Monday, August 28, 2017

8-27-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 3

8-27-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 3

   At this point we’re halfway through our study of the book of Revelation. We've discussed a lot of the early symbolism, how this apocalyptic literature is much different than other kinds of writing that we’re used to, even vastly different than the rest of the Bible, and that we can’t read it in the same way we read other kinds of literature - if we do we miss the point.
   And remember I said last week that the book feels like it could have concluded after chapter 11 - that what follows serves largely as a flashback of sorts. Well, our staring point today in chapter 12 can and has been characterized as a flashback, telling the story of the birth of Jesus and the attempt of King Herod to kill him shortly after his birth. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, doesn’t tell the story in the straightforward, no-nonsense way that Matthew’s gospel does though, instead using vivid imagery and wild symbolism, portraying a heavenly oriented representation of a nearly century old event - the birth of Christ. And in doing so he employs some of those traditional apocalyptic literary motifs we talked about in week 1:  great symbolism, dualistic representations of good versus evil, etc. And Metzger points out that there are what he calls “striking parallels” to these stories that have been found in Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, and especially in astrological lore and mythology. 

   So chapter 12 opens with a big to-do in heaven. 
John sees a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, about to give birth to a child. John also describes a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns. This dragon is huge - it’s size suggested by the fact with a swipe of it’s tail one third of the stars are swept away. So, this BIG dragon is poised to devour the child as soon as it’s born. The woman gives birth to a son but before the dragon can get to it, God intervenes, saving the child.

   So what are we to make of this? Well, remembering that these images are symbols and are not real, we know in part because John tells us that the dragon represents Satan. And we understand that the child represents Christ because John identifies him as “the one who is to rule all of the nations with a rod of iron,” words taken directly from Psalm 29 describing Jewish understanding of the role of the Messiah as a great warrior.  And Metzger suggests that “the dragon’s eagerness to devour the child explains the violent opposition that Jesus met during his earthly ministry. It began with the slaughter of the children (Mt 2:16) and culminated when he was crucified…” 
   Satan is thwarted, though, when the child is “snatched away and taken to God and to his throne” - perhaps a non-chronological reference to Christ’s ascension. 
So John presents an almost unimaginably condensed version of the gospel - from birth to crucifixion to ascension in a few short verses - as though John wrote a Cliff’s Notes version of the gospel. But he achieves his purpose of showing the deadly enmity of the dragon/Satan, it’s defeat, and the exaltation of Christ to the throne of God.
   The symbol of the woman clothed with sun, standing on the moon, and wearing a crown of twelve stars has been the subject of many different interpretations. The easiest interpretation is to assume that John means Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others though, pointing to the crown of twelve stars, have suggested that she represents the Christian church - the stars being the twelve apostles who began it post-resurrection. Still others, also referencing the crown, have suggested that she represents the Jewish people giving birth to the Messiah - the twelve stars symbolizing the twelve tribes. Metzger proposes an amalgam of those images - the ideal community of God’s people, first in Jewish form and then in Christian form, which was then persecuted by a political power as evil as the dragon.

   The dragon then, having missed out on the child, 
takes its anger to heaven and battles the archangel Michael, the heavenly patron of Israel according to the book of Daniel. The dragon is defeated and cast down to the earth, after which God’s people celebrate, the words of their victory song recalling Christ’s victory over sin and death celebrated in the preaching of the gospel. The chapter concludes with the dragon pursuing the other children of the woman, that is the church, and is symbolic of the ongoing persecution of the church that began at the time of Christ’s birth and continued beyond John’s day - saying it was initiated by Satan.

   In chapter 13 then, two beasts appear - one from the sea and one from the land - and these, together with the dragon, Metzger suggests, “comprise a counterfeit trinity.” And he continues, “One is a frightful beast, rising out of the sea, who is given power by the dragon. This beast symbolizes the Roman Empire, which in John’s day was the embodiment of Anti-christ, a world power in opposition to the reign of Christ.” Anti-christ, by the way, is a term found nowhere in the book of Revelation. It is referenced only in the letters 1 and 2 John. This symbolism, in context, makes more sense if we remember from mythology or geography, that Rome is a city built on how many hills? Seven. And Metzger says, “The beast, we are told, ‘opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God,’ reviling his name and his heavenly dwelling. We know what this means. Beginning with Julius Caesar Roman Emperors had been deified, that is, given the status and worship due to a god, the early ones after their death, but later emperors even during their lifetimes.” And I shared with you in week one that the emperor Domitian had even required people to address him as “our lord and God.” Remember also, as we were describing the cities to which John wrote the letters in chapters 2 and 3, most of them had built temples to these false “deities.” More on this shortly as well.
   So, while the policy of requiring emperor worship came from the emperor himself, it was enforced by local officials. These political underlings, Metzger suggests, “could be aptly represented by the second beast that John saw rising out of the earth and whom he later calls the false prophet. This is personified paganism itself. With a grim parody,” he says, “John describes the beast as having ‘two horns like a lamb’ - that is, it has taken on the guise of God’s chosen one…” (picture a wolf in sheep’s clothing maybe?)…”yet it spoke like a dragon.” And this beast, acting on behalf of the dragon, promoted and enforce emperor worship by any means possible, including trickery.

   The most helpful way to think about the word pictures in this passage is by comparing them to the word pictures used in political cartoons. I reminded us in week one that in American media we find an elephant and donkey representing political parties, a bull and a bear representing the stock market trends. 
In Revelation we find two beasts, one from the sea and one from the land representing a political authority that has become as destructive as a beast. 
The dragon is set up as the ultimate authority, a power to be worshiped above all else.

   One of the ways that an emperor enforced his sovereignty onto the minds and lives of his people was by issuing coins bearing his image and his title, and requiring that only imperial currency could be used in commerce. And we remember stories from the gospels where Jesus was either confronted with coins bearing Caesar’s image and asked about paying taxes to the Roman Empire, where he said famously “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” or at the cleansing of the temple when he overturned the money-changers’ tables because people were being cheated when they tried to exchange their Roman imperial money for currency that could be given in the temple as their offering or sacrifice. Throughout the Roman Empire, every transaction of buying and selling with money meant handling imperial coins. And on the coins, around the image of the head of the emperor, were titles that often included “Our Lord and God.” “It is such coins as these,” Metzger says, “that John refers to as bearing the mark of the beast, without which “no one can buy or sell.” Consequently, resistance by Christians to the cult of the emperor would entail the very worst consequences - being subject to economic hardship as well as to persecution.” Other sources have suggested that under some of these officials, there was an actual mark, like a stamp or even a tattoo, that without it, one could not conduct business in the marketplace at all, and that that mark was given only when allegiance to the emperor was sworn in public by swearing to one of these public officials, “Caesar is Lord,” or “Caesar is our Lord and God.” Metzger doesn’t cite that example, but does remind us that the details of John’s vision are symbolic and that the “mark” on the right hand or forehead are meant figuratively. Those who conform to the demands of the state are given means to identify themselves, so that they can claim the benefits to which they are due. And we might also consider the conflicting images that these “marks” present - in earlier chapters the people of God also receive a mark on their foreheads. The imagery challenges people to ask to whom they truly belong: to the forces that destroy or the Lamb who liberates?

   Chapter 13 ends then, by mentioning the famous "number of the beast” - six hundred and sixty six. And Metzger explains, “the number [666] is, in the first place, a symbol of the greatest imperfection, for it is the sacred number seven less one, repeated [three times]. John says it is a human number, that is, it is the number of a person’s name. Now, in both the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, the letters also served as numerals, and it was a well known technique to add up the letters that comprise a proper name.” It doesn’t work the same way in English because our letters don’t also serve as numbers, but we do sometimes correlate a number with a letter, A with 1, B with 2, and so on. If we did that in English, then my name would break down as J = 10, A = 1, and Y = 25, which could either be written out as 10125, or added together to total 36. 

