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New Heaven, New Earth
a sermon based on Revelation 21:1–6a
by Rev. William A. Palmer, Jr.

Within the past couple of weeks an evening committee meeting was taking place at the church. Someone walking down the hall of the education wing stepped on a spider that had made its way into the building. Another person spoke up: “It’s a good thing that Carolyn isn’t here,” she said. “Carolyn would have been upset. She would have picked the spider up and carried it out of the building.”

This person was absolutely correct in her prediction of what Carolyn would have done. My wife has an aversion to killing things if she doesn’t have to. A spider or cricket or moth that finds its way into our house is unlikely to be swatted or squashed. Carolyn will pick it up—often on a piece of paper towel—and escort it to the door. After thirty-five years of marriage, there are still a great many things I haven’t figured out about my wife. But in this particular case I think I understand exactly how she feels. In fact, I not only understand but endorse what may seem like odd behavior to some other people.

Carolyn has a deep sensitivity to the amount and scale of violence in our world. When she picks up a bug and takes it outside, rather than squashing it underfoot, she considers it just her small protest to the violent solutions we often adopt for our problems. I know she’s not a total pacifist in this regard, because a threatening yellow jacket or hornet certainly might not receive the same treatment as an innocuous beetle or cricket. But her objective seems to be the employment of violence—in our home or elsewhere—only when it is absolutely unavoidable.

Violence is so much a part of our existence that we almost take it for granted. Switch your TV on at any time of the day or night and it’s possible that at least half the channels will be depicting some act of violence. Fistfights and beatings, assaults and stabbings, and gun battles—between cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, terrorists and government agents—provide a constant theme for our entertainment. Someone will remind me that such fare has been part of television for the fifty years we’ve been watching. Yet there is no question that the acts of violence have become far more graphic in the past few years. It’s no longer enough to see someone get shot and watch the victim fall down dead. Today we seem to require special effects that treat us to the spurting and spattering of blood, the dismemberment of bodies, and lingering camera shots of guts and gore. What’s worse is the dramatic emphasis that draws us to the ways in which sick people can terrorize their victims. A study released just this past week reveals that, in the United States, thirty percent of children under three years of age have a television set in their room.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about what you can see on the nightly news.

The Book of Revelation reminds us that coping with terror and violence is not just a problem of the twenty-first century. This book was written against the backdrop of the first great imperial persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Contemporary accounts tell us that Christians were sewn into animal skins and thrown before lions and hyenas in the stadiums where the populace often gathered to watch gladiators fight. We learn how Christians’ bodies were covered with pitch and fastened to poles, where they were set alight as human torches to illuminate the Emperor’s gardens. We may have some image, long-planted in our minds, of these early Christian martyrs going to their deaths with hymns of their lips. But human experience teaches us that everyone—no matter how strong our faith may be—is prey to terror and fear. It’s hard to imagine today, when not a single one of us risked his or her life to come here, what it must have been like to be hunted down like animals. And perhaps because it’s so hard to appreciate what they went through, it may be equally hard to appreciate the vision that sustained them and brought them courage to face death for what they believed.

Not long ago I was driving down the road and came up behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, “Envision Peace.” My immediate reaction was to think that we need to do a lot more if we really want peace than simply to envision it. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that if we do not have a vision of peace, we will not work to achieve it. As the Bible says in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Our New Testament text for today presents a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It is a vision of a world in which God is accorded his rightful place. His relationship with his creatures has been restored so that he dwells among mortals and has fellowship with them, as he did with Adam and Eve before the Fall. In this new world God will wipe away from the eyes of humans every tear. There will be no reason for crying because death will never again rob from our presence the lives of those we love. Grieving and mourning will no longer be part of our existence. And pain—whether the pain caused by disease and disability or the pain caused by a broken heart or the pain caused by a troubled mind—will be no more.

What a wonderful world! It is a world in which our nightmares and daily terrors have been erased from our minds, as a teacher erases her lessons from a blackboard. It is a world in which everything is new. And it is a world that is not simply a pipe dream—not some invention of minds driven to distraction by the unremitting pain, suffering, and violence of the world as we know it. It is a vision that God declares to be trustworthy and true. God puts the exclamation point on the substance of this vision by saying, “It is done!”

In the world that we know other visions continually swim before our eyes. If those visions are not conjured up by the ugly preoccupations of television, we have plenty of real life experiences to make their depressing imprint upon our minds. We watch the suffering of people we love, wasted by cancer, crippled by arthritis, robbed by Alzheimer’s of both intellect and personality. We see children who are neglected and sometimes abused and wonder what will become of them. We see marriages that have degenerated into loveless relationships in which the partners take turns in trying to inflict the most punishment on the other. We do not have to look far to see such things. Sometimes we need look no farther than the dark sides of our very own beings for a vision that is disturbing and distressing.

The vision of a new heaven and a new earth seems almost beyond our grasp in a world where much different visions compete for attention. Yet, as the bumper sticker reminds us, we would do well to envision peace. As Christians, we will do well to envision the fount of peace. “He is our peace,” Paul says of Jesus Christ in the letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 2:14). When we know Jesus, we can know peace, and we can envision a world without pain or mourning or crying or death.

What helps us to make the vision one that can enrich our lives? We can set aside time for prayer and meditation and worship that we need to help us through every week. We can capture the vision every time we make a choice to reject the graphic images of violence that pose as entertainment and become acquainted with the button on our remotes that says, “off.” We can do it every time we decide to resist the impulse to say or do something that is fueled by our anger or by our desire for revenge. We can do it by learning to live each day with a consciousness that the Lord is King, king of our lives and king of the world now and the world to come. We may do it by carrying a cricket outside the house rather than squashing it underfoot. Envision a new heaven and a new earth. Envision a place where we will know a joy so overwhelming that it defies the best efforts of the most active imagination. Believe that it is a vision both trustworthy and true, and embrace that vision, this morning, as we stand and as we sing. Amen.