Friday, 1 November 2019

Online Symposium on David Fergusson’s The Providence of God

I am impressed by David Fergusson’s recent monograph, The Providence of God. And it seems that Sapientia: A Periodical of the Henry Center is impressed, too—so much so that they have convened an online symposium to discuss aspects of it. I was asked to contribute a short reflection to this symposium (again, I don’t know who put my name forward, but thank you!), which you can read here. Other reflections published so far are by Rebekah Earnshaw and Kevin J.Vanhoozer, and we can expect further reflections by Tom McCall and Craig Bartholomew, as well as a response by Fergusson himself.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Colin Gunton on T&T Clark’s Theology and Religion Online

The publisher T&T Clark contacted me earlier this year and asked me—I’m not sure why: Did someone recommend me? Was I third or fourth or ninth choice? Was it something someone ate?—to write a brief essay introducing Colin Gunton’s books and essays published by T&T Clark and which would appear on their forthcoming (at the time) online resources platform. Well, that platform is now live—see here—and while you need a subscription to access Gunton’s writings online, my essay, imaginatively entitled ‘Colin Gunton: An Introduction’, is freely available. The proof is here.

Despite my earlier (partly) tongue-in-cheek questions, I am honoured to have been asked to write this essay, but also a little wary. I’ve made some judgements about the development of Gunton’s theology that those who knew him well could easily dispute if wayward. I studied under Gunton as an undergraduate in the mid-to-late 1990s and only met him once more, with a friend, a few years later when he gave a lecture on something or other at a church in the Sloane Square area and, funnily enough, on a District Line train almost immediately after that lecture. He died a month or two later.

Anyway, enough recollecting; enjoy my essay (please)!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Book Notice: Divine Action and Providence, eds. Crisp and Sanders

Coming soon is Divine Action and Providence: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders. This is a first-day must-buy for me, though that might be difficult given (a) the Boxing Day release date listed by both Amazon UK and Waterstones, and (b) that my wife might already have pre-ordered it for me for my birthday (which is just over a week after Christmas). Anyway, Fred Sanders (one of the editors, as earlier noted) has written a summary of the contents and should give an indication as to why I’m geeking out about this one. You can read the summary here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Book Notice: The God Who Acts in History

I’ve just found out about a new book scheduled for publication in January 2020: Craig G. Bartholomew’s The God Who Acts in History. Here’s the blurb:

Did the decisive event in the history of Israel even happen?

The Bible presents a living God who speaks and acts, and whose speaking and acting is fundamental to his revelation of himself. God’s action in history may seem obvious to many Christians, but modern philosophy has problematized the idea. Today, many theologians often use the Bible to speak of God while, at best, remaining agnostic about whether he has in fact acted in history.

Historical revelation is central to both Jewish and Christian theology. Two major events in the Bible showcase divine agency: the revelation at Sinai in Exodus and the incarnation of Jesus in the gospels. Surprisingly, there is a lack of serious theological reflection on Sinai by both Jewish and Christian scholars, and those who do engage the subject often oscillate about the historicity of what occurred there.

Craig Bartholomew explores how the early church understood divine action, looks at the philosophers who derided the idea, and finally shows that the reasons for doubting the historicity of Sinai are not persuasive. The God Who Acts in History provides compelling reasons for affirming that God has acted and continues to act in history.

The publisher’s website also includes the table of contents. Of interest to me specifically is a chapter that seems to address divine action and classical theism in connection with Colin Gunton. I’ve recently finished writing two articles on Gunton (which I hope will see the light of day soon enough), as well as having already published an essay on Gunton’s account of providence, so I’m looking forward to Bartholomew’s book for this chapter if nothing else!

Monday, 14 October 2019

On Politics, Activism, and Waiting for the LORD: A Sermon on Isaiah 30:1-18

My church is currently going through Isaiah and yesterday was my turn to stand behind the lectern. I ‘felt led’ (to use a pious phrase) to take on Isaiah 30:1-18 and somehow supplement this with Matthew 6:24-34. I’m not sure I did a great job, despite (a) canvassing for opinion on how to approach political issues and (b) getting some positive feedback afterwards. I think my uncertainty about this sermon’s quality stems from what seems to be a blind acceptance that everything’s going to turn out okay, despite the fact that I loathe this sort of theology; but isn’t that the nature of trust? I’m also wary that it might look as though I’m anti-activism, which I’m not, and the adjectives I use throughout (e.g. panicked activism) were chosen deliberately. Finally, it does raise the issue of how far preachers should use sermons to denounce particular people, especially those in the political realm. As someone who merely has permission from his bishop to preach occasionally in his church, I don’t believe that this is my task when preaching. Anyway, enough waffle: enjoy!

