The Rev. Sarah Buteux
November 5, 2017
All Saints, Year A
Do you remember choose your own adventure books; those books where you’d find yourself, say, on an archaeological expedition in Egypt? By the end of chapter 1 you could either turn to page 17 if you thought the adventure was too dangerous or turn to page 35 if you wanted to follow the fearless leader of the expedition deeper into the tomb of the Pharaoh? Do you remember these?
Of course it was always worth a peek at page 17 to confirm that choice would end the story within two more paragraphs; two paragraphs where you found your way back to Kansas on the first flight and ended up at your great Auntie Em’s kitchen table eating sweet potato pie, or something like that. I may be getting my story lines crossed.
Or you’d turn to p 35 and follow the great archeologist – Professor Plum or Jones or something- down the long corridor full of hieroglyphs, marveling at the shadows your torches cast upon the wall. You’d came to a fork in the passage where you could either split up and cover more ground – read, turn to page 46 and die- or stick together and turn to page 47 where you’d be confronted with a door covered in some ancient puzzle you now had only minutes to solve because – by golly! – the walls of the passage were suddenly beginning to move in on you and…
You all know what I’m talking about? Good. Because, I was reminded of those books as I was reading through the book of Revelation this week. Revelation is a bit like a choose your own adventure book on steroids, a book that veers wildly from images of mass destruction to ones of mass consolation.
John’s vision has it all. Within these pages you will find guardian angels and avenging ones, lakes of fire and a sea of glass. There are seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, and seven thunders – none of which portend anything good, balanced out by one lamb with seven eyes and seven horns…who I believe means us all well, but seems a little freaky if you ask me.
For those of you keeping score at home, there are four living creatures around the throne of God and four horseman of the apocalypse gunning for the sons of men. There are 24 elders, 2 olive trees, 2 lamp stands, 2 books, and 2 witnesses – Ichabod Crane and Detective Abbie Mills (Sleepy Hollow fans…anyone? Ok, maybe not).
In the Book of Revelation you’ll find beasts and dragons, hell fire and brimstone, the woman clothed with the sun and the whore of Babylon. There is a war fierce enough to destroy both heaven and earth and a God determined enough to create a new heaven and new earth in their stead.
By the end of this confounding book, multitudes will be redeemed and countless others doomed to death and destruction. And honestly, I don’t care if you’re a Bible scholar or a lay reader, a die hard post-trib, pre-millenialist, Scofield wielding dispensationalist or Michael Bay looking for inspiration for “Transformers 13: Rise of the Fall of the End of the Machines” – Revelation is an intense book, and it’s hard to know what to make of it all. Can I get an amen?
There’s a lot for the imagination to play with in here, a lot to inspire hope and comfort if you stick to the lectionary and a lot to satisfy the darker impulses of even the most well intentioned people, especially if they are inclined to go off on their own.
It is apocalyptic literature, after all, a word that has become synonymous with the end of the world, but literally means – anyone know – “unveiling or uncovering.” Revealing, if you will. Very good.
Apocalyptic literature is a genre that pulls back the curtain so to speak, to show us what’s really going on. From the prophecies of Daniel to many of Jesus’ parables, from “The Walking Dead,” to Pixar’s “Wall-E,” apocalyptic stories are stories that reveal hidden truths to us, but – curiously enough – the truths they reveal always have a lot more to say to us about our present selves then they do about our future ones.
Because, you see, what apocalyptic stories do, is paint a picture of the world we will create for ourselves if we continue to do what we’re already doing. They are stories about the future that show us who we really are in the present- right here, right now. And they are stories that dare us to ask if this will lead us there, then is this who we really want to be. You follow? Good.
What this means, in terms of the scripture before us this morning, is that John’s “Revelation,” was never meant to serve as the ultimate “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook,” for anyone still standing at the end of the world. It was written as a word of hope to people living in the first century – a time of great oppression, violence, and upheaval – when the world as they knew it was ending.
It was written in wonderfully rich coded language to reveal that there were limits to the seemingly limitless power of Rome. It was written to encourage followers of Jesus to keep the faith now in this life because even if they died horrible deaths and their enemies triumphed here on earth, God would keep faith with them and eventually set everything right in the end.
The big question that comes up for me when I read the book of Revelation now though, is how exactly God will do that. Because as far as I can tell, God hasn’t yet. I recognize that this book was written to specific people in a particular time and place, but these words are also scripture, which means there is something universal and eternally relevant about the questions they raise. And I have questions about this God, deep questions and perhaps some reservations to be honest.
Because, you see, here in chapter seven where our reading picks up this morning, we’re in what scholars call, a “salvation interlude,” a bright spot where God makes all things all better. But the chapters leading up to this were full of some extremely violent hair raising stuff and they’ve got nothing on the chapters to come.
I like the God we encounter in chapter seven, this God who “welcomes a great multitude that no one could count,” – this from a guy who apparently loved to count everything!
