If you want a fabulous vision of God’s end-game for creation, there is no better place to look than the end of the Book of Revelation, with its golden streets and pearly gates—no more tears or pain. The seven plagues are over; all the trumpets have been blown. Michael has defeated the Dragon and the Beast has gone down to the dust. And behold, there is rejoicing in heaven as the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and all the saints of God make their way to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These verses are about the end of life, perfect for All Saints. But isn’t it a little bit weird to be baptizing on a day that is focused on our end?
One of the first questions we ask when meeting someone new is “Where are you from?”. We want to know their origin story. At heart we are trying to find a connection. “Chicago? Cool. ER was one of my favorite TV shows.” If I’m in a churchy crowd I might talk about that—tell you what faith I was raised in. What I am trying to do is to tell you who I am by telling you who I was. I am establishing my identity by telling you about my origins.
Christians do this by appealing to the story of creation to explain why we are the way we are. Why do we keep listening for the voice of God and longing for God’s company? Because there was a time when we walked together in the garden feeling the cool evening breeze. Why do we keep reaching for things we know aren’t good for us? Because we still have an apple seed stuck somewhere in our teeth.
For as long as there have been humans, there have been stories like these—stories of our beginnings, of our ancestors, that help explain who we are and why we are here. Call them our Alpha stories, since they are the first ones many of us learned. They are embedded in us at such a deep level that they continue to be our default settings even now. This makes perfect sense, since they are stories about things that have already happened to us. Whether they happened in our collective religious imagination or in our real lives on earth, they are part of our past—a part that cannot be changed now, for good or ill, which gives the past a kind of solidity that the future does not have. Whatever happens from here on out, I will never have different grandparents. I will never have been born in Ethiopia and I will never have been raised on stories of Lord Krishna or Lady Lilith. My Alpha stories are set in stone.
But, though we might not think about them as much, our Omega stories are also important—the ones that tell us who we are by telling us where we are going. These stories are not set in stone they way our Alpha stories are because they have not happened yet, which means that no one can tell us which one is “right.” All we can do is choose one from the wide variety of end-time stories that we are being offered almost every day—and then hope that we have chosen wisely, since our Omega stories will have as much or more to do with the direction of our lives than our Alpha stories ever do.
By setting six verses from Revelation over the sacrament of baptism today, the church offers the baptized its best vision of a destination big enough to sustain a human life: the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. For the babies baptized today, it is a destination to grow up in and into. For those of us renewing our vows, it is a reminder that our lives are more than the result of our histories. As flowers rooted in the earth rise toward the sun, so our lives unfurl toward their purposes. The difference is, we can choose our suns, and even among Christians there are quite a few planets to choose from. So here are a few things to notice about the Omega story Revelation tells, especially if you are looking for a story big enough for your life:
In this story, people do not go up to heaven; heaven comes down to them. The earth is not struck by a rogue meteor, laid waste by aliens, destroyed by nuclear holocaust, or otherwise demolished so that all humans can do is escape upwards. That is Hollywood, not Revelation. In Revelation, the God who created heaven and earth the first time creates them both anew. The new Jerusalem comes down to rest exactly where the old, troubled city once stood, and God comes too—joining humans right where they are. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them…” In this vision of final destination, the arc of the divine bends down, not up. With a future like that, you can’t dismiss the earth now.
In this story, we are not headed back to the garden, a paradise for two, but forward to a city for all the nations. This is bound to be a disappointment to people who thought they were going to have God all to themselves, since this city is 1,500 miles square, full of people from every corner of the earth, with gates that never shut—no one is closed out. Anyone who cannot get along with their neighbors now is going to be miserable then, unless they let the vision get to work on them ahead of time, softening their hearts and opening their minds to embrace all whom God embraces. With a future like that, you can’t lock the gates now.
In this story, there is no temple. The new Jerusalem does not have a single church in it. By then, the time for beautiful places like this will be over. There will be no further need for any of the mediators of God—sacred buildings, sacred books, sacred rituals or clergy—for God will be fully present to the people, who will see God face to face. But, since God seems to love water, there will be lots of it—the river of the water of life flowing from the throne on which God sits. The tree of life growing on its banks, producing fruit year round, with leaves for the healing of the nations. I know some of you will miss church, but there you have it: there won’t be any one place to call “church” anymore since every place will be church, if what you mean by church is the place where you seek God. In the new Jerusalem, God won’t be hard to find anymore. The whole city will be God’s marriage partner. Wherever you go in it and whomever you are with, you will be married to God. With a future like that, religion can’t be your be-all-and-end-all now. God’s presence is what counts.
To choose this destination is not about securing an advance ticket to heaven. It is about receiving citizenship papers. In a moment we will say our baptismal vows—a summary of the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of the new Jerusalem. Anyone who answers “I will, with God’s help,” uses the future tense to accept a certain future—one that has not happened yet, but one with power to shape everything that happens next.
To say “yes” to it won’t get you any extra protection from threats to your well-being; it may in fact make things harder instead of easier, with one important exception: you will never suffer from a shortage of purpose in your life. You will never wonder why you are here or what you are for, because from now on you know both where you came from and where you are going. Your feet are pointed in a certain direction— toward full communion with God and neighbor; away from evil and despair; toward justice and peace among all people, away from anything that might persuade you to respect the dignity of some human beings but not all.
Once you have decided to go in that direction, any step away takes you away from your own destiny—though fortunately your vows cover that too. When you find yourself going in the wrong direction you can, with God’s help, stop and turn around. Because once you have chosen your destination, your destination chooses you. The minute word gets out about your citizenship ceremony, you gain a whole new crowd of coaches and cheerleaders—Christians call them saints—who are dedicated to helping you get where you mean to go—not just by the end of time but by the end of every single day. Meanwhile, there you are, looking backward and forward to discover who you are, hanging on to your roots as you let your life unfurl toward the sun of your own choosing. T. S. Eliot said it well: “In my end is my beginning.” The one who is seated on the throne says it even better: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” For Charlotte, Chloe, Everett, Luke, and Alannah, and for each of us, may it be so.
With gratitude to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts influenced this sermon.