(Revelation 21: 1-6; Isaiah 25: 1-10)
When I was in high school, I wanted to be just like Mark Camacho. Mark went to college at NC State – but that’s not why I wanted to be like him. Mark was tall and had a great mustache – but that’s not why I wanted to be like him. The reason I wanted to be like Mark Camacho was because Mark led music for my high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes that met every Wednesday night. He played guitar and got us all singing, which I thought was pretty cool and might be, you know, something I’d like to do myself someday.
Mark let me help him as kind of his backup guitar guy, and I learned a lot of great songs from Mark; some of which I still use today when I lead music, like I’m going to at Montreat in a few weeks. But there’s one song, in hindsight, that I wish we’d never sung. It’s by a guy named Larry Norman – sort of one of the founders of what we’d call contemporary Christian music. The song is called I Wish We’d All Been Ready, and as best as I can tell it is Larry’s take on the book of Revelation. Theology aside, which I’ll get to in a minute, it has to be qualify of the biggest disconnects ever between music and lyrics. The tune is slow and soothing, all Kum-ba-Yah like; makes you want to put your arms around the person next to you and start swaying back and forth.
But the words – well, they’re something else entirely. The first verse goes like this:
Life was filled with guns and war,
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we’d all been readyThere’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it? The last verse really sticks it to you:
A man and wife asleep in bed,
She hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone,
I wish we’d all be ready,
Two men walking up a hill,
One disappears and one’s left standing still,
I wish we’d all been ready,
There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
And we’d always go for the big finish:
You’ve been left behind
You’ve been left.
All these years later, and I cannot for the life of me understand why Mark had us singing that song, or why I helped him lead it.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the kinds of things we’ve been talking about in this sermon series – pulling back the curtain on the mystery of Revelation. There is so much in this book that we do not see, and so much that’s not in there that we think is. One of which is captured in the last verse of that song; that whole bit about a husband disappearing and a fellow traveler vanishing from sight. It’s talking, of course, about the Rapture.
Now this whole notion of Rapture is something that’s ever-present in our consciousness and in our culture – whether it’s a song by Larry, or geopolitical influences, or this: a postcard that, I kid you not, arrived in my church mailbox this past week. Like I planned it that way. You can’t see it, but it’s right up Larry Norman’s alley – complete with a detailed interpretation of current events aligned with specific Revelation verses, a cosmic timetable of the world’s demise, and of course, a bit about our President being the antichrist thrown in for good measure.
And of course there were those “Left Behind” books – do you remember those? The first one’s been made into two separate movies, starring Kirk Cameron in one and Nicholas Cage in the other. Both play airline pilot Rayford Steele, a self-professed agnostic who discovers, much to his horror, that dozens of passengers on his transcontinental flight have mysteriously vanished in mid-flight. The only trace of them is their clothing neatly folded in piles where they last sat or stood. From there the story, recounted in sixteen books, launches into an epic battle between good and evil; good represented by the “Tribulation Force,” a self-appointed conglomerate of “left behind” believers who use souped-up Land Rovers and state-of-the-art artillery to fight the Antichrist and his minions.
It’s a decent little tale of good verses evil on a cosmic scale. But then again, so is Star Wars.
If you recall our first sermon from a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that the word “rapture” does not appear anywhere in Revelation – nor the word “Antichrist,” for that matter. Interestingly enough, there are a few other things that are missing from Revelation; things that might come as a surprise to us. For one, there is no mention of people suddenly vanishing or disappearing. It’s not in there. Nor is there anything in Revelation about random piles of folded clothing – which is a shame, because that’d be pretty cool; you wouldn’t have to worry about folding them yourself. But it’s not in there. There’s also nothing in Revelation about the end of the world – did you know that? Nowhere does it say that the world ever comes to an end. We’ve just made that assumption on our own for some reason. It’s not in there. And there’s certainly nothing in Revelation about the faithful using souped-up Land Rovers or state-of-the-art artillery – it’s not Nike power but lamb power, remember? Left Behind may be an intriguing read, but it – like so much stuff out there – is not based in scripture. It is 100% fiction.
The problem is that many people view these Rapture narratives as the gospel truth – either openly or subconciously. Every once in a while in the college New Testament class I used to teach, when we’d study Revelation, I’d get a student who’d say something to me like: You know, Dr. Lindsley, reading Revelation is way too confusing. That’s why I like the Left Behind books. They help me understand the Bible so much better! Which, in addition to making me throw up a little in my mouth, also strikes me as being along the lines of going to the Grand Canyon and doing nothing more than looking at the postcards of it in the gift shop.
