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