At Clergy Colloquium this week, I found myself in one of those conversations only clergy have. You have these types of conversations at social gatherings with your co-workers. No doubt Hunter’s people talk lots about printing because, well, printing is their business. Gregg’s people likely talk incessantly about insurance things like TPA’s or Co-Pay’s or other words that tickle our ears outside the industry because, well, that’s what they do. Teachers talk about education or disciplining or research, doctors and nurses probably talk about how much free advice is sought when they are at gatherings of non-doctors and non-nurses. I see the laughter. This will likely come as no surprise, but we clergy are no different. We talk about uncooperative Vestries, clergy killers, and any number of other congregational issues. This week, though, I found myself listening to a complaint about the Farewell Discourses of Jesus. It’s the kind of complaint that can really only be had among clergy. Every year, we spend time reading and discussing Jesus’ farewell to His disciples. It gets old was the primary complaint.
It was then that I reminded those around me that we have four readings each week. In theory, we could go several years without ever preaching on the Farewell Discourses. But that means we would have to preach on Acts or the Psalms or whatever letter. Apparently, some clergy really only preach on the Gospel. During our conversation, though, we piqued the interest of our bishop. Presumably, he heard some words that made him think he needed to pastor us or that hit a soft spot in him. He strolled over and joined in the conversation. We shared preaching stories, good and bad, and we talked about our approaches to preaching on the different books. Eventually, as it is the Season of Easter, the conversation turned to the question of the book of Revelation. I had to admit that I understood my colleague’s reticence to preach on that book all too well. Bishop John asked why, and I shared how I had been warned in seminary by a couple Anglican/Episcopal luminaries never to teach a Bible Study on the book of Revelation. They had both experienced splits as a direct result of the book. One of the sage pieces of advice that they had for a new priest was to learn from their mistakes!
Those of us gathered together chuckled. But then the bishop asked the questions. Did we not think all Scripture was worthy of study and training the saints? Was not Revelation inspired by God? Were we not doing violence to the book by ignoring an entire book? Were we not making our congregations more susceptible to the claims of the modern false prophets by avoiding the important teachings in their entirety? So, partly as challenge but partly as recognizing you have likely not heard much about the book, outside the works of Tim LeHay or some other such preacher or author, I decided to preach on Revelation this week.
The major difficulty with the book, I think, is the style. This is as challenging a book for us to read as, say, a book filled with Dilbert’s comics might be two thousand years hence. Can you imagine if societies 2000 years from now unearthed our favorite Dilbert book? What would they think of our business practices? That is the difficulty you and I have with this book. This style no longer really exists. We call it an apocalypse. Most of us today blur the meanings of apocalypse and Armageddon, when we really have not stopped to consider what they really mean. Armageddon is the site of the last eschatological battle in the book of Revelation. It is a site. You can find it on a map. Apocalypse, though, comes from the Greek word that means unveiling. In our lives as Christians, what is veiled? We know that God is at work in the heavens working out His plan of salvation for good, right? But how is He doing that? Who are His workers? How does He convey His messages now?
I’ll give you another hint: when has a veil been significant in the worship of God and its tearing? Yay! You remembered! For those of us who sleep through the readings, the Holy of Holies was surrounded by a veil woven of four distinct cloths. The four types of cloth represented the four elements: fire, wind, water, and earth. They were woven together to keep human beings from coming into contact with the righteous, holy God who cannot tolerate any sin. We know this from countless stories in the Old Testament. Not even Moses or Elijah, the two great prophets who are present in the Transfiguration of our Lord, were allowed to see God’s face. The four cloths were woven together to create this incredibly think curtain, echoing that God was there, even if we could not see or hear Him. Only the high priest, and only on the Day of Atonement, could a human being enter the Holy of Holies, into the presence of God.
One of the significant details of the death and Resurrection of our Lord is the tearing of that veil from top to bottom. Imagine the force that would be required to tear four distinct cloths woven together. And the Gospel writers tell us it was torn from the top to the bottom, signifying an action of God. What else explains the tearing from top to bottom? Were human beings to have torn the veil, we would start at the bottom where we can reach. Theologically, the tearing of the veil was of incredible significance. Once again, through the work and person of Jesus Christ, humanity had unhindered access to God just as it did before sin. Everyone could seek God anywhere. There was no “special, designated” space for encountering the Lord. In fact, Jesus will teach His disciples, who in turn taught those who taught those who taught those who taught us, that the New Temple, the place where God resides, is our heart. That was one of the major apocalypses revealed by Christ’s death and Resurrection.
