Did you know that Martin Luther thought it might be a good idea to take the Book of Revelation out of the Bible? It wasn’t because he thought it wasn’t important. Quite the contrary; Luther loved Revelation and even wrote a commentary on it. But, he thought it was very difficult to understand. It should have come out, in his opinion, to prevent misunderstandings. He’s right that it is very difficult to understand, and the average reader probably doesn’t get everything that’s going on. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t. Instead of not reading it, we ought to engage, to ask questions, and to learn more. Because beneath all the dragons and fiery lakes, there is a wonderful message: God is at work in the world, seeking to bring all things to a good end.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Any Game of Thrones fans here? Okay, if you haven’t seen the final two episodes, this is your spoiler warning. It’s not a massive spoiler or anything, don’t worry. There was just an unusual scene in the second to last episode, at the end of a huge battle that caught my attention. One of the main characters, Arya Stark is left battered and bruised, standing in the middle of all of this death and destruction, and out of nowhere, a white horse appears. The episode ends with her riding the white horse out of the city.
It was a really odd moment in the episode and left a lot of people wondering, what does the horse mean? Is it a symbol for something? As I read the speculation the next morning, I laughed a little at all the guesses, because yes, it was a symbol. It was a reference to the Bible. “So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death.” Revelation, chapter six, verse eight.
Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. It has this ferocious mix of creatures, battles, and symbols. Horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation inspires art and music and literature like no other. It’s found in Dante, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more. It’s inspired Handel’s Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. Whenever we sing our canticle of praise, “This is the Feast,” we’re singing from the book of Revelation.
Even if we don’t always recognize it, Revelation is all around us. Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of the New Testament has said that, “few writings have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.” Revelation tends to be either taken hyper-literally by those awaiting the end of times or dismissed and ignored as a slightly-embarrassing product of a different time and a different way of seeing the world.
But, if we don’t understand it or don’t like it, why does its influence remain so pervasive? I think, in part, because the world can be a scary place. Not always, but often enough to fuel plenty of anxiety and apocalyptic imagination. Revelation was written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It’s in the form of a letter from John, a Christian exile on the island of Patmos, to seven churches in what we now call Turkey. It was then part of the Roman Empire. It was a time of persecution. Christians were being forced to publicly worship the emperor. Refusal meant imprisonment, torture, or even death. In understandable fear, many Christians simply went along, offering worship to the emperor in order to avoid such a fate.
In the midst of these problems, the letter of Revelation was sent, not to foretell the end of time, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. That’s what the word apocalypse actually means: unveiling. Revelation uses fantastical imagery to recast the current situation, and to give hope in the midst of it. John wanted to help these churches endure and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation to the empire.
Revelation captures our current imagination so well, because we, too, live in a scary time. We’re in the midst of unprecedented climate change, the results of which cause political and economic instability. There’s a refugee crisis, not just at our border, but across the world as people seek asylum from war and danger. Our country remains at war, with soldiers deployed in multiple places. And amid it all our divisions seem only to be growing wider. We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I could list more, but I don’t need to recite them—you are already well acquainted with them.
Revelation is such a powerful text, not because of all the wild visions and images, but because of the truth underpinning them: it acknowledges the hardship and suffering of daily existence. It acknowledges that being a person of faith is not easy—there are always challenges that would draw us away from faith and to the ways of the world. It acknowledges that living in the middle of traumatic times can begin to feel hopeless and impossible.
But it also does so much more than that. Revelation also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for healing, wholeness, and renewal. In our passage from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not always be with them. But, he will return with the Father, and he says, “we will come to those who love me and make our home with them.”
And what a home it will be! Revelation offers us the vision of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There’s no need for a temple at all because God’s presence permeates everything. The gates are always open, they are never shut. The gifts of creation are abundantly available to all—all the nations of the earth. Kindness, justice, truth, grace, love, and righteousness—on earth!
The ultimate vision in Revelation is not a select few escaping the trials of earth and going to be with God. It is God coming to us, to renew the entire creation. We speak of this hope every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say this prayer, we are praying that God will make a home with us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message Bible, we pray that “God will move right into the neighborhood!”
God intends to reclaim, restore, and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention. The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now. A life that basks in God’s presence now. A life that keeps God’s commandment to love one another and mirrors God’s justice today and every day! It’s about God moving into the neighborhood.
Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death—all here and now, as well as in eternity. In the midst of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, our dreams of a future life with God break into the present. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth, let us pray that God will move into our neighborhood, into our homes, into our hearts. To restore and redeem, to renew and cultivate. To bring to life that glorious vision of the city of God. A place of peace and justice and righteousness for all the peoples of the earth. Amen.