The Opening of the Scroll

The Sunday Sermon:  Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019

Scripture:  Revelation ((Chapters 6-11) 11:15-19 (Chapters 15-16)

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The Opening of the Scroll

This Eastertide, we are on a journey from Easter to Pentecost, fifty days, and we are traveling through the world of the book of Revelation.  We began our journey being introduced to the characters of this narrative, John of Patmos and the seven churches of Asia Minor.  We discovered the context, that of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century.  Rome, as all Empires do, is exerting 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 Lord and Savior. 

The conflict is this:  Christians from the first century to today assert that the rule of God and Jesus Christ has dominion over all other powers, including the Empires of this world in any and every age.  As John begins his writing, he does not name and image God, or Christ, as 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.

Last week we discovered that John’s narrative about God’s judgment is not only designed to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.  The question we are asking about this writing as we engage it on our way to Pentecost this year is “Which are we?”  Our exploration is not about what any of this has to do with the end of the world.  We are asking ourselves how John is trying to change the way Christians, from the first century to today, look at our world.  Last week, the Lamb – the symbol of Christ in John’s Revelation – took the scroll from the right hand of God, the one seated on the throne.  This week that scroll is opened.

Pray with me …

This morning we continue our journey, like many great epic chronicles do, by looking back in time to how it all began.  It was about seventy years earlier, you see, that a simple man, a peasant son of a carpenter, gathered a few followers, sat on a hillside speaking to a much larger crowd of women and men that had gathered to listen to him, and taught them things they would not soon forget, or (with no small amount of foreshadowing) things they should not soon forget:

“Blessed are the meek,” he said, “for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil on my account, Mt 5:1-11” he said … this man.  And he went on.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ’whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are (even) angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I say to you do not resist an evildoer” … turn the other cheek.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … For if you love (only) those who love you, what reward do you have?”

And that was only the beginning of the teaching, and the healing, and the life of this “One for others” that would continue for three years and be crucified on a cross – the Roman’s principal emblem of reprimand.  For the only thing that Empire cannot control is Love, sacrificial Love.  They can only kill it.  Or so they thought.  You see, only days after the death of the Rabbi-Teacher, peasant Jew, those closest to him experienced his Life again.  And through this Resurrection, Love did not die, but conquered even death.  Could it be that this – a life lived for others, a love shared without counting the cost – was what the world was waiting for?  It could be.  It must be.  The Kingdom of God on earth was begun.  In a very real way the scroll was first opened through the birth, life, death, and Resurrection of this One, this Jesus of Nazareth, Christ the Lord.

But as the years went by, as the first followers and then their children and their children’s children, lived in the very real world of suffering and persecutions … things were forgotten that should not have been forgotten.  By the end of the century that began with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one, the sacrificial Lamb, the true Lord and Savior of the World, a very different image of God’s Messiah began to emerge.

For as we end our look back this morning, as we conclude our prologue to this morning’s message, and pick up our tale where we left off last week, the Lamb in John’s book, the Christ of the book of Revelation, the same Christ, John says, who taught on that hillside only decades ago, opens the sealed scroll imaged by this writing and …

… Catastrophic violence is unleashed upon the earth and its inhabitants.  The world is devastated by war, famine, plague and death (6:1-8).  People are killed because of their faithfulness to God and cry out for vengeance (6:9-11).  Sun, moon, stars are struck; mountains and islands are displaced, as everyone from king to slave try to escape the approaching wrath (6:12-17).  The earth is struck with hail and fire mixed with blood (8:7) and sea and rivers turn to blood (8:8-11, 16:3-4).  Demonic locust-like creatures stream out of the abyss to torment humanity, and people cry out for death but continue to suffer (9:1-11).  A twilight-zone supernatural horde of two hundred million cavalry pour across the Euphrates from the East (9:13-19).  Those who worship the beast are tormented with sulphurous fire in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. (14:10-11).  Horses wade for two hundred miles in bridle-deep blood (14:20).  The kings of the earth mount a final battle against God and God’s Messiah, and vultures are gorged with the flesh of both the lowly footsoldiers who fight the world’s battles and of their high and mighty commanders (16:14-16, 19:17-18).  [Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, “Revelation.”  112-113.]

