Revelation 21.1-5 ‘See, I am making all things new’
We hear these days dire predictions of boiling summers and freezing winters.
I read about some Native Americans who asked their Chief if the winter was going to be cold or not. Not really knowing the answer, the Chief decided to err on the side of caution. He told them the winter was going to be cold and that the members of the village were to collect wood to be prepared for it.
Being a good leader, he journeyed to the nearest phone booth, called the National Weather Service, and asked, ‘Is this winter going to be cold?’
The man on the phone replied, ‘Yes this winter will be cold.’ So the Chief returned to the village to encourage them to collect even more wood to be prepared.
Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service again. ‘Is it going to be a very cold winter?’
‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘it’s going to be a very cold winter.’ So the Chief went back to his people and ordered them to go and find every scrap of wood they can.
Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service yet again, and asked, ‘Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?’
‘Absolutely,’ came the reply, ‘the Indians are collecting wood like crazy!’
Climate change however is no joke. New Scientist magazine says this: ‘Climate change is with us. A decade ago, it was conjecture. Now the future is unfolding before our eyes… disappearing Arctic ice and permafrost… lethal storms and floods… disappearing glaciers, forest fires and fatal heat waves… The three warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998; 19 of the warmest 20 since 1980.’
Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific advisor, said this: ‘Climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism.’ Prince Charles said something similar: ‘Climate change is the greatest challenge to face man.’
God gave us a most wonderful gift. The world was designed to exist in equilibrium, each part in its own place. But we took that gift and spoiled it. We are the world’s problem. We have spoiled it, and continue to spoil it. And now we have machines that help us to spoil it more, and faster, with longer-lasting effects.
Make no mistake: science and technology will not get us out of this mess. The crisis is not with us because we don’t have the right technology, because we don’t know enough. The crisis is us. A speaker at a recent A Rocha conference said, ‘We think we have an environmental problem. We’re wrong. The environment has a human problem.’ It’s our fault, we are to blame. In the latest A Rocha newsletter, Dave Bookless says that climate change isn’t the problem: it’s a symptom of the problem. The problem is us. Unless we change, we’re done for. Stephen Hawking rather melodramatically predicts that the world will end in chaos, with surface temperatures reaching 400˚C.
Of course, not everyone agrees with that prognosis. Most scientists believe, in fact, that if we act now, we can halt climate change – but we must act now.
The trouble is, if we are the problem, how can we fix it? We in the West have great power, but we don’t want to rock the boat too much, we don’t want our financial security threatened.
But if we wait until it benefits us before we act, or until we’re forced to act, it will be too late. It’s almost too late already. The end really is nigh, unless we act now.
What is a Christian response to all this? How will it all end? As a preacher, one of the things you dread is having to speak on the book of Revelation. It’s full of metaphor and imagery that no-one can really understand in full. Our passage today is a good example. It’s deceptively simple; at first glance, it might seem pretty straightforward. But it isn’t. So let’s begin.
In John’s day, life was hard. Christians were being persecuted. The apostles were almost all gone. As yet they didn’t have a New Testament: their scriptures ended four hundred years before John the Baptist came on the scene. In chapter 1, John refers to himself as sharing in the ‘persecution’ and the ‘patient endurance’. Life was tough.
His vision is not about escaping from present difficulties though. It is first an encouragement: God himself will bring an end to persecution. There will be extreme hardship, but it will not end that way. And second, it is about bringing that future into the present: what’s called inaugurated eschatology. That basically means bringing the future to the present, living now in the light and power of the future.
Chapters 21 and 22 are about this blissful future. But not perhaps in the way you might expect.
Looking very quickly at the passage, we can see it’s about the final destruction of this world and all that is evil, and the creation of a nice new shiny world for us to live in with God. The old heaven and earth will pass away, the sea will be no more, God will wipe every tear, death will be no more. That future age will be nothing like this one. There will be no disease, or pain, or trouble: ‘the first things have passed away.’ God will dwell with us himself.
