The Revelation to John is written in two scripts. I’m guessing we are more familiar with the first script – the tightly written, what seems to be page after page of paranoid fantasy of malice, something like the letters one might get from the wretched and disturbed.
They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them … Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast … The smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever …. All the birds were gorged with their flesh…. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses … I will throw her on her sick bed … and I will strike her children dead.
This first script has been the quarry for mystics and fanatics alike. Some of our early Anabaptist mothers and fathers loved to draw from this well. That is because the script of paranoia and revengeful fancy is a lot easier for most people to write, and this book has touched deep and diseased places in many psyches, unlocking streams of violence and obscenity and plain madness. It is easy for us to want to completely ignore this script. To wish it was never written. And to be thankful that the Lectionary completely overlooks it so that we never have to waste time reading it aloud when we might have been reading something less troubled and troubling. In fact, we are so afraid of this first script due to all the violence and abuse it still creates among many Christians today that you may be wondering why I’m even taking the time to preach on Revelation at all.
However, hidden throughout the first script, we find glimpses of a second. Hidden transcripts filled with beautiful poetry; liturgical fragments whose words have etched upon the Christian imagination for centuries. In this second script, we hear people singing songs about a transformed future, a world filled with peace and justice, where the nonviolent Lamb rules above all. In this second script, we are reminded again of God’s hope and love, and that a grand reversal is taking place in our midst where God is redeeming all things to God’s kingdom.
I am the first and the last and the living one … Behold, I have set before you an open door … I saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slain. The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes… Alas, alas, for the great city … Behold, I make all things new …. They shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more…. Let him who desires take the water of life without price.
What are we to make of these two seemingly contradictory scripts? How can we claim anything more than just a few fragments as God’s Word? For the entirety of Scripture is the Word we must hear. So what Word from God is there to hear in John’s Revelation?
This is the question I hope to help us answer over the next two weeks as we look to our texts from Revelation. But to help us understand how these seemingly contradictory scripts both might be received as the Word of God, I need to say a few things about apocalyptic literature. Which I know is another word that might make us cringe.
Due to Left Behind, Hal Lindsay, TV preachers, and the like, today we tend to view apocalyptic literature as escapist, it’s about a flight from human experience, a denial of reality. However, that is not how most of the ancient Jews understood and used apocalyptic texts. For them, apocalypse was the discourse of resistance. Apocalypse was the speech of the Jewish oppressed, it was a special type of speech based on their liberation traditions, which sought to struggle with the dominant powers over the appropriation of symbols over how the past and present shall be understood and labeled, and how to identify causes and assess blame. According to biblical scholar, Anathea Portier-Young, the writers of apocalypse all “seek to demonstrate that the truths of the empire are not true, and the subjects of the empire … are not in fact autonomous.” And by offering a new vision that shatters the illusions manufactured by the empire and its supporters, the writers hoped to strengthen the weak, the oppressed, and the persecuted in their resolve to resist its violence and deceit.
When we begin to see apocalypse as the discourse of resistance, then we can perceive why there had to be two scripts actively at work in John’s Revelation. The first script, the one full of violence, madness, and paranoia, this script, for the most part, is the discourse of the oppressors. It is the discourse of Roman empire who reigned and ruled during John’s day. This is the script of the visible world – the world we encounter on a daily basis – the one whose logic we often accept unknowingly because everyone else resists questioning it and simply takes it for granted. The world that reminds us that violence is a necessary part of life, guns are needed for our protection, that accumulating stuff is integral to our happiness, that power is strength, and that death is the end. In this part of Revelation, John is actively trying to expose the violent ways of these temporal powers. John is attempting to disrupt the logic of imperial hegemony and the myths that continue to fuel them.
Much of the book of Revelation is John trying to destabilize the very logic and coherence of social reality structured and governed by the Roman empire. I’m convinced that much of the monstrous, demonic language found throughout the book is simply John exposing the empire’s character. He is bringing to light the destructive ways of the ruling powers. John brings it to light in order to limit, to reject, to oppose this logic so that a radically revised perspective on reality might be embraced. So that an alternative social and political reality centered on God’s heavenly justice and peace might flourish right here, on earth.
This brings us to the second script which we find scattered throughout the book of Revelation. Inspirational interludes which provide glimpses of an alternative reality at work in our world. Mennonite scholar, Loren Johns, is convinced that these fragments found in John’s Revelation are among the earliest hymns of the church. They are meant to be sung in worship, to remind God’s people of the world as God created it and as God will re-create it. For singing lyrics like “The Lamb who is slain is worthy to receive power” is performative proclamation. It redefines the cosmos in a way that provides us with agency to speak truth to power and to persevere in living against the stream when no reward in in sight. It transforms us forward so that we can help bring the future into the present.
All throughout this second script, John attempts to recast the empire’s myths and revalorize their symbols. Because alternative symbol-making introduces other ways of seeing and speaking the real. They open our imagination to a new world. One example can be found in Revelation 5 when John sings about “Jesus, the martyr, the faithful one, who is the ruler of the earthly kings.” John presents us with these signs to give us the strength to persevere and continue living faithfully in the present. So that we can patiently wait and trust in something that we simply cannot see, at least not as vividly as we would like at the moment.
