The book of Revelation does not come up very often in our readings of scripture in Reformed worship. The cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle, years A, B, and C, and we are currently in the Year B cycle. This provides that every three years, we will have the greatest sampling of scriptural readings, reading through much of the Bible.
I was curious to find out just how often Revelation came up in the three years, and I found that in Year A, readings from this book come up just twice, on All Saints Day and New Year’s Day. Year B has three readings, though one of those, our lesson from this morning incidentally, is repeated. Year C has the most to offer from Revelation, with 6 weeks following Easter featuring readings from John’s vision.
So what we end up with is a book that is left on the fringe of our Christian experience, which can leave us with a fear or ignorance of it, or, more dangerously, a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of what these texts say.
Every couple of years or so, some guy turns up who claims he has figured out the scriptural equation of when the world is going to end. A few years ago, Harold Camping had his followers so convinced that he knew the date the world would end, that many of them spent the weeks and months leading up to it spending all of their money, ridding themselves of all earthly possessions, and preparing for the “rapture.” When the world did not end, many of these people, Harold Camping not included, were left penniless and in need, some with children whose college funds had been emptied because of their parents faith in Camping.
There seems to be this pre-occupation with the end of the world in many Christian traditions. My reaction is always, ‘is the world that bad that we should anxiously await its end?’ End-time preaching, as it were, seems less focused on sharing the gospel of Christ, and more interested in whipping up a fervor of fear that convinces people to claim Christ to save themselves.
I do not believe Reformed Theology seeks to win people’s hearts and minds in fear, but rather in the love of Christ we share. Furthermore, this preoccupation with leaving this world, with the idea that our souls will be “raptured” up to heaven and away from God’s creation is both dangerous and damaging. More on that in a minute…
There are a number of apocalyptic texts, not just the book of Revelation. “Apocalyptic literature uses vivid imagery to speak of the conflict between good and evil and of God’s final judgment” (Quanbeck). Yet the interpretations seem more often to be of the Left Behind variety, distorted theologies that lead people into fear rather than gospel.
Revelation and Daniel are the most prominent of apocalyptic texts, but Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, some of the minor prophets, the words of Jesus, and some parts of Paul’s letters are all considered apocalyptic. So we can see that there is plenty of room for theology to get mixed and twisted up.
It seems that a lot of this theology comes about from people believing they have been living in the end-times. This is nothing new! Jesus’ disciples truly believed that after he ascended to heaven following his resurrection, that the return he had foretold was right around the corner. They lived as if it would be any day.
This tradition continued with Paul. “[Saint] Augustine regarded his as the final age. Joachim of Fiore fired the medieval imagination with his construal of history’s dispensations leading up to the end. There was an apocalypticism rampant in the era of the Reformation. Luther and his heirs were not beyond being influenced by the apocalyptic fervor of the late medieval period. Luther’s naming of the Pope as the antichrist was not merely some hyperbolic invective” (Quanbeck).
So this morning, we have a text from the Revelation to John, and so often we can feel like Revelation is a scary place in scripture. As Philip Quanbeck points out in an article for Word & World, “Revelation is good news because it helps give voice to the Old Testament.” In fact, literarily speaking, having Revelation at the end of the Bible seems to tie everything up by reminding the reader of the Old Testament message in the context of the New Testament.
“John’s Apocalypse is saturated with Old Testament allusion, images, language, and phrases. There are few horrors in Revelation- including the dragons, blasphemous beasts, and then wars in heaven- that do not show some literary dependence upon Ezekiel or Daniel. The references to God’s heavenly temple and the ark of the covenant in 11:19 require a readership that knows the meaning of temple and ark in Israel’s history” (Quanbeck). In other words, Revelation cannot be understood on its own; the context of the whole of scripture is necessary to a centered theology. This may get us closer to the truth about why Revelation springs up so infrequently in the Lectionary!
Our text this morning may be one of the most beautiful in the book, if not in the whole of scripture. It relates John’s vision of what God’s kingdom will look like. Tears will be wiped away; God will dwell with His people; no mourning or pain; all things will have been made new.