There are those who evoke Rapture as a rationale for the unimportance and unnecessity of “creation care” – things like reducing CO2 emmissions and recycling and protecting rain forests – because, in their mind, Jesus is going to whisk the faithful away, so why bother? I’ve actually met people who believe that trashing the planet is an effective and faithful way to speed up the timetable to hasten Christ’s return. All because we’re going to be taken away to a “new world.”
In fact, let’s take a closer look at that “new world,” shall we? It’s near the end of John’s grand vision on the island of Patmos; and in it, evil has been vanquished forever. The kingdom of God is finally at hand! And John tells us about this “new heaven” and “new earth” and “new Jerusalem” that come down from the clouds, and how God will dwell with us – not as a distant relative on the other side of town, but more like our next-door neighbor – which is a pretty cool image, if you think about it.
But you know, all these “new” things in John’s vision are not “new” as in “totally different” new; like when you trade in your beat-up truck for a hot-off-the-assembly-line Lexus. This isn’t a “new earth” as in the old one no longer exists. The actual Greek here, in all three instances – new earth, new heaven, new Jerusalem – the actual Greek suggests “re-newed” or “restored.” So it’s is the same earth, the same heaven, the same Jerusalem. It’s just they’re not old anymore. They’ve been forever and wonderfully transformed from what they used to be into something fresh and life-giving and new. Which kind of flies in the face of those who say we can trash this planet because God’s just gonna give us a new one. Doesn’t work that way.
And you know, I love the way John reacts to all of this – he says it’s like “a bride adorned for her husband.” So, to all the husbands out there, guys, you remember standing at the front of the church on your wedding day, when that door in the back flung open, and there was your wife-to-be in her wedding finest – you remember how that made you feel? Your knees got all weak, your stomach knotted up, your heart started racing and your breathing got all shallow. You were totally oblivious to the goofy ear-to-ear grin that suddenly spread across your face and everyone told you about later. Your whole body was rejoicing in this “revelation!”
That’s exactly what everyone of us will feel when God’s kingdom on earth comes into our view. We’ll be overwhelmed with joy, led to do whatever we can to live into that kingdom right here and now – in the way we treat others, in how we care for God’s creation and how we work for things like justice and compassion and peace. And it certainly informs our understanding about how all this will happen – which is why I don’t sing Larry Norman songs or read Left Behind books anymore.
Although I gotta hand it to ol’ Larry and the Left Behind authors. They were right about one thing – there are a few things that will be “left behind” when all is said and done. A number of things that absolutely do not make their way into this renewed Jerusalem. John of Patmos proclaims it loudly:
Death will be no more, he says –
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the old things have passed away.
Just imagine that! In fact, seriously, imagine that. Close your eyes, if you would, and picture yourself in this Renewed Jerusalem. Whatever it looks like to you, whatever you see in this beautiful city. And at some point you walk over to the city walls and look down at what’s on the outside looking in. Look at what you see there. Suffering and Persecution are down there, standing right next to Injustice and Inequality; and none of them can get in. Disease and Hunger are trying to find a back door, but they won’t do it. Cancer doesn’t stand a chance of making it into the city. Partisanship and gridlock and egos – nope. Depression and Anxiety are left out, as are Hate and Prejudice and especially Racism. War – for the first time, Nike is on the losing end! War isn’t getting in. Even Death – the ultimate manifestation of Nike power – even Death is shut out of the city. These are the things, my friends, that will be “left behind” in God’s renewed kingdom. You can open your eyes now.
I want you to hold on to that image, okay? Hold on to it when you feel in some way like you’re the one that’s been left behind. Because if anything, that picture of Revelation, painted so beautifully in scripture, proclaims loud and clear that we do not have to be afraid anymore. We can respond by pledging our allegiance to lamb power even when the world around us continues to pledge theirs to old Nike. We can proclaim the inclusive nature of God’s kingdom as a place where all people can live in peace. And most of all, we can declare an eternal hope – hope that renews, hope that sustains, hope that can make a difference in a sometimes hopeless world.
And I’ll tell you this – if that were ever captured in a song, and it probably is, that’s a tune that Mark and I should’ve been singing all along. That’s a tune we all should be singing.
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!
 http://www.delusionresistance.org/christian/larry/larry09.html, visited on 7.7.2015.