“Then, I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.” I don’t know about you, but I am very ready for that new heaven and new earth. I grow tired of reading the papers, watching the news, surfing the net only to hear the same, tired story of this murder or that tragedy or this lawsuit or that conflict. It is so tempting, just to unplug from the data stream – to do the ostrich thing of sticking my head in the sand.
Perhaps you feel that as well. It is so easy to want to escape from it all, to think that ‘that kind of stuff’ –whatever that might be – only happens to the people ‘out there’. The pull of hoping for a new heavens and a new earth, even if that hope is born in faith, can become a kind of spiritual escapism. Like those summer movies that provide a respite from the intensity of our problems and world, and the work that is ours to do, we lean on the scripture promise of a new heavens to bring us a kind of peace in a troubled world.
“Then, I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth.” It is easy to see these words of John as precisely that – a kind of spiritual escapism. John, writing on that tiny island of Patmos, disconnected to the ‘data stream’ of life in Jerusalem, can ‘see’ God: “wiping away every tear from their eyes,” ending death, mourning, wailing and pain; “making all things new” at some point in the future.
What is easy to miss, in the passage from Revelations, is the little time bomb midst of those revelations. John tells us simply of the voice which says: “Behold, God’s dwelling IS with the human race.” Not will be, or used to be, but NOW, HERE, IN THIS PLACE and THIS TIME – God is with us. That is the truth that changes everything for John, his conviction that God IS WITH US, as he promised. It is that believing that allows him his bold kind of seeing, even in a world that was dominated by the reigns of the emperors Domitian and Nero – who initiated persecutions against the early church.
Living in a time of the tragedies in Newtown and now in Boston, and the countless lives that are lost daily to gun violence, it is sometimes hard to believe that God is with us. It is hard to ‘see’ that there could be a new heaven and a new earth coming to be. And that is where the work of our faith comes into the fore. We have to believe it before we see it.
Growing up, my mother dragged my brothers and I to the cafeteria at Our Lady of Providence for several weekends, beginning at thanksgiving. There we helped carry bags of clothes and toys and items to be given to the poor, and sometimes helped in the sorting through of the items. (and sometimes we just played) But I remember thinking I wish I could have the toy that I was putting into a box for some unknown family. “Mom, could I have this?” “No”, always came the answer. “The poor need it more than you do.” I don’t know if I was ever convinced by mom’s rationale that that was a true statement. But I was convinced by her love of people that she had never met, that this was worth the doing. Mom believed that God had a special love for the poor. Because of that belief, she saw the need of people who were struggling more than we were, and so she began the work of wiping tears away from kids at Christmas time with her clothing and toy drive. Because she believed, she saw that a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ needed to come to be, and she did what was in her power to create it.
John didn’t have much at his disposal on that island of Patmos – but a quill and some parchment – and the belief that God was indeed dwelling with his people. So he set down the vision that still calls each of us who are ever tempted to spiritual escapism. God is dwelling with us – so get busy comforting mourners, wiping tears from eyes, ending the same sad story that we read in the daily paper. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming to be. Believe it. See it. And then, like my mom, like John, like the countless generations of believers who have seen because they believe – get busy creating it.