Text: Revelation 1:1-8, 1:9-2:7
This past year our scriptures for worship have come from the Narrative Lectionary, which began after Labor Day and ended with Pentecost, in the middle of May. Summer seemed like a good time to maybe do a couple of sermon series and look at books of the Bible that may not get so much attention, or at least that we don’t read much and don’t get preached on that often.
Well, we began back in September with Genesis, the first book of the Bible, so it only seems fair that we should end this church year with Revelation, the last book of the Bible. And if we want to look at a part of the Bible that we maybe are not that familiar with – or maybe more to the point, a part of the Bible that we downright avoid, then Revelation certainly fits the bill.
Revelation is a weird book, a bizarre book. I looked in my files and I have only preached a handful of sermons from Revelation. There are those people who just love Revelation and those preachers who can’t get enough of it – but not me. A lot of this book can leave us bewildered, shaking our heads, or maybe squeamish at all the blood and violence.
You’ve got beasts with ten horns and seven heads and ten diadems on their horns. There are bowls of wrath. You’ve got seven angels with seven plagues, the number six-six-six of the beast, five months of torture, four horsemen, 3 foul spirits, 200 miles of blood, one whore of Babylon, and contrary to popular thought, zero mention of a rapture.
Now, we typically avoid those strange and gory passages because we don’t want to dwell on how the world is going to end in chaos and fire and death and destruction. We really don’t want to hear a confusing narration of the annihilation of the world.
Well, guess what: we don’t have to. This book contains strange and disturbing imagery, to be sure, but the purpose of Revelation and the theme of Revelation is not what a lot of people think.
When I was in grade school, in the 1970’s, I remember how popular Hal Lindsey’s book was – The Late Great Planet Earth. Some of the youth at our church were reading it. I owned a copy but I didn’t actually read that much of it (unfortunately that’s a tradition I have carried on to this day). Using Revelation as a roadmap, Lindsey explained how the end of the world was near, and with startling precision (not necessarily accuracy, but startling precision) he identified the various creatures in the book of Revelation with current movements and events. For example, he identified the ten-horned beast of the sea from Revelation 13 as the European Common Market. At the time it had ten members - one for each horn of the beast. Clearly, this was the start of one world government in which everyone would be forced to bow down before the Beast.
Well, there were a couple of problems with that interpretation - probably more than a couple. There was only a brief period when the Common Market had 10 members. Today’s European Union has 28 countries (I guess it is 27 now with Brexit). Ten horns seems like a poor symbol for it. I might mention that Lindsey wrote a sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. I don’t think it sold as many copies as his first book.
This all seemed so random and arbitrary. If the number 10 signifies the Beast, I could argue for the designated hitter rule in the American League as a much more likely candidate. We all know that baseball is meant to be played with 9 players, but the American League sees fit to add a tenth player – the designated hitter. This might be a sign that the end is near. Could the designated hitter be the tenth horn on the beast? I’m just asking.
I’m being facetious, but throughout history people have tried to identify a current figure or movement as the Beast or the Anti-Christ (a word that doesn’t appear in Revelation, by the way), or who have taken current events as a sign that the end was near.
Interpretations of Revelation have been key to numerous groups in history. There was William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return in 1844. When Christ did not return, it was called the Great Disappointment, and the Seventh-Day Adventists arose out of Miller’s followers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded by Charles Taze Russell (no relation) base their theology on their unique interpretation of Revelation, including the idea that 144,000 people will make it to heaven. There were 19th century postmillenialists who thought the world would get better and better until Christ returned, until that belief was finally crushed by World War I. There are premillenialists who published the Scofield Bible and charts outlining dispensations in history and when the rapture would happen. And you probably remember David Koresh and the tragedy of the Branch Davidians in Waco. What happened was a result of Koresh’s interpretation of Revelation.
You may or not be familiar with very much of this, but here’s the thing; to believe that Revelation was written to predict what would happen 2000 years after John wrote the book is to render it meaningless to the people to whom he actually wrote.
Do we really believe that John, exiled on the island of Patmos, writing to the early Christian churches, wrote a letter warning them about the European Common Market in the 20th century? Or that John was writing so that the churches of Asia could figure out what date Christ would return, two millennia into the future?
Now I’ve mostly been talking about what Revelation is not. In the way of introduction, just a few more things. First, this is a good time to think about the nature of prophecy. We sometimes think of prophets as predicting the future – one commentator said that we like to think of a prophet as a spiritual meteorologist - but that is not really the prophet’s role. A prophet is one who tells the truth about the way things are so that the future might change. A prophet is more of a forth-teller than a foreteller.
Second, it is important to understand something about the type of literature Revelation represents, because it is different from most of the Bible. This book is apocalyptic. We hear the word apocalypse and we think of death, destruction and the end of the world, but the Greek word apocalypse is “revelation” in English. It means a revealing, an unveiling, pulling back the curtains so we can see.
Apocalyptic literature is written in times of persecution and oppression in order to give hope. And you can’t just come right out and say things. You can’t write that the Roman Empire is evil and of Satan – that might get a person in a heap of trouble. So instead you talk about Babylon and you talk about beasts. Insiders understand the imagery, but to outsiders it may all sound strange.
