Monday, November 17, 2014

Revelation: Interpretive Lenses

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 7:9-17:

This past week I was in Houston attending a conference on financial stewardship, and as I was preparing to come back to Albuquerque from my conference on Thursday, we had several hours to kill before our flight, so we stopped at a mall just so that we could spend some time walking around after having been sitting in a room for 10 hours a day for two days, but in the mall, there was a gallery for Thomas Kinkade.  Now I know that some of you probably like Kinkade, maybe even like him a lot, and the reason I often hear is the opposite of that they know exactly what the painting is about.  There are no secrets, nothing strange, noting to try and interpret.  It’s just easy and straightforward.  Now I’m a fan of modern art, which is certainly not appreciated by everyone, and often for the reasons why Kincaid is liked, that it’s hard to understand, people don’t know what to make of it, or I also sometimes hear them say that “my child could do that.”  There are times in which we need or want things to be straightforward and easy,  and we often certainly want to make Revelation like that, because it’s so different, so foreign, so unknown.  But I believe that we have to take revelation as for what it shows us, which is more like modern art then it is like Thomas Kinkade.

This is a picture that t is leaning against the wall, and it’s called Picassoesque.  It’s done by a very talented young artist in Santa Fe, based on a work by Picasso.  Anyone want to make a guess what this is about?  It’s really unknown, and Picasso is a great artist to try and help us to understand Revelation.  Apocalyptic literature tended to be written during times of great social turmoil.  The book of Daniel was written during a Greek occupation of Israel under the leadership of Antiochus Epiphanies, who outlaws Jewish practices, desecrates the Temple, including placing a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies, and forcing Jews to worship Zeus upon pain of death, and so in the midst of this Daniel is written to tell everyone to remain faithful to let them know that God will overcome the kingdoms of the world.  Now if you’ve been here the past few weeks, you know should remember that that sounds very familiar to what had taken place at the time that Revelation is written with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and the worship of the emperor being so prominent, it makes sense, but the imagery is still confusing.

But to understand Picasso you also have to understand that he also painted in a time of crisis, with the Spanish civil war and the rise of Franco.  He said that in his paintings he was expressing what he was feeling and thinking about when he saw the pain that was tearing Spain apart.  He even has one series of works known as the dreams and lies of Franco, and when he was asked what some of the paintings meant, Picasso said, “I don’t know.  It’s what I was feeling.”  So if you look at a Picasso painting and wonder what it’s all about, because you can’t figure it out, that’s okay because sometimes it’s just imagery to disturb, not to mean anything, and yet other times it does mean something.  It’s figuring out the interpretive lens and how to look at these works that makes a difference, and so today we’re going to look at the 4 different lenses through which Revelation has traditionally been read.

The first, which is the most common today, at least in America, and certainly amongst fundamentalist churches, although it was basically unknown, most especially in Protestantism until the 19th century, so roughly 150 years ago, and it is known as the futurist model.  The futurist model holds that although Revelation was written around the year 95, that nothing from what it says will happen has yet happened.  This is the view taken by those who subscribe to the ideas presented in the Left Behind novels.  Now a true futurist will, in looking at events taking place around them, not claim that the events themselves are what was prophesied, but instead they are the signs that the end of times are near.

Now one of the great ironies about the futurist model, and there are lots of ironies in dealing with this subject, is that while it is new in the Protestant tradition, it actually comes out of Roman Catholicism.  Many of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther amongst them, claimed that the Pope was the whore of Babylon, a common theme still today.  But in order to combat this interpretation, a Franciscan monk by the name of Francisco Ribera, said that this can’t be, because the beast has not yet come, because the events of Revelation have not yet occurred.  Ribera did this in order to protect the integrity and standing of the Pope, but in doing so he created, and as I said this is greatly ironic, the modern American fundamentalist position on the Book of Revelation.  Ribera’s position remained within the Roman Catholic church until 1826 when the librarian to the archbishop of Canterbury published a pamphlet promoting the futurist idea, which was then picked up by John Nelson Darby, who began his professional career as a lawyer, then became an Anglican priest, before leaving to form the Plymouth Brethren, which also sounds like a failed car design, and put Ribera’s ideas, along with his own, to form the ideas that have come down to us today.  We’ll talk more about Darby next week because much of what is taught today in fundamentalist churches comes from Darby, including his creation of the idea of the rapture.

The futurist model tends to look at Revelation as prophecy, with the idea that prophecy foretells the future.  That’s how we often think of prophecy, especially as Christians since in the early church they looked back into scripture to try and explain how Jesus was the messiah, even though he didn’t match what people expected, and so we hear of prophetic witness about the coming of the Christ child and who Jesus is to be.  And while that may be true, and we will begin hearing those as we make our way into Advent, but that is not really a biblical understanding of prophecy, they were not trying to be like sister Cleo.  Instead, prophets were those who spoke the word of God, and often to challenge those who were in power, or as we might say to afflict the comfortable, and to comfort the afflicted.  That is certainly what John is doing in Revelation.  Anyone who says is scripture, “thus says the Lord,” or something similar, is making a prophetic utterance.  Thus, Abraham was a prophet, as were Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Esther and Joshua, not people we normally assume with being prophets.

The other things prophets sought to do was to get the people to repent and return to God.  Probably the best, and maybe most successful prophet the way prophecy should be understood is Jonah.  Why?  Because he goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent or that God will punish them, and the people repent and so God gives them a reprieve.  He does not give a timeline of exactly how things are going to happen and what is going to happen in the future, his goal is to get the people to repent and begin to follow God, which is what happens.  What the prophets do not do is to say that this will happen 500 of even two thousand years in the future, but instead that it will happen right now, but it need not happen.

