Creator God, you are the source of all that is and you have given us each life, and breath, and set us upon our way in this world. For this, we give you deep thanks. Give us open eyes, minds, and hearts to perceive and experience your presence here in this place. Amen.
Today, as we continue our sermon series on developing our personal beliefs, we turn to the somewhat dicey, sometimes avoided subject of the book of Revelation and eschatology (the word theologians use for discourse on the “last things”).
And for some crazy reason I volunteered to take on this subject.
Apocalypse has become synonymous with the “end times” or the Last Judgment. But the word apokálypsis in ancient Greek actually literally means an unveiling, an uncovering, or a revealing, as the name Revelation suggests.
Revelation is not the only piece of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The book of Daniel, the 13th chapter of Mark, Matthew 24-25, some of Paul’s writings including part of Romans 8, and others are also considered apocalyptic. And, in addition to the books that made it into the Bible, the ancient world was filled with even more apocalyptic stories and writings.
And, speaking of the compilation of the Bible, not everyone involved in the formation of the New Testament wanted to include Revelation. Some thought it was weird and wild (it is). Some had concerns that it would be misunderstood and misinterpreted (it has been). But, ultimately, it made its way in. And one of the most compelling reasons for its inclusion is the meaning it held for some early Christians who had experienced persecution under the Roman Empire (we’ll come back to that shortly).
Traditionally, throughout much of Christian history, Revelation was thought to have been written by the same author as the Gospel of John and they thought that person was St. John the Evangelist, the disciple and apostle of Jesus. But modern scholars now have some cause to question this authorship claim. And it seems that one of the reasons some people made that authorship claim was to get it into the Bible; they wanted to show that it was legitimate.
That doesn’t really matter. What we do know is that this book is the product of one man, named John, who was living on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, probably in the latter half of the first century.
And John had a vision. How that vision came to him, exactly, we don’t know. He says in the first part of the book that he was “in the spirit” and was commanded by an angel of the Lord to write.
So John wrote his vision down in all its detail and shared it with his fellow Christians (the book starts off with seven letters to seven churches).
And what vivid detail there is! First, glimpses of heavenly worship and adoration of God and the Lamb that was slain (an image for Jesus), and then the horsemen and scary angels with trumpets and bowls of wrath and horrendous plagues unleashed upon the earth, a seven-headed devil dragon, a woman clothed with the sun, the beast and his false prophet, the whore of Babylon, and more. And, finally, after all the blood, and destruction, and final judgment, a vision of a new creation – the New Jerusalem – the throne of God brought to earth with a river and tree of life to nourish, and heal, and make all things new.
Revelation is wild and strange, violently horrific and yet also beautiful, fantastical and otherworldly, and at the same time all about the concerns and realities of this world.
So what are we to do with it?
We’re all familiar with those who have tried to decipher in Revelation a hidden code that correlates to current events and then predict a timeline for an end to the world and final judgment. Folks have done this off and on for centuries and this way of approaching Revelation dominated in 20th century American Christian fundamentalism (Hal Lindsay and his Late Great Planet Earth, the Left Behind novels, and so on).
But what about those of us who don’t believe that Revelation predicts the future?
First, I think we ought to recognize that we, as modern people, are not that different from the ancients. It might be tempting to just dismiss Revelation all together and write it off as a strange product of the ancient pre-scientific world.
But people actually love the genre of apocalyptic literature. The ancients loved it and so do modern Americans. And that doesn’t mean we have to take it literally to get something from it. In our culture, we devour books and movies about zombies, and asteroids, and alien invasions, and virus outbreaks, and epic battles for the salvation of the world (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, name your favorite Superhero). We love stories of the peasant class living in worlds that have been desecrated by violence and ecological disaster rising up against the ruling class to make things right (the Hunger Games, the Divergent series). Our culture eats this stuff up.
So I think one thing we might consider is that Revelation, and other apocalyptic literature that was prevalent at the time, is similar in some ways to our science fiction and fantasy. And that is not to dismiss that it carries great meaning and truth. In fact, like good sci-fi and fantasy, Revelation speaks in mythic imagery and metaphor and uses an epic plot to convey prophetic social and theological commentary.
There are two ways to understand prophecy: one, as a prediction of the future; and two, as a commentary on how things are now and an offering of an alternative vision of how things could be. When we consider the writings of John of Patmos and other biblical prophets, the latter understanding is a helpful lens for us as modern readers.
And to understand what John might be saying, we ought to get a sense of where he’s coming from.
In chapter 1, verse 9 he says, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”
If John was a Judean Jewish Christian who was essentially exiled to Patmos because of his faith (as he seems to suggests) near the end of the first century, he would have known about the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation of Judea in the year 66 and the resulting sacking of Jerusalem by Rome and the destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70. Perhaps he had even witnessed some of this first hand. Perhaps he was lucky to survive. We don’t know.
