Sunday, September 20, 2015
Does anyone besides me share a love for a good mystery? I wouldn’t say I was obsessed but I enjoy Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis, Sherlock Homes in his many manifestations, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and most of the other British mysteries on PBS. I have read all of Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series and several of the Wallander tales by Henning Mankell. Now I confess, I am not very good at figuring out “whodunit.” I actually enjoy being surprised in the end when the erstwhile detective reveals it all to you. Maybe you’re one of those people who reads the end of the book first because you are impatient to know how it will all turn out. Personally, I would rather savor the story, even delaying the final disclosure in order to remain immersed in the experience of the adventure. Revelation will come in its own time; there is something satisfying for me in the enjoyment of the journey.
Or how many of you predicted the outcome of all the college football games yesterday? Who knew that the Texas kicker would miss the extra point and Cal would hang on to win 45 to 44? Who had scripted ahead of time Stanford’s masterful victory over 6th ranked USC or Mississippi’s upset of Alabama? There’s an old adage that proclaims that no one can guarantee the outcome in advance, that’s why you play the game. I suppose in this age of fantasy football one could make a fortune if she could predict accurately the outcome of all the games.
Sometimes we are eager for all to be revealed; sometimes we would rather give ourselves over to the journey. Often, we have no control over the outcome of a given story or situation and must patiently await its unfolding over time. We may find ourselves living in hope of a certain something that is to come but find we have no way to guarantee that our particular desire will be fulfilled.
Sometimes we dream. We may have a vision of the future. We may be flooded with imagery of some thing or some place or some story. It may be a revelation, but dreams and visions are not always clear, at least on the surface. They offer curious characters and situations and relationships that we cannot easily grasp. I know over the years some of you have engaged in dream work through this church. I admit that I am not a great or gifted interpreter of dreams. When I have done dream work with clients or parishioners or spiritual directees, I have always begun by asking the dreamer what they think the dream meant. I believe that that is the most fruitful way to enter another’s dream world rather than offering pre-packaged interpretations.
However, with John of Patmos, his vision was written down and distributed to his community. Others picked it up and, strange as it may seem, included it in the Bible. That means, as people of the Book, we are at least invited to consider it. Volumes have been written by scholars and schemers, seekers and dreamers, trying to make sense of John’s vision. More than one purported prophet or eschatologically-oriented community has tried to use it to predict the actual unfolding of the future. This great beast or that bloody battle are indicators that some tyrant or other fierce being is foreordained to bring about the end of the world. In spite of Jesus’ clear instructions to leave end things to God, many a Christian claimant has given over ministry and even life to following the belief that a particular piece of Revelation will lead them through Armageddon to the gates of heaven, avoiding the eternal flames of the lake of fire.
I suppose it is partly because Revelation comes at the end of the Bible that Brian McLaren has chosen to treat it in the penultimate chapter of his book. I actually like that he pairs John’s great apocalyptic vision with hope. I believe he is right about this. More than anything, John’s vision is an offering of hope for the fulfillment of God’s Beloved Community. I know there are lots of beasts and battles, bloodshed and burning, before one reaches the golden shores of the River of Life. But, following McLaren and other scholars, I can see how Revelation offers hope for an oppressed people.
We have considered before how little most of us know about oppression, at least the sort that John’s community was facing. Although it was not necessarily a period of wide-spread persecution, it was a time when Christians were a decided minority. In a polytheistic culture, it was tolerable for Jews and Christians to worship their God, but it was a curiosity that they would limit themselves to only one God when a multiplicity of gods could be so much more useful. I imagine that today we don’t understand their world view any better than ancient peoples understood monotheism. In our culture, we turn exclusively to “our God” and often treat other religions with disdain, both subtle and obvious. As Christians in the USA we don’t really grasp the oppression those early Christ-followers faced nor do we see the elitist attitude we often take toward faith traditions outside our own today.
In addition to the general skepticism and disdain for the religious practices of the early church, there was also the problem of emperor worship, which had social and political implications for Christ-followers. If the emperor claimed to be a god and demanded worship as well as tribute and if the emperor was as mad as Nero or Diocletian, any noncompliance could be met with bloody persecution. So you can see how those first followers of Christ were caught in a dilemma. If they spoke up for their faith they were liable to experience social ostracism and outright persecution. If they kept their mouths shut they were guilty of failing to spread God’s Good News to the ends of the earth. It was not a comfortable position to be in. Today, we may choose to keep quiet about our faith in order to maintain social nicety or not rock the boat or respect others’ points of view, but I doubt that most of us know well the dilemma our ancestors faced in following the faith.
McLaren and others suggest that Revelation functions as kind of code – not code for us to use in deciphering literal end times and the disposition of heaven and hell. Rather it is an allegory about the ultimate failure of all principalities and powers that place themselves in opposition to the living God and the final fulfillment of creation in God’s Beloved Community. We can get hung up on the intricate and gory details of John’s dream. Many have, but in the end John means to offer a word of hope to a people who were struggling to maintain their faith in an inhospitable environment. In the end, John says the powers that be will be overcome and God’s reign will be fulfilled on earth. How exactly that will happen is in God’s hands. It will be accomplished in God’s time and God’s way. In the meantime, God’s people are asked to remain faithful, to put their trust in God, to live in hope for the fulfillment of God’s future.
McLaren writes, “Rather than giving its original readers a coded blueprint of the future, Revelation gave them visionary insight into their present situation. It told them that the story of God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant participating with God in God’s unfolding story. God wasn’t a distant, terrifying monster waiting for vengeance at the end of the universe. God was descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 256).
Hear again these words that sum up John’s vision, his great revelation, the way the story ends – “’See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.’” Then,”The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. “
It’s a complex invitation. On one side we hear the invitation from heaven to come, partake of the wedding feast of Christ and the church. On another we are encouraged to speak up, to invite others to come, share the feast with us. And from a third perspective, we shout to heaven, “Even so Christ Jesus quickly come,” as we long for the fulfillment of our hope that the Beloved Community will become our reality as soon as possible.
As McLaren writes in our Words of Preparation, “What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. That’s why Revelation ends with the sound of a single word echoing through the universe…It is a word of invitation, welcome, reception, hospitality, and possibility. It is a word not of ending, but of new beginning. That one word is Come! The Spirit says it to us. We echo it back. Together with the Spirit, we say to everyone who is willing, Come!” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 256). “…let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Come!