Thursday, April 25, 2013

Making Sense of Revelation - Part II


Throughout the season of Easter we have been reading a series of lessons from the book of the Revelation of John.  These lessons will continue through May 12 – Easter 7.  So far we have had the opportunity to explore a series of passages from chapters 1, 4 and 7 and then there is a jump to the end of the book – to chapters 21 and 22.  So, our lectionary skips over chapters 8 through 19, which contain some of the most vivid and also difficult visions in the book.  It is this part of the Apocalypse that includes the 7 trumpets, the 7 plagues, the beasts, the great harlot and the great battle.  It is this section of the book that also has prompted some of the most outrageous interpretations.  Hal Lindsay and the “Left Behind” series have managed to see nuclear war and attack helicopters in this part of the book.  And many others point to these chapters a biblical proof that God will utterly destroy the earth and all those who are not a part of the inside crowd (usually defined as just those who agree with the interpreter.)  And this destruction will come about in a horrific and terrifying manner. But “true believers” (whoever they are) will not have to experience any of this, because they will be “raptured” – kind of like using an escape pod to get away from the Death Star before it explodes I suppose.  The terror and misery seen in these chapters seem only limited by the creative imagination of the interpreters.  But make no mistake - all of this has been invented - it is NOT in the Biblical TEXT - including and especially the “rapture” which is simply not to be found in anywhere in scripture, but is rather a creative figment of a commentator's imagination that can be traced back to the 19th century.
I want to be clear here - I unequivocally reject this interpretation completely.  The Jesus who is presented by these interpreters bears no relation whatsoever to the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, or the Jesus that Paul bears witness to.  There is no grace and no love in these interpretations – only judgment, violence and fear.  There is no sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of creation, just a wholesale rejection of creation.  As a Christian I must begin to evaluate all these interpretations by first going to the Gospel.  Any interpretation that contradicts the Gospel must be rejected.  And, as we have seen in chapters 1 through 7, a close a careful reading of the Book of Revelation, which attempts to understand the cultural and social context of the writer and original recipients, reveals a book that is far from the violence, terror and judgment that some would read into it.  Revelation has shown itself to be a book which points to God’s amazing, startling and stunning commitment to the creation and indescribable love through Christ the Lamb for all of humanity.  Far from a desire to destroy the earth, God is constantly seeking ways of saving and renewing the beloved creation!  And at the close of the book we are presented with a vision of a renewed creation – a New Jerusalem that is right here on this earth.  God’s commitment to the creation, and God’s love of this creation is beyond comprehension.
So what do some of these visions mean?  There isn’t really space here to go into great detail.  But let me make a couple observations.  The 7 trumpets, for example, usher in a series of plagues each more horrid than the last.  But at the conclusion (chapter 10) there is a surprise.  Just as we expect the final destructive terror to be unleashed God puts a stop to it.  “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”  (10:4) John is then told to eat the scroll that contains the horrors because, it is noted that none of the terrors and judgment have brought about repentance. And since that – repentance, redemption and salvation – are what God really wants we now find things moving in a different directions.  The plagues, it turns out are a vision of what might be.  This is what we expect: judgment and terror. And so John is shown what the result of that course of action will be.  But it proves to be completely ineffective as it does not bring about what God in Christ desires above all else.  So it is rejected!  Violence, judgment, terror, horror are all rejected in favor of Grace!  And if we jump to the end, to the infamous Battle of Armageddon, we see the exact same thing even more profoundly.  Despite a vision of the seemingly invincible and terrifying amassed forces of evil, Christ nevertheless wins the victory decisively without any violence at all.  It is the Word (19:15) which comes from His mouth that defeats the powers of evil – violence, fear and terror.  And that Word is a word of Grace.
      This brings us back to the central question of the Book of Revelation – How then are we to live in this world as a Christian; how does our faith in Christ inform and impact how we live in the world as a follower of the Lamb?  Ultimately John of Patmos is calling for believers to make a commitment to live in ways that reflect the love and grace which God has showered upon them; to reject the seductive powers of this world that seek to ensnare and destroy us (power, violence, possessions, injustice) and make a commitment to care for God’s wonderful creation and to love others as Christ loves us.
Dürer - Adoration of the Lamb
 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reflections on the text: Revelation 7:9-17


Read the text here: Revelation 7:9-17
Pablo Piccaso - "Weeping Woman"