   In the ancient Hebrew numerology system, that cryptogram probably works out to the name of Emperor Nero. In the Hebrew alphabet, which has only consonants and no vowels, the numeric values of the first ten letters progress by 1 each time, the next ten letters progress by ten - so the eleventh letter is valued at 20, the 12th at 30, and so on to 100. Thereafter they progress by hundreds.  So in this system the numeric value of the name “Neron Caesar,” Nero’s full name and title, equals 666. So, John could, this implies, be naming the emperor Nero, under whom the persecution began, as being represented by the beast. Now, a complicating factor to all of this is that in other ancient copies of the book of Revelation, the number is recorded, not as 666, but as 616, which would alter the symbol, or which could simply suggest an editorial or copying error. At the same time, if the last “N” of Neron is left out, which is commonly done, and with the value of N being 50, then the number of the names works out to be…616. And Metzger posits, “There doesn’t appear to be any other name, or name with a title, that satisfies both 666 and 616.” John points directly at the Roman Emperor here.

   So, as has been the case throughout, John’s images and scenes alternate back and forth between turbulence and peacefulness and in chapter 14 we return to a scene of peacefulness. John sees the Lamb standing on 
Mt. Zion, with the 144,000 of the redeemed. And as we mentioned last week, this is a symbolic number, representing all of those who remain faithful. But then he adds this comment, “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.” So are we to understand that the only ones who can “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” as John puts it, are men who’ve never had sexual intercourse? If we read Revelation literally, that is EXACTLY what that would mean. But, we know - or I hope we know - that this book is not to be taken literally, this is a book of symbols, so what is John suggesting here? Well, since the rest of the Bible sanctions and commends marriage (and with it, intercourse if for no other reason than procreation) then it’s hard to understand this as a sudden condemnation of marriage, or a demand for celibacy. Rather, Metzger suggests, “John appears to adopt the imagery found frequently in the Old Testament where any contact with pagan worship was called ‘fornication’ or ‘adultery.’” And I would add here, often in scripture when we hear these words, “fornication” and “adultery,” the writer is suggesting, not physical sexual intercourse, but idolatry, suggesting “sleeping with another god,” or placing someone or something at the center of our lives instead of God. Regardless, Metzger says that the 144,000 about whom John writes refers to those “who have not defiled themselves by participating in pagan worship,” which you’ll remember was one of the chief complaints leveled at many of the seven churches in the seven letters that began Revelation.
   Then John envisions three angels, one at a time. 
The first announces the time of judgment and calls the people to come to worship God. The second announces the fall of Babylon, a theme that John will take up in chapter 19 but that references the most recent empire before Rome that occupied and ruled over Israel and her people. And then the third angel predicts eternal damnation for those who persist in worshiping the beast and its image, saying that those people will “drink the wine of God’s wrath…will be tormented forever…and will have no rest, day or night.” Now, the symbolism of fire and sulfur, or fire and brimstone, are, Metzger reminds us, “traditional symbols for the fate of those who persistently reject God. Since [throughout] the book of Revelation the author uses metaphors and symbolic language, it would be quite unfair to take him literally here. Now throughout Revelation,” he writes, “we have seen that if people persist in living contrary to the structure of God’s universe, they suffer. John’s words here mean that the most terrible thing that a person can do is deliberately to turn away from the living God.” Such torment, says John, is ‘forever and ever.’ This is so, because God respects our free will and will never force us to turn to [God]. So this picture of wrath… [with which John concludes chapter 14] means nothing more or less than the terrible truth that the sufferings of those who persist in rejecting God’s love in Christ are self-imposed and self-perpetuated.” And he says that the inevitable consequence is that if they eternally persist in such rejection, God will never violate their freedom to choose. Now, whether anyone could or would eternally resist a love so great, so universal, so all-encompassing, so utterly irresistible, is the stuff of an ongoing debate within Christianity throughout it’s history. We simply do not know. But these solemn thoughts are followed by words of comfort. John hears a voice from heaven declaring, “Blessed are the dead who…die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” And these words of comfort and promise are familiar to us part of our funeral liturgy.

   So, as we’ve seen, the writer of Revelation tells of this vision in ever-progressing ways, backing up, looking from different perspectives, and displaying what he understands as God’s plan from different vantage points. The overarching truth within all of them is that God’s will will be done.
   Chapters 15-18 describe the struggles of the church in its conflict with hostile world powers. Earlier in the book we had the opening of the seven seals, followed by the sounding of the seven trumpets and the woes that followed both of those. Now we have an account of the seven bowls full of God’s wrath poured out on all the earth - described as “seven plagues” - and which signify the last of God’s wrath that has been exemplified in all of these events. After this, a song of praise and joy is sung, expressing confidence that all nations will be led to worship God because God’s restorative justice will vindicate all people. So, the symbolism of the pouring out of the bowls is not to suggest an orgy of violence and retribution - as Revelation is so often interpreted when read literally - but more as symbolizing the process of God’s justice being worked out through the consequences of people turning away from God to other idols or gods. To continue to subvert God’s justice, to continue to misuse the power God has entrusted, is to set one’s self up for disaster - sometimes personally and other times globally. Whether that misuse is intended for personal gain, or whether it is more systemic and results, for example, in climate change that destroys life, this is what we see playing out here. So we must remember that the descriptions we read are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality or situation conveyed by the symbols. And like a good teacher who reiterates a point in different ways to accommodate the different learning needs of their students, John makes this point again and again for his readers.

   However, the way John presents them suggests a desire to prepare the Church of his day for a period of suffering. Although he’s confident that the Lord will come soon and bring deliverance, he doesn’t want to delude his readers with premature hopes. If we look beyond the grim symbolism, we find a grim reality that the writer, and the Church, faces in his time. He desires to bring them comfort, but not with false hope. Fully conscious of the struggle that awaits it in the midst of an empire that seeks to crush it, the Church must be prepared to meet these challenges - even with their lives if necessary.

   It is in the midst of this section that the author refers to what is commonly called the battle of Armageddon. Through a complicated vision of frogs and spirits, John sees an assembly of the kings of the whole world preparing for a battle that is to occur at a place called Armageddon. “Armageddon, like the number 666, has been magnified in popular thinking,” Metzger writes, “out of all proportion to its significance as a word. Curiously enough, no one knows for certain what the name Armageddon means.” And he points out that there’s not even one broadly accepted spelling for it, some begin the word with an “H” and the number of m’s, g’d, and d’s varies from place to place. And he goes on, “In spite of the difficulty of knowing how to spell the word, and consequently what it means and where the place is located, most scholars suppose [or suggest] that it alludes to the mountain of Megiddo. The difficulty with this, however, is that there is no “Mount Megiddo”; Megiddo was the name of a city that gave its name to the pass between the coastal plains of Palestine and the Plain of Esdraelon. Because this had been the scene of frequent and decisive battles in ancient times,” as described in Judges and 2 Kings, “it would appear that John is using familiar language to symbolize a final great conflict between the forces of good and evil, a battle in which evil will be defeated scripture says - not by armaments or armies, but by God’s incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.” And then, with the subsequent pouring out of the seventh bowl, a mighty voice cries out, “It is done!” and we’re told that Babylon falls. And we wonder, Babylon? What does Babylon have to do with it?