Isaiah 30:1-18; Matthew 6:24-34

The book of Isaiah contains some of the Bible’s best known and much loved passages. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given’ (Isa. 9:6 kjv)—a Christmas favourite! ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles’ (Isa. 40:31 nrsv)—comfort for the weary and despondent. ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners’ (Isa. 61:1 nrsv)—motivation for justice, and hope for those trapped by injustice and inequality. Isaiah also contains prophecies about Jesus, a ‘man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Isa. 53:3 kjv), and prophecies about the Lord God’s plans to ‘create new heavens and a new earth’ where ‘the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind’ (Isa. 65:17 nrsv). What illumination, what comfort, what inspiration we’d all miss if we neglect to read or listen to the prophet Isaiah!

But we should not forget that Isaiah is an intensely political book. Isaiah prophesied during a time of immense international upheaval. The Assyrian Empire constantly sought to expand its territory by invading other countries, drowning those countries’ inhabitants and land in a tsunami of violence and bloodshed. Smaller nations could not defend themselves; they couldn’t stand against the Assyrian armies. And one by one, they were defeated, swallowed whole by the insatiable Assyrian monstrosity. It is against this backdrop that Isaiah prophesied.

This is where today’s reading from Isaiah 30 comes in. At first glance, it looks a little obscure: all this talk about plans and alliances and lionesses and horses and so on. But the political scene underlying the book of Isaiah as a whole helps us to understand what’s going on. The Assyrian Empire had already done away with the northern kingdom of Israel and was now banging on the door of Judah, the southern kingdom. Judah was a small nation and would not have been able to defend itself effectively against the Assyrians. And so the leaders of Judah thought the most obvious thing to do, the best thing to do, would be to ask Egypt, to the southwest, to help them repel the Assyrian invaders: to make a united stand against a common enemy, fight together, pool resources. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Practical, sensible; obvious.

Isaiah doesn’t think so. In our reading today, we see Isaiah railing against the people, or perhaps more specifically the people’s leaders, denouncing their decision to make a deal with Egypt. In verses one to seven, we see Judah attempting to forge an alliance with Egypt, despite Isaiah’s warning that the Egyptians are no longer the military force of old. ‘Egypt’s help is worthless and empty,’ Isaiah prophesies; Egypt is ‘“Rahab who sits still”,’ a once-mighty beast who has been cut down to size, all bark and no bite. Any alliance with Egypt is sure to be a waste of time, given the power and size of the Assyrian juggernaut.

Even so, precisely what is Isaiah’s problem here? Assyria may well end up destroying the combined armies of Judah and Egypt, but isn’t it better to take a stand against oppression than simply to give in? Wouldn’t it better for them to take matters into their own hands rather than let the Assyrians march all over them? Surely Isaiah wouldn’t want his own people and their allies wiped from the face of the earth without a fight?

Well, maybe not. But Isaiah objects to a deal with Egypt for one simple reason: the Lord hadn’t told Judah to do this! In fact, the Lord had told them quite the opposite: Judah was not to turn to Egypt for military assistance. Instead, Judah was to trust in the Lord alone for salvation. Verse fifteen:

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

In other words, says the Lord, don’t be afraid of the Assyrians, don’t be worried about what the Assyrians might do to you; just get on with your lives, says the Lord, and trust me.

