Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Easter
For these final three Sundays in the season of Eastertide, the lectionary will have us reading texts from the closing couple of chapters of the Book of Revelation. Because this biblical book can be such a source of both symbol-reading, number-crunching speculation and just plain old consternation, I decided that tonight I should focus on this Revelation text.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Depending on where along the spectrum of church traditions you had your formation, you might have heard quite a lot about Revelation… or not. Some churches and some preachers pay a lot of attention to the book, relishing the prospect of decoding all of its symbolism and interpreting the meaning of all of those numbers. “This calls for wisdom,” the author of the book writes, “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.” (Rev 13:18). Across the ages, rivers of ink have been spilled trying to identify the beast; various popes, Luther, Calvin, Muhammad, the Freemason movement, and an array of political leaders have all been offered as possible candidates. And how many heavy metal bands and occult horror movies have traded on the number 666?
You’ll probably remember Harold Camping’s end of the world predictions from a few years back. According to Camping’s reading of Revelation and related apocalyptic writings in the bible, Christ was to return to earth on May 21, 2011. The saved would be taken up to heaven, while the earth would be left to five months of violence and plagues, culminating in the earth’s final destruction on October 21 of that year. People were swept up in that movement, with stories of many spending down to their last dollar because they’d no longer need it after May 21.
Sometimes what happens in response to stories like that—and in response to the oftentimes pretty wild and wooly character of the book itself—is that some Christians just back away from it all together. When I was quite newly ordained, a respected senior priest colleague told me that he really wished the Holy Spirit had inspired the church to opt for an early document called The Didache—“The Teaching”—rather than for Revelation, which to his mind had caused a great deal of trouble and confusion.
My first position after ordination was at St Paul’s Church in Fort Garry, where I spent two years as an assistant. The parish had a strong commitment to adult education, and every Sunday morning they offered an adult education program. Every year they’d invite the University of Manitoba New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado to offer a four-week series on a biblical theme of his choosing, and in one of the years I was there Hurtado opted to do the series on Revelation. Now, St Paul’s was—and still is—something of the flagship liberal parish in the diocese. St Paul’s was actually liberal in the best sense, in that they welcomed a diversity of views and opinions, such that while Professor Hurtado was formed very much in the evangelical scholarly tradition, his sessions were always well received and well attended. But Revelation?
It was actually a brilliant move. Over those four weeks, Hurtado unpacked that oftentimes-elusive book for us, demystifying much of its symbolism and demonstrating the significance of all of those numbers. Seven, he explained, was the perfect number in Greek, while twelve held that place in Hebrew. Beginning with its salutation, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia,” (Rev 1.4), the book is filled with the number seven, while the number twelve crops up with great frequency as well. As for that notorious number 666, he noted that each Hebrew letter had a corresponding number, and that the broad scholarly consensus was that it is the Roman Emperor Nero who John had in view. As a kind of sidebar to that, I’ve recently come across N.T. Wright’s suggestion that this number “offers the greatest parody of all.” “The number of perfection,” Wright note, “would be 777. Nero, and the system he represented and embodied was but a parody of the real thing, one short of the right number three times over. Jesus was the reality, Nero just a dangerous, blasphemous copy.”
But why all of these numbers and symbols and strange creatures? Because the book was written in code—had to be written in code—because it was a dangerously subversive document. Written by John the Divine from his place of exile on the Greek island of Patmos, it was addressed to those seven churches in Asia to provide them with hope and a reason to keep the faith even in a time of crisis and persecution. “The moral of the story in the book of Revelation,” Hurtado said, “is this: the only good Christian is a dead Christian.” The only good Christian is a dead Christian, meaning that if you did live this Christian faith during these times of persecution under the likes of Nero or the emperor Domitian, you might be killed for it. But—and this is the book’s most subversive and hopeful word—but that death does not have the last word. Jesus is the final word—the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us. Jesus is the real thing, the Neros and Domitians and all the 666s of empire nothing more than dangerous, blasphemous copies.
It is to that final hope and light-filled horizon that the passages we’ll read over these weeks of Eastertide point, beginning with tonight’s great visionary proclamation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” “The sea was no more,” which refers to the end of chaos, for in that biblical view of the world, the sea was a place of deep danger and chaotic unpredictability. “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…” Notice that image: the holy city “coming down out of heaven from God”, as opposed to us being swept up to some other celestial place called “heaven.” John proclaims that he envisions all things being new, which, as Bishop Wright insists, really does mean all things: “here we have the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem… and, not least, the new people, people who have woken up to find themselves beyond the reach of death, tears and pain. ‘The first things have passed away.’”
“God will be with them,” John practically sings, “to wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
This is all so much bigger a vision, a hope, a promise than even John himself might have entirely realized. Yes, he may well have been thinking of the persecutions suffered under Nero or Domitian, and yes, he might well have been writing a coded and subversive book to his own church communities. But these words written in a time of crisis and chaos have sung for over 2000 years whenever God’s people face crisis and chaos. The Book of Revelation was a primary source for the theologian and activist lawyer William Stringfellow, when he turned to critique and challenge the America of the late 1960s and early 70s. It was a powerful source of both comfort and protest for Allan Boesak, as he sought to stand up to the violence and oppression of Apartheid era South Africa. And maybe most poignantly, when we face the death of one we love, when we have reason to weep, when we feel pain, when we look at our own fragility and mortality, this text stands us back up on our feet and says that though all of these struggles and sorrows may feel very real, none are the final word spoken over our lives. The final word is the Word, the Christ who says, “See, I am making all things new,” and—echoing the final words uttered from the cross in the Gospel according to John—“It is done!” “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
In the words of the biblical scholar Brian Peterson, in the end what is proclaimed in Revelation is that “God will redeem the whole sorry story of human history…
that the chain reaction of human sin will be ended, and all the tears will be wiped away. The tears that God must wipe away are not only the tears we shed, but also the tears we cause.” All things made new.