5th Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2013
Rev 7: 9, 14-17
St. Timothy, Greenwich, Conn.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21: 1).
|The New Jerusalem, after Gustave Dore, by Laura Sotka|
In this morning’s reading the key word is new. In 4½ verses new appears 4 times. If you’re always looking for innovation, for new and improved, for the next big thing, this is your passage!
What’s new? The whole of creation! “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (21:1,5). Note that in Greek, as in Latin and in many modern European languages, the word for “heaven” and for “sky” is the same, tho not in English except when we speak of “the heavens”—the heavens above or the heavens opening (with buckets of rain).
This old world we’re used to, this world which hates God and his people in so many ways, this world so full of sorrow and pain—it has no permanence. “The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (21:1). As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come” (13:14).
If you’re fond of the sea, as so many New Englanders are, I’m sorry about the sea’s being no more! The Jews were landlubbers all the way, with no love for the sea and no seafaring traditions. In the Bible, the sea usually represents chaos and monsters, and in Revelation in particular the great dragon that tries to devour God’s people and also “spews a torrent of water out of his mouth” to sweep away with the current God’s holy people (12:15). Here in ch. 21 the meaning is that there will be no more monsters, no dragons, no chaos—no disorder or evil, in other words—in God’s new creation.
The one who addresses John the visionary spells out that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (21:4). The old order is the creation and the civilization we live in—the one with sickness and death, war and terrorism, political and economic corruption, infidelity and exploitation, natural disasters and birth defects—sin in all its personal and impersonal forms, evils that people choose and evils of nature that we’re powerless against.
God indeed promises to end all that and “make all things new” (21:5). Only he can do that. Men have tried many times. E.g., the French Revolution promised liberty, equality, and fraternity, reordered the whole calendar, made Reason the supreme goddess, attempted to subjugate religion, and martyred hundreds of priests and nuns—and produced a reign of terror, more than 20 years of war, and a dictator named Napoleon. Various Communist regimes repeated that pattern in the 20th century and into this century. No human effort has produced a new order that remotely resembled paradise.
One effort has been more successful than others at creating a new order of affairs on earth. If you look at the back of a dollar bill, you’ll see on either side the 2 parts of the great seal of the U.S., which Congress adopted in 1782. The part on the left has 2 inscriptions: above is annuit coeptis, Latin for “He has favored our undertakings”; and beneath is novus ordo seclorum. Seclorum is a contraction of saeculorum, a word familiar to my generation and older ones who remember the ending of Latin prayers: per omnia saecula saeculorum, “for ages upon ages,” or “world without end,” or as our official translation renders it, “forever and ever.” Novus ordo seclorum means “a new order of the world” or “a new order of the ages.”
The establishment of the U.S. at the end of the 18th century was “a new order” in the world of human governance, never before tried on such a vast scale, the order of representative democracy. Unlike other attempts at creating a new order, however—such as the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions—our “new order” included God. Annuit coeptis refers to him—he has favored what we’ve undertaken; and that phrase is inscribed over an eye within a triangle, iconography for the all-seeing, all-knowing Holy Trinity. The Founders could well invoke his favor, for God and religion played a huge part in our colonial beginnings, and the Declaration of Independence refers to God no less than 4 times.
I hardly need say that the U.S. is not exactly the New Jerusalem that St. John saw descending from heaven (21:2). It’s not earthly paradise. As Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
With God at our side, tho, we have a chance of making some progress at improving the world, the civilization we live in, our culture. If we have God in our hearts, the people we deal with will be more likely to encounter the compassion of God that the psalm today spoke of (145:9). And God will be in our hearts when we take to heart the new commandment that Jesus gives us, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34-35).
The practice of love can make it seem that God dwells in our homes, in our parish, in our community. We see that best, unfortunately, in times of disaster, like the way Bostonians and the people of West, Texas, came together and helped one another. But we know that if we do our best to be faithful to Jesus, when he returns as Judge and establishes the new creation we will at last dwell in the new Jerusalem and experience God’s presence permanently, in a relationship as close and as intimate as husband and wife: the “new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). And we shall be citizens of this city, with no more tears, death, or mourning but only joy, serenity, and love—per omnia saecula saeculorum!