This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Easter. Since we have lectionary readings from the book of Revelation for the whole season of Easter this year, I decided to preach a sermon series on this oft-misunderstood book. This is the first in a six-week series. The text I preached on today was Revelation 1:4-8.
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.
Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, the eighth day of Easter. In the church, Easter is not a day, but a season. A season of seven weeks, a week of weeks.
Easter is the time to focus on the resurrection. A time to tell the story of Jesus being raised from the dead. And this is a big, big story. A story that you can’t just tell in one day. On the third day, Jesus rose again. That’s it in a nutshell. But there is so much to talk about there. What does that mean for us? Does it mean that we will be raised as well? Does it mean that we will have eternal life? What precisely does eternal life mean? Is it about what happens after we die, or does it have to do with our lives today? What does it mean that God forgives us? What is it we have to do? And what does the Holy Spirit have to do with all of this? What does all of this mean? It’s okay if you don’t fully understand what it means. (Neither do I.) It’s okay if you still have questions, if you still have doubts. (So do I.)
It’s absolutely okay, and it’s precisely why the Easter season is seven weeks long. That, and also the fact that seven is a number that symbolizes perfection. We’re going to journey together for the next six weeks, exploring questions like these. And we’re not going to do it alone. In God’s wisdom and grace, God has given us companions for our journey through the Easter season. Among those companions are the books of the Bible. Sometimes Christians are tempted to put the Bible on a pedestal, and almost worship the book itself. But Martin Luther said that the Bible is “the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” We don’t worship the cradle, the manger. We look in the manger to find Christ within. The Bible is the same. These books are gifts from God, companions for us as we look for Christ in the world.
And just like people, each of these companion books has a personality. Some are kindly, some are standoffish. Some are deep and thoughtful, some are impatient and active. And a few are downright strange. And we’re going to walk for six weeks with the strangest of the bunch, the book of Revelation. If the books of the Bible were an extended family, Revelation would be the crazy uncle, the one who talks about conspiracy theories and nonsense from time to time, the one you’re sometimes a little embarrassed about. But he’s family, and you love him anyway.
Crazy Uncle Revelation is family, and we are going to sit and talk with him for the next six weeks. Because even though he talks sometimes about dragons and numbers and beasts and trumpets, that’s not all he talks about. He also sings. He sings the most beautiful songs to God. The most beautiful hymns to the risen Jesus Christ, whom he calls the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. We’re going to listen to those songs, and maybe even sing along.
Crazy Uncle Revelation was the very last book of the Bible to be written, sometime around the year AD 100. And it was written, as we’ll see over the next few weeks, to a people who were being persecuted. It was a book of hope in the midst of darkness. It was a book written to bring comfort and peace.
But because of its oddness, it has been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries. One way that’s become popular in recent decades is to interpret it is as a codebook for current events. If you can just crack the code, you can find out exactly when the end of the world will happen. And the funny thing is, when someone tries to crack the code, they always seem to find that the end is within a few years. The end, when Christ will return, in anger and wrath, to destroy all evil, and take the good people away with him. This is a very popular way to interpret Revelation at times when it feels like the world is changing very quickly. This interpretation may offer some hope that we’re going to escape all these changes, and that evil people will reap justice.
But this interpretation is problematic, and it’s not helpful at all, for at least three reasons.
- First, it doesn’t hold up. The trouble with looking at current events for answers in Revelation is that you can always find something in Revelation to match what’s going on in the world. Generations of people have been convinced that they saw the visions of Revelation coming true all around them, that the world was ending. And they all share something in common. They were all wrong.
- Secondly, and even more importantly, Jesus told us not to do this. Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” Jesus said, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If the angels of heaven, and Jesus himself, don’t know when the end’s coming, we can’t know either.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, the trouble with the codebook interpretation is that the Jesus it portrays is not the Jesus we see throughout the rest of scripture. The Jesus we see throughout the gospels, the Jesus we see throughout Paul’s letters, throughout centuries of church history, is a Jesus who has already won the victory. A Jesus whose death and resurrection was enough to win the salvation of the world, to win the battle against sin and evil and death itself. A Jesus who won that battle through sacrifice and love, a Jesus who never once turned to physical power or might. But the codebook interpretation tells us that when Jesus comes back, he will be armed to the teeth, and kick butt! I got news for you. He already kicked butt. That’s what the cross was. That’s what the empty tomb was. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Yes, Jesus is coming back. But he’s coming back the same as he was. Full of love and peace.
So we’re going to look at Revelation from a different perspective. The perspective that it’s not a codebook, but rather a companion, a story. That it’s the attempt of some people in the early church to understand how to survive persecution, the attempt of some people in the early church to understand and comprehend the resurrection. The perspective that this book, this strange, strange book, this crazy uncle of a book, is actually a very poetic way of retelling the resurrection story in its own way. A very unique way of singing Easter. Together, we will listen to Revelation singing the gospel of the Resurrection to us in a new way.
Join me in sitting and singing with Crazy Uncle Revelation.
Featured image by Matthias Gerung, 1530-1532.