Revelation, the End
Today is the day that the church breathes a collective sigh after the rigor of Lent and the hospitality of Easter. The lilies are still with us, but they beg to be taken by anyone who will have them. The extra family members that took up the spaces of those members visiting their own families in other congregations have returned to their homes. Hopefully some who came for the pageantry of Easter might have returned to see if the Spirit of God they experienced is more than an idle tale.
And we who follow Christ must ask ourselves if anything has changed since Easter. That question is the essential struggle of the Book of the Revelation of John. The resurrection was not in question – not for those who followed Jesus and called him the messiah. The divinity of Jesus was not a particular concern, either. For John’s generation of followers of the way of Jesus, particularly those who were Jewish or who were considered “God-fearing” people, the essential question was more like “so what?” than “is it real?”
When I say, “So what?” I mean, “So, what does that mean, and how does it impact my life?” As I said before, it’s important to understand that this book was written to interpret the events of a particular time and place. I realize that may be a little different from what you have heard in the past, and I admit that I had some fear approaching this text for that very reason.
My first experience with the Book of the Revelation of John was in a High School Sunday School class. I was going through a tough time with my parent’s divorce, and we had a very caring adult that decided that it would be to our benefit to explore some of these weird passages together so that they would not be so scary. It was a nice idea.
Unfortunately the perspective of the study was that the Revelation of John was a series of visions that ultimately told about our potential destruction and included ideas like our social security numbers marking us as condemned. There was something about a super computer nicknamed “the beast” and a warning against tattoos. It wasn’t very comforting. Nor, I have come to understand, was it particularly Reformed in its theology.
So, regardless of what you have read in any novels about the Rapture, I thought it would be good to start this series of readings from the Revelation of John with a little bit about what we do – and don’t – believe about this book of the Bible.
First off, it is important to remember that we, as Presbyterians, hold it to be true that we can and will disagree at times in our understanding of scripture. Yet as a body we share certain beliefs about the Bible as God’s word, and we understand that God’s Holy Spirit adds to our understanding when we share our agreements and disagreements about God’s will for our lives. That’s not a disclaimer. That is a central part of who we are and what we believe, and we believe that the Bible – the whole Bible – is God’s word for us. And we believe that it is authoritative for salvation and sufficient for understanding who we are, who God is, and what God’s will for our lives might be.
So, that means that the Revelation of John has to be understood as a part of the whole message of love and redemption that is the Bible. Now, let’s start with the stuff that we don’t believe and get that out of the way. Some say that the Revelation of John indicates that there are certain eras of time, and that Jesus was kind of like a center piece. That’s the idea of dispensationalism – the idea that God has set certain time periods with certain events and will eventually clear the board once history has fully unfolded.
Reformed theology doesn’t deny that God could do that, but it doesn’t see a need for it either. All that happens will happen in God’s good time. The same can be said about millennialism – the idea that there will be a 1,000 year reign of Christendom before God hands over the keys of the earthly jalopy to the wicked. Again, God is sovereign over all things. Jesus announced the presence of God’s kingdom, and the idea that God would step away from the wheel does not track with a God of justice and grace and mercy. And so, millennialism does not seem consistent with scripture or necessary for God’s will as we understand it.
And last, but not least, we do not believe that the Revelation of John is a combination of visions that act as a code to unlock knowledge about some future disaster. The Revelation of John is a particular vision about the power of God who was present even in suffering of those that Rome persecuted for following the way of Jesus.
So, what else do we believe about this vision of John of Patmos? We believe that this book was an encoded message offering hope, interpreting current events, and anticipating the judgment of those who are opposed to the will of God. We believe that John used imagery in a way that is consistent with the Prophets of the Old Testament, and that his intent was to demonstrate what is real and true by exaggerating things that were seen and heard.
Now, I know that some may here that and say, “Really? It’s all hyperbole and metaphor? All symbol and no substance? What about the clouds? Didn’t he promise that in Luke’s Gospel?”
Not only that, but isn’t there a part of us that longs for the coming of Jesus? Our culture has fantasized about his return for centuries. From Michelangelo’s frescos to modern day pop songs asking for angels to come and fix things or at least give us some reason to hope, you can see that we long for something more than the mess of this life. Even as we revel in the beauty and freedom of our land we struggle with crumbling educational systems and profiteering in everything from medical care to incarcerations. We are fighting wars without end and there are those that would kill us for our faith. Even so, there are also those like Asad Shah, a Muslim shop keeper in Scotland who was shot by another Muslim for wishing Christians a happy Easter.
Meanwhile – even as we become a nation of greater equality – we have senators passing laws that limit the freedoms those in the LGBT community. Racism continues to haunt our culture like a specter, and we have lost all sense of decorum in our political theater.
Somehow, I think we need to know that God has not changed. We need to know that God has not given up, even when we have. We need to hear the revelation of John that tells us that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God is forever both beginning and end. God is the same God who told Moses “I shall be as I shall be.”
This means that God is not just some cosmic power struggling with other cosmic powers. God is the ground of all being. God is. God is the raison d’être. God is the source when we “get a little envie” to do something new. (That’s my favorite new cajun phrase that I recently learned.)
And Jesus is the One who is the faithful witness. He is the One who conquered death. He is the One with the ultimate authority who moves us toward the completion of God’s will. And it is our job to make it clear to everyone that Jesus’ return is as obvious as the clouds in the sky. His return is seen in our confession of sin. His return is demonstrated in our care for the unloved and the unlovable.
It’s not up to us to worry about whether or not (and where) Jesus will ride in on a cloud. It is enough for us to know that God is with us, no matter what is troubling us. It is enough to know that our end, our result, and the goal that we press toward are all found in our faith in God’s love for us. And all that we do must flow from our response to God’s amazing love.
It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard. Amen.
NEXT WEEK: We will continue working our way through the Revelation of John. If you are interested in a companion study, I am currently reading “Revelations” by Elaine Pagels, and I highly recommend it.