Sunday, March 3, 2013

Already and Not Yet
Revelation Chapters 6-11; third sermon in a series
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry
Chapter 6
12 I looked on as he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became black as funeral clothing, and the entire moon turned red as blood. 13 The stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the officials and the generals, the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in caves and in the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the Lamb's wrath! 17 The great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"

Chapter 7
9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice: "Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." 11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen." 13 Then one of the elders said to me, "Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you know." Then he said to me, "These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb's blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God's throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won't hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Have you ever wondered why more Presbyterian pastors don’t preach the Book of Revelation? Ever noticed that the Revised Common Lectionary only has a few of the more cheerful snippets of the book over the entire three years? Ever wondered why? I’m going to tell you why, and it may be just about the only clear and definitive statement you hear from me this morning. Because it’s HARD! It’s really, really HARD! I think I have done more reading, study, prayer and preparation for this sermon series than I did in my entire first year of seminary!

The last two Sundays took us through the first five chapters, and those were relatively easy.
First we had the opening, the seven letters to seven churches, and the seven lampstands. That was pretty clear. Then last week we had the dreamlike chapters where John of Patmos enters into the heavenly throne room, which, as it turns out, is also the temple. We’ve understood thus far that prophecy is not prediction, that symbolism is just that, and not a one-to-one allegory, and that this Book of Revelation was written in a particular context as an encouragement to the churches and a promise of Christian hope. If only we could just stop there – leave it at that.

But we’re not going to, of course. We’re going to forge on into the heart of this book, and these chapters 6 through 11. But first, let’s think about how to hear this section of the book. As Presbyterians, we don’t read Revelation as a prediction of the end times. We don’t try to identify the anti-Christ, or the schedule for Jesus’ return. There are plenty of other people who do that.  Go online, or to a Christian bookstore, and you’ll find myriad interpretations of this book and predictions of the end of the world. Most of those involve Jesus sneaking back to earth in what’s called “the rapture,” taking away some select group of people, and leaving the rest of us here to suffer for seven years, before coming back AGAIN to take all the good people to heaven and send all the bad people to hell. 

Those folks point to what they claim are signs of the end times: extreme climate change – heat waves and wildfires, drought; natural disaster – tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes; war, famine, violence, and of course, promiscuity; they identify President Obama as the Antichrist– (he joins the ranks of nearly every president, and most all of the popes back to the Reformation in being identified as such). They would have you believe that these four horsemen of the apocalypse, the opening of the seven seals, and all the violent, scary  imagery in this book is put here in order to notify us of what is coming. And it is coming, they say, not to everyone, not to them, certainly, because they will have been taken away, but only to those who don’t subscribe to their particular brand of Christianity.

This section of Revelation, and the next, are weird, and scary and filled with the stuff of nightmares. If you have ever had a dream in which you are falling into a bottomless abyss, or being pursued by horrifying creatures that look like mechanical locusts, or by death riding on a pale horse, you will recognize the creepy images in these chapters. If you’ve ever watched any scary movies about disasters or wars that mark the end of civilization as we know it, you will recognize the primal fear invoked by these prophecies.

And maybe that is a good place to start, with our primal fears and nightmares. Because we believe that this book is in the Bible for a reason, and it isn’t to scare the hell out of people, or to scare people out of hell.

If we go back to the very beginning of the Book of Revelation, we remember that this is a letter to seven churches of the first century, churches whose members had experienced horrors like those described here, though not these literal horrors. We find a people who were suffering under oppression and persecution, who would have know that apocalyptic literature of this sort, common in their day, pointed obliquely to the oppressor. We find a people who very likely would have understood  that the “mark of the beast’ – that 666 that contributes so many spooky movies and anxious  Youtube videos – was a numerological reference to the emperor Nero, who was quite a nasty fellow where Christians were concerned.  

And we find small bands of dedicated followers of Christ who were desperately in need of just such a letter – a letter of prophecy that satisfied their desire for vengeance without calling them to violence, and that offered them the assurance that in the end, God will judge, and love will win. Let me repeat that: God will judge, and love will win.

