At a time of great trial, when many of the apostles had been killed or exiled, when the persecution of Christians was rampant, when the future looked bleak, St. John had a vision. Alone on the Island of Patmos, John opened his eyes one day and saw the end of history unfolding before him. Angels and demons, saints and sinners fought a final battle, in which the Crucified Lamb emerged victorious. And then the heavenly Jerusalem — a perfect city with jeweled walls and pearly gates, where there is only light and never darkness — descends from on high and the Lord declares, “It is done.”
And then we have to imagine that John woke up. He woke up to the damp cold of his prison cell on an island hundreds of miles from everyone that he loved.
And we have to wonder, How does that help? How does a vision of a heavenly Jerusalem help now when bad circumstances don’t change? What does it matter that one day Heaven will come to earth when countless people are suffering and dying today?
Critics as diverse as that one guy we all knew in high school to someone like Karl Marx would say it doesn’t help. To them, Christian hope is just an anesthetic, a trick the powerful use to subjugate the weak. The hope of a heavenly Jerusalem, of a God who holds the whole world and all of history in his hand is foolishness. A refusal to grapple with reality.
And yet the church has been saying since its very beginning that, actually, the hope of heaven is what allows us to see reality for what it truly is.
With the words of Christ still ringing in his ears, John knew that though he did not and likely would not experience paradise before his death or Christ’s return, God was always bending the course of history in that direction. No matter what emperor arose, no matter what dragons the church might encounter, God had said, It is done. And John knew that. He had seen it, heard it, felt it in his bones. It was true — from the outside, his future looked bleak. There were days when even he felt like it was hopeless. Still, John knew that his life was simply one chapter in a larger story that ends in victory. And no one could take that away from him.
From the church’s earliest existence, Christians have had to wrestle with the undeniable fact that sin and death are terribly powerful, even in defeat. Plagues, wars, mass shootings — sometimes it appears as though the victory hasn’t been won.
But it has — and we know it has — because the crucified Lamb sits on the throne, and he has declared it to be so. “I am the beginning and the end,” he says. “I died and behold I live forever more.” That is the story in which we live. It is a story of good coming from evil and life coming from death. It is a story of a gracious God showing boundless mercy to a creation that never seems to learn its lesson. It is a story of Love conquering hate and bringing enemies together not simply as friends but as brothers and sisters of Christ.
Despite what the world believes, despite the evidence that would everyday seem to pile up against the eternal victory of God, the heavenly city stands true. And we know this not only because of the Revelation of John passed down to us through the centuries. We know God’s victory is sure because we taste it. We drink it. We proclaim its reality every week when we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
Today, in this church, in our hearts, imperfect as we are and imperfect as this place is, God dwells with his people and we with him. And while night still falls and wars still rage, we carry in our bodies the light of that city, the waters of that city, showing the world a vision of what is possible when those made in God’s image reclaim it.
When John woke up from his dream, he was still imprisoned and exiled. His circumstances were the same — but he was different.
And so are we. For today in the words of holy Scripture, we have encountered the risen Lord, who tells us of the future that awaits those who overcome. That is not a false hope but is rather the warp and weft of a story bigger than all of us, a story that wraps us in the fine robes and precious jewels that belong to the children of God. Our hope in heaven, in a world where there will be no more tears or pain, in a world that is ruled by a God whose fullest revelation of himself is the cross. That is what enables us to live even in the darkest of times.
“Then one of the . . . [angels] said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. . . . and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light and they will reign forever and ever.” AMEN.