Revelation 22: 1-5, Ezekiel 47: 7-12
July 3, 2011
Last week I had the pleasure, along with Pepper Mayes, of taking six of our middle schoolers to the Massanetta Middle School Conference. In addition to having loads of fun with a fantastic group of kids, I also got to reconnect with some of my ministry colleagues who were there with groups of their own. Kind of weird – years before we had attended these things as kids ourselves; and now we’re the “responsible adults.” Funny the way life works!
Anyway, I was telling one of my friends that I was going to revisit a sermon series on Revelation that I preached a few years back. I explained that recent events like Harold Camping’s prophecy about the world ending in May had spruned on an interesting debate in our culture about what the Bible really says about the end of the world. I told her I felt the need to reignite that conversation with my church. Kelly’s response was not very affirming: Good luck with that! she exclaimed. I could hear what she was also saying between the lines: Better you than me!
And, you know, I guess that’s to be expected, don’t you think? It’s interesting how we interact with the last book of the Bible: we don’t talk about Revelation as much as we talk around it. We know it’s there and maybe we can quote a verse or two, but when it comes to really understanding what it says, we do one of two things. We either ignore it all together, due to lack of interest or fear. Or we put an awful lot of trust in what other people say about it.
Everyone remembers the most recent example with Harold Camping, a pastor out in California, who created quite a firestorm when he predicted that the world was going to end this past May. But he certainly wasn’t the first. Back in 1992, a pastor in South Korea, Reverend Lee Kim, predicted that the Rapture was going to take place on October 28th. Twenty thousand Koreans in South Korea, Los Angeles and New York City took the prediction seriously. In an eerie nod to Camping, hundreds quit jobs and left their families to prepare for their trip to heaven. Rim’s church paid for costly ads in the Los Angeles and New York Times, urging readers to prepare for their journey through the skies – which, as we all know, has not come to pass yet.
You probably know about the Left Behind book series, a fictional account supposedly based on Revelation. For those hungering for something after the 16 books, there’s an accompanying website, www.leftbehind.com, which offers up-to-date analysis of world events and their relation to the second coming of Christ, based on the collective interpretation of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It does come with a price – literally. $19.95, to be exact, which gives you membership in its “prophecy club” and grants you “preferred access” to special sections of the website not available to the average internet surfer. Because when it comes to knowing important stuff like what the Bible says about the end times, only those who can afford to pay should get to know!
Things like this are the reason my job as pastor is never boring, often challenging; and why I’ve chosen to revisit this sermon series, updating it to 2011. Because while predictions come and go, whether they’re from Harold Camping or someone else, one thing hasn’t changed: and that is our tendency over the past 2000 years to focus on what we think is in Revelation, rather than doing the hard work of actually finding out what is. And perhaps most importantly, what isn’t.
Case in point (and this is going to shock some of you): if I were to ask you to name two concepts that lie at the heart of Revelation, chances are you’d say the rapture and the antichrist, right? But here’s the thing: neither one of those terms are found anywhere in Revelation! An “antichrist” is mentioned a couple of times in 1 and 2 Peter; it’s the name the writer uses for someone who is promulgating incorrect doctrine in the early church. Their teachings, in the writer’s opinion, were “against Christ” – anti-christ. Now we, of course, have made it out to mean something else entirely – son of Satan ushering in the end of the world, and the arch nemesis in apocalyptic horror movies. But if we are talking about what is in the Bible – the foundation of our faith and, second to Jesus himself, the revelation of God to the world – if we’re talking about the Bible, an antichrist was nothing more than a misguided teacher.
And as you’re digesting that, try this on for size: “Rapture” was a concept developed not by an inspired writer of scripture but by an 18th-century Baptist preacher who randomly strung together verses out of the Old and New Testaments to create a cosmic calendar concluding with the world’s demise. Now you can read the 22 chapters of Revelation as many times as you want, but no matter how many times you do, you will never find the word “rapture” in there. It’s a simple fact!
So why do we make such a big deal about these things? Why do we talk about the Antichrist like we do, and why do we blindly accept the idea of Rapture as the gospel truth? Sometimes it’s easier to believe what someone else tells us, rather than doing the hard work of finding out for ourselves.