What they prophesy is that if things don’t change, then bad things will happen, and a call to faithfulness, and the same thing could be said here. John’s prophetic voice is to these seven churches, some of whom are being faithful and are suffering, or about to suffer, but that they need to remain faithful to achieve “the crown of life,” which is what he says to the church in Smyrna, but he tells the church in Ephesus, that while they have been “enduring patiently” that they have “abandoned the love you had at first,” and so what is the solution?  They must, in John’s words, “repent, and do the works you did at first.”

But before Darby popularized the futurist perspective, the most common perspective, and the one held by most Protestants, was the historicist.  The historicist model says that the events told about in Revelation began happening in 95 and they have continued happening over time.  Some see every chapter as a different period of time, both past and future, so that Revelation speaks to the church in all ages.  As one scholar put it, Revelation is said “to sketch the history of Western Europe through the various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French revolution, and individual leaders such as Charlemagne and Mussolini.”  While there are some who still subscribe to the historicist model, its adherents are much smaller in number.  One of the problems with the historicist model is the fact that Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general, tend to be, in the words of Bart Ehrman, “violently repetitive.”  Which doesn’t mean that they are violent, although some, like Revelation certainly are, but because they violate sequence of events.  They are not written in a straight chronology, where a leads to b which leads to c, etc.  Instead the stories go around and around and around.

The Preterist Model believes that the events that are talked about in Revelation, are events that took place at the time they were written, and need to be understood as such to understand what the writer is saying.  The term preterist comes from a Latin term meaning “gone by” or “past.”  Preterists understand that the churches to whom John was writing were undergoing, or about to undergo, persecution and suffering because of the growing emphasis in emperor worship, which they could not do because of their faith in Christ.  While there are strengths and weaknesses to all of these, this model takes seriously the injunction at the beginning of Revelation that these things “must soon take place,” but there is little way to see the final victory of the final chapters of Revelation, a victory also largely ignored in the Left Behind novels as well, having been accomplished.  But it holds to the idea that we move from disaster to triumph and while we might not know when the final triumph will be, we know it is there as the promise.

The final interpretive method is known as the idealist, which sort of breaks into two categories.  Some idealists say that the events portrayed were never meant to be heard or understood as being literally true, while others take a preterist approach, but what idealists want to highlight is that every generation faces this battle between good and evil and so the text speaks to us not because it is forecasting what might happen, but instead taps into the timeless truths that we can find in the imagery about the battle of good and evil and the need to explain suffering, and encourage faithfulness in the face of suffering.

Each and every one of us will approach scripture with our own lens, it’s impossible not to, but what we should be aware is the lens that we use so that we can be aware of it and try and test it off against other interpretations in order to try and guard against forcing ourselves onto scripture to make it say what we want it to say, rather than having scripture speak to us itself.  My own lens is that of a sort of combination of preterist and idealist, and you’ve probably heard that as I’ve talk about this over the past two weeks.  I believe that we have to understand the context in which Revelation was originally written in order to understand what John is saying, but also know that it has to move beyond that understanding for it to still speak to us here in our own day.

So let me give you an example of how this can work.  In chapter 13, which we talked about last week, we are first told about the whore of Babylon who is drunk on the blood of the martyrs and she has a beast with seven heads, and I said we know that the woman is Rome, and we know that because of the information that was presented, and then we are told that there is a lesser beast, and those with wisdom should calculate the number of this person and the number is 666.  I also said that I would tell you this week who it is, and I can say with 99.99% certainty that this beast is the emperor Nero, and here is how I can be so certain.  First just a little background, Nero was the emperor when the real persecution of Christians begins in Rome, including, according to tradition, killing Peter and Paul, and putting Christians into the coliseum.  After the senate basically declares war on Nero, and he flees Rome, and then rather than being captured and returned to Rome to be tried, tortured and killed, he instead killed himself.  But, no one ever found the body and so there were rumors that he actually wasn’t dead and that he would come back to rule again.  There was another rumor which said that he was going to return from the dead and rule again.  So even though Nero was dead at the time Revelation was written, this was part of the story of society.

In Revelation, and in numerology, 7 is considered a number of perfection, so 6 is less than perfection, and 777 is considered ultimate perfection, and thus 666 is ultimate imperfection, and so important.  Also as a part of numerology, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet was consigned a numerical value, and if you take the word Nero Emperor and turn it into Hebrew the number ends up being 666.  Now it could be possible that there could be other people that could apply to.  But there are two ways that you can spell Nero in Hebrew.  One way is with an n end the end of his name, which is silent, or you can spell it without.  Spelling it with the n gives us 666, but spelling it without gives us the number 616, and it just happens that we also have several manuscripts of Revelation that include the number 616.  Those are the only two numbers we have for the mark of the beast, and Nero is the only person that matches those numbers.  And that helps me to understand what the seven churches would have heard and would have known that it was written for them.  But does that mean it’s not written for us?  Is Nero the only tyrant we’ve seen?

In the passage we read from Mark two weeks ago, Jesus said that the signs would be that there would be wars and rumors of wars, there would be earthquakes and there would be famines.  Now do you think there has ever been a generation that hasn’t experienced those things in their lifetimes?  Of course not, and so the story still has meaning for us as we face the realities of what is going on around us and trying to hear this message, not of fear and violence, but instead about hope for our own time and our own stories.  Which is what we hear in today’s passage, as those who were faithful gather at the throne to worship God, the promise that is made for us at the very same time because it applies to us just as much as was to the seven churches in the 1st century, but then there is the proclamation that because of the Lamb who is at the center of the throne that he will lead us to the river of life and that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, which is what we see in chapters 21 and 22, John’s proclamation of hope, which will complete our look at Revelation next week.  Amen.

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