(Revelation 22: 1-5, Ezekiel 47: 7-12)
Ministers talk (shocker, I know!) More to the point, ministers talk to each other about minister stuff. We catch each other up on our churches, our joys, our struggles. We brag on our congregations. We’ve been known to gripe a little too. We compare notes. Ministers talk.
A few months ago at the first meeting of my preaching group, “By The Vine,” I was talking minister talk with one of my colleagues. Told her that my plan this summer was to launch into a four-week sermon series on the book of Revelation. Her response, looking back on it, shouldn’t have surprised me like it did. I believe her exact words were, Well, good luck with that! Tucked into the nuance was another message: Better you than me!
You know, it’s interesting how we interact with the last book of the Bible: we don’t talk about Revelation as much as we talk around it. We know it’s there and maybe we can quote a verse or two, but when it comes to really understanding what it says, we typically do one of two things. We either avoid it like the plague, due to lack of interest or outright fear. Or we put an awful lot of trust in what other people say about it.
Everyone so often, it happens – some pastor somewhere convinces his flock that they’ve mastered the “Revelation code” and know when the world is going to end. Because that’s what they say Revelation is about. A few years ago, Harold Camping, a pastor out in California. Got a ton of publicity. Before him, Reverend Lee Kim in 1992. He predicted that the Rapture was going to take place on October 28th. Twenty thousand Koreans in South Korea, Los Angeles and New York quit their jobs and left their families to prepare for their trip to heaven. Kim’s church paid for costly ads in the Los Angeles and New York Times, urging readers to prepare for their journey through the skies – which, as we know, obviously didn’t happen. That’s the one common thread between all the end-of-the-word predictions. They’ve been wrong.
You’ve probably heard of the Left Behind book series, a fictional account supposedly based on the book of Revelation. There’s an accompanying website, leftbehind.com, which offers up-to-date analysis of world events and their relation to the second coming of Christ, based solely on the worldview of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It does come with a price, though. Literally. $19.95 a month, to be exact, which gives you membership in its “Prophecy Club” and grants you preferred access to special sections not available to the average internet surfer.
Things like this are the reason my job as pastor is never boring and often challenging. Because while predictions come and go, one thing has not changed: and that is our tendency over the past 2000 years to focus on what we think is in Revelation, rather than doing the work of actually finding out what is. And perhaps most importantly, what is not.
Case in point (and this is potentially going to blow some of your minds): if I were to ask you to name two things that you’d find in Revelation, two things central to the book, chances are you’d say the rapture and the antichrist, right? But here’s the thing: neither of those terms are found anywhere in the book! Let me say that again to be clear – you can read Revelation from cover to cover, but you will never find the words “rapture” or “antichrist” in there. At all. Instead, you have to flip back a few pages to 1 & 2 Peter to find “antichrist,” a term the writer uses to refer to someone promoting incorrect doctrine in the early church. Their teachings, in the writer’s opinion, were “against Christ” – anti-christ. Now we, of course, have made it to be something else entirely – son of Satan and the arch nemesis of apocalyptic horror movies. But if we are talking about what’s in the Bible – which is what we should be talking about – an antichrist was nothing more than a misguided teacher.
And rapture? Hold on to your seats – pun intended! “Rapture” was a concept developed not by an inspired writer of scripture thousands of years ago, but by an 18th-century Baptist preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby’s claim to fame was developing this massively detailed Bibilcal worldview by stringing together random verses from the Old and New Testaments to create a cosmic calendar concluding with the world’s demise and the faithful being taken up. Kind of like going to your favorite buffet and choosing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some of this over here, some of that over there; filling up your plate with this strange assortment of food and calling it a meal. Once again, if we’re talking about what’s in the Bible, you won’t find the word “rapture” in there anywhere.
So why do we make such a big deal of these things? Why do we accept the idea of Rapture and the Antichrist as gospel truth? Sometimes it’s easier to believe what someone else tells us, rather than doing the work of finding out for ourselves.
If we’re going to discover what Revelation really has to say our 21st century world, we’ve got to dig deeper. We have to embrace the mystery of Revelation. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and the rest of them are standing in the heart of the Emerald Castle before the Great Wizard. It’s a frightening scene – until little Toto scurries up front and grabs the green curtain in its teeth and pulls it aside. Remember that? Remember how different things looked?
That’s what you and I need to do when it comes to Revelation – we need to pull the curtain aside to see what’s really there. In fact, that’s what the Greek word for “Revelation” actually means – to uncover or reveal; to pull aside the covering so that what was not previously known becomes known. That’s what I hope you and I get to do over the next few weeks – to tug at that curtain a little bit each Sunday and move beyond our fear of the unknown, or what we’ve heard from others, so we can see something we haven’t seen before.
