Texts: Revelation 1:1-3,9-16; 4:1-8; 19:6-10
There’s a great irony at the beginning of Revelation. The first word of this book, the very first word, is the word we translate as “revelation.” To reveal, to disclose, make known. It begins, “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.” The irony is that what follows, this grand making known, this revelation, is one of the most confusing, confounding, convoluted, pieces of literature ever.
Or so it seems to us.
The very book that bears that name ‘revelation’ appears to us as anything but, and has proved most dangerous in the hands of those who believe they know exactly what it has revealed.
We need look no further than our own Anabaptist tradition to see what kind of religious fervor Revelation has inspired. In the 1530’s, still the early days of the Protestant Reformation, the city of Munster in Northwest Germany was taken over by radical Anabaptists seeking to establish “The New Jerusalem” referenced in Revelation 21. This initially included sharing their goods in common, like the early church, but led to tyrannical rule by several leaders and violent armed resistance against anyone who challenged them. The Munsterite Anabaptists were soon crushed and their tortured bodies publicly displayed in cages. The human remains are gone, but the cages still hang in the streets of Munster to this day. Some of you have seen them.
Claas Epp was another Revelation-inspired Anabaptist, producing one of the most bizarre and tragic episodes of Mennonite history. In 1870 when the Russian government no longer granted Mennonites special privileges, such as military exemption, many emigrated West to the US and Canada. But Claas Epp cited Revelation chapter 3, which includes the letter to the church of Philadelphia, which talks about the church having an “open door.” He believed that an open door lay ahead of them to the East to escape the tribulation at the end of the age. Guided by a mix of personal visions and interpretations of Revelation, Epp and his followers embarked on what has been called The Great Trek, into the wilderness of Turkestan, where they planned to inaugurate the Millenium and greet the Lord returning to earth. A leader who opposed Epp was dubbed as the Red Dragon of Revelation. That leader’s expulsion from the church became an annual celebration. After missing the date of Christ’s return twice, Epp kept claiming new visions and named himself as the fourth person of the Trinity. He was eventually excommunicated by the small remnant who had stayed with him over the years.
Incidentally, someone has created a Facebook profile for Claas Epp, and you can join the other 276 of us who are his friends. Claas had his 177th birthday in September and someone posted on his wall: “Happy birthday! New visions?”
More recently popular fictional books like the Left Behind series portray near future world events within the symbolism of Revelation. As a few members of our Worship Commission can testify about their own childhood, Revelation has also served to generally scare the daylights out of kids who lie in bed praying they won’t wake up and discover the empty bed of their parents raptured in the middle of the night, leaving them behind.
All of this and more led to us naming Revelation as one of the Bible’s difficult passages when we did the survey last summer. You know it’s a difficult passage when it’s not just a few verses but a whole book. At one point the reformer Martin Luther felt Revelation shouldn’t be in the Bible at all.
We have one month, just four 60-75 minute worship services to live with the book of Revelation. With the sermons, I aim to neither name and disprove all the poor interpretations of Revelation, nor defend Revelation as a perfect book, flawed only by our own misunderstanding. What I do hope we can do together is to breathe new life into this troubling and tantalizing book which comes to us as the final book of the Bible. And more importantly, I hope that the Spirit can breathe more and more life into us through this worship series, and that we might even see the world and our place in it in a new way as a result.
So at the outset, I want to name two orienting points for approaching Revelation. Not three, not four, just two notes of orientation, then we’ll get on with it.
The first is to remember that Revelation claims itself as a Revelation of Jesus Christ. So, any interpretation of it ought to be in line with what we know of Jesus. In other words, an understanding of Revelation that presents a different picture of Jesus than the one we see in the gospels, is going to get us in trouble. Revelation ought to be something of a fifth gospel, albeit a unique one.
About two years ago, Saturday Night Live had a piece which played off the incredibly violent Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. The SNL folks made a trailer for a fake movie called DJesus Uncrossed in which Jesus comes back, still in his recognizable robe and crown of thorns, only now as a sword waving and gun toting vengeful Messiah going after all the people who did him wrong in life. There’s never a mention of Revelation, but it presents some pointed satire for taking some of the violent imagery of Revelation too literally, or what happens when the Jesus of Revelation gets separated from the Jesus of the gospels. I re-discovered that clip the day before the shootings on the Oregon campus this past week, which suddenly made it more sobering than funny.
We trace our spiritual lineage through a teacher by the name of Menno Simons who came to prominence by speaking out against the violence of the Anabaptists of Munster, forming new church communities around the nonviolent teachings of Jesus. We still regularly sing a song whose words come from Menno himself, “We are people of God’s peace” HWB 407.
So that’s a first point. Revelation and the gospels have to be a part of the same story.
A second orienting point for Revelation is that it was written as a letter addressed to existing churches during the second half of the first century Roman world. These seven churches are named in chapters two and three of Revelation, Philadelphia with the “open door” being one of them, and they were real congregations with real people dealing with real challenges in their setting. Revelation is a poetic and pastoral word to these congregations, who were struggling to live the Jesus way under the violent rule of emperors like Nero and Domitian, who commanded god-like worship from their subjects.
Much of the enigmatic imagery of Revelation would have been quite clear to these congregations. For example: Part of the Emperor Domitian’s propaganda efforts included issuing a coin stamped with an image of the divine emperor seated on a globe surrounded by seven stars. The message was clear: Who runs world? I run the world. So when John describes his initial vision of the Christ as one who is holding seven stars in his right hand and has a sword coming out of his mouth, these congregations would have gotten the message. Who runs the world? A self-aggrandizing emperor, who rules the world with violence? Or the nonviolent Christ, whose power comes from the spoken word?
