As a kid and teenager I attended a church that emphasized personal Bible reading and Scripture study. We would follow a devotional guide, or read a book together as a class. One book we never touched was Revelation.
I asked my pastor once, “What’s up with Revelation, anyway? What is it about?” He said it was very complicated and I shouldn’t read it without some supervision and interpretation.
I guess I inspired him, because the next Sunday, my big brother came home and said his teacher had started the book of Revelation with a group of boys in his class. I guess I was too young.
I didn’t get much further with other pastors, either. Revelation was bathed in this forbidden cloud, like PG 13 movies, Harlequin romances and heavy metal music.
Then books like the Left Behind series came out. Well, then it was all about Revelation and our church couldn’t stop talking about it. Left Behind was a series of books that took John the Seer’s revelation and applied it to present day. It starts with the day when God calls all the believers to Heaven. People just evaporate away. There was even a song written by Larry Norman and made popular again by a group called DC Talk
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
I really struggled with a God who could so simplistically condemn people and abandon them. So I gave up on Revelation. Do you know I even got through 4 years of seminary without having to read a word of Revelation except in church during Easter? And I certainly didn’t have to write a paper or, God forbid, preach a sermon on it.
Well, that ends today. I feel liberated and mischievous.
To find our reading today is easy. If you pull out your Bible, it’s the last book. Today we read chapter 7, verses 9-17. If you are using an app, the list of books may end with the Apocrypha, Macabees, Azariah, Tobit, so scroll from the bottom until you find Revelation.
Like any piece of poetry or literature like this, what you read in it greatly depends on what you are thinking you will find. If you are looking for an orderly account of the end of the world, then that’s what you will find. Over the centuries, many have read it that way, but when their predictions failed, their followers faded away. Another way to read Revelation is as a message of hope for those who are struggling and in despair, that even in the darkest of days, in the end, they will not be abandoned.
Last week Jason shared some basics about Revelation. First, it was not written looking towards the 21st century. it was written to 7 churches, which you can find in the first two chapters of Revelation, in the first century. The Bible is full of warnings not to predict the time and place and manner of the second coming of Christ.
Second, Revelation is not a prediction, but a dream imagining all of humanity coming into the fullness of the kingdom of God. Unlike the violent, fundamentalist interpretation made popular in novels and movies, it is completely inclusive, drawing all of humanity to Godself, into full unity with God.
All of this is so important when we read our passage this morning. It starts with a great crowd, more than can be counted, of people “from every tribe, nation, people and language” (7:9 CEB). As Jason said last week, everyone is there. The writer, John, is with an elder, being guided around this vision. John asked about this multitude. In a time when it was impossible to get anything purely white, there is a group, clothed in white. No where in the vision does it say that these are the believers, that they made any particular commitment to Jesus Christ. The elder does say,””These people have come out of great hardship.” What kind of hardship? It goes far beyond religious persecution, and speaks to a world under Roman oppression. Imagine becoming a subject of a global empire, where every culture and nation were to come under one system, one way of living, losing all they love. That’s what it means to live under an empire, and that’s what life in the Roman empire meant. For God’s people, the Romans were so powerful, the only escape for many was the coming of God’s kingdom.
The past 6 months have been incomprehensible for us in North America-the shooting in Newtown, constant threats of economic collapse, two young men bombing the Boston Marathon. These have been tragic and frightening, and only a portion of the violence and poverty that happens every day in other parts of the world. Add, on top of this, the growing exploitation of our environment, the building of pipelines that could devastate wide swaths of land and ignoring alternate sources of energy, our constantly increasing appetites for food and oil and our lack of concern for the generations after us who will also depend on our land and oceans.
No wonder pop culture is full of end of the world stories: 2013, zombies, environmental destruction, two films out right now that centre around the end of humanity on Earth. Every few hundred years global crises hit a climax that bring about speculations of apocalypse. I don’t presume these events bode anything about the coming of Christ. What I see in popular culture, though, is a great deal of anxiety, confusion and despair about our future and our children’s future.
The elder says, “Who are these people? These people have come out of great hardship. They worship God day and night and the one seated on the throne will shelter them.”
In this great vision, those who are closest to the throne are those who have endured through the greatest hardship. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s heart is for those who are suffering from injustice, those who are willing to follow Christ, even to face those who are most powerful. To borrow a well used military phrase, they lost many battles, but here, in Revelation the war is finally won. At the throne are those who have chosen the way of the Lamb, the way of peace. They could have chosen the way of greed, corruption, warfare and power, but they chose the way of endurance. Here, John is envisioning the day when the kingdom of peace has come to pass.
But what about now? What hope do we have to share with a broken world today?
Revelation is a mystical vision, suspended in time. It imagines the past, the present and the future, not as a formula, but it proclaims, “at every moment, of human history, even the most desperate moment that causes people to lose hope, God is present” (Brown, Raymond An Introduction to the New Testament p. 810).
Whatever pain we are enduring, whether it be a global despair or our own personal pain, it will come to an end. Many of us can not imagine anything beyond an Earth where humans just disappear, or worse, we all turn into zombies, or we become survivors in a nuclear wasteland. God promises that end is not for us. There will be no more hunger, no more injustice. God will bring us to life and joy. In this vision, those who have come through the most hardship are sheltered by God, brought closer to God. That is the hope within us.
Is there a glimpse of this vision right now? Or do we have to wait? All of Scripture speaks of now and not yet. Revelation is not a formula for the end of the world, but it does give us a future hope AND a present hope.
When Stephen Colbert began his comedy show the night after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, he said this, “When those bombs went off, there were runners who, after finishing a marathon, kept running for another two miles to the hospital to donate blood. So here’s what I know. These maniacs may have tried to make life bad for the people of Boston, but all they can ever do is show just how good those people are” (The Colbert Report, Episode 9086, April 16, 2013).
If Christians are looking for a glimpse of Revelation’s hope, we saw it this week, and in the aftermath of the tragedies of these past few months. When we are faced with violence, corruption and injustice, and we choose the way of Jesus, the way of peace, the way of justice, the kingdom comes that much closer to reality–that much closer to every tear being wiped away, to no more hunger, no more thirst.
Because, you see, until Christ comes, it’s up to us, with the power of the Holy Spirit. We are the hope. We can be glimpses of the kingdom when we live in hope. We can see glimpses of the kingdom when we live in hope.