Monday, November 24, 2014

Revelation: A Proclamation of Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5:

In his letter to the Romans, Paul says “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now… For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:18, 22, 24-25)  We need hope not in the best moment of our lives, not in the brightness of day, not in the celebrations of life, not in the mountain top experiences, we need hope in the darkness, in the worst moments, in the pain and suffering in the valley of the shadow of death, that is not only where we need the hope but consistently in scripture that is when hope is not only offered but where hope is given.  In our Disciple 1 Bible Study, we are currently working through the prophets and their visions of destruction and suffering, and yet even in the midst of all of that God offers a word of consolation through the prophets that the people are not alone, that they are not abandoned, that God is present for them in the midst of all of it, and that God will redeem the situation and will redeem them, so don’t give up, keep going with patient endurance, remain true to the faith

Of course that is also the same phrase we have heard John offering in Revelation, that if the 7 churches that he is writing to are not already suffering because of their faith in Jesus and their refusal to worship the emperor or the state, that they soon will be, but they need to endure to the end, because in the end God will win, and then we get his vision found in chapters 21 and 22 which tells of the coming of a new heaven and the new earth.  And John hears a voice who tells him, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)  Although there have been hints of this message throughout Revelation, the closing chapters are John’s message of hope and consolation, not just for those who are suffering or may be suffering persecution because of their faith, but for all of us, because let’s face it, life is not always a bowl of cherries or a rose garden.  There are difficulties and pain and suffering that we all undergo just by being alive, and so John is telling us to persevere because we know how it ends and it’s pretty glorious.

But notice that Revelation is not about escapism.  Most of us have probably heard of something called the rapture, which says that before a 7 year tribulation, that Jesus will come back and all “true” believers will be taken up into the heavens, before Jesus comes back again later, so that Jesus really comes back twice.  This is the idea most promoted today through the Left Behind novels and movies.  There are several problems with this idea, especially as it applies to Revelation.  The first is that it is not found anywhere in Revelation, nor is the idea of 7 years of tribulation.  The second is that nowhere in scripture does it talk about Jesus coming back twice more, as rapture theology does, and I could really argue that nowhere in scripture are the other ideas found, because they’ve really been created out of whole cloth, and here is why.

Last week I mentioned that most of what is talked about today as the way to view Revelation has come to us from John Nelson Darby, a 19th century attorney and Anglican priest.  An acquaintance of Darby’s had a dream in which she saw Jesus come back again a second time, pull believers up into the heavens in preparation for coming back again a third time, so there would first be a secret coming, before coming back again, although how the first time could really be a secret when a bunch of people disappear is never really explained.  Upon hearing this dream, Darby was struck by this and went searching through scripture to try and find something to justify this new idea.  What Darby did is called proof texting, that is taking a predetermined outcome and trying to find scripture to justify it.  Now the simple truth is that in some ways every one of us does it, but rarely does our proof texting change how large portions of the church interpret scripture.

And so Darby took several pieces of scripture totally out of context, and even radically changed the meaning of others, finding his needed 7 years of tribulation in one line of Daniel, although he basically added an extra line to make it say what he needed.  He found his idea of the rapture in a passage from 1 Thessalonians in which 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 not about the rapture the way it’s currently understood, but instead about the resurrection of the dead and the final coming of Christ.  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 participating in God’s Kingdom, 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, and I would argue that it shouldn’t be read this way.

Just a quick test, what did I say the word Parousia mean?  That’s right it deals with the coming of Christ, but the Greek word literally means “presence.”  So we talk about the coming of Christ as something we are still waiting for, that’s not quite here, but we could also talk about God already being present and thus the parousia is already here.  When we recognize God’s presence in our life, we could call that parousia, God’s presence, or Christ’s presence, and yet we also expect Christ to come again.  And so when we site the mystery of faith, we could say “Christ has already come; Christ has already conquered; Christ will come again.”

All three of those are important, because what the early church proclaimed, and what John is certainly proclaiming in Revelation, is that the Caesar, the emperor, is not the Lord, is not the true king, that Jesus is Lord and King, that Jesus has already beaten the forces of the world through his saving actions, and that is really important to understand because the other way that the word parousia was used in the Roman world was in reference to when a person of high rank would come to visit a subject state (Wright, p 129).  But when that happened, the people wouldn’t just open up the gate and expect the ruler to come in when they got there, instead they would go out and greet the ruler and welcome them, but do the people then stay outside the gate?  Of course not, they go back in with the king.  Paul is meaning the same thing here.  First he is telling the Thessalonians that just because people have died before Christ has come back does not mean that they will not get to participate in the kingdom of God, that they are still part of the promise, and that people will greet Christ when he comes back as the king of the world, and worship him as such.

One of the biggest problems with the idea of the rapture is that it is escapist.  If the end is near and we will all be taken up to heaven, why should we be concerned about environmental degradation?  Why should we be concerned about justice issues?  Why should we be concerned about poverty or hunger issues?  Why should we be concerned about peace issues anywhere?  In fact, not only shouldn’t we be concerned about these things but we want them all to get worse, because they mean that the end is near.  Peace in the Middle East? Forget about it, we want turmoil and war in the middle east.  I do not believe that that is what we are called to do or to be as Christians.  The other significant problem is it takes a dualistic approach to the world and says that the world is bad and so we want to get out of it as quickly as possible in order to get to heaven.  But that is not scriptural.  First because we are told in Genesis, as God creates the first garden that God created everything and called it good, and that never changes.  We as people certainly have some issues, but the created world is not evil.  The second problem is that we are not seeking to be separated from the world, but instead for God’s kingdom to come here and now, that’s what we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We cry “come Lord Jesus,” (maranatha) and that is also what we see at the end of Revelation.

People are not raptured up to a new heaven, but instead the new heaven and the new earth take place here on earth.  God comes down to us; the new creation comes down to us.  Where is God’s home? Among the mortals. The earth is not destroyed by God, it is renewed by God, and once again we find ourselves in the garden with the tree of life.  We begin in the garden and we end in the garden, but to get there we don’t do it by escaping or bringing about violence and fear, but instead by persevering to the end, by remaining faithful, by proclaiming that Christ is Lord, not the Caesars, that Christ is King, not the other rulers, that we are working not for the kingdoms of this world, but we are working to see God’s kingdom come about here and now, and we remember all that today on the day in which we celebrate the final Sunday of the Christian year, which is Christ the King Sunday.

In Chapter six John sees a vision in which he sees seven scrolls but is told that only the Lion of the tribe of Judah, of the root of David, who has conquered is worthy to 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 message of love and redemption.  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, of picking up your cross and following.

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 as 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.”

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.  One of the images we have had on the table throughout this series has been a lighthouse, and the lighthouse really serves two purposes.  The first is as a warning that the shore, and in particular a rocky shore are there, and John provides that warning for the seven churches to remain faithful, but the lighthouse also serves as a beacon of hope for ships caught in storms because they know when they see that light shining out of the darkness that they are near land and that not all is loss, and John offers that ray of hope as well.

Revelation tells us that in the darkest moments of our lives, that God is present for us, that Christ is present for us, parousia, that Christ has already come and yet we await for his coming glory.  That God’s promises remain if we remain faithful, that we will not only get to gather with the heavenly realms and worship the lamb on the throne as our king and shepherd, but that God will see us through and that God’s kingdom will come.

During World War II 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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