Welcome to this respite from and response to the anxieties it seems everyone is feeling about the election. Anxiety is up, appointments with therapists are on the rise, and even the APA has published official recommendations for reducing election-season stress. (One of the main points, that we should be sure to vote— because it increases our sense of self-empowerment— might need to be revised after this week, when widespread fears of voter fraud might well turn our voting places into a kind of war zone). Thanks, APA!
What’s worse, we find ourselves tuning into our favorite media outlets— and even unconsciously organizing our social media feeds— to create echo chambers and repeated reinforcers of our own cognitive bias. We take in the same perspectives to enjoy that oh-so-awesome feeling that “I am RIGHT”. It’s the best kind of drug. And the more we take it the crazier the other side seems to be.
So it’s a mess that keeps getting messier, and the good Lord only knows what might happen in the next few weeks.
And what about what happens *after* the elections? We noted last week that lots of people, everywhere— and from all points of the political spectrum!— are predicting the beginning of The End come January, when their sworn enemy takes office. We hear threats and promises that the wrong person being elected— whomever that might be— will usher in the End of Days. Christians, especially, are quick to invoke apocalyptic, end-of-the-world rhetoric.
So, in a crazy move that is hopefully just crazy enough to work, we have chosen to explore this very literature— apocalyptic literature, especially typified by the final book in the Bible (“The Revelation of John”), as well as another section of the Hebrew Bible book of Daniel, along with several of the teachings of Jesus.
This is literature that is— in spite of many opinions to the contrary— is not intended to be predictive, except in a general kind of way. It’s written for people of faith who are being persecuted for their beliefs, in order to encourage them to persevere.
Admittedly, the remedy we have chosen might be a bit severe… most of the apocalyptic teachings are wild and a bit scary… many-headed monsters, death-dispensing horsemen, battles bathed in blood. Why, last week, our 10-year-old volunteer scripture reader added the tongue-twister “blasphemous” to her vocabulary. It’s graphic stuff!
But let’s first recall that this word ‘apocalypse’— means something very much like revelation. Uncovering. Unveiling. At a more popular level, “apocalypse” has come to be identified with cataclysmic events, catastrophic natural disasters, and end-of-the-world happenings. And John is suggesting that, yes, the world will occasionally see these kinds of events, but these events are not the point. These events will disrupt things, but even more they will *reveal* what was there all along. They will Uncover… unveil both the evil systems present in the world, but also the God-bathed goodness aching to break through. The things that were always there, all along.
So let’s just face this thing squarely, right at the top.
We’re worried about the end of the world, and perhaps rightly so.
But ironically, part of the remedy about the worries about the end of the world is the reminder that, as a matter of fact, the world as we know it will end. John writes emphatically that Rome will crumble. The major global superpower will someday cease to exist.
Of course this is not shocking to us, because that is ancient history. But if I say, ‘The USA will crumble’, we might start to approach some empathy and understanding about what John is saying to his readers. When he said, “Rome will topple”, those in places of power and privilege felt some real fear… they worried about their investments, property, jobs, social standing, etc.. But there were a whole lot of other people who heard ‘Rome will crumble” and they felt genuine relief. Excitement, even. They had been oppressed by Rome, and the powers in place, and that sounded like great news, indeed.
So maybe the solution to our fears is a smaller or larger dose of fear. If you’re worried that the world might be upended, John offers you a kind of immunization— an injection of a bit of the truth to help you adjust your reality. Actually, you’re right! Or perhaps it’s more like chemotherapy, which kills off that cancer of the Empire that’s growing inside your body and mind.
It reminds me of a powerful piece of provocation. From science fiction, which is usually a very good thing. Whether you like the Charleton Heston old stuff, or the more modern remakes, the films Planet of the Apes can help us tune our minds to the message of John’s Revelation. In these films set far in the future, we are shown the remnants of the human civilization in an age where primates are ruling the planet. It’s mind-bending and a bit difficult to see monuments, great cities, and famous structures toppled. But this is exactly what John’s imaginative poetry does for his readers: it helps them see the world where their oppressors have been run out of town.
John seems to be saying: let’s not give our lives, or our souls, to build and extend and maintain and promote something that is this impermanent, and this ungrateful for our sacrifices. Let’s not build this human kingdom, this economic machine that is so often cruel to ourselves and others. Let’s focus on the church, our families, and ourselves. For the sake of the Kingdom of the Lamb.
In his book on apocalyptic literature, Jeffrey Pugh says, “the best way to resist empires is not to become like them; the oppression of others eats at your soul, turning you into the very thing that you hate. This was the warning of the prophets. It’s a word that gets lost today because it’s perceived as weak and worthless in the world we live in.” (174)
So let’s not root for death and destruction. Let’s be a people who welcome refugees, who care for orphans, and who don’t leverage ourselves against the poor and the powerless. In that moment of unveiling, let’s not find that we’ve been doing the work of the devil.
