This Storm-Tossed Life: Why There Will Be No Sea in the New Creation
As I stepped to the lectern, I glanced down at the Bible open in front of me, and the few dozen mourners spread throughout the sanctuary. Sunday after Sunday, she whom we remembered today as daughter or mother or friend had sat in the same pew where they now were. She sat there, yes, but appearances were deceptive, for on the inside she was hardly sitting; she was thrown about, swept to and fro, buffeted by waves of woe. During the final year of her life, it was as if Barbara had been sucked out to sea, blown this way by divorce, that way by sickness, and still other ways by financial and employment losses. Finally, overcome by it all, and seeing no other way out, she sank beneath the dark waters of death. The family and friends she left behind, I among them, now have our own winds and waves to fight as we not only grieve her suicide, but continue to face whatever other sufferings we endure in this often tumultuous life.
Among the various portions of the Scriptures that I read that day, there was a short phrase that was easy to miss. It seems an odd, but relatively insignificant, detail in St. John’s description of the new heavens and new earth. But as I read those words during Barbara’s memorial service, the Holy Spirit sang them to me as a six-word hymn of deep and abiding comfort. They are the last few words of this verse:
And 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. Revelation 21:1
The promise of a new creation, in which the sea no longer exists, may make little or no sense to you, much less seem of deep and abiding comfort. But when you look at the sea from a biblical perspective, and understand what those waters represent, the absence of a sea in the new creation denotes the presence of something, and someone, much better.
The songs and narratives that shape the thought of the Israelites do not speak of the sea the same way we often do, as a place of tranquility, postcard sunsets, and soothing waves lapping the beach. For them, the waters of the sea are a place of danger, judgement, confusion, evil, death. Consider these examples:
*By means of a cosmic flood, the Lord executed the unbelieving world in the days of Noah (Genesis 6). The seas became the watery grave of nearly all humanity.
*Similarly, after God parted the Red Sea to let Israel pass through to safety, He made those same waters a cascading coffin for the Egyptians. “The LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea” so that “not even one of them remained,” (Exodus 14:27-28).
*Then there’s the story of Jonah. When this prophet fled from God by boarding a ship, “the LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up,” (Jonah 1:4).
*Echoing these same negative images, the psalms liken the threats of the enemy to the “roaring of the seas and the roaring of their waves,” (65:2). In another psalm, the souls of mariners melt within them as they rise up on stormy waves to the heavens and go down to the depths, reeling and staggering like drunken men, until the Lord finally causes the storm to be still (107:23-32).
*Within the New Testament as well, the waves of the sea betoken impending death (Matthew 8:23-27); the sea is the place into which the herd of swine plummet to their death when the demons enter them (Matthew 8:32); and “the roaring of the sea and the waves” one of the signs of the second coming of Christ (Luke 21:25).
Though there are exceptions, in the biblical imagination the sea is emblematic of a world gone wrong. If the “whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:22), then the sea is like that mother writhing on her bed of labor. Its restless waters are iconic of a world in need of a final, unending Sabbath. The labor pains will cease, and the Sabbath will come, when our Father “shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away,” (Revelation 21:4). As John says, “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,” (21:1). No longer any sea, no longer a world gone wrong, only a world made right by Christ who is “making all things new,” (21:5).
That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, that there will come a time when there’s no longer a sea, but what about now? What about me and my loved ones who are enduring the storms of life now; buffeted by waves of sorrow; swept out to sea by job loss, cancer, divorce, and the million other problems in this life? What about those of us who are perishing within our own seas of suffering?
The good news is that the same Christ who promises no more turbulent waters in the new creation, already brings that new creation into your life via a most ironic way: through water. Jesus plunges the old you beneath the waters of baptism and pulls a new you free from those waters. In those waters you die in a big way, for you die to all that separated you from God. And you live in an even bigger way, for you are now truly alive in the one who died and rose again, who kicked death in the teeth, who stripped the tomb of its power to hold him and you.
Just as Jesus was with His disciples in the boat when a great storm arose in the sea, covering the vessel with waves, so that these men thought they were perishing, so He is with you. When you endure the storms of life, the waves of sorrow, He is not a deity who stands on the shoreline shouting instructions. He is the Savior who never leaves your side, for He has washed you into His open side by the waters of a new creation. He doesn’t tell you what to do; He says, “It is done. It is finished.” Yes, there will be many times when you doubt it; when, like the disciples, you will be of little faith (Matthew 8:26). But even when you are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). When the time is right, He will rebuke the winds and the waves, and there will be a great calm.
There will be no sea in the new creation. Amen to that good news. But even better news is that, even while we endure storms at sea in this old creation, the God who baptizes us also abides with us in these tumultuous waters, holds us up, and will never leave us nor forsake us, for we are dearer to Him than life itself.