   Metzger describes chapters 17 and 18 as “a literary triumph of imaginative power.” John has sought to provide comfort for his readers with the ongoing assurance that Rome, the evil empire, would fall. So certain is he that he spends two chapters on an account of the crashing down of the “grandeur that was Rome.” However, to say outright that God was going to destroy Rome would have been seen as treasonous in the eyes of the imperial authorities who had exiled him in the first place, so like a prisoner writing in code, John characterizes the evil power of Rome by the name Babylon. Just as Babylon represented to the Hebrews all that was wicked and symbolized persecution during the Exile, so for John Rome was another Babylon, the source of all seductive luxury and vice and the enforcer of pagan and emperor worship. And to that end, he describes Babylon as a prostitute with a description you can read for yourself in chapter 17, but suffice it to say, after reading his words one might be inclined to ask him, “do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” He condemns Rome as Babylon not only for her pagan worship and blasphemies against God, but for her treatment and persecution of fellow Christians, begun under the crazed Nero and furthered under Domitian. The historian Tacitus comments that Nero’s persecutions of Christians in Rome were so terrible, so horrific, that even non-Christians were horrified and began to intercede on their behalf.

   So then in chapter 18, John describes the fall of Rome - clearly a vision because at this point Rome was very strong. And Metzger’s description paints an image almost as realistic as John’s, “Like the tolling of a funeral bell, we hear the repeated lamentation: ‘Alas, alas, the great city!’ Despite all of her sins and her crimes, there are many who mourn for her. The kings of the earth who had consorted with her ‘weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning.’ The merchants who became wealthy because of her great commerce and trade ‘weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore.’” So, while those who profit from the business they do with the city that John calls “the whore of Babylon” weep, from John’s perspective, the fall of Rome is reason to celebrate.
     And Metzger writes here, “It is remarkable that when John wrote these immensely moving chapters about the fall of Rome, Rome was still very much alive, still enjoying undisputed sovereignty and undimmed prestige. So great, however, is John’s faith in the sovereignty of God and so great is his confidence that the justice of God must eventually punish [this] evil, that he writes as though Rome has already fallen. As with so many judgments of God, the fulfillment actually came slowly, but at last suddenly. For centuries Rome decayed and degenerated, moral poison infecting her whole life.” And I would interject this into Metzger’s flow of thought here - that even as the Roman Emperor Constantin made a near death-bed conversion to Christianity in the early 300s, making Christianity the official faith of the Empire, it was too little too late to save the empire from the consequences of its abuse of power. During what Metzger then describes as a “fateful week in August of the year 410 CE…northern hordes of Goth [armies] pillaged Rome and laid it waste.”

   So what are we to take from this part of the book of Revelation? Certainly John wrote in order to stimulate faithfulness and hope on the part of persecuted Christians living in the first century under the rule of a dominating and domineering power, assuring them that ultimate victory lies with Christ. But Revelation also serves as a warning for believers down through the years. Babylon is an allegory, a representation, of the idolatry than any nation, ANY nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military might or power, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur or exceptionalism, racial pride, moral superiority, or any other glorification of the creature, over the Creator. 
“In these chapters,” Metzger concludes, “we have an up-to-date portrait of what may occur when we idolize the gross national product, worship growth, and become so preoccupied with quantity that we ignore quality.  The message of the book of Revelation concerns the character and timeliness of God’s judgment not only on persons, but also of nations, and, in fact, of all principalities and powers - which is to say, all authorities, all corporations, all institutions, all structures, all bureaucracies, and the like. And to the extent that  [religious] denominations and sects have succumbed to the lure of power and prestige, the words of John are applicable also to present-day church structures.”
   So next week we’ll look at the concluding chapters; on Christ’s final victory; the last judgment; and this idea commonly referred to as the rapture. 

Let’s pray: For your presence with us, in us, and around us we give you thanks. For your inspiration in the writing, reading, and hearing of Scripture we give you thanks. For the gift of your Son Jesus Christ, the lens through which we view both Scripture and life, we give you thanks. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

8-20-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 2

8-20-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 2

   Last week we looked at the opening three chapters, where John of Patmos reveals a series of visions that he has written down, that include a collection of letters directed to seven churches in the immediate area of Asia Minor Patmos, where John was exiled. 
   And we learned some very basic terminology that is crucial in understanding Revelation, including hermeneutic, the lens or point of view that is present in both the writing and in our reading; eschatology, which means “last things” and is the theological term associated with the “end times;” prophecy, which is really not so much about predictions of the future as it is God’s words about a current situation spoken through the mouths of the prophets; 
and apocalyptic, the literary genre in which Revelation is classified, which uses vivid imagery and symbolism to describe visions or represent current reality.
   John’s reality or context was a post-war society in which the Roman Imperial army had crushed Israel's and Jerusalem’s effort to win independence from Rome some 30 years earlier. The Temple was destroyed and much of Jerusalem with it, and thousands upon thousands were killed. In the aftermath, The Roman Emperor Domitian had begun a ruthless oppression and persecution of Christians across the empire.
   In reviewing the letters to the seven churches that make up chapters 2 and 3 we talked first about the symbolism of the number seven itself, that it is considered to represent wholeness, completeness, and even perfection in theology and that John uses the number seven many times in his writing. 
Secondly, we realized that the issues John covered in the seven letters were not exclusive to their time - that many churches today face some of the same issues.
    So as we move this week into chapters 4 and 5, the focus shifts to heaven. In the first 3 chapters, the symbolism was pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Beginning in chapter 4, however, it become more complex. But using disciplined imagination it’s somewhat easier to understand and the author’s message a bit easier to comprehend.
   So John, in a Spirit-inspired trance, sees a door opened to heaven and is invited to enter. The Greek word translated as “open” here suggests a permanent state of openness, not a door that could be closed. 
John enters and attempts to describe the grandeur and glory of what he sees - God on the throne. But how could he do that? As Bible scholar Bruce Metzger points out, “the finite languages of earth are incapable of defining the infinite realities that John saw in heaven; hence he must use earthly analogies, but always with the understanding that the heavenly reality far surpasses the earthly symbol.”
   And so, as Jewish writers are reluctant to picture or even say the name of God, John carefully avoids giving any kind of detailed description of form of substance, instead, describing the one on the throne as looking 
like jasper and carnelian, two precious stones. And as Metzger describes, “the jasper John likely has in mind is a translucent type…clear as crystal…that when polished sparkles and flashes with luminous splendor,” and that carnelian is a “deeper red stone that seems as though a fire is smoldering inside.” And Metzger offers that John is suggesting that, in addition to the holiness of God, God’s anger also burns against sin, which would be consistent with the view of other biblical authors, particularly of the Hebrew Bible scriptures that John knows so well and references so often. In the nature of John’s writing, then, we see and appreciate the beautifully poetic way John describes the holiness and glory of God.
   John then notices a “rainbow around the throne that looks like an emerald.” Now we remember, as would John, that the rainbow was the sign of the covenant of God’s mercy following the flood story in Genesis. God pledged to never again destroy the earth with a flood and set the bow in the sky as a sign of God’s covenant of mercy. 
So a rainbow stretched over the throne of God, suggests that God is merciful in all that God does. Now we, like John, know that a rainbow is made of an entire spectrum of colors, yet John describes this one as being green, like an emerald - another precious stone. Green is a soothing, peaceful color - we think of distant meadows and cool forests (or beautiful golf courses) - when we see images of green. 
Perhaps John suggests here that, having seen both the brilliance of God’s holiness and the heat of God’s anger over sin, that we can be  comforted by the assurance of God’s mercy that overarches everything God does.
   So, understanding the nature of God as John so poetically describes it is consistent with the theology taught elsewhere in Scriptures, we can understand that such a soothing image would serve as a healing balm for the persecuted Christians of John’s day, fighting for their daily existence in the midst of a Roman Empire and emperor that demanded total allegiance and worship. These images would remind them of the splendor, majesty, and power of God, the divine Presence and radiance surrounding the throne. 
   Other parts of his descriptions, though, are not as clear. For example, who are the twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, wearing golden crowns? 
John doesn’t say, but some scholars believe they represent the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, along with the twelve apostles of the New Testament, symbolizing the two covenants with God’s people. John describes thunder and lightning in the throne room, reminding us of Moses receiving the first covenant on Mt. Sinai, when God’s presence was described, as it often is in Hebrew poetry, as being in the thunder and lightning.  
The description of something like a glassy crystal sea before the throne hearkens to a description of God from Exodus 24, where God is described as having stood on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone.” 
John is probably alluding to that image from Scripture in trying to describe magnificence of the throne and all that surrounds it, as well as the distance that remains between he and the throne. The description also recalls the expanse of the Aegean Sea, which would have been clearly visible from the hills of Patmos, where John was exiled. It is a picture of both great distance as well as serenity, and pictures a rightly ordered universe in which God is at the center.
   John then describes four living creature on each side of the throne, a description largely taken from the first chapter of Ezekiel, along with Isaiah, where the prophets relay visions of the throne room of God. The creatures are described as having the appearance of a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. As such they symbolize respectively, what is in all creation the noblest (the lion), the strongest (the ox), the wisest (the human), and the swiftest (the eagle.) In later centuries these same four animals were often used to symbolize the four gospel writers as well and have influenced much Christian art over the centuries.