If we’re going to find out what Revelation has to say to those of us trying to live faithfully in the 21st century, we have to dig deeper. We have to embrace the mystery of Revelation. It’s kind of like in The Wizard of Oz, you know, when Dorothy and the rest are standing in the heart of the Emerald Castle before the Great Wizard. It’s a powerful and shocking and frightening scene – until Dorothy’s dog Toto grabs the green curtain in its teeth and pulls it to the side. Remember that? Remember how different things looked on the other side of the curtain compared to what they looked like in front of it?
That’s what you and I need to do when it comes to Revelation – we need to pull the curtain aside to see what’s really there. In fact, that’s pretty much what the Greek word for “Revelation” means – to uncover or reveal; to pull aside the covering so that what was not previously known is made known. That’s what I hope you and I get to do over the next three weeks – to tug at that curtain a little bit each Sunday and move beyond our fear of the unknown, or what we’ve heard from others, so we can see something we haven’t seen before.
Like, for instance, a river. In the very last chapter, there’s this river. We kind of miss the river, don’t we? We’re much more drawn to the bloodshed and war and death and famine in Revelation – which says something about us, doesn’t it? But there it is – this river. And we find ourselves alongside it; a river whose waters are “bright as crystal,” flowing from the very throne of God. And that’s not the only thing we see – on either side of the river is the “tree of life.” And what’s significant about this tree is that it bears fruit year-round; fruit which has the ability to “heal the nations.” That’s some pretty amazing fruit!
Pull back the curtain a little more and we discover that this is not the first time we’ve happened upon this river – the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel mentioned it, and the trees, near the conclusion of his book:
On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. Wherever the river goes, everything will live and be fresh.
You know what the great thing about Ezekiel’s river is? It flows from the sanctuary – the sacred temple in Jerusalem. Which is extraordinary, to say the least – because the people the prophet was speaking to had seen with their own eyes that very temple burned to the ground, as the Jewish people were taken from their homeland to live in Babylon.
So Ezekiel’s prophecy is a vision – a vision of old things being made new. And not just the temple! Even the people are transformed through this river. Healed of their past sufferings; renewed once again to serve and worship God. Of course, it’s not a literal river or tree Ezekiel describes here. It’s something more significant than that! It’s a metaphor; a powerful metaphor for the restoration of God’s people as their time of exile comes to a close. It is a commanding symbol and promise of hope when all hope seems lost.
That same river – liturgically speaking – flowed some 600 years into the future, all the way to a group of Christians in middle first-century Palestine who knew all too well about lost hope. Like their predecessors, they too had seen their holy city and temple burned to the ground – this time by the Roman Empire. Over the years this new power persecuted those who professed faith in anyone other than the Emperor. And it wasn’t always persecution in the classical sense: hangings on crosses and beheadings and all that nastiness.
To be a Christian in that day and time was about being a social outcast, a weirdo; unable to participate in the commerce of the day. It meant sacrificing your social status, your financial well-being, your clout and your standing. It meant not being able to buy in the marketplace because the only coins they used were ones with the emperor’s image on it, and you didn’t use those kind of coins. Being a Christian back then meant loving your enemies in a world where enemies were either converted or destroyed. It meant pledging your allegiance to a crucified carpenter in a world which daily sold out its soul to power and conquest and victory. In some ways, that kind of persecution was worse than death.
And yet even in that world – especially in that world – a river continued to run through it. God’s river. A river of life, surrounded by trees of life; reminding the faithful that there is hope in a hopeless world, that healing can take place in a world torn asunder. And a river whose flow never, ever stops – because things like grace and mercy and love are continuous, like a current that can’t be diverted, even when those things are sometimes hard to sense or see.
So today, you and I drink deep from the waters of Revelation’s river. We eat heartily from the fruit of Revelation’s tree. And we do this every time God’s people gather together in worship, every time a child is baptized, every time the bread and cup are laid out on this table. We drink and eat from Revelation’s river and tree every time someone chooses to lay a grudge aside, every time a hungry person is fed, every time someone goes out of their way to do what they think Jesus would’ve done. We embrace the truth of Revelation every time we put our trust and faith not in what others or our culture have to say, but in a God who never forgets God’s people, who brings the exiles back home, who promises all of us sanctuary and shelter and an eternal home.
This is the message Revelation speaks to us, if only we listen, if only we put aside our fears and pull back the curtain to see what’s really there: hope in a hopeless world. I wonder what other things we’ll get to see! Thanks be to God, AMEN.