What is Salvation? A New World to Share
9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using.
18 The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
How many of you remember the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeves? While it is 40 years old at this point, it is probably still the best Superman movie. There hasn’t been any Lex Luther anywhere close to as good as Gene Hackman in the years since. It has been awhile since I have seen it. But there was one part of the movie that always stood out to me. It was Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It’s this icy, glassy place in the middle of Antarctica, cold and quiet and all alone. There’s blue and green lights glowing, space age music playing lightly to set the mood, crystals jutting out from all directions. And most importantly, it is far away from everyone else. This is Superman’s place to have all by himself, where no one comes in contact to him.
In the years since watching this, I have realized that this Fortress of Solitude is so often our society’s view of what heaven or eternal life looks like. Soft mood music is constantly playing in the background (the type that we would never choose to listen to ourselves. But we think that God likes elevator music, while God might prefer jazz of classical or rock or blues or a little bit of everything). We picture salvation as a place that is white or clear and cold. And in this picture of salvation each one of us is all by ourselves in our own fortresses of solitude, away from everyone else.
But that is not the picture that scripture gives us. It’s not the picture that God has for us of what eternal life in God’s Kingdom is really like. God did not send Jesus into the world in order to give us a fortress of solitude in the middle of Antarctica where we would be all alone. Instead, God’s Kingdom is a bustling city, with people from every nation, tribe, language, and background coming through its open gates.
There are a lot of shocking parts to the Book of Revelation. There’s beasts coming out of the sea. There are crazy creatures with 10 heads and eyes all over them. There is a sea of glass and a throne of thunder and lightning. There is a lamb who is also a lion. There are seals and trumpets and rings, and choirs made up of spectacular and strange and wondrous creatures, with legions of angels in the tens of thousands singing alongside of them.
But for those who have never read Revelation on their own, but only heard about it secondhand, the most shocking part of the book may be here at the very end, in chapter 21. It is when we see God’s plan come to completion. Because it is not God destroying the world. It is not God giving up and whisking away only a select few to live in their own fortresses of solitude, protected from all those other people. It is not a picture of the End of the World, no matter what our movies tell us.
Instead, God’s plan in Revelation is God healing this world and making it new. It is God choosing to save and redeem and transform all of creation. And God does it not by separating us out. Not by putting us in our own isolated chambers. Not by keeping us apart. But by inviting us to live all together in one big city. In one huge city, that we all share as one.
Now the idea of living all together in one big city might be the most terrifying part of Revelation for some of us here. That image of having to somehow live with billions of other people in one city may be overwhelming. And there’s reason for that. As Brian Blount, President Union Seminary in Richmond, and one of the greatest scholars on the Book of revelation alive today, writes, “For many contemporary Christians (us here today) this part is as scary as the dragon and the plagues. Cities are inclusive, teeming, often dangerous and riotous places, where resources can be stretched to the breaking point and success, indeed, even survival, comes only when citizens work interdependently, negotiate strenuously, and compromise sincerely.”
And those are heard things to do. Cities may be scary and overwhelming to some of us, because we know that we are not always very good at living together. We get greedy. We get distrustful. We get short-tempered. We get prejudiced. We get scared, and then we get defensive and rude and mean and not very pleasant toward each other, which often leads to violence and pain and deep divisions. Whether we have lived in New York City or New Kent County, it doesn’t matter. We know that living in a community with others is hard. It means there are experiences and viewpoints different than our own. It means resources have to be shared. It means our thinking can’t just be inward, but also outward looking.
And so, when we get to this point in Revelation and read these words from John of Patmos, our first reaction may be to say, “Eh, John, you made a mistake. God’s Kingdom isn’t a city. That can’t be right. That’s too hard for us. We’re not good at that. We can’t do that on our own. We’re humans and too broken for that.”
And that is precisely the point of the city. We can’t do it on our own. We need help. And God brings it. For God’s Kingdom to be here on earth, we don’t just need a transformation of mountains and trees, and flowers and seas, and everything outside of us. We also need a transformation of everything inside of us. We need to become citizens of God’s Kingdom. We need to become people who know how to share this new world together.
And so God tells us in this earth made new, we will not be alone. God is in the very heart of this city, giving light both day and night. Christ is there, teaching and guiding our way. And the Holy Spirit is alive, doing a lot of work transforming us and making us into the people God always believed we can be.
One of my favorite details from this part of the story is the measurement of the city. Most cities, you would get just the measurement of the width and length, like a square or diamond, something to draw on a two-dimensional map. This city, though is different. Its width and length are given, but also its height. And all of them are equal. It is a cube. It is a giant cube. 12,000 stadia. 1500 miles. In all directions. The size tells us it is big enough for all who live in John’s time, and it will keep getting bigger to fit everyone in.
And for John’s readers, the shape would have also told them something. It is a cube. the shape of a cube immediately reminds them of another cube – the Holy of Holies. That cube was in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is where God’s people believed that God dwelt. And only one high priest could go into that area, and he could only do it once a year. For everyone else, there was always distance between us and God. We couldn’t see or hear or reach out to God directly.
But now God is telling us that everyone is invited into the Holy of Holies. And it’s not one room in one building, but it’s everywhere. God’s there when we wake up. God’s there when we go to sleep. God’s there when we eat and play, sing, and dance, work, and learn. The Holy of Holies is now the entire kingdom. There is no longer any distance between us and God. And all people can come and speak and pray and listen and see the glory of God for themselves.
This is what Christ came to give us. Not an escape from the world. But a world where we are made right. A world where God’s presence is always with us. A world we learn how to love one another as Christ loves us. A world we live as a community, as a city. A world where the gates are always open, because all the ways we hurt each other are gone, and we don’t need barriers anymore. We need ways to welcome more in.
In this vision from God, we find out that Salvation is not a private matter. It is not us being isolated and separated out. Salvation is a city, but a city where we learn how to live together and share all of gifts God has given us. For us today, we should look at John’s revelation with hope and faith and joy for what that day will bring.
It also invites us to reimagine our world today. It invites us as people of faith, to join in that kingdom work of God’s new city here and now. That means not escaping from our communities, not hiding from our neighbors, but diving into the places we live and working for their healing and justice and redemption for all people within them.
It means sharing our food with those who are hungry, teaching those who want to learn and grow and find new opportunities. It means serving side by side and listening to people who come from different places than us. It means trusting that God can change me, and God can change those who are my neighbors. It means looking at ourselves and asking, “How is the Spirit inviting me to be a better citizen, a better neighbor, a better person in God’s Big City.”
God has a beautiful city ready for us. Everything we need is there. Let’s get out of our fortresses of solitude and learn how to live as citizens of God’s true Kingdom. Amen.