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Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3