(Sermon for Sunday, May 9, 2010 || Easter 6, Year C, RCL || Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5)
Have you noticed that we’ve been reading the Book of Revelation ever since Easter? Every Sunday since Easter, the New Testament lessons have come from the Book of Revelation. You probably haven’t noticed this for at least two reasons. One: Besides a quick quotation in last week’s sermon, no preacher at this church has come within spitting distance of the texts from Revelation. Two: We’ve only read from the few chapters that don’t sound like a cross between an acid trip and Dante’s Inferno.
Our lectionary trims down the Book of Revelation to “The Good Parts Version,” the parts that don’t make us bewildered and squeamish. In all six lectionary lessons, not once do we hear about wars or plagues. Not once do we hear about dragons with seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on their heads or beasts with ten horns and seven heads and ten diadems on their horns. Not once do we hear about the seven bowls of wrath or the six-six-six number of the beast or the five months of torture or the four horsemen or the three foul spirits or the two hundred miles of blood or the one whore of Babylon. Not once.
And we like it that way, thank you very much. We like the “Good Parts Version” of Revelation because we don’t want to dwell on how the world’s going to end in wrath and blood and fire. We don’t want to read the perplexing script that narrates the world’s annihilation. We don’t want to hear prophetic predictions of horrible apocalypse.
But, you know what? We don’t have to. While Revelation is full of disturbing imagery, several popular misconceptions about the text have led to some strange and erroneous readings.
Before we move on to this morning’s lesson, we need to get a few things straight. For starters, the popular understanding that Revelation is a script that narrates the end of the world is utter nonsense. Doctrines espousing the “Rapture” and the seven-year “Tribulation” only work by pasting together a few disparate pieces of scripture into a collage of truly baffling interpretation.
Next, to move any further into Revelation we need to rescue the words “prophecy” and “apocalypse” from their popular connotations. Prophets are not fortune-tellers or predictors or spiritual meteorologists. Prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophecy is about telling the truth of the present in order that the future may change. Prophets call people back to God and hope that those people will listen and change their lives.
The story of Jonah illustrates the true nature of biblical prophecy. People usually remember the bit about the fish, but there is more. Jonah goes to the city of Ninevah and says, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He says this to shake them out of complacency, to get them to turn back to God. And they do: the city isn’t destroyed! Does this make Jonah a false prophet because his words didn’t come true? No. Quite the contrary: Jonah succeeds as a prophet because the people listened and changed.
“Prophecy” is about telling present truth, not about predicting the future. To redefine another popular word, “apocalypse” is not necessarily about the “end of the world.” Rather, “apocalypse” means “an unveiling” or “revealing.” We’re used to hearing the word paired with trailers for disaster movies like 2012, but the term is really about pulling back the curtain of reality to see the deeper reality at work underneath. The message of Revelation is urgent not because the book is specifically about the world’s end, but because much early Christian thought grew out of the notion that Christ would return very soon. In that context, John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, prayerfully looks behind the veil of the world’s reality and tells the truth about the present. John’s vision convinces him that true reality is a very different place than the one, which the Roman propaganda machine describes. The Empire had declared peace – the Pax Romana – but John sees this peace for what it really is, a violent, suppressive regime that rules by intimidation, occupation, fear, and capital punishment.
John had also noticed that the seven churches of Asia Minor had begun to buy into the Roman system of social domination. They were getting comfortable, complacent. They were adapting to the false reality of the Empire rather than living the countercultural lifestyle of the people of the Way, the followers of Jesus Christ. So John proclaims his vision to these churches.
To compose his vision into written form, John employs disturbing imagery, much of which our imaginations can barely fathom. Through a series of repetitive spirals, John tells the vision multiple times with increasingly unsettling images. Prose could never capture the vision, so John writes a long, sometimes nauseatingly graphic poem. Pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson comments, “If St. John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible, which, in fact, is why it is so often uncomprehended.”
