Sunday, May 05, 2013

At Last

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

            Some Christians positively love the book of Revelation.  Some hate it.  Most of the people who are attracted to topics like the end of the world, Armageddon, the disappearance of earth as we know it, obscure symbols and predictions of the future tend to embrace Revelation because it is full of that kind of thing.  Others are like a wonderful Swiss woman I had in a Bible study group some years ago.  “Why is this book even in the Bible?” she asked.  “This is crazy talk.  It should not even be allowed in the Bible.”  Although she might have been a bit blunt, she actually hit upon the chief reason why Revelation is the last book in the Bible.  It is actually not last because it deals with the last things and the last events, although that probably has something to do with its placement; but it is last because it almost did not make the cut.  There was that much disagreement about its nature and its contents.   Indeed the arguments about Revelation did not stop, nor have they ever.  Martin Luther, for example, writing in the 1522 edition of the German Bible, gave his reasons for assigning the book to at best a subordinate place within the New Testament:

            About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion and judgment:  I say what I feel.  I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.  First and foremost, the Apostles do not deal with visions, but prophecy in clear, plain words, as do Peter and Paul and Christ in the gospel. …I can in nothing detect that it was provided by the Holy Spirit.  [quoted by Christopher C. Rowland, “Revelation—Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1998), 536-7]

He goes on to say that the author of Revelation toots his own horn a bit too loudly when he threatens anyone who takes away anything from his book, yet says that they are blessed who keep what is written in it.”  Luther says, “…yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.  It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.”  Luther says in the end that he can’t get his spirit to fit into the book principally because Christ is not taught or known in it, and yet to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle above all else is bound to do.  He says that he’ll stick to the books that give him “Christ clearly and purely.” [ibid.]

            Well, that ought to be enough ammunition to mount a pretty successful attack on a sermon preached from the book of Revelation.  But I want to do just that today.  While I agree with Luther and my Swiss friend, I must say that there are a few things about Revelation that redeem it for me.  One is that some of the imagery—not all of it to be sure—is incredibly rich and beautiful.  Another is that it blasts all to smithereens the nice little rational categories in which we sometimes think we can trap God.  Instead it paints a picture of an untamable, free God, opening up a future that makes the strongest, most formidable human empires look like the silly little efforts they are in comparison to God’s future.   Luther himself later softened his review of Revelation and pointed out that “we see that, through and above all plagues and beasts and bad angels, Christ is with his saints, and wins the victory at last.”

            Yet the main redeeming value in the Book of Revelation is that, obscure as it is—ironic, isn’t it, that a book called “Revelation” can veil more than it reveals—it at least ends by proclaiming the ultimate fulfillment of the dynamic that gets the Bible going in the first place:  and that is the desire of God to be God, for all of us humans to be God’s people, and for God to dwell with and be one with us.  Did you ever get far enough in the Bible to discover that place where in the Creation story Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Their eyes are suddenly opened, they realize that they are naked, and suddenly they are ashamed.  They make little aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves.  Then, rather pathetically, they hide when they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.  It is a charming story in a way:  a God scarcely bigger than a human, walking around making a bit of noise, carrying on a conversation with two earthlings who only did what any of us would do any day of the week.  From that point on, the story winds its way through flood, slavery and liberation, through exile and return, through wars and oppression and failed rebellion until it comes to Jesus.  Then all the twists and turns flatten out in daylight so bright that people can see in Jesus the God Most High who has made a dwelling in a human being walking among other human beings.  No longer do frightened humans try to hide from God; through Jesus they are attracted, drawn to God. 
            This is where the plot thickens.  Imagine a tree with several prominent branches, each of which has its own smaller branches.  The experience of Jesus, living, crucified, and risen, is the trunk of the tree.  Two major branches sprout from that experience.  Call one “personal” and one “communal.”  Then two other branches develop, higher up.  One is “this world” and one is “life hereafter.”  Up nearer the top are two more branches.  One is “prophecy” and the other is “apocalypse.”  Both of these branches have to do with the relationship of the present and the future.  Prophecy generally sees that human beings have something to do with the future and can actually influence it, though God is definitely in charge of it.  “Apocalypse” tends to see that the future is way out of the hands of human beings, entirely shaped by God with people involved in it only in relation to how they do or do not play by God’s book in the present.  Each of these branches sprouts other branches, twigs, and leaves.  From a distance, they all blend in, so much so that an onlooker might think that any branch is pretty much like every other.  Yet when we get up close, we can see that every branch is distinct, so much so that it almost seems that they belong on very different trees.  Which branch is good?  Which branch is right?  Which branch does more justice to the trunk?

            At the risk of being like many another preacher or reader of Revelation, picking and choosing which branch I like, either squeezing the book into a shape that will agree with my pet ideas or discarding it because it simply does not suit me, I want to suggest that ultimately the vision before us is one of community more than individuals, one of this world more than some other world, one about our present life more than life hereafter—a vision that sees the future of a world transformed by the pervasive presence of God and of God’s Christ.  Instead of leaving us quaking in our boots, like the books of Hal Lindsey, whose The Late Great Planet Earth, inspired by Revelation, sold over 40 million copies between 1970 and 2000, Revelation itself leaves us imagining that God is with us, not against us.  Instead of stoking fears, like the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, consumed by over 63 million people, many of whom are influencing policy in and for the United States and its institutions, Revelation actually inspires precisely the justice that the political structures of this world normally oppose.  Indeed by envisioning a city of God, Revelation challenges us as Christians to align ourselves with the God who works to renew creation and transform human community.

            Some have said that the end of Revelation is so different from the rest of it that it must have been written by another author and affixed to the original by that author or some editor.  Whatever.  The interesting thing is that after all the smoke and ruin and destruction and portents and signs and beasts and other scary stuff, in the end we meet familiar friends:  God and the Lamb, who, of course, is the Risen and Exalted Jesus.  Instead of a totally collapsed earth blasted out of existence by some nuclear Christ, we see the New Jerusalem, a city, an urban community, coming out of heaven.  And although you did not hear it in today’s snippet from Revelation, the author’s description of the New Jerusalem is stunningly beautiful, its streets paved with gold, its gates pearls, its walls adorned with dazzling jewels.  In other, more prosaic words, the urban community representing the ultimate triumph of God in human experience is indescribably wonderful, beyond anything that a mortal could dream of building, far superior to anything that Roman Emperors or Napoleons or Hitlers or Stalins or Vaticans or Washingtons or corporate America could possibly construct at their most ambitious. 

            But the most amazing thing in this whole chapter, the last but one in the whole Bible, is that there is no Temple in the New Jerusalem.  There is no need of one, for the presence of God and the Lamb—the glorified Jesus—pervades everything and everyone.  There is still a throne, which symbolizes that there is a limit to which God and humanity can be equated.  The Light of the City is not the Temple but the Lamb, Christ:  and by that light a redeemed, ordered, peaceable community of nations walks, having no need of sun by day or moon by night. 

            If you want to believe, as many have and do, that the Christian hope, expressed in such images, is about life sometime besides now and somewhere besides here, you can certainly go ahead and believe it.  But I think this last book of scripture jolts us into seeing that God’s kingdom and God’s justice cannot wait.  Liberation cannot be left to another world when the glory of God is liberating the poor and the oppressed in this world:  that is the Revelation’s meaning for the Latin American liberation theologians, mostly slapped down by the last two popes.  Imagining the beautiful and powerful is not confined to illustrating the text of the Apocalypse itself; but, as the poet and artist William Blake saw, it cuts us loose to saturate our consciousness with the apocalyptic outlook, [ibid, pp. 551ff] spurring us to challenge the domesticated God of rationalists and to take on the Church when it starts sucking up to the empires of this world and their cronies. 

            This is where our impetus for Christian social ministry comes from.  This is the ground of our passion for justice.  This is heart of our confession:  the dwelling of God shall be with humanity.  God is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z, the beginning and the end.  We are not doomed to keep remaking God in our image, imagining that God shares our prejudices and limitations.  No, as the Seer of Revelation promises, we will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on our foreheads, right where we were signed with the cross of Christ Jesus in our baptism.  For cross and resurrection and the struggle for liberation and the victory are all tied together, folks.  And just to make sure you know that in this struggle you don’t have to worry about yourself, hear once more the promise made directly to you:  the Lord God Almighty will be your light, and you shall reign for ever and ever.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013


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