(Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8a, 12-13)
In light of some of the heavy things we’ve been talking about in this sermon series on Revelation, I thought I’d begin today’s sermon with a little levity.
There once were three men who died and met St. Peter on the outskirts of heaven at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter looked at the first and said, “Let’s see, according to the report I have on you here, you’ve led an outstanding life. You’ve never been in trouble with the law, you haven’t committed any major sins, and your record is impeccable. You can go right on into heaven.” Peter opened the gates and the first man walked in.
St. Peter picked up his report and looked at the second person, “Well, it says here that you’ve basically led a good life. However, you were involved in some mischief as a youngster. But nothing major. It’s a close call, but I think you’re okay to head one in.” The second breathed a sigh of relief and quickly ran through the gates.
Peter then turned his attention to the third, and made a face as he looked over the report. “Hmm, you’ve led a very troubled life, haven’t you? You cheated on a math test in middle school, you ran 15 stop signs and 26 red lights, you got into a fistfight with your neighbor, and for the past five years you failed to file a tax return. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go to purgatory a little while to repent.”
And just as he, with head lowered, turned and began walking away, St. Peter stopped him. Hey wait a minute,” he said, “what’s that you’re wearing?” The man looked down at the Wake Forest logo emblazoned on his sweatshirt. “So you’re a Wake fan, huh? And I see in your report that you supported the Charlotte Hornets back when Michael Jordan was making draft picks. Well, tell you what. You head right on in to heaven, son. Forget purgatory – you’ve been there already!”
It’s funny, of course – because it’s true. Oh, it’s so true! But I didn’t tell you this joke just to tell a joke – you probably gathered that. I told it because of what struck me when I first heard it – and by the way, it was the Chicago Cubs originally. Beyond poking fun at a lousy sports team, which we all like doing, it reminded me of the obsession we humans – and particularly Christians – have with the afterlife. Whether we “make the cut!” Heaven and Hell. And specifically: which one we’re going to.
I mean, we’ve talked about an awful lot of things the past two weeks; things that may have been totally news to us. Nike power versus Lamb power. The River of Life and the Tree of Life. But when all’s said and done, the driving force behind so much of our culture’s understanding of this very last book in the Bible tends to boil down to this: it’s about making sure we go to heaven when we die, and not “that other place.” In fact, for some folks it’s been drilled into their brain that this is the sole purpose of Christianity, and really, the only reason for our life on earth.
Now I think you should know that I’m not comfortable with that understanding. I’ve never cared for the idea that this life means little more than determining our eternal destination. If our focus is solely on the life to come, that means we can excuse ourselves from a whole lot of stuff in the here and now. It means we can let things like Nike power keep doing their Nike thing, having its way with the world, because this world is not our concern.
Instead, I believe God calls us to live faithfully in this world as much for what’s here and now, right in front of us, as for the time that is to come. The two are inextricably bound together. And the thing is, Revelation really does have something to say about the here and now. In fact, that’s perhaps the book’s greatest emphasis. It is speaking boldly and prophetically to the Christians of its day, suffering under Roman rule, looking for some reason to have hope that their life actually means something.
Take, for instance, our passage today. Our good friend John is putting the finishing touches on this elaborate vision where Jesus returns and the world is redeemed. Except in this instance he is joined by Jesus himself, who speaks up and shares two things.
First, Jesus refers to himself as the “Alpha” and the “Omega,” which any seminary student or fraternity or sorority pledge could tell you are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Today we’d say Jesus is the “A” and the “Z” – kinda catchy! What we’d really be saying, of course, is that Jesus is the beginning and the end of everything. In other words, as long as the world has existed, and even before and after that, Jesus is.
The other thing Jesus tells John – and tells him over and over again – is that he is coming. In fact, the Greek verb for “come” is used six times in this passage alone. The Spirit says come. The bride says come. Surely I am coming. I am coming soon! And John responds to this emphatic repetition with an appropriate proclamation: Come, Lord Jesus! Come!
Indeed, come Lord Jesus! You ever shared that sentiment before? I had a friend growing up who told me his grandmother would always say that. She’d be watching the news or reading the paper, something bad; and he’d hear her say it softly, many times, usually preceded with a sigh: Come, Lord Jesus!
