Revealing the Present, Changing the Future

Sermon for Sunday, April 24, 2016 || Easter 5C || Revelation 21:1-6

revealingthepresentI need to warn you right off the bat: if I had a soapbox I would stand on it right now. And on the spectrum between personal and academic, the sermon I’m about to preach is so far to the academic side that it might as well be called a lecture. But I think it’s important to take this opportunity, while we are reading the book of Revelation this Easter season, to talk about this strange and scary and sorely misunderstood piece of ancient writing. You may have read some or all of it yourself at one time or another. (My money’s on “some of it.”) Or you may be aware of popular media that references it, such as the Left Behind series. Or you may know a thing or two about some of the stranger doctrines of certain forms of Christianity: doctrines that use words like “rapture” and “dispensation” and “tribulation.” Or you may have had no contact with Revelation whatsoever, so you’re wondering why I seem so worried about it.

Whatever your knowledge of the book of Revelation may be, my entire intent today is to redefine for you two words. (This is the soapbox.) The misunderstanding of these two words has led to a horribly mangled history of misinterpretation of the book of Revelation. The two words are “prophecy” and “apocalypse.” Even if you’ve never read Revelation, you’ve heard these words. They’re pretty powerful words. And I guarantee our culture has shaped an erroneous definition of both of them in your minds.

Prophecy is foretelling the future, right? Apocalypse is the end times, right? Nope.

To understand the proper definition of “prophecy,” let’s compare two people who have both been labeled prophets. First, in this corner, Michel de Nostredame, the 16th century French apothecary who wrote a book called The Prophecies, which purported to predict future world events. You’ll know him better as the “Nostradamus.” Second, in the other corner, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher and civil rights advocate of the mid-20th century United States.

The Nostradamus has been called a prophet, but he was not one. He was a fortune teller. He was an astrologist, who attempted to divine the future by looking for patterns in the order of the planets and stars. In other words, he was a meteorologist, but for the future, not for the weather. To use the same word to describe him as Martin Luther King is utterly laughable.

Dr. King was a true prophet. He spoke truth to power, and he didn’t flinch. A true prophet does not predict the future, but puts forth a compelling vision of a better possible future. True prophecy is about telling the truth of the present in order that the resulting future might change. This is what King did when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said those immortal words: “I have a dream.”

Do you see the difference? A fortune teller like the Nostradamus wants his predictions of the future to be accurate, or else no one will buy his book. A prophet like Martin Luther King wants more than anything else for the future to be different than the one the present is heading towards.

The story of Jonah illustrates the true nature of 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 king proclaims a fast and repents of evil. He even puts on sackcloth and ashes. At the end of the forty days, the city is not 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 of Ninevah listened and changed.*

So to sum up, prophecy is telling hard truths about the present so that the future might turn out differently. Let’s turn to my other soapbox word: “apocalypse,” a very scary word in our culture, to be sure, but one that is not necessarily about the end of the world. Rather, “apocalypse” simply means “an unveiling” or “revealing.”** We’re used to hearing the word paired with trailers for disaster movies, but the term is really about pulling back the curtain of so-called 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 eventual destruction, 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 his own 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 the sham it really is: a violent, suppressive regime that rules by intimidation, occupation, fear, and capital punishment. This is why so much of the imagery of Revelation is bloody and violent.

John addressed his Revelation to a set of seven churches in Asia Minor, which had begun to buy into the Roman system of social domination. They were getting comfortable and complacent. They were adapting to the false reality of the Empire rather than living the countercultural lifestyle of the followers of Jesus Christ. So John pulls back the curtain, or to change the metaphor, lifts up the rock to see all the creepy crawlies festering underneath. And he uses coded language – graphic and gruesome coded language to get by the Roman censors, much like modern day satire can skewer the positions of a government without ever talking about them specifically.

So we have prophecy, which is telling the truth of the present in order to change the future. And we have apocalypse, which is the revealing of true reality that is often covered over by a false narrative put forward by the powerful. In his Revelation, John of Patmos is a true prophet. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth of his own present, which happens also to be the truth of ours and all the times in between. This truth speaks of the corrupting nature of absolute power, the passing nature of all oppressive regimes, and the eternal nature of God’s triumph over evil and death. Timely for John; timely for us. John’s Revelation is not meant to be shelved until the eventual end of the world. His Revelation is meant to be read to help change the world again and again. That’s why the words in today’s reading are so powerful. The one sitting on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.”

I am making all things new. Constantly. Continuously. We have the opportunity to forsake our allegiance to the old systems of domination that John describes in all their gory detail and instead to join God’s team of renewal and reconciliation. We have the opportunity to have our thirst quenched by the gift of new and fresh and clear water gushing up from the spring of the water of life. We have the opportunity to be at home with God, experiencing the daily newness of God’s presence both here on earth and in heaven. And through it all, we have the opportunity, with God’s help, to be prophets: to speak hard truths about our current reality so that the future will turn out better, not just for more people, but for Creation as a whole.

 

* The funny thing is that Jonah gets a bit petulant when his prediction doesn’t come true. That’s when God teaches him the true meaning of prophecy.
** The words “apocalypse” and “revelation” are actually synonyms. For a long time, the book we know of as the “Revelation of John” was called the “Apocalypse of John.”

