The language of Revelation 21 is drenched in imagery of the church and her consummation in Christ. Someone told me once that a preacher shouldn’t mix metaphors. Try telling that to the Holy Spirit: the Lamb has a wife and the wife is a city and the Lamb has apostles; the temple is the Lord God and the Lamb, and the Lamb is the glory of God and the light of the nations, and the light is the glorious city into which the kings bring their glory. And, by the way, if your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, you come too. Feel free to mix metaphors with the Holy Spirit. To do so well, however, we need to have some biblical images and visions before our eyes.
Preparatory reading for this Sunday and the next is Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet’s vision of the new temple, and of course a review of the Book of Revelation, which testifies to the angels and bowls of plagues, and the Lamb. John’s vision of the church in glory echoes Ezekiel’s vision. The fact that John tells us that the temple in the city is the Lord Himself should not only remind us our Lord’s own words, “destroy this temple…,” or the liturgical description of Jesus’ death to ascension in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but it should also call to mind the rich language in Scripture of Christ’s body as the church. Christ is made man to redeem His bride with His own blood (Acts 20:28). He takes up human flesh and blood to unite Himself with His beloved. He left His Father to cling to His wife, and the two have become one flesh. This is, as St. Paul reminds us, “a profound mystery” (Eph. 5).
I suggest preaching this text in view of the church’s mystical union with Christ. The focus in the text is clearly corporate, but the soul as a microcosm of the church is an appropriate extension of the proclamation (see Philipp Nicolai’s “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” [“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” or “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”]). Christ will have His church as His own. But the heart of our old Adam, does not want God’s kingdom to come or God’s name to be hallowed. The way Christians resist this magnificent picture of the church is either to say that they don’t belong to that Holy City or that it’s just a picture, but nothing really real. Think of all the cynicism surrounding marriage. Even Christians doubt that marriages end well. So it goes with the soul and Christ. We don’t think that a union with the Cruficied will end well, so we grow cynical of the marriage, and assume that all will turn out for the worse. We’ve seen how that marriage goes: suffering, sorrow, sickness…you name it. But John shows us where this marriage leads.
C.S. Lewis wonderfully portrays the earthly pleasures and beauties of this present age as shadows of the real thing to come. Eating fancy cheese, buying your wife beautiful earrings, singing, dancing, enjoying children’s laughter, and making s’mores by the campfire with the kids while you enjoy a cigar, it’s all just training for real joys and pleasures at God’s right hand. But it’s easy to preach earthly things as distractions from the heavenly. I know some of us get excited to show that faith and reason are like oil and water, and natural theology is the death of a theologian of the cross. But there’s a bit of nonsense in that. If we teach our people only to suffer (which they will do anyway), and to expect nothing more than suffering, we are sometimes unintentionally teaching them to want less. But Christ is more. His resurrection means there’s more. After all, He’s the Lord who turns water into wine and not wine into water. And He’s the one who’s prepared this Holy City as a Bride on the day of consummation. As pastors, we’ve got to be better about teaching our people to hope, and to live life in joyful expectation of what Christ has promised and revealed. So we can start this Sunday with the picture of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Hope, that is, the eschatological hope that we have in Christ causes us to distinguish between that which is fading away in this world and that which is pointing us to the future life. Luther was exceptional at holding all things in creation captive to Christ. He couldn’t help but interpret the world through the hope of the resurrection. The trees breaking forth from winter’s deathly grip and flowers that reach for the sun, they all point to what’s really real in Christ. We ought to be doing the same when we preach on the church. John’s vision lets us see all things bright and beautiful, not as distractions, but as previews of what’s to come. Your sermon doesn’t need to be a God-in-nature sermon, but it ought to point people to the hope that is theirs in Christ Jesus. John does this by trying to draw earthly comparisons to the heavenly Jerusalem. We are the bride. Every baptized child of God has citizenship in this great city.
What earthly comparisons can you make to demonstrate for your people the splendor of their hope in Christ? If you have a beautiful sanctuary in which you preach or a vision of something absolutely splendid comes to mind, you may want to use the rhetorical strategy of comparing the lesser to the greater (a fortiori): “if this earthly thing is great, how much greater the heavenly?” But you can also invert the argument. “If this earthly thing is great, it’s because it’s a picture of the real thing in heaven!” You may want to spend some time expanding on the beauty of art and music or the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem, to show how these seemingly earthly things are filled with meaning. In this way, we teach our people to see all things through the telos in Christ. This is just what John’s vision does for us. He wants to show us what the church will be, and so show us what she already is, as she lives in this hope. Whoever is written in the book of life already shares in the unshakable kingdom. Your sermon should preach your people right into the book of life, so that there can be no doubt that they belong, because Christ wrote down their names with His own blood. You’re married to Him, and no man, not even the angels in heaven, nor death itself can rend this union asunder. The Lamb’s love for His bride is stronger than death.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 21:10-22:5