Living in the Story: New Heaven and New Earth
(The following sermon has made use of Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and New Earth)
As you know, Wendy writes books. In regard to her most recent one she recently said to me that it’s not going in the way she originally thought it would, to which I said, “You’re the one who’s writing it; you can make it go whichever way you want.” Her reply was that she couldn’t do that because the unfolding plot and the characters actually determine what happens in the story. Having said that, it would be really strange if the ending had no connection with the rest of the story, as though it suddenly brought up a whole bunch of new ideas that stood out like a sore thumb. I recall from my essay writing days that one of the rules of good writing was to never introduce a new thought in the conclusion!
Today is the end of this part of our ‘Living in the Story’ series. My plan over the next handful of weeks is to consider a few other wider aspects of what it means for us here and now. As with Wendy’s story, it would be equally strange if the end of God’s story had little if any connection with the earlier parts. For it to be a good story that can be readily comprehended it has to be consistent with everything that’s gone before, and that’s exactly what we see. If nothing else, the thing I’d like us to see in today’s sermon is how the story of the new heaven and new earth doesn’t actually discard everything that’s happened to that point and take us off to some sort of sublime spiritual existence. Rather, what it does is gather up everything that’s gone before into a huge, glorious picture of what God has intended all along. In order to consider the end, I want us to start at the start, and particularly focus on God’s presence.
The Original Creation
The story of the original creation sets the scene for all that follows. Let me briefly remind you of some key things.
Genesis 1 the story of God creating his temple: the place where he is present and from where he would rule. The garden was the place where God’s presence was first experienced, and as such it was the primary link between heaven as God’s space and the earth as our space. Humans, made in the image of God, were given the mandate to populate the earth and to subdue and serve it. Humans were to represent God and his presence in the world, and to rule it under him in the same way he would. The implication was that as humanity lived out its vocation, the garden and people would gradually spread out until eventually the whole world was transformed. As such it would also be a fit place for God to be present.
Genesis 3 tells the story of the perfect harmony and functioning of the original creation getting well and truly messed up. While the original vocation remained, the fact that humans tried to set up a centre of functioning outside of God resulted in chaos instead of ongoing harmony. Humanity continued to multiply and spread, but so did chaos along with it. We still live with it today. God was still present, but humanity’s experience of him was not the same as it had been.
God eventually intervened in order to put things on the right track again. He made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants and called them to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. In establishing the tabernacle and later temple, God was once again present with his people and heaven and earth intersected. Unfortunately the very people called as a solution to the problem became part of the problem themselves. The ultimate result was that God removed his presence from them and sent them into exile. While the people eventually returned to Israel and the temple was rebuilt, God’s was never present in the same way as he had previously been.
At the right time, Jesus came to earth and moved into the neighbourhood (Message). He put a face to God:
Colossians 1:15 (NIV)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
As the representative of Israel, he perfectly accomplished everything they failed to do, and forgiveness was freely offered.
But perhaps the most significant thing was that God was again present with his people.
John 1:14 (NIV)
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
He was the replacement temple if you like, the perfect version of the tabernacle with the people of Israel. That temple, his presence, still remains because the Spirit filled and empowered church is now his temple, his presence on this earth.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 (NIV)
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
New Heaven and New Earth
Finally we get to the new heaven and new earth as described in the last couple of chapters of Revelation. Obviously there’s quite a bit of metaphorical language, so it’s not to be taken literally. For example, the new city is not a literal cube of 1500 miles [21:16]! Here’s a few thoughts.
The most startling thing is that the new city, the new Jerusalem, comes to earth; the joining of God’s space and ours is complete. The word translated ‘home’ in the Greek  is the same word used of the tabernacle in the Greek version of the OT, and the word used for ‘dwell’  is the same as that used for Jesus’ incarnation in John 1:14. Above all, this is a picture of God being present with people and creation. God’s presence removes death, grief, pain and mourning . Now his throne is established on the earth instead of in heaven.
As I already mentioned, the literal size of the city from heaven isn’t a 1500 mile cube. The point is that it’s big; it has room for everyone it needs to fit. The fact that it’s a cube reflects the holy of holies in the Jerusalem temple (a cube of 20 cubits 1 Kings 6:20). In other words, there’s a direct link to the original temple—God is fully present. Interestingly enough, there is no actual temple in the new city because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb were the temple itself .
There are specific links between the new city and the original garden.
In the original garden there was a river which flowed from the garden into the world:
Genesis 2:10 (NIV)
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.
In the new city, there is a river—the water of life—flowing from God’s throne through the middle of the main street of the city:
Revelation 22:1 (NIV)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
That water is freely offered to anyone who is thirsty.
Revelation 22:17 (NIV)
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.
Just as it was in Isaiah:
Isaiah 55:1 (NIV)
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Tree of Life
The original garden also had a tree of life:
Genesis 2:9 (NIV)
And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and were barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life, it being guarded by a cherubim with a flaming sword. The new city also has a tree of life, straddling the river and producing 12 fruits, its leaves being for the healing of the nations:
Revelation 22:2 (NIV)
…down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Access to the tree of life in the original city was barred, but it is freely open to all the cleansed in the new city.
Revelation 22:14 (NIV)
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
Obviously we could go into more detail, but the point is that the new heaven and new earth is the consummation of all things. God is once again fully present and everything is once again set right for both creation and people.
What do the renewed people do in the new heaven and new earth? The popular vision is sitting around on clouds playing harps. The Christian vision is singing worship songs day in and day out—and that may well be part of it. The biblical vision is of continuing to fill our vocation and calling as people made in the image of God to subdue and serve. Just as the original garden needed tending, so will the new garden. But this time it will all work harmoniously; it won’t be a matter of having to do that while at the same time contending with a fractious and fractured world.
We prepare for that in the here and now by, in our communal life as the people of God and in our interaction with people and the material environment, witnessing to the promised new heaven and new earth. In the midst of a world where we all sense something isn’t right, we’re a sign to the watching world of the new world that’s yet to come.