Make Your Face Shine

(Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2011 || Advent 1B || Mark 13:24-37; Psalm 80 )

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is imprisoned in Rome near the end of his life, talking to his cellmate about the day when Jesus spoke about his coming again.

We were used to hearing Jesus say strange things. He would get this faraway look in his eyes, like he was seeing another place and time, or perhaps every other place and time. When we noticed him go distant like that, the twelve of us would gather around close because we knew he would have something to say when he came back to us a moment later. More often than not, the faraway look meant something strange and sometimes unsettling was about to come from his lips. But, as I said, we were used to Jesus saying strange things, having traveled with him for months or years. In fact, I suspect that a few of us – Bartholomew especially – followed Jesus precisely because of those strange things he said.

But this one time was different. I think Bartholomew was just trying to bait Jesus into saying something memorable when he pointed out the architecture around us and said: “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

I don’t think Jesus was in a mood to banter with Bartholomew because his response was short and clipped: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

I remember seeing the smile drain off of Bartholomew’s face. The conversation ended as quickly as it had begun. But Jesus’ words had unsettled me. I knew that the temple had been demolished in the past by invaders, but if the Romans had wanted to destroy such a grand building, wouldn’t they have done so already?

Later that day, we were sitting on the Mount of Olives, and James, John, Andrew, and I went to Jesus privately to ask about what he had said. The temple rose out of the city across from us, and Jesus gazed at those old stones for several minutes. But he had that faraway look in his eyes, so we knew he was seeing something other than Jerusalem’s skyline.

We waited patiently, and finally he came back to us. He spoke in low tones for a time, as if the sky and the trees around us weren’t prepared for what he had to say. He spoke of wars and earthquakes and famines. He spoke of deceivers and false prophets. He spoke of stars falling from the sky and the sun going dark. I had hoped for something comforting after his clipped response to Bartholomew, but what Jesus had to say troubled me even more.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Jesus squeezed my shoulder and said, “But after this they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

He meant the words to be reassuring, but my mind was still filled with images of famine and falling stars. All I could think to say was, “When will this happen, Lord?”

Jesus shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “No one does but the Father. That’s why you need to keep alert. Think what happens at a house when the master goes off leaving the slaves in charge. They don’t know when the master will return – in the evening or at midnight or when the rooster crows or at dawn – so they stay awake.” Jesus fixed his eyes on each of us in turn and said: “The same goes for you: keep awake.”

A week later I failed to do what he said. It was the most important week of Jesus’ life, of my life, and I failed to keep awake to the great power and glory of God being revealed in the world. Even during his trial and crucifixion, even during that pivotal moment, I could not keep awake and alert. Did Jesus know? When his eyes went faraway on the Mount of Olives, did he see me falling asleep in the garden at midnight? Did he hear the rooster crow when I abandoned him? Did he see me sobbing when I realized my betrayal?

After such total failure, I vowed from then on always to keep alert for the Lord’s coming. And over the years, I discovered three things. Very quickly, I discovered just how easily the distractions of this world can lull me to sleep. There is always something other than God clamoring for my attention, something immediate and important. And yet this something doesn’t necessarily lead me astray from following God. Rather, the things that clamor for my attention simply make me walk with my head down so I don’t see God’s glory all around me. The distractions win out much of the time because God doesn’t clamor. God whispers. God nudges. God invites. I don’t know about you, but keeping awake and alert is the only way I ever notice God’s subtle movement.

I also discovered that Christ still comes to me even now – again and again – but like God’s movement, subtly. Now, I know what you’re going to ask. Before you do, the answer is yes. I do believe Jesus when he said the Son of Man will come again in great power and glory. But I also know that I saw him in the face of the woman who brought us fresh clothes, and I see him in you. I know this sounds like a paradox – how can Jesus be present with us here in this rotten prison and still be coming again? I wish I could explain, but I’m no theologian. But Jesus taught me how the truth tastes, and this seeming contradiction tastes true.

Thirdly, I discovered that the best way to keep awake was to keep a light burning. Yes, I know they don’t allow us candles in this stinking cell, but that’s not what I mean. Many years ago, I wandered into a synagogue somewhere in Galilee and found the scroll of the book of psalms open on a table. I glanced down and read the first few lines of the eightieth psalm. And one of them has been with me ever since, rising unbidden from my consciousness whenever I begin to fall asleep. The verse reads: “Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved!”

“Make your face shine!” God is the light that shines to keep me awake. Now, my friend, I don’t think you know the history of my people. Well, the psalm was written when Israel was in exile. That’s why they prayed, “Restore us, God!” But what they discovered in exile was that God was there with them even though they assumed God had stayed in Jerusalem. So they prayed: “Make your face shine” so they could see God more clearly when they were far from home. And I have taken up their prayer.

I am far from home. I have been distracted by many things clamoring for my attention. I don’t always notice Christ’s subtle presence in the people I meet. But when this prayer to God springs to my lips – “Make your face shine” – I become more alert. I notice Christ’s face shining in the faces of those I meet. I look up from all the immediate and important things and notice God’s glory shining all around me. I may be far from home. And the Son of Man may not come in great power in glory for years, even centuries. But I have tasted the truth that Christ’s face shines in the darkness of my life. I failed to keep awake during Jesus’ own dark days. But because his face is shining light on my path, I will not fall asleep again.