   The function of these four creatures, which are mentioned fourteen times in the book - that is, the perfect number 7 times 2 - is to lead the worship of God in the throne room. This ceaseless worship of God by the creatures, who largely represent creation, is not their sole activity, but rather is their constant disposition - their every action an act of worship - a reminder of how we are called to live lives that glorify God in all that we do. So even though Revelation is often viewed as a book of destruction, God's fundamental identity is as Creator, and this scene anticipates the outcome of the book, where God's purposes culminate in new creation.
   The creatures and the elders sing together in worship to God, a song that inspired our hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” Then they sing again, inspiring our hymn, “You Alone Are Holy.” And then the elders ascribe to God the Creator the name that Emperor Domitian had attempted to take for himself, “our Lord and God.” Revelation functions rightly when it invites us into worship too -- which we do as we add our voices to the song. 

  The vision moves into chapter 5, where John notices a scroll held in the right hand of God, representing the total of God’s will, God’s desire for creation. 
And the question is asked by a powerful angel, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?”  When no one comes forward, John weeps, only to be told by one of the elders not to worry, “The Lion of Judah, the Root of David,” scriptural references to the messiah, can open the seven seals.
   And then, as Metzger describes it, “What follows is altogether unexpected. John looked to see the Lion, the king of the beasts, and instead sees a Lamb with marks of slaughter upon it! He looked to see power and force, by which the enemies of his faith (think Roman Empire here) would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and gentleness as the way to win victory. The might of Christ is the power of love. Most Jews had expected a Messiah who would break the yoke of the Roman Imperial power and liberate his people,” but we know that Jesus sought to quash those messianic expectations when, on that first Palm Sunday, he rode into town, not on a war horse, equipped with all kinds of weapons and armor, but on a donkey, a symbol of peace and humility. Here, instead of a ferocious lion that hurts others, the Messiah appears as a sacrificial lamb bearing the hurt of others. And we understand that the power of God is unleashed in the death of Christ. Not power borne of military might, but the power of self-sacrifice, that builds God's kingdom by redeeming people of every tribe and nation.

   At this point, Metzger reminds us that we should not take this all of this imagery literally, John is describing symbols, and the symbols mean what they mean, not what they say. Jesus is not literally a lamb with four hooves, in this case with seven horns and seven eyes. The symbolism of seven horns suggests that Christ has complete power, the seven eyes that he sees and knows all things. Remember, in the seven letters Christ said to the churches “I know” when speaking to their particular situations and conditions. So in opening the scroll, Christ reveals God’s will. And then, suddenly, worship breaks out - the phrase that those gathered to worship “numbered in the millions - thousands upon thousands” suggests that all of creation, everywhere in all times and all places, worshiped together. This is the idea suggested in the Apostle’s Creed when we speak of the communion of saints; they’re not just those from our community who have gone before, but all the saints from all times and all places who worship God together on earth and in heaven. John’s primary purpose here is not so much to describe the worship in heaven, as to give hope and a sense of victory to his people here on earth in the struggles that they’re in the midst of, and still face.
   The section from chapters six through eleven is intended to bring before the reader, not only the struggle of the church amid conflict and persecution, but also the judgments of God upon the church’s enemies, most notably in John’s time, Rome.
   And we should note the structure that John follows, as this section of the book is dramatically arranged in a series of seven scenes, revealed as the Lamb opens each of the seven seals. The first four are opened at once and together make up one picture. Then the fifth and sixth are opened creating another picture, followed by some intermediate material and then the opening of the seventh seal, which reveals all new visions announced by the blowing of seven trumpets, and then that same pattern of four, then two, then one is repeated.
   Within this complicated pattern, John seeks to develop his themes, but not in a strictly logical manner like we’re familiar with in Western writing. Remember, one feature of apocalyptic literature is that it isn’t typically chronological, and isn’t structured like modern writing because the writer doesn’t think the way modern Western writers think. It’s that hermeneutic thing at work. 
John runs through the whole picture again and again, the seven seals and trumpets essentially telling the same thing, each time emphasizing different aspects of the whole.

   Opening the seals reveals to us the vision of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the description of which John borrows from Zechariah 6, also involving horses of various colors. But rather than Zechariah’s chariots, John places riders on them to convey the themes of the vision. Each visionary account follow a common pattern; the seal is opened, one of the creatures speaks, a horse and rider appears, and John explains their symbolism. 
So John says, 
Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 
So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.”
   And that pattern continues with the red horse, whose rider takes peace from the earth; the black horse, holding a pair of scales; and then a green horse, its rider symbolizing death. Each of these scenes are like vignettes or cameos - somewhat set apart from the other vision yet tied to it at the same time. Each rider goes in silence; we don’t know the direction they go, as the word “Come!” spoken by each of the creatures can also be translated as “Go!” So whether they travel from heaven towards earth or vice versa we don’t know. 
But we wonder, what do they represent?

