March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Revelation 21: 1-7
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "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; 4 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." 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Revelation 22: 1-7
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 6 And he said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place." 7 "See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."
I don’t know if you pay much attention to the prelude pondering or to the sermon title, but both of them today refer to the rapture. For the prelude pondering, I usually choose a particularly pithy saying, a quote or reflection that offers a certain angle on the theme of the day’s worship. And sometimes, I choose a bumper sticker. I chose this one, “I don’t believe in the rapture, but if I’m wrong, can I have your stuff?” because it is a witty answer to the popular bumper sticker, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” That latter bumper sticker, like all bumper sticker theology, has some issues.
Let’s talk about rapture for a minute. The word means ecstasy, being carried away, delighted. And since sometime in the mid-1800’s it has also meant something else. Merriam Webster online says it also means: “The final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology.” Well, according to SOME Christian theology. Since 1830 or so. Never before that.
So saying that the rapture is a belief of Christian theology is like saying that polygamy is a practice of the Mormon faith. It HAS been a practice of some members of the Mormon faith, but it isn’t mainstream Mormon thought. That doesn’t stop people from thinking that the rapture is what all Christians believe, however. Any number of atheist discussion websites will demonstrate that – belief in the rapture is one of their favorite things to ridicule.
But we have to admit that the idea of the rapture has gained some serious traction in the last few decades, so it is worth looking at as we wrap up this study of the Book of Revelation. We have to go back in time a bit, not back to the Bible just yet, but to the first third of the 1800s. During that time, some new religious ideas were gaining popularity. One of them was what came to be known as dispensationalism, the belief that all of human time is divided into distinct dispensations by God, and that we are in the last dispensation before Jesus comes back.
This was a scheme of Biblical interpretation devised mainly by a fellow named John Nelson Darby. He figured out the dispensations, then went looking through the Bible for verses that supported his theory. And guess what? He found them. He worked up some connections between the Book of Daniel, 1st Thessalonians, Matthew 24, John 14, and the Book of Revelation, took each one out of context, put them together with each other, and, VOILA! the Rapture!
When Jesus comes back, according to this belief, he will come secretly, to take up all those who are believers, and carry them away – get that? – rapture, being carried away – to be with him in heaven, while on earth, literally, all hell breaks loose. In order for this to happen, Israel must be restored to her homeland, and a number of specific signs and portents must be fulfilled. Dispensationalists would have you believe that we are almost there.
The entire “Left Behind” series, which was and is wildly popular, grows out of that belief, and many people have taken it to be what all Christians must believe. In fact, until John Nelson Darby split the Plymouth Brethren Church with his teaching, and until the idea really got a foothold with the publication of Cyrus Scofield’s study Bible, no serious Christian thought this was true. For 1800 years. Eighteen hundred years.
Now, of course, the way popular media works, you’d think that the idea of the Rapture was mainstream Christian thought. Christians have always believed that Christ was coming back. We still do. We just don’t claim to have it figured out with that kind of precision, nor do we envision it the way that dispensationalists do.
But the earliest Christians, those who received this Book of Revelation in its original form as a letter of prophecy, were expecting Jesus any time. The Millerites, now known as Seventh Day Adventists, predicted the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus in 1843. That became known as the “Great Disappointment.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed a number of dates, including 1975, all of which turned out to be wrong. Every time there is a big marker in time, somebody predicts the end of the world. Bob had a visit from some religious group in December of 1999, wanting to know what he thought about God and Y2K. He said he thought God was probably Y2K compliant! More recently, we’ve had Harold Camping and the Mayan Calendar.
Now, whether you think Jesus is coming back next week or next century, it’s important to think about what that kind of “rapture” teaching means. What the rapture means is that Jesus would sneak back and take away certain people, leave everyone else here to suffer all kinds of war and plague and misery, then come back and collect everybody else, presumably those who had changed their minds about him, and of course all those who were already dead, and take them all to heaven. That’s pretty swell for those who make the first cut. Pretty horrible for little kids who live in abject terror of being left behind. I’ve shared with some of you that growing up with that belief meant that if I ever came home to an empty house, I would burst into tears, assuming that the rapture had taken place, and I was left behind. So, yeah, there’s a problem with that, I think.
Plus, I have a bit of a theological squabble with an image of Jesus as a vengeful, destructive force, who is going to speak and blow whole crowds of people to smithereens. But the bigger problem with the whole business is that it is not in the Bible! Nope, no rapture.
Not in there. Also, it sustains a vision of God as an angry, vengeful, destructive force (Did I say that? Yeah. No, not who God is!) who is just waiting for a chance to punish us. And then cast us into the lake of fire. Eternally. As I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense that we’d have 65 books in the Bible that tell us how God is faithful, and God’s steadfast love endures forever, and then have a 66th book that says, “Oh, surprise! Jesus is coming back, and boy are you all in trouble!” Frankly, I think if that had been God’s intention, we’d have all been cast into the lake of fire a long, long time ago.
The rapture scheme of thought makes Jesus a kind of failed Plan B, who has to come back and crush the opposition, since the first coming didn’t work out the way God had in mind.
So what DOES the Bible say about the end of time?
It’s right here, in the last chapters of Revelation, a vision so beautiful and so powerful,that it really does have a sense of rapture. I hope you’ve managed to read along through the Book of Revelation these last few weeks, because these final chapters are such a huge payoff, because these final chapters are so exquisite in their descriptions.
I chose just seven verses (get it – seven?) from two chapters to represent that beauty.
The first reading, from Chapter 21, depicts what one writer calls “a rapture in reverse” – not believers being taken up to heaven, but heaven coming to earth, like a bride coming down the aisle. And from that throne, where the Lamb rules with the words of his mouth, we hear this proclamation: "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."
We hear again the pronouncement of Jesus Christ as Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Those words remind us of the very first chapter of Revelation, when we hear these words, and the promise that he is coming in the clouds, and every eye shall see him!
So the story is ending, not with people being taken up to heaven, but with heaven coming down to earth.
That is something to look forward to, not something to fear!
And there is something that gets left behind, that’s for certain!
What gets left behind is death.
What gets left behind is sin.
What gets left behind is all that is broken and sorrowful and painful.
The second reading I chose is from Chapter 22, another exquisite word picture of this new heaven and new earth. That new heaven and new earth are not somewhere else, but right here, God’s good creation restored: a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and they will reign forever and ever.
That tree has a purpose – life! And its leaves are for the healing of the nations.
We’ve seen that tree before, you know. We saw it in Genesis, in the beautiful garden God made for people to live in. We saw it in the second chapter of Revelation, in those messages to the seven churches: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”
That is a joyful message of hope, hope in Jesus Christ, the lamb that was slain, and who was and is and is to come, who is coming, who is our one hope!
All of the assurances of God’s love, throughout scripture,
all of the calls to return to follow God,
all of the stories that Jesus told,
and the trials of living, all of the suffering, all of the grief,
all of the sorrow and sadness and sin
are about to be redeemed.
There is a tree growing up in that garden, a tree of life.
The story does not end in fire and brimstone and death and destruction any more than the story of Good Friday ends at the grave. The story ends in this shimmering vision, this glorious song, this dream of grace made real.
That’s worth getting carried away about.
That’s real rapture.