by Jason Micheli
Revelation 21.1-6 (click to see Scripture text)
There’s No Sea in the City of the Lamb
One Sunday after Casey returned from his second tour in Iraq he shook my hand in the narthex and introduced himself as the husband of the young woman I’d seen often in worship and as the father of the baby girl who was always in her arms. “I guess I didn’t realize you were married,” I said to her and shook Casey’s hand. “Almost two years,” she replied, smiling nervously, “but— the war and all— this is the first time we’ve gotten to live together.” Even with a baby tow, checkout clerks surely still carded Jennifer, and Casey’s cheeks were so smooth there wasn’t a chance a razor had ever needed to touch them. Neither one of them looked old enough to be married much less parents. “She really loves this church,” he said, shaking my hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Sir?” I waved him off.
Casey’s grip was as steady, his countenance as calm as his face was smooth, the look in his blue eyes seemed tranquil. I couldn’t have guessed then that there was already a storm gathering inside him. One Sunday Casey started to wear his dress uniform to worship. “That’s odd,” I thought, “but then again, in every church, especially in the DC area, there’s always a handful of folks who take the whole God and Country line a little too far.” Another Sunday further down the calendar Casey, unsolicited on his way out of worship after the service, insisted to me that serving as a sniper had in no way effected him. The Sundays following his insistence turned to swagger, bragging to me of the ISIS soldiers he had killed and how his conscience was not at all a casualty of his deeds. The next Sunday he appeared to take pleasure in turning my stomach describing what he called collateral damage. A few weeks later, in the middle of the week, he came by the church office to let us know that during the worship services the coming Sunday he’d be armed and patrolling the perimeter of the church parking lot to protect the congregation from a terrorist attack. That’s when I called Jennifer. Maybe I waited too long to reach out. Hindsight’s always clearer. We always see the present only as though through a glass dimly. After I relayed my recent encounter with her husband, a wave of grief crashed over her and, like a sudden clap of thunder, she broke down weeping. A moment later, catching her breath and gathering herself, she softly in to the phone, “It’s like he’s been sucked out to sea.”
In his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? my teacher David Bentley Hartrecalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, a large man of enormous physical strength who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent four of his five children from perishing along with his wife in the tsunami. As the man recited the names of his lost children to the reporter, in descending order of age, ending with the name of his four-year-old son, he was utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping and sobbed to the reporter, “My wife and children must have thought, “Father is here….he will save us,” but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.”
I couldn’t do it.
The sea won.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
For his indelicate Gospel message that Jesus is Lord (and therefore Caesar is not) Rome had exiled St. John to the island of Patmos, a first century imperial Alcatraz. But as we learn on Easter, closed doors or locked deadbolts cannot deter the Risen Christ so from behind bars, John receives a vision from the Living God. The revelation given to John weaves a bewildering patchwork of images, blocks of scripture taken from all over the biblical quilt (Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel— especially from the prophet Ezekiel), making Revelation the most cinematic, surreal part of the Bible. So odd, in fact, that the Protestant Reformers thought it a book best avoided. Yet the theme of John’s vision is, if not simple, specific. It’s the Gospel promise that Christ’s death upon the cross for you for the forgiveness sins will culminate in a final victory over the Powers of Sin and Death.
The vision given to St. John takes that single promise, encases it in scriptural symbol, and then displays it in a dizzying, kaleidoscopic pattern. From one turn of the page to the next, there’s a seven-eyed lamb, a seven-headed dragon, a lake of fire, sword-swallowing mouths, angels and horsemen and a woman clothed with the sun. The symbols are so striking, the prophetic visions are so strange, we fail to notice that of all the images revealed to St. John— beasts and bowls and a Whore of Babylon— this final picture in today’s text might be the most disorienting of all: “…and the sea was no more.”
There’s no sea in the City of God? When Christ comes back in final victory— a new heaven and a new earth— there will be no beach honeymoon that follows the Marriage Supper of the Lamb? Eternity is oceans away?
“…and the sea was no more.”
Literally, in the Greek it’s “…and the sea is not, any longer.” It’s just six words, but you are meant to hear in that spare expression the simplest possible hymn of comfort and hope. It’s the Gospel promise distilled down into six words, into a short clause at the end of a sentence, into single, surprising image.
The sea— no more!
Of course, the challenge is that in order to receive this revelation given to St. John— to hear its message— you have to know the Bible better than most United Methodists do. You cannot interpret John’s shorthand if you don’t know the language. In the same way John assumes you know enough of scripture to infer that the slaughtered lamb seated on the throne is the crucified and risen Christ or that the sword protruding from the Son of Man’s mouth is the Gospel, he takes it for granted that you know the scriptures well enough to understand that the absence of the sea in the New Creation signals the presence of something else , something even better than the beach.
In the beginning, the Book of Genesis announces, God swept across the dark waters and brought forth light and life. It even sounds ominous in the Hebrew, Tohu wa-bohu. The tohu wa-bohu, the dark waters— in scripture, the sea is somehow prior to creation and ambivalently adjacent to God’s creative intent. After God rescued his people in Egypt, parting the Red Sea in two, the Lord made those same waters a cascading coffin for their slave masters. In the Book of Jonah, the prophet attempts to flee God’s summons by sailing across the sea; in other words, water symbolizes the opposite of God’s will. Meanwhile, the psalms liken the threats of Israel’s enemies to the “roaring of the seas and the roaring of their waves.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus exorcizes demons from two men amongst the Gerasene tombs. The demons possess a herd of swine instead and immediately plummet to their death into the sea. While in Luke, Jesus proclaims that “the roaring of the sea and the waves,” almost in opposition to him, will signal the long-awaited coming of his Kingdom.
