Seventh Sunday of Easter: On Revelation


In the video series “How Lutherans Interpret the Bible,” Dr. Mark Allan Powell tells this story. I was riding a city bus. Sitting next to me was this guy with long hair, a hippie kind of guy. On his lap he was holding a big bible. I leaned over and asked him, “Have you read that?” “Not all of it,” he replied. Then he grinned and said, “But I’ve read the ending and you know what? We win.” The end of the bible is, as you know, the book of Revelation. It is a difficult book, probably the most difficult and misunderstood book in the bible. It is also a radically Christ-centered book, full of rich imagery and bold promises which make it well worth taking a closer look. First, Revelation is a letter, written by a man named John, who is an exile on the island of Patmos. We don’t know if this is the same John who wrote the gospel of John, but they do share a lot in their theology and imagery. John received a vision from God, and he wrote a letter to share his Revelation with the Christian community. (John describes one continuous vision in his writing, which is why the book is properly called Revelation, singular, not Revelations, plural.) The letter is addressed to a Christian community living under the occupation and oppression of the Roman empire. It’s purpose is to give hope and strength to persecuted Christian communities. The letter is specifically addressed to seven churches John knows personally, but in a broader sense it is addressed to all Christians who struggle with the forces of sin and evil in the world. Second, Revelation is a prophetic book, in the sense of the Old Testament prophets. This means that it is not a book of predictions, but a book of promises of God’s care for God’s people, and warnings about what might happen if God’s people are not faithful. Prophetic literature is first and foremost a call to God’s people to remember God above all,                 to return to or remain  faithful to God. Finally, and most dramatically, Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature uses the language of metaphor to carry its message. Kathleen Norris has written that Revelation is “a poet’s book, which is probably the best argument for reclaiming it from fundamentalists. It doesn’t tell, it shows, over and over again, its images unfolding, pushing hard against the limits of language and metaphor, engaging the listener in a tale that has the satisfying yet unsettling logic of a dream.” Similarly, Dr. Barbara Rossing, a professor at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and author The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, writes, “Revelation takes us on a journey – a journey to the throne of God, a journey into the heart of the universe, a journey of radical hope and transformation. It uses apocalyptic language to present an alternative world of vision, centered in Jesus Christ.” Many of the dream-like images and metaphors which seem so strange to us would have been clear to John’s original readers and listeners. The wicked city of Babylon is the Roman Empire. In the language of numerology which was common in the 1st century, the number 666 is a clear reference to Nero Ceasar, the Roman emperor who is famous for his violent persecution of Christians. Nero was an anti-Christ not only because of his brutality, but also because he demanded to be worshipped as a god. The monsters and demons in Revelation represent the very real and immediate demonic powers that opposed Christian communities in the first century. And John’s vision is clear time after time: Jesus Christ is more powerful than the demons. The Revelation of John proclaims that Jesus is Lord and has ultimate power over the powers of this world.  On the one hand, that message is very particular for the churches John was writing for. His letter was intended to give them hope and strength to face persecution  with courage and faithfulness. But the use of metaphor also broadens the meaning, so that it speaks to Christians in all times and places. Revelation presents a vision of the world centered on the power and justice of Christ. It challenges us to identify and resist the demonic powers we face. At the same time, the promises of Revelation encourage us with the knowledge that Jesus is more powerful than our demons – more powerful than consumerism and greed, more powerful than famine and AIDS, more powerful than the violence we see every day around the world and in our own communities and homes. Perhaps the best-known text in Revelation is the text we read a few weeks ago about the new heaven and new earth, the new Jerusalem described in chapter 21. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” This text is often used as funerals, and it does offer a word of comfort and hope for all who mourn. Ultimately, however, it is important to remember that Revelation is addressed to the community of Christians, not to individuals. Wendell Frerichs of Luther Seminary in St. Paul writes, “If each person only worries about being saved without regard for others, then the message which has been communicated is a kind of sanctioned selfishness. The desire to be ‘raptured’ so as to escape the ‘Great Tribulation’ is a kind of escapism which appeals to our natural selfishness. Unlike that, John was urging his congregations to imitate their Lord who gave himself in self-sacrificing love for the whole world. Faithfulness to him would involve many of his people in terrible suffering and martyrdom. That kind of living for each other is done in community, not in isolation. And it is in the community where the Lord promises to be present with his people.” The promise God is making in the Revelation to John is a promise to renew the whole world, to come and dwell among the people. The new heaven and the new earth are indeed one and the same, because God has brought heaven to earth, has made earth into heaven by God’s own shining presence. The new Jerusalem which John describes has no need of lights, because the presence of Jesus shines as bright as the sun.    There is no more pain and suffering, no more sin and evil, in the new Jerusalem. I especially like Barbara Rossing’s words: “Contrary to popular apocalyptic thinking, there is no ‘rapture’ or a future snatching of  Christians from the earth in Revelation. Instead, God is ‘raptured’ down to earth to take up residence among us. Revelation declares God’s commitment to the earth as the location of salvation.  . . . The city that descends from heaven invites us all to enter as citizens and to ‘inherit’ its blessings, as God’s own sons and daughters.” This invitation is again echoed in this morning’s lesson, which includes the ending of the book of Revelation – the ending of the bible as a whole. In this lesson Jesus says again and again that he is coming soon. As at the beginning of the book and as in Revelation 21, God in Jesus names himself “The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet, and Omega the last, so that the idea repeats three times: Christ was at the beginning of the world, and Christ will be at the end. Wendell Frerichs opens up this metaphor, saying, “The prologue of John’s Gospel acclaimed Christ’s role in creation and his presence with God in the beginning. What more do Alpha and Omega, or first and last, or beginning and end, mean? Now we know that the End is not an event but a person. We have good reason then not to try to calculate the date of the end, for he has been, is, and will be. He has come, is here, and will come again.” The End is not an event, but a person. I love that. Perhaps that sums up the message of John’s Revelation – despite the injustice and violence of our world, despite the seeming power of sin and evil, in the end, there will be Jesus. Jesus, welcoming all into the holy city, shining with love and grace for all his children. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. ********* Lutheran Church of the ServantMay 20, 2007 References: Wendell Frerichs, “God’s Song of Revelation: From Easter to Pentecost in the Apocalypse,” summarizing a conversation with Paul S. Berge, Eugene C. Kreider, and Charles Mays in the journal Word and World 6/2. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, 1986. Dr. Barbara Rossing, commentary on the Easter season texts in New Proclamation: Year C, 2001. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Kathleen Norris quoted by Rossing in New Proclamation. Photo of Jerusalem from “1000 Pictures – Free Desktop Wallpaper,”

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