There’s something wonderfully and undeniably universal about this image of a God who saves people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” There is no more division in chapter seven – which sounds like heaven to me – no more hunger or thirst or suffering. Everyone is included. No one is left behind. Which is great.
I’d be happy to stay here for all eternity with this God, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the commentaries written by my theologically liberal colleagues who claimed that this unfailingly merciful, radically inclusive, unconditionally loving being is who God really is, so poo poo on all those “Left Behind” reading Kirk Cameron fans who think God only loves them.
Only here’s the thing: within 7 verses of every tear being wiped away, hail-fire and blood will be raining down upon the earth once again. It would appear the first 6 chapters were really just a warm up for the battles and destruction to come. There will be more beautiful images of salvation and peace and healing for all the nations before John brings this book to a close, but not without a fight and a good measure of brimstone.
At first glance it would seem that it is hard to ensure justice for all without raining down judgment on some, hard to remake the world without smashing it all to pieces, hard to make even a divine omelet without breaking a few temporal eggs.
All of which leaves me in a bit of a quandary, but maybe that’s the point.
Which is to say, if you’re looking for a God of peace, love and understanding who loves the whole world down to the very last sparrow and will not rest until everything on heaven and earth is reconciled, redeemed and remade anew, you can find that God in the book of Revelation.
But if you’re looking for a God of wrath who hates all the same people you do, that God’s not hard to find either.
If you’re looking for a mandate to justify violence and war or a free pass at treating the earth as disposable since God’s going to destroy it all anyway, you’ll find what you want to find, because this book is not a step by step guide for navigating a dystopian future of beast marks and bar codes….
It’s a book about us…always has been and always will be…a book that reveals what we value and what we trust… a book that shows us the God we want, whether that God is good for us or not.
So which God will it be? How do you want the story to end? Do we want to see this whole sad sorry excuse for an earth go down in flames? Do we want the God who redeems the righteous and punishes the wicked? The kind of God who would give Harvey Weinstein extra laps around the lake of fire…forever? Because let’s be honest, there’s something really satisfying about that kind of God.
And honestly, all we need do is skip ahead to, say chapter 19, where Jesus appears triumphant on a white horses… a Jesus who seems to have conveniently forgotten all his words about loving his enemies as he casts them down into the lake of fire. Is this the savior we want? A Jesus who takes back control of the world by force like some turbo charged Caesar?
Is that what we value? Is power what we trust?
Because if that’s the case, wouldn’t it mean, in the end, that Rome was right all along: that the only way to achieve peace is through violence, that there can be no justice without retribution, that the only way to ensure harmony is to exile all the people who don’t think the way we do?”
We really need to think about that, because the God we see in all this matters. The story we tell has consequences.
In the words of Brian Mclaren, if the world’s going to end anyway:
why care for the environment? Why worry about … climate change (or) endangered species…or global poverty … If the Bible predicts the rebuilding of the Jewish temple … why care about Muslim claims on the Temple Mount (in Jerusalem or) … about justice for non-Jews in Israel at all …If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict …why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?….
The God we see in all this matters. The story we tell has consequences. If we believe that the Jesus of Revelation has a lot more in common with the Terminator than the Jesus we encountered back in the gospels, then this is not going to end well because we’re not going to help it end well.
But – and here’s the good news for today – that’s not our only choice. We can read this book another way.
We can read it holding fast to the radically inclusive, non-violent peace making way that Jesus actually embodied while he walked among us. We can wonder about how this image of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb reigning victorious in chapter 7 or even leading the charge in chapter 19 might have the power to subvert all this violent imagery? It’s all written in code after all.
Perhaps we can use what we know and love about Jesus as a key to help us unlock the mysteries behind all the weird anomalies in this text. We can choose to see that yes there is a lot of blood on this lamb and his people, but it’s their own blood given in faith, rather than the blood of their enemies taken by force.
We can choose to see that this Jesus sometimes wields a sword, yes, but the sword is in his mouth not his hand. There’s got to be something there.
And we can hope. We can hope that what is separated out in the last judgment is not the righteous from the wicked, but what is good in all of us – good in every tribe, religion, and nation – from what is not?
We can trust that though there are parts in all of us that need to be judged, cast off, and burned away in the fire, that perhaps there is something in every last one of us worth saving as well…some part of us that God cannot and will not give up on
because God is faithful and true,
because God has promised that nothing can separate us from God’s love, because God has promised not to give up until all things in heaven and on the earth are reconciled and remade anew.
The God we see in all this matters. The story we tell has consequences.
“When you think and believe differently about the future, a funny thing happens, “ says McLaren, “you get a different future. Just as your bad faith will sicken you, and your good faith will make you well.”
I sometimes wonder if the God which we choose to find is not the same God we will meet when our time comes. As Jesus said, 37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
We can always give more. We can always do better. We could all stand to breathe a little more hope and love and peace into this world even now, because here’s the thing: the world as we know it is always ending.
The world as we know it is as broken now, as it ever was.
But the world as it is, is not the world as it need be. We have a choice. We can turn the page. We can live into a better story right here, right now.
Thanks be to God.