The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2019
Scripture: Revelation 1:1-8
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Made to Be a Kingdom
And so a new adventure begins: Eastertide. From John 3 “the wind blows where it chooses … but (we) do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” It has moved us through another memorable Lenten season together, into an Easter full of even more promises than last year (hard to believe that was just a week ago), and it now fills the sails of our Eastertide boats, leading us toward Pentecost and another arrival: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is always mysterious. The Word of God is always challenging. Never more so than on this leg of the journey as we are led by that Spirit guided by that Word through the Book of Revelation.
Pray with me …
The Revised Common Lectionary, that includes scripture readings that cover almost all of the Bible over a three year period, includes ten readings from Revelation. Of these ten, five are from the last two chapters, chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, that describe the new heaven and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, and the River of Life; three are from chapter seven that writes of the nations coming before the Lamb and the opening of the seventh seal; one from chapter five – the scroll and the Lamb; and one from the first chapter, our reading this morning. Ten short readings – out of context, fitting our liturgical and seasonal needs more than the needs of the writing itself. We are a community that doesn’t understand the Apocalypse for the simple reason that we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to hear it.
We’re going to change that this Eastertide. At least we’re going to change the “hearing” part. It is my hope that we will also change a bit of the “understanding” part, as well. That second challenge will be harder than we think, I believe.
Listen now for the Word of God. Read Revelation 1:1-8 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
You can hear the “weight” of this Book in its opening words, can’t you? It’s not just my reading of them, read them for yourself, now or later. They are thick with anticipation from the very first: The revelation of Jesus Christ … what must take place … blessed is the one/blessed are those … Grace to you and peace … coming with the clouds … the Alpha and the Omega … Almighty. We are being prepared for something big right from the start.
But what are we being prepared for? … I know what first comes to your mind. I also know that most of you good Reformed Presbyterians are following that first thought with something like, “But I’ve heard it’s supposed to be more than that,” or “but that’s just the most popular interpretation.” But I wager your first thought was: the end of the world. Mine, too, if I’m honest.
Revelation has been used as a gathering ground for prophecies about the future for as long as any of us – or many of our parents, I would guess – can remember. Some of the most powerful imagery, descriptions and pictures that we can’t get out of our minds, come from a book written in 1971: The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. Anyone remember that one? I do, as a young child I remember my parents had a copy. I didn’t have any idea why and didn’t care then, but I’ve subsequently asked. My father was a Parish minister in the late sixties and early seventies and he was reading it in part to understand the hold it had on the imaginations of so many of his church members, and church members around the world.
Lindsey laid out a pretty systematic interpretation of Revelation that spoke to the hopes and fears of Christians in the late twentieth century. For Lindsey, the seven seals predicted war in the Middle East. The sixth seal was concerned with the beginning of nuclear war, with the trumpet announcing the war. The two hundred million cavalry were the army of China, which did battle with the armies of the West at Armageddon. The first beast, the beast from the sea, was the Antichrist. The second beast, the beast that “rose out of the earth” was a religious, but sought to unite all nations in a false faith.
Lindsey addressed the decline in religious and moral life that this book states is part of the seventh church to which it is addressed, the church in Laodicea, directly to the twentieth century’s generations. That’s us. “Neither hot nor cold,” about to be “spit out of the mouth” of God … to be “reproved and disciplined. “ This was a sign that the end is near unless get “earnest … and repent.”
For the book of Revelation, according to Lindsey, encouraged “the elect” to dream of a miraculous rescue by the rapture. This rapture became a way for all of us to escape from any struggle to transform the world since the world was doomed for destruction. There was no role for humans to play in saving it. All that mattered was to be among the elect, who would enjoy the escape of the rapture. In short, the sweeping picture of destruction that Revelation offers through this lens offers no human solution but does give humanity, at least some of us, flight from this world. In any case, this world is doomed according to the most popular interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
Now, it’s not fair to lay all of that on one book, as influential as it was. The deeper truth is that the book of Revelation, in spite of its name, is the most veiled writing in all of our Bible. It has provided a “happy hunting ground” for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations. It has been explained as a straightforward account of the end of the world; an historical search for the meaning of first-century symbolism; and/or an account of the struggles facing anyone on a “journey of the soul” to God for two thousand years. In fact, there’s no convincing evidence that the first readers of this text found it any easier to understand than we do. The only difference was that they, almost certainly, were less resistant to reading, and being challenged by, it than we are.