Because what God has for his people is oh so much better! We heard a bit about it in the Scripture reading earlier. Unlike a common expectation of escapism and arriving at a natural paradise, John envisions a CITY.
I was at my brother’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, in Rochester, MN. Or I should say outside of Rochester, and in fact outside of Chatfield, MN, on a Rural Route along a hilly gravel road. There, you can’t see your neighbors, separated as you are by miles or woods or both. It’s really beautiful, and the whole trip made me miss the Midwest a bit.
I used to live in a similar area, so I wasn’t surprised when it came: the slightly pointed, more than slightly skeptical query about the place I live. “But isn’t it hard living in *the city*?”
I remember these fears, these worries. Cities feel unsafe, and unpredictable, because they are so full of people. People mean conflict, and crime, and trouble. It means other folks bothering you, interrupting your quiet, stealing your calm.
So I nodded, and agreed that they were right. Those things are there. All of those possibilities for problems. But, I gently added, there are a lot of good things that can come when you live near people. You can have good neighbors, and community, and support, and friendship.
…I know I wasn’t convincing to anyone at that table at the wedding. They all grunted and nodded gently, then gave one dismissive half-head-shake that blew my silly ideas out of the air.
Those folks would presumably not be pleased with John’s suggestion about heaven. It’s not some vast natural park or endless beach. IT’S A CITY.
And not just any city— it’s a new version of Jerusalem. This very dirty, very common, very corrupt place will be re-created into something holy.
John’s Revelation is not some escapist fantasy. Heaven won’t be some retreat from neighbors and cities and the challenges of life in community— no. Heaven will be an embrace of and a recreation of all of that messy, painful, difficult stuff. Heaven will be the redemption of us, and everything all around us, into something much more beautiful and God-honoring.
Heaven will be filled with PEOPLE. People you like, and those you don’t. Which is why Jesus left us with so many teachings about how to treat people— because he knew we needed the practice. Which is why Jesus left us the church— the first proving ground for us to practice “loving our neighbor as ourselves”.
Which is why we will engage with another *practice* this week, to help us take another step along that path.
Praying from Revelation:
In his book on Revelation, Eugene Peterson claims that this book of Revelation was written not to inform, or to spark our faith… we have all the information we need about that in the rest of the Bible. No, he says, Revelation was not written to show us something new, but to spark our imagination. John, the writer of the Revelation, was both a pastor and a poet, writing to people in his churches to give them a new vision of the world, and the history being played out in their day and time.
So John’s words aren’t chosen to explain or describe something, but to *make* something– to create an experience. In the face of terrifying persecution, he is calling them to be playful, confident, and even a little bit reckless. John shows them the beginning of history, and the end of history, and then reminds then that they are right there smack dab in the middle of history. So Revelation is not some esoteric excursus on the end of the world, but it’s written for immediate use in the present circumstances of life.
And what are we supposed to do? John suggests that the people of God are people of *worship*. So let’s join them, and the characters in John’s epic apocalyptic poem and spend some time in worship.
We’ve printed out Peterson’s translations of these poems of worship, and we invite you to join in a responsive reading…
Arrived! salvation and power;
our God’s kingdom,
his Christ’s authority.
The Arch-Accuser, accusing our friends
day and night before God
is out, cast out.
They conquered him
through the Lamb’s blood
and their witnessing words.
So rejoice, heavens
and you who live there!
But woe, earth and sea!
the devil has landed
in a furious rage;
he knows his time is up.
Your works are immense and terrific
Lord God, all powerful,
Your ways are right and clear,
O King of the nations,
Who is not in awe of you, Lord,
does not celebrate your name?
You are holy– the one and only!
the nations have come, every one.
They see your judgments in plain sight
and are prostrate in adoration!
In Peterson’s book on Revelation, he strongly advocates for his position that the purpose of the whole book is to inspire worship. At the same time, I was glad that his definition of worship is a lot wider than singing songs or gathering in pretty buildings. He recognizes that worship is an everyday practice that we do as we interact with every single person we encounter. They are all a part of God’s creation, and part of our pursuit of God is the appreciation and respect we give to each of these people— these walking miracles, made in the image of God.
Too, Peterson points out that the Eucharist is both extraordinary and utterly ordinary. It is a meal with elements from our everyday life: flour and water, wine and juice. All of these, simple elements from God’s creation. And Eucharist invokes what Peterson calls, “The social shape of salvation”. We eat together, in an act of love and trust among friends and strangers, all together as equals before God. Eucharist defies our attempts to make salvation personal and pietistic— it’s a big bunch of people making space for one another, making some messes (we can’t do this without making a mess!), and breathing the same air.
So come. Not because you want to be here, or because you wrote the guest list.
Come because you are called here by our creator, just like the person sitting next to you.
Come, not because you are trying to escape the world, but because you want to taste the world, and see how good it is.