Most of us don’t know much about the Book of Revelation. I think the reason for this is simply that the Book of Revelation is so weird. For most people, it’s hard enough to get the normal parts of the Bible straight. But the Book of Revelation is impossible. And here’s the thing: it was intentionally written to be that way.
“Then I saw heaven opened and there was a white horse! His eyes are like a flame of fire and on his head are many diadems.” What is that supposed to mean? The Book of Revelation is full of this stuff. All those people who claim that it’s about secret predictions of the future or secret mysteries of the past are wrong. Revelation is not some kind of Where’s Waldo, a puzzle that’s supposed to be solved. Revelation is a guy saying, “When I think about God, I see horses with flames coming out of their eyes.” That is not Where’s Waldo. That is just strange. And that is exactly the point. Revelation was not written to be understood. It was written to shock.
Now what is the point of that, you might ask? There are a couple of things to keep in mind about Revelation, things that make it very different from most of the rest of the Bible. First – it is what it says it is, a revelation. That’s very different from what we’re used to in the rest of the New Testament. Revelation is a first person experience of the presence of God. Right here, right now, God as God is, powerful, direct, unfiltered. Mostly in the Bible, that kind of thing kills people. So John isn’t trying to explain God, or reflect on Jesus’ teachings, or give advice to Christian leaders, or tell the history of the church, or anything like that. John wants you to feel God’s power, just like he does. He isn’t going for a theory of electricity or a manual on how to rewire your garage. He wants to apply a jolt of lightning directly to your nervous system. You see the difference?
Second, the person who wrote down this vision and the people for whom he wrote were living at a time of tremendous stress and trouble. There is evidence that at this time in the region where John lived there was persecution by the Roman Empire against both Christian and Jews, which meant that they were experiencing serious anxiety and fear. And here is the interesting thing. John’s strategy to help them cope was to shock them. He didn’t try to comfort them or encourage them. He didn’t offer them therapy or sympathy. He wasn’t a good listener. He went for shock and awe. The book of Revelation is John saying to a fearful people, “Listen up! God is real! God is just! God will win!”
Once he gets your attention, John basically has two themes: 1. God’s kingdom is real and 2. The world as we know it is definitely not God’s kingdom. All of the mystery and weirdness boil down to this simple message. The kingdom of God is real. And there is nothing that can stand in its way—not your fear, not your sin, not the Roman Emperor, not even death itself. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. The home of God is among mortals. God will wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” When you are in trouble, when anxiety is all that you live and breathe, you need a vision, not an explanation. Explanation comes later.
But right now, right now—when I’m afraid for my job, and for my house; when my kids’ college fund is half what it was 3 years ago; when my husband is in Afghanistan; when the company is moving the plant to China; when it looks like I’ll be putting off my retirement for a good 5 years at least; when my mother can’t find a doctor who takes Medicare; when my daughter is telling me that someone is selling drugs out of the locker next to hers; when I still feel a nagging worry every time I go through airport security—well, in times like these, times like ours, I need a vision. I need a direct jolt of the kingdom of God.
That’s what John supplies. “I am the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” The images are so powerful. They don’t necessarily make coherent sense. But they speak clearly, they reveal, the danger facing a fragile people during insecure times and the hope that is delivered by God against all rational explanation. The Roman Emperor is all-powerful? He isn’t anyone in the kingdom of God. Revelation doesn’t waste time on the small stuff. It gives us what we need, straight up—Don’t give up hope. That is a powerful message for people who never get free of anxiety; who are battling to keep it together. Don’t give up. God is stronger than you are. Your future holds a new heaven and a new earth.
Obviously this is a message for our times also, and in particular because of what it has to say about the fear and anxiety that we have come to accept as normal. Many very smart people have written about the deep divisions in American society that have created such sharp edges in our common life. Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, for example, describe how we tend to cluster with people like ourselves, living near like-minded people, going to church together, socializing almost exclusively with people who reflect our own values and lifestyle. Inside the cluster there is comfort, but a nation of like-minded clusters is also a nation of deep divisions; and these divisions are responsible for generating great anxiety and fear.
Worst of all, we’re starting to think of this state of things as normal. We’re forgetting that not so long ago most Americans worked, lived, worshiped, and played with people who were not exactly and entirely like them, at the VFW, or the PTO, or Rotary, or the community band, or the bridge club. In Bowling Alone, for example, Putnam notes that in 1975 and 1976, American men and women attended 12 club meetings on average every year, essentially once a month. By 1999 that number had shrunk by 58% to only 5 meetings each year.
He writes, “The ebbing of community over the last several decades has been silent and deceptive. (There are) things that have vanished almost unnoticed— neighborhood parties and get-togethers with friends, the unreflective kindness of strangers, the shared pursuit of the public good rather than a solitary quest for private goods.” Bishop, Putnam, and others, make a pretty convincing case that for all of the great diversity that characterizes the United States today, most of us actually have a far more narrow range of human connection than did our parents or grandparents. And as a consequence, we are a much more divided and distrustful society. In Biblical terms, what we’ve got on our hands is an epidemic of fear. Red state. Blue state. Trayvon Martin.
As I said, the worst thing about this may be that we’re coming to accept it as normal. It is extremely important for us to know that no matter what we’re living with in the United States, this is not normal in the Kingdom of God. The author of Revelation, we are told, was a hermit who lived a hidden, isolated, solitary life— and yet amazingly he has a vision of the Kingdom of God as a city, a city coming down out of heaven from God. A city, of all things, which by definition is a community of a lot of people, where different and even discordant people live side by side because they have to.
That is what is normal in the kingdom of God—human divisions, divisions that have led to fear, hatred, and intolerance for generations, overcome, by the power of God. People like us have to be wary of the comfort that we find in the company of people like ourselves. Because that comfort stands in the way of our experiencing the thrill of the kingdom of God.
I am encouraging you to find ways not to be normal, not to be satisfied with the way things are going right now. I remember the time when my father came home from work just in a tear. At that time, where I lived, it was common to find prejudice against Jews. And while you no longer heard quite as much overt anti-Semitic talk in public, behind closed doors it was different. Behind closed doors, we were all alike, and so we could tell the jokes, make the comments, the whole nine yards. And it had happened again that day at work for my father, the joking and the sniping. This time, he spoke up. As the anti-Jewish comments rolled on, this is what my father said to the guys he worked with: “I am a Jew.” Well, that ended that. And here’s the thing. He wasn’t.
My dad was a quiet guy who was raised a Catholic and joined the Congregational church when he married my mother. He was a working guy, not a political activist. He wasn’t very idealistic. He didn’t tell the guys that they were wrong or that they were idiots. He didn’t file a complaint or start a fight. He took it on himself. “I’m a Jew.” Both at the time, and still now, his having done this is something of an amazement to me. I am very aware that his example shaped me.
And I think that we need more people now who are doing things like that. More of us willing to become something we are not. More of us willing to try for something greater than comfort. More of us willing to take a chance on the Kingdom of God, where the horses breathe fire and the stars fall from the sky and where mourning and crying and fear will be no more; where everything will be made new.
Rev. Joanne Thomson
Associate Conference Minister
Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