   Here, Metzger helps to make sense of what is going on, saying, “One of the features that distinguishes the book of Revelation from other books in the New Testament is the author’s attempt to show how power fits into the divine scheme of things. John begins with the belief that all power comes from God. God is the absolute ruler of the world. But because God gave humankind free will, there is always the possibility that we might misuse the portion of power entrusted to us. When this happens, however, it doesn’t mean that God is helpless and frustrated. The world is still God’s world, and is still ruled in accordance with the eternal laws of right and wrong.”
   So Metzger suggests that it’s the misuse of the power entrusted to humanity by God that brings on suffering and disaster. Wars, starvation, devastation are the results of that misuse. These, he says, “are the judgments of God, if you will, being worked out on the plane of history.” We might say, “you’ve made your bed, now sleep in it,” or “we reap what we sow.”
   So the white horse, its rider holding a bow, rides off seeking conquest. The key to it’s meaning, Metzger says, is in the bow. It was the favorite and most prominent weapon of mounted Parthian warriors, to whom white was a sacred color. At the time of the writing, Parthia was a formidable neighbor and challenger to Rome on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. This image suggests a pending Parthian invasion against this Roman enemy of the church that will meet with success. The two were engaged in ongoing conflicts and battles for the better part of the first two centuries.
   The second seal reveals a red horse, its rider holding a huge sword, and he is said to take peace from the earth, allowing the  people to slaughter one another. Following the vision of the first horse, this symbolizes a coming war and bloodshed.
   The third horse is black, symbolizing death, and the rider holds a scale in his hand, about which one of the winged creatures says,  “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius.” A denarius was the customary wage for a laborer for one days’ work, and usually a denarius would buy eight to sixteen times more grain than the amounts mentioned here. 
In other words, warfare is followed by inflation and famine, which leads to starvation, disease, and death.
   The forth horseman is Death itself, riding a horse that Metzger describes as the color of decaying flesh. Hades, the ruler of the dead, follows close behind.So what John describes here is the aftermath of war, which Metzger points out are the results of humanity’s misuse of power and the subsequent working out of God’s righteous will for the universe.  God’s justice will prevail in the end, and no misuse of the power entrusted to humanity can stand in the way of that. God wills community, which is the consequence of caring and love. Ignore physical laws, like stepping off a cliff, and disaster follows. Neglect God’s moral laws, and disaster also follows. The woes described here are the result of not taking seriously God’s command to love one another, to strive for community, and to seek justice for all people. God does not will these woes, God does not cause them, but God allows them as the result of the free will given to us.

   So the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are brilliant little vignettes of God’s judgments working out in history. This is what happens in the sphere of politics whenever men and women opposes the will of God for community and justice; and this is what happens in the military sphere when entrusted power is misused; and this in the economic sphere when God’s economy of abundance for all is distorted into an economy of scarcity where only a few have enough. The four horsemen are not to be taken literally, but the threats they represent should; threats of conquest, violence, economic insecurity, and death; threats that are real. They were real for people in the first century and remain real for people now. We need look no further than the events of last weekend in Virginia, where hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism reared their ugly heads and violence, death, and more hatred resulted. God did not sanction that misuse of God’s entrusted power, God mourns alongside those victimized by it, but God’s will for community grounded in Christ’s transformational love will not, in the end, be denied. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so prophetically reminds us, “the long arc of history bends towards justice.” 
   So these visions strip away the pretensions of security we create for ourselves. They point to the deep uncertainties that affect us all. And John suggests that there must be a judgment in which the guilty will not be able to escape - what goes around, comes around.
   With the opening of the fifth seal, then, the action moves temporarily back to heaven, where the prayers of the martyrs of the faith who died through persecution in their faith and are said to be buried under heaven’s altar, are contained in the bowls held by the elders. And while the martyrs cry out for vengeance, they’re told they must wait, and at the proper time they, too, will be given their white robes and can enjoy their rightful place in heaven.

   In the opening of the sixth seal we return to the punishment of the wicked, those misusers of power, and John again borrows heavily from symbolism found in the Hebrew Scriptures: the earthquake from Haggai 2, the sun turned black and moon turned blood red from Joel 2, stars falling from heaven like figs from a tree from Isaiah 34, and the sky rolled up like a scroll, also from Isaiah 34. This use of cosmic convulsions to describe social and political upheaval is well established in biblical prophecy. And yes, there are people suggesting, yet again, that the solar eclipse on Monday is THE end of the world. 
To take these images literally, and worse, to suggest that events that John describes in his context somehow point to events or persons in our current historical setting is foolishness, Metzger argues, as has been shown by the many so-called prophets over the centuries, all of whom assumed that John “must be talking about us.” John writes about his time and his context, not ours.

   And so the revelation continues. John sees an angel flying with the seal of the living God. Standing before him are 144,000 men - 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes, representing all of Israel, in this case, the new Israel, the Christian church. Twelve thousand from each of twelve tribes suggests all of all - the whole nation of Israel are marked as wearing the seal of belonging to God. 
In the next vision, John sees a great uncountable multitude standing before the throne of the Lamb, robed in white and carrying palm branches, denoting they are victors. The two visions stand in strange contrast to one another even as they coalesce with one another. In the first vision, the throng can be counted; in the second it’s infinitely numerous. The first is drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel; the second, from every nation. In the first they are being prepared for imminent peril; in the second they are victorious and secure. The two visions are correlative, Metzger offers. “Those of the first vision, who are in or about to enter a time of secular opposition, of war and persecution, are, in the second vision, given encouragement by revealing to them the hope and redemption of Christ that awaits them. The symbolism of the promised hope found in living and trusting in the will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is both timeless and universal.”

   In chapters 8-11 then, we have the sounding of seven trumpets by seven angels in the same sequence as with the seals - four, then two, then one. And we don’t have the time to go into the same kind of detail with these visions as we did with the seven seals, but they describe again the same general types of destructions as the prior ones. This time, though, John uses imagery similar to the plagues that Moses called down on Pharaoh, the Emperor of his day, in trying to gain the freedom of the people of Israel in that time. Do you see the pattern here? John compares the treatment of Israel now, under the Roman Empire, to that of the people then under the Egyptian Empire, and as the prophets John borrows from described it under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. And John records a vision of storms and earthquakes, and “something like a great mountain, burning with fire, and thrown into the sea,” that reads almost exactly like descriptions of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in southern Italy about 15 years earlier. 
   He also envisions a plague of giant, armored locusts that attack the oppressors of the people for five months, which is, coincidentally or not, the lifespan of normal locusts in nature. And then he sees an army of two hundred million horsemen cross the Euphrates River. And important in understanding this vision in historical context is that the Euphrates River constituted the eastern border of the Roman empire, beyond which was that massive Parthian army suggested by the white horse and bow wielding horseman we talked about earlier.

   And again, we must remember that the objects and the events seen in a vision are not physically real. Like the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel and the sheet with animals lowered to Peter in Acts, they were perceived in a trance. Things seen in a vision are not physically present. Neither are they descriptions of real events, or even predictions of future occurrences - they’re symbols of or code for real time occurrences. The intention is not to fix the reader’s thought on the symbol, but upon the idea that the symbolic language is meant to convey.

   As dire as the imagery is, the intention of the symbolic sounding of the seven trumpets is not to inflict vengeance; after all, much of what is described are the results of choices that humanity has made in its misuse of entrusted power. Rather, it’s to call the people to repentance, to change their hearts, thus changing their minds, and leading to a change in action or behavior. 
And one would think such imagery would be enough to bring people to repentance, but we know two thousand years later that that was not and is not the case. And John thus identifies the sin to which humanity clings so tenaciously as idolatry. In John’s time this involved emperor worship as well as pagan worship, but whatever form it takes in any age, the worship of, or the placing of anyone or anything, real or symbolic, on the same level as God is always, always the greatest sin. 

   Between the sixth and seventh trumpets, there’s a pause. We anticipate a final, destructive sequence in which all that remains is perhaps destroyed in a storm of fire and brimstone. But in John’s vision he sees “another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head” - meaning he’s clothed with God’s power and mercy. And this angel carries another, smaller scroll, that he instructs John to eat, that is to “read…and inwardly digest,” so that he can then make it known to “many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” 
   And then, in a blur of images and symbols tossed about as though in a blender, in one of the most perplexing sections of the entire book, we find symbols referencing Old Testament prophecy and history. John references the Jerusalem temple and its altar, Moses and Elijah, the wild olive trees and the lamp stands seen in Zechariah, the plagues sent upon Pharaoh in Exodus, the tyrant predicted by Daniel, and even Egypt and Jerusalem. And as Metzger suggests, perhaps the most that can be said of this section with confidence - as many people interpret it in many different ways - is that “[John] views the people of God as bearing faithful testimony, but also as suffering pain and persecution and indignity. They are delivered,” he suggests, “not from martyrdom and death, but through martyrdom and death to a glorious resurrection.” Not everyone will survive the persecution they face at the hands of empire, this suggests, - then or now - but there is hope for all in the promised resurrection.  
   This section of the book closes with the sounding of the last of the seven trumpets. What is startling is that what follows is so utterly unlike anything that the other trumpets announced. Instead of more volcanic eruptions, locust invasions, or fire-breathing monsters, there’s an outburst of rejoicing in heaven. John hears the heavenly chorus celebrating victory. The twenty-four elders celebrate God’s assumption of power from those who have misused and abused it. And John sees a new vision of divine glory: “God’s temple in heaven was opened,” revealing the ark of the covenant, the sign of God’s presence with God’s people.