Because here’s the thing. What we have in Revelation is the opening of a space, an “interpretive space,” in which we can be provoked, have our imaginations broadened, and be challenged to think and behave differently. Revelation, in the ancient Greek “Apocalypse” literally meaning “an uncovering,” is not a map for the end-times, or a manual of ethics, or a theological dissertation, even though it lends itself, even enables, all of these. If we can, even for a Sunday or two (dare we hope for the next five), not read and hear from this text predictions and prognostications, destruction and doom, then we just might discover where the “Beast” and “Babylon” are to be found in our lives – individual, communal, and as a human race – today. And as a result of reading and hearing the words of this prophecy and being appropriately challenged by them, we just may see and understand our own allegiance to the “Beasts” and to the “Babylon” in our own time, those things whose power over our minds and social and economic structures are revealed in the pages of this book for those with ears to hear.
And if, if, we can do that, or even get closer to doing that than ever before, we just may choose to “stand with the Lamb” and walk once and for all and finally with the Man for Others revealed in our Gospels, the one who taught and lived, not death, revenge and destruction, but love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
That’s a lot to lay on the weeks ahead. And I’ll be honest with you: I have no real idea how any of this is going to happen on our journey to Pentecost. But I have a powerful faith, a deep trust in and strong fidelity to, the Spirit of God who will not only meet us on Pentecost Sunday, but who guides us on our journey there. So we begin this morning.
In our first reading, John of Patmos (almost certainly not the author of the Gospel) begins a letter, evoking a sense that there should be a “performance of Revelation,” or at least a reading of it in its entirety that gives voice to the one who is absent, that makes Jesus the Christ present even. John is the sender and the seven churches of Asia Minor, named in the next chapter, are the recipients. Rome exerted its control in Asia Minor, politically, economically, militarily, and through the manipulation of religious practices. All of this was done everywhere by the Empire to represent its rule as both inevitable and divinely ordained. Imperial theology, with the Emperor as King.
John uses his introduction, our reading this morning, to say “no,” to assert that the rule of God and Jesus Christ have dominion over all other powers, including Rome. John does not name and image God, or Christ, as the simply the ones who “will be,” but as the ones who are and the ones who were. In other words the Ones who have always been. And these Ones “have always been” working in the world, against Empire, to end suffering and injustices.
The second part of verse five, through verse six, is a Doxology that emphasizes Christ’s love for the community of the faithful which brings us into existence. In response to this doxology, John offers the sure and certain hope that “Christ is coming again with the clouds.” Drawing from ancient Hebrew scripture, from Daniel and from Zechariah, this coming is not, not-Not-NOT, for a chosen few – for an “elect” – but for everyone: Every eye will see him, even those who didn’t, and don’t, believe in him. And “on his account all … the earth will wail.” Not because the inhabitants that live on the earth will be tortured and killed, but because the Empires that the world worships will crumble and be no more.
The first coming of Jesus was certain, visible, decisive, and world changing. Fifty or sixty years after his death, the community that is gathering in his name is in need of a reminder of how decisive and world changing his coming was and will be every time we live the lives he taught and showed us, how to live, and every time we love the Love he shared with us. The second coming of Christ will happen when the churches of Asia Minor, the churches of the Middle Ages, the churches of the sixteenth century, and the church of today, realize that the First Coming was the only coming and get with the program!
What is most frightening to me, and to all of us, is how deeply we need the death and destruction of others to justify our fidelity to the way of God. How strongly we desire the judgment of others to validate our faith in the “Love” of Christ. In our faith journey this year we are only two weeks away from Jesus’ entry on a donkey into Jerusalem, the seat of the provincial Empire, and we’re wondering if a warrior Lord, riding a white horse with eyes “like a flame of fire” Rev. 19:12 and “a robe dipped in blood” 19:13 might be better. We’re only a little over a week away from a love so profound that it sacrifices itself for the life of others and we’re considering death as the answer instead. We’re thinking Love is nice, but vengeance is sweet.
John’s letter, then, the Book of Revelation, is not written to confirm our desires, but to challenge them. The Beast is real. Babylon is all around us and deep within us. We must remember who are. And so we begin our journey to Pentecost this year with a revelation: We have been made by God to be a Kingdom, the Kingdom of God on earth. Love says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the One who is and who was and who is to come.
Blessed are the ones who read aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written down. May it be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 28, 2019