An audio recording of my sermon on this text can be found here: Wartburg Parish Website
The Great Ordeal
It might be good to take a moment to review where we are after two weeks in this challenging series of lessons from the Book of Revelation.  We are focusing on the text from the standpoint of first determining what it meant for the author and his initial audience and then, once we have that understanding we can more easily see the implications for us in our lives and in our situations.  When we do this we begin to see that this book is not the strange and complex series of violent predictions of the end of the world that many have come to see in this book, rather this is a pastoral letter of comfort and challenge to a community of congregations, sent to them by their pastor.  It is not written in code, but rather the images clearly address very practical issues of how to live as a Christian in the context of a world that can be either completely indifferent or viciously hostile.  The Book of Revelation is therefore a book of hope and a book that challenges the communities to live in ways that reflect the incredible love that God has shown to them through Christ.
In Chapter one we learn that John of Patmos was writing to seven churches in Asia Minor.  He writes out of pastoral are and concern.
1st – He was concerned for those who were experiencing both overt and subtle persecution for their faith.  The persecution tended to come not from the top down (initiated by the Emperor himself), which is what we usually assume, but was rather initiated by the friends and neighbors of the Christians.
2nd Some Christian communities, when faced with these kinds of potentially difficult and dangerous situations, responded by giving in and going along.  They assimilated their faith into the culture so as not to draw attention to themselves or create problems.
3rd The last group had gone beyond assimilation and moved into complacency.  For them their faith was private and had nothing to say about how they lived their lives in the world.  They could see no conflicts between participating fully in the broader culture and being a Christian. 
Do any of these sound familiar?  They should!  We continue to struggle with the issues of how to live our faith in the world.  And we too struggle with subtle and even overt persecution, with temptations to assimilate and many of us are very complacent!  To these communities – and to us - John of Patmos offers comfort, encouragement, challenge and admonishment!  We who are called to follow Christ are to live lives that have different priorities and whose lives reflect love and grace and humble service!
For John of Patmos the claims and promises of the Empire were hallow and fake.  In a startling image in chapter 5 the author is encouraged to turn around in order to see the powerful “lion” who is the victorious one and who holds all power and majesty (vs. 5-6).  Now the “lion” was a popular image often associated with the Empire or Emperor.  The lion is powerful and strong and victorious.  Few can stand in the face of a lion.  Of course, it would make sense that a lion would symbolize the power and glory of God!  But when John turns around, what does he see?  Not a lion – but a lamb - “A lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Of all the animals to use as a symbol of God’s power and victory and glory we have the weakest and most vulnerable animal that can be imagined.  John is saying clearly here that those of you who think that you are secure and safe because you look to power, glory, victory and violence to protect you better think again.  Do you think that the strength and power and wealth of the Empire will protect you and give you the good life?  Think again!  True strength is found in weakness; power is found in love; wealth is found in poverty; victory is found only in defeat.  And all of this is symbolized by the Lamb!
John goes on to make this point even more strongly as the lamb proceeds to break the seven seals on the scroll.  One after another the seals are broken and what comes forth from each seal is yet more imagery revealing the utter futility in looking to human power and wealth for salvation and security.
Seal #1 – The 1st Horseman carrying a bow – symbolizing power through conquest – but the rider is not a Roman (Roman soldiers didn’t use bows), he is from outside the empire and thus symbolizes how futile it is to look for security from conquest and violence.  Those who do are themselves at risk of being victims of violence and conquest.
Seal #2 – The 2nd Horseman – lifts the illusion of Peace through Strength: Pax Romana.  This is a lie.  True peace can never come through strength.  Peace forged out of violence, oppression, injustice and conquest will always be an unstable peace.  Don’t look for security there.
Seal #3 – The 3rd Horseman – This rider carries a set of scales.  Scales were used in everyday commerce.  Are you looking to wealth, possessions and economics to provide security?  There is no security to be found there.
Seal #4 – the 4th Horseman – is death! Death comes to those who rely on power, conquest, peace through strength and economics for security.
Seal #5 and #6 – Now we see the martyrs and the victims of oppression and violence, the innocent victims of mindless violence of all ages crying out for justice.  They are joined in this (6th seal) by the whole of creation.
Then it all comes to a halt.  Before breaking the last seal a voice comes forth commanding that nothing be done to damage the earth and sea and that time be given to call to all people to receive the mark of the servants of God.  The breaking of the seals begin a movement towards human beings destroying themselves, but God stops this movement with grace.  And the mark of the servants of God is nothing less than the sign of the cross that has been marked on each of us in our baptism.  Not only is God NOT intent on destroying the world, but God will not allow human beings to bring the world to utter destruction too.
The final part of this vision is the great multitude robed in white.  Those who have come through the “great ordeal.”  And what is the great ordeal?  It is human life in a world where the horsemen have run amok.  It is God who holds the last world (see verses 15 through 17) and this last Word is a word of abundant and overwhelming love and grace.
In 1937 Pablo Piccaso created a series of works called “Weeping Women.” These were studies that were to be a part of his larger work entitled “Guernica” that was created in response to the horrible bombings on that Basque city as a part of the Spanish civil war.  The suffering and devastation was unbelievable.  In the “Weeping Women” we have an image of women whose losses are so extreme that their grief has disfigured them and even the handkerchief they hold has become a part of their flesh which they are consuming in their grief.  This is an image of those who are revealed crying for justice at the breaking of the 5th seal; and they are also a part of the great multitude who have come through the great ordeal and upon whom God showers his love.  And we too can stand with them.  For we continue to live in a world where power and wealth and violence and oppression and injustice run rampant. 
John’s message is then for us as well – where do you look for security?  Do you expect that power or violence can provide security, or wealth and possessions and economics will make life secure?  Think again, says John of Patmos.  Think and remember and then turn to the one who truly provides the ultimate security that comes only through love and grace.  This security is provided by the Lamb who will shepherd and care and love and who will wipe away every tear.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Read the text here: Revelation 1:4-8