   And this would seem like a good place to end the book, with all the people in heaven and on earth singing Kum Ba Yah, holding hands, and buying each other metaphorical Coca-Colas. If John had finished here, it would seem a proper ending. But instead he goes on for eleven more chapters, returning to earlier stages and repeating some previous teachings, confirming once again the non-chronological nature of apocalyptic literature, and showing once again that the sequence in which John’s visions are presented does not allow us to turn the book of Revelation into an almanac or time chart of the last days.

   So going into next week, remember “it doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.”  We’ll pick up with chapters 12-18, and flash back a little to some different considerations of some of the same ideas, we’ll introduce some new characters into the story, like a couple of beasts, we’ll explore some new locations, such as Babylon, and we’ll have a little mathematics lesson when we consider the significance of the number 666. Don’t miss it.

Let’s pray:

Lord, we thank you for the wonder of scripture and are thankful for the inspired work of all of those who give witness to you in the books we consider holy. Inspire us in our reading, that we might discern how this writing might inform our faith and guide our lives, that all that we do in our lives bring glory to you. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.  

Sunday, August 13, 2017

8-13-17 “You Say You Want a Revelation!” - Part 1

8-13-17 “You Say You Want a Revelation!” - Part 1     Rev:1-3

   For most people in the church, the book of Revelation is a closed book. Some avoid it, thinking the book too mysterious, too difficult to understand, or too scary to think about. Others seem to focus most, if not all, of 
their Bible reading in this book alone; their faith and theology centered primarily in this one book. Both of these extremes are, in the words of Bible scholar and Book of Revelation expert, Bruce Metzger, “short sighted.” Metzger authored the book, “Breaking the Code:Understanding the Book of Revelation,” and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on this final book in the New Testament. 
  For many, Revelation raises more questions than it answers because it’s really not like any other book in the Bible. In fact, in the canonization process, that process that, over years, determined what would and would not be included in the Bible, Revelation was almost left on the cutting room floor, due mostly to its difficulty, dramatic imagery, and symbolism. 
   But it did make the cut and here we are. By a show of hands, how many of you have read the entire Book of Revelation? How many of you have never read it? So I guess that means the remainder have read some of it. As we go through this series, I encourage you, I urge you to take some time and read the book for yourselves. From front to back is about an hour to an hour and a half of reading. We can’t read all of it in worship, but we will talk about much of it. This week we look at the first three chapters of the book.   Before we begin though, there’s some terminology I want you to become familiar with to aid in understanding what’s happening in Revelation. 

   First is one you’re kind of familiar with - hermeneutic. Remember, hermeneutic means the lens through which you look at something, or your point of view. Our common lens together is a 21st century, modern lens, but we also have individual lenses. As a male, my lens differs from that of a female. As a caucasian, it differs from a person of color. A person from the middle-class brings a different life perspective into the reading than would a person from  upper or lower socio-economic classes. North Americans bring a different point of view than would a Central or South American, a European, or a person from Africa. All that has made us who we are shapes the lenses through which we view the world, and with it scripture. Everyone has a hermeneutic and always has. It’s present in our reading, it’s present in the writings. There’s no denying it, the important thing is to be aware of it, both in ourselves and in what we’re experiencing. John’s hermeneutic is in part a first century, male, Jewish-Christian hermeneutic formed and shaped under the oppression of the Roman Empire and his writing reflects that.
   The second term is one we talked about briefly in the last series - eschatology. Eschatology literally means “last things.” When used in theological discussion it usually refers to what are called “end times.” 
   Next is prophecy. Prophecy is found throughout scripture and we often mistakenly assume that prophecy means predictions about the future. In fact that’s not entirely true. While some prophetic passages include warnings about the future or do predict some future event - we think mostly of Old Testament passages that seem to point toward the birth of Christ - the overwhelming majority of prophetic passages in scripture are not concerned with the future at all, but are the words or message of God as spoken through a prophet about the situation at hand, in the present. So, it’s God’s commentary, if you will, about what is going on then and there more than what is to come. 

   And finally, apocalyptic, from which we get the word apocalypse. Apocalyptic is a form of literature of which Revelation is but one example. Much of the book of Daniel is considered apocalyptic, as are parts of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and even a small part of Matthew’s gospel. There are many non-biblical books that are apocalyptic as well. Revelation seems so different from the rest of the Bible because it is - it’s the only piece of entirely apocalyptic literature to be found there. Apocalyptic literature is known for it’s dramatic imagery, it’s profound use of metaphor, and it’s telling and retelling of visions. Other characteristics of apocalyptic literature include, 
  1. Not chronological - it jumps all over the place in both time and location.
  2. Mostly symbolic - symbolism reigns in apocalyptic literature. And often, that’s where people are thrown for a loop.
  3. Largely dualistic - the story being told evolves around binary or dualistic ideas, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, light vs. dark, Heaven vs. Earth.
  4. Common theme - in Revelation, believe it or not, when you get through all of the symbolism, the bizarre happenings, and the misunderstanding, the theme is hope - the promised hope that God will intervene and save God’s people while destroying evil and injustice. 
   So, there’s your vocabulary lesson, now let’s get some context, beginning with some basic questions:

   Who wrote Revelation?
   We don’t really know for sure, beyond the fact that the author calls himself John, and that he is exiled on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea. Some have suggested that this John is THE John, the Apostle of Jesus, but John of Patmos never says that. Some of the earliest writings we have from 2nd and 3rd century church leaders say that this John was NOT John the Apostle. So, we don’t know. John was as common a name then as it is now. And regardless, knowing who wrote this doesn’t add to or take away from what is written.

When was it written?
   Most scholars date the book to the late first century, certainly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and most likely in the late 90s. 
Some have placed it during the time of the Roman Emperor Nero, but most scholars think it later, during Domitian’s reign. While Nero persecuted Christians in Rome, it was only under Domitian that widespread persecution, torture, and killings of Christians was carried out. While every emperor since Julius Caesar were thought of as gods, it was Domitian who insisted on being addressed as “our lord and god,” something Christians would never do, which led most directly to their persecution. So most scholars place Revelation within this historical context.

