Many years ago as a young pastor at a new church, I was trying to find a short-cut from a hospital visit to home. As I traveled down the road, I went straight instead turning left from whence I came. As I kept driving I did not travel far before I realized I had entered a very poor part of town. The houses were run down, stores were dark and boarded up, and so were more than a few houses. The lawns were brown and infested with weeds. It looked as if this neighborhood was at one time a nice place to live, but it's better days were definitely behind it. As I drove another half mile or so, I almost immediately entered a new section of town where the houses were not only nice and the neighborhood well kept with lush green lawns, but the houses were huge. In what seemed like an instant, I left the poverty of one place entering the wealth of another. It was quite the contrast.
In the book of Revelation John contrasts two cities-- Babylon and the new Jerusalem. The former John refers to as a whore, the latter holy. The two places of dwelling couldn't be more different.
John describes Babylon the Great in chapter 18. The city is filled with all kinds of immorality. It's inhabitants are sexually immoral, they are greedy, materialistic, worshipers of false gods, and persecutors of God's people. When she finally falls as a result of God's judgement, people do not rejoice; they mourn. The rulers of the earth, the merchants, and seafarers grieve deeply as they enjoyed and profited from her sinful ways. They will even heap dust on their heads as a sign of mourning (18:19), particularly ironic as such an action can also be a sign of repentance.
But God's people are called to rejoice, for the fall of Babylon is a sign of God's rescue of his people. The same God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is now releasing his people, the Church from this final Babylonian captivity. And as the Israelites were brought into a land of promise, so now a new city, one completely different from Babylon has been prepared for them.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
John is offering hope to the seven churches of Asia Minor. They may be suffering at the hands of the Roman Babylon, but like all empires it too will fall and pass away into the pages of history. God is preparing a new city, a new place where God will be at the center and its very existence and will be dependent upon God himself. And even though that new city has yet to appear in its fullness, God's people are to live as citizens of that new Jerusalem while having to exist in Babylon.
One writer puts it this way:
The book of Revelation images the difficulty of dwelling in both Babylon and Jerusalem at the same time. Like Lot of old, maybe we should flee Sodom without looking back, disengage, renunciate the one to experience the other. Yet, joining Francis in flight is rarely an option. So, we face the seductive nature of the "whore" and her determined abuse of the "Bride of Christ", and employ extreme dexterity in straddling both cities at the same time.
To survive, the vision of John must be our vision. We must look beyond the Whore of Babylon to the Holy City and so wend our way through this age of shadows. Such a vision would certainly encourage us if we were undergoing persecution, as were the Christians in John's day. Yet, our problem is not that we are violated by the State, rather that we are gently sucked into the games of the secular city. Although we are bound to both cities we don't have to be loyal to both cities. The city of Babylon claims our all, but the city of God claims our all as well. Which do we choose to give our loyalty to?It may indeed be the case that the kingdom of the world have not yet become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ, but the invasion started long ago on a hill called Calvary, and the Church, the Body of Christ is the beachhead of the divine intrusion in this world And unlike the Caesars of the world, Jesus will indeed reign for ever and ever.
This truth gives God's people the kind of assurance and hope that makes it possible for them to live in whatever Babylon they may find themselves.
*The title of this post was inspired by this Lectionary Study.