But regardless of the level of personal involvement John had in the Jewish uprising, the reality of Roman imperialism was all around him. The Roman Empire at this time was vast and powerful. And everyone in that part of the world knew what Rome was all about. Rome saw its rule as a divinely ordained and eternal. It exercised its military power publically and proudly. And it celebrated its conquests.
If you’ve visited the Roman Forum in Rome, you’ve probably seen the Arch of Titus. That arch was built to celebrate the sacking of Jerusalem. The Romans mastered, among other things, the use of public art as propaganda that served to remind the masses that they were large and in charge. John knew this.
And so we really can’t ignore this context when we read Revelation. It is a distinctly anti-imperial vision.
Arguably, the heart of Revelation is a contrast between two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Babylon is personified negatively as a whore and Jerusalem positively as a bride. The way of Babylon is drunkenness on the blood of her victims, deception and seduction of the kings of earth, trampling, weeping, torment, mourning, and death. Whereas the New Jerusalem will bring healing, every tear will be wiped away, death will be no more, the thirsty and hungry will be given the water and fruit of life, and God will be at the center.
It doesn’t take any great detective work to figure out that this is a contrast between the Reign of Rome and the Reign of God. And figures like the diabolical dragon and the beast all refer to Roman emperors.
And so the whole story is really about the deep hope that God will triumph over empire, that God will reorder and right the world.
And so, in addition to speaking to the circumstances of John and his contemporaries, this text has also spoken to the circumstances of many oppressed peoples across the world throughout Christian history. Liberation theologians have lifted up the hopeful vision of the New Jerusalem in the midst of apartheid in South Africa and while living under oppressive military regimes in South America because the machinations of empire have sadly persisted in our world well beyond the fall of Rome.
And this application by people who have suffered oppression can also give us some clues about how to make sense of all of the violence and destruction in this book. One way it can be read is as a warning and a challenge to change course away from imperial goals.
New Testament scholar, Barbara Rossing, calls the author Dr. John and says his vision offers a hard-hitting diagnosis of our sickness as a world and offers a vision for our healing. He helps us see that the way of empire is the way of oppression, and bloodshed, and destruction of lives and there will come a point where it will become untenable and unleash even more hell on earth. Whereas the way of God’s love and justice can lead to new life, peace, and the possibility of heaven on earth.
She also offers up a couple of great familiar metaphors that can help us in our interpretation of Revelation.
She says that John is like Toto in the Wizard of Oz when he pulls back the curtain to expose Oz, the great and powerful, as he really is: just a dude from Kansas. John pulls back the curtain on Rome, and the imperial system in general, and exposes it as it really is – not an eternal and divinely ordained rule, but a flawed human system where a few are a privileged elite and the rest are tread upon… and that is not the will and hope of God for humanity.
And she says that we, the reader, are like Ebenezer Scrooge and Revelation is like the Ghost of Christmas yet to come. We are offered a warning and a choice, as individuals and as a world, to change course away from our imperial tendencies, or to suffer the consequences of our actions. Scrooge chose to change and embraced a whole new way of life. Will we?
She also makes that case that some of the apocalyptic prophets we ought to be listening to in our current day and age are climate scientists. Will we change our ways before it’s too late?
So, did John and his contemporaries hope that Jesus would return and this upheaval, re-ordering, and righting of the world would actually come to pass in their lifetimes? Probably so. There is a sense of urgency in John’s writing, as there is in Paul’s letters.
That didn’t happen, of course. So Christians that lived in the decades and centuries to follow would have to grapple with the fact that Jesus didn’t return as they expected to usher in a new age. And we too have to grapple with how to live faithfully and lovingly toward a vision of the just Reign of God in the middle of a world that isn’t there yet.
I talked quite a bit about that a couple of weeks ago.
That final vision in Revelation of the New Jerusalem invites us to live in hope that God’s whole and complete Kingdom is to come to fulfillment here on earth. It invites us to participate in that alternate reality here and now, to the best of our ability, in hope that we might do our part in our lifetime to build it.
What will our future as a people, as a planet, hold? No one can say for sure. The future is, finally, a great mystery. But the vision of our faith tradition put forth first by Jesus and then his followers is ultimately one of hope. It is the promise of resurrection. It is the promise of new life and the death of death itself. It is a vision of a communal civilization characterized by beauty, and streams of living water, and the fruit of nourishment, and the leaves of healing, with the light of God’s love in the center, and real peace, and deep joy, and just coexistence.
That’s a vision of hope I can get behind. That’s a vision I can invite into my soul to challenge, invigorate, and inspire my daily actions. That’s a vision, we as the church, can strive to embody as best we can even though we, as a world, aren’t there yet.