But—and I do sympathise with them—the people couldn’t do this. They couldn’t wait for the Lord to do something and so tried to take matters into their own hands. The people trusted their leaders to negotiate a good deal to ensure the security and prosperity of the land. But things didn’t work out this way. In the end, only the Lord’s direct intervention prevented Judah from total devastation. You can read about this in Isaiah 36–37 and 2 Kings 18–19 if you wish!

photo from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/extinction-rebellion-protests-scientists-climate-change-london-amsterdam-a9154336.html
That’s the history lesson over; but what relevance does all this have for us in a week when Brexit and Extinction Rebellion and the Turkish attacks on Syria have dominated the news? First, let’s be clear: it would be all too easy to take individual verses from this passage and apply them to our current political situation; easy, but simplistic. It is too simplistic to take, say, verse twelve, with its talk of putting trust in ‘oppression and deceit,’ and make some kind of connection, justified or otherwise, to the Prime Minister or any other world leader. We need to be careful—even as I need to be careful right now—when using the Bible to interpret current events, otherwise we might end up glorifying our own political views while demonising those of others. Whatever similarities or resonances there are between international politics then and international politics now, we simply cannot extract seemingly relevant verses from the Bible and slap them across the face of whichever global player we dislike most.

The key here, I think, lies in the fact that Judah sought Egypt’s help in defiance of the Lord’s command to wait for the Lord to act. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved’—not by making deals with military powers. ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’—not by panicked activism or reliance on Judah’s own political nous or resources. This command to wait and do nothing was a challenge to the people of Judah, not least because the most terrifying of foreign powers was breathing hot air down their necks, chomping at the bit to charge in and devour them frenziedly. But waiting and doing nothing was precisely what the Lord requested of God’s people at that time.

At that time . . . but not now, perhaps? Surely now it’s time to take a stand against those who abuse democracy, against those whose businesses and lifestyles threaten the future of our planet, against those who thrive on the misery and ill-fortune of others! Let’s stand up to our leaders when necessary; let’s break the finger bones of the corrupt and the powerful when their grip begins to tighten around the necks of the poor and powerless; let’s fight inequality and injustice and prejudice with all our might, so far as we are able. Let’s do it! All this is surely what any self-aware and empathetic citizen of this world should be fighting for, right?

Yes! But let’s remember that Christians are not just citizens of this world. The apostle Paul says ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20), and Jesus himself encourages us to pray for God’s kingdom to come so that God’s will is ‘done, on earth as in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10). Indeed, in our Gospel reading today, from Matthew 6, Jesus tells us to ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. This is our priority as Christians: to proclaim the good news that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised to life (1 Cor. 15:3-4); to make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). What this means in practice will vary, of course, from person to person, and it’s up to each one of us here today to discern what God is calling us to do in order to expand God’s kingdom. The body of Christ has many parts and we don’t all need to do precisely the same thing.

But what does this have to do with Isaiah 30? Have I been sidetracked? I don’t think so. A few moments ago, I said that there is no direct comparison between the political situation in ancient Judah and our own present situation. But I do think God’s challenge to Judah then is potentially a challenge to us now. And what is this challenge? To recognise our strength and security are found in nothing and no-one else but God alone. Judah tried to make a deal with a neighbour to defend itself against a common enemy, but left the Lord out of the picture. And there is always a danger for us to do likewise, to make political gestures and protest against corruption and abusive power while forgetting that God has not called us to construct a utopia, but to grow God’s kingdom. We can build a better tomorrow, I’m sure of it; but only God can birth—and, in Christ, has birthed—the age to come. Salvation, truly transformative salvation, is from the Lord alone.

The Lord provides
What else can we say? How about this: If we listen carefully, in both Isaiah 30 and in Matthew 6, we can hear God say, ‘Trust me.’ Despite the Assyrian presence on their doorstep, the people of Judah were told to do nothing other than trust in the Lord. And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear, because, he says, God our heavenly Father will give us what we need to live faithfully as disciples. As counterintuitive as it appears, we need not worry hopelessly or helplessly about the world or society in which we live. There are things we can do to improve the world around us; sometimes we are the answers to our own prayers. But some things only God can do, and many social changes can and will come about because God’s Spirit is at work when Christians like us—citizens of heaven, remember—when Christians like us act in Christ’s name for the good of this world. And so the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ says to us: ‘I am building my kingdom, despite the confusion and instability you see all around you. Don’t worry about tomorrow; trust me today and every day. I, the Lord, wait to be gracious to you; I will rise up to show mercy to you. For I, the Lord, am a God of justice; blessed are all you who wait for me.’

