- Written by Mark Diller Harder Mark Diller Harder
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Windows into the Word: Apocalyptic
So, we have come to the end – the end of this worship series, the end of our look at the different Windows into the Word, the end of the Bible itself – we got to the last book – Revelation – the key book in terms of Apocalyptic literature. We have made it through to the end. Now there is something about arriving at the end of something, of completing a certain journey. We look back; we see what is good, what has been learned. I think many of us have very much enjoyed this series which helped us see the bigger picture of the Bible and the larger narrative arch – how the different pieces fit together. It has helped us place individual stories into the larger story and themes of the whole Bible and what God is about. But coming to the end of something also gets us asking what’s next? Is there more? Whether it is a series, a project, the Bible, life itself, we want to know what’s next, beyond the end. What is in the future? What does God have in store for us? Even as we live in the present, in the now, we ask about the future. In many ways, that is the big question in Revelation and the rest of the Apocalyptic literature – what is in the future, what is next, what comes after the end? What kind of space or attitude or perspective should we have in the present as we look to the future? This is no easy task. It moves us out of the realm of certainty, or things that are measureable and known. It feels like conjecture. It feels like wild imagining. Yet the books and passages we look at today are full of promise and anticipation, and above all, hope, a hope experienced very much in the present as much as the future.
We have talked throughout this worship series about the different kinds of literature we find in the Bible and that it makes a difference for how we understand it, whether we are dealing with narrative stories, legal treatise, history, prophetic writings, poetry, testimony, biography-gospel, letters, etc. The medium in many ways is the message, or at least shapes how we receive and understand the message; which means that we need to understand the medium, the type of literature, to understand what is being said.
This morning we are looking at what is called Apocalyptic literature. (I draw much on an article by Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse Now in Christianity Today, October 25, 1999 – http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/october25/9tc030.html and a book by Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001, chapter 10) This may be the most unfamiliar genre to us in the Bible, and probably the books we most ignore, because we can’t understand them, and they have been used so destructively by others. Apocalyptic literature was a genre of writing that flourished in Judaism from about 200 years before Christ to 100 years after. There are many examples beyond what we see in the Scriptures. The word comes from the Greek, ‘apokalypsis’, which means ‘unveiling’ or ‘disclosure,’ or ‘revealing.’ Something of the true meaning of reality is revealed; things that are hidden are made obvious and plain. It is literature full of wild visions and dreams and often including ‘luxuriant imagery, fabulous beasts, and symbolic numbers’ where ‘the present age is seen to be under the rule of evil powers who will soon be overthrown and destroyed by God, ushering in an age of blessedness for the faithful.’ (Ibid, Borg, p.268) Apocalyptic authors typically use lots of this symbolism to ‘unveil the truth that God still is in control of history, despite the apparent power of wicked rulers.’ (Ibid, Kraybill) At the same time, for the authors, their writing is very much about using these wild imaginations to reveal the present, to name the current powers that distort life. What are we missing because we are so much a part of and accommodated to our own culture that we can’t see true reality. There is a hyperbole and exaggeration of the present through all of these images and symbolism, that jolts and opens the listeners to actually be able to hear God’s word for them in the here and now, for the present in which we live. Nelson Kraybill, President of Mennonite World Conference and former President of our AMBS Seminary, has researched and written much about the book of Revelation and comments that it ‘heralds hope for persecuted believers and a wakeup call to those who didn’t realize how much they had compromised with evil. (Ibid, Kraybill) Maybe the closest parallel in our day are dystopian novels and movies, of which we have more and more fascination. Some of you will remember a few years ago when Bryan Moyer Suderman led our November Silver Lake MYF retreat on this very weekend, on this topic and on the Sunday morning back here compared dystopian novels and themes to parts of the gospel of Mark. Dystopian novels look grimly at the darkness of our world and the powers of evil and the potential for horrific endings. But in their overstatement, they often shed light on our own culture and distortions. For example, the Hunger Games can be seen as a commentary on the excess and exaggeration of reality TV and the expendability of people’s lives, including children. What dystopian literature does not do is give a strong message of hope and trust in God and God’s vision for a new world coming.
