  The best we can do is to remake the old, or dream about a Holy City and instead build a tower of Babel, where people do not understand each other, or refuse to.  But God makes all things new . . . a new heaven, a new earth, a new humankind. 

How do we know this is true?  Will this vigorous vision ever be actually realized?  Will it actually happen?  Will the mothers in Mozambique, Yemen and Afghanistan no longer cry for their babies, dead from starvation and simple childhood diseases?  Will the people Palestinians and Israelis, or the Sunni and the Shiite sects ever claim life and liberty over religion and control?  Will the people of America make liberty and opportunity work for all?  Will the races of humankind stop exploiting each other’s weaknesses and start enjoying each other's strength?  The Bible says, yes!  The Bible says that God and God’s love are the central fact in human life.  The Bible says that when our relationships with God are right, then our relationships with each other will be all right.  The Bible says that day will come to the faithful.  It will come to those forgiven innocents who wear those white robes -- those who have been faithful even in the midst of turmoil and strife.  Yes, it will come!  How do we know this?

We know this because we believe that on Easter morning God raised a new humanity from pain and death.  We know that the resurrection tells us that God has the power to overcome the world’s worst work and make something new . . . a risen Christ and a new humanity.

Even now it is happening.  The verbs in the text are in the present tense.  Now God is making all things new.  Although war has soaked the soil with blood, people of good will everywhere are calling for peace in the world, because God is still speaking! Although injustice in different forms disfigures every city, justice is being proclaimed in churches where God’s own militant spirit moves.  Although the status quo has chained some people to the past, others, who are seized with hope, see the future that God is designing, and striving to help accomplish it.  There are those who see the vision of a New Jerusalem, but know that they still have work to do in the tribulations of life.

So we might imagine, as did those people in the church who wanted to remove the stained window depicting the New Jerusalem, we might imagine that they looked through the stained window over the chancel, and discovered that they needed to keep this window.  They needed to keep this window because they began to realize that through the years the glass had faded, and now through the golden image of the New Jerusalem they could see the roof tops of their own town; one city seen through the vision of another: The Perfect City.  Amen.