Revelation, the Good Parts Version (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2022 || Easter 6C || 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 because we’ve only read from the few chapters that don’t sound like a cross between a science fiction movie and Dante’s Inferno.

Our schedule of readings trims down the Book of Revelation to “The Good Parts Version,” the parts that don’t make us either bewildered or squeamish. In all the bits we’ve read since Easter, not once did we hear about wars or plagues or bowls of wrath or the four horsemen. Not once did 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.

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 hear prophetic predictions of a horrible apocalypse. But, you know what? We don’t have to. While Revelation is full of disturbing imagery, the popular idea about what Revelation contains has been fed by some misconceptions – specifically misconceptions about the ideas of “prophecy” and “apocalypse.” This morning, I’m going to quickly run through these two misconceptions, and then talk about today’s reading from Revelation.

First, prophecy: 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.

Second, apocalypse: Whenever you hear this word in modern speech, it means, “the end of the world,” right? But that’s not really what it means at all. An apocalypse is actually an “unveiling” or “revealing.” The term is really about pulling back the curtain of reality to see the deeper reality at work underneath. John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, prayerfully looks behind the veil of the world’s reality and tells the truth about his 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, oppressive regime that rules by intimidation, occupation, and fear.

John had also noticed that the seven churches of Asia Minor had begun to buy into the Roman system of 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 poetic spirals, John tells the vision multiple times with increasingly unsettling images. 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.”

The disturbing parts of Revelation narrate the mess we get ourselves into when we buy into the domination systems that the world has been pushing throughout history. Then the “Good Parts” tell us about God’s true reality underneath, which compels 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. This vision describes what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So what does John’s vision have to tell us about this kingdom, which we help grow here 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 blessings 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, not because unclean things will be barred, but because nothing will be unclean. John says, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” The kings of these nations had earlier allied themselves with Babylon against the Lord, but now they “bring their glory into the city.” In other words, no matter what has been done in the past, there is always time for reconciliation. What seems like the end can become a new beginning of healing in communion with God’s eternal presence. The timelessness of healing and reconciliation means those systems of domination are ultimately doomed.

Hospitality, blessing, communion – John’s Revelation shows these things to be pieces of God’s true reality. Assimilation by the world’s systems of domination 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. Most of the book of Revelation reveals the world’s brokenness, which will persist as long as we let those systems of domination control us. 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.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.

Season 5, Episode 3
“Captain America: Made Perfect in Weakness”

In this episode we’re talking about Captain America: The First Avenger, and how Steve Rogers makes a great super hero specifically because he grew up with less privilege than the other soldiers who could have become Cap.. We’re also continuing our book club, reading Becky Chambers’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

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