Like, for instance, a river. In the very last chapter of Revelation, there’s this river. We kind of miss it, don’t we? We’re more drawn to the bloodshed and war and death and famine in Revelation – which I guess says something about us, doesn’t it? More on that later.
But here, a river. And there we are alongside it; a river whose waters are “bright as crystal,” flowing from the very throne of God. And on either side of the river we see the “tree of life” – a tree that bears fruit year-round; fruit which has the ability to “heal the nations.” More on that too.
Pull the curtain back a little more and we learn that this is not the first time we’ve seen this river – the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel mentions it, and the trees, near the conclusion of his book:
On the banks, on both sides of the river, it says, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Wherever the river goes, everything will live and be fresh.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Did you notice where the water flows from? From the sanctuary – the sacred temple in Jerusalem. Which is extraordinary, to say the least – because the people the prophet was speaking to had seen with their own eyes that very temple burned to the ground, as the Jewish people were taken from their homeland to live in Babylon. Nothing left but ashes and dust.
That means Ezekiel’s prophecy is a vision – a vision of old things being made new. And not just the temple. Even the people themselves are transformed by this river. Healed of their past sufferings; renewed to serve and worship God. This river is a powerful metaphor for the restoration of God’s people as their time of exile comes to a close. A commanding symbol and promise of hope when all hope seemed lost.
That same river – scripturally speaking – flows some 600 years into the future, all the way to a group of Christians in middle first-century Palestine who knew all too well about lost hope. They, too, had seen their holy city and temple burned to the ground, by the Roman Empire. Over the years this new power persecuted those who professed faith in anyone other than the Emperor.
And it wasn’t always persecution in the messy sense: hangings on crosses and beheadings and all that. See, to be a Christian in that day and time was about being a social outcast, an oddball. Being a Christian meant saying goodbye to your social status, your financial well-being, your clout and your reputation. It meant not being able to buy in the marketplace because the only coins they used there were ones with the emperor’s image on it, and you didn’t use those coins. Being a Christian meant loving your enemies in a world where enemies were either converted or destroyed. It meant pledging your allegiance to a crucified carpenter in a world which daily sold its soul out to power and conquest and victory.
And yet even in that world – especially in that world – a river continued to run through it. God’s river. A river of life, surrounded by trees whose fruit can heal the nations; reminding the faithful that there is indeed hope in a hopeless world. A river whose flow never stops – because things like grace and love and mercy are continuous, like a current that cannot be diverted, even when those things are sometimes hard to sense or see.
We need to drink deep from this river, my friends. Especially after weeks like this. Especially after weeks like this.
Are you as tired as I am of this ritual we seem to be engaging more and more these days: the sudden, out-of-nowhere “breaking news” interrupting our day; the multi-tasking of cable channels and Twitter feeds and websites, piecing together the gruesome story that gets more and more gruesome? The names and faces and personal stories of lives ended; the revelation of the perpetrator’s identity and how quickly their story overshadows the others. Are you as tired as I am of one more location stripped of its innocence, a mental checklist we keep and remember: elementary schools, movie theaters, college campuses, summer youth camps, marathon finish lines and houses of worship? Are you as tired as I am of deep wounds from our country’s past, wounds like racism, rearing their ugly head all over again and jolting us to the sobering reality that these wounds are not just our past but our present, and therefore must be dealt with? Of once again having to somehow explain all of this to my two boys, answering questions when I’m still trying to figure out the answers myself. Do you hate and despise this ritual as much as I do; and because it seems to be feeling more and more familiar, hate it even more?
That is why we need that river, more than ever. Drink deep from its sustenance and eat heartily from the fruit of the trees alongside; trees that have the power to heal the nations. Heal the nations! Drink and eat every time we choose to lay a grudge aside, feed a hungry person, go out of our way to do what we think Jesus would’ve done. Drink and eat every time we choose to “speak out” and “work for” – speak out against injustice and inequality and work for the reconciliation of all. Drink and eat every time we put our trust and faith not in what others or our culture says, but in a God who never forgets God’s people, who brings the exiles back, who promises all of us sanctuary and shelter and an eternal home.
And on every Sunday, but especially this Sunday, we gather here to worship God and dare to talk about crazy stuff like hope and mercy and most of all love. Show through our presence here that we absolutely will not lose faith. Grieve, yes. Be angry, yes. But not lose faith. If anything, our resolve strengthened. Our desire to have hard, meaningful conversations about things like racism and gun violence and human brokenness, renewed. That kind of stuff drives the hate-filled heart nuts. And demonstrates in the clearest way possible that they will never win.
Because there is a river, and it runs through Charleston, through Charlotte, through everywhere and through everyone, now and forever. Cascading waters of hope in a sometimes hopeless world. If we are talking about what’s in the Bible, in Revelation – which is what we should be talking about – that’s what’s there.
So drink deep, my friends. Eat heartily. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.