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Jesus is a Problem

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35120965
Jesus really is a problem. He is not acceptable to the rich because he is poor. He is not acceptable to the poor because he has no scheme to milk the rich. He is not acceptable to Gentiles because he is a Jew. He is not acceptable to Jews because he is favorably disposed to Samaritans and Gentiles. He is not acceptable to women because he is a male. He is not acceptable to males because he insists on the dignity of females. He is not acceptable to religious people because he is not conventionally pious. He is not acceptable to the unconventional and the radicals because he insists on total obedience to God. He is not acceptable to the comfortable because he wanders around as a vagabond teacher. He is not acceptable to vagabond teachers because he goes to synagogue every Saturday and insists that the classical institutions of Judaism really were given to the people by God.
In the light of this very general observation about the offense of Jesus, the one rock-like piece of information we have about him is surely correct: Jesus was offensive enough to a lot of people to be crucified ignominiously.

William J. Abraham, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume III: Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 72

Monday, 5 August 2019

Lucy Peppiatt on the Third Creation Story

I’ve started dipping into Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women and finding a lot of good stuff in it. The chapter on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 well sets out the probable Artemis cult background to this strange passage and is persuasive. I haven’t read them yet, but there are also chapters on 1 Corinthians and on the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians, as well as on the Genesis creation stories. In her second chapter, which I am reading presently, Peppiatt looks at how women figure in the overall biblical narrative—and this passage caught my eye especially, as I think it’s a wonderful example of theological insight concisely stated:

There are three creation stories of the creation of humanity in the Bible. The first is that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. The second is that a human is formed from the dust of the earth and woman is taken from man: she is flesh of his flesh. The third is that humanity is reborn through a Savior, who is born of a woman, and he is flesh of her flesh. When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to take this flesh from a woman. When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born and to a woman for his care and nurture. Through a man, God reveals himself to us, and through a woman, God makes the connection to humanity. There is no doubt that in the ancient world, this represents an elevated status for women.


These words follow immediately on from the above, from the same paragraph and page, but I wanted to ‘split’ them to allow each set to speak for itself:

In addition to this, women see something in the chosenness of Mary (albeit in a unique fashion) of how God might also choose to use them. She stands as a symbol of a female life submitted to God and then used by him in the most powerful and world-changing way possible. Mary stands in the great line of prophets, judges, and leaders of Israel, appointed by God to fulfill his purposes first for his own people and from there to the whole of humanity. This is, of course, nothing but an apostolic role. 

I’ve emphasised the final couple of sentences here because I think they’re important. I’ve often heard Mary labelled as some kind of role model for women, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her described in terms of apostolicity or linked to male leaders in quite this way. This is good stuff, surely.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Heaven—but on Earth: A Sermon on Revelation 21:1–22:7

We’re going through Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope at the moment in our church, and I was given the title ‘The Hope of Heaven’, with my own choice of readings. I chose Revelation 21:1–22:7, as well as Matthew 6:9-10 as a token Gospel passage. I’ll leave it to you to decide how successful this sermon functions as a sermon.

John Lennon. John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.” Well, he’s right—it is easy to imagine there’s no heaven. And that’s because it’s not easy to imagine exactly what heaven’s like in the first place; in fact, it’s very difficult. It’s far more difficult to believe that heaven exists and to say what it’s like than it is simply to say it’s not real or it’s a fantasy world; or it’s a reward for good people or compensation for those having a bad life now. Even those who wrote the Bible appear to have found it difficult to find the right words to describe heaven. And yet for Christians, the hope of heaven—or the life of the world to come, the life everlasting, as our creeds put it—for Christians, the hope of heaven is basic to what we believe. And it’s basic to what we believe because heaven and everything it is and everything it represents is nothing less than the fulfilment of creation, the completion or the final perfecting of all things. At the end of this present age, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, will bring God’s rule to this world in a powerful and utterly transformative way. Think about what this could mean and then ask yourself: How can we put this sort of thing into words? How can we express the inexpressible? How can we describe the indescribable? “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—these things’,” says the apostle Paul, “‘these things God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor. 2:9 tniv). John Lennon sings, “Imagine there’s no heaven”—but this is taking the easy way out.

So this is our challenge for today: to try to piece together some of the many ideas and pictures and symbols found in the Bible to give us a slightly better understanding of what awaits us in the future—and not just us as Christian believers, but also the physical world of space and time in which we live. Let’s start with a basic point: “In the beginning,” says Genesis 1, “God created the heavens and the earth.” This simple sentence is extraordinary in what it claims: that everything that is not God need not exist; that the reason anything exists at all is because God decided that it should be here. And so God created the universe and everything within it, from the most sprawling of galaxies to the tiniest of particles; from elephants and blue whales to elephant shrews and tardigrades; all these things were created by God through God’s Word and by God’s Holy Spirit. God the Trinity is the Creator and the Source of all that exists.


