*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on All Saints Sunday, October 28, 2012
What is your idea of paradise; that ideal place where you could forever. Picture it in your mind for a moment. What do you imagine paradise looks like? A mirror lake nestled among the snowcapped mountains? Fields of waltzing grain? Waves crashing into foam on a sandy shore? An unspoiled wilderness? Farmland with rolling hills and ripe orchards?
Did any of you imagine a city? Hubbard? Woodburn? Canby? Portland? New York? For many of us the city resembles paradise about as much as Hubbard farmland resembles downtown Los Angeles? And yet, John had a vision in which paradise looked, strangely enough, like a city. As a matter of fact, it looked like Jerusalem; a thousand-year-old, cramped city, twice destroyed, without much splendor. This is paradise? I wonder what it would be like if we imagined our own cities as paradise?
Paradise can be envisioned as a new city. John had a vision of the new heaven and earth as a city, a new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. His vision of a new Jerusalem stood in sharp contrast to the pompous city of Rome. John refers to Rome under the cryptic title of another ancient city-- Babylon, where Israel was once held hostage. Both of these cities represented godlessness, oppression, injustice, and violence. It was Rome that was oppressing God's people at the time of John's writing. Rome flattened their beloved city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The city of Rome represented all that was oppressive, hurtful, and destructive of community to the Christians in Asia Minor of John's day.
We might compare John's vision of paradise to a black South African envisioning a new Soweto, a Bosnian envisioning a new Sarajevo, an unemployed man dreaming of a new Washington. People living in unjust and oppressive political situations often dream of their cities being made new. They envision a city without hungry children wandering in the streets, without farmers losing their farms to mounting debts, without tanks driving through streets of bombed out buildings. John, and other such dreamers of new worlds, envision future cities of hope that rise up in defiance of the old cities of their present pain.
John's vision is of a new city descending from heaven settling down on earth. In John's vision heaven is not seen as pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by and harps in the clouds. John's vision is earthy. His vision is made from a mixture of the sky and the soil; a new heaven and a new earth. The sod under our feet, the fields we plow, the brooks that gurgle, photons and neutrons, all of creation is made new by the touch of heaven's hand. The chasm separating heaven and earth is bridged. The longings expressed in the Lord's Prayer are finally fulfilled. God's name is hallowed. God's kingdom is come. God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The holy city descends from heaven to the earth. Paradise can be envisioned as a new city.
Since the vision is of a new Jerusalem, there is some continuity between the old and the new, between heaven and earth. This city is future and it is present. Within the old Jerusalem are the seeds of the new Jerusalem. The invisible is hidden beneath the visible. The new has been present in the bud of the old, waiting to flower. Glimpses of the new city can even be seen now in the old city. Pieces of heaven are hidden in the places we live here on earth. Or as Robert Browning put it: "Earth is crammed with heaven." The old Jerusalem is not totally unlike the new Jerusalem, just as the risen Christ is not unlike the earthly Jesus. Heaven is not totally unlike the earth. We have seen bits and pieces of heaven on the common ground we walk upon. We have caught glimpses of the heavenly city in the cities in which we live from day to day. Our vision of the new city is really the future hope of the full realization of God's will here on earth. The vision of this new city is not something totally other than the good we have experienced in our earthly cities, but the completion of what we now see only dimly and in part.
So now, we see the lights of this new city dimly reflected---in the courage of the woman who is working through the slow process of healing from abuse, in the clasped hands of leaders of nations that were once longtime enemies, in the full bellies of a homeless family, in stumbling grace of a a young woman kicking her addiction. The four walls of this city are peace, love, joy, and hope. And when we catch sight of it out of the corner of our eye, we recognize this city to be our true home.
For God dwells in this new city. Since the division of earth and heaven has been healed, this new city is God's permanent home. And God will relate to the children who live in this new home as a loving Parent. God will be like a mother who wipes the tears of her child who has fallen. And like a compassionate Father, God will comfort the lonely man who has lost his wife to a heart attack. God will dry the eyes of those who have long endured the brokenness of their lives caused by early childhood traumas. Death, mourning, and crying will be no more. The pains and sorrows of the old city will be banished.
