Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday's sermon at Highlands

A Myriad of Myriads”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
April 14, 2013

There is no book in the Holy Bible that has been more abused, mistreated, misinterpreted and even desecrated than Revelations. And so when it shows up on the lectionary, I cringe. This week, it showed up and as I cringed…it occurred to me that by cringing I am continuing to abdicate to those who have made a good living by abusing, mistreating, misinterpreting and desecrating the book.

In fairness…the book lends itself easily to those who would torture its meaning. I had a professor in seminary who said the only explanation for the book of Revelations is LSD. Indeed it is a writing filled with near hallucinogenic dreams and visions and symbols. But a deeper look discloses a brilliant writer who had the God-inspired ability to criticize powerful of his day in a way that is timeless. In other words, what the writer had to say about the Roman Empire has been equally true of every imperialistic, militaristic and socially unjust government throughout history.

In a brief sermon…not a lot of interpretation can be accomplished but I am going to try this morning to open the door for reclaiming the book from those who have used it to predict the Apocalypse and identify Barrack Obama as the anti-Christ to those who use it to encourage war in the Middle East to trigger the Second Coming.

The book contains three literary genres: letters, apocalyptic literature, and prophetic writings. It’s not the kind of apocalyptic and prophetic writing that predicts how the world will end…it’s the kind that tells how the world controlled by exploiters and oppressors and war machines should end…if Jesus truly becomes Lord.

Revelations begins with an epistolary address to the reader followed by an apocalyptic description of a complex series of events derived from prophetic visions the author claims to have experienced.

There are appearances of a number of figures and images that have become important in Christianity. The Whore of Babylon and the Beast, and culminate in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The imagery has led to a variety of interpretations. Some have seen in Revelation a broad view of history; others treat Revelation as mostly referring to the events describing the end of times although some believe it refers to the end of the Roman Empire while many others say it predicts how our own world will come to a violent end.

Still others believe that Revelations describes future events; and idealist or symbolic interpretations consider that Revelation does not refer to actual people or events, but is instead an allegory of the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

This is the point at which the misuse of the book gains speed. There are any number of writers and preachers who have used the books metaphors, symbols and allegory to warn their followers that the Second Coming of Christ cannot happen without a massive and violent collision between the forces of evil and the armies of the good.  The choice is between that interpretation and another that reads the metaphorical apocalypse of the Book of Revelation as that battle you and I wage everyday between good and evil, a battle that will only end the day that individual's life comes to an end.

This is an example of how the book is preached by those who see the book as predicting a literal apocalypse. They say the world's darkest period of tribulation and horror will come under the Antichrist. The end will begin, they say, with the brightest dawn as Jesus Christ returns to gather His children to be with Him!

Lights, trumpets, thunder, earthquakes and gigantic meteor showers will all herald this climactic event! God's children who have died throughout the ages will be resurrected in new miraculous bodies, and will burst forth from their graves and ascend to meet Jesus in the air.
144,000 Christians will rise from the earth, floating through ceilings & buildings & cars & up into the clouds to meet the Lord as He snatches His children out of reach of their evil Antichrist persecutors & whisks them away to the grandest, most glorious mansions and streets paved with gold.
And then, back on earth, all hell will break loose shortly after Jesus' 2nd Coming. Down from the sky will come the great hosts of Heaven with Jesus leading the armies of truth to destroy the Antichrist and his one-world empire in the awesome Battle of Armageddon.
This great slaughter of the Antichrist and his armies will take place in and around the valley of Megiddo near Haifa in Israel. It will mark the end of man's cruel rule on earth, as Jesus and His Heavenly forces forcibly take over the World to rule and reign and run it the way it should have been run if man had not disobeyed God and gone his own selfish way! This slaughter, they argue, will usher in a period known as the Millennium, a thousand years of peace and plenty and paradise on Earth.
In other words…these folks believe that in order to save the world, God must first destroy it.
Now…a lot of people have made a lot of money and gotten a lot of mileage off of that version of Revelations. Fear sells. But it apparently never seems odd to them that the God who created us and the God we believe so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…it apparently doesn’t seem odd to these folks that that God would send his son as the commander of a ruthless army to destroy the earth. Likewise, it apparently doesn’t seem odd to them that the God of grace would save only 144,000 of his humans.
That’s a problem…even for Presbyterians. There are 75 million Presbyterians on the planet and 2.5 million Presbyterians in the United States. I don’t know if there will be a quota system or first-come-first-served…but if only 144 thousand make the cut…well…not all of you are going.
There is an alternative view of Revelations. Yes…I think it is clearly a polemic of good vs. evil…but it’s not about an apocalyptic battle with Jesus leading the slaughter…it’s about what we do with our time on earth. It’s not about the Second Coming as much as it is about the first coming and whether or not we learned anything by it.
The writer of the book was actually very clever. He knew what it cost Jesus and John the Baptist to confront Rome and the other powers directly. When John said bluntly that the King was unjust and evil, he lost his head. When Jesus refused to lead an uprising while boldly judging those who ignored the needs of the poor…they hung him.
So the author of Revelation wrote in code. He used symbols to make the same case. Revelations embodies the Bible’s most forceful attack on imperialism, militarism and the concentration of economic power. Its most remarkable symbols are the whore of Babylon, the beast and the dragon. The dragon is understood as Satan. The beast and the whore…it hurts my ears to say that word…they represent the political, military and economic power of Rome at the time or any imperial power of our time.
Revelations is a satirical attack on the idolatry and exploitative nature of Rome…and there are those theologians of the Third World who read it today as a critique of the way in which America uses its political, military and economic power.
But the most powerful symbol of the book is the lamb…the lamb of God…Jesus…who stands in book as a model for our call to challenge the inevitable oppression that comes with the abusive exercise of political, military and economic power.
It’s always an easier choice to read the Bible as being about someone else, about some other time about how to get to heaven and who gets to go.

It’s much harder, much more challenging, much more confrontational to read the Bible as being about us, about doing now what God asks, about confronting injustice and evil, and about the here and now rather than the hereafter.

The Book of Revelations, like most of the Bible, is trying to get through to us that if we focus only on what happens to us after we die, our preoccupation with death prevents us from living life abundantly…but that if we focus on doing what God calls us to do now, treating one another and all of God’s creation with justice and generosity while we are alive…what happens when we die will take care of itself.

Then, as Revelations says, we will look, and hear the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they will number myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then we’ll hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And all living creatures shall say, “Amen!”

1 comment:

  1. Rev. 2-3 reveal that most (5) of the 7 churches need to repent, because they are too comfortable with the false prophets who tolerate and benefit from the power and wealth of the Roman Empire. Thus Revelation could challenge many of our churches likewise in the American Empire, who tolerate and benefit from both the violent power of our military throughout the world as well as the greedy corporations that produce luxury for the few at the expense of the many poor in the world. Revelation tries to reveal the reality of such powers by portraying them as "beasts" and "harlots."