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Revelation 21:1-6: Earth Day, God and the Apocalypse

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Have you ever heard someone described as, "So heavenly minded, he was no earthly good?" This phrase suggests one danger of interpreting the Book of Revelation. Sadly, when it comes to considering the natural world and Revelation, heavenly mindedness often undermines care for our environment. Some Christians have a tendency to think, "Well, if I'm off to heaven, I shouldn't care much about this silly earth of ours. It's just a temporary home, after all."

In fact, Revelation suggests the opposite: The earth isn't truly "left behind," but renewed, becoming the very dwelling place of God. Revelation 21 calls people to be, well, "earthly good," caring for creation as we prepare for God to come home.

Climate Change

The latest on climate change and our environmental crisis is pretty harrowing. As Earth Day celebrations on Monday reminded us: The clock is running out on life as we know it.

Last week, Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, penned an op-ed suggesting despite our efforts, "the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago." Recent data on the lack of clean energy, she argued, must "serve as a wake-up call" for the international community.

Sadly, some have already been made to wake up. Australia's main advisory committee on refugees recently urged their government to grant refugee status to those displaced by climate change.

Closer to the U.S., writer, Sunday School teacher, and environmental activist Bill McKibben has led the movement against the Keystone Pipeline which, if approved and the Alberta Tar Sands extracted, McKibben and others say could be "game over" for the planet.

Is Hope Still Possible?

Ideally, this week's Earth Day events remind us of the need for earth care, but I'm afraid many are losing hope entirely. When battling the wealth of oil companies, the stubbornness of entrenched energy systems, and our usual unsustainable ways of living, it's easy to hold up one's hands -- or fall to one's knees -- and shout, "God, I've had enough!"

In Revelation 21 we find hope for all the world, and assurance that God cares deeply for both the people and the earth God has fashioned.

Of course, the language of Revelation is famously hard to interpret (or, easy to misinterpret, as the case may be). It's written in a funny style for us 21st century types -- not a Gospel or letter, but a work of "apocalyptic literature." (We might think of Revelation's genre as across between John Stewart's "Daily Show" satire and a Stephen King novel.) Such writing is meant to pull back the veil, to expose the truth, opening life up to a new and deeper understanding.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Revelation's writer, John, received visions when on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea. Revelation employs symbolism to expose the great power of the time: the Roman Empire. John's visions challenge an imperialist view of the world suggesting a lamb, rather than the emperor, is on the true throne. For us today, it challenges the same: powers and systems that claim a carbon-heavy lifestyle is the only way to live.

God Renews the Earth With Love

By chapter 21, Revelation is describing a rejuvenated, holy city -- the "new Jerusalem" -- which proceeds from God. Heaven descends to earth, renewing humanity and the earth with a bustling, holy city.

The Bible opens in Genesis with a garden. It ends in Revelation with a more urban feel. City life is lived close together. Compared to sprawling suburbia, cities offer a more sustainable way to live with diverse food, culture, art and necessary dependence on one another.

Note also that Revelation 21 shows God not plucking us off to some magical planet far away; instead, God comes home.

"See, the home of God is among mortals," the voice tells John (21:3 NRSV). God hangs out with us creatures on our turf, God's earth. Humanity, with our messy, fleshy, beautiful, problematic selves shares the renewed earth with God Godself.

The earth isn't leased to us short-term. Revelation says God moves in, forever our eternal, earthly, roommate.

Even with the language of the holy city connecting heaven to the urban, the natural is also integrated into sustaining life. This passage ends with the promise: "To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life" (21:6 NRSV).

So What?

Many reasons exist for Christians to be committed to care of the earth. The traditional notion of stewardship is compelling -- that God has made humans to be careful stewards of creation (esp. Genesis 1:29-31; 2:15). Increasingly, we've become aware that expressing love for our neighbors requires careful attention to environmental concerns.

Groups like Interfaith Power and Light support faith communities -- and our elected officials -- in this important work. People of faith are particularly concerned that environmental degradation disproportionally affects the poor and the marginalized.

While traditional notions of stewardship are well and good, Revelation suggests another reason to care since, at the end of the world, God comes home to live on earth.

Revelation impresses on us God's care for this earth, this world, since, after all, God made it in the first place and will return to it. Following God, and reading Revelation, calls us to hopeful earthly good here and now.

Additional Resources

Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.