Thomas J Parlette
“A Tale of Two Cities”
Rev. 21: 10, 21:22 – 22:5
An interesting trend we’re seeing as Rochester grows is that more and more people are interested in living downtown, or at least close to downtown. And it’s not just Rochester. City loving is making a comeback. A recent report from the United Nations noted that more and more people are moving from rural areas and subdivisions into urban areas and big cities.
That’s a little surprising considering the bad reputation that cities have had over the years. Comedian Anita Weiss says, “I moved to New York City for my health. I’m paranoid, and it was the only place where all my fears were justified.”
Or, as Lewis Black says about traffic in Boston, “The last person to get across that town in three hours was yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”
Many people would agree with Jason Love’s opinion of Las Vegas – “All the amenities of modern society in a habitat unfit to grow a tomato.”
Or, this from comedian Richard Jeni – “This is how Chicago got started. A bunch of people from New York said, “Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough.”(1)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…” Many of you recognize the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ famous A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities that were the focal point of Dickens’ novel were Paris and London during the days of the French Revolution. This morning we will center our attention on a different pair of cities. The City of Humanity and the City of God.
The Hebrew Bible reveals a certain prejudice against cities. You will remember in Genesis chapter 4 after he slays his brother Abel, Cain is driven forth out of the presence of the Lord, and the first thing he does is build a city. Then again, after the days of the great flood, the people gather to build a city, and in the middle of that city they build a great tower – the Tower of Babel. You remember the result. God destroys the tower and scatters the people out of the city.
Think of the negative connotations around such Old Testament cities as Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh and Babylon. There is a certain sinfulness, a certain grimness, a detachment from God that is associated with cities. “Hell,” wrote the poet Shelley, “is a city much like London – a populous and smoky city.”
Such prejudice against cities is still around today. There is an old story about the lady in New York City who died willing all her money to God. A probate judge broke the will with the declaration that “after due search it has been determined that God cannot be located in New York City.”(2) There’s a lot of people that might agree with that, I imagine.
People in rural areas have always regarded city slickers with suspicion. That is interesting when you realize that the word “pagan” originally meant “country folk.” No environment today has a monopoly on problems. Some of the highest suicide rates, highest divorce rates, highest alcoholism and opioid addiction rates in the United States per capita are found in rural areas. You can run, but you can’t hide from the problems of modern day life.
When you think about it, we all live in one big city these days, no matter how far away the neighbors are. With television, internet and social media, we are more connected than we’ve ever been. For better or worse modern technology has made us one big city – the City of Humanity.
Which is quite different than the City of God, which John writes about in his revelation.
In our passage for today, John describes a city coming down from heaven, a city from God that is amazingly glorious. It is an enormous city, 1500 hundred miles on every side. It has perfect symmetry and it’s large enough for all who would enter. It has a wall 216 feet high and 12 gates, just like the tribes of Israel. The city rests on 12 foundations and on those 12 foundations are carved the names of the 12 apostles. This is the New Jerusalem. Within its walls is the New Israel. Its walls are of jasper and the city itself is pure gold. Its foundations are adorned with every known jewel. There is no Temple in the center, as you may expect in the New Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb are the Temple, and the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
The City of God – the City of Humanity. There are some essential differences between these two cities, besides the obvious differences in physical appearance. The question for us is – How can we make the City of Humanity more like the City of God?
The first difference is this: The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God draws people together. It is an interesting phenomenon that the closer we live in proximity, the more detached we become socially. Consider that ultimate symbol of the city of Humanity – the apartment. The very word itself says it all – apart-ment. Chances are we don’t know the neighbor on the other side of the wall much less on the other side of town.
Journalist Gregory Favre claims that one of the most important, but least reported, stories of our time concerns our indifference and lack of empathy toward one another. He quotes Pope Francis, who said, “We have fallen into globalized indifference. He have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business.”(3)
Globalized indifference – that is the sickness at the heart of The City of Humanity. But it’s different in the City of God. In the City of God there is an unparalleled unity among people, all peoples. There are no racial distinctions, no class distinctions, no ethnic distinctions, no economic distinctions, even no religious or denominational distinctions.
It is important to note that the City of God is called the New Jerusalem and that it houses the New Israel. It is no accident that the city has 12 gates – one for each of the tribes of Israel. John in his great vision sees that Christianity is the continuation and the culmination of a work God began with Abraham and Moses and David.
The City of Humanity drives people apart. The City of God brings people together. This is because of a second truth – the City of Humanity is governed by law, the City of God is governed by love. We have laws to keep people from taking unfair advantage of others.
The FBI used to publish a Crime Clock, a set of statistics on how many serious crimes occurred per second in the United States. The last crime clock they published in 2016 pointed out that a violent crime occurs every 25 seconds. There was a murder every 30 seconds, a robbery every 2 seconds, a motor vehicle theft every 41 seconds and an aggravated assault every 39 seconds.
Now, I’m not one who believes our society is disintegrating. If you are a student of history, you know that our time is no better or no worse than others. The point is this: Anyone who expects humanity to save itself – whether through technology or education or the social sciences or whatever, is blind to reality. We cannot save ourselves, for we live by the law of self-preservation, and by our very nature, we will manipulate and take advantage of one another. That is why we live by law- to restrain the worst that is in us; but the law cannot save us, as Paul so eloquently pointed out. Only one thing can save us, and that is God.
The City of Humanity drives people apart – the City of God draws people together. The City of Humanity is based on law – the City of God is a kingdom of love. One more thing we can say about these two cities. The City of Humanity is based on personal striving – the City of God is a gift from on high.
There beats within the heart of every human being the desire for recognition and appreciation, for power and position, for material wealth and worldly acclaim. Years ago Wallace Hamilton called it the drum major instinct. All of us long to march out in front of the parade. So we strive for success. We build up our businesses. We work our way through the ranks. We plan and project. Some of us dream and scheme. We build monuments to ourselves. That is often why tall skyscrapers line city streets and names adorn donated buildings.
Sometimes even the most conscientious of us may step on someone else in order to climb higher on the totem pole of personal achievement. We may neglect the needs of our families, ignore the needs of a neighbor, not because we are bad people but because we are oriented to our own success. That is how the city of Humanity is built. But finally we reach whatever it is that we are striving for, and when we do, we find that it doesn’t satisfy.
There is only one thing that permanently satisfies and it comes as a free gift. You can’t earn it or buy it or even deserve it. You can only accept it as the free and generous gift of a loving and benevolent God. John saw the Holy City coming down from heaven, a gift from God. It did not rise from the earth. The kingdom of God will never come from our striving upward. The Kingdom of God can only come down from above, as a free gift from God
But when we recognize that it is a free gift, when we realize that we no longer have to strive to prove our own self-worth, when we are able to relax and receive the love of God as poured out in Jesus Christ – then we will be able to accept and love other people as neighbors, as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities. In which of those two cities do you live? Which city claims your primary allegiance? Where are you investing your time, your talent and your treasure – the City of Humanity… or the City of God?
May God guide us in our choices.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg47.
2. Ibid, pg47.
3. Ibid, pg48.