And this includes heaven—not just what we might refer to as “space,” but to the realm where God lives and rules. The Old Testament depicts heaven in various ways. One of the most common is heaven as God’s royal court. In passages such as Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, God is described as sitting on a throne, attended to by court officials, including angels and cherubim and seraphim. These passages, and others like them, are quite strange. But the thrust of these passages, and perhaps the Old Testament’s presentation of heaven as a whole, can be summarised in two verses, both from Isaiah. In Isaiah 63:15, “heaven” is described as God’s “holy and glorious habitation”; and in Isaiah 66:1, the Lord says, “‘Heaven is my throne / and the earth is my footstool’.” However we understand heaven, God is right at its centre, sitting on the throne, and his authority and rule reach down from heaven to the earth.

But this is where I need to introduce another topic, although briefly: the temple in Jerusalem. And I need to do this because the way the Old Testament portrays the temple affects the way we read Revelation 21 and 22 and the vision of heaven given there. I want to make a basic point: for the ancient Israelites, and for the Jewish people of Jesus’s day, the temple was the gate to heaven, and the holy of holies heaven itself; heaven—but on earth.

How so? The temple in Jerusalem was designed to mirror the whole of creation. It was divided into three sections, with the fixtures and fittings, the stonework and the furniture, of each section arranged to represent a specific part of the universe. Have a look at the handout. First, the outer court (in green) represented the world where humans lived. Second, the holy place (in pink) signified the sky and what we now call “space.” And third, the holy of holies (in gold) symbolized heaven, the place where God sat on his throne, and the place where the ark of the covenant was positioned as God’s “footstool.” In terms of the temple’s layout and symbolism, we could say that on the Day of Atonement, for example, the high priest, in walking from the outer court through the holy place and into the holy of holies, was ascending from the earth and entering heaven; heaven—but on earth.


Does all this sound strange or even far-fetched? We have a very different view of the way the world works, that’s for sure. But this is how important the temple was for the ancient Israelites and the Jewish people of Jesus’s day. The temple was heaven—on earth. And this core belief shapes many of the ideas that we find in the New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation, as I hope to show. It’s fair to say that Revelation isn’t the easiest book to understand, but it is slightly easier to appreciate once we recognise how much of it is saturated—positively dripping!—with Old Testament ideas and imagery. Let’s go through our passage from Revelation now, not in huge depth, but in enough detail as to make everything I’ve said so far worth it.

Revelation 21:1: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” You’ll note the echo of Genesis 1, I’m sure; but the newness here isn’t that of absolute newness. It’s not something that’s absolutely brand new. It’s not as though God is swapping the first or the old heaven and earth and replacing them with brand new ones, like we might buy a new fridge before getting rid of the old one. The newness here is that of renewing or transforming something from one thing to another—a bit like renovating an old house so it looks and feels better than ever. This is the meaning of “a new heaven and a new earth” here.

And why is the sea mentioned? A world without a sea seems pretty extreme. But in the Bible, the sea often represents chaos, danger, evil—there is no sea, says John, who sees this new heaven and new earth, because in the age to come there will be no evil; there will be no more danger, no more chaos; and so no more sea. In the new creation, there are no tears, there is no death, there is no mourning; there is no crying, no pain; “for the first things have passed away,” and God, seated on the throne, is “making all things new.”

But how? Verse 2: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Notice how John is struggling to describe precisely what he is seeing: he sees a new heaven and a new earth—but these look like a city, and a city wearing a bridal gown and many, many jewels! Clearly, all this is a metaphor: try imagining what Penge High Street would look like in a giant wedding dress! It’s a very strange idea. But John is trying to describe the indescribable using ideas and imagery found scattered throughout the Old Testament; he is trying to express the inexpressible as best as he can by piling image on top of image, metaphor on top of metaphor, symbol on top of symbol in a way that even John Lennon would never attempt. And the total effect is this: God is coming to us; heaven is penetrating and permeating and perfecting the world; and God and God’s creation will share a sort of unceasing and everlasting and intensely ecstatic intimacy that no human has ever experienced before. “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” This is our hope: heaven—but on earth.

