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“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come.” So says Jesus in the Gospel lesson just read (John 16:12-22). By “sorrow” he means the pain. The great pain. “But when she has delivered the baby,” Jesus continues, “she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child has been born.”
With these words, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the sadness they will experience at his departure, by telling them of his imminent return. “You have sorrow now,” he says. “But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice.”
One of those disciples hearing the words of Jesus that day was a man named John. Many years later, this same John saw visions about the return of Jesus. They are recorded for us in the book of Revelation.
Our second reading today (Revelation 21:1-7) is from one of the concluding chapters of that book. In the particular vision recorded here, John hears the voice of God. God has not directly spoken since early in the book. Now he gives a bold proclamation. Among the many things God says is the powerful statement: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” Today’s sermon will examine that statement in detail. As a means of examination, I will offer seven observations about the statement that I believe will help us understand it, and the text around it, in full.
First, we should note that this statement is rather unexpected. It’s unexpected because we normally think of the opposite—that the dwelling place of man is with God. We think about going to him, rather than him going to us. We even have songs that reflect this idea, such as the hymn: “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.” The true dwelling place of man, according to the song and according to our thinking, is with God in heaven. That’s our destiny. We all hope to go there someday.
But the text says that the dwelling place of God is with man. It’s important for us to note this distinction. And that both statements are true.
There’s a sense that we will need to leave this world to go to Him. We recall that Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise.” This world is not paradise. We all know that. So, we must go somewhere else.
And yet, this world will someday be paradise. Paradise restored. And that’s our true final destination. The presence of God may be out of this world at present, but someday God will come back and claim this world. In the words of the Bible—both our text today and others—this world will be re-created. It will be a new heaven and a new earth. A new creation.
As such, we must remember that this statement about the dwelling place of God with man is a statement about the future… and not just the immediate future, but one that will take place at a particular time—when Christ comes again and ushers in the new age.
Up until that point, the immediate future destiny for Christians—following their earthly death—is to somehow be in the presence of the Lord while the body remains on the earth. The best way to understand this is that the soul goes to heaven but the body waits until the Resurrection.
Knowing that this statement of God is about the future, we should be careful about applying it to the present. I thought about that when I put this statement out on the message board along Idylwood Road as our theme for this Sunday. I often try to put a message there that I think might peak people’s curiosity. But it did occur to me that some folks might get the wrong idea. The statement could be misleading to some without hearing it in its context.
Some will hear that statement and think about the god in their home, up on their mantel, who brings them good luck. That’s what God dwelling with man means to them.
Others will hear that statement and think about the god that dwells in their temple—where they must go and offer their prayers and sacrifices to make sure god is appeased.
Still others will hear that statement and think about the god they are convinced is within them. They might think of God as a power that helps them think more clearly and act more boldly. They might even think they themselves are gods or goddesses.
To combat these errors, the Bible describes God’s dwelling place as primarily outside of us. This reinforces the teaching that God is “other.” He is quite distinct from us. The God of the Bible is the Creator while we are the creatures. The God of the Bible is holy while we are not. There is a great distinction between God and man that must not be forgotten.
And yet, in a sense, Christians believe that God is both with and within us too. A such, this is also can be a statement about the present. Isaiah the prophet told us God would send us “Immanuel”—which means “God with us.” That Immanuel, Jesus, told his disciples: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” St. Paul (1 Corinthians 3) said, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” These passages and more point to the Trinitarian understanding of God that is so important for a proper understanding of him. The doctrine of the Trinity gives us a balanced view of God. We know that as much as God the Holy Spirit lives in us, He is also the Father in heaven and the Son who now sits at the right hand of the Father.
God is with us. His dwelling place is with man. And yet, in this world we see and experience him only in part, as in a mirror dimly, not in His fullness. When he comes again, we will see his full glory and our dwelling together will be obvious. It will be as Jesus said: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14).
Hearing these words should remind us, then, that God’s statement in Revelation 21 is to be a comforting statement. In the midst of the great judgment upon evil given in that book, God also speaks lovingly to his people about their salvation. He tells us he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore. These words speak powerfully to us because we understand them immediately. We all know the sting of death and the hurt of pain. But John also notes that the “sea was no more.” For the ancient Israelites the sea represented chaos, fear and all kinds of unknown threats. The removal of the sea means that these evils are removed for us as well.
We should remember, too, that God’s announcement about his dwelling place with man, is a prophesied statement. Like so many other New Testament passages, this message has its roots in the Old. For instance, it strongly echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 25: “God will swallow up death forever.” Likewise, the passage’s reference to “new heavens and new earth” come from Isaiah as well.
The strongest prophecy, however, is one that we will miss without reference to the original Biblical languages. When God speaks here of his “dwelling place,” he uses the word that the Greeks used for the Tabernacle. The literal translation would be that God will “tent” with men. The use of that word here is very intentionally chosen to make the connection with God’s dwelling presence with Israel during the time of their Exodus.
Finally, we should also note that this statement of God in Revelation 21 is an exciting statement. Certainly, the removal of death and pain and sorrow and threat is exciting enough in itself. But the image that conveys this the most is the idea of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.
Note that this image is highlighted in two ways. First, by comparing it to a “bride adorned for her husband.” I’ve officiated at a lot of weddings, and been the groom at one too. I’ve seen many times how exciting that moment is when the bride enters the room and everyone is filled with joy. It’s always a beautiful moment.
But let’s not overlook how the image is highlighted in a second way too. The new creation is a city. A city, as we know, is a place of excitement. There are always people around—doing new things, gathering together, learning how to share space. I know we sometimes get tired of being in the city. But let’s not forget its excitement and energy. The new creation will be filled with people—”a great multitude that no one can number,” as we heard last week.
And of course, this will be no ordinary city either. This will be the new Jerusalem—the city on a hill, the lasting city, the holy city, the one rooted in God’s deepest revelations, the one where God carried out the acts of his salvation.
“The dwelling place of God is with man.” What a day that will be when the promise behind these words is completely fulfilled!
Until that day, let us make room in our hearts and in our homes for God even now—as much as is possible—that he may dwell with us and be our strength and encouragement each day. Let us invite him into our lives. Let us engage in devotion and prayer. Let us live by his teachings.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus in another Revelation text (3:20). “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” This is an invitation extended to us daily. Let us open the doors of our homes and hearts that God may shed his light upon us and give us his blessing. Amen.
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