St Michael’s, 20th August 2017
Readings – Matthew 25:1-13; Revelation 21:1-14; 22-25
I have always loved maps. I love the challenge of unfolding an Ordnance Survey map, working out a route, interpreting all the symbols and looking out for any strange place names along the way. Over the years I have built up quite a collection of these maps, and from time to time I like just looking at one and reading it like a book.
Of course like many people we rarely take maps with us any more when we are going on a journey. The humble map has for the most part been replaced by the Satnav. You simply enter the postcode of your destination and away you go. The days of unfolding the map in a hurry, working out what’s happening at the next junction, and hoping you’ve taken the right route are well and truly over. You set your goal and unless you blindly follow your Satnav down the nearest country lane you arrive safe and sound at the end of your journey.
I’ve been thinking a lot about destinations as I’ve been preparing this morning’s sermon from our reading in Revelation. Some of us have quite clear goals in life, and we’re already well on the way to achieving them. Some of us aren’t really quite sure where we’re going, and every time we have to make a decision, it’s as if we still have to get out the map, unfold it and hope that we are setting off on the right track.
But as I hope will become clear this morning – if we believe and trust in Jesus Christ then, whether our future seems crystal clear or quite uncertain, there is a final destination of which we can all be sure, and to which we all are heading. Some call the destination heaven, others call the destination paradise. But whatever you call it, it is a new and glorious future beyond anything we can ever imagine.
And it is this future which John attempts to describe as He talks about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem. Now if you were here over the past few weeks you will know we have been going quite slowly through the first seven chapters of Revelation. I could have spent many more weeks going through the seven trumpets, and the seven deadly plagues, and the number of the beast, and the whore of Babylon. But I also considered it important that we didn’t lose sight of the end of the book. Because what John describes here is in many ways not just the conclusion to his revelation on the island of Patmos, but to the whole of the Bible.
You see, this new heaven and new earth is where God’s story has been heading all along. This is where we reach the final page of the book where it says “The end”. There are no more chapters to be written, or a sequel to be made up hundreds of years later, possibly by the JWs or the Mormons. This is where God’s plans and purposes all come to a wonderful and thrilling conclusion, and the final Amen at the end of Revelation, chapter 22, verse 21, really is the last word.
So when we turn to the very beginning of the Bible and read that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, the mind-blowing fact we need to get our heads round is like any good author God has already planned the glorious climax to His work. That’s why, as we read on through the fall of Adam and Eve, the call of Abraham, the history of Israel, the coming of Jesus, the story of the church, we need to always keep in the back of our minds the conclusion of God’s plan right here in Revelation 21 and 22 which links everything together. It’s where all the different threads in the Bible join up and we see how all these different books written in so many different places over so many years finally connect.
Of course what this future will be like is beyond the power of any human to describe. Even when John is granted a vision of the new Jerusalem he struggles to put into words everything he sees. So it’s really important to understand that as with so many details in Revelation we aren’t meant to take what he writes literally. There won’t be a new city built in the state of Israel that will be perfectly square, with twelve gates and a great wall. What we will experience will be something that is not simply a renewed existence but something that is completely new far beyond our understanding.
But as always, the reason why John uses these pictures is not to puzzle or confuse us, but to convey some essential truths of which we can certain. Although we may not be able to grasp what this future is like, we can still know and understand three very important facts that form the basis of our hope as Christians.
First of all, this future is where we will live in the presence of God forever. Listen again to verse 3: Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. Now I for one cannot imagine what this will be like. The message of the Old Testament is that no-one can see God’s face and live. The message of the New Testament is that we live by faith, not by sight. But, as the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, verse 12, one day I shall fully know even as I am fully known. I shall finally be standing in the presence of the one who made me and saved me and who loves me to the end. And suddenly I will understand and be able to say, “Oh, I see.” How great and wonderful will be the rejoicing on that day!
Secondly, this future is where we will be safe from harm forever. Now I don’t know about you, but I find something incredibly poignant about verse 4: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” John here doesn’t just say there will be no more death or mourning or crying, though that is wonderful and amazing enough. No, he tells us that God Himself, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who is seated on the throne, will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Or to put it another way, His loving, personal care, will be fully and finally realised.
I wonder if you remember when you were very small falling over and hurting your knee. Your pain was very real and you were in floods of tears. I hope that most of you had a parent you could go to, who could hold you and make the pain go away. If you can relate to that image, then something similar is happening here, but on a much, much deeper level. In the future that John describes every pain will be stilled, every hurt will be healed, even for those who have never before felt the love of a father. We will be complete and sound in body, mind and soul, as we indeed were originally created to be. No more prescriptions, no more prayer lists, no more pills. That is indeed a future worth looking forward to, isn’t it?
And thirdly, this is a future where we will live in harmony with each other forever.