So what about the rest of our passage from Revelation? What’s the point of all the measurements and precious stones and the like? What do all these have to do with heaven? This is where what I said earlier about the temple in Jerusalem comes into play. If we treat verse nine onwards as explaining verses one to eight in more depth, we can begin to sketch connections between this new Jerusalem and the holy of holies in the old Jerusalem temple. All the jewels, all the precious stones, even the very shape of the new city—a cube!—all these things call to mind the temple and its symbolism, and especially the high priest, his clothing, and the cube-shaped holy of holies. In the past, the high priest alone could go into the holy of holies to make a sacrifice on the Day of Atonement; but this passage from Revelation portrays the entire new Jerusalem, the entire new creation, as a new holy of holies. The whole of the world is now the place where God lives in an entirely different, an entirely new, way—and all those who are in Christ have access to God’s presence in the new Jerusalem; heaven—but on earth.

You would need to use a decent study Bible or a good commentary and go through books such as Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel to see these connections emerge clearly—but they are there. And the point of all this is not simply to overwhelm us with unnecessary details, or to confuse us, or even to bore us on a Sunday morning. The point of all this is to attempt to express the inexpressible belief that the future state of this universe, of this world, is and will be completely unlike anything we can possibly imagine: heaven—but on earth.

Verse 22 onwards offers us yet another way of putting the same ideas. There is no temple in the new creation because “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” together are the temple, together in full and perfect unity. There is no need for a physical temple, an actual building, in the new Jerusalem because the presence of God in Christ drenches the fabric of the universe with the river of the water of life—the Holy Spirit. There is no night, no darkness, and therefore no danger, because the glory of God and the Lamb are the city’s ever-shining light. Imagine this divine light reflecting and refracting off the jasper walls and the golden street and the shimmering water, with the throne of God and the Lamb at its centre, and we are only beginning to approach what lies in store for the world: heaven—but on earth.

Bear with me—there’s more. The walls of the new Jerusalem surround the world, and people of all nationalities and all ethnicities, Jews and Gentiles, are able to enter through its twelve gates. There is no racial discrimination in the new creation, and presumably no sexual discrimination or class discrimination. It is a place of absolute purity, for this transformed world, this new Jerusalem, is the holy of holies come to earth. An angel stands at each of the twelve gates, ensuring that nothing impure enters this new creation. Anything or anyone considered impure is shut out while those inside serve God as priests serving in a grand cosmic temple. This is what awaits us; this is God’s promised future for us, for the world, for all things. This is our future: heaven—but on earth.

When we look at the world around us, the idea that heaven will come to earth and completely transform it is almost unbelievable. But it is going to happen, even if we cannot comprehend it, or if we find John’s way of putting things simply too bizarre or fantastical to contemplate. All John’s language is, of course, highly evocative: he’s not offering a point-by-point account of what heaven-on-earth will be like, but uses a range of metaphors drawn from the Old Testament and piled on top of each other to give us a taste of the flavours and the sounds and the colours that God has in store for the universe. How else could John express the inexpressible? How else could John describe the indescribable? A series of metaphors, strange though they are, is really the only way to paint a picture of a landscape no one has seen.

Did I say “the only way”? Sorry—I meant to say “one of the only ways”. You see, God has already kick-started the future transformation by raising Jesus from the dead, giving him the Spirit-infused body and life of the age to come. And what God has started, God will finish. Each one of us here today who is in Christ is assured of a place in the transformed new earth because in Christ, the Holy Spirit has already made us part of the new creation. “Anyone who believes in Christ is a new creation,” says Paul (2 Cor. 5:17 nirv). And because we are in Christ, every time we extend compassion and show mercy; every time we fight against injustice and stand on behalf of others; every time we live our ordinary, everyday lives in step with God’s Holy Spirit, we throw a rock through the dirty and bloodstained window of this present age and allow the hope and promise of a future irradiated with the light of God’s glory and of the Lamb to burst through the holes.

John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But we look forward to a future where heaven and earth embrace and never let go. Let this vision, this hope, inspire us today and every day until the Spirit brings us to the Father of our Lord Jesus, until we see our God face to face, in our resurrected flesh, in heaven—but on earth.