A Second Emmanuel

Sometimes things just come together in ways we could never imagine. Back this summer when I first began planning our current sermon series on the Book of Revelation, I never thought I’d still be preaching it deep into Advent. After all, who wants to hear about dragons and monsters and plagues at Christmas? How glad I am to have been so wrong!

Here’s why: I have a book on my shelf called The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’ Stories and Revelation’s Visions. It’s all about drawing connections between the first and the last few chapters of the Bible. In other words, Genesis 1-3 look a whole lot like Revelation 21-22. For example, did you know that the Tree of Life shows up only twice in Scripture? Yup, and you guessed it — at the very beginning and at the very end. The Tree of Life literally bookendsthe story of God.

Adoration of the Christ Child
Gerard Honthorst

I’ve known this for a while now and have always marveled at the symmetry of Scripture. But I had no idea just how much the Book of Revelation also echoes the story of Christmas and Christ’s incarnation. Take a look at how Revelation’s author, John, describes the coming of heaven and God’s presence at the start of Revelation 21 —

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

Revelation 21:1-8
The Heavenly Jerusalem
14th-Century Tapestry

What was that? God will dwell with them! Do you remember what the name “Emmanuel” means? God with us. When the Gospel of John talks about the incarnation of Jesus, it talks about it in the language of Emmanuel, as God with us. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The idea here is literally that God is going to tabernacle among us. God is pitching his tent right here in the middle of our city, our world, our lives. It’s the exact same language the Old Testament uses when God leads the Israelites through the wilderness by a holy cloud during the day and a glorious pillar of fire at night. God is literally and physically with the people. He is Emmanuel (Exodus 13:17-22). And then it happens again in the Temple that Solomon builds. God takes up residence in the Holy of Holies, right there in the middle of Jerusalem, right there in the middle of everyone. God truly is God with us, the one we call, “Emmanuel” (2 Chronicles 5:11-14; cf. Exodus 40:34).

Because of its name, we often think the Book of Revelation is teaching us something brand new, but it’s not. It’s actually teaching us something very old and yet very central to the whole story of God. It’s just that here in Revelation God’s story as Emmanuel finally moves into its last glorious chapter.

Which is simply to say that what God does in the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, Jesus does as a human baby in a wooden manger in a dusty town called Bethlehem. And what Jesus began there in Bethlehem finds its ultimate fulfillment in the story of Revelation 21, when heaven comes down to earth and glory fills our souls. That’s Emmanuel. That’s God with us. 

At the beginning of Advent, we always sing the song O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I don’t think there’s a better song to sing at the start of the Christmas season as we remember Jesus’ incarnation. But think about the song in light of Revelation 21, and what do you see? All of a sudden, we’re not talking about the beginning — we’re talking about the end. And what a glorious end it will be!

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh
To us the path of knowledge show
And cause us in her ways to go

O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease
And be Thyself our King of peace