This text follows up on the imperative from last week’s reading from Revelation to “Behold!” the new Jerusalem, which is an invitation as much for us as it was for John. John makes it ours by describing in brilliant detail the new Jerusalem he is given to see in his mind’s eye. Commentaries like Louis Brighton’s in the Concordia Commentary series (or others) can provide exegesis on those details much better than I ever could.
So, let us use this space to discuss what is happening formally, from a literary perspective, in this text. John’s description of the new Jerusalem exemplifies what literary theorists call ekphrasis. Ekphrasis (from the Greek: ek + phrasis/phrazein, literally “to speak out or call forth”) is the technique by which one work of art (usually a poem, story, or essay) vividly describes another work of art (usually a visual work like a sculpture or painting). In this way, the one work of art “gives voice” to what would otherwise be the other silent work of art. Ekphrasis typically takes one of two forms. The first is it can describe an actual object or scene, like the way W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” describes two paintings by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. Or, it takes the form known as notional ekphrasis, where the work describes an imaginary object or scene which otherwise does not exist. The classic example of notional ekphrasis is also one of the earliest: Homer’s long description of the famous shield of Achilles in book 18 of the Iliad. The shield does not exist except by Homer’s description of how he imagines it to be. Like nearly all of John’s apocalyptic descriptions, this text gives us another classic example of notional ekphrasis, this one revealed to John by the angel of God. He is vividly and dramatically relaying a verbal description of the grand vision of this new Jerusalem as a way for us to glimpse the glory which will one day be ours in the resurrection.
He is vividly and dramatically relaying a verbal description of the grand vision of this new Jerusalem as a way for us to glimpse the glory which will one day be ours in the resurrection.
Like most of John’s Revelation, such a formal discussion is easier to have in a classroom or Bible study than in a sermon. But the reason I bring it up is because this text gives us an opportunity to preach not so much the exegetical details as to utilize its form. The connection would be for the preacher to vividly describe a home, a space, or a scene that provides a parallel glimpse of the Kingdom yet to come. This can take any number of forms. It could be a childhood home which holds special meaning. It could be a nearby Gilded Age mansion. It could be the tallest skyscraper in your metropolitan area. The key here would be what is the same key to all good ekphrasis: Describe the space or the scene with concrete, sensory details. What do you see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and feel as you walk your hearers through the space with your words? And because we are writing for the ear (what they will hear) rather than for the eye (what they would read), it is usually best to keep the details simple and precise, just as John does (for example, “its radiance like a most rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal” in verse 11). The irony of it is, as in almost all effective uses of language, the more concrete and particular the description is, the more universal the experience you are providing. What you are doing for your hearers is sparking their imagination to live in, to dwell in, the images you are conjuring in their mind’s eye.
Allow me an example which could be used by any preacher. It is an ekphrastic description of a church’s sanctuary or worship space. If the current sanctuary is the only worship space the congregation has ever known, the preacher could describe the space, often by including tiny details the hearers may not typically perceive. You could mention things like a sculptural detail of wood or stone hidden in a corner, the way the shaft of light from a window illuminates a color or shadow against the wall, etc. What details strike your eye or ear? What catches your breath when you enter the space? Describe it simply and poignantly. Or, if this is not the first sanctuary in the congregation’s history, you can use ekphrasis to describe what a previous sanctuary looked like, conjuring for your hearers a part of the church’s history they have never experienced before. In either example, the move would be to attempt to describe the wide-eyed awe and wonder of those first parishioners who walked into this sanctuary for the first time, to hear their voices echoing together as they sang their most beloved hymns in this space, to witness the first baptism at this font, to taste and see God’s goodness in body and blood for the first time at this table. A vivid ekphrastic description would then prime hearers to experience the same awe of John as the preacher emphatically proclaims that all of these details, in either their cathedral magnificence or their clapboard simplicity, are only a minuscule glimpse, a crumb of a foretaste, of the glory of the new Heaven and the new Earth yet to come.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Revelation 21:9-11, 21-27.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 21:9-11, 21-27.