This past Sunday Drew preached on Revelation 7:9-17, with his sermon titled “I Could Use a Little Apocalypse Right Now.” Our hearts and prayers are with people in Boston, West, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It’s been a hard week for all of us. Our need for God is deeper now than ever.
I Could Use A Little Apocalypse Right Now
A Bible professor was teaching an intro course on the Bible. On the first day of class, the professor began with Genesis “Who ate the apple in the garden of Eden?” “Eve,” said several voices in the room. The professor waited for a moment. Someone added, “Well, Adam ate it too, after Eve gave it to him.” Finally, the professor spoke up again. “The answer is no one. There is no apple in the garden of Eden.” When the students looked puzzled, she explained. “The Bible doesn’t mention an apple, it just says fruit. It was Milton who made it an apple. In the story as it’s written, the fruit is a fruit and the snake is a snake. But over the years this story, like many of the stories in the Bible, has acquired a lot of baggage. As we study the Bible, we have to be careful to read only what the Bible says, and not add into it what John Milton or Dante or Mel Gibson had to say.”
Rarely is that warning more apt than when we study the book of Revelation. From Albrecht Durer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Left Behind series, Revelation has enough baggage to fill an airplane or two. People talk like it’s a calendar of events for the end of the world, they invoke things like the Rapture (which is never referred to in Revelation), they treat it like a cross between an action movie and an almanac. But it is none of those things.
So what is the Book of Revelation? It is a letter. It is an apocalypse. And it is a word of hope. Let’s begin with the letter part.
The Book of Revelation is a pastoral letter written from John of Patmos (not the disciple John, and also probably not the author of the Fourth Gospel) to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), intended to encourage them to keep the faith. People from those churches would probably have been surprised to hear the way people talk about it now, as a blueprint to the end of the world, since they knew that it had very much to do with their lives and their problems in 95 AD.
So what was going on in these churches and why did John write this letter to them? The traditional story has been persecution, but this is only part true. There wasn’t really an organized persecution of Christians at that time. In fact, Christians were only persecuted if they made a big deal out of it. But here’s the thing. Christians weren’t really making a big deal out of it. In order to keep themselves out of trouble, and keep from being ostracized from their business contacts and lose their jobs or even their lives, they just kept their heads down and worshipped the pantheon when they had to.
Imagine this scenario. You just moved to a new city and started a new job, and one day your boss says, “Hey, I need you to come with me for a dinner meeting after work tonight to help me schmooze this big client. I’ll give you a ride.” Only when you pull up to the place you realize you’re at a strip club. What do you do? Do you make a big scene and risk losing the client and maybe your job, too? Or do you think about how your kids are just getting settled in their new school, and keep quiet and act like you’re having a good time so that you don’t destroy everything you’ve worked for over one little party.
That’s what was going on in some of the churches in Asia. A lot of jobs and positions and relationships were dependent upon worship of the local and state gods. And Christians were worshipping those gods when the situation demanded, because they were more afraid of the repercussions of being known as a Christian than they were of the repercussions of idolatry. They feared the emperor’s wrath more than they feared God’s wrath. So this is why John is writing to the churches in Asia. He’s writing to them because they aren’t being persecuted. The fear of pain is more powerful than the pain itself. Anyone whose ever been to the dentist understands that. And because of that fear, they’ve chosen safe idolatry over dangerous faith. And in order to address this, John of Patmos uses the language of apocalyptic literature.
Now that leads us to the second thing that the Book of Revelation is. It is an apocalypse. In fact, that’s its name in Greek, apokalypsis. But the word “apocalypse” does not mean the end of the world. The word “apocalypse” means, “ to reveal what is hidden.” And apocalyptic literature is a common genre in the Bible. The book of Daniel is the most obvious other example, but you can also find it in Zechariah, parts of Isaiah, and a book in the Apocrypha called 2nd Esdras.
All of them were written during times of disaster, tribulation or persecution, where the events of the era were so difficult that God’s influence on the world seemed hidden. And so they all use this highly symbolic language to reveal a cosmic reality very different from the present reality. This is what an apocalypse is. When the truth of the present reality is so far from our expectation of God’s reign that it can’t be described with ordinary languages, the language of the Bible explodes with cosmic and cataclysmic language to communicate the reality of God’s reign.
Now I think right now we know a little bit about the present reality being different from what we expect of God’s reign. We have had one of the worst weeks in recent memory. A bomb went off at the Boston Marathon. A fertilizer plant exploded north of Waco. The senate decided that even though there will be 30,000 gun deaths this year, they will do nothing about it. On Friday, the city of Boston was locked down as law enforcement officers hunted two men allegedly responsible for Boston bombing. And that was just in America. A wave of bombings has killed more than 50 in Iraq. A major earthquake left dozens dead in Iran. And civil war rages on in Syria. One of the most heartbreaking images for me came from there. A sign, offering sympathy for victims of Boston bombing in a town in Syria called Kafr Anbel. “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria. Do accept our condolences.”
I think this week, the present reality seems more distant from God’s reality than usual. It has been a miserable week. Bad things keep happening, things that do not seem to fit with God’s plan, things that cannot be justified, that cannot be explained. (Now I’m sure someone will try, someone is going to go on TV and say this is all God’s plan because of such and such, but I guarantee you it will tell you more about who he hates than it does about what God hates).
So I guess what I’m saying is that we could use a little apocalyptic imagery right now. Things are looking a little bit too bleak for ordinary words and imagery to get through to me, things have been too sad for too long, and I am beginning to worry that God’s hand is resting too lightly on the world for me to see.
It’s the same thing that was going on in the churches in Asia. People are beginning to think that the emperor’s power is more worrisome than God’s power. People are beginning to think that the dark is more powerful than the light, that the bad in our world is so great that it outweighs the good, that it doesn’t matter what we do because the world will always be like this.
And John says “No!” He says, “Oh, hell no!” It might look like the darkness is going to win, but it will not. It might look like the people who would sow death and destruction in our world hold all the cards but they do not. It might look like we should give up trusting God and live with fear in our hearts but fear not.
Because when all is said and done those who have come through the great ordeal will come out clean, washed white in the blood of the Lamb and they will hunger no more, and they will thirst no more, and the sun will not strike them nor scorching heat, for the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
What John says to the people of the churches of Asia and to us is this: do not be afraid to hope. Do not be afraid to believe in God’s power this week. Because whether it looks like it or not, God is in charge of heaven and earth, God commands forces more powerful than all the powers and principalities that seek to tear us down, and we will not only survive, we will thrive, and we will come out of it praising God, saying “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
That’s why we have these words, not to prepare us for the future but to prepare us for today, to give us the courage to hope even while the tears are still streaming down our face, the question of why burning against our lips. Even when our world is terrifying and awful and overwhelming. It is a reminder that our God is even more terrifying and even more awesome and even more powerful, and that God will reign, whether we can bring ourselves to believe it or not. They are words of hope. On days like this, they seem like all we have. But they will be enough.