If we go back to the very beginning, not just of this book, but of the Bible itself, we find yet another piece of the puzzle that is ignored or re-interpreted by those who would have us believe that Jesus is planning to come back and foment a cataclysmic bloodletting that dwarfs the Holocaust, dwarfs the millions slain by Genghis Khan, dwarfs the worst destruction of human life ever in the history of the world. If we go back to the very beginning, we find the story of God’s creation, which God called good, good, good, good, good and very good.

God does not hate the world. God hates the destruction of the world. God is not angry at all of us; God loves us – the world. God made the world and called it good, and God so loved the world that he gave his only son. And the scriptures say that Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that through him – what? the world might be saved. In the message of the gospel, the message of the cross and the empty tomb, we do not find divine threats of torture. There isn’t any bloodthirsty retribution, except from the people who were against Jesus!

And as far as Jesus coming back in the clouds to end it all, here’s what he said about his role: “You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.” (John 8: 15-16, CEB)

Here’s what he said: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.
And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12: 44-47 CEB)

So there must be another reason that this book was included in the canon. If we take the kind of modified view of Revelation as both a historic text for the people of the time and as a word to the churches of today, we can find a lot to think about, without being afraid. Presbyterian and Reformed people think that in the midst of all this apocalypse and Armageddon, there is a word of caution. If we look at the misery and plagues described in these five chapters, do you know what we find?

Not the Visigoths or the Red Chinese, or the Soviet Union, or Iran. No, we find war, famine, disease and economic injustice. We find high winds and storms, stars falling from the sky, and earthquakes. We are threatened not by the European Union or the United Nations, but by black smoke, poisoned water, scorched earth, volcanoes, tidal waves…, a description of a sick planet. Some of the passages imply that the destruction of the earth is not the result of a divine caprice but a consequence of the behavior of humanity. So the dire prophecies of Revelation become descriptions of  a return to the chaos that existed before creation,  a world that is in disorder due to the wanton and wasteful ways of the inhabitants of earth. In that way, humanity is not punished FOR our sins, but BY our sins.

And then there are the men and women who ignored the words of caution … went on their merry way – didn't change their way of life, didn't quit worshiping evil, didn't quit centering their lives around lumps of gold and silver and brass…They suffered. Again – not punished FOR their sins, but suffering as a result of their choices.

We are not responsible to spend our time judging, or sorting out who is in and who is out, but to confess our own failings, tell our own stories, and bear witness of God’s love to those who are fearful, to those who are hopeless,  who feel they’ve come to the end, whose lives seems hellish. We are responsible to share the good news that Jesus came in order to alleviate suffering, theirs and ours.

What these scary warnings call for is not the end of the world, but another way of being and behaving a way of life that demands an alteration in the nature of our lives so that they reflect the divine righteousness, that seal of God on us. What would that way be, that way of living that reflects divine righteousness? Well, here’s what Jesus said about that:

In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus described the judgment of the king, who said
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'  But those who hear this don’t understand, and they answer: “… when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And Jesus sums up the criteria for judgment, saying “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So that seventh seal has been opened, and the seventh trumpet blast has sounded, and according to Revelation 11: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever" (v. 15).  Or we might consider translating the verse as "the kingdom of the world belonged to our Lord and his Christ's, and he will reign forever."

The kingdom of this world has never belonged to anyone other than God. The heavenly voice is asserting what always has been the case (cf. 19:6).[1]We live in a reality that is felt rather than seen, the hope of a future that is already here and not yet here, the assurance of Christ’s kingdom.

We walk in the world through the faith that has been given to us. and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The words of joy and of hope ring out in the midst of trouble and trial: the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

That Lamb who is on the throne has already come, and is here among us – as we worship, as we work, as we come to the table, and as we go from this place to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bind up the broken hearted. His promise is already fulfilled and his kingdom is already at hand.
Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] New Interpreters commentary on Revelation

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