One interesting image to note is that “the sea was no more” (21:1). The absence of water in this reading is notable. Water is one of the most important symbols in Christianity, yet here we are noticeably dry.
This isn’t completely accurate; the Lection ends halfway through verse 6. The second half of verse 6 reads: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” When the first heaven and first earth pass away, the sea goes with them. The sea, as it was known in John’s day, was a symbol of the power of Rome who used it not only for ferrying their military might and power all over the known world, but it also represented the trade routes via which slaves were transported, people taken from their homes and bound in chains. It is impossible for me to imagine what this word would have sounded like to an oppressed people; perhaps this is one of the reasons why Christianity became so important to black slaves in the United States over three hundred years of being stolen from their homes.
The other thing this draws to mind is that the sea is a source of undrinkable salt water, as well as a place of danger and possible death. A spring on the other hand, is a source of life, gentle, yet powerful in its simplicity.
To return to something I mentioned a couple of moments ago, an “end-time” preaching of apocalyptic texts is dangerous and damaging, not just to God’s people, but to the whole of God’s creation. Much is made in popular culture discussions of the end-times in what is called “the rapture,” the idea that God will immediately and mysteriously take up to heaven all the souls He has deemed worthy, leaving the rest to flounder in tribulation until Christ returns to battle the antichrist.
Well, first of all, the rapture isn’t biblical. It’s just not. It is a theology that clings to Jesus’ words in Luke 17. “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left” (17:34-35). This is the text given as “proof” of the rapture, yet I believe it is taking Jesus’ words as too literal. Jesus is not necessarily describing how the end times will take place, but rather the suddenness of it. He is not saying, ‘this is what you should be looking for, and here is a map of what is going to happen.’ Instead, he is noting that God’s coming kingdom is both a long anticipation and a sudden movement.
First, this is not the future that John is given a vision of. In chapter 21, he writes that he “saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven.” It is always important to pay attention to movement in any scripture we read. The movement of this text is downward: God’s kingdom comes to us; the rapture’s movement, on the other hand, is away from this world, moving up. Really, this downward movement is the movement of the whole of scripture! God is always moving toward us, always hoping and calling for us to move toward Him, but never relying solely on our movement. When Jesus ascends, he tells of his return; in pretty plain terms, a return would mean his descent, not our ascent.
A rapture theology leads to two very dangerous things: a self-focused theology, and a neglect for God’s creation. When we believe that God will reap His faithful away from the earth, we are given a pass on everything Christ calls us to do: feed the hungry, clothe the poor, comfort the sick. If we believe that we simply need to ready our own hearts and souls for God to take us away, then we are much less likely to attend to the world’s pain. This is not to say that those who believe in a rapture theology do neglect these things. In fact, many people I know who believe this are quite devoted to all of those things. Nevertheless, the danger is there.
Additionally, if we believe that we are being taken to “a better place,” then we have carte blanche to take full advantage of this world. If God is coming soon to take me away to heaven, then why bother recycling? Why worry about fuel emissions? What need do I have to worry about pollution and litter? So what if the climate is warming and changing, if I believe that at all! Drill, baby, drill!
Yet this worldview ignores the mandate God gave us in Genesis, to be stewards of His creation. In fact, it would completely ignore Jesus’ parable of the talents, the master going on a journey and trusting his talents to each of three servants.
Our text this morning is not one that paints a scary, terrifying vision of the future, but rather a brilliant new day where God will make all things new. This doesn’t mean that God is going to erase everything and start over; it doesn’t mean that he will take some of His creation and the faithful among us to a different place and wipe out what is left. Instead, it means that when Christ does return, that everything, you, me, and everything in between, will be transformed in the renewing, beautiful light of the Spirit. And that surely is good news. Amen.
Quanbeck, Philip A., II. “Preaching Apocalyptic Texts.” Word & World 25.3 (Summer 2005): 317-27. Print.