That is what the book of Revelation is ultimately about. John gives his persecuted community a number of signs and symbols which will open their minds to the hidden ways that God is working among them. He is unveiling the sacred reality that is often just beyond us. Through symbols and wild visions, John provides these early Christians with something to help them remain faithful. Something which helps them organize their lives around counter-imagined worlds. Because John knows that if we can imagine a world different from what we see, then we can live differently. And we can create our own discourse that has not simply swallowed the beliefs and truths of our oppressors. Apocalypse is the language of resistance and Revelation is a manifesto for nonviolent revolution.
Our lectionary texts for the next two weeks come from texts belonging to this second script. They come from the very end of John’s revelation, after John has already exposed the monstrous ways of the empire in crude fashion. And in my opinion, John saves the best images and symbols for last. He gives us picture after picture of heaven being made manifest right here on earth.
Our text for today is one of the most beautiful of scriptures, one frequently read at funeral services: “God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” But I’m convinced that our text from John is perhaps more fitting for this Sunday, the one following Earth Day. For this text, more than any other in John, dispels any notion that John’s apocalypse is meant to be escapist, that it was a flight from the world around us. That John is not advocating for a pie-in-the-sky form of Christianity with a utopian vision of the end of all things.
For in verse 2 John tells us: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” One of the most important aspects of John’s vision is that in it, the heavenly city comes down, here, to earth. This is quite different than a number of apocalyptic texts from the first century C.E., where in them, the city remains in heaven and people must be transported there. This is also quite different than another famous city, one from the Old Testament, the city of Babel, which I’ll be preaching about on Pentecost, where the people try to build a tower into heaven so that they no longer have to deal with all the turmoil on earth. John is clear, this city isn’t about leaving this earthly turmoil behind. That is why it comes to us. It comes to make a stamp on our earth, a heavenly impression on our present realities.
And this city, this heavenly civilization has nothing to do with human construction. It’s not something we build as a final solution. It’s not something we vote for, or something we create to leave this earthly turmoil behind. Instead this heavenly city which comes down in Revelation is completely a gift from God; it’s grace. We don’t make it happen. As N.T. Wright explains, this heavenly city on earth has “already been inaugurated through the victory of the sacrificed lamb who is also the Lion.” We simply are called to receive it. And when we do, this world is forever changed.
Like I said, this vision from John might be the most fitting text for Earth Day because it reminds us that God is a materialist. God cares deeply for the material wellbeing of all the earth. And no matter how badly we destroy it, God will not give up on it. In fact, God desires nothing more than for us to help God create space for heaven to be made manifest on earth.
We also see how much God cares for this world through God’s proclamation: “Behold, I am making all things new.” It can be tempting to think of this newness as having nothing to do with the old. To be a completely new creation with little to no relation to what has come before. However, the word used to describe this newness here is important. The word new is not the Greek word neos which means new in time or origin. But instead it is the word kainos, which means new in nature or in quality. As Wes Howard Brook points out, a better translation of this word for us would be renew or restored. For John is not talking about a brand new earth but about a earth where all things, both human and non-human forms of life, are completely restored, so that we all can join together in harmonious unity and display the shalom of God.
And most importantly, this renewal isn’t something set to happen in the far off distant future. John is clear that this redemption is happening, now. It is being made manifest right here on earth, today. For when John talks about seeing the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, John uses the present active participle to describe it. I’m sure Pam can explain her participles better than I can, but the present active participle is one we use when talking about an action taking place currently, and an action that takes place repeatedly. In other words, this is something happening in the present, and it is something which is happening over and over again. The arrival of the new Jerusalem started already in John’s day, and continues into our own. The holy city was always meant to be a symbol to remind us of God’s redemptive work happening all around us, in the present.
Next week, we will be looking a bit closer at the image of the New Jerusalem which John sees and what it means for the church’s theology of salvation and mission. But for now, as we continue to celebrate Earth Day, let us resolve to continue to learn how to read the book of Revelation in the spirit in which John wrote it. Let us not forget that it was meant to be a discourse of resistance, a manifesto of non-violent revolution, which hinges on the belief that God is actively creating a new political and social order on earth, centered around the values of justice and love. God is healing and renewing the world today, and God wants nothing more than for God’s people to join in and help God in this mission.
This is the vision that inspired John, which kept him going day in and day out, while he was all alone in exile. The belief that God is establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is what preoccupied his energy and filled his dreams with hope. May we receive this vision too. May we be fueled by the belief that God is actively restoring creation among us and through us. And may this hope lead us to effective action and help us to see reality just a little bit differently.
God invites us into God’s present,
where the one who makes all things new
has made God’s home among us.
We are called and chosen,
together embraced by the God in whom tears, mourning,
crying, pain and even death will be no more.
Remember this is our story.
Amen & Go in peace