(How’s that for a Mother’s Day message.)  Our minds and imaginations are overwhelmed by the quantity and unrelenting intensity of the violence against both humans and the cosmos itself, and the entire theological dilemma is compounded by the fact that the source of this violence is God and the Lamb.

            I tried to get around that this week, to suggest that John’s Lamb was merely opening the scroll and showing us how the world was destroying itself with its own violence.  How plagues and fire and blood and battle were already a part of the world that God, through the Christ would put an end to.  But that’s not what Revelation says.  It is Christ, the Lamb-Lion in John’s revelation who unleashes the four horsemen and the locust-like creatures and the two million cavalry and the rest.  This devastation and destruction is not “the last spasmic violence of humanity before the final divine transformation of the world” (Crossan, God and Empire, 223).  This is Divine devastation and destruction. I tried to get around that this week, but the Bible’s message, in Revelation no less than the Gospels, is not honored by ignoring the problem it presents.

            And this image of Christ does present a problem for us.  John Dominic Crossan puts the problem this way:  “To turn the nonviolent resistance of the historical Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is … to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ” (224).  A strong condemnation.  Then how are we to reconcile what is written with what we teach without condemning the world and “blaspheming” our Lord?  In the last century alone, we humans have certainly done plenty ourselves to destroy our own species and the earth, itself.  But how do we dare say that God plans and wants this or that Jesus leads and effects it (227)?  Let’s try to understand what John is trying to share with us.

            John’s writing, his thoughts, did not begin with visions about future suffering and ultimate destruction; they began with the fact of suffering in the present.  His writing, all apocalyptic writing, attempts to give meaning to experienced suffering.  It is supposed to function as a way of understanding what “is,” not what will be, by remembering the promises of God even – and especially – in the midst of distress.  And peppered throughout these ten chapters of violent destruction are reminders of God’s presence and God’s Love for the world and all its creatures, including and especially humans.  You need to actually read this book (you won’t, but you should):

            Angels marking the servants of God – 144,000 of them, which is a numerological symbol for “everyone!”; a multitude crying out that “Salvation belongs to our God” who will “wipe away every tear”; and our reading for this morning upon the sounding of the seventh trumpet:

            There were loud voices in heaven, saying:

                        “The kingdom of the world

                                    has become the kingdom of our Lord

                                    and of his Messiah,

                                    and he will reign forever and ever.

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on the thrones before God feel on their faces and worshiped God, singing:

            “We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were,

                        for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.

            The nations raged, but your judgment has come, and the time for judging

the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth. 

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of God’s covenant was seen within the temple; and there were flashes of lightning, peals of thunder, and earthquake, and heavy hail.  (Revelation 11:15-19)

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

            There is also a dark side to the announcement in these verses, but in the midst of all the recorded destruction and violence, John restates his deep conviction that “Thy kingdom come” has been finally answered.  He writes, and the community confesses that destiny is in the hands, not of the Empire – not of the destructive forces of the world, but of an indescribably awesome power over which not even death has control.

            Does anyone remember what that power was?  What that power is?  From our trip back in time, our prologue, as we began this leg of our journey?  That power is Love.  And Love, not the fate of those portrayed as suffering the final woes and its justice or injustice, is the “point” of John’s imagery, of his writing.  This writing, John’s imagery and all these texts cannot be responsibly read in themselves, but only in relation to a man who has already lived, to a scroll that has already been read, to a Love that we have already met and that sacrifices itself even for those who hate it.

            This is how we understand the Revelation of John and share the second coming – by understanding that the first coming of Christ was the only coming and get with the program.  Love, the Love of Jesus Christ, the Love of the man from Nazareth, holds the keys to Death and to Hell, itself, and that Love will finally cast Death and Hell, itself – not their victims, you and I – into the lake of fire.  But … we get of ourselves.  That won’t happen until chapter twenty, until the end of next week.

            To conclude this morning, this leg of our journey to Pentecost, let us – in any small measure we can muster – acknowledge that even waist deep in violent imagery and metaphors, what John is revealing to us is that human beings, all of us, will be redeemed by God’s unconditional grace made known to us in Christ’s unconditional love.  The extent to which we understand this, that we live in the Grace of God, and share the love of Christ, is the primary determinant of our heaven or our hell on earth.

            How is the Revelation of John trying to change the way Christians, from the first century to today, look at our world?  We’re half way home.

Blessed are the ones who read aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written down. May it be us. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 12, 2019