A Vision from Patmos
Of all the books in the New Testament there is none quite as controversial and difficult to read and understand as the last book, the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John.  Revelation is filled with all kinds of wild and strange visions and a quick reading can leave the reader completely baffled as to what in the world is John trying to convey.  This has led to a whole host of different approaches to interpreting this book.  Some believe that everything is in code and all you need to do is to discover, or figure out the code and it will unlock the mysteries of the universe and you will be able to see God’s timetable for the end of the world.  For these interpreters who think of Revelation as a “roadmap” to the end times, those fantastic visions are filled with horror and terror.  They see global destruction in those images and for them the book should induce fear.  This fear-based “roadmap” approach is really quite popular and has spawned any number of books (“The Late, Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay, and the “Left Behind” series) and is the basis for the rash of “apocalyptic” movies that all have the premise that “apocalypse” means complete global destruction.
The biggest problem with this approach is that it is simply not consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Gospels tell of a God who loves the creation so much that God goes to extraordinary lengths to show that love, and to shower grace upon the beloved creation.  God goes so far as to be born into the world and enter fully into the human experience – including suffering, pain and death.  The Gospel is a story of God’s love, God’s promise of eternal presence and the abundance of unconditional grace show to the people whom God loves wildly, madly and passionately.  How is the fear, violence, terror and destruction based interpretation of Revelation consistent with that?  It isn’t!  So there must be another way of looking at Revelation. And there is.  But first a reminder from Martin Luther about how to interpret the bible – Luther’s understanding should always lay at the foundation of any Christian interpretation of Scripture: Always read the Bible through the lens of the Gospel.  When in doubt The Gospels always should not only color our interpretations but should determine how we even approach these books.  Any interpretation that contradicts the Gospels should be rejected.
So we are going to look at Revelation, not as a timetable or roadmap to the end times, but rather we are going to ask the question – What did this letter mean to the people to whom it was addressed in the late 1st century (or early 2nd century)?  Once we have some idea of who they are and what this letter was trying to convey to them, then we can apply those lessons to our own lives.  And what do we know?  Well, that the author was a Christian leader named John and that he was from Asia Minor (now Turkey) (BTW - this is NOT the Apostle John, who was the “Beloved Disciple” of the Gospels – that was the assumption historically, but there are a number of very convincing reasons that this was a different John); That this John was exiled to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea (It is little more than an oversized rock); That this John was very concerned for the churches he left behind in Asia Minor and so he writes this letter to the churches in the 7 major cities.  Finally, John uses the term “apocalypse” to describe his own vision.  And the word “apocalypse” in Greek does NOT mean end times or global destruction; rather it means “unveiling,” “revealing,” or “revelation.”
The question at the heart of this letter for the Christian communities in the 7 cities of Asia Minor was this – how do we live as Christians in relation with a dominant non-Christian or secular culture that is not only apathetic to Christianity, but also can be downright hostile?  It is sometimes assumed that the over-riding issue was persecution, but that was not the primary issue.  There was some persecution, mostly localized, but of more concern to John is the tendency he sees for the Christians in these cities to accommodate and assimilate and to compromise their beliefs in order to get along in the society.  For those who are being persecuted the Book of Revelation is designed to be a letter of comfort; to those who are assimilating their faith into the dominant culture the book is designed to make them at least a little, if not a lot, uncomfortable.
Here then is an initial point of contact between the Christian communities of antiquity and our own community.  How do we live in relation with the dominant culture?  Do we take the call to discipleship seriously enough that it affects and influences our lives and our way of living in the world and relating to others?  Do we live lives that are inclusive of all people? Do we give of our time, talents and treasure to the ministry of Christ? Do we make an effort to not only work to assist and provide for the poor, the hungry, the sick and suffering, but do we work for justice to eliminate the structures that continue to insure that inequity and injustice continue as a part of the structure of our society?  What do we do to interrupt the social and economic cycle that insures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  These are the questions that lay at the heart of the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is a book about discipleship.  It is a book that celebrates the victory through weakness, power through suffering and life through death that come from the cross of Christ! And it has some important and profound things to teach us about how to live as Christians in the midst of a hostile and unjust world.

An audio recording of this sermon is posted at wartburgparish.com