vv. 10-11 And in the spirit [the angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.
Our reading today is a description of the holy city. It is a marvelous sight for the imagination: crystal and gold and twelve precious jewels making up its foundation. It is "foursquare," with three gates on each side. The description is meant in every way to say, "perfection."
"The golden streets of heaven" is not an image that us progressive Christians take much stock in anymore. But it meant something to our ancestors, especially our African-American ancestors in slavery. They sang of the city often:
Oh! What a beautiful city...Twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah!
Three gates ina the East, three gates ina the West, three gates in the north, and three gates ina the South, making it twelve gates-a to the city, a-Hallelujah! (LEVAS II, #10)
For people who have nothing, the vision of golden streets on which they can walk, which have been made for them, means a great deal. Maybe that was an ultimately unhelpful vision of "pie in the sky," but I neither think that was its intention nor its effect. Its effect was hope, hope that could be born out of nothing and hope that could outlast anything.
It also should be a vision for change, earthly change. The city, after all, was seen by John not staying in heaven, but descending to earth. The hymnwriter Walter Russell Bowie wrote these words in 1910:
Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood too long a dream,
whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,
and where the sun that shineth is God's grace for human good.
Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair:
lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare--
yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there. (The Hymnal 1982, #583)