Revelation 21: 1-6
July 21, 2008
You know, I find it kind of neat and, dare I say, providential how little things have seemed to pop up at just the right time throughout this Revelation sermon series. I was hanging out earlier this week with my friend Jerry Chapman. Jerry, as you may know, is the youth minister at Central Methodist and a fellow “Mayberry musician.” He’d been gone for a few weeks to do some recording, so we were catching up.
Jerry, being the giving guy that he is, almost always passes along some CDs of music he’s been listening to recently; and the CD he gave me this week took me on a trip down memory lane. The guy’s name is Larry Norman, and I vaguely remember him. He was perhaps the very first contemporary Christian rock artist back in the early 70’s. And while I never really listened to him much, there was one song on the CD that I knew quite well. We used to sing it at our high school Young Life meetings every Wednesday night – we had this older guy who would bring his guitar and lead us in some group singing before our Bible study. The song is called I Wish We’d All Been Ready, and as best as I can tell it's the songwriter's account of Revelation. It’s an interesting tune. The first verse goes like this:
And everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died, the days grew cold,
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold,
I wish we'd all been ready,
Okay, so that kind of sounds like Revelation. You've got chaos and the celebration and worship of “Nike” power– represented in guns and war and stuff like that. You’ve got this notion of an unjust and unfair economic system with the haves and have-nots duking it out over a piece of bread. I’m not quite sure what's going on with that whole “people getting trampled on the floor” part, but I'm guessing he needed a rhyme for “war.” Not a bad first verse.
But it’s the second verse that has always troubled me:
She hears a noise and turns her head, he's gone,
I wish we'd all be ready,
Two men walking up a hill,
One disappears and one's left standing still,
I wish we'd all been ready,
There's no time to change your mind,
How could you have been so blind,
There’s no time to change your mind,
The Son has come and you've been left behind.
Ah, the Rapture – you gotta love it, don't you? Whether it's Larry Norman or William Miller in the mid-1800's or a charismatic Korean church in 1992, “rapture theology” is the most common way our culture conceptualizes Revelation. Even people who don’t profess a particular faith or who have never read Revelation will assume that’s what it’s about.
And I think it’s fair to say that nothing in our generation has better captured rapture theology than the “Left Behind” book series of the 1990's. I remember reading the first one a few years ago because a youth in my previous church was reading it and had lots of questions. And I’ll admit – it’s a captivating read. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are excellent writers. I’ll never forget that opening chapter – how airline pilot Rayford Steele, an agnostic at best, discovers much to his horror that dozens of passengers on his transcontinental flight have mysteriously disappeared from the plane. The only trace of them is their clothing neatly folded in a pile where they last sat or stood. From there the story, recounted in a dozen books, launches into an epic battle between good and evil; good represented by the “Tribulation Force,” a self-appointed conglomerate of “left behind” believers who use souped-up Land Rovers and state-of-the-art artillery to fight the Antichrist and his minions.
Now – a word from your sponsor. If you haven't already picked up on it, you probably will soon realize that your pastor is skeptical about some of the nuances of “Rapture Theology.” And please, please do not get me wrong: I believe very much in the second coming of Christ. I believe very much that there will come a time when evil in this world will end and God will reign supreme. I believe these things because, as the wonderful song we’ve been singing since we were kids says, “the Bible tells me so;” and I believe, like all of us, that the Bible is in the business of pointing us toward the truth.
But you and I have been in this wonderful pastor-parishioner relationship for 5½ years now, thanks be to God! And because of that relationship, I feel comfortable in sharing with you (and hope you feel comfortable in me telling you) that I do not believe people will mysteriously disappear off the face of the earth; nor do I believe that the world will be destroyed in some cosmic and cataclysmic, God-ordained event. And the reason I do not believe these things is quite simple: they are not in Revelation. There is no account of people disappearing and leaving their clothes behind. There is no account of an epic battle that destroys the world and brings about its end. There is talk about preparations for a battle, but the battle never happens – it doesn’t need to, because “lamb power” prevails before “Nike power” can even get itself to the battle lines.
None of this, of course, has stopped rapture theology from getting a grip on us in some form or fashion – and this, I think, should alarm us. Shouldn't it concern us how this mindset promotes an “I’ve-got-mine-now-you-go-get-yours” mentality that uses fear to motivate? Fear, after all, is a tool of the empire; as is the understanding that the world is divided into two groups: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” This is not what Revelation talks about. And shouldn’t it concern us how this notion of the righteous being taken up and away from the earth, how this impacts our sense of environmental stewardship? I mean, what’s the point of even taking care of the earth – recycling and reducing CO2 emissions and seeking alternative forms of fuel - what’s the point of doing any of that if we’re not going to be around this earth much longer anyway?
