By Paul Koch –
At night I read to my son when he gets into bed. We just finished reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic story line, the four Pevensie children enter into a magical land called Narnia through the back of a large wardrobe in a spare room. Now, the land they find there is locked in a perpetual winter caused by an evil witch. When one of the children says that winter isn’t all bad because you can play in the snow and of course there is Christmas, they learn to their horror that there is no Christmas in Narnia. The witch’s power makes it always winter but never Christmas.
I think this is a brilliant image created by Lewis. The power of the witch not only robs the land of warmth and the sights and smells of new life, she robs them of the promise of anything greater. Christmas, especially for children, is a day full of promise. Remember Christmas when you were a child? Remember the excitement of the days leading up to Christmas, the promise of gifts and family and food? That’s really the magic of it. We live, in those few short days, in the promise of all that comes with Christmas. Yet you and I, as the children of God, live in promises not just around Christmas but each and every day of our lives. And we live in promises far greater than anything we find under our Christmas trees. The promises in which we live are the promise of reconciliation with our God, the promise of eternal life, the promise of living without fear or death or pain and suffering. And these promises are not made by empty hope and dreams but declared by the Creator of all things. We live in the promises of the one who sent his only begotten Son to suffer and die for us.
What we find when we come to the end of the book of Revelation is a description or a picture, if you will, of the promises we’ve been given in Christ. We accompany St. John as he is carried away in the Spirit to a great high mountain where he sees with his own eyes the promises that we all live in right now. For anyone who has wondered what the new heavens and new earth will be like, here we are given a glimpse of its beauty. John sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, it radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”
Now the picture that he begins to paint for us is magnificent and brilliant. It enlightens our imagination and sparks our wonder. And it is a strange image, to be sure, to see a city coming down out of heaven. It is perhaps not what we were expecting. But I think the strangeness of this scene is fixed in the nature of what is being revealed to us. Here we are seeing the promises of God; perfection, true beauty and holiness are on display. A place without sin, without death and suffering is a place that will be strange to us. For this promise is something we’ve never experienced. It is something that can scarcely begin to comprehend. And so our language and imagination is stretched and warped to give us but a sample of what it will be like.
We are told that this city had a great high wall with twelve gates. On the gates were inscribed the names of the twelve sons of Israel. The city stood upon twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The city is structured upon and within the great work of God’s promises on earth. The 12 tribes and the 12 apostles mark and establish this holy place where we will dwell for all eternity. God’s church, the place where his Word and Sacraments dwell establish the foundation and the entry into our eternal paradise.
John then is given a rod to measure the city. But here the image gets even stranger. For this holy city coming down from heaven is not only massive, but it is shaped like a perfect cube. That’s right. It is equal in length, width, and height. This is beginning to seem like something out of a crazy science fiction movie. But perhaps we remember another ancient building of God’s people. Do you remember the tabernacle in the wilderness? Remember that God had given very specific instructions on how it was to be constructed. Remember how this place sat in the middle of the camp, and it was a testimony of God’s presence with his chosen ones, and how the temple in Jerusalem was designed along the same lines? Inside the temple that Solomon built we find the holy place lined with gold and engraved pictures of the cherubim. But at the far end there was the most holy place, the Holy of Holies they called it, and in there was the ark of the covenant. It was closed off with a large curtain. It was there, for sure, that God had placed himself for his people. And what was the shape of that most holy place? You guessed it, a perfect cube.
Now everything about that old structure was designed keep the holy things holy while allowing the unclean and sinful to approach safely. The rituals for entering into the most holy place and the reasons for even going in there were a living testimony of the separation between God and man because of our sin. Sacrifices had to be made, atonement had to be declared, and the whole temple operated to deliver such things to God’s people. The commands and laws of God, the works of the priest, and the offerings of the penitent operated around that holy place. And yet, all of it was but a foreshadow of the final sacrifice made in the blood of Christ. All of it was leading up to our Lord’s incredible gift of mercy. This is why when he dies on the cross the curtain separating the most holy place from everything else rips from top to bottom.
And so what John describes for us as he sees our promise in Christ is a place where there is no more separation from God. It is a place where all things are holy. The whole city built upon the Word of God is the most holy place. The most stunning thing to me, as he describes this scene, is not that each gate was made of a single pearl. It’s not that the streets were paved with gold or even that there was no need for the sun or the moon. The most stunning thing in our promised eternal home is that there is no temple in it. No temple means no sacrifices to offer, no law to fear, no separation from our Father in heaven. No temple means we will no longer be sinners. We will no longer have need of forgiveness. Just try and imagine it. No temple means we will live in harmony with one another and with our God. No temple means we will never have to look to ourselves, to our own actions, to our own works or strength for assurance that we can approach the holy dwelling of God. No more temple means we have arrived. We are secure in the love of God.
This is his promise to you. This is what John sees. In the gifts of Christ, you will enter paradise.
In Narnia, the first clue that the witch’s power is weakening is when the children run into St. Nicholas. That’s right, Santa Clause shows up to remind them of the promise of something more than the winter. And so, we too live with the constant reminders of our Lord’s great promise. True, they aren’t gifts from Santa Clause. In fact, they are far more powerful gifts. We are given the washing of holy Baptism, the death to the old self and the putting on of the new. We are given the proclamation that in the works of Christ alone all our sins are forgiven – you then are forgiven. And we are given his own body and blood in with and under bread and wine to embrace us with the mercy of our Savior.
Such gifts strengthen us to live in his promise. For by these gifts your name has been written in the Lamb’s book of life. And soon the sights and sounds of new life will overtake the gloom of winter.