When I was little, my grandmother always told me not to tell my dreams before breakfast, or else they would come true.
Apparently that’s an old Appalachian superstition, but I mostly think she told me that so I would quit going on and on in dramatic detail about every single dream I had. Problem was, her admonition only kept me from sharing my nightmaresbefore breakfast.
I mean, who doesn’t want a really good dream to come true?
The book of Revelation is written in the language of an urgent dream. Some of it sounds like a total nightmare, but some of it is a really good dream. John describes it so vividly that it’s almost like watching it on the big screen. A montage of lush, outrageous images, scenes shifting from one to another, not in any kind of linear fashion. Looping back into certain themes over and over, deeper and deeper. Numbers, colors, creatures keep emerging again and again, symbols carrying some kind of message. Through the years, many readers of Revelation have treated the book like a code that needed to be cracked, using it to make sense of the world and to make predictions about the future.
But the Book of Revelation is less a prediction than it is a prophetic protest. In the symbolic language of dreams, John evokes the staggering evil and suffering of the world. In vivid terms, his revelations reveal the brutality of life and the chaos and savagery of the powers-that-be. And he doesn’t only offer up pictures of his present reality; his revelation offers a visual protest. He dreams of something better.
His best dream is his last dream. In fact, it’s the last scene of the whole Bible. Our story, which started with a garden deep in the past, ends with a dream of the future. And this is what it shows:
Up in the sky – a city. It’s coming down from God, to the earth: the New Jerusalem. The dream of it is bright and clear. The city is shaped … like a cube – 1500 miles till and wide and deep. Perfect symmetry, a perfect cube, just like the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple had been, a place so holy that just one priest could enter it, just once a year, to be in the presence of God. Now a whole city descends with that same shape, that same symmetry.
If a whole city comes down from heaven to earth resembling the Holy of Holies, is that to say that part of the dream is that all people will have full access to God?
Like the Holy of Holies, this cube has the divine presence within it. The glory of God radiates from it like a rare jewel. The city shines with colors: walls made of gemstones; twelve foundations adorned with every jewel; twelve gates, each made of a single pearl; the street is pure gold and clear as glass. The whole city shimmers with the glory of God.
Even so, there is no sign of religion in this city – no temple, no church, no mosque. No religion. There is no need for our religious structures and systems and dogmas and divisions – because God’s own self is in this city.
Politics, the military, an economy that keeps a certain few elevated and millions of others crushed? None of that in this city, either. There are kings in this city, but they are coming in and handing over everything – their armies, their empires, their treasuries. All human wealth is done. All human power is over. There is no more oppression. There is no more violence. Evil is finished. There is nothing false in this city. And the only one on the throne in this place is God.
There’s no threat, and no need for defense. And that gates are never shut. This city stands open to all. Anyone can come in.
This city shines, but its light is not the sun or the moon. The light is God’s glory and love. It shines all the time, and there is never any night. No darkness in this city.
And at the center of this city, what we find it a river. Theriver. The water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from God’s throne through the middle of the city street. And now we see that this city is not just a city, it’s a garden. On either side of the river is the Tree of Life, heavy with fruit, producing fruit all year round. And the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations.
Our first story started in a garden and centered on a tree. The fruit of that tree was forbidden, but humans stole it and ate it and lost the garden forever because of it. Their relationships with God and with each other and with their own selves were forever changed. But now? Our last story ends in a garden and centers on a tree. And this tree gives life, offers healing, bears fruit for everyone to take and taste and see and be filled. Paradise, regained. Relationships, restored.
The dream ends with one last image. A face. God’s own face. The people of this blessed city will see God’s face, and their own faces will shine with God’s name. The words of Exodus once declared this impossible; no one could see God’s face and live. But in this dream, humanity has finally reached its true purpose – to dwell in God’s presence, completely. And they will never need any other light, because the Lord God will be their light, and they will live by that light, to serve that love and glory forever.
And with that, the dream ends. The last dream of Scripture comes to a close.
So much in the Book of Revelation is dark, confusing, and violent – a perfect reflection of the reality of our world, which is also dark, confusing, and violent. Throughout the ages, many Christians have used the dark, confusing imagery of Revelation for purposes of fear and intimidation. And many of the rest of us have responded by trying to ignore the book altogether, as if it were irrelevant for sophisticated, modern people like us.
But what could be more relevant for a time like this than John’s cosmic dream? The earth – remade. The divisions of nations, politics, economics, and religion, overcome. All fractures, all pain, all grief, healed. All warring, all violence, all scheming, done. All evil, undone.
And all gates, all doors, all borders, wide open.
This is as expansive and inclusive a vision of peace, healing, harmony, inclusivity, and wholeness as we could imagine. There could hardly be a more compelling vision for people like you and me. This is an image we want on our screen. This is a dream we need to wake up to. This is a vision we need to live towards.
We can let this dream be a prediction, let it forecast our own living. We come here to tell this dream – not before breakfast, but maybe before brunch – so that it will come true in our own values and living. In a world torn up by suspicion, anger, hatred, and fear, there is nothing more powerful than people who live by an alternate vision.
We can live towards this dream. We can live as expansive people, inclusive people. We can live as people with open gates. We can live less-defended lives, less scared, less suspicious, less pinched. We can live with greater trust. We can live by hope and work towards healing. We were created for this – to be partners with God in the healing of nations, the transformation of cities, the renewing of creation, the remaking of reality.
We are part of God’s dream for the world, and we can live like it.
Have you heard the piece “Gate A-4” by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye? It goes like this:
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit- se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.