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Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Babylon and Jerusalem. Just as in much of the rest of the Revelation to John, the symbolism is dual: there are two feasts, two women, two books, two identifying marks. So there are also two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. One is the dwelling place of God and the Lamb, and of all God’s holy ones forever; the other contains everything that is opposed to God and His holy ones. One is eternal, and the other is destroyed forever. One has walls with open gates, in which nothing unclean dwells; the other is a prison for everything evil and unclean. One contains and swallows up as its own the true glory of all the kingdoms of the earth; the other contains all that falsely appears to be worth, glory, and value, which swallows up sinners.
In the Revelation that John is given, Babylon is no longer a city in modern-day Iraq; it is the representation of everything that Jesus came to destroy. Babylon is pictured as a prostitute who hires herself out to the inhabitants of the nations, offering promises of pleasure, delight, and satisfaction, but she delivers on none of those promises. She is drunk on the blood of the saints of God, who appear as nothings and nobodies, worthless and traitorous, because they cannot be compelled to worship the State as the highest and the best. She is the demonic city whose residents work for whatever appears good to their own desires: the wealth and wisdom and waste of a complacent decadence. She is everything that belongs to the corruption of this world, and if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:15-16). To love the Father is to love the One whom He gives. To love the world is to love what it claims to give, but cannot deliver. Babylon is the rocky ground, where the roots of faith grow shallow, so that trouble, persecution, and pain, like the midday sun, easily kill the plants. She is the weed-infested ground that overwhelms new plants produced by the Gospel: weeds that choke out good plants with the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. She is, in fact, the city whose vision dwells in every sinful heart. She is the city whose for-rent and for-sale signs call to us whenever we are unhappy or dissatisfied with what the Lord has given and what He has provided. She is the city whose advertisement says, “If you loved here, you’d be home by now,” instead of waiting for the fulfillment of a promise made by a Man who hasn’t been seen on this earth for a couple millennia. She appears to offer the most attractive loans at the best rates, available to anyone and everyone; borrow from her, she promises, and you will be happy. But she is the most vicious loan shark: her balloon payments always come due, and her inhabitants—who can never pay—always lose everything.
The more attractive the earthly city, the more prosperous, the more comfortable, the harder it is to see that it is Babylon through and through. When the persecution is not active, when the suffering is minimal, when the surrounding culture seems to support a general morality and religiosity, the harder it is to see that God’s holy ones in Christ are always, always living in Babylon, no matter the name of the country. This country, too, is Babylon all the time, not just when we don’t like what’s going on in Olympia or Washington, D.C. True, some Babylons are better than others, but as long as we have not yet seen the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, God’s Word remains the same at all times and in all places: Come out of her, my people! Lest you take part in her sins, and so share in her plagues (Revelation 18:4).
Not that we should come out of the world physically; for now, we cannot get off this earth. But we live in exile here just as surely as Israel was exiled in Babylon at the time of Jeremiah. Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Yahweh on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-7). The problem is not so much in the place where we live, but in forgetting that we live in exile wherever we are. We live here, God has put us here, but we do not belong here. Babylon is not our home.
But if there is nothing beyond this Babylon, then where we currently live becomes the goal and end of life. Then people will make Babylon’s politics, for example, a matter of life and death, refusing to see that it is all temporary and secondary. Both Jeremiah and John know that this is not all there is and they say, seek and pray for the welfare of Babylon, praying for kings and those in high authority so that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life. But that’s not the same as pretending that Babylon herself will become some sort of Christian—or secular—Utopia. No: Babylon will be thrown down: in her will be no music, no light and no lamp, no sound of bride and bridegroom: only betrayal and blood, death and destruction, as is already abundantly clear.
So Yahweh reminds Israel not to confuse their current dwelling place for the promised land, not to confuse the welfare of Babylon, for which we pray, with our eternal welfare in Christ. “I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares Yahweh, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:14). Just as He took the people from Jerusalem to Babylon, He promises to bring them from Babylon to Jerusalem—to bring us from all our Babylons, wherever on earth they might be, to the New Jerusalem where God dwells with His people forever.
In the Revelation, the Jerusalem that John sees is no longer a city in the modern-day, so-called, “holy land.” She is pictured as the Bride of the Lamb, the representation of the eternal dwelling of God with man, where the tree of life heals the nations, and the water of life flows from the throne of the crucified to wash clean the defiled and raise the dead. It is the city whose vision dwells in the every heart possessed by the Spirit of God.
Babylon has no music but Jerusalem has the song of saints and angels: Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory for what He has done! Babylon has no light and no lamp but Jerusalem has no darkness, because God’s glory is her light and the Lamb is the lamp. Babylon has no sound of bride or bridegroom but in the new Jerusalem, the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure, the righteous deeds of the saints washed white in the blood of the Lamb: the Lamb who was led outside the city to slaughter, who became the scapegoat bearing the sin and uncleanness and detestable deeds of Babylon’s dwellers.
He came to dwell in Babylon herself, and the Kingdom of God has come near to us, even in our Babylon. Babylon has been undone; she just doesn’t know it yet. The new Jerusalem has been established, we just don’t see it yet. But as certain as Babylon the great is fallen, so certain is the descent of the holy city, new Jerusalem. In that light, doesn’t it strike you as a bit strange that we would plant the flags of Babylon where Jerusalem has conquered? It is, actually, the other way around: the Church has planted the flag of Christ’s Word and Sacrament, the banner of the new Jerusalem, in Babylon’s wasteland.
Though your flesh pulls toward Babylon, the King of Jerusalem has granted you eternal citizenship under His reign. While Babylon makes its claims on life, possessions, desires, and loyalties, the promise of God reminds you that Jerusalem, God’s renewed creation, is your true home. You aren’t so much on your way home, as home is on its way to you. Nothing unclean or false can ever enter this city, so the sinless one purifies you and the Truth cleanses you from falsehood. He who alone has the keys of death and Hades has opened the gates of pearl, rolled those precious stones away. Your grave is only temporary; the seal has been broken forever. It is done! your King proclaims: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I am making all things new. Babylon cannot remain; Jerusalem will be remade from her ruins. Jesus reigns over all creation. All the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
As long as Christ keeps His promise never to forsake His baptized children, then even while we dwell in Babylon, we live forever in Jerusalem. The family of God multiplies in exile, and never decreases: children are born and born again from above—as many hearts and minds as, like Lydia’s, God opens to believe the Word of Christ, and they are baptized (Acts 16:14-15). The Garden of the Lord has been planted right here, in the ruins of Babylon, and we eat again today the fruit of the cross-shaped Tree of Life; until Jerusalem is visible to all whose names the Lamb has written in His own Book; until the knowledge of God covers the whole earth; until all the nations walk by the light of Christ—until the exile is over, and we are gathered forever into God’s eternal City.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/22/19