I’m glad to have gotten the chance to preach at New Creation Fellowship Church this past week. This sermon is part of a series on “puzzling passages”–Scriptures that members of the congregation shared concern, vex, frustrate, confound, or confuse them. The readings are short: Revelation 7:9 and Revelation 21:4.
We began with a drawing exercise. I encourage you to join in as you read!
We will begin with an opening exercise. If you don’t have a marker and paper with you, please grab one from the back of the room.
Our service today focuses on the book of Revelation, though you probably noticed that our readings were quite short. As we begin, I want to recognize that this can be a frightening conversation. Many of us have have had quite negative experiences with this text, and we should know that we’re not alone. Martin Luther had fairly ambivalent feelings about it. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli rejected it entirely. It’s the one book of the Bible the great Protestant theologian John Calvin didn’t write about. This is the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism, and we’re celebrating that tradition by writing an Anabaptist Bible–and, truly, I have no idea what our Anabaptist writers are going to say about Revelation. Today, not all Eastern churches accept it, and it appears nowhere at all in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy–that is, it’s never read in the Eastern Orthodox Church service. The great thinkers of early Christianity very much disputed whether it belonged in the Bible. So if you are ambivalent about it, you are not alone!
We will treat our experiences with this text gently and also with some humor. Here, I’ll cite the rhetoric scholar Kenneth Burke, who argues that humor allows us to change our minds–and allows us to see others not as permanently wrong but as temporarily off-track. When we treat ourselves with humor and others with humor, we lessen the tension, create some slack. And when there is slack, there is space for a change in direction.
Let’s begin with an exercise:
I’m going to describe a monster that I was very afraid of as a child. As I describe the monster, you draw what I describe. Okay?
We lived in the woods when I was a child, and this monster lived in the woods, too. My bedroom window looked directly into the trees, which were thick and always cast a shadow. That is where the monster lived, right out back, right outside my window.
The monster had a small head on a much larger body.
The monster had yellow teeth and a sharp face.
The monster had long, thin legs.
The monster could fly.
The monster had long, sharp talons.
The monster had small, emotionless eyes. The monster’s eyes never showed remorse at all. The monster did not care if you were scared of it.
The monster had a red flame on top of its head, rising up from the crown of its head.
Okay, turn your paper over so your neighbor can’t see it. And if you’d like to keep doodling during the service, feel free!
We’ll come back to your drawings in a bit.
I mentioned already that this service touches on a tender topic for some of us. In fact, that is the reason why we’re doing it. This summer, the Worship Serving Unit, which I’m a part of, solicited ideas from the congregation about scriptures that you struggled with–what we’re calling “puzzling passages.” After the series started, I was approached by someone who asked if we were going to have a teaching about Revelation.
“No one suggested it,” I said.
“I’ve never read it,” they said, “because I’m too scared.”
The fear, it turned out, was because of a film they’d watched as a teenager, as part of youth group, about the End Times.
Within a week, another person at church asked me a very similar question. Would we be talking about Revelation? Because, you see, that had seen this film. In youth group.
And then, I shared with a friend who is not part of this congregation what we are doing, and he asked,”Well, what about Revelation? Because I saw this film when I was in youth group…”
And you know what was most remarkable?
They were all people of different generations. They were not in youth group at the same time. They were not talking about the same films.
That’s how inundated with messages about the end of the world that we are–that in the lives of three very different people, particular messages about the end of the world were being taught.
If you were in youth group in 2014, you might have seen the big screen adaption of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkin’s Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage.
But if you were in youth group in 2000, you might have seen a film version of an adaption of the same book starring former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron.
Or maybe, before that, you read the book Left Behind.
Or the other books in the 16-book series.
Or the graphic novels.
Or the children’s adaptation.
Or maybe you heard the sermon series by Tim LaHaye that explains the Biblical justification for the book. It’s 12 sermons long.
Or maybe you played the Left Behind board game.