In the symbolic world of the Bible, the sea is not a place of tranquility or rest. In scripture, the sea epitomizes danger, judgment, confusion, suffering, evil, and death. In scripture, the sea signifies the world gone wrong, a creation out of control; as though, in the beginning, God pushed back the tohu wa-bohu to word the world but ever since the dark waters have been leaking back into the world and crashing into our lives. Even if all the world repented of sin and obeyed God’s Law, even if we could eliminate racism and abolish war and overcome every -ism, even if all the world converted to Christ, it would still be a world with the sea in it.
The vision God gives to John, therefore, a vision of a new world made present with an absent sea— it’s a promise. It’s why Christoph Blumhardt calls this verse ‘the greatest word that crowns all other words.” It’s what Gustaf Wingren means when he writes, “the opposition against resurrection faith strains is despair.”The sea will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Every tear will dry when the many waters recede. The world gone wrong will go away. There will be only a world made right by Christ who is making all things, including you, new.
The vision is not a pie-in-sky picture of the great bye-and-bye.
It’s a narrow escape into hope.
And, notice, the vision is one hundred percent, undiluted grace. God doesn’t hedge his bets, “Perhaps I will make all things new. God doesn’t dangle a carrot, declaring, “Under certain conditions, I will wipe every tear from your eyes.” The new creation is not conditional, “If you get your act together, then the sea will be no more. It’s grace, which is to say, it’s a promise. It’s God’s promise that one day, soon and very soon, the Father will be here. He will save us from the dark waters. And the sea will be no more.
What about in the meantime?
One day the world gone wrong will go away. That’s all well and good. It’s good news even, but in the meantime the world gone wrong is the only world in which you and I live. And I’ll be perfectly honest, lately it feels like I’m waist-deep in the tohu wa-bohu. Don’t just point me to the dry shores of a one day down the horizon, give me a promise for the meantime.
Give me a promise for you:
One day the sea will be no more, but what about those of us treading water in the meantime?
On the day before his assassination, April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple Church of God in Memphis, Tennessee, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon, posthumously titled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” It’s a sermon on Christ’s coming again and the advent of the new heaven and the new earth. He’d escaped an attempt on his life just the day before so the specter of death loomed over his preaching.
Like in many of his final sermons, King’s last sermon betrays a tone of resignation beneath the hopeful theme; as though, the vision he’d shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial years earlier had grown into a God-sized dream, a dream only could accomplish. The dark waters had proved too vast and the movement felt to King like bailing water from the ocean a cup at a time. He was weary, tired of tread water. Only God could put right a world gone so wrong. Instead of the optimism of his “I have a Dream” sermon or the cautious rebuke of his jailhouse letter to fellow clergy, King’s final sermon seethes with fiery, righteous anger. In it, King recalls the Birmingham bus boycott more than ten years earlier and how the police chief, Bull Connor, attempted to terrorize the protesters into surrender:
“Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth,” King preached, “and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And we went before the fire hoses [because] we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. And because we knew water, that [the fire hoses] could not stop us…And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that.”
One day the sea will be no more.
In the meantime…you already know water.
With water and the Spirit, the Father has already incorporated you into the Son. The Almighty God who takes the form of a servant is a God who loves to work in ironic ways. In this case, the way in which God brings this promise of the future into your present is by drowning the Old Adam in you.
One day the sea will be no more— God applies that promise to you, for you, in your life, through water.
And those waters are no tohu wa-bohu. They’re living waters. The waters of baptism, scripture says, incorporate you into Christ. Regardless of what you do or leave undone, no matter if you’ve brought the storms in your life upon yourself, by your baptism you are in Christ. That’s Galatians 3.27. By the waters of baptism your life is hid in Christ with God. That’s Colossians 3.3. So no matter the storms raging in your life you can point to your baptism and know “Father is here” because you are in him.
More than a year after my phone call with Casey’s wife, he asked me to meet him for coffee. He’d been getting help in a support group and meeting with a therapist. The storm hadn’t passed, but it had calmed.
“I don’t need to advice from you,” he told me, holding his cup but not drinking.
“Good,” I said, “despite what church people think, they don’t offer any advice-giving classes in seminary.”
He didn’t laugh. I’d interrupted.
“I don’t need advice,” he said, “and I don’t need a prayer to make it all go away. I don’t even need you to tell me everything’s going to be okay.”
“What do you need?”
“I need you to promise me I’m not alone.”
“That’s one of the few promises I can make,” I told him.
“You are not alone.”
The sea still is. The world gone wrong has not gone away. There is no escape from the storms of life— that’s not the promise of faith. There is no escaping the dark waters of this old world, but you are not alone in navigating them. You’ve already known water; therefore, you are not alone. That’s the promise. That’s the promise of your baptism. Christ is with you. He’s not standing on the shoreline shouting instructions at you, “Swim harder!”
He is with you.
Like a stowaway aboard a ship of fools, Christ is with you. He is with you as the storms of life toss you to and fro. He’s in the boat on the sea with you. And he is not asleep.
So come to the table. Like drowning men and women, take and eat. Grasp the bread and the cup as though they are your solid ground amidst the swirling seas. They are.
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home* of God is among mortals.
He will dwell* with them;
they will be his peoples,*
and God himself will be with them;*
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7
*After submission, a confirmation email will be sent to the email address you provided. Please click the link to complete your subscription. You can opt out of receiving emails from us at any time.