Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book of Revelation: A Proclamation of Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 21:1-7:

Last week we talked about the four traditional ways of interpreting Revelation.  The first, and the most recent was that of the futurist perspective, which, even though it is the most prominent one in America today, it didn’t really come into a major interpretive model until the late 19th century.  The futurist perspective has argued that everything that is talked about in Revelation has not yet taken place, that it is all in the future.  The futurist perspective replaced the historicist perspective, which said that some things talked about in Revelation had already been fulfilled, and some are yet to be fulfilled.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was a historicist. There are several problems with these positions, but the two biggest in my opinion, are first that it is seen as a blueprint for the future, which I don’t think it is, and they also see Revelation as presenting a linear progression, that is chapter seven leads directly to 8, which leads to nine, etc.  Except, if you read Revelation, you’ll see that that is not how Revelation operates.  It does not run from one thing to the next to the next.  Instead there is a sort of circular pattern, and is repetitive in what it portrays.

The third model is the Preterist model which says that what John was talking about was applying simply to his own time, and that the events have already taken place.  This model helps to seek to explain the two most troubling images with which most people are familiar.  The first is the whore of Babylon, of whom we are told “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery; “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.  And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.”  This woman is seated on one of the beasts described earlier which has seven heads, and then we are told “the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”  Now this is a little question on history and myth.  What city was built on seven mountains, or seven hills?  That’s right, it’s Rome, and so we are told who the beast is.  Two weeks ago we also talked about the Romans destroying the second temple.  What empire destroyed the first Temple?  The Babylonians, so there is a direct connection made here between the empires that destroyed the Temple, so the whore of Babylon and the beast both represent the Roman empire, who are the powers who run the world, and they are also the ones who are pe

And while many emperors did this, Nero was perhaps best known.  Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, and so began arresting them and having them killed.  They were introduced into the Roman coliseum to be killed by animals, and it is even reported that Nero would have Christians covered in pitch or tar, and then at night lit on fire at his Roman palace not only to provide light, but also to provide entertainment for his guests.  As you might imagine, Nero was not well thought of by Christians, and in fact his treatment of Christians became so bad that other, non-Christians and non-Jews began to object to his treatment.  As his reign came to an end, and his generals and the senate turned against him, Nero committed suicide.  But rumors began to spread, especially in the eastern provinces, the very places that John was writing to, that Nero had not in fact died and that he would return to power.  Augustine records in the year 422 that this was still a popular story.  So there was great fear of Nero, which leads us into the most well known declarations from Revelation, and that is the mark of the beast, which we are told is 666.  What does this number mean and whom does it represent?

Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value attached to it, so if you add up the values of Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar you get the value of 666.  But here is an interesting quirk, some manuscripts of Revelation do not say that the mark of the beast is 666, but instead 616.  And this can also be explained, because there is a character in Hebrew called the aleph, which is actually not pronounced, if you spell Nero Caesar without the aleph on Nero’s name, then the values add up to 616.  Now the use of 666 was more symbolic because it is an ultimate mark of imperfection.  Seven is an important number in Revelation, and is a sign of perfection, and so three sevens is even more perfect, so three sixes is then the sign of the ultimate imperfection.  So regardless of who we might hear has the mark of the best, and it is an ever changing person, the only person for whom both 666 and 616 work is the emperor Nero.

One more point to clarify is something that many people think is in Revelation, but which is in fact not only not in Revelation, but not even truly in scripture and that is the rapture.  For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, the rapture refers to claim that Jesus will come and back and all true Christians will instantly be taken up into heaven.  The rapture will then be followed by seven years of tribulation, or warfare, until Christ comes again at the end of the seven years for the judgment, which will then bring in a millennium of peace.  People who believe in this are called premillenialists, that is the judgment is before the millennium.  Those who follow the Left Behind novels, or ascribe to that theology are almost exclusively premillinialists.  There are others who are post-millenialists, that the final judgment will come after the millennium, and there are also amelinialists, people who say that the millennial referred to in Revelation is like other things, a symbol, not something to be taken as literal.  These tend to be people who follow the final interpretive model which is known as the idealist, which says that Revelation and all apocalyptic literature are not to be taken literally, but instead are about the struggle between good and evil in all times and places and to give us a sense of hope and encouragement.

There are two passages that are most used to justify the rapture, and this is one of those times in which you can say that you can get the Bible to say anything you want to, especially if you take them out of their context.  The first comes from Revelation Ch 3 v 10 in which John is writing to the church in Philadelphia (and that’s not Pennsylvania), and says “because you have kept my word, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming.”  But the Greek here can also be translated as something like “keep you throughout the trials,” and if we continue reading the context of the passage he continues “hold fast to what you have so that no one may seize your crown.  If you conquer…”  you will be rewarded, which indicates to me not that they will escape, but instead that there will be martyrs, and that the people need to remain faithful in the face of that persecution.  But the most important passage comes from 1 Thessalonians, Paul says “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  But what Paul is talking about here is the resurrection of the dead and the final coming of Christ, not a secret coming.  The Thessalonians were concerned that some of their members had died and so they were worried that they would miss out on the second coming, and so Paul is telling them not to worry that they will all participate when Jesus returns.   For 1800 years no one read this passage this way.  It wasn’t until John Nelson Darby came up with this interpretation, which he needed in order to explain his very unique and new interpretation of revelation, that this came into being.

