“A Beautiful Place”

Scripture – Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, May 22, 2022


Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” has been on my mind this week. It goes like this:

Life is short, but I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real [dump], chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.[1]

There’s a lot I keep from my children. They’re too young to understand much of it (thanks be to God). But, still, I find myself monitoring the reports that come over the radio as we drive to and from daycare, just in case my four-year-old is listening. I remember the day my sister called me, completely unraveled, because her daughter had overheard a broadcast and dissolved into tears. It was a report of a mass shooting — I don’t remember which one. (Which tells you everything you need to know about the state of things.) I listened as my big sister dissolved into tears. “I wasn’t ready for her to find out how broken the world is,” she cried.

… for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world …

It can be hard to sell the world, especially after weeks like this one: Russia continues its assault on Ukraine. And, after months under siege, Mariupol has now fallen into enemy hands. COVID cases are surging, making it feel like the world is a game of Whac-a-mole. And, then, there are the killing sprees. Three mass shootings in a single weekend: at a flea market in Houston; another at a Presbyterian church — a PC(USA) congregation — in California; and the one we’ve heard the most about — the shooting at Tops supermarket.

It’s the one we’ve heard most about, not only because of the scale of the attack — 10 lives tragically lost, but because of the motivation behind it. The Buffalo shooting was a heinous act of white supremacist violence rooted in the insidious lie that people of color are replacing — and, therefore, displacing — white Americans. This attack and its aftermath have illustrated, once-again, just how broken our nation is when it comes to matters of race. Of course, some in our communities did not need a sensational act of violence to remember this reality; they live it every day.

“The world is at least half terrible,” Smith writes. And, after weeks like this one, it’s hard to disagree. After this week it would take the best dang realtor east of the Mississippi to sell me this world. “Imagine! You could make this place beautiful,” she’d chirp. “I don’t know,” I’d reply. “It’s a real fixer-upper; it would take a lot of work …”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The author of Revelation, John of Patmos, is a realtor in his own right. In these final chapters of his apocalyptic narrative, he is trying to sell his readers the world — a new world, to be precise … his vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

As Greg mentioned two weeks ago, Revelation was addressed to Christians living under the threat of Rome, which John envisions as a seven-headed beast that crawls out of the sea. The empire insisted the church worship Caesar as Savior and Lord. So — throughout his narrative — John urges his readers to resist the temptations and terrors of Rome and remain faithful to the one, true God. The promise he offers for those who do remain faithful is life in the holy city, the New Jerusalem, where death and crying and pain will be no more.

Today’s Scripture Lesson describes the holy city, though the lectionary cuts out some detail. John of Patmos envisions the New Jerusalem as the bride of Christ, brilliantly adorned. She is dripping with jewels of sapphire and emerald and topaz. The walls of the city are made of jasper; the gates of pearl; the streets are pure gold, transparent as glass. It requires no work to make it beautiful; it is already radiant … and not only because of its stunning facade. It is radiant because of the One who lives in the center of this city, and because of the abundance this One makes possible.

According to John’s vision, God has chosen to make a home among mortals. So heaven has come down to earth. The New Jerusalem descends from above, and the Lord and the Lamb dwell in the midst of the city. God’s glory radiates from the center, illuminating the entire complex; there is no more night.

A river — bright as crystal — flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the processional street of the city. With the Life-Giver’s seat as its source, this river gives life to the tree growing along its banks. And this tree, in turn, gives life to all who make a home here. It yields twelve kinds of fruit — one for each month — so that those who eat from it will never go hungry. The tree feeds the community and, still, it gives more: its leaves “are for the healing of the nations.” In the ancient world, healers would grind up leaves to make medicine[2] — perhaps a salve to spread over scrapes, or a balm to soothe sore muscles. Well, the leaves from this tree have greater healing properties. They can cure the nations of “idolatry, injustice … violence” — the plagues that John bemoans throughout his narrative.[3] Yes, the leaves of this tree can heal the nations, can heal the world.

And the nations of the world flock to the New Jerusalem, where the Tree of Life flourishes because it’s rooted in waters that spring from the Lord of Life. People of every land and race stream through the city gates — gates that never close, but stand open as a reminder of God’s hospitality and welcome. New Jerusalem’s open gates are possible because God purges the community of things that harm. As one scholar puts it: “The promise that nothing unclean will enter [the city] … is the promise that God will remove all uncleanness from us all.”[4] And, so, the nations gather together, secure in the protection and provision of the Almighty. Here in the New Jerusalem, all the nations dwell eternally in God’s presence, and serve God’s purposes forevermore.

