Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading the Book of Revelation

Seeker’s Class
First Congregational Church, Los Angeles
The Rev. Ryan Steitz, Teacher

 June 29, 2014, led by the Rev. Dr. Tom Eggebeen 

Everything depends on what we bring to the Text.

We always bring the whole of our lives to the Text - our family of origin, neighbors and neighborhoods, nation of origin, the section of the nation where we born and/or reared, the religious values to which we were exposed, Sunday School teachers, preachers, extended family members. School, as well: public, private or parochial; various teachers and classmates. Movies and TV, literature and art, summer camp and family vacations … and personal experience: hardship and sorrow, feelings of humiliation, shame and estrangement, illness, family financial status - childhood hobbies, pets, holidays and celebrations - the way we see life even before we see it. We bring all of this, and then some, to the Text.

Religiously, a lot is going on for us: 1) We might perceive god as a distant being, who has little to do with our daily lives, if at all; perhaps, for some, there is no god, yet we seek an ethical framework in which to live. 2) We might perceive god as something, or someone, very close and intimate, and have no fear regarding our ultimate eternal destiny. 3) We might be fearful of a stern and reluctant god - not inclined to forgiveness. 4) We might find a great friendship in god, and without fear about life or eternity, we live as best as we can, looking for the depth-dimension in life that holds everything together for good.

As for the Bible, 1) We might believe that it’s the “inspired word of god” and take it very seriously, though often troubled by sections that strike us as odd, if not inconsistent with what we believe about god. 2) We might enjoy reading it as literature, sacred literature, but we invest it with a weight similar to what we might give to any great piece of literature. 3) We might dismiss the Bible as a gathering of fairy tales, violent stories, harsh laws, often anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-choice.

Hence, we “like” or “dislike” pieces of the Text.

Even the most “faithful” reader will settle on certain passages more often than not, setting other sections aside. Liberals read it one way; conservatives another. So do the happy and the sad. The peace and the angry. 

Our task: To read all of it, appreciate each piece as someone’s struggle to understand the depth-dimension of life, life’s ultimate concern, to discern the community of faith behind each piece, differing communities who perceived god in differing ways, sometimes contrary to one another. 

Devotionally, to see the Bible as a giant round table discussion - lots of voices: “Have you considered this?” “I think it’s like this.” “I disagree with you.” “I agree with you.” “You’re a damn fool.” You’re spot-on.” All of these voices echo through the pages of the Text and across the centuries.

Whatever interest we might have in some “originalist” meaning (scholars can help us here considerably, but all confess limits), the Book of Revelation (BoR) tends to dance before our eyes like shimmering desert heat. 

Take a painting - 10 feet away, it tells a remarkable story, and we’d like to know more, so we step up to it, get close, and suddenly, the image is lost - it’s just so much paint of varying colors and strokes on a piece of canvass. Up close, no meaning - so, we step back again, and the picture snaps into view.

Specifics for today: How will it end?

Throughout the Bible, images, visions, predictions about the end of things … some of these are what might be called “the peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah 11, “the lion lies down with the lamp, the child plays near the asp” … other images are violent, as with Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Bible is always asking: What does this mean?

After Judah’s exile (586 BCE) and return some 70-100 years later, lots of struggle with “what does all of this mean?”

For a thousand years, Israel/Judah carried on with land, temple, circumcision, diet, kings and priests - there was plenty of war, but Israel/Judah constituted a viable and independent entity … and then after 586, the land and the kings and temple ended. The temple was rebuilt by returning exiles, but it was a shadow of its former Solomonic glory.

In the years before Jesus, Herod the Great, a friend of Rome, poured millions into rebuilding the rebuilding of the temple, and in 70 CE, that, too, was destroyed, this time by Rome who was fed up with the constant rebellion of certain factions of Jews. 

What does it all mean?

Paul the Apostle offers pretty much the sum and substance of Christian interpretation with regard to Jewish life: a lot has ended in Jesus , i.e. been fulfilled - circumcision, land, temple, diet, kings and priests. All of this was temporary and paved the way for Jesus, who is Israel in his person, who does what none could do - lay his life down before the terrible powers of this world as a way of revealing how evil they are, and that God’s victory is found, not in conquest, but in sacrifice; that God’s power is revealed, not in military might, but in everything Jesus outlines in the Beatitudes.

A book like Revelation, believed by some to be mostly Jewish apocalyptic, patterned after Daniel, perhaps written before Jesus in large part, and then Christianized after Jesus, after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

Helps to remember that the Bible is an anthology, by many authors from different spectrums of faith. It’s not a singular book, or a collection of essays by the same author - it’s a whole library. And before there was a codex (bound version), all we had were individual scrolls or letters.

Also helpful: BoR was accepted late in the history of the early church - it wasn’t that popular! That is comes at the “end” of the Bible is simply a way of saying, “It’s the last book received by the church.” And since it deals with “the end,” I guess putting it at the end of the codex is a good way to end. 

