Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27
Function: Listener will take comfort in John’s vision of heaven, and know that even though God sees us as we really are, still He loves us
The text for the message this morning comes from our Epistle reading in Revelation, where we hear that wonderful description of heaven, the New Jerusalem, with the great, high walls, 12 gates and streets paved with gold.
And of course, that reminds me of a story. It seems that John D. Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest men in the world in his day, was approaching the end of his life. God told him that because of all of his charitable work, he would be allowed to bring one suitcase with him to heaven, filled with whatever he chose. Well, Mr. Rockefeller figured he would bring what he always brought on a trip – a suitcase full of money. But thinking that the currency in heaven was probably not dollars, he had his money converted to gold first, and put that in the bag.
And sure enough, the day came when Rockefeller passed away. He arrived in heaven with the suitcase. The angels gathered around to greet him and welcome him to his new home, and see what he brought. A strange look came over their faces when they saw it, and they said: “”We’re all glad to see you, Mr. Rockefeller, but one thing puzzles us. Why did you bring all of that pavement with you?”
Streets paved with gold. That’s how John described the New Jerusalem in Revelation: high walls, beautiful gates and golden streets. Thing is, while this is a wonderfully comforting picture, there is a catch, and it comes at the very end of the reading. John added a brief note about who is allowed to enter this city, and who is not. And that gives us a little something to think about this morning. Let’s have a look.
John wrote that: “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false.” Nothing unclean will enter heaven. What exactly would that be? Well, if you’re looking for a definition of what’s clean and what’s unclean, you need look no further than the Old Testament book of Leviticus. You’ll find lists of animals that were unclean for eating. You’ll read about various infections and diseases that made a person unclean. There are even descriptions of molds and mildews that cause a house to be unclean. But the bigger worry for us is that you will also find that there are a lot of sinful activities, things that we do that are outside of God’s good laws for our lives, that make us unclean.
That is, what we say and what we do can disqualify us for entrance through those pearly gates. Nothing unclean, nobody who does anything detestable or false, nobody who is sinful, it says, will be considered part of God’s people. If you want to walk the golden streets, you’re going to have to be better than good – you’re going to have to be perfect.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? When we take an honest look inside, we find some things that, well, certainly could be classified as less than clean. For example, there might be things we have said that we dearly want to take back. Or hurts we have caused that we wish we could undo. There are times we went silent when we should have spoken, habits that we should have laid aside, or cherished grudges that we cannot forget.
Next Sunday on Mother’s Day we might spend time reflecting on how much Mom means to us. But some of those reflections might also remind us of the pain families feel over arguments that led to separation. I think we all, from time to time, experience a sense of guilt that is justly deserved.
And that’s why that description of the heavenly city is a bit uncomfortable. Nothing unclean will enter there. But we all have a past that has problems. And, let’s be honest, we have a present we’re not all that sure about, and a future that might yet collect a few more blemishes. So how will we ever through those gates? How do we go from here to eternity?
To answer that, we have to go back to our reading from John’s gospel this morning. Jesus and His disciples had just finished their Passover supper and were now walking towards the garden of Gethsemane. On the way, Jesus talked with them about what was going to happen over the next few hours. He said: “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone.”
And off course, that was exactly what happened. When Jesus was arrested later that night, His disciples hit the ground running. Literally. They abandoned Jesus to His fate. After He was crucified, they stayed hidden in their homes afraid to open the door.
Jesus knew that was going to happen. He knew they would fall away. And He knew that His disciples would feel like failures as followers, like they had lost the one shot they had at heaven. Like they were unclean and had done some pretty detestable and false things.
So before all that took place, Jesus pulled His disciples to one side and told them something incredibly important. He said: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
“I have overcome the world.” Jesus was already looking ahead to the cross, where He would overcome. He was urging them to “take heart” and find peace in Him. He did not want them to be ashamed and afraid on the days after Easter when they saw Him again. He knew what was in their hearts, He knew their history of following and failures. And He loved them anyway.
And that’s exactly what we need to hear when we’re reading a scary book like John’s Revelation. Jesus knows what is in our hearts, too. He knows our history. He knows our uncleanness, our deceit and our fear. He loves us anyway.
He proved it on Good Friday. On the cross Jesus died to pay the penalty for our failures, our sin – for the world’s sin. And by His resurrection, He won the victory over sin, death and the devil – our tempter and accuser. He offers us forgiveness and peace, because He has overcome. We will get from here to eternity, not because we’re good enough, but because He was good enough, His life was good enough, to be the perfect sacrifice.
John wrote that “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will be part of that great eternal city. The good news is that our names were written in that book of life at our baptism, when God called us to be His children. They were written by the Holy Spirit, apart from anything good we tried to do, and despite everything bad we’ve accomplished since. Jesus loves us anyway.
Jesus forgave and purified His disciples, and today He does the same for us: cleansing us from all our detestable deeds, covering over our tainted thoughts, so that when the day comes for us to stand before the judgment seat of God, we actually will belong in heaven. Not because we have done such a great job at improving our sinful lives. But because Jesus has created in us the holiness He demands.
All that stuff that we’ve done through our lives that we are ashamed of will not follow us through the pearly gates. Only the life that Jesus gave us in faith, a life that begins new in us each day, will cross that threshold.
There will be a day when we will walk the streets of that city John saw. There will be a day that we’ll be living close enough to God to reflect His glory. There will be a day that we will be behind the tall, safe walls, living in peace and purity. And we will be there because Jesus loves us anyway.