This is a really important point because so often we think of heaven in purely individual terms. John, however, sees heaven as a city, that is, a community of people all gathered together. So who will be there alongside us? We’ve already seen the answer in chapter 7:9-10:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
So in this city there will be rich and poor, there will be white Americans and black Americans, there will, as I said a couple of weeks ago, even Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City supporters. Whatever may divide us now will be as nothing compared to the fact of our unity in Christ Jesus. We will all be singing together one song. We won’t have to worry about knowing the words, or whether the technology is working. We will be as one, praising God and His Son Jesus, the Lamb.
And why are we wearing white robes? As we saw last week in Revelation chapter 6, verse 11, the white robes are given to those who prove faithful to Jesus even unto death. They are given to people who not only profess to love Jesus but show their love by their deeds and their actions, even in the most extreme of circumstances.
Now in today’s reading John extends that image of white robes here to talk about the new Jerusalem being prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. He wants us to understand that here is the church in all its finery finally ready to meet with her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. So there will no more hard decisions about buildings or finance or anything else. We will be set free to worship as we were always meant to be, rejoicing in the salvation that is ours forever.
I hope you have seen by now how our final destination is more glorious than we can ever possibly imagine. It is a place where we will be with God forever, where we will be safe from harm, where we will be living in harmony with one another. So the very obvious question is: how do we get there?
Listen very carefully to verses 6-8 because it is so important that we understand them correctly:
It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.
Now you might be thinking, I’ve never been cowardly or a murderer or sexually immoral, and I certainly would never dream of practising magic arts or worshipping an idol. Surely that must mean I am OK to get to heaven!?
Well, listen to what Jesus says on the subject of murder, for example, in Matthew 5:21-22: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Or a few verses later, on the subject of sexual immorality: You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The critical point we need to realise is that God doesn’t just judge our actions. He also judges the desires of our hearts. And if we think we are going to get to heaven by being good enough, then one day we are going to be in for a rude shock.
As the apostle Paul says in Rom 3:23: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That includes me, you and everyone else in this church this morning. None of us have been or can ever become good enough for a God who is pure and holy and good. So heaven is not for people who think they are good enough, but people who recognise they are bad enough to need Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. That’s why the next time someone tells you that you get to heaven by being good, please would you do whatever you can to put them right? It is one of the biggest lies people believe and it has no place in our Christian faith. It dishonours God, and it means Jesus did not need to die for us on the cross. If we could please God by our own efforts, then just was the point of His Son coming to earth, dying and rising again?
And don’t believe, either, that God will somehow accept us if our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds. If that is what you believe, then you are following the wrong religion. That is what Islam teaches, not Christianity, and to live never knowing whether you have done enough for God must be the most terrible burden anyone can ever carry. No, let me say as clearly as I can again that what will matter on the last day is whether we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
It’s not just me saying this, either. Listen to what Jesus Himself says in the gospel that John wrote, in probably the most famous verses in the whole of the Bible, John 3:16-18: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
So I hope you can see this morning we need to answer a really important question: How do I stand before the Lord today? You may have been coming to church all your life. All this may be very new. That doesn’t matter. God isn’t there awarding you points for attendance. But He is there longing that we come to His Son Jesus Christ and receive the gift of eternal life. Because this wonderful vision of heaven isn’t just for other people. It’s for you, whoever you are. All you have to do is reach out and accept your need of Jesus, and God your Heavenly Father will accept you. It is as simple as that.
I just want to make two further points at this stage. Because, yes, the gift of heaven really is for all who believe and trust in Jesus. But once you put your faith and trust in Jesus, I hope you can also understand you are not then free to live as you wish. You can’t go round saying, “Well, I’m going to heaven, so it doesn’t matter how I behave”. In fact the way we live our lives really do matter; it is our actions that will prove whether we in fact have a real genuine faith.
We heard in our gospel reading the story of what is sometimes called the story of the wise and the foolish virgins. It is rather a strange story, and I don’t have time to explain it all now. But the difference between the wise and the foolish virgins is that the wise ones were ready to meet the bridegroom, that is Jesus. They had oil in their lamps, the foolish ones did not. Once we understand that the oil represents the Holy Spirit, then the meaning becomes clear. Those who believe and trust in Jesus are called to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, and keep coming back to Him for the wisdom and strength that we need to follow Him. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra for keen Christians. It is an essential part of allowing Jesus to take full control over us and live in our hearts.
And secondly, there are sadly some Christians who go round rejoicing in the fact they are going to heaven and loudly proclaiming that other people are not. Our reading from Revelation ends with the statement that not everyone will enter the heavenly city but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Now I would love to know whose names are written there. But it is not up to me, or anyone else to know. That is privileged information known only to Jesus and to God Himself. So how dare we go round judging other people as if we have a right to know their eternal destiny! It is God who alone judges, God alone who decides will be there with Him in the new Jerusalem.
So once we put our faith and trust in Jesus, how then should we live? Very simply, by humbly offering our lives each day in willing service to the one who died for us; by doing all we can to make Jesus known to those who do not yet believe; and by making this church a community which in some small way a foretaste of the glorious reality that is yet to come.
21 Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ 5 He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’