In fact, if you made it through the 1990s and 2000s without running into some Left Behind merchandise… well, maybe you were living in a bunker waiting for the end of the world to start.
But this wasn’t our first taste of apocalypticism in pop culture. Before there was Left Behind, there was Orson Welles’ narrating a film version of The Late Great Planet Earth. Welles’ version was the second interpretation of it, as there had earlier been a two part television documentary about Hal Lindsey’s book.
The Late Great Planet Earth was one of three books that Hal Lindsey wrote about the end of the world. the others being the terrifyingly titled Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth and the 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. Lindsey’s books were bestsellers, and The Late Great Planet Earth was the #1 bestselling nonfiction book of the decade. Not Christian no overall. It’s hard to overstate, if you weren’t there, how ubiquitous his ideas were.
Lindsey made the argument that contemporary geopolitics are at work to fulfill Biblical prophecy. He included maps, showing us exactly what would happen next. Russia, Iran, and Israel are particularly important actors in his understanding of the future of the end of the world. But more than any one detail about what would happen next–though that certainly worried a lot of people–was the idea that we could find in the Bible precise predictions, ones that could literally be mapped.
And these were ones that we might need to be afraid of, especially if we weren’t Christians. In this version of the End of the World, Christians would be taken up to heaven suddenly. Some people bragged about this on their bumper stickers–”In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.”
And others of us lived in fear of it. Every time we came home and our parents were unexpectedly not there, we worried about it. We’d wake up and creep into our parents’ bedrooms, just to make sure that they were still there. How awful, after all, to be “left behind”!
For the moment when this kind of thinking really became popular in the US, popular outside of fundamentalist Protestant churches, we have to go back farther, to John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Bible.
Darby was born in the 1800s and lived most of the 19th century. He created a system of thinking about Biblical time that is called dispensationalism, but even if you don’t know that term, you might be familiar with that way of thinking because it quickly became popular–so popular that it eventually displaced other ways of thinking about Biblical time among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. It was how American preacher and theologian Cyrus Scofield organized his famous study Bible, a Bible full of annotations that promoted this kind of view of the world.
Dispensationalism says that time is organized into different eras, or dispensations, and that God interacts with us differently during each. I’ve included here an image from a dispensationalist curriculum, and you can see on the timeline that the story begins with Creation. A new dispensation occurs with the dismissal of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, then another with Noah’s landing of the ark.
So things are moving quickly at the start! We get through the first few dispensations while still in the book of Genesis. But then things slow. You’ll see that the second-to-last image is of Jesus on the cross, which starts the Age of Grace. And, according to dispensationalism, the last age has yet to come.
In this view, we are living, in this Biblical timeline, sometime between the Resurrection of Jesus and the end of the world. Between, we might say, the book of Jude and the book of Revelation.
John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins–all these writers were promoting an understanding of the book of Revelation that is futurist. That is, that what is described in some prophetic books of the Bible will happen in the future.
For many Christians, especially in the US, the futurist view so common that we don’t even know that there are other ones. And we especially don’t know that a futurist view is one that was rejected by the early church. In fact, as late as the 1700s, theologians who adopted this perspective were censured.
It was really only in the 1800s that it took off.
I want to pause now and say that if a futurist understanding of Revelation brings you comfort or does some other good work in your life, I am not taking it away from you.
However, I am letting you know that it’s not the only approach to understanding this part of the Bible, and it is not historically part of Christianity. It’s not an ancient tradition, and if you have wanted to let it go from your life, that can be enough of a reason to do so. It has not been tested by time or carefully discerned by communities. It’s as popular as it is because it sells books and movies.
So, what other ways of seeing this book are available to us as Christians?
Let’s go briefly back into history.
We don’t know the author of Revelation, exactly, but he calls himself John. We don’t think it’s John who walked with Jesus. We call this John John the Revelator, as we sang today, or John the Theologian or John of Patmos, because that is where he wrote from after being exiled there.