These final chapters of Revelation offer a vision of abundance, of healing, of security, of peace. It is a vision of defiant hope for John — an enemy of Rome exiled to an island prison, and for his community — Christians living in the clutches of the beast. But it is also a vision of defiant hope for us.

John’s image of life with God inspires the faithful and comforts the afflicted, which — of course — is why we read it at funerals. The text offers a glimpse of our eternal home. And, even if heaven does not turn out to be a city of gold, I fervently believe it is a place where we will dwell with Christ, where death and crying and pain will be no more. Yes, this vision anchors our hope.

But it’s not just about hope for a life to come …

There is a doctrine of the church called “Eschatology” (there’s your 10-dollar word for the day). Eschatology is the doctrine of the End Times and has often dealt with topics like Christ’s return and the final judgment. But here’s the thing about Eschatology: It’s not just about the end times. It’s also about how our vision for the future, our hope for the future shapes our present. In my mind, this doctrine is best summarized in one of my favorite quotes from theologian Jürgen Moltmann. He says this: “Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”[5]

The goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.

This means that John’s vision of a tree that never stops bearing fruit presses in on the unfulfilled promise of abundance, made clear every time a child cries out in hunger, whether because of a formula shortage, or famine, or simply because we don’t do what’s necessary to feed the world. This means the image of leaves that are medicine for the nations presses in on the unfulfilled promise of healing for countries ripped apart by war and bodies riddled with disease. This means the picture of a city with gates that never close presses in on the unfulfilled promise of security and peace, evident every time memorials of flowers and candles and posters spring up in sites of tragedy across our land.

This means that we can no longer put up with reality as it is. Because our hope in Christ compels us to work for a world characterized by abundance, and healing, and security, and peace for people of every land and race. Our hope compels us to build an earthly home that looks a bit more like the city of God.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And work we do. Every day. In ways that usually don’t capture the attention of journalists. But that do transform little corners of this fixer-upper world into something beautiful.

That’s what we are doing right now through our ECHO Giving campaign. Every penny our congregation gives to support partners around the globe presses against reality as it is. Every penny shows we will not put up with environmental devastation in Congo or tolerate the abuse and marginalization of Guatemalan women. Every penny shows we will not suffer the suffering of Gaza’s school children, who do not have clean water to drink. And, together, our gifts help people of other lands and races experience God’s promise of abundance, and healing, and security, and peace.

And we are not alone in this work. Across our region, others who hope in Christ are refusing to accept reality as it is. And, so, churches like ours are working with people of shared faith and people of other faiths to welcome those who have fled the terrors of war. With the support of this network, three Afghan refugee families have found a home in our city. And, as partners in faith offer hospitality and welcome, Wilmington begins to look just a bit more like the city of God.

Those who hope in Christ are working in other corners, too — surveying the damage, doing what they can to repair what is broken. Tops supermarket, the site of last weekend’s mass shooting, serviced an area of Buffalo that — otherwise — would have been a food desert. As you can imagine, the store is closed for the immediate future. So food access is now a source of stress for an already stressed community. But local churches and other organizations are stepping up. Just beyond the caution tape that encircles Tops, volunteers have set up tables and tents. They’re passing out food and clothes and hygiene products; they’re serving up hot dogs and hamburgers; they’re refusing to put up with this new reality — this tragic reality. Instead, they’re laying claim to a vision of God’s hope for this neighborhood.[6]

These are the stories I will tell my children. Maybe not every detail. But enough for them to know there is good in this world. Enough for them to know there are people working to make this place beautiful. After all …

… Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real [dump], chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Friends, this world has good bones. Because it was created by God. Because it is being redeemed by God. And — as we wait for the day when heaven descends to earth and we see the fullness of God’s glory — we will do the work. Because — with the Spirit’s help — we can make this place beautiful. Beautiful and safe and peaceful and whole, like the city of God.


[1] Maggie Smith, “Good Bones” from Waxwing magazine (Issue IX, Summer 2016). Bracketed language changed for appropriateness.

[2] Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5” (2019), www.workingpreacher.org.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5” (2010), www.workingpreacher.org.

[5] From Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 21

[6] Jaclyn Diaz, “The Buffalo shooting shuttered Tops and left a food desert. Locals are stepping in” (May 19, 2022), www.npr.org.