So, let’s take a look at the front of your Bibles one last time – to the table of contents. You will see that we have managed to talk about almost all of the books of both the Old and New Testament in this sweep of a worship series. So where is the Apocalyptic literature? Parts of it are hidden all over, whenever there are these future oriented imaginative passages. It springs up in various parts of the prophets like Joel and especially in the second half of Zechariah. We hear it in the Gospels and in some of the words of Jesus. For example, in the Lectionary cycle of Scriptures, 1st Advent always contains a gospel passage on the coming of the Son of Man or Second Coming of Christ, the end of the Age and the necessity of watchfulness. Take a quick look at Matthew chapters 24 and 25. These 2 chapters are all in that Apocalyptic style. My Bible has headings, and they read: ‘Signs of the End of the Age’, ‘Persecutions Foretold’, ‘The Desolating Sacrilege’, ‘The Coming of the Son of Man’, ‘The Lessons of the Fig Tree,’ ‘The Necessity for Watchfulness’, and then various parables on this topic, ending with ‘The Judgement of Nations’ - maybe the one passage on the sheep and the goats we do return to more frequently with its refrain of ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink... and so on.’ All of these are about a future time to come. I think it is instructive that while they teach us to keep alert and aware and watchful – in other words, to always life faithfully, they explicitly say that we do not know the day or time or hour and it will be unexpected – a word of caution to those who make all sorts of exact predictions. These Apocalyptic passages fit into a larger framework in the gospels and also in Paul that is sometimes named as ‘Already and not yet.’ The Kingdom of God has already come, it has been ushered in by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus – we live as if it is present, we model our lives on its vision, its hope, and yet it is not yet fully here. We still anticipate a full revealing of the vision and reality of God’s kingdom for us. It is not about trying to scare us about some sort of awful future.
Back to the table of contents. The two biggest examples of Apocalyptic writing are found in the second half of Daniel , found between Ezekiel and Hosea in our Bibles, and then in the book of Revelation to end our Scriptures. I want to take most of our time with these 2 books, partly because they tend to be the books we most avoid or are confused by in the entire Scriptures. They are not straightforward or easy to read, and there have been so many poor and damaging interpretations. If we don’t talk about and wrestle with them ourselves, we leave them to these interpretations. I suspect some of you carry baggage with these books, especially Revelation. It has been used to scare people about the end times, fiery judgement and what is sometimes called the rapture, a term not found in the Bible, but meaning the sudden sweeping up of all believers into heaven, leaving everyone else to a time of tribulation. There was a time in our history with much talk about rapture, dispensationalism, premilenialism and postmilenialism - fancy ways of outlining the timelines of the last days. I did not have much of that growing up, but at some point as a kid saw the ‘Thief in the Night’ movie meant to warn about this rapture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Thief_in_the_Night_(film)) , leading to the subsequent Left Behind books and movies, and at camp learned the Larry Norman song ‘I wish we’d all been ready’ with its refrain ‘It’s too late to change your mind, the Son has come, and you’ve been left behind.’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPJpZdEOILQ). Talk about scary. As Bryan Moyer Suderman said – ‘be careful what songs you teach your children.’ More recently, I heard from some of our young adults, that when they were younger and bored in church, they would flip through and read passages from Revelation just for fun. So it is important for us to actually re-examine these books of the Bible.
This morning I want to look at these 2 books through the lens and questions of our window. We have our last window up front today, and you have one in your bulletins. Since we have an intergenerational Sunday School time today, and our series is ending, this window will remain blank this morning – and maybe this is okay to leave our window open-ended and know that there will always remain questions for us. You are invited to again drop off your small windows after church. We will display all of these big windows in the upper foyer over the next couple of weeks for you to look at more closely. What I want to do this morning is ask the 4 questions we have been using each week.
So, the first question – What do you notice? These last few weeks, I spent time simply reading through the second half of Daniel and the book of Revelation. This is not easy reading. It is easy to get lost in all the symbolism and disturbing images. Let me give a brief overview. Many of us have heard the early stories in the first 6 chapters of Daniel about him and his dreams and his three friends Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego and their trials before King Nebuchadnezzar – being thrown into the fiery furnace and into the lion’s den. God saved them, a testimony to their faithfulness and commitment to God as they try to live in a foreign land. The Apocalyptic dreams start in chapter 7 where we typically stop reading. There are visions of 4 giant beasts and a powerful Ram and Goat and interpretations by the Angel Gabriel on which political powers these may represent. There are various timelines and numerology and then a whole list of nations and kings that rise up in power one after the next, each more evil and destructive than the last. There is also a pointing to an end time, a resurrection of the dead and a sudden and hopeful deliverance and restoration of the faithful. In the book of Revelation, it is John writing on the island of Patmos with his visionary experiences. I noticed that it is directed to 7 specific and known churches and a few years ago we looked at what it meant to talk about the angel of these churches and the angel of SJMC. Revelation too has its images and metaphors and numerology of 4’s and 7’s and 12’s. There are lampstands, seals, scrolls, thrones and trumpets. There are Elders, scary beasts and dragons and horses, angels, plagues, and Babylon described as a whore. There are battles and lakes of fire. Lots of scary stuff. But then Revelation too ends rather suddenly with visions of a new heaven and a new earth and a river of life for the healing of the nations, the passages we do tend to read, especially at funerals. Remember, this is all a part of an apocalyptic writing style, where the point is to use strange images to get across your point. As Nelson Kraybill writes, ‘John uses pictures and images to convey his inspired message. Think symbol. Think metaphor. Think poetry. Don’t get trapped with wooden literalism – unless you really expect to get to heaven and find that Jesus is a sheep.’ (Ibid, Kraybill)
So, second window question – What is the challenge? For me, and I think so many, the challenge has been how in the world to interpret or make sense of this, of all this wild imagery we tend for the most part to ignore. For so many, the temptation has been to see books like Daniel and Revelation as great big puzzles to be solved 2000 years later to explain our time and specific future. Our job is to figure out the clues and an exact one to one relationship between each image and current events and even people. And so we get books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth or others who map out specifics in Daniel and Revelation to everything from the modern state of Israel to the European Union to China to nuclear power or war to trying to name who the Beast is today and when Armageddon and this rapture will happen. Why are we trying to interpret these texts in a different manner than we do other parts of the Bible? For everything else we look to the historical context, to what the first listeners would have heard, and to the overall themes and messages that emerge that spoke then and might just speak now for those trying to live faithful lives. These books were written out of a particular context. They would have been heard and understood by the first listeners through their ears and experiences. Daniel was written in the second century BCE and the crisis of 167 to 164 BCE where the Hellenist ruler Antiochus IV established his political will and cultural domination on Judaism and Jerusalem. It was the time of the Jewish Maccabean violent revolt against these dominant forces. The first listeners would have understood this context and seen those references in the text. In Revelation, first century AD, it is the empire superpower of Roman rule, the destruction of the Temple, and the slaughter of Christians by Emperor Nero. John is describing the world he sees and knows in Apocalyptic language and images. ‘He was a pastor trying to help Christians of his day be faithful to Jesus at a time when some were scared by the Roman Empire and others lulled by its charms.’ Ibid, Kraybill). They would have recognized and named Nero and Rome in these images and in specific verses. They would also have been given hope in how to relate to the super power of their day. This is not future predictive stuff for 21st century detective work. The message was that God was still in control of history and to live faithfully and hopefully.
So what is the gift? It is the same gift given to the first listeners. In the end, after all of these wild and scary images, the people are told to worship, and to worship the Lamb. Worship is the response to Empire, to evil, to all that is bad and destructive in our world. ‘I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne, living creatures and the elders... thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘ Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.’ Amen... and the elders fell down and worshipped.’ (Rev 5: 11-14 excerpts). We worship the Lamb, not the Lion, the Warrior, the Fighter, the Violent One. It is the Lamb of God who laid down his life, who showed self-sacrificial love, who came in weakness, who met evil with love. ‘Brute power does not determine the meaning of history.’ (Some thoughts and quotes here come from John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972, pp.232 and following. I do so, recognizing the re-evaluation of Yoder happening now in light of his sexual abuse of women) It is a Jesus who took the way of the cross, the way of love, and ultimately was resurrected by God. That is where the power lies. Revelation names all of these beasts and horses and armies and doom, and then suddenly we are talking about a new heaven and a new earth, and the River of Life and the healing of the nations, all wrapped in worship. There is no final violent battle scene and we human followers are certainly not invited into battle. We suddenly find ourselves in this description of the new earth and heaven and a city of welcome. In the Lamb we see this rather mysterious and unpredictable relationship of cross and resurrection, not the cause and effect of violence and power. We are to respond in Worship and trust, not with our own violence, or trying through power to control the direction of history ourselves.
Even in Daniel, in the midst of all of those images, he is giving an alternative vision to how to respond to the powers of his day. The people are called to obedience, patience, faithfulness and trust in the midst of adversity, rather than taking things violently into their own hands like the Zealots of their day, who began the Maccabean revolt. (Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, p. 356). In Daniel 8 it says the power will be broken, but ‘not by human hands.’ (Daniel 8:25), and a few chapters later that the people who do rise up and wage war will fail. (Daniel 11). Again it is trust in resurrection and the deliverance of God. That is where we find power and ultimately our hope.
When I began researching for this sermon, I didn’t think I would end up with such a strong message for Peace Sunday, for this Sunday closest to Remembrance Day. Our natural tendency as humans is to want to control history, and so often to do so, we justify the use of violence. We hear that rhetoric all around us. Ironically, at the core of all of this wild Apocalyptic literature in the Bible, is the message of the Lamb, the message to trust God for the future, to not attempt to control the direction of history through violence, but rather to look to the cross and the hope found in resurrection power.
So what is the Take Away? There are probably many, and we have already named some, but the biggest for me is a Message of Hope. When the authors looked at the challenging world around them, a world dominated by evil and by destructive super powers and empire, they ultimately pointed beyond to a God in control of history.
There is hope in unveiling, being able to see, what the world really looks like.
There is hope in resisting the temptations to compromise with evil.
There is hope in worship of the Lamb.
There is hope in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
There is hope in living faithfully as if the kingdom has already come.
There is hope in the way of the cross.
There is hope in the resurrection power of God.
Walter Brueggemann writes of Daniel, but equally applicable to Revelation, ‘these visionary texts concern a new community of the faithful who live in hope. And while they hope, they act in radical obedience in order to receive what the high God will give, namely, a new world of well-being.’ (Ibid, p.257). May that hope shape and guide how we live today.
‘And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new... It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life... I will be their God and they will be my children.’ (Rev 21:5-7). Amen.