He was Jewish and a Greek speaker. Revelation is named after the Greek word for “revelation,” which is how he describes his own writing. It’s a letter to seven churches in Asia minor. And it is full of amazing, terrifying descriptions.
Let’s look at some artwork inspired by it.
These are nightmarish images–great for graphic novels and blockbuster movies!
Futurists, those who view Revelation as a prediction of the future, look at these images and say, This is the inevitable future.
Saints collecting their robes.
Horsemen ushering in plagues and death.
Cosmic battle scenes.
But this is not the only way–or, as I said, even the historic way–of understanding the dreams John describes.
Another way–one more popular historically–was that John of Patmos was writing for his moment. He wasn’t describing a far-off time in the future but a present situation.
I think that makes more sense.
Here is why:
First, John calls what he shares a revelation. You cannot reveal something that is not already in existence. John is not looking into a crystal ball. He is instead showing his readers something that already exists but that they cannot yet see. Think about it this way: in a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie mystery, when the murderer is revealed, there has to be a murderer to reveal. We can’t pull back the curtain to reveal… nothing. So he must be talking about something that has happened.
Second, John the Revelator is a prophet. Prophets in the Bible don’t predict events thousands of years in the future. They do two things:
- They identify sin, which is oppression, and call out the oppressors, warning them.
- They comfort those who live in oppression and give them a vision of a more just future.
There is no reason to think that John would have understood his prophetic work to be all that different.
Revelation is full of allusions to other Biblical books. John of Patmos is well versed in the Jewish literature, and he references the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, a lot. As a Jew, he did not think of them as writing about a far distant future, and he wouldn’t have seen himself doing that either. And he definitely thought about himself as a prophet–in fact, the word is mentioned in Revelation more than any other time in the Bible.
In other words, it’s because John is a prophet that he is not speaking about a time thousands of years from his own moment. He would have understood that prophets speak of the moment they are in. They do so with insight, synthesizing information that others might not be paying attention to. They scan the horizon and see just on the edge of their society a truth that is emerging. They see connections that others actively try to deny. They speak truth when it is hard to say and hard to hear.
It would not have been hard for John to predict a future 2000 years from his own moment. No one would have been threatened by that. A man doesn’t get exiled to a remote island because he suggests that, in thousands of years, the empire will fall.
So his historical context–how others treated him–also tells us that he was speaking to his moment.
All of this matters, I think, because it means that we don’t have to be afraid of the future. We’re not trapped between the early church and the end of the world.
It also matters because when we live like we are, we make poor choices. If the world is ending, why bother to address climate change? If it’s warfare in Russia that will usher in the next stage of history, why discourage it?
Let’s look quickly at an example from today.
The Rapture Ready Index is an online guide for futurist Christians concerned about how fast we’re heading toward the Apocalypse. The website is clear that it doesn’t promote date-setting. Instead, it observes categories of world events–climate, catastrophe, economic, social, political, religious–and assigns a value to each category. It combines these values in a formula and generates a number–the Rapture Ready Index–that tells us whether we’re moving quickly or slowly toward the end. Its authors call it a “prophetic speedometer.”
And the categories of things that go into the index tell you a lot about what this kind of Christian is paying attention to:
- Floods–like the ones in Pakistan and Puerto Rico right now.
- Food Supply.
- Oil and Gas.
Those last three have Rapture Ready observers nervous right now!
Some of these, we’d surely all agree are bad. Some, though, are things we’d likely think are good, like ecumenicism, cooperation across religious lines.
Others are overtly partisan in their politics, and some have hidden elements of anti-Semitism in them.
You might not be a Rapture Ready observer–and I don’t really recommend it–but you still live in a world where others are. Or if it’s not Rapture Ready, it’s this style of thinking–which influences voting and policy.
