The first time I can remember hearing a sermon about the Book of Revelation was the first time in my life I remember feeling alienated in church. I remember looking around that day to see if other people reacted as I did—to see if anyone else thought what I was thinking. What I remember so clearly thinking was, “How is this guy so sure he’s right? I don’t buy this, I don’t believe this guy!”
Even more surprising to me than the message I heard that day, was the shock of the feelings of alienation that were inspired by the message, of feeling like I didn’t fit in or feel the same way as the people around me. No one seemed to question or doubt or struggle with their faith, everyone seemed so sure of themselves and of the preacher, and—to be honest—it just started to seem unreal to me.
Knowing what I know now, I would guess my experience of feeling alienated is more common than I knew then, as Christianity, particularly certain kinds of Christianity, makes people feel more like they don’t belong rather than a part of a beloved community. It happened to me, and that sermon was just the beginning: a sense of “not belonging” took hold of me, taking me further away from community, faith and God. For a very long time, I thought church was not for me.
Today I stand before you as someone who has found a very different kind of church community which supports not only my faith but also my calling, and yet—for any conscientious preacher like myself, the Book of Revelation is a territory laden with potential pitfalls—especially when we have such a diverse group of people gathered here each Sunday, we come from many different places and many different journeys, to sit together today.
For those sensitive to women’s roles in scripture, the Book of Revelation is troublesome. For those who abhor violence and war, Revelation’s images of plagues and death can be disturbing. For those who are literal minded, for those of us who want the truth, plain and simple—the Book of Revelation with its confusing symbols can tempt one to lay it aside and forget its presence altogether. And yet, when we look at our world, we find this strange and confusing text captures— in some way—the minds and imaginations of the larger culture, both sacred and secular.
Certainly Revelation has a whole history of debate linked to determining whether its symbols refer to past, present, or future events. Some understand the visions in Revelation as a prediction of the way the world will end: today we think of this kind of writing as rare, yet it was actually fairly common in the ancient world. The Book of Revelation itself was written late in the first century, perhaps fifty years or more after Jesus’ death, by a Jew named John living in Asia Minor. Scholars believe John’s terrifying scenarios may have actually been warnings to churches of his day, whose members had become lax in their faithfulness, conforming too readily to the standards of the larger Greco-roman culture.
Yet the imagery used by John is often understood as prophecy yet to be fulfilled, rather than John’s way of speaking to believers of his own time. I’m sure most of us remember the Y2K phenomenon that created a world-wide buzz—but even that was not the only time in history when there was talk of the imminent Apocalypse. It happened at the year 1000 approached, as well as countless other times when people calculated the symbols in Revelation and came up with various dates of impending doom. We certainly have seen in our own time the Apocalyptic craze—not only with Y2K, but remember last winter when everyone was worried about the Mayan Calendar? There are movies, news articles, and of course, lots and lots of internet conversation and speculation about the end of the world.
The list of movies, books, and tv shows is really quite endless, as it seems is our culture’s fascination with the idea that there is a final battle coming one day soon. We love to watch our hero battle it out with the bad guys, eager to see what is waiting for him or her after the dust settles, eager to see if a regular person—well, a gorgeous Hollywood actor portraying a regular person—could survive. I think the Zombie craze we are going through right now is just a repackaging of the exact same sentiment: Zombies are the bad guys, they are what is wrong and broken with our world—and the questions about survival in the Zombie apocalypse go hand in hand with deep questions about our fears, our sense of morality and how we treat our fellow humans.
So when we look at this confusing text at the back of our bibles, what good news is there to be found? Should we worry about deciphering its code, or should we just start training to fight the Zombies?
What’s easy to forget about most of the movies and books in our culture, at least the way I see them, is that they are not really about a future world or imminent battle, but about the present world we live in today. They speak to the truth that something is going on in our world that is broken, and needs new life! Some things are going on in our world that make us fear the end of our days, that make us wish for a reboot on the tough times we live in, that make us long for a simpler, easier life. It seems our imaginations are longing for a fresh start, the new beginning that comes as the rubble of the old earth passes away and a new one is built, fresh and unblemished by the problems of our current existence.
There is something in our imaginations and—I would add—something inside our souls, that recognizes the wrongs and injustices of this world, feels alienated by them, and longs for renewal and reconciliation. This is the same longing, I believe, that was in the heart of a frustrated writer on the island of Patmos, almost two thousand years ago.
These visions of a two thousand year-old believer from Asian Minor are still powerful because they get at a feeling at the very core of our humanity: the feeling of alienation and deep longing we have within us—not just to see if the hero of our Hollywood movie can truly triumph against the Zombies, but also to see if in that triumph, we can see ourselves… we long, I believe, to see ourselves on the other side of the apocalypse, the other side of the hard times, to see ourselves in a world that is better than the one we know, to see ourselves given a second chance in some way, even if it means sorting through the rubble of life as we know it.
The plain truth of Revelation is that these visions speak to a longing that is universal—a truth that gets often gets side-tracked by Hollywood creative storytelling, but that is really a deeply personal and deeply corporate longing for a better existence. It is this existence I believe John is telling us to make real, telling us we have the power to change.
It is a new world that we help build, that we co-create with the God who made us, it is one I hope we can realize one day. In many ways, John’s vision is to challenge his audience, then and now, to get busy! It is a challenge to all of us: to make our world better, to work for justice, to end oppression, and to demand peace instead of war.
The text is not meant to confuse or alienate believers, rather it is meant to call us home. It is meant to give us hope that one day, the seas that divide us on this earth will pass away, and through God’s grace and some hard work of our own, we will walk in a new earth, a New Jerusalem where all people can live out their faith.
My own journey away from the church was reconciled when I found a community committed to this vision, when I found a community that gave me the freedom to ask questions, to think and to doubt. Mostly however, I returned to the church because my longing was met with love. My longing was met with a love that included me just as I am, and asked nothing but love in return.
‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ Not yet, Jesus said. Not yet. But I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This sense of profound longing in our society, so widespread that truly, it is epidemic, can only be met with love—the creative love of a God who became human, the radical love of Jesus who sat down with the outcast and shared bread and cup with them, the transforming love encountered when one who suffers finds a caring hand to wipe away his tears. This is the love that changes our hearts, and this is the love that changes the world.