"Won and Done!"Dr. R. Lee Carter Revelation 21:1-6 Year C - Fifth Sunday of Easter
Great passages of the Bible like this one stimulate and evoke our best thinking. They beckon us toward contemplation and personal reflection. In meditating and mulling over them, we seek to milk them of their deepest meaning.
Some great passages of the Bible serve as our call to action. They inspire and motivate us to take the gospel beyond the walls of the church and to tear down people-dividing walls and, instead, build bridges.
Yet there are other familiar passages that simply make us feel from the heart. They bring us comfort and hope. They welcome us home. They heal us of our deepest disappointments, our sorest grief, and our propensity to give up on the world and on ourselves.
The 21stchapter of Revelation is often recited at funerals to help the brokenhearted find solace while they agonize from their loss. The reference to God wiping away every tear from their eyes draws them closer to the loving heart of God.
The beauty of the passage and the hope it offers us beyond our present darkness, inspires trust in the faithfulness of the Compassionate One. The simple, yet striking, sentence: “It is done!” reminds us of what our Lord similarly said as he suffered on the cross. From the cross, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” reaches out to touch us and to soothe the aching in our hearts.
We are assured that Christ understands. Our broken spirits find strength in the reminder that God is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Our parched and thirsty souls long to taste that “water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
We look to Revelation 21 to hear the Word of God speaking to our deepest core as it helps us through the stages of our sorrow. However, that being said, our understanding of this great passage might be heightened if we take it outside the context of the funeral service and examine it in the light of its context within the Book of Revelation,
Prior to chapter 21, the Book of Revelation has taken us on a whirlwind tour through the long history of man’s inhumanity to man. History, indeed, is a tale of cruelty and atrocity, of murder and mayhem, of unheard and unanswered cries for justice and mercy.
Our disgraceful human past is a tale of bloodthirsty and power-hungry victors crushing the heads of the pitiable conquered. Although nations rise and fall, we find the same old story: the poor get squeezed and hungry children with distended bellies cry out for bread as dictators use food as a weapon to force compliance.
Every generation of humanity has heard the galloping hooves of the Four Horsemen: the terrors of conquest, war, famine and death. Sword and plague, disease and torture, genocide and terror: this is our story. Young men go off to war and never come home, leaving their families in unbearable distress. Yesterday’s weapons are replaced by more dazzling, more deadly and more destructive ones.
In this world, cheaters win, the wicked build dynasties, and the dragon-slayers of one generation become the dragons themselves in the next. Meanwhile, the good try to heal the gaping wounds of this world with band-aids.
So, where is this trail of tears going? Is this world getting better and better or worse? Is there any meaning to the repeated cycles of oppression, hate, persecution and destruction that we call human history? Where is God in all of this and what would humans have to do to redeem themselves of a history of wrong?
If God is in a remote heaven, all is not right with the world. The message of the Book of Revelation is that while certainly all is not right with the world, the ownership of this world will soon change hands and this old world will be placed under new management.
Revelation 21:1 speaks of it as a “new heaven and a new earth.” The old-world order will be deposed. The monsters that emerge from darkened and perverted minds will no longer terrorize or brutalize the inhabitants of such a new earth. John, the Revelator, puts that a different way in our passage: “There will be no more sea.”
The good news for the faithful in this weary world is, as Revelation 21:3 declares, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” There, in a one sentence summation, is the fulfillment of the ancient promise of covenant: God dwelling (tabernacling) with us.
The world has seen enough of human horrors and holocausts, the lecheries of Great Harlots, and the treacheries of Beasts, human and inhuman. Their vile and venom have invited the wrath of God, poured out upon us all, as the Revelation describes it, in bowls, censors and vials.
But the blasts of trumpets announce that the terror will soon pass. The cries of the martyrs have been heard. God is coming and the world will be turned right-size up. Gone will be our suspicions born of fear that God is remote and preoccupied!
Meanwhile, who can make sense of the tragedy contained within the scroll of human history? There is one who is worthy to open it all up to us, to tear off the seals, and bring redemption to us all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
So, how are we to think of history? We are to think of it with the cross before our eyes as its center. We do not mean this in terms of mere chronology. It is not that we live at some halfway point in terms of years. The crucifixion and resurrection are supra-historical events. They didn’t just change history, those events changed human destiny.
