The Rev. Frank
In the End, God
This morning we had a reading from the Revelation to John. Revelation is a book that frightens some preachers away, while attracting others. The great Reformation preacher Martin Luther did not preach on Revelation. He wrote no commentary and in that was joined by fellow reformer John Calvin, who commented on the other 65 books of the Bible and gave Revelation a miss.
The church was nervous about Revelation from the earliest of days. On of the first heresies was Monatism, which grew from the minister Monatus and his teachings on Revelation. Monatus read Revelation as referring to his own day and went on to say that God was giving him new revelations as well. Monatus led many astray from the Christian church and left the impression that this letter could easily be misunderstood and might do harm as well as good.
Revelation almost did not make it in the Bible. In considering the canon of scripture, what should be sanctioned for public reading in worship, the church usually put an asterix next to Revelation. Prayerfully, over time, the church over came its reticence and came to see that Revelation should not just be in scripture, but should get the last word, taking the important position of being the final book of our Bible. If Genesis gets to declare “In the beginning, God,” then Revelation was given the opportunity to add, “In the end, God,” as well.
If you think the church dwells a lot on the end of times, that pales in comparison to Hollywood. Our movies are practically obsessed with the end times. There are seemingly countless movies with the world coming to an end and that end being averted in some way. The end of the world is a frequent feature in films.
I want to look at a scene from Deep Impact. A comet is racing toward the earth. A space ship named Messiah has been sent to detonate nuclear bombs in the core of the comet to destroy it. Instead, the bombs split the comet in two and there are now two comets racing toward earth. The concern is now that everyone might not be able to be saved.
It is no longer a time for platitudes, politically correct statements meant for replay on the nightly news. It is a time to lay it on the line and say where you stand.
The movie deals with not everyone being saved and I wanted to see that alongside our reading from Revelation which tells of 144,000 being sealed out of all the tribes of Israel. Personally I believe this to be a symbolic number showing how many will be sealed from Israel, not a limiting number. I don’t think that the rest of scripture fits with the concept of number 144,000 and one in line being out of luck. Instead I think this number is symbolic the way the angels at four corners of the earth is symbolic. The angels at the corners were to signify God sending angels over the whole earth to mark his own people. The 144,000 shows a great number from Israel.
I am prepared to be wrong about the exactness of that number, but in any case, those are added to with more people than can be counted from all the earth. Each of them has been persecuted for their faith and come through to wash their garments white in the blood of the Lamb. These are not even the sum total of faithful Christians, they are the countless number who have stood up to being persecuted for their faith.
It has been easy throughout history for people to look at their own times and see Revelation as describing their situation. In the mid to late 60s, by which I mean the year 62 A.D. to 70 A.D. Most everyone was convinced that the code number 666 referred to Nero Caesar. At the turn of the first millennium, from the year 999 to the year 1,000, there was a general fear that crept through the church, which made anything Y2K served up look tame. Everyone was convinced that the thousand year mark was sure to bring Armageddon. Then in the 1500s, reformers including Martin Luther and John Calvin came to think the Pope was the antichrist. How could Christians living in Europe during the 1930s not see the rise of Hitler as being the beast of Revelation coming in to power. And on it goes.
The only thing I can say with certainty about the time of Jesus return is that I don’t know when it will happen, for scripture tells us that no one knows the hour or the day and our Lord will return like a thief in the night. I don’t know, because I am not supposed to know.
But, there are things we can gain from Revelation without unlocking any secret to interpretation. After all, this book was important to the early church and to Christians over time even when they have not read their own time as being the time described by the apocalypse. I believe that scripture can be fulfilled more than once as it works its way toward ultimate fulfillment. As Revelation is a true depiction of the way the world works, then we should expect other world leaders to rise and fall before we get to the Beast of John’s vision. Other world events are bound to closely parallel these ultimate events. And so, whether our days are, in fact, the last few days before Jesus’ return or not, we can still benefit from this vision.
