Singing on the way to the city

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They were shouting in loud voice, perhaps singing, all of them together, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, along with angels and elders and four mysterious creatures. “Amen!” they sang, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

According to the book of Revelation, the risen Christ appeared to a man named John on the island of Patmos, just off the coast of Turkey, and gave him messages to be sent to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, the part of the world we know today as Turkey. John was then caught up into the heavenly throneroom, where he saw Christ open a book with seven seals. In John’s letter, the seventh seal opens into seven trumpet scenes, and the last trumpet announces seven bowls of the wrath of God. John beholds the plagues and devastations that result from the seals, trumpets, and bowls, climaxing in the destruction of Babylon, the “great city.” Then come the visions of the final triumph of God as Christ returns: the dead are raised, the final judgment is held, and the new Jerusalem is established as the capital of the redeemed creation. The big question running through all the scenes is, will the Christians who hear John’s witness orient themselves to the “great city” that is already fallen, the “great city” of Babylon, or will they orient themselves to the “holy city” where God is at home along with humanity, the new Jerusalem that in John’s vision is already descending from heaven?

The book is meant to be read in its entirety in worship, perhaps with the listening congregation singing along with the many doxologies and anthems woven like threads of gold through the text, joining the worship of the saints on earth with that of the saints and angels in heaven. The whole thing feels like a script for a performance, and it’s no coincidence that the symbolic world of Revelation has inspired poets, musicians, painters, and even architects. However, the same symbols have also “nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing (…) Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation,” says L. T. Johnson, who teaches New Testament at Emory University. “Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.”[1] Revelation was written to fledgling churches during a period of oppression and persecution. It was written to strengthen their faith in the power of the Lamb during a time when the power of Rome was claiming their allegiance in ways that made it difficult for them to hold on to their confession of Christ as Lord. It was written as a letter of encouragement, urging them to trust in God as the worlds of the Roman empire and of God’s reign were clashing around them and within. The letter’s first audiences still knew how to read it, they were immersed in the language and promise of the Hebrew prophets, they were familiar with John’s symbols and the letter’s countless allusions to other parts of Scripture. But it didn’t take long before the book began to be read as “something akin to a train schedule” for the final years of the world. Rather than a source of hope, the text soon became an instrument of fear and abuse in the hands of those who claimed to know the true, but hidden, meaning of its bold declarations.

Martin Luther did include Revelation in his translation of the New Testament, but he didn’t like it much. “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”[2] John Calvin apparently agreed; he wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament, except the one printed on its closing pages. Chances are that already among its first audiences in the seven churches to which it was originally addressed not everyone accepted it as authentic Christian teaching. To this day, Catholic and Protestant lectionaries have only minimal readings from Revelation.[3]

The book contains plenty of material that is difficult to integrate into faith in the Jesus who taught and lived love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In scene after scene, God, the heavenly armies, or Christ are presented as violent perpetrators. There’s no turning the other cheek, no prayer for those who persecute, no love of enemies. Eugene Boring writes, “The reservations of some have been based on the real dangers that have emerged when Revelation has been interpreted in foolish, sub-Christian or anti-Christian ways. Although every biblical book is subject to misinterpretation, no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations.”[4]

The way to read Revelation faithfully, I believe, is to keep our eyes on the throne that stands at the center of the heavenly worship John was privileged to see and hear. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” We read the book through the lens of the lamb who was led to the slaughter. Amid the scenes of unimaginable destruction and cosmic upheaval John lets us see the heavenly throne where God is seated together with the crucified Messiah whom God raised from the dead. Amid the chaos of every fear and terror imaginable, we get to look into the very heart of the universe, and we see Jesus.

When German voters put Hitler and the Nazis in power, the churches were unbearably slow to respond and failed almost completely to resist. Protestant churches in particular were paralyzed not only by the pervasive fear but by generations of teaching that, according to Romans 13, “there is no authority except from God (...) [and] whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”[5]Only a handful of Christians pointed to Revelation 13, where the state is pictured as a beast emerging from the sea, uttering blasphemies against God and persecuting God’s people. Only a handful of Christians had the courage to call Berlin Babylon, the great city, already fallen; only a handful had the courage to orient their lives to the holy city, the new Jerusalem, already descending from heaven. Only a handful kept the faith and stood up against the Nazi ideology and the crimes of their government.

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

In South Africa, when the ungodly apartheid system seemed firmly established, Bishop Desmond Tutu was among those who remained faithful. He saw clearly that much of Johannesburg was in truth Babylon, and he knew that from the perspective of Easter, Babylon the great had already fallen. Bishop Tuto got used to having members of the Secret Police in the pews on Sunday; he could identify them easily since they were the only ones taking notes during his sermons. One Sunday morning, he looked two of them in the eyes and said, “I know who you are; I know why you are here; you have already lost, so why don’t you join us?”

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

The violence of apartheid was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The Nazi terror was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The horror of slavery was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The murderous regime of ISIS or the imperial dreams of any person, ideology, group or nation may assert themselves with great and terrifying power, but they will not last: They have already been conquered by the Lamb. They have already been conquered by the faith of Christ. They have already been conquered by compassion and forgiveness, by the love that embraces the enemy and prays for those who persecute. They have already been conquered by the men and women who walk in the way of Christ toward the city of God.

John saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and singing. John saw humanity coming together not by imperial order or by Führerbefehl but by the pull of the love embodied in Jesus. He heard one of the elders say, “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

There is much in the book of Revelation that worries me. Too much room is given to what I can only interpret as vengeful fantasies, but I trust that even these dark and violent visions will be transformed when those who harbor them bring them to God and to the Lamb in prayer. I trust that the Lamb at the center of the throne will shepherd and guide us to life that is nothing but life. That is why I sing to God and to the Lamb in response to the wondrous love they share with each other and with all.

We think and talk and write about stewardship this month, and I will say some more next Sunday when we conclude our annual stewardship campaign. Today I just want to highlight one thing: Stewardship is primarily about what we do with our life; how we make our whole life a gift in response to God’s love outpoured. Dag Hammarskjöld wrote about “finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” For John, the Seer of Patmos, as well as for men and women persecuted and murdered for their faith in German death camps, and in our own time in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Bangladesh, for all these witnesses that something was the kingdom of God.

They are singing, robed in white, palm branches in their hands, and I borrow words of St. Augustine who invites us to sing with them,

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.[6]

 


[1]Johnson, L. T., The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Rev. ed.), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1999), 573.

[2] Martin Luther, Preface to the Revelation of St. John [1], 1522, Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 398-99.

[3] Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation), (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Romans 13:1-2.

[6] Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Gabe Huck, A Sourcebook about Liturgy (Chicago: LTP, 1994), 35.

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