What happened that day outside the city walls of old Jerusalem might be regarded as the end of history. On that day, God’s ultimate purpose for us was accomplished. The victory of God over all the forces that beset human life, especially sin and death, has been accomplished. It is finished. It is won and done.
It’s so difficult for us, as creatures trapped within the limits of time and space, to see the consummation of history as anything other than future. It is hard for us to imagine as we gaze up into a starry night that what we are observing might be light from stars long extinct.
Likewise, we may be also confused about whether the resurrection is a future day when the last trumpet shall sound or whether “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” The dead in Christ, of course, are not limited by our time and space restriction. What is future for us is timeless for them. Regardless of our understanding of time, God’s victory over sin and death is won and done.
The centennial celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, re-enacted on July 3, 1963 left an indelible mark on the ones who were present to witness the replication of Pickett’s Charge. As one eyewitness recalled it: “As the Rebels who survived the march across the field got very close to “the angle” – they broke rank, shouting the eerie rebel cry — and all hell broke loose.” (Joe Laufer, “Witness to History: Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge – Memories of the 1963 Centennial” Lauferworld, June 30, 2013).
For a second, some on the Union side feared that the Confederate reenactors were trying to change history. That, of course, could not happen. The battle was already over. The victory had been won. Nothing could change that. In fact, at the centennial celebration, both sides of Blue and Gray reenactors gathered in harmony and joined in celebration around the flagpole at the Bloody Angle.
Nothing can change the victory of God over the power of sin and death at the cross either, not a history of atrocity, not our stubborn hearts of stone. It is done! Won and done.
This well-beloved passage, Revelation 21:1-6, is set in the context of the victory that can never be undone. Yes, Christians at the time the Book of Revelation was written bore the scars of Roman whips, as their Lord had done. Some suffered martyrdom at the hands of Rome’s brutal emperors, such as Nero and Domitian.
In AD 64, Nero used Christians as scapegoats after the dreadful fire that destroyed parts of Rome. He ordered that Christians should be rounded up and killed. Some were torn apart by dogs, others burnt alive as human torches. Like their Savior, these Christians laid down their lives in a torturous manner of death.
By AD 80, the paranoid Emperor Domitian, the “Nero redivivus, that is, “brought back to life,” forced Christians in Asia Minor to burn incense at his statue and to pledge their allegiance to him by declaring: “Caesar is Lord.” The faithful paid the price for refusing, which is choosing Christ over Caesar.
Rather than surrender to the one who fancied himself “Neron Caesar” or 666, Christians boldly declared “Jesus is Lord.” Courageous disciples today still make that exclusive declaration of allegiance. They overcome the world. Why are they so daring? Because they know God’s victory is won and done.
The axle of history does not revolve around the Roman Caesars. Neither Charlemagne nor Saladin nor the Khans nor Queens Elizabeth or Victoria or any other earthy potentate were found worthy to open the seal that gives meaning to human history. None was able to redeem the human race.
On that 14thday of Nisan so long ago, at the same hour that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple of old Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was being sacrificed on the cross just outside the city wall. That day fixed our future. Won and done!
The comforting message of our morning’s Scripture is for all who feel crushed, heartbroken, and defeated by this world. It’s simple yet powerful message is this: Hold on! The battle has already been won.
What awaits us now is a wedding. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Any tears shed before that wedding will be wiped away. Everything is now prepared for us. The Bridegroom is present. The Bride has met him. The joyous celebration has begun.
About the writer: The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and the William C. Bennett Chaplain.
He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Help Us Accept Each Other
Come, Ye Disconsolate
This Is a Day of New Beginnings
Here, O Lord Your Servants Gather
How Great Thou Art
In Christ There Is No East or West
Since by Man Came Death (G.F. Handel from Messiah)
If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments (Thomas Tallis)
Love Enough to Give (John Horman)
Speak to One Another (Jean Berger)
And This Is Love (Ken Medema)
Here Is Water, Lord (Joseph Martin)
The Holy City (Gaul)
The Gift of Love (Hopson)