And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life. And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.
- Revelation 21:22 - 22:5
In today’s Epistle lesson, John has a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God which abides eternally in perfect communion and fellowship with God. It is interesting that the narrative of the Bible begins with man and woman in a garden and ends with redeemed humanity in a city. Heaven, in John’s vision, is not pictured as simply a return to the garden of Eden. There is of course the fellowship with God which is common to both, but the fact that there is a city at the end suggests that the succeeding history from Eden—the history of civilization—finds its fulfillment and perfection in this universal city. Heaven is not about erasing history. Rather, all that is true, noble, good and beautiful will find its place and perfection in heaven. It is comforting to know that the music of Mozart, the poetry of Shakespeare and the painting of Rembrandt ultimately belong to this city. In this city, all that is hateful and destructive is purged, all that is good and praise-worthy and loving is preserved and perfected.
In the book of Revelation, John contrasts this heavenly Jerusalem with what is called the whore of Babylon a symbol for the city of Rome in John’s time. The city of Rome, the city of this world, is all about power that controls, trade that accrues ever increasing material goods, and commerce that builds paper wealth. The city of Jerusalem, the city of God, is all about power that serves, trade that honors God as the giver of all, and commerce that builds the commonwealth, in the old sense of that word. In our own time we see both cities operating in this world. Although the heavenly Jerusalem has not yet been manifested, we are called to live as citizens of that city, with all that that citizenship implies.
In his vision, John also writes of a river, a river flowing with the water of life. The river “proceeds out of the throne of God and of the Lamb”. Water of course is symbolic for that basic sustenance which we need to live. Of all the things needed for human life—food, water, shelter—we can endure water’s absence for the least amount of time. Perhaps this is because our bodies are composed mostly of water. The point of the image is that from God flows the very life of our being. He is our sustenance, our life, our endurance, our future. The image also is reminiscent of the assertion in the Old Testament that a spring flowed from under the temple in Jerusalem. Writing of this river, the Psalmist says, There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God; * the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most Highest (46.4). The presence of life-giving water in Jerusalem, out of the temple, suggests that the joy God’s people receive from his presence in the temple is also life-giving. Following the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, Ezekiel had a vision of a new temple purified in ideal worship to God. It too has a stream following out from under it. In his vision, Ezekiel follows this stream which begins as a trickle and eventually becomes so voluminous that he can no longer stand up in it. This symbolic river transforms the salty Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is called by this name because of how uninhabitable its waters are. In Ezekiel’s vision the Dead Sea becomes a fresh water lake full of fish and other living creatures. Along the banks of this life-giving river, Ezekiel sees abundant “trees. . . whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.” Notice the echo in Revelation of these leaves that are for healing or medicine. In John’s Gospel we also have a hint of this life giving water when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “Whosoever drinketh of this water—the well water—shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” You see, in each of these passages from Scripture what we are dealing with is not literal, physical water, but a symbolic reality. The sacred writers are conveying with these images that God is like water to the soul. No doubt, you’ve heard of the figurative God-shaped hole in each one of us. Everyone has a hunger and appetite for God and the things of the Spirit. One of course sees a myriad number of ways in which people try to satisfy this thirst for the water that is God. They try anything they can to put into that God-shaped hole. Only, instead of satisfying their thirst, it is as if they are drinking salt water which only makes them more thirsty. The man who has a will to power, believes that the more authority and control he has will make him content and happy. This lust for power has led many to wade through slaughter to a throne. Materialists on the other hand seek an excess of material goods. Only, as you know, there is no end of wanting. It has never happened that the materialist announces with satisfaction, I have enough. Further, the person hungering for love will go from relationship to relationship and from marriage to marriage looking to be affirmed and fulfilled. Each of these are recipes for loneliness, unhappiness and eventually despair. Why? Because in each case, someone tries to substitute a false god for what God alone can give: the water of life. This is precisely the meaning of all the water images in the Bible. God is the ultimate happiness and satiation of our being. Christianity calls us to live as pilgrims on earth. That does not mean that we are wandering nomads, or that we are afflicted with the great vice of wanderlust. Rather, we know ourselves to be citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. We know that their true home is in God, and can say like the Psalmist, “the Lord leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” even in the midst of this world, this valley of the shadow of death.
This symbolism surrounding water has extended to the church’s outward order. As you entered the church you probably passed by the baptismal fount where the waters of baptism bring us to new life. Tomorrow as our young people and adults are confirmed by the bishop, each will make a promise to live into the reality of that living water by which they have been washed and filled in Baptism. And even now, we are invited to find our satisfaction and fulfillment in God as we partake of this simple meal of bread and wine. It is not a meal to satisfy our stomachs, but a feast given by God to feed our souls with his very life. My friends, when we come to learn that God can and does fill us in a way that nothing else in this world can, there is great peace, joy and contentment to be found. May we all turn to him in repentance and faith and find that water within us that wells up to everlasting life.