This prophetic poem is epic and cohesive. We do the Book of Revelation a disservice by reading only the “Good Parts Version” in church. Far from being a script narrating the cataclysmic end of the world, John’s apocalypse tells the truth about how God’s kingdom exists with far grander and vaster scope than the scary, but ultimately doomed, imperial dominion of Rome. While John was writing to people in his own time, Revelation continues to be remarkably relevant today. The parts we read in church are all about God’s kingdom. But we need the rest of Revelation, as well, to prepare us to hear the good news of these “Good Parts.”
You see, Revelation is shocking the same way a car accident is shocking. We can’t drive by without looking at the tangled mess of fenders and engine parts. Once we’re passed, the collision reminds us of our responsibility to be safe drivers. Likewise, the itchy, disturbing parts of Revelation narrate the mess we get ourselves into when we buy into the domination systems that the world has been promulgating throughout history. Then the “Good Parts” tell us about God’s true reality underneath, which pushes and prods us to relinquish our grip on the world’s false reality.
In this morning’s reading, John reaches the climax of his vision in the description of God’s holy city. His poetry tries as hard as language can to describe the glory he beholds. If we’ve read the disturbing parts of Revelation, we are now struck with the utter reversal from darkness to light, from death to life, from war to creation. But the vision of the city doesn’t simply encompass what we can expect when we pass from life through death to new life. Every single Sunday, we pray (in words that Jesus taught us) for God’s kingdom to come while we still live on earth. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we offer ourselves to God to use in the growth of the kingdom here.
So what does John’s vision have to tell us about this kingdom, which we are participating in growing on earth? Three things stand out, and all three work to counteract the domination systems, which John’s Revelation exposes. First, members of God’s kingdom practice radical hospitality. John says, “[The city’s] gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.” Back in John’s time, city gates were usually open during the day to facilitate trade unless the city was under siege. But all threats have been removed from the heavenly city. And what’s more, since there is no night, the city gates are always open. As members of God’s kingdom, we strive to model this hospitality in our churches and in our lives. All are welcome, and woe to us if we attempt to close the gates which God has thrown open wide.
Second, members of God’s kingdom share the extravagant blessings of God with everyone they meet. In the heavenly city, the river of the water of life flows right through the middle of the main street. On either side of the river grows the “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit.” Unlike earthly trees, which bloom once a year, the tree of life produces a different fruit each month. The tree of life blooms constantly with all the extravagant blessing of God. As members of God’s kingdom, we strive to model this blessing by working for the just distribution of the world’s resources, by managing them wisely and sustainably, and by demonstrating that these resources can nourish the entire human family.
Third, members of God’s kingdom work for healing, wholeness, and closer communion with God for all of God’s people. “Nothing unclean will enter [the city],” says John, but not because unclean things will be barred. Rather, as scholar Brian Peterson says, “The promise that nothing unclean will enter, in the end, is the promise that God will remove all uncleanness from us all.” John shows this with these words: “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” These are the “nations” that we thought destroyed by the battles earlier in John’s vision. Now they “walk by [the city’s] light.” Likewise, the kings who had earlier allied themselves with Babylon against the Lord now “bring their glory into the city.” As members of God’s kingdom, our duty has never been to say who can and who cannot come into closer contact with God. Rather, the city is full of the glory, light, and “unmediated presence” of God. When we release the illusion that we somehow control this presence, we can work to bring God’s wholeness to a world broken by systems of domination.
Hospitality, blessing, communion – John’s Revelation shows these things to be pieces of God’s true reality. Assimilation by the world’s domination system blinds us to this reality. I invite you to read the rest of Revelation to see the new eyes, which John gives to the churches in Asia Minor. The disturbing, transient imagery of war and pestilence gives way to the glorious, eternal reality of God’s grace and presence. Simply reading the “Good Parts Version” of Revelation ignores all the baggage with which the world saddles us when we buy into the system. But God constantly breathes into us the strength and perseverance to labor with God to grow God’s kingdom here on earth so that only the “Good Parts Version” remains.
* Thanks to Craig Koester Revelation and the End of All Things for the background exegesis for this sermon.