Who was it written to?
   That's easy, because John tells us. 
Revelation is somewhat in the form of a letter, or a series of letters or oracles, written to seven churches in what we would call Asia Minor. Why only these seven churches out of the many more churches in the area? One theory is that John had some kind of relationship with these seven that he didn’t have with the others, which is entirely possible. Another theory though - which makes sense if we consider the broader context and content of Revelation - involves John’s use of the number seven. Seven is a common symbolic number in scripture. God created the world in seven days and declared it very good. One week is seven days, which in turn, represents God’s completeness. So the number seven in scripture is symbolic of wholeness, completeness, even perfection. And as you’ll see, John loves the number seven. He mentions seven lamp stands, seven seals, seven stars, seven flaming torches, seven spirits of God, seven eyes, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven heads on the dragon, seven plagues, seven bowls, seven mountains, and seven kings. And if that’s not enough, he includes seven blessings as well. So many scholars suggest that seven churches actually represents all of the churches of that day or in that region. Certainly, the issues addressed in these letters are common in one form or another in most churches then and now. So that could be the reason.
   As we read Revelation, we have to read it a bit differently than we do other books in the Bible. For example, as Metzger points out, “the Psalms of David touch one’s emotions: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name” (Ps. 103:1). In the Bible are also books of law that involve commands: “Do this! Don’t do that!” Such books speak to our will, requiring us to respond positively or negatively. Still other biblical writings, such as Paul’s letters, appeal primarily to our intellect. We need to think carefully and patiently as we seek to follow his theological reasoning. 
   The book of Revelation is unique in appealing primarily to our imagination - not, however, a freewheeling imagination, but a disciplined imagination.” 
Revelation paints a collage of word pictures, and as we read we allow ourselves to be carried along by impressions created by these pictures. And as Metzger suggests, “Many of the details of the pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression, and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism.” 
   John tells us upfront that he is relating a series of visions. And  we know that many different people in the Bible claimed to have experienced visions - we heard two of those earlier with Ezekiel’s vision of the the valley of dry bones and Peter’s vision of “something like a large sheet being lowered down” with various unclean animals for him to eat. And when we hear those stories, we’re not to believe that there was actually a valley filled with bones that were suddenly reanimated, we understand that Ezekiel was relating a vision. Likewise with Peter and the vision of the sheet, we’re not expected to believe there was an actual sheet lowered down to him. Both of them tell us that what they saw was a vision, and we take them at their word.

   We must do the same with John. 
He tells us that what he saw were visions, not actual events. So when he says he “saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads” (13:1) there’s no reason to believe that such a creature actually existed, or ever will exist. It’s a vision, and it has significance for both John and for us today, because such accounts combine rational insight with emotional response. 
   John’s symbolic language does that as well. 
And much as he uses the number seven throughout the book, he also draws on symbolism from the Hebrew Bible as well, particularly from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Metzger points out that “of the 404 verses that make up the 22 chapters of Revelation, 278, or 69%, contain one or more allusion to an Old Testament passage.” John knew his Hebrew scriptures, and in recording his vision, he mostly expressed himself by using the words of the prophets of Israel. So we must keep that in mind as we explore this book. 
   Now clearly, some of John’s symbols seem exceedingly strange to modern readers. He portrays the Roman Empire as a beast like a leopard with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s (13:2) - a frightening image, 
as those who were being persecuted by the Empire knew well. But these kinds of bizarre beasts are common in the genre of apocalyptic literature. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for us to use animal symbols in much the same way. We’re used to the Russian Bear, the British Lion, and the American Eagle.And the symbolic elephant for the Republican party and donkey for the Democratic party are also common for us, even as they might be a little strange for a new immigrant or someone not familiar with our culture or context. So while some of the imagery might seem bizarre, with some reflection, context, and disciplined imagination, the meaning will usually become clear. It any case, Metzger hastens, “it’s important to recognize that the descriptions in Revelation are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols.” (read that again)

   The book opens by telling us that this is the revelation “of Jesus Christ,” meaning either that the revelation was made by Jesus Christ, or that it was made about him, or that it belongs to him. In a sense all three are true: the revelation comes from God through Jesus Christ, who communicates it to John by an angel. And the purpose of the revelation is to show “what must take place soon.” The word translated soon indicates that John intended his message for his own, [not some future] generation. 

   He begins the letter by enumerating the seven churches to which he is writing, beginning with the one closest to Patmos, and following the route that a messenger would take in delivering a letter to each of these seven churches. And he shares his first vision:
12 I turned to see who was speaking to me, and when I turned, I saw seven oil lamps burning on top of seven gold stands. 13 In the middle of the lamp stands I saw someone who looked like the Human One. 
He wore a robe that stretched down to his feet, and he had a gold sash around his chest. 14 His head and hair were white as white wool—like snow—and his eyes were like a fiery flame. 15 His feet were like fine brass that has been purified in a furnace, and his voice sounded like rushing water. 16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His appearance was like the sun shining with all its power.

   So, how are we to understand this description of the heavenly Christ? Well, it may seem like a Yogi Berra-ism, but it does not mean what it says, it means what it means. John tells us that the seven lamp stands are the seven churches. So when he says Christ was in the middle of the lamp stands he wants us to know that he means Christ is present with the churches, supporting them in the midst of their trials and persecutions. Furthermore, when he describes Christ as wearing a white robe with a gold sash, he describes garments we would associate with royalty. This is John’s way of referring to Jesus as king.
   When we read that Christ has hair like white wool, John isn’t suggesting a geriatric Jesus, this description is taken directly from a passage in Daniel (7:9) in which the prophet describes God, the Ancient One. In this way, John assigns a dignity to Christ in terms that resemble Daniel’s vision of God, and that Jewish-Christian readers would understand. Piercing eyes like “a flame of fire,” burn away or see through our false selves. “Feet like burnished bronze represent strength and stability,” another reference to Daniel. John describes the voice of Christ as penetrating and unmistakable, “like the sound of many waters,” words Ezekiel used to describe God (43:2). John continues with descriptions like these. 
   “Instead of taking John’s account with flat-footed literalism,” Metzger suggests, “we should imaginatively allow ourselves to be guided by the poetic quality of the narrative. We trivialize the account if we attempt to make a composite picture of the heavenly Christ showing each of these features literally.” Just as a poet might describe a lover’s neck like a swan, or lips like a rose, we don’t take that literally, and a drawing of that lover would not be too flattering. So too, John’s description of the heavenly Christ does not mean what it says, it means what it means.
   The second and third chapters of Revelation consist of the letters to the seven churches, and the literary structure of the letters follows a fairly uniform pattern. Each begins with one of the descriptors of Christ from the vision, so the first letter, to the church at Ephesus, begins with the statement, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lamp stands,” a declaration of Christ’s continuing presence with, care and concern for his people. And the message of each letter is addressed to the angel of the various churches, which could denote a church leader, but most likely refers to the guardian angel of that church, as his use of the term later in the book suggests. Jesus’ words “I know” at the beginning of each of the letters indicates his awareness of the particular circumstances or difficulties of that church. The words that follow, then, are either words of commendation for their faithfulness, or of condemnation for their unfaithfulness. And while the letters vary in length, all end with the admonition from Christ to hold fast and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, in that way they will conquer their ordeal.
   The first letter goes to the church at Ephesus, and we know a little of this church from Paul’s letter to them thirty years earlier. Ephesus was the main city in Asia Minor with a population of about 250,000 at that time. It was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, a bustling trading center, and was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the temple of Diana (or Artemis, as she was called by the Greeks), the great mother goddess. This ancient temple was immense, the size of two football fields, with one hundred columns of sculpted granite fifty-five feet tall, and internal decoration of extraordinary splendor, adorned by works of art created by famous Greek artists. Devotees and tourists from around the world came to see and worship at this great temple.
   Christianity was established there in the 60s on Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 20:31). And one result of Paul’s preaching there was a drop in the sales of silver souvenirs of the temple, which caused an uproar among the silversmiths who, fearing that their sales would continue to erode, started a riot to try to curb the further influence of Christianity from hurting their business. 
   And Paul warned the church that they’re in for a time of trouble, saying, “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice disciples to follow them” (Acts 20:29-30). So it is to the next generation of believers in this congregation that John writes. What Paul had foreseen in the 60s had come to fruition in the 90s. False leaders had arisen and were leading believers astray. To this church, the heavenly Christ says, “I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false” (2:2). 
   But he goes on, “But I have this against you; you have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). They had started well weeding out false teachers, but at a high cost. The love for Christ they had originally had grown cold, as did the love they had once had for other believers - replaced by suspicions of unsound teaching.
   So Christ called them to repent, and to return to the works they had done at first. “If not,” he says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from it’s place” (2:5). John’s message here is that the presence of Christ departs when well-intentioned people, zealous to find the right way, depart from the ultimate way, which is love. And the letter ends with a promise: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is the paradise of God” (2:7). The tree of life, denied to Adam and Eve, is now accessible to the conqueror, the person, that is, who obeys the message of the letter and overcomes in the conflict with evil.
   The next stop on this “Pony Express ride” delivering John’s message would be thirty-five miles north to the city of Smyrna, a large and prosperous commercial center, another of the great cities of Asia Minor. The city was renowned for its loyalty to Rome and its ritual worship of the emperor. Three hundred years earlier the first temple in the world dedicated to the goddess Roma was built in Smyrna, and seventy years before John’s writing the city dedicated a magnificent temple in honor of the Emperor Tiberius. Thereafter it was a center of worship of both Rome and Caesar.
   The letter to the church in Smyrna is the shortest 
of the seven messages, and contains no condemnations, only commendations. The Christians in Smyrna had to endure persecutions and deprivations for their refusal to take part in emperor worship. 
  Christ’s exhortation to these persecuted believers was to remain faithful to the extent of being ready to die for his sake (2:10). Opposition to the gospel was so fierce here that martyrdom, being killed for their faith, was a real possibility. In fact, one of the best known Christian martyrs of all ages was Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, martyred in the year 156.
   To the faithful at Smyrna who did not turn away, Christ promised “the crown of life” (2:10), and that they would not be harmed by the “second death.” 
Our first death occurs when we die in this life, the second death comes to those who fail to repent at the judgment. Christ tells them they will be held blameless.

