The End of the Book – 5,20,07

For those who like to sneak a peak at the end of a book to see how it turns out, this is the day for you.  The New Testament lesson for this morning includes verses from Revelation chapter 22, the last chapter of the last book of the Bible.  Out of curiosity, I spent some time leafing through the closing pages of some of the books on my shelf this week.  I was wondering if there is a normal way for books to end.  One of my favorite books is Roots by Alex Haley.  Haley traces his family line back to an African village and the birth of his Great,x5 grandfather Kunta Kinte.  Eventually Kunta is kidnapped by slave traders and makes the middle passage to America where he and his descendents are slaves.  Haley tells the story of each generation until he gets up to himself, a man who has had the benefits of education and opportunity.  He ends his book with the funeral of his father.  This is what he says: “The Pine Bluff service over, we took Dad to where he had previously told us he wanted to lie – in the Veterans’ Cemetery in Little Rock.  Following his casket as it was taken to section 16, we stood and watched Dad lowered into grave No. 1429.  Then we whom he had fathered – members of the seventh generation from Kunta Kinte – walked away rapidly, averting our faces from each other, having agreed we wouldn’t cry.  So Dad has joined the others up there.  I feel that they do watch and guide, and I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”                   On a different note, one of the books we like to read to Eve is called the Tooth Book by Dr. Seuss.  This book is short enough that the last part is really the whole second half of the book.  So here’s how it ends, talking about teeth: “You will lose set number one.  And when you do, it’s not much fun.  But then you’ll grow set number two!  32 teeth, and all brand-new.  16 downstairs, and 16 more, upstairs on the upper floor.  And when you get your second set, that’s all the teeth you’ll ever get!  SO…don’t chew down trees like beavers do, If you try you’ll lose set number two!  Don’t gobble junk like Billy Billings.  They say his teeth have fifty fillings!  They sure are handy when you smile, So keep your teeth around awhile.”One of the books I read during seminary was The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  Cardinal Bernardin was the much loved archbishop of Chicago and was known for his compassion and reconciling spirit.  He served 15 years in this role before dying of pancreatic cancer in the mid-90’s.  This book is a personal reflection on his vocation as a priest and his journey with cancer.  These are the closing words of his book: “What I would like to leave behind is a simple prayer, that each of you may find what I have found – God’s special gift to us all: the gift of peace.  When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times.  We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential.  We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us.  And we become instruments in the hands of the Lord.” P. 153.In these three very different books, and in some of the other books I leafed through, there was something common in how they ended.  Each book presented a closing image or a closing thought that the author wanted to leave with the reader.  Not necessarily a summary of the whole writing, but a parting picture meant to linger in the mind.  From Alex Haley, we get a picture of the great cloud of witnesses of his ancestors whom we have come to know throughout the book, and his call to continue telling the stories of the victims of history so that there will be no more victims.  From Dr. Seuss, we get a picture of big mouths full of shining healthy teeth all smiling at each other.  From Cardinal Bernardin, we get an invitation to receive the same gift of peace that he has received, despite his cancer, and become instruments of peace in God’s hands.  Each book leaves us with an enduring image that we are meant to take with us.  If this is a common way for books to end, we will want to notice and take to heart the parting picture that the Bible leaves us with.  When we’ve gone through creation, the fall, the call of Abraham, the calling of Israel, the slavery in Egypt and the deliverance out of Egypt, the desert wonderings, settling in Canaan, fighting with a bunch of neighbors, the kinds, the prophets, the psalms, the exile to Babylon, the return home from Babylon, the continued living under empire, the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the early church, and the letters to the churches…when we have gotten to the end of what our scriptures have to teach us, what image would they like for us to have lingering in our mind?As the last book of the Bible, Revelation is not exactly an easy read.  It begins innocently enough.  Chapter one verse one: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  John is on the island of Patmos, in exile.  During his lifetime the Roman Empire ruled the known world and ruthlessly did all it could to maintain power.  John was one of the lucky ones as many others who had challenged Rome’s authority had been killed, including a number of Christians.  The book takes its name from this opening line, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” Revelation.  Being called revelation, you’d think it would live up to its name and reveal its message quite clearly.  Make known, uncover, make clear as day.  But, alas, this is not the case.  Rather than being a pathway to understanding and a point of agreement for believers, Revelation has a history of causing confusion and bringing about deep rifts within the faith.      The first, and, I believe, most important rule for interpreting the book of Revelation is that we are dealing here with the same Jesus Christ as we see in the gospels.  He has not undergone a personality change.  The book is full of violent images, but he has not suddenly become the Terminator or Rambo.  The revelation of Jesus Christ here is the same revelation of the one who chose to be killed rather than to kill when he faced Rome.  