First, we should acknowledge that Revelation was not a private book for someone to go off alone and figure it all out. In fact, it was to be read in a church out loud in one sitting. It helps to put things in context.
What has happened in the six chapters of the book before our reading is this. John wrote to seven churches in Asia with specific messages. I believe that these were written to seven real congregations described in the letter and I also believe that many other congregations have fit these descriptions over time and will do so till the end of time. There are churches like the church in Ephesus who was enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of Christ, yet they had also fallen away from the fever of their first love for God. And so on through the other six churches, all of whom continue to be represented today.
After three chapters of these messages, John then describes worship in heaven with bold picture language and Technicolor clarity. In chapter six, John begins to describe the Lamb breaking open seven seals. With each of the first four seals, come the four horsemen of the apocalypse—the white horse with a crown riding to conquer, the bright red horse come to take peace from the earth, the black horse with scales in its hand followed by the pale green horse of death, with Hades following after.
These seals were to sort of thing that kept me up at night as a preteen as I felt I had to understand the end time prophecies found there to get a better grip on what was happening then in the 1970s. What I read in Revelation read more like a nightmare of a vision than a road map for the future and I was left dazed and confused. For as the vision unfolds, we don’t look forward to the seals being opened.
The fifth seal then reveals the souls of those killed for their faith and they cry out wanting to know how long they must wait. The sixth seal is opened and there is an earthquake, the sun goes black and the moon turns to blood. The kings of the earth and powerful generals go hide, rich and powerful seek out caves trying to hide from the wrath of the Lamb. They cry aloud, “Who is able to stand?”
Then we come to our reading for today. Do you see how everything has built up to this point. We are now ready for the seventh seal to be broken and who knows what evil will now befall the whole earth. Then four angels appear and say, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.”
This image of being sealed with a mark on ones’ forehead would have sounded familiar to early Christians as then, as now, Christians were marked in oil with the sign of the cross on their foreheads in baptism. We say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It is this seal on the foreheads showing that no one can take these Christians away from their shepherd. No matter what history holds, it’s OK, really. You are Christ’s forever.
The next chapter will begin with the seventh seal being opened and all heaven falling silent for half an hour. Next great destruction will be described, but first, we get the pause that reminds us that all of this is in God’s hands. We don’t have to sort out all the picture language from Revelation and make sure that it works out. God reminds us here “You’re mine, whatever this means, you are mine. I will wipe away every tear.”
This letter was written in a time of heavy persecution and it meant a lot to show these people died for there faith gathered with Christ in heaven. Christ saying, “It’s gonna be OK. I am with you in this persecution and on the other side of it as well.” This text has meant a lot to many generations of persecuted Christians through the centuries.
We live in America where being Christian is a nice safe option. It is easy to be Christian here. Too easy. We cannot get the full-blown version of Christianity, because we have been inoculated with a lesser strain. Like a vaccination against the real thing. Then we don’t act any different. We don’t act like folks who have been marked as Christ’s own forever.
We come to take the Word of God for granted. We were never called to a nice, safe Christianity. Jesus called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. That is an image of humility and obedience to death. If we lived as Christ called us to live, we might ruffle some feathers. We could start to seem too Christian to our friends and neighbors. God never called us to a nice, safe Christianity but to a relationship of trust no matter what the world may bring.
We are told in our reading for today that the lamb at the center of the throne is our shepherd who will lead us to the springs of the water of life. That means, “I am with you in the midst of whatever you are going through and I will make sure you get what you need.”
We don’t have to have the secret key to unlock Revelation for this to make a difference in our lives. We can be bold enough to let the scales fall away to see clearly that we are simply called to live as Jesus taught us to live. No matter what that means. If people look at you different, that is OK. Live as Christ lived. Love as Christ loved. Don’t play it safe. It will turn out all right in the end.
You have been marked as Christ’s own forever and nothing can take that away from you.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526