“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
My sermon from the Seventh Sunday after Easter (May 29, 2022) on Luke 10:25-37 (with a hint to Psalm 25:1-10)
How do you end a book about the end?
If that question sounds familiar to you, it’s because I’ve asked it before. But unlike other writings we know, the questions we bring to Revelation rarely have only one answer. And that’s because the entire book is a little weird. Revelation was written by a man named John who was living in exile on the island of Patmos, a small piece of rock off the coast of modern day Turkey. After receiving a series of visions from God, he composed a manuscript known as an apocalypse. Now to us, an apocalypse is the end of the world but in John’s day, an apocalypse was a genre of writing meant to unveil or disclose something new. The idea was to show that no matter what people were going through, there was always more to the story. That more was hidden behind the everyday troubles of our world; a world wrapped in violence, fear, and sorrow. An apocalypse might be filled with descriptions of incredibly outlandish things but it was always written for real people living real lives. And so that’s why, way back in chapter 1, John mentioned seven specific faith communities in Asia Minor – aka modern day Turkey – that his book was written for. Each one of those communities was going through their own set of challenges – with some being persecuted by local authorities because they called someone other than the Roman Emperor, Lord. Others, though, were doing just fine. And yet that fine was, to John, a bit inauthentic. They were communities that busied themselves with being comfortable. They lacked a sense of urgency or purpose, seeking out the status quo because they assumed there would be enough time tomorrow to deal with the Jesus who came to them today. These kinds of communities were going through a very different experience than those who faced persecution from the government. Yet to John, the very weird visions God gave to him were visions meant for them both.
So that’s why I like to imagine John, while trying to end his book about the end, re-reading everything that came before. He had used words to paint images of very odd things that cycled in and through and around each other. There was this throne in heaven, surrounded by four really weird looking creatures, a host of angels, and a chorus of singers that included all of creation – even the microbes living in the sea. There was Jesus who wasn’t described with long brown hair or sandaled feet. Instead, he had a sword for a mouth, looked like a lamb who was killed, and shone so bright there was no longer a need for a sun in the sky. John’s words also described broken seals, monstrous beasts, angelic trumpets, a red dragon, the spilling of all kinds of wrath on all kinds of people, and even several horsemen who brought death to a world reeling in pain. In the end, John wrote about a new holy city descending from above with streets covered in precious jewels and gates that never shut. Everything in Revelation is over the top, shocking, and downright weird. But through it all, God was present, active, and chose to do something even more weird: which was to just love. God took what was already here and made it new. And even when God felt far away – too far to care about those who were suffering and too far to make a difference in the here and now – Jesus was right there with you.
Yet I know that kind of hope isn’t always easy to see because real life paints its own kinds of pictures we can’t easily shake from our heads. The picture I keep seeing are the words used to sketch out the timeline of cell phone calls made from Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas while the attack was on going. It’s an image I wish never had to be made yet shows how heartbreaking this life can be. And I’m not sure, exactly, what hope looks like when our status quo tolerates this kind of pain. Our first instinct might be to try and sketch out a competing vision for the world. It’s possible to imagine John of Patmos choosing to end his book with all kinds of blessings, joys, and images of love. He could have stopped with the weird and focused more on bringing us a sense of comfort and peace. Yet that wasn’t what John chose to do. Revelation “weaves notes of inclusion,” welcome, and blessing and notes of exclusion, expulsion, and fear “into a single fabric.” As Greg Carey noted, this “passage excludes transgressors from the Holy City, but it also extends an invitation—’Come!’—to everyone who is thirsty. The broader context of Revelation’s closing chapters imagines a lake of fire that receives every person whose name is missing from the Book of Life (20:15) but also a tree that bears fruit ‘for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). Revelation shows the nations and kings being annihilated during the final battle (19:15, 19), but in the New Jerusalem the nations walk by its illumination and their kings bring their ‘glory’ into the city (21:24–26).” And if we try to choose which kinds of weird from Revelation we pay attention to, Revelation doesn’t let us pay attention to only what brings us comfort. This book is meant to be taken as a whole because our whole lives are meant to be taken as a whole too. Real life is very weird and so, I think, Revelation is supposed to stay weird too. The book doesn’t contain some kind of secret message we’re supposed to decode that reveals when God’s kingdom will finally come. Rather, John used images and pictures that mixed, cycled, terrified, and excited because only that kind of weirdness can speak to how ridiculously weird it is to live in a world where what happened at Robb Elementary is accepted as part of the status quo. When John wrote the end to the end, he wanted it big enough to contain all the ridiculousness of real life. Because when we notice and accept and own just how strange, wonderful, and hard life actually is, we realize we’re not actually God. And if we’re not God, that might be the hope we need.
Because if we are not God, then the story we’re currently writing through our actions and inactions isn’t the real story. The status quo we’re living through isn’t all there is because there’s another story – a heavenly story – where God’s weird trumps our own. God’s weird includes how we, through baptism and faith, are transformed into more than who we thought we were. We are Christ’s body – which is a weird thing to say and an even weirder thing to trust and know is true. And while that’s a beautiful sentiment to express, it’s also difficult when we admit the whole of who we are. We are not perfect. We are often at fault. We exclude, push aside, and let others be expendable as long as we’re as comfortable as we feel entitled to be. We’re broken and wounded and far from ever feeling as whole as we believe we’re supposed to be. We’re just people – people who need Jesus rather than the other way around. Yet Jesus, the son of Mary, the healer, teacher, and rabble rouser who kept reaching out to include all he could, doesn’t expect us to be perfect. Jesus just asks us to trust that the more is our whole story. The body of Christ – a body full of wounded people – is a body with hands and feet that still bear the wounds of the nails that were smashed through them. Yet even the status quo of the Cross for that body was changed into something new. We can, like John of Patmos, paint a new picture that takes seriously the whole of our lives while, because of Christ, knows how the end of our story is already being written. What we imagine is the status quo today is a contradiction from the true status quo we were given in baptism and in faith. Things can, and should, change because we are part of the weird of God. And if God’s weird is to always love – then our status quo can only be to love just as weird as God.