The irony of the cross being a victory is present throughout all of Revelation.  The irony is handed to us in chapter five when John has a vision of a heavenly throne room and a scroll with seven seals that no one can open.  John is weeping because no one can open the scroll.  Verses 5 and 6 then say, “Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep, See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.  Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered.”  The great conquering Lion who holds the keys to history turns out to be a wounded Lamb.  So everything that we think we know about how the world works must be seen through this irony.  Words we thought we understood – words like conquer, vengeance, authority, even death – must all be taken from the Lamb’s perspective.  As was common in ancient apocalyptic literature, the book is filled with dualisms.  There are many allusions to the Roman Empire which it calls the beast, Babylon.  This is contrasted with the kingdom of God and the reign of the Lamb, the one who rules with justice.  To use a modern phrase, the book essentially portrays the battle for hearts and minds between these two entities.  The beast of empire would have all people believe that it is the supreme power.  In c. 13 a voice cries out defiantly, “who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”  It requires worship from all people and promises them safety if they comply.  The followers of the Lamb don’t believe the claims of the beast.  They believe the way of the Lamb will eventually conquer and they refuse to submit to the beast.  The showdown between the beast and the Lamb is not your typical rock-em-sock-em battle scene, although it does use imagery we normally associate with war.  This begins in chapter 19 v. 11.  The Christ is seen as a rider from heaven on a white horse, a symbol of a military leader, but remember the one who entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a caricature of this very image.  It says that he judges and makes war, but remember the one who said he judged no one and the one who made war against blindness, exclusion, and hatred.  His weapon is a typical weapon of war, a sword, but it is coming out of his mouth.  This rider conquers the beast and all who follow the beast with this sword, the spoken word, that has power to persuade and convert.  Revelation is over the top in describing this as a bloody battle scene.  Nobody escapes the edge of this sword.  The kings of the earth who followed the beast are slaughtered, conquered.  The city of Babylon, Rome, the seat of the empire, where the beast ruled, goes up in smoke.  It falls to the ground and is no more.  Taken from a literalist reading, this is one of the most violent events imaginable.  Taken from the perspective of the Lamb, as a revelation of Jesus Christ, this is an ironic portrayal of the eyes of those who were made blind by empire finally being opened to the truth of God – they are conquered by the Lamb.  Eventually the spoken word of the Lamb is more powerful than the war machinery of the beast.  The way of the beast proves to be self-destructive.  For those with eyes to see, the Lamb is the ruler of history. This sets us up for the last scene, the way the book ends.  With the city of the beast crumbling, we are introduced to a new city.  Chapter 21.  “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.  And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  This image is the opposite of how we usually talk about heaven.  Usually people talk about us going to heaven, but here we have heaven coming to us in the form of a beautiful city.  How this happens isn’t clear, but that’s the direction of movement in the closing chapters of Revelation.     John gets a chance to be a tourist in this city.  In verse 10 we are introduced to his tour guide.  “And in the spirit “the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  One of the first things John notices is not a thing at all, but the absence of a thing.  The city has no temple.  The presence of God is all pervasive and there is no central place where God is more honored than in other places.  The river of life shows up in the city, and also the tree of life.  It says that the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Interestingly, John sees the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the city, those same kings that were at the tip of the Lamb’s sword just a little earlier.  This is a city whose gates are never shut.  But its not a city where everyone has yet entered.  There is still an outside.  There are still those who choose not to enter.         Reading Revelation provokes some obvious questions.  When does this happen?  Where does this happen?  It’s a question the disciples also asked Jesus when he described similar things right before he was crucified.  “Tell us, when will all this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  His answer then was that knowing when and where were not the important things to know.  What was important was staying alert and living out the reality of the kingdom of God, the city of God in the present moment.       Maybe surprisingly, the Bible does not have a neat ending where all the tensions are resolved.  It is not as if we are brought to the end of a linear storyline.    We are given a picture of a city whose gates are never shut, but whom not everyone has entered.  We are given a taste of the water of life, even while we still feel thirst within ourselves.  We are given a glimpse inside the imagination of God, even as we struggle to imagine where this is a visible reality in a world where the beast of empire still goes on strong.  What we are given, at the end of the book, is a powerful picture, meant to linger in our minds and make its way into our hearts and actions.  Seeing heaven coming toward us, renewing us, saving us from empire, healing us.  This is the picture we are meant to take with us when we close the book.