It is a common perception that the eschaton will be of apocalyptic proportions—which just means that we think the end of the world will be filled with death and destruction. For many of us, that theological understanding of the end times comes from Hollywood and is supported by our culture, instead of a true study of scripture. In part, a misreading of the Revelation to John makes it easy to support a Hollywood view of the eschatological event. There are plagues and famines, wars and cosmic activities that are destructive not only in scripture but also in our experience and understanding of this world. We have a space program that is not only designed to blast bombs and missiles out of the air but also to defend us against astronomical threats. Those us who grew up in the eighties witnessed the devastation of what then seemed like an unstoppable AIDS epidemic. In more modern times we have seen that kind of devastation in Ebola outbreaks and fear the return of diseases we thought had been wiped out like the measles. In the last century we have experienced two world wars and several major conflicts as well as the advent of the atomic bomb and nuclear weapons. It is not without cause that the rise of the current apocalyptic era coincides with World War II.
Though there are a few examples of apocalyptic writing in the late 1800s, a fully developed and popular apocalyptic genre does not emerge until the 1950s with the release of the movie, The Blob, soon followed by films like Night of the Living Dead. Prior to that, with a few exceptions in the Middle Ages, we have to go back 1900 years—to the first century of the Common Era—when the Revelation to John on the isle of Patmos was written to discover the last apocalyptic era. Apocalypticism has not held a popular place in literature or art over the last two millenia. And even though it has been around for the last two thousand years, it is a relatively recent genre—there is a smattering of apocalyptic thought in Isaiah but it is not until the Book of Daniel, written within 200 years of the birth of Christ, that we see a more fully developed apocalyptic theology in Scripture.
As a genre, apocalypticism is not known in any of the ancient religions other than Judaism and early Christianity. Daniel was written in the time of the Maccabean Revolt—a dark and dangerous time when Jews were under threat by the political authority. Their temples and synagogues were being desecrated by idols forced on them from outside factions. Their culture was being decimated by a forced assimilation into an imperial way of life. They were under threat and duress, persecuted by a foreign conquering authority in the very land they had been promised by God. Circumstances were ripe for a story of hope in which God is more powerful than the enemies of the Jewish faithful—a story that encouraged orthodoxy in practice and belief—remain faithful to the faith and God will be faithful to you.
The Revelation to John is written under similar circumstances except instead of Jews, it is the early Christians who are being persecuted if they do not assimilate to cultural mores and norms. The early Christians that John is writing too face political, economic, and social threat if they refuse to conform their practice, worship, and belief to the pagan understanding of the gods and the practices of might is right and survival of the fittest and greediest. Power is important to Rome, not loving your neighbor much less your enemy. The more Christians follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the more threatened Rome feels—not because they don’t have power and authority, but because the early Christian community didn’t value the power and authority claimed by Rome. Their power was not of the secular world but the power and authority of the divine. So, what does power and authority do when it feels its grip slipping even on one group? It attempts to become more powerful, more authoritative, drowning out the voices of reason and twisting the screws of pressure and persecution on all who speak or move against her control.
This is the world that John of Patmos and the early Christians lived in. The pressure to assimilate to the modern standards of economy and politics is great and the consequences of not assimilating are greater still. Many of the early Christians could not hold up under those pressures and compromised their beliefs and practices, conforming to the standards of Rome even if their fingers were crossed behind their back. It is to these Christians—the ones who believe in Jesus Christ and hope for a better world but do not possess the strength needed to uphold the faith or the endurance of courage to maintain their convictions—that John of Patmos writes.
John’s Revelation is filled with gore and bloodlust—most of it perpetrated by the messengers of God—his horsemen and angels—against Satan, his demonic forces, and those who would follow him. John seems to be countering the argument that in suffering and pain we cry out to God for our hope and salvation because again and again as plagues of boils and locusts, scorching heat and waters turned to blood, great hailstones and tempests annihilate the earth, and the people cry out against God—blaming God and turning away from God in their sufferings and sorrow. There is something about that destructive, judging, condemning, damning, all-powerful God that resonates because this is the part of God that Hollywood and fundamentalists alike have doubled down on. Maybe its because we don’t want to take responsibility for the condition of the earth or her people—it is easier to judge your neighbor than to love them; and it is always easier to blame someone else than clean up your own mess. Or maybe its because in the darker places of our hearts we believe people deserve to be punished for their sinfulness—be it others or ourselves. Or maybe it is because there are things that happen in this world that are beyond our understanding and control and we need to assign responsibility to someone or something to find meaning.
Personally, I don’t believe in any of these concepts of God—not as scapegoat, not as punisher, nor as puppet master. I believe in a God of love—a God who will spend all of eternity drawing us to God’s self. That is what we read today at the end of the Revelation to John. And what we discover is that the end time is not characterized by the destruction or annihilation of all things, but instead we find the perfection of creation. The end time event is not the destruction of this world as Hollywood might have us to believe. It is the perfection of this world—the New Jerusalem where the streets are paved with gold and the pearly gates are never shut because God is always beckoning his people to enter in. That invitation is for all and those who bring honor and glory to God will enter in. And even though those who are unclean or practitioners of abominations and falsehoods that do not enter, doesn’t mean that they are not also beckoned by God and that they will never enter in—they, too, can find their name in the Lamb’s Book of Life as they shed those things which hinder their relationship with God and become bearers of his glory and honor.
It is not God who keeps us from entering the New Jerusalem—the perfection of this world—it is ourselves. Our willingness to deny Jesus’s teachings in favor of the world’s. This is what John of Patmos is trying to warn us about with all of his plagues and famines and wars; our willingness to compromise our Christian faith, belief, and practices by assimilating to our culture through economic, political, and social pressures. We have chosen what is easy over that which is right. The path to the New Jerusalem is not easy and it requires us to know what we believe and have the courage to make the righteous choice in our lives regardless of the cost. The world may be able to offer you an easy life, but living the easy life is not the same as living a peaceable one. That peace that Jesus gives, the world cannot give because it is a peace that values a different power, a different authority than that which is valued by this world. It is a peace that is beyond the understanding of state capitols or Washington D. C. or even Hollywood because the powers and authority of this world are clinging on to the Old Jerusalem with all of their might. The peace of Jesus Christ is the peace of the hope of a New Jerusalem—a redeemed world—a world that finds its joy, its peace, its purpose in the power and authority of its Creator, the one we know as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Easter 6C: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10,22-22:5; John 14:23-29
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, Alabama
Sunday, May 26, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer