Shortly after Jon and I got married, we left Alabama, loaded our worldly goods into a mid-sized U-Haul, and started driving north, towing our little car with its “Heart of Dixie” license plates behind us. We reached Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and people honked and swore as Jon manuevered the cumbersome load from lane to lane. By the time we located our exit, sweat was pouring off his forehead, and I was a nervous wreck. Miraculously, we made it to our hotel without injury.
That first trip across town became a metaphor for life in the Windy City. Although it could be frightening, exciting, and demanding, it definitely wasn’t relaxing. I was often homesick for quieter days, screened porches, and real sweet tea with lemon. I missed our families, our traditional foods (fried), and the slow tempo of life in the South. That rhythm, partially dictated by the weather: hot in spring, broiling in summer, sweltering in early fall, and cool in winter, left me entirely unprepared for the bitter cold winters of the Midwest, and for the explosion of activity that occurred when spring finally did arrive. After the snow melted, our neighbors burst out of doors like worker bees from starving hives- flower beds were prepared; bikes were ridden; windows were washed. One spring morning, someone even mentioned “going to the beach for the weekend”. I was confused.
“Will you be flying?” I asked.
“No”, she replied.
“Well, if you’re not flying, how are you going to make it to the beach and back by Monday?”
She was amused. “Surely, you know that Lake Michigan has a beach”, she said.
“Oh”, I thought, “not a real beach. You people don’t understand.”
To me, “the beach” meant the Gulf of Mexico, with its white sand and warm water, a place my parents took us each summer. While Dad fished, Mother painted sea scenes, and my brothers and I romped through the waves, built sand castles and looked for shells. I loved the gulf in all its moods and colors. I loved the fresh breezes and the afternoon showers. I loved the sound of the waves breaking against the sand, and the cry of the laughing gulls. I loved the sight of glistening dolphins arcing through the water, and sailboats running before the wind. When those memories blow across my mind I feel a great yearning to be there again, because being near the sea feeds my soul. Consequently, I found John’s vision in Revelation 21, distinctly disappointing: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.”
Some commentators think that this statement is purely metaphorical, that the sea represents evil, and that it is evil which will be swept away instead of the oceans. Others remind us that the sea is not only the cause of many deaths, but a future portal for the antichrist, and conclude that it cannot be part of the new creation. Then there are those pragmatic few who think that any island prisoner would hate the sea, and naturally regard it as an evil in a perfect world. I find myself in deep waters (idiom intentional) when I read these commentaries.
I’m pretty sure that John didn’t delete the ocean from his vision because he hated it. He grew up by the sea, worked on it as a fisherman, and watched Jesus walk on it. And, if he was using the sea only as a symbol, why did he juxtapose it with something he clearly saw as concrete (“a new heaven and a new earth”)? As for the sea representing evil, what about the Genesis verses where God pronounces His whole creation “good”? We live in a cursed creation. People fall off mountains. They die of thirst in deserts. It doesn’t follow that mountains and deserts are evil in themselves. Likewise, water is just…water…no matter how big. I don’t think that John was editorializing, but merely relating what he saw, and what he saw was surprising. There was “no longer any sea”.
Although part of me urgently wants to join the “purely metaphorical” contingent, I realize that I love the sea most, not because of what it is, but for what it reminds me of. Simply put, the sea reminds me of its Creator: His voice is in the surf; His eternity in its vastness; His power in the turbulent waves. It is not the ocean, but what is beyond it, that calls to my soul as I watch and wait on the shore.
God is a master communicator, and He uses creation to point out the obvious, namely, that ” He is”, and He wants us to believe that He is. That He created us. That He loves us and has provided salvation for us. In the new world, He will live with us and speak to us face to face. Perhaps the oceans will be done with then…perhaps. But as this world is only a distorted version of the next one, I can expect to see greater things. If the sea is gone, I won’t be missing it.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord,
for He is coming,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
And the peoples in His faithfulness. Psalm 96:11-13