I know there are many of us, not only those who live in the areas surrounding cities near Zion, but those who care about the healing of all communities, who long for this new city to come. As citizens of the heavenly city, those who live in urban and rural areas long to see the day when there are no longer drug dealers on the streets or racism in its neighborhoods. There are those who would rather be able to walk on streets that are safe and just, more than upon streets made of gold. We hope for the day when those in our world's cities who have tasted the bitter tears of war and death, may taste the fruits of the tree of life. We long to see those struggling to make ends meet with decent jobs and wages. We long for the day when the races of peoples are reconciled and join hands in an eternal circle as brothers and sisters. Some of us long for that city where our bodies no longer hold us back from doing what our minds dream of doing, like when we were younger. We long for that city where disease and death no longer rob us of our loved ones, where tears are dried, mourning has ceased, grief has been healed. Citizens of heaven, that city is coming! Hallelujah! It lies just over the next horizon. It is a new city, where God forever dwells with God's people.
And this new city, she is our mother. Motherhood represents our primal connection to life, our identity, our most original, earthly relationship. Paul speaks of the new Jerusalem as our true mother. He makes an allegory of Hagar and Sarah as two covenants. Hagar is our covenant with earthly Jerusalem. Sarah is a new covenant with the heavenly Jerusalem. She is our true mother. The new Jerusalem is our mother city. The suffering, brokenness, and bondage of the old cities in which we live are foreign, temporary residences. Our true township doesn't have streets that are marked with signs that read---despair, depression, oppression, rejection, unloved. Those are not the streets of our true mother city. Look closely. Can you see the street names of our true city? The signs read---Freedom St. Hope Dr. Love Circle. Forgiveness Avenue. Peace Way. These are the hometown streets on which we walk. The new Jerusalem is our true mother city.
Can you envision paradise as such a city? If, like John, you can envision a new city coming, what would be the purpose? Surely John's vision of the new city is not a mere fantasy. He is not preaching escapism for those who live under the shadows of the old city. No. Rather, he is offering an alternative vision of the city for Christians who live in cities like Thyatira, Pergamum, Ephesus, Canby, Woodburn, Mollala and Hubbard. This vision was to be read in seven city churches in Asia Minor. Now, we read it from within the cities in which we dwell.
John's vision is subversive visionary rhetoric that instigates a new reality for the city. It's not just pie-in-the-sky images of what we wish our cities could be like, but never can be. Rather, the purpose of this vision of the new city is to move us to live as if the holy city is a present reality and to so create the reality around us as to reflect our vision. As someone once said, "Our visions, stories, and utopias, are not only aesthetic: they engage us." We are being called upon to imagine and live in a new reality of the city here and now in the light of the new city that's coming.
Until the city from above descends, we are to be about the business of laying its foundations. The ground is cleared by those who seek to serve God by serving their neighbor. The mortar is mixed by hands that sew quilts, share monetary resources, and volunteer in community human service organizations. The cement is poured out by those who visit the elderly, the lonely, the sick. The foundation of the new city is set in place by those challenge injustices and inequities in our institutions, church structures, communities, and political policies. The city that comes can only rest upon the foundations built by Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the whole communion of saints. The site where the holy city begins to touch down won't necessarily be Jerusalem for us, but rather the city where we live. As paradoxical as it may sound, it is in our own cities where we lay the foundation for the new city only God can build. In the cities where we live today we will seek to live within the borders of the city that is to come. In our very own cities is where we live for the city that is to come.
There was once a man was tired of the violence and injustice of his city. His family and friends sat for hours listening as he spoke passionately of his desire for a city where peace and justice were wed. Night after night his dreams were filled with images of a city where heaven touched the earth. One day he decided that he could wait no longer. He packed a meager meal, kissed his family, and set off in search of his heavenly city. He reached the woods at nightfall. After eating his meal he lay down to sleep on the hard earth. Again images of the heavenly city danced like phantoms in his dreams.
Upon waking he couldn't exactly remember which direction he had been traveling. But, nevertheless, he set out, driven by his strong desire to reach his new home. He didn't realize he was headed back to where he came from. Emerging from the woods he saw the skyline of a city on the horizon. A foggy haze made the city look like it was floating above the earth. "It must be the heavenly city," he thought. As he got closer to the city he thought it looked strangely familiar. Little did he know. He walked down a street that looked much like his own. He greeted some citizens that looked strangely like his old neighbors. He knocked on a familiar door and greeted the family he found there, and lived happily ever after in the heavenly city of his dreams.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth...and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."