Monday, November 10, 2014

Revelation: The Unveiling

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Revelation 1:1-20:

In the lead-up to the election this week, one news stations reported on, in their words “a hellish post-apocalyptic world in which all you saw were political ads.”  That would definitely be hellish, although if you were here last week, then you know that that is an incorrect usage of the term apocalyptic.  It is certainly eschatological, but it is not apocalyptic.  So here is that quiz that I said last week was going to come.  What does apocalyptic mean? (revealing, unveiling) What does eschatology or eschatology mean? (end of time) And what is the parousia? (second coming)  Apocalyptic literature can deal with the end of times, but it need not do so, as it is simply a revealing to “explain, earthly realities through visions of heavenly truths.”  There are really two different types of apocalyptic literature, one gives visions of heaven and hell, and the second talks about the end of times, about eschatological events, and for Christian apocalyptic literature, since there were also Jewish forms of the genre, it was about the parousia, the second coming of Christ.

We have several different examples of apocalyptic literature in scripture, but the only full-blown apocalypse, and that is the technical term, is the book of Revelation, which we are going to spend the next three weeks looking at.  But Revelation is more than just an apocalypse, it also take a form of another genre with which we are more familiar in scripture and is important to understanding it, and which we saw in the passage we just heard.  Verse 4 begins, “John, to the seven churches that are in Asia.  Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…”  Does that sound familiar to anyone else from other books of the Bible?  It’s a letter, and we need to keep that in mind because first of all it does not say, John, to the churches in America in the 21st century.

Now if someone asks me for some advice, or I decide to then write them a letter about it, there is some context behind what is going on.  If that letter were then to be passed onto someone else, the advice I gave to the first person might be good advice for them or it might not depending upon what their context was.  That means that we first have to understand their context in order to try and see how we can apply that information to our own time and circumstances.  That is how we should approach the other letters we have in scripture, known as the epistles, which means, strikingly enough, letters, and it’s how we also need to approach Revelation is to realize that it is not just an apocalypse but also a letter, and it’s directed to 7 specific churches that John says are in Asia, but this is not Asia that we understand it today, but they are part of modern day Turkey.

These are the churches here, and the letter is written by John, but not the John of the gospels or letters John.  We know nothing about this John, except that he has been exiled to the island of Patmos, just off the coast for what sounds like punishment for his evangelism activities.  I know that hearing that this is not the John of the other books will be surprising to some of you, but this is actually an idea that dates back to the earliest part of the church.  Many church fathers argued that Revelation should not be included because it did not have apostolic origin or credentials, that is being written by or attributed to an apostle.  During the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther sought to remove several books from the canon of scripture, that is the official list of books in the Bible, and that included Revelation because it was not written by an apostle.  He had many other concerns with the book as well and did not write a commentary on it until much later in his life, and John Calvin, one of the other significant Protestant reformers never wrote a commentary on Revelation, the only book he did not cover.

The dating of Revelation is up for some debate, but the usual date is given around the year 95.  It is one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, and it is written to these churches for a specific reason.  I’m sure most of us have heard about the fact that the Romans considered the emperor, or Caesar, to be a god and that they worshipped him.  But that is only limitedly true.  The emperor was not worshipped in Rome, the center of imperial worship took place were?  (wild guess).  That’s right in the area where these 7 churches are located.

The city of Smyrna, one of the 7 named, was the first city to build a temple to Roma, who is the personification of Rome and the roman emperor, and Roma is a woman, that will play a role in our interpretation of Revelation, and next to the temple of Roma was a temple for the worship of the emperor.  But it was Pergamum who was the first city to petition to build a temple for the sole purpose of worshipping the emperor, which then spread throughout the region. The titles of Lord and King and Savior and bringer of peace, titles we often attribute to Jesus, where imperial titles applied to the emperor. So one of the primary questions that moves throughout Revelation is who are we going to worship.  And so we’re going to make a really quick tour through Revelation.

Chapter one is the introduction to the 7 cities being addressed, we get what little information we have about John suffering for the faith, but persevering through that with patient endurance, a term which will repeat itself, and then the beginning of the visions which set up some important points.  The first is the use of the word like.  John says he heard a loud voice like a trumpet speaking to him.  The word like appears 44 times in Revelation, and it’s not used it the sense of saying “are you going to like go to the store,” but instead as a simile or a metaphor it’s setting us up to say that we have to listen and approach this vision than we are used to doing, because has anyone ever heard a trumpet speak?  So we have to hear these visions not as literal things but as similes or metaphors for other things.

Then John sees a vision of Jesus, with seven lampstands and holding seven stars, and then two more important things happen.  The first is that Jesus says, “do not be afraid.”  What is the first thing we ever hear about Jesus.  “Don’t be afraid” or “fear not,” and the same thing happens here.  Revelation is often used to try and scare the hell out of people, but we are told in the first vision, as I said last week, that this is not a book of fear and terror, but instead one of consolation and hope.  And then Jesus interprets the first visions and says that the seven stars are the seven angels of the 7 churches and the seven lampstands are the 7 churches.  In apocalyptic literature generally, sometimes angels or others interpret the visions and sometimes they are left uninterpreted for the hearer to interpret, and in Revelation we have both.