This matters because, even if contemporary geopolitics are not laid out in the book of Revelation–and I don’t think they are–when we act as if they are, we may, in fact, bring about the Earth’s destruction. And in studies of why conservative Christias resist acting in the face of scientific evidence that we are hurting the earth and each other through some of our habits, this is exactly what we hear: All this war, plagues, and destruction is part of God’s plan.
That’s why we need prophetic voices: to say no to a status quo bolstered by a narrow understanding of Revelation that, at its heart, seeks to take from us our power to change the world.
When what we are told about Revelation is that it describes a terrifying future–one where unbelievers–that is, people who don’t believe in this narrow view of the end of the world–are cast into hell forever–we lose our own power to change the world.
I will ask some questions, though we won’t answer them here: Who benefits when we are too scared to act? Who benefits when we decide that the world is supposed to be evil? When nuclear arms are supposed to proliferate and the Middle East is supposed to be in turmoil?
And what is threatened when we reject that? When we decide that we want to be like John of Patmos, and speak prophetically about injustice and oppression?
Timothy tells us that we should not have a spirit of fear but one of love and discernment.
I encourage you to reject a spirit of fear and adopt one of love and discernment, which helps us find our prophetic voices. And we can each do that right where we are.
You do it when you are a teacher and you recognize a problem in the life of a student before the student voices it. When you have a hunch and are perhaps processing information through your senses faster than you can process it cognitively. This isn’t a magical gift but a practice–a practice of paying attention.
You do it when you see a teenager in your neighborhood on the verge of falling into trouble and you intervene.
A community does it when they see their demographics changing and know that they will soon need to publish materials in a new language–and also manage the potential backlash to that decision.
You do it when you observe patterns in human behavior and make predictions based on what you know. These are not wild guesses but knowledgeable insights based on previous observations.
Prophecy is paying attention to injustice and speaking up about it quickly and clearly. We can all do it.
It’s time to share our drawings. [In the service, we counted “1-2-3” and held up our drawings for others to see. Here are some from the congregation:
And here is a photo of the actual monster:
We can laugh–I said at the start of this sermon that we would!–but, as a child, I was terrified of chickens. We had a large coop in our backyard–so large, you had to enter it through a regular-size door, and reach into the nesting boxes. I hated it. I was terrified of the chickens.
That was bad enough, but the worst part was that my younger brother and sister knew it.
Now, usually, when I talk about someone in a sermon, I clear it with them first, but in this case, I’m going to paraphrase the writer Anne Lamott and say, “ If they wanted me to preach warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
But my younger brother and sister did not behave better: they used this knowledge against me. They would pick up a chicken and shove it right in my face. They would adopt a “chicken voice” and say “I’m going to peck your eyes out.” And what could I do? I’d cover my eyes and try to run away, but, like I said, we lived in the woods, so I was running into trees, trying to escape from the threat that our backyard hens would peck my eyes out.
Now, had I thought about it rationally, I would see that this was very unlikely. I knew a lot of people with chickens, and none had ever lost an eye. And my brother and sister had just picked up the chickens and didn’t get pecked, either.
But there I was, not just scared but humiliated.
And giving up my power.
Because, you see, I was the oldest. That meant I was in charge when a child needed to be. They had to listen to me. Had to do what I said.
Except that all that authority disappeared when they picked up a chicken and threatened me with it.
Being afraid gave them that power over me.
I think it is sometimes the same way for the Bible: when we are afraid of parts of it, like is common for Revelation, we give our power away. We give our ability to be prophetic against the injustice of our moment away.
My hope for you is that you take it back, with love and with discernment.
Be encouraged this week, friends, as Timothy says, not to have a spirit of fear but a spirit of love and sound mind. May you experience the hand of our great comforter wiping away every tear from your eye. May you be a peacemaker for those with troubled hearts and a troublemaker for those at peace with the status quo May the God of peace and the God of prophecy guide you as raise a loud and honest voice to declare God’s love for God’s world.