This puts Revelation both at a distance from us, and very near. John was not writing to 21st century North American Christians. He draws from a symbolic universe quite foreign to us. But he is addressing congregations. Revelation is intended to be read and discerned by groups of people seeking to live the Jesus way in a violent world. Are we followers of the Lamb who conquers the world with redeeming love and the sword of his mouth, or are we followers of the Beast who conquers the world with propaganda and domination? Surface conditions have changed in our context, but many underlying dynamics remain intact. It is a pastoral word, and it hits close to home.
So two points of orientation: We will approach Revelation as something of a fifth gospel, a making known of the same Christ who gave us the Sermon on the Mount and who decided to relate to his enemies not by killing but by dying. And we will approach Revelation as a pastoral word that both isn’t and is addressed to us.
So if Revelation is indeed a revelation, what does it reveal? That’s a live question we can live with this month, but we can make the initial observation that throughout the Revelation, John the pastor, the poet, the prophet is telling his people what he is seeing and what he is hearing. At just about every turn, John says, “I heard.” “I looked.” “I saw.”
“I heard a voice like a trumpet.” (1:10)
“ I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like a human being.” (1:12-13)
“I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open.” (4:1)
“I heard the voice of many angels surround the throne and the living creatures and the elders.” (5:11)
“I saw a beast rising out of the sea.” (13:1)
“I looked and there was a great multitude no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (7:9)
“Then I saw a new heaven, and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (21:1)
John is hearing and seeing things not evident to the physical ear and eye. He is peeling back the thin veneer of appearances, and speaking about a depth dimension of reality to which we rarely give our sustained attention. He is daring to speak of almost unspeakable things, things we can never claim to fully know or understand, things he plainly states he does not understand, things which baffle the mind and lead us to the edge of language.
Revelation is condensing time into one vast panorama, reaching beyond the bounds of time altogether.
It is prying off the mask of the empire, which tells you every day that it’s your friend, that it’s here to help you. But the revelation is telling you, showing you in 3D high definition color, that the empire is a beast bent on destruction, chewing up lives for no other purpose than to prolong its own existence, to extend its own reach one more measure.
You didn’t even know it held you under its sway until you were shown a glimpse of a world where it has no power. And John looks, and he sees that world, he sees the Lamb who creates such a world, The New Jerusalem, he calls it, a holy city, occupying the same space claimed by the empire. It’s coming, John tells you. It’s coming down from the heavens. It’s already here, the angels and elders and the saints are proclaiming. The kingdom of our God has become the kingdom of this world, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15). Hallelujah, hallelujah. And someone will write a song with those lyrics that will now stick in your head the rest of the day. Can you hear it? Can you see that? If you look, if you peer just below the surface, can you start to glimpse the revelation? The old world is crumbling. The new world is already on its way into existence, taking form in front of your eyes. If you can see it.
On this World Communion Sunday people from every tribe and nation and language are gathering around a simple table. They will share a loaf of bread and a cup of wine. They will proclaim that the bread and the cup are beckoning in the new creation that they themselves are a part of. Around this table they will proclaim their allegiance to the way of the Christ, who rules with grace and who conquers with peace. Around this table all are equally lost and equally found. Around this table there is an economics of sharing, and there is enough for everyone. The bread is the body and wine is the blood, and we are becoming the body of Christ. If you listen closely, can you hear it? If you look, can you see it?
Response Reflection: Becca Lachman
A few years ago, Michael and I were traveling in New England and arranged to stay a couple of nights with an artist colony in northern Maine called the Beehive Collective. Basically, the Beehive Collective is a group of visual artists and joyful environmental activists who live in intentional community and create expansive drawings—when I say expansive, they tour the country with drawings magnified and inked onto sheets of cloth that can cover a school auditorium. They want us to learn about a familiar story, to see it differently, by walking on and in the world they’ve created. Their collaborative story drawings take upwards of 9 years to complete and have titles like “The True Cost of Coal” and “Plan Colombia” about the US-funded War on Drugs. These are huge and often polarizing issues. But “the bees”—as they call themselves—break down complex issues and invite a more diverse audience by eliminating the use of words and instead, letting animals and plant life tell the stories. Imagine: a world with no humans, and yet evidence of our actions and lives everywhere.
Artists—no matter what kind or what medium they work in—recycle stories and themes, making them new. When I first saw the bees’ work, I thought of the book of Revelations and the strange and glorious witness of “blood and thunder,” as my husband Michael puts it. How can we invite Jesus’s version of justice and truth into our lives and it not be terrifying and overwhelming at times? What needs to crumble or tear in order for us to better realize the gift of God’s wonder in every face that doesn’t look like ours, or in the natural world that God created—and is creating?
There are days when I listen to the news or observe humanity around me, and I’ll be honest: I throw up my hands and only a bit tongue-in-cheek invite Armageddon to just come down and put us out of our misery! For me, that’s when artists step in and say “Wait. The story is changing, this isn’t finished yet.” Sometimes a song, book, film, or painting is enough for me to take another step forward, to start another day. Our world is crying out in very real scenes of destruction and terror that call for us to open our eyes and unplug our ears, though its seems like we rarely do. In this same world, artists create something new, offering up their quiet and sometimes bold revelations—to me, this is the ultimate act of hope and courage.
The Beehive Collective describes their art-making tours as “cross-pollinating”—in other words, that it takes person-to-person interaction to start making a lasting impact. If we could each bring in a cloth the size of this room depicting the ongoing story of God’s voice throughout our lives, if we could walk through those stories together, what would they reveal? And I wonder, could we ever be the same?