I do not subscribe to the idea of the rapture, and here is the biggest reason why, it’s escapist.  We are not called to be escapist, and that is not what John is telling the churches either.  While we are called to be not of the world, and that is clearly part of John’s message, we are called to be in the world.  When James and John ask for positions of power, when they ask for the things that the world says we should seek, what does Jesus say?  Can you drink from the cup from which I drink?  They say they can, but initially they can’t.  Even Jesus asks that the cup be removed from him, but then concludes, “But not my will, but thy will be done.”  When Jesus is on the cross, the people mock him and tell him to order his angels to come down and save him, in other words to perform his escape, but he doesn’t, instead he endures to the end.  And Jesus tells us to do what daily?  Pick up our cross and follow him.  We are not called to escapism, we are not called to rejoice somewhere else while others suffer and tortured, instead we are called to persevere, to remain faithful, to continue proclaiming the gospel message of God’s love and forgiveness even in the midst of suffering and despair, and the rapture bypasses all of that.

But, here is the really bad news for all of you, or at least most of you, if the rapture does exist, which again I do not believe, according to Lehay and Jenkins, the writers of Left Behind, you will not be taken in the rapture because you are sitting here in a Methodist church, and according to them we are not true Christians, we are apostates.  That is we are no longer even practicing the same religion, and since only true Christians will be raptured, that means we will be left behind. 
But not only does the rapture revel in escapism, but the futurist perspective also seems to revel in the idea of violence itself, especially in violence that might be done to those who think, look, and act differently than themselves.  This theology is used to justify and support lots of things that I do not believe we should be supporting, while ignoring many of the problems in the world that I believe that we are called as followers of Christ to address.  John sees a vision in which he is told that only the Lion of the tribe of Judah, of the root of David, who has conquered can open the scroll, and he looks around, but rather than seeing the lion, the symbol of force, he instead sees a lamb, with the marks of slaughter on it.  As Bruce Metzger said, “He looked to see power and force, by which the enemies of the faith would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and gentleness as the way to win the victory.”

It is not violence that is redemptive it is the love of God that is redemptive.   It is not the lion who overcomes the power of the world, it is a lamb, a slain lamb, that redeems the world.  Even in one of the most powerful scenes, and one used by futurists to defend violence, Jesus, who is called the word, rides in on a white horse and he pulls from his mouth a sword.  This, however, is not the sword of violence, it is the sword of the word, and it is the proclamation of the gospel.  As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword.  The powers and the principalities don’t ultimately conquer because they can’t.  They don’t ultimately even understand what power, true power even looks like.  They think it is force and the exertion of will, but true power comes, as Jesus says, in laying down your life for your friends. 
Revelation is about the power of the slain lamb, not the power of the sword, and it culminates in this beautiful message of ultimate redemption and reconciliation, in the coming of the New Jerusalem in which death and crying will be no more, in which suffering and sorrow will be no more, in which pain will be no more, in which the Kingdom of God will come and the creation will be complete once again.  That is the message of hope that is proclaimed in the Book of Revelation.

John is writing to these seven churches in Asia and is encountering two things.  One is those who have become complacent in their faith and he is telling them to repent and turn to the ways of God.  But John is also writing to churches that are faithful, but which are facing, or will be facing persecution because of that faithfulness, and he is telling them that they must remain faithful even in the midst of everything else that is going on.  Some of them will become martyrs to the faith, but rather being delivered from this situation, they will be delivered through this situation.  Desperate times they say, calls for what?  Our answer should be a stronger and deeper faith.  Desperate times, John is saying, calls for a deepening and strengthening of our faith, even in the midst of suffering, pain, mourning, and death, God will be with us and we will win the eternal reward, and the powers of the world will meet their justice.  Just as we will have to answer before Christ when he comes again, so too will those who oppose the will and work of God.  The answer to evil and injustice and oppression and hate and violence is not to meet like with like, it is to meet it with the power of the slain lamb, with peace, with forgiveness, with reconciliation and with love, it is to meet it with faithfulness to the word of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians and pastors.  When Hitler and the Nazi’s took over Germany he immediately began speaking out against them, even in the face of fierce opposition.  When he saw the German churches capitulating to the will of the state, he formed the confessing church which claimed that Jesus, not the fuehrer was head of the church, and affirmed God’s faithfulness to the Jews and God’s chosen people.  Twice Bonhoeffer left Germany, but both times he returned to his native land, because he was not an escapist.  He felt that in order to do what God was calling him to do, in order for the church to be what the church was called to be, that he had to be in Germany actively opposing the Nazis, and so he kept coming back, because there was, in his words, no cheap grace.

He was finally arrested in 1943 and spent the next two years in various prisons and concentration camps, but then in April 1945 after completing a worship service, he was led away by prison guards, and he was said to have said “this is the end – for me the beginning of life.”  Four days later he was executed by hanging, just two weeks before US soldiers liberated the concentration camp where he was located.

While we will never know what Bonhoeffer was thinking of, or what he prayed for as he made his way up to the gallows that day, I’m sure that he did find hope and know that no matter what happened to him, that he would be with the saints and martyrs singing praises, singing hallelujahs to God, and that the beasts of the world, in all their forms, would be thrown down and destroyed, and that he would come face to face with God longing to hear him say, “well done my good and faithful servant.”  And so he went to his death with hope.  The camp doctor who witnessed his execution said, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

During the war, the British had a poster put up, which has sort of become popular again, which said “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and I think that is what John is saying to us.  The powers of the world do not control the world, because they can never have the final word.  What Revelation says to us is that there is always hope, even in the midst of despair and suffering, that God will make things right in the end because he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and he will give us water as a gift from the spring of the water of life and all things will be made new.  That is the promise for us.  That is the message for us, and that is the hope for us.  Revelation is not a book of escapism or violence.  Instead, it is a message of hope, of redemption and of conquering through the word, through love, and through the power of the slain lamb.  And the book ends this way, “the one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”  Amen. Amen. And Amen.

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