Something needs to change, folks. Something needs to change. I remember a conversation I had with one of my students in the online New Testament class I teach at the college. We were having a discussion about something in Revelation; and when I asked her if she had read the assigned scriptures from Revelation for that week, she responded that “no, she found Revelation confusing, so she just read the “Left Behind” books to understand it better.” I mean, that’s kind of like going to the Grand Canyon and standing on a precipice with that incredible view before you, but all you’re looking at is a picture of the Grand Canyon on the postcard you just bought from the gift shop.
Something needs to change. We’ve got to go to the source – that’s the thing. We’ve got to read the book of Revelation, we’ve got to know who wrote it and why he wrote it. We’ve got to know who he was speaking to and what those people were going through. And when we do this, we might be surprised at what we find. We find a powerful message of hope for the hopeless; we find Fluffy and the “lamb power” that opens scrolls and calls God to action.
And in our scripture today, we find what John calls a “new heaven and a new earth” – “new” not in the sense of being a different earth, but a “renewed” earth: the old earth given a new lease on life. And on this new earth, descending from the heavens, comes a “new Jerusalem. It is the epitome of glory, beauty and grandeur. The walls of the city are adorned with a myriad of jewels – the same jewels found on the breastplate of the high priest. There are twelve gates around this city that always remain open – so the city is home for the whole world, open to all nations and people. And no one – no one – is left behind. But perhaps the most wonderful thing about this city is that God is there. Not just on a visit, passing through – God literally sets up residence in the city, “dwelling” with the people and making God’s home with them, forever.
John of Patmos is gazing upon this incredible vision – the culmination of the lamb power’s perseverance in the world – and all he can think of to describe how he feels is that it's like “a bride adorned for her husband.” Ha! You know why I love this? Any guy who has ever stood at the end of the aisle on his wedding day and recalls that instant when the doors in the back are flung open to reveal his wife-to-be in her wedding finest – you remember, guys, how that made you feel? You remember what that does to you? Your knees get weak, your stomach knots up, you feel chills run up and down you like an electrical shock, and you are totally oblivious to the silly ear-to-ear grin that suddenly spreads across your face. Your whole body rejoices in this “revelation!” That’s exactly what each and every one of us will feel when God’s kingdom on earth comes into view. We’ll be overwhelmed with joy; basking in the “lamb power” that has called us to be servants, disciples, fellowshippers of the risen Lord.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well, friends, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, folks, but I’m afraid to say that this is not quite the scene of total peace and harmony. LaHaye and Jenkins, I must admit, were right – there is something that is left behind in all of this; something that does not make it into the new Jerusalem; something that is eternally shut out from the city’s gates. And we find it in the fourth verse of this chapter, when John says:
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away.
These, my friends, are signs of the empire, the elements of that Nike power that used to call the shots. But not any more. Those kinds of things are left standing outside the city walls, never to enter. Imagine that! In fact, that's exactly what I'd like you to do right now. Close your eyes, if you would, and imagine yourself in this New Jerusalem. You walk over to the city walls and look down at what's on the outside looking in. Suffering and Persecution are standing out there, right next to Injustice and Inequality; and they can’t get in. AIDS and Hunger are trying to find a back door, but they never will. Cancer doesn’t stand a chance of finding its way into the city. Depression and Anxiety are left out, as are Hate and Prejudice and Racism. War – war most certainly is on the outside looking in. Even Death itself – the ultimate manifestation of Nike power – even Death is not getting in. This is what's “left behind” from God’s kingdom on earth. You can open your eyes now.
It's a pretty cool picture, isn't it? So we have yanked the curtain away, my friends. Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, we have exposed the “wizard” for who he really is; we have witnessed with our own eyes what Revelation is truly about. And because we don’t have to be afraid anymore, because we see things in our world for what they really are, we can respond as people of faith and as followers of Christ. We can respond by pledging our allegiance to lamb power even when the world around us continues to be lost in its Nike-ness. We can proclaim the inclusive nature of God’s kingdom as a place where all people can live in peace. And most of all we can declare, for all to hear, an eternal hope – hope that renews, hope that sustains, hope that can make a difference in a hopeless world.
And I think you’ll agree – that is certainly a future that we all can look forward to. Thanks be to God. AMEN.