   Pergamum, or Pergamos, the next church in the series, was also home to many pagan temples, including to Asclepius, the god of healing, whose symbol was a snake, much like the snake depicted in the insignia of many medical associations. To John, however, the snake or serpent was a symbol of the personification of evil; “that ancient serpent,” he wrote, “who is called the Devil and Satan” (12:9). So it’s to them that the heavenly Christ says, “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is” (2:13).
   Pergamum, like Smyrna, wasn’t an easy place for Christians to live - hostility to the church was even more vicious than in Smyrna. Persecution was great, some had already been killed for their faith in order to try to persuade others to turn away from Christianity. There were also issues with groups within the community who were trying to play both ends against the middle - attempting to balance pagan practices with Christian belief. So, to those who stand firm against both the persecution and the false teachings the Lord promises to give some of the “hidden manna” (2:17). Manna, you’ll remember, was the food God provided to the Israelites as they journeyed in the Exodus. God is promising here to continue to nourish them. In addition, they are promised a “white stone.” In ancient times a white stone was greatly prized, either as an amulet, especially if engraved with the name of a deity, or as a mark of membership in a special group.

   The church at Thyatira faced a challenge similar to that of Ephesus, how to hold true to their faith when the culture that surrounded them was so fully immersed in pagan worship. And again, it had to do with artisans who made their living crafting things for pagan worship turning against Christians who wanted nothing to do with them or their worship practices. So, they faced the same question faced by every generation of Christians, including ours: “Where’s the limit on accepting contemporary standards and practices when it conflicts with my faith?”

   Next stop - Sardis, another busy commercial city that, six centuries before was one of the great cities in the world. Devastated by a massive earthquake in the year 17, through the generosity of the Emperor Tiberius, it was rebuilt and would flourish again, although it lost its former glory. To this church, Christ presents himself as the one who has “the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1), indicating his sovereign control over churches and the source of spiritual power. 
   This is what Sardis needed to hear. As John writes, they “had a name of being alive,” but were in fact “dead.” No condemnation could be sharper: this church was an example of merely nominal Christianity. That is, they were Christian in name only.So Christ exhorts them to wake up! Strengthen what remains! Remember the gospel you received! Obey it! Repent! But he also warns, if you do not wake up, “I will come like a thief” - that is at an unexpected hour.  

   The city of Philadelphia was devastated by the same earthquake that had destroyed Sardis. By the 90s it had been mostly rebuilt however, and there was a small church there. It was very different than the church in Sardis, though. It was small, poor, and was harassed by both pagan worshipers as well by Jews in the synagogue, but they held strong. Because of their resoluteness, Christ says to them, “I know your works…I have set before you an open door” (3:8), meaning an opening to spread the gospel. Christ has paved the way for them to express their missionary and evangelistic zeal. And because of their zeal and faithfulness, they receive no condemnation, only commendation, and the promise that “I will keep you [throughout] the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world…” (3:10). 
   The final letter goes to the church in Laodicea, a city 100 miles east of Ephesus that was founded about the middle of the third century BCE by Antiochus II and named in honor of his wife Laodice. This church had declined greatly over the years, perhaps in part due to the great wealth and luxurious lifestyles of their members. Whatever the cause, they receive the harshest condemnation of all, with no commendation.
   They are accused of being neither hot nor cold, but of being lukewarm. Among the membership were those who sought a middle ground between worshiping God and worshiping the emperor; thinking they could remain in the Christian church while also obeying the emperor’s command to worship him. 
   And Metzger offers, “Tepid, or lukewarm religion is nauseating, and the Lord…expresses in the strongest way his repudiation of the church by the warning, ‘I am about to spit you out of my mouth’ (3:16). Their boast of material sufficiency (‘You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’) is deceptive, and shows a proud, smug self-complacency. Materially affluent and self-satisfied, the church is spiritually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17), John writes. And there is intentional irony in John’s words, which contrasts sharply with their achievements in banking, medicine, and clothing manufacturing.” Christ admonishes this church to realize that it is actually poor in spirituality and that it needs to obtain from him the gifts that cannot be purchased with money.
   At this point, though, the harsh condemnation - which is much more clear in the reading of it than in my telling you about it - takes a turn towards a tender concern. Christ says to them, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20). He paints a profound picture of grace and free will in action. 
   Actually, artist Holman Hunt literally paints that picture in his famous work The Light of the World. Jesus knocks at the door, but with no handle or latch on the outside, the door must be opened by those on the inside. 
Christ promises to enter when the resident opens the door. The image, and the promise of eating with the Lord symbolizes the joy of fellowship. Sharing a common meal indicates the forming of a strong bond of affection and companionship. That is the promise Christ makes, even to this most strongly condemned of the seven churches.
   So, within the letters to these seven churches, perhaps seven representative churches but certainly seven reflective churches, nearly all can see themselves. 
The issues that faced these churches two millennia ago are the same that confront the church now. Likewise, the promises Christ made to them are also given to the church universal for all time - a promise of hope. To all who persevere, who conquer those things which seek to hold them back or that seek to turn them to some other god, Christ promises, “I will give you a place with me on my my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21). 
   For any church, or any Christian, on any day, it may be the best of times or it may be the worst of times, but in all times Christ promises us hope. That is the message of Revelation that we’ll explore that further next week, and the message that, in light of the events in Virginia yesterday, that we must remember and that the church must proclaim - Christ WILL overcome evil and hate in all of it’s forms. 
   So, I invite and encourage you to read chapters 4-11 for next week - remembering in the midst of the images and symbols John’s context in the midst of the crushingly brutal Roman Empire, and that it means what it means, not what it says. Amen.