I often reference in these Sunday reflections the sad and frightening state of the world. There can be not doubt that this is a difficult time to be alive; with all of the information at our fingertips about unjust labour practices, income inequalities, gentrification and the housing crisis in our cities, problems of waste disposal, and the immanent threats of climate change, it seems as though every decision we make has life-and-death consequences. It is as though we all, to use Shonu Shamdasani’s image, have an “Atlas complex,” carrying the weight of the whole world on our shoulders. And that is not something the human mind, heart, and body were designed to do. It’s no wonder that so many of us live in a state of perpetual exhaustion. Today’s reading from Revelation offers us a wonderful gift in the midst of all the world’s genuine struggle: an invitation to sit down, rest, and be refreshed.
Revelation 21 is not only the last chapter of John’s Apocalypse, but also the last chapter of our Bibles. It’s fitting then that it recapitulates, or brings together, many different biblical images for what God’s salvation looks like. This is no accident. Like Apocalyptic literature in general, Revelation was written for people in crisis. The churches were being persecuted and needed to be encouraged and strengthened in order to press on and persevere in faith. It’s sad that this book has been so co-opted by End-Times speculation that this fact is often lost on us. It’s a book meant to encourage the faithful in the hardest of times. And this chapter brings all that encouragement to the forefront in its striking final words.
The chapter begins with a ‘river of life’ reminiscent of the living water of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus. This flows from God’s throne, which brings to mind the image of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace, through the heavenly New Jerusalem. Growing on its banks is the tree of life, bearing abundant fruit — a symbol of the fullness of life and wholeness of which sin robbed us. There the faithful will live in an everlasting day in the light of God; they will be marked as God’s own and will see God’s face (which even Moses was denied (Exodus 33)). This super-abundant collection of images for salvation provides the literary context for today’s reading, which comes from the second half the chapter.
Here, the risen Jesus says:
See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
It’s funny how the dominant images in our culture for God returning to settle the score are negative and violent. This says far more about our cultural presuppositions about God than it does about God. For here, this divine recompense is viewed as a promise of reward, not as a threat of punishment. This is followed by the famous words, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the A-to-Z as it were, the beginning and end and everything in between, picking up on the image of wholeness from the first half of the chapter. This image of the bigness of God brings to mind for me the visions of Julian of Norwich, in which she sees the whole world to be little more than a hazelnut in God’s hands and God tells her that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In John’s vision, Jesus continues with more salvation images: the washing of white robes (specifically a reference to baptismal practices, but also recalling the defilement-and-purification perspective of sin and salvation from the Old Testament), a repetition of the image of the tree of life, and then a reference to entering by the gates, which recalls not only the right to enter a city, but also Jesus’ parable of Good Shepherd in which he refers to himself as the gate for the sheep. Then, picking up on Messianic imagery, he calls himself the “root and descendant of David” and “the morning star.”
And now, at last, we come to the heart of the passage:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
What a wonderful invitation this is: “Let anyone who is thirsty come … [and] take the water of life.” It reminds us of Psalm 23’s image of God’s shelter, provision, and rest:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
This last Sunday in the Easter season provides an interesting echo of the themes from my Lenten series this year, ‘Theology from under the Rubble,’ which looked at different ways Christians have responded to times of crisis: lamentation, repentance, reframing one’s allegiances and priorities, and so on. Today we have the beautiful reminder that, no matter how desperate times may be, and no matter how weary we are, there is room to rest, to ‘just be’, and be refreshed in God’s presence through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
May all of us who are weary, come and rest at Jesus’ feet. May all of us who are thirsty, come and be refreshed in the waters of life. May we come before our Lord and God, even as we pray, “Come.”
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.