What about you? When you hear about the gridlock in our nation’s capital, where people put political agendas ahead of the greater good, have you ever thought, “Come, Lord Jesus?” When another tsunami or earthquake devastates another country, especially a country that in some way has already been devastated enough, have you ever thought, “Come, Lord Jesus?” When nine precious souls are murdered in cold blood in a church basement in Charleston, when yet another African-American church goes up in flames, do you think to yourself, “Come, Lord Jesus?” It is a prayer of intervention, of course. Intercede, God! Make your presence known! But it’s also something else: it is a prayer of hope.
And right there is perhaps the greatest challenge to reading and understanding Revelation. Try as we might, we don’t always see the hope that is there. We fall into the trap of thinking that Revelation is only concerned with what’s going to happen in the future, rather than what’s happening now. We become absorbed with prophecies and predictions, instead of the realities of today. And that’s the crux of the whole thing. For if we focus on what may happen at some point down the road, we conveniently sidestep all the issues happening around us right now.
And see, that’s where I have a bone to pick with this “punching-our-ticket-to-heaven” Christianity that so many people derive from Revelation. It conveniently sidesteps one very important fact – that this Bible of ours is comprised of 65 other books – books that talk about things like loving our neighbor and forgiving our enemies and clothing the naked and bearing our crosses and being good stewards of the environment. 65 other books that tell stories of women and men of faith who followed God with their very lives, not always perfectly but always faithfully. And one story of a man sent by God to redeem the world – “for God so loved the world,” right? – so that all people can experience everlasting peace and grace and mercy and love.
More and more I realize that too many folks have grown up with a skewed understanding of Revelation, and a version of Christianity that at its very heart is rooted in fear. Fear of being left behind. Fear of not getting to heaven. Even fear of God. So here’s the unequivocal truth, people: Revelation is not some mysterious prophecy we’re supposed to figure out. Revelation is not about predicting future events. What Revelation is about, is painting a picture of God’s kingdom on earth, and – and this is important – and painting that picture in a way that cannot help but influence the way we live our lives today. And not by scaring us into submission – which is what fear does – but by instilling in us the promise and hope of what is to come. And there’s only one thing that can do that; one thing that can carry us through the brokenness to yearn for what is already here and what is still yet to come. And that, my friends, is love.
But not just any love. As the apostle Paul describes, this love takes practice, takes intentionality, takes dedication. It’s more than simply a feeling of the heart – it is an act of the will. It is not about trying to scare us into compliance or painting a future scenario where this world is destroyed for a new one. That’s not love. It’s not about convincing people of faith that to be strong in faith means being strong in the world. That’s not love. And it’s not about living our lives with little regard for the here and now, thinking only of what it can get us in the life to come. That’s not love.
This is a love made for the body of Christ. A love which reminds us that no one has all the answers. A love which points us to something other than the letter of the law: the spirit behind it; so that we don’t idolize anything other than the God we worship. A love which transforms the individual and community so that our lives are ruled not by the whims and ways of a broken world but by a God who calls us into God’s shalom. And a love which pounds into our brains, so we never forget, that this love is always greater than fear; always greater than hate.
Evangelist and noted speaker Tony Campolo loves to tell the story of a late-night visit to a doughnut shop while traveling. Unbeknowest to him, this doughnut shop was a hangout for some of the local prostitutes. As he nibbled on his doughnut he overheard a conversation between two of them in the booth next to his. One, named Agnes, said, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” Her friend snapped back, “So whadya want from me? A birthday party? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” The first woman, notable stung, replied, “Aw, I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my life. Why should I have one now?”
As Tony heard all of this, an idea started brewing in his head. When the two women left, he asked the shop owner if Agnes came in every night; and when he said yes, Tony pitched his idea for a surprise party conspiracy. They arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes. The next night when she came in long after midnight, they shouted, “Surprise!” – and Agnes couldn’t believe her eyes. The doughnut shop patrons sang, and she began to cry so hard she could barely blow out the candles. When the time came to cut the cake, she asked if they’d mind if she didn’t cut it, if she could take it home – just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. So she left, carrying her cake like a treasure.
The shop owner came up to Tony with tears in his eyes and asked what he did for a living. When Tony told him he was a preacher, the owner asked incredulously what kind of church he came from and what kind of God he believed in. And Tony replied, “I believe in a God who throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning!”
That is love, my friends – love of the highest order. And that is why we don’t have to wait for the kingdom Revelation concludes with. We don’t have to wait for God’s love to move mightily through us and bring about everything we hope for. That kingdom is already here! And all it needs us to do is start living as if we were in it. Because we are. Because we most certainly are!
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!