The book at which we are looking at today speaks of the complete unveiling at the eschaton-the end of the age for those of us who like fancy words or the Second Coming of our Lord Christ, to keep it simple. Those of us who struggle with the book seem to treat it like it is a bunch of unveilings, as if the title of the book was plural. But John’s book is in the singular. It is the book of Revelation, the Book of The unveiling. So what’s being unveiled?
Perhaps a great place to start is from negative example. If there is only one unveiling, does it make sense to read the book like a secret code for which we need the secret key? One of the great damages we do is to pretend as if the book can teach us the date of our Lord’s return. It’s crazy to read the book this way. Jesus reminds us Himself, in red letters, that only the Father knows the day. If only God the Father knows the day of Jesus’ return, does it make any sense to you or to me that you or I or someone else will decipher the code?
But what about the wars? What about the famines? What about the diseases? The plagues? The earthquakes? The floods? The wars? What about them? Think back on Jesus’ teachings. He reminds us that wars will happen, that nations will rise up against nations, and that these are but the birth-pangs. When in history has there not been wars? When has there not been natural disasters? When has there not been famines? Just because these things have not impacted us or our ancestors directly does not mean they have been terrible for those who lived through or died in them. It’s easy for us to think earthquakes are no big deal when they happen in Haiti, in Ecuador, or Japan rather than central Tennessee. It’s easy for us to think nuclear accidents are of no major consequence when the polluted lands are in Chernobyl or Japan and not Nashville or Brentwood. But they are horrible events, terrifying events, cataclysmic events.
For what purpose did Jesus use these natural disasters? He was teaching His disciples and us of the need to be ready! His return will be like a thief in the night, and we must needs always be prepared! Our lamps should be filled with oil—we should be adorning ourselves to use the language of John. We must be ready to accept the invitation to come the moment it arrives. Otherwise, we end up like the foolish ladies or those who are in the outer darkness, gnashing our teeth and wailing in the outer darkness.
What of the antichrist? Again, what of them? Yes, you heard me right, I said them. One of the challenges of reading prophesy is that we cannot know how many times it might be fulfilled when God is at work. As I said at the beginning, in one sense this book is about THE unveiling at the end of the age, the eschaton. In another sense, though, there are lots of other little unveilings. John wrote in a time when Roman persecution was a given. Nero rounded up Christians, placed pyres on street corners, and lit our spiritual ancestors on fire at night so that they could be a light in the world. The lucky ones were just sold as slaves, after having their homes and businesses taken from them. How messed up must that world have seemed to them? We worship the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? John, man, look around. He does not seem to care too much what is happening to us. Either that or Nero is too powerful. How does one speak of an enemy of God and still stay alive? Maybe one uses numerology . 666 equals Nero Caesar. Some Christians freak out about buying stuff when the number is some form of three sixes, as if those numbers have real power over us who have been redeemed by Christ’s blood! In truth, ask someone in John’s day to what it referred, and you would have gotten a name, if they felt you could be trusted.
Have there been other antichrists? Of course. Who among us would argue that Hitler, Stalin, Amin and countless others have championed evil rather that Christ? Heck, perhaps some of us have been antichrists in the lives of others. I remind us constantly that the way we live our lives, the way we interact with others, is the greatest sermon others will ever hear. Ever met someone turned off by the sermons of others? Ever meet someone driven from the Church by antichrist-like behaviors of condemnation, cover-up, and hypocrisy? I see the squirms. Understand, there may yet be lots more antichrists to come, but Revelation is less concerned with the antichrists than with the new creation that follows Christ’s return. The antichrists, and THE antichrist, Satan, are doomed to fail. They are fighting the Alpha and the Omega. They have less chance of winning against God than Vandy does against Alabama in football this fall.
So what is being unveiled? Look at your reading today. I was raised in a Baptist and the Methodist tradition. I remember as a child how the Baptist pastor, Pastor Brewer, would justify his two and three hour sermons by claiming they were a foretaste of the eternal worship we were to experience. Wives would complain about Sunday meals being ruined because they had started roasts or hams or turkeys with the expectation of being home by 12:30 or 1pm to take them out of the oven. Men would complain about missing sporting events or rounds of gold, and this pastor would tell us of our need to repent because the next life as going to be just like going to church. I see some of you have heard the same sermons or learned the same lessons and suffer the same repulsion. Seriously. Can you imagine spending an eternity in such an existence? If a few hours felt like an eternity, an eternity in hell at that, what would an eternity feel like? Lol
If we come to church to thank God for what He has done for us in Christ, to be encouraged when we are down, to be taught what Christ-like behavior truly is, to share our joy with others when we are joyful, what would be the purpose of such an existence in the life to come? If our minds and hearts are re-created to love what God loves, to hate what God hates, to know what God wants us to know, why would there be a need for worship in the way we do it on earth? If the veil has been completely torn, and we are dwelling with a God who is dwelling with us, how is this kind of church necessary? I would argue it is not. Were I in a class at Vandy or elsewhere, I would even argue that the purpose of this church will have been fulfilled once Christ returns. Church for us is meant to remind us of the heavenly truth. As above, so below. We come to church to give thanks, to seek solace, to be fed and nourished and prepared for the work He has given us to do—all with the hope that one day, one glorious day in the future, we will enter our Sabbath rest with Him. But that is another sermon . . .