James Blevins, one of my old New Testament professors, wrote a book called Revelation as Drama. He makes a fairly convincing argument that the book was intended as a play, a drama. You might imagine it being presented on stage. It’s not just straight reporting. Somewhat similarly, pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson comments, “If John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible, which, in fact, is why it is so often uncomprehended.”
And then, finally, the writer and purpose of the book. The writer was traditionally thought of as John the apostle, but many scholars are unsure. There are other Johns in the Bible, and this writer is not necessarily any of them, but John of Revelation is clearly a known and beloved leader in the church. John is writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, in what is modern day western Turkey, and he is writing to give hope and encourage these churches to keep the faith and persevere in a turbulent and chaotic time.
Now to be real honest, a turbulent and chaotic time sounds familiar. In our nation and in our world, it feels like a turbulent and chaotic time. Just this week, a black man was killed by police in Baton Rouge. Another black man was shot and killed by police after being pulled over for a broken taillight in in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. This was just a few blocks from Luther Seminary, on Larpenteur Avenue – I drove past the exact spot last month when I went to Luther for a preaching workshop. It’s a nice area. These were only the most recent in a series of police shootings of mostly black men captured on video.
And then on Thursday came the terrible story out of Dallas that as a crowd was protesting these shootings, and doing so peacefully, a sniper opened fire, killing five police officers and wounding several others. The shooter said that he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers. There were later reports of gunfire aimed at police officers in other states. Meanwhile there are continuing protests in many cities and, and just last night 50 protesters were arrested in St. Paul, with reports of violence toward police.
All of this has exposed our continuing struggle with America’s original sin of racism and how fractured our society really is and how far we have yet to go. I have heard a number of public statements that have added to the problem rather than helping.
You look around at the goings-on in the world today and it can almost break your heart. I am getting really tired, really weary, of one terrible tragedy, one horrific incident after another. For the last month or more, it seems that as I prepare that week’s sermon, there has been another shooting or bombing. Orlando, then Istanbul, then Dakha, then Baghdad, then all the events of this week. We live in a turbulent and chaotic time.
And maybe, that makes Revelation a book worth reading and worth considering right now, because it was written to people living in the midst of a fractured and violent world.
With this uber-long introduction, we come (finally) to today’s reading. It begins by saying that this is a revelation that God gave to John, and John is writing the book as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. At the outset we are told that the focus of the book is not so much the future and certainly not destruction, but God. The One who is and was and is to come. Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the one who loves us and set us free from our sins – to him be glory and dominion forever. God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Serving this God, John is writing from the island of Patmos, as he says, “because I had had written God’s word and borne my testimony to Jesus.” For this, he had apparently been exiled to this remote island. John has a frightening vision that turns out to be of Christ himself, with a message that he was to write letters to the seven churches of Asia. These churches were getting comfortable, getting complacent. They were adapting to the false reality of the Roman Empire, a society based on domination and power, rather than living a countercultural lifestyle as followers of Jesus. Peeling back the curtain, John saw where this could lead, and he proclaims his vision to these churches.
In our reading today we have the letter to the church in Ephesus. We know of Ephesus because of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I know that some of you have visited Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. The letter to this church is a largely positive report: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance… You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.”
So far. So good. But the letter continues: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. The Revised English Bible continues with, “Think from what a height you have fallen.”
Here is a church that did a lot of things right. They had endurance, they had patience, they had faith, they had not been let astray by false prophets. But they weren’t really feeling the love. They had lost the passion. They were going through the motions.
Well, it happens. The job that we found exciting and engaging has become tedious and boring. A hobby that used to get us excited has been put up on the shelf. A relationship that once meant a lot to us has cooled. A cause that got us animated and engaged somehow doesn’t mean as much anymore. It can happen to organizations. It can happen to churches. The vision, the animating purpose that was so strong at the beginning, becomes a distant memory. Instead of love and service and compassion and reaching others, the purpose of the organization, even churches, becomes staying in business, preserving the institution.
We had a karaoke night at church many years ago. It was awesome. Aiddy’s mom made Laotian noodles and eggrolls. We had a guy with a karaoke machine here, and people of all ages took part. A group who were in high school in the 70’s sang American Pie. Michael and Marian sang a Beatles song. Zoe, who was maybe 9, channeled Bonnie Raitt. Bob and Jenna McCarley, who both grew up along the Red River, sang Red River Valley. And I recall that John Anderson sang that Righteous Brothers classic, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Now it’s gone, gone, gone, woooaaoohhh-oh.
That song pretty well describes the message to the church in Ephesus: ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.”
If a letter were written to the angel of the church of Ames, I wonder what it would say. It’s worth considering. The questions raised by the letter to Ephesus are question like: are we about love for God and love for others, or is it something else? Have we lost sight of our purpose? Are we just going through the motions? Has the passion that we once felt cooled?
My beliefs and theology and spirituality have changed a lot since I first started following Jesus. There are ways of following Christ and ways of being church that no longer appeal to me as they once did. That’s OK. And in fact, I would call that growth. That isn’t what this is referring to. The question for Ephesus, and maybe for us, has to do with love. Are we so busy with life – and are we maybe so focused on the difficulties of living in a turbulent and chaotic world - that we forget about love? That we forget about the God who is love? In a divided and fractured world, we cannot afford anything less. Amen.