It’s a bit like Noah and the flood. God will wipe the slate clean and start again, only this time even more dramatically than before. That’s what this passage is all about, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Look again at the passage, this time more carefully. The key phrase is in v.5, spoken by the Father: ‘See, I am making all things new.’ I believe this is the first, if not the only time that the Father speaks in Revelation. It’s important. But what does he say? ‘See, I am making all things new.’ NOT, and this is really important, not, ‘I am making all new things.’
The idea that God will somehow lift up his people, destroy everything else, create a brand-spanking-new heaven and earth, and plonk his people back down again is, quite frankly, wrong: he makes all things new, not all new things.
Another clue is in v.1: ‘the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.’ There’s going to be no surfing in heaven! For the Israelites, the sea was a great enemy. It symbolised chaos, a great untameable power. For example, in Daniel 7, shortly before the arrival of ‘one like a son of man’, four great beasts rise out of the sea, devouring and destroying everything in their path.
Here in Revelation also, the sea stands for the evil in the world, the chaos – and the potential for it. In the future, God will destroy evil (and the potential for it) completely and utterly: the sea will be no more.
In that sense, the ‘first heaven and the first earth’ will ‘pass away’. All that is in them that is symbolised by the sea will be no more: evil will be taken out of the world, once and for all.
But that evil has worked its way into the very fabric of the world. There is death, pain, crying everywhere we look. So the new world will look very different. Do you remember how the disciples didn’t recognise Jesus after his resurrection? He looked very different, somehow, but – and this is absolutely vital – he was still the same person.
Again, the new world will be a bit like a butterfly that has emerged from a caterpillar. It looks almost totally different, but it is still the same creature. Jesus uses the example of a seed, which becomes a great tree. The seed is lost, it truly has passed away, and become a tree.
God is going to make this world new, by means of a ‘complete overhaul, from the foundations up’. He is not going to destroy it, and make a new one out of nothing, as before.
We have to pin down the meaning of this word, ‘new’. We use it in lots of ways. Newborn baby. New car, new home – even if they are second-hand, they’re new to us. New day, new start, new perspective.
In the New (!) Testament, there are particularly two words for ‘new’: kainos and neos. neos means young, fresh, recent, like a new-born baby. On the first day of creation, this world was neos. kainos, on the other hand, means ‘unprecedented, realised promise,’ recycled even, like a butterfly. In Revelation 21 – in fact the word used throughout Revelation for ‘new’ – is, of course, kainos.
The new heaven and new earth will be new like a butterfly, and the first heaven and the first earth will pass away like a caterpillar, becoming what it was meant to be all along.
If you remember, John’s vision is not about escaping from the present, but for giving hope and inspiring action. This world is not destined for the rubbish-tip; instead, God is going to transform it.
Note that the transformation that the Holy Spirit works is not limited to people; in God’s kingdom, we will not be living in a vacuum. God’s transforming power is not just for people: it’s for the whole universe! And so our work now should not be limited just to people, it should encompass all of creation.
Although, as I said earlier, we are the problem, by his Holy Spirit God transforms us, and then through us transforms the world. At A Rocha, that is one of our central beliefs. God is using us to transform the world, to free a little bit more of the butterfly, wriggling out of its chrysalis.
But what can you do? You can do things together and individually. You can reduce your household’s annual carbon footprint by up to a third, simply by switching your electricity provider to one that gets all its power from renewable sources. You can use your car less, and make the most of the excellent public transport system in London. You can do all sorts of things. [Show and read out the leaflet].
Instead of trying to do all these things at once, why not go for one a month? Try to recycle as much as possible one month, the next month cut down your car use, and so on. Read up on the subject, find out all the different ways you can bring hope to this planet. We’ve brought some books, at the back of church, about practical ways you can act, and about the Biblical basis for all this.
Whatever you do, don’t think it’s someone else’s problem. God cares enough about this world to go through the difficulty of renewing it, instead of taking the easy way out and starting again from scratch. We should care that much as well.
Father, please give us the right understanding of your vision for the future of our planet. Please help us to appreciate how much you care for all of creation, not just for us.
Please give us the courage to believe, to trust in this hope for our planet that you have shown us, and the strength to bring that future hope to the present world. Amen.