Again, looking at the text, what is unveiled? A new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Can you imagine? At some point in the future, God will recreate a new heaven and a new earth. It might be in just a few seconds or it might be thousands of years from now, we will dwell in a land completely untainted by human sin. For those surfers and beachcombers among us, worried that there will be no crashing waves or sands for our toes or waves to ride, the sea being no more is likely not a decision by God not to have oceans. More likely, given the ANE and its understanding of the seas, it is that polemic against chaos. In the world to come, when He creates the new heaven and the new earth, there will be no chaos. It makes sense, right. We are returning to that period like the Garden of Eden. We will walk with Him, talk with Him, and have no need to worry about earthquakes or floods or any of those chaotic events that seem to testify against His dominion. Life and Creation will be good, just as He created them in the beginning.
I say like the Garden existence because it will be in the Holy City. The city descends, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Throughout Scripture the eschaton is described as a wedding feast. The Church, you and me and the countless throng that has come before us, is adorned as a bride for her husband. Our tattered clothes are replaced with the finest clothes, most beautiful jewels, and resplendent beauty. We face the ugliness of the world, the perils of the world, the dangers of the world, the needs of the world confident in our Betrothed. For John our adornments are our acts of righteousness, especially to others. The new creation may not be here yet, but we are always to be preparing ourselves, dressing ourselves, adorning ourselves, as if it could happen any moment in our lives. Our service of others is our jewels. And our Betrothed is none other than the Lord God, the Maker of heaven and earth. We who seek God, who strain to hear His voice, see His handiwork in the world around us, who beg Him like little children to give us every single want, will dwell with God. The relationship for which we should be longing will finally be consummated. I see the squirms, but that is the language of the Bible, and it makes sense in human terms, right?
Part of the fight that is plaguing us in the church and in society at large is the understanding that consummation, I am speaking in euphemism because we have a few youth here who I do not need to grow up yet, feels great. Right? Why are you all blushing or giggling? It does. Come on, let’s pretend we are adults and adult Christians at that. Consummation speaks to us of that acceptance for which we all long, right? Deep down we all want to be loved? We are afraid we are unlovable, and we desperately do not want our fears to be confirmed? Why do you think consummation after major fights is particularly desired by some? Those fights often serve to strengthen our fears. Our willingness to return to one another as husbands and wives testifies to the world around us of the desire our Lord has for us. It becomes a sacrament, right? We sin, we forgive, we return to one another. Every time we sin against one another we worry that the relationship is irreparably broken. When we sin against God, what do we worry? What does the enemy of God try to suggest? That our relationship with God is irreparably broken. Consummation, though, reminds us that the relationship is not broken. We are still loved. Intimately. Despite our failures. All of a sudden, we forget the world and the pressure of life for just a moment. Is there a better feeling? But consider how fleeting that feeling of consummation, of acceptance and love truly is.
Is it any wonder that God uses that language to describe THE Consummation? How can there be no more tears? How can there be no more sting? How can Paul count the advantages and blessings of his life as mere crap on the rubbish heap? What can make all these things we love and things we fear not even worth a split second of our mourning, our crying, or our pain? That we are loved deeply and truly. That the One being in all the universe who knows us best, who knows those things we hide desperately from one another, would choose to dwell with us and to allow us to dwell with Him! Intimately. Not out in the distant suburbs!
These seven verses ought to be incredible words of comfort and hope for us and not the culmination of some fancy de-coder effort. This nonsense you and I experience on earth is passing away. Its passing began with the work and person of Christ. Its passing will be completed at His return. To the world that rejects Christ and His offer of salvation, this is all that there is. But to those who call upon His name, the pains and suffering and the joys and exultations of this life pale exponentially by comparison to the existence God has planned for us. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Nothing He purposes can be thwarted. His purpose, brothers and sisters, is that one day He will dwell with us and we with Him for all eternity. He will be our God, and we will truly be His people! He gave His life that we might realize His plan for us. We can give ours to Him confident that He will bring us home!