One of the hopes for our series on the book of Revelation is to de-mythologize it. There is admittedly some obtuse and strange imagery throughout. And it is in our Reformed DNA to run screaming from it. Martin Luther, apparently, questioned whether it should be in the canon at all. And John Calvin, for all of his publishing, never wrote a commentary on this book (the only one missing from the complete set).
If you’re looking for easy answers, this isn’t the place. But I think you know where to find those. I simply hope you’ll find courage to jump in and explore what’s here.
As for easy answers, I remember coming across a booklet entitled something like, “Dr. Jerry Falwell Answers Your Questions about Biblical Prophecy.” And this one jumped out at me: Q: What country is prophesied in Ezekiel 38:2? A: Russia
I was curious enough to read the passage, and didn’t find Russia mentioned at all (I should point out that this booklet was published in the 80s). So I dug around a little bit and found out that the operating theory was this: the “Prince” prophesied is Russia, because in Hebrew, “prince” is “Rosh” (as in Rosh Hashana, first/prince/head). Rosh = Russia, QED.
I recently met a couple who were intrigued by our series and said, “We’ve asked our Presbyterian pastor to do something on the book of Revelation, and he only says, ‘Let me save you the time: God wins.’”
There’s some truth in that, and maybe that’s what should undergird our conversation around Revelation. But there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on than just that. I think, bottom line, the best reaction to Revelation and, indeed, to any Scripture we find difficult or obscure is to engage it. And I came across this piece of wisdom in an evangelical commentary on Revelation: whenever we are claiming that the prophecies of Revelation are being fulfilled in our present day, whenever we think we can name who the anti-Christ is, then what we are doing is undermining the purpose of Scripture. Because in doing so, in saying, “The book of Revelation is being fulfilled right now,” we are saying that this book hasn’t been worth the paper it’s printed on for previous generations because it simply hasn’t had anything to say to the church…until now. In short, that’s not Scripture.
And to engage, let’s begin with context. The Revelation to John (a name as generic then as it is now) was written in the first century of the church at a time when it was being severely persecuted. And so, for those reading at the time, it wasn’t an allegory of future events (that is, let’s play the matching game to figure out which horseman represents which nation-state), but a statement and a vision of hope for people without much cause for it. Because at its heart, the truth is that God wins.
If Revelation is prophecy (and the church has historically treated it as such), then at best, it gives only a glimpse. The word “revelation” is our translation of the Greek word “apocalypse” – not to be confused with visions of Armageddon (and that word’s a different story altogether), “apocalypse” literally means “a lifting of the veil.” So in a sense, as much remains hidden as is revealed. But much remains obscured. It’s even there in the language used by the author, in the repeated phrase, “Then I saw something like…” What is at the core of this prophecy is this simple truth: what is coming will not be like anything that we know. But as Meghan reminded us last week, it is remembering the hope of resurrection and the God of mercy that serves us well in reading Revelation.
Today’s text is no exception. Animals are surrounding the throne, singing God’s praise. It’s a humbling reminder that creation is much, much bigger than just us human beings. It’s also a reminder of the stones that Jesus threatened the Pharisees would sing out on Palm Sunday. It’s a perfect example of the texts in Revelation that speak to that first century of persecuted Christians, offering an imagination of a hopeful future by suggesting just a glimpse of what might be to come. This one is so odd as to be a little unsettling; a reminder that what we think we know is up for grabs.
A few weeks ago I heard about NUMMI, a joint project of General Motors and Toyota that began in the 1980s. You can hear about it in more detail here, but in short, here was a chance for GM to learn from the company that was taking away more and more of their market share in an open-source learning environment. The plant that became NUMMI was the worst plant in all of GM; and those same slacker workers and greedy managers took trips to Japan to see Toyota at its source, seeing a collaborative work environment where ingenuity was rewarded and seniority was minimized. The NUMMI plant was transformed, becoming a familiar success story for GM. The head office thought they had a gold mine on their hands, and so sought to replicate it elsewhere. It failed miserably. There are many reasons why it failed, but I think one of the key differences was that the NUMMI workers got a glimpse of what could be.
It may be a stretch, but I think there’s a parallel with what John is trying to do in Revelation – to give a glimpse of the way things could be. And we, the church, the body of Christ, are also meant to be that glimpse for a world that doesn’t see any other way of being. I see signs of that at OPC right now. I know enough about the congregation’s history to know that these signs have always been there; but there’s something different right now that I struggle to put my finger on. By way of example, our music program is incredible. From traditional hymns with an organ that shakes the rafter and a soaring descant to bluesy hymns with guitar, bass, drums, we give glory to God in many voices each and every Sunday. Our Connect groups have also taken off, tripling our Adult Education attendance and creating small communities of support and friendship. And our relationship with the Druid Hills Night Shelter has taken off in ways that have deepened relationships. No longer is it simply a trip down there to do something nice for “them”; instead, friendships have begun, residents of the Shelter consider themselves at home at OPC, and things are burgeoning.
It’s almost as though we actually believe that God has hope for us!
What is to come for OPC? If we learn anything from Revelation, it’s to say that we don’t know. I never would have imagined when I came here five years ago that we would be having a U2Charist or that our Food Pantry would be moving out of the building in order to expand its ministry or that we would have podcasted sermons. But whatever is to come, and no matter how surprising it might be, resurrection will be at the heart of it all; God’s mercy will be at the forefront; and the Spirit’s energy will be all around us. God wins, my friends. God wins.