But, for me, it’s a reminder that the BoR is not the most important book of the 66, as “the last chapter” of a major novel might be. Every theme in the BoR is treated elsewhere, and sometimes with more clarity. With 66 books, it’s wise to know the preceding 65 as well as we can. If we never read the BoR, we’d be just fine. In the hands of some, who always claim to have all the answers, it has been used to instill fear, with many a Christian going to bed in a state of spiritual anxiety. 

For the BoR, the message is endurance because things will end well, for most … Revelation lacks the universal element reflected in Paul or in Isaiah, so a question for us: How big is the love of God? 

Are there some parts of God’s creation, some of God’s creatures, i.e. those who bear the image of God, who are beyond the pale, beyond redemption, beyond God’s saving reach - so evil, so wrong, so full of hatred for God, that God is powerless before their decisions, powerless before their power and that of hell and the devil? Or is God simply interested in punishing some “forever”? That those, who in their span of years here - 60, 70, 80 or a 100 - should then be condemned to an “eternity” of pain and suffering?

There are a good many scholars who raise interesting questions about the intent of author -  but for our purposes this morning, it’s helpful, as well, to ask: What do we want? How do we want things to end? Is it our desire and hope that the some, if they fail to receive Christ, accept God, repent of their sins, or whatever else we deem important, as we read the Bible, will be forever separated from God, from us, from all their loved ones, to “burn” forever as depicted in some Medieval portrait of hell? What is that we want for them, and why?

Again, what we bring to the Text determines very much how we interpret the Text.

BTW, of the Devil and Evil Angels, their actual role in the scheme of things is minor - they try hard, but they're released and imprisoned at God’s behest  - the so-called “Battle of Armageddon,” a big thing for movies and books, never happens. The so-called “enemies of God” rally the troops for a bit, but then God shows up, and that’s that. It’s done, it’s all over with, IT IS FINISHED!

In the end, God.
In the end, Jesus.
In the end, Peace.

With that, let’s take a close look at the question for the day - do events in today’s State of Israel (a nation among other nations) tie into the Book of Revelation?

  1. For me, no!  A conclusion shared by many scholars. Calvin refused to write a commentary on it and said, “No one can understand it” (his counsel should caution us) The Book of Revelation is not a roadmap of some future events that the world has been patiently waiting until “our” time - there is a certain element of arrogance in all of these “end times” ideas - as if God moved the creation of the Scriptures and moves all of history to then “come to pass” in our time, just for us. The Book of Revelation (BoR) is a celebration of confidence, hope, to help folks endure hard times - political hard times when evil forces are in charge (at the heart of the BoR (chapters 17-18).
  2. Confusion in those Christian groups who are fascinated by predictions between The State of Israel and Biblical Israel.
  3. Some pray for the rebuilding of the temple, the onset of a great war, to hasten the return of Christ in power and glory. Some preachers in this tradition have called for the military intervention of the US in the Middle East - a war there is likely a prelude to the return of Jesus, so war is inevitable, and war is good.
  4. The State of Israel founded, 1948 - for several reasons:
    1. Zionist dreams of a homeland.
      1. Many Jews at the time were not in favor of this.
      2. Preferring the ancient model of living within a nation.
    2. Western anti-semitism - “Who wants the Jews? We don’t.”

Why predict the future?

It’s power, I suppose, to have the inside track on God’s purpose … and who doesn’t like power? And along with power, power’s greatest servant: Fear. How many Christians “fear” missing out, losing their salvation because they might believe the wrong things or miss their chance or live poorly? Whether it be the Medieval Church with its lurid images of hell and fire or the pulpit-pounding fury of an evangelical/fundamentalist end-times preacher, fear is the tool used to manipulate people into conformity, silence and passivity, driving a damaging self-interest that privately lives to gain heaven.

For our purpose here today, I affirm the following:
  1. History moves toward a good conclusion - the arc of history.
  2. God is the prime mover, not Satan.
  3. Between here and there, a lot of struggle, hurt and pain - history, even for God, is a very messy business.
  4. Don’t panic. Endure.
  5. Be faithful - don’t worship the angels, but only God.
  6. It’s not about going to heaven when we die, but participating in the work of God to redeem the whole of creation.
  7. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
  8. And when the time is right, the New City comes down to us … and God dwells with us.
  9. Even now, by the Spirit, God is with us.
  10. And we can live, as best we can the vision of the Beatitudes, in the Spirit of Christ, whose mercy forgives, whose love sustains, whose final victory is creation’s redemption, including all creatures, great and small - that which God created in the beginning is made new and glorious, and there are no more tears.

When we read the text carefully, seeing it as a Text of hope in the face of hard times, each of its several cycles of Seven, being like singing hymns - often saying the same thing, but saying them differently. Yet the story is the same - in the end, God - with healing grace and peace.

No comments: