5th Sunday of Easter — 28 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
Acts 11:1-18 | Psalm 148 | Revelation 21:1-6 | John 13:31-35
"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.”
Some preachers love to preach on the Book of Revelation. They are not usually Episcopalians. Other preachers never preach on the Book of Revelation. There are lots of Episcopalians among them! I don’t preach on the Book of Revelation very often myself! But we’ve been hearing a few passages from Revelation in this Easter Season of Year C. This is about the only time in three years that we read from Revelation at the Sunday Eucharist, and, I might note, we hear a rather narrow selection, mostly hymns of praise offered before the throne of God in heaven. Which is fine, although as I expect many of you realize, that leaves out a whole lot of stuff, especially the violent and gory stuff. Though we might keep in mind that the passages we do hear this Eastertide, and especially today, next Sunday, and the Sunday after, really are what this book is all about! I don’t know whether others have talked about the Book of Revelation this season, but I thought I would say something about it!
A popular phrase these days—a devastatingly accusatory, condemnatory phrase—is “You just don’t get it!” You young people – how many of you have ever thought in regard to your parents, and if you’re kind of sassy maybe even said out loud, “You just don’t get it!” And parents – how many times have you told your kids, when they are resisting your parental wisdom, “You just don’t get it!” The truth is, most of us, about a lot of things much of the time, and about a few things most of the time, “just don’t get it!” High on the “just don’t get it” list, you will probably not be surprised to hear, is the Bible. But we need to realize that those who “just don’t get” the Bible are not just “those other folks” of denominational traditions other than our own (I won’t name names!), but we also! It doesn’t take a lot of study of Church history to realize that in regard to the Bible, much of the Church, throughout the centuries and around the world, “just didn’t get it.” But that’s another very long sermon for another time.
The Book of the Revelation to John may well lead the whole Bible on the “just don’t get it” list. And at this point perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well, I guess I must be one of those who just don’t get it, because I have no idea what the Book of Revelation is all about!” It’s okay, you are in good company!
Let’s admit that the Book of Revelation is hard for us. In some respects it’s probably the hardest book in the Bible. But actually, it isn’t so much that it’s hard (like a textbook in quantum physics is hard, especially if like me you don’t count physics and math among your strongest subjects) as that it’s alien. It’s foreign to us. (Actually, quantum physics is not only hard, it’s also alien!) The rhetoric of the Revelation is very different from anything we normally encounter. However, it was quite familiar to first-century Jews and to Jewish Christians and to the Gentile Christians who had a substantial exposure to the Old Testament and other Jewish religious literature. The Book of Revelation is steeped in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel, and all that gang, as well as a number of late second-temple Jewish writings that the rabbis excluded from the canonical Tanakh. If we were Christians, particularly Jewish Christians, in Asia Minor in the last decade of the first century, John’s Revelation would probably be fairly clear to us. But we aren’t, and so it isn’t. The problem is not so much the text itself, but the fact that we are so far removed from its cultural context, by which I mean both its literary genre and its social and political historical setting.
The Book of Revelation is an account of visionary experience, akin to the language of dreams. Thus we are in a realm of highly symbolic discourse. Part of our difficulty with this is that we are not familiar with the apocalyptic symbol system which the Revelation and other writings of this genre take for granted. Another part of our difficulty is that our post-enlightenment, rationalist, technological, left-brained culture tends to have problems with symbolism or metaphor of any sort. We just don’t get it.
But in any case, we need to understand that the symbolics of the Revelation are not cold hard ciphers, where this translates to this and that translates to that, and once you figure out the key the meaning is unambiguous. On the contrary, the symbolic imagery is intended to be evocative, to call the reader or hearer into a dialogue with the text at an imaginative, creative, poetic level where mood is more important than concept, the affective more than the cognitive, and meaning is multivalent, multi-layered. I am reminded somewhat of dream sequences in movies, which give important insights into what’s going on in the character development or the plot of the drama, but which are not meant to depict literal reality. (An example that comes to mind is the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, about an old professor reflecting back on this life. I first saw it when I was a college student, pretty much into my head, and I didn’t get it at all. Thirty years later I found the film a much more profoundly moving experience, and even more so two days ago when I watched it yet again.) (While I was at it, thinking about the Book of Revelation and Ingmar Bergman, I also watched The Seventh Seal again, which explicitly draws on Revelation. But that’s another path that I won’t go down right now!) What I am suggesting is that the Revelation to John is the New Testament’s great final dream sequence.
The other thing to keep in mind is what’s going on in the lives of these Christians in Asia Minor at the end of the first century of the Christian era. What the Revelation is finally about is faith in the ultimate victory of the Rule of God despite the present tribulations and persecutions which the Christian community is suffering. Some of the visionary imagery about the struggle against the godless Roman Empire is pretty wild and woolly stuff. A lot of the imagery about pagan empires reflects similar concerns from about 250 years earlier in the Book of Daniel. But the final assurance is that God, and God’s Son and Messiah the Lamb – will in the end triumph. So hang on! “The one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
And this is all still true. This is all still valid for us. The big difference, I think, is that we see the world – still God’s world, but God’s world as we see it and live in it – in a very different way, and with very different imagery. For most Christians throughout history, and for many people still today, the world we live in was thought to be only a few thousand years old. And thus the idea of this world coming to its final conclusion sometime soon was not all that far out. And I suppose we do have to grant the possibility that God could end the world this afternoon. But it does seem to me that this would be out of character for the God we have come to know. God has been about the creation and sustaining of this universe for, at last count, 13.8-and-change billion years, which leads me to suspect that God works on a very long timeline! So for us, to think and talk about the ultimate destiny of the world requires new and different imagery, which I’m not sure we have yet conceived.
But the basic point of all this, and of the Book of the Revelation to John, is still true. Ultimately the Rule of God will triumph, and we will share in that victory. We do not know, we cannot know, exactly or even approximately what the new heaven and new earth will be like, and the question of “when” is effectively off the table. But we are called to believe and trust that in the end God will indeed make all things new.