The 2nd and 3rd chapters are then brief notes to each of the seven churches telling them where they are doing well, but also where they are failing, and most importantly telling those who are suffering to patiently endure, and for those who are not suffering that if they are going to remain true to their faith and not stray that they are about to suffer.  Chapter four then gives us a vision of what true worship looks like as John sees worship in heaven, and around the throne he sees people gathered and day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” And then we are told that the elders cast their crowns before the throne, singing “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  That’s what the other kings and rulers do before the emperor as well, remembering that according to Rome, Herod was king of the Jews, not Jesus, but what Revelation is saying is that we need to decide where our allegiance and fealty will lie.  In worshipping the emperor and the state, or in worshipping the true Lord and King, as is done in heaven.

In Chapter six, we see seven scrolls , but no one is found who is worthy to open them, except the lamb who was slaughtered, he is worthy because he was “slaughtered and by his blood ransomed for God the saints of every tribe and language and people and nation.”  Then starting in chapter six, the seals are opened, and the first four  seals bring out what are known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing conquest, war, famine and death.  This represents how Rome operates, that is that Pax Romana, roman peace is brought about through war and conquest, and as the Christians knew only too well with the destruction brought upon Israel, this also brought famine and death, another indication of which kingdom are we going to choose to follow and support.

Then in chapter 7 we again see worship taking place in heaven first with the 144,000, which is 12,000 of the 12 tribes of Israel, but when you understand the significance of numbers this really represents all people following God, because immediately after this we are told that there was a multitude too big to be counted who are worshipping saying “Salvation belongs to God who is seated on the throne and to the lamb.”  And then we hear for the first, but not the last time, that God will guide us to the water of life and “will wipe away every tear from” our eyes.

Starting in chapter 8 through chapter 11 we begin to see the imagery and ideas with which more people know from Revelation, as the seventh seal is opened and three woes come to pass. This is judgment that is being passed on the Roman Empire, and we might argue judgment on all empires who stand in opposition to the kingdom of God, that they will be brought down and that God’s justice will prevail.  But this has imagery of the sea becoming like blood, and the sun being darkened, and plagues and people being tortured.  Then in chapter 12 we have a woman who is pregnant crying out and a dragon is trying to oppose her.  The dragon has been thrown down out of the heavens, and we are told he is called the devil and Satan, but the heavens proclaim that he is conquered by the blood of the lamb, so the dragon seeks to make war on all the children of the woman, normally interpreted as the church.  This is not meant as something to scare us, but to encourage us and tell us that God will prevail, and then at the end of chapter 13 we are told that there is a lesser beast and his number is 666.  What the passage actually says is “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.  Its number is six hundred sixty six.”  I can tell you exactly who this is, and we will get there next week.

Then in chapter 14 we again see the 144,000 worshipping with the lamb and an angel says that hour of judgment has come near, and that we are to “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water,” and then there is another call for the saints to endure to the end.  Then chapters 15 through 17, God’s wrath is again poured out, especially on a woman, named Babylon, who is drunk on the blood of the saints and she has a beast with 7 heads, and again we are given a significant clue and told, “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.”  So I already said that the god Roma was a woman, and how is Rome known, or upon what is Rome built?  Seven mountains, and so we are told that the woman is Rome, and then in chapter 18 Babylon is destroyed, chapter 19, there is again worship and rejoicing in heaven, and Jesus comes in riding a white horse wielding a sword with which he will strike down the nations, but from where does Jesus pull the sword?  From his mouth.

This is the word of the Lord striking down not with violence as is commonly portrayed, but striking down with the word of God, that the Word will overcome the darkness.  In chapter 20 we are told there is 1000 years of peace in which the dragon is bound, but that he will be released, when all we be judged because of our works, and Satan will be destroyed, as well death, and in chapter 21 we see a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and chapter 22 ends with vision, and also the Bible, with a vision of a new garden and the tree of life, and we are told that “the time is near.  Let the evildoer still do evil and the filthy still be filthy and the righteous still do right and the holy still be holy.”

Notice that nowhere in this did I talk about the anti-Christ, a phrase that never appears in Revelation, nor did we talk about the Rapture, because that is not found there either, nor about Israel having to be a new state, or needing to rebuild the Temple.  Much of what people assume is in Revelation is not there, and much of what people think is told in stories of the parousia is not found in scripture either, and much of what is preached today about the end of times is less than 200 years old.  In the next two weeks we are going to look in depth at some particular passages from Revelations, as well as looking at the different interpretive lenses that have been over the years, but Revelation, as I keep saying, is not about fear or terror or torture.  It’s not a blueprint to tell us exactly how things are going to happen, or to use to interpret the evening news.

We have to hear it as it was presented to its original audience which is as a book of hope that God will overcome, that the kingdom of God will defeat the kingdoms of the world, but that we must remain true to the faith and have patient perseverance, and they had to decide whether they were going to worship Rome and the things of the world, or whether they were going to worship God.  In that, this story has just as much import and purpose for us, because the answer remains the same, who are we going to worship?  Are we going to worship God or are we going to worship the things of the world?  With Christmas right around the corner we once again have to ask if we are going to worship at the throne of Christ, or at the throne of the mall?

And when we have made the decision to worship Christ, Revelation is telling us that that comes with a cost, sometimes a significant cost, but that we should not be afraid because we know how the story ends.  Don’t be afraid, that’s how it all begins, because in the end God writes the final chapter.  In the last chapter of Joshua, Joshua again makes a covenantal agreement with the people and he says that today you must choose who you are going to worship.  Are you going to choose to worship the gods of the world or will you worship the one true God.  “As for me and my household,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”  I pray that it will be so for us my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment