May 29, 2022, Maranatha! Revelation 22, guest speaker Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click on the link above.
Today I get a chance to preach on one of my favorite topics: the End of the World. The text for the sermon today is the last three words of Revelation 22:20. However, I need to summarize the rest of the book of Revelation to get to them. And before we consider what Revelation says about the end of the world, let’s talk about how we ourselves think about the end of the world. Usually some great disaster or other that kills pretty much everyone, right? I have lost count how many movies and books there are about the end of the world. We have a lot of choices for how to imagine it.
These days a lot of people think of the end of the world in political terms, this or that party getting elected to power. If so, you may be watching the daily news too much. Perhaps you think in more international terms, like Russia starting another world war. Did anyone see the TV series from a few years ago named “Jericho”? It was about the people of a small town in Kansas that see mushroom clouds in the distance. They think they are all that’s left of the US, that they are alone. Could the world end that way?
Or you might think in terms of the economy. What if there was a big crash and there was no money and no jobs and nothing in the stores and we all suddenly had to become self-sufficient or starve? None of us are old enough to remember the Great Depression, which started 95 years ago, but maybe you heard your grandparents talk about it.
Or you might think of global warming. What if all the plants and animals begin to die off around here like they are dying in other places? What if the heat waves and fires they have in California and New Mexico start happening here? What if all the food we have is what we grow ourselves. The movie “Interstellar” begins on an earth that is slowly starving due to global warming.
Or a big comet could hit the earth and kill everyone. Something like that killed the dinosaurs, they say. That is like the recent movie “Don’t Look Up?” It is a pretty over-the-top, more of a political satire, but it gives a pretty horrifying end of the world.
Or maybe you prefer an alien invasion, like in the movie “Independence Day”. Or there is the movie “The Handmaid’s Tale” which I am not brave enough to watch. With so many movies about the end of the world, you can pick your own horror story. I wonder if we watch horror movies like these to purge our imagination, so that right after we see them we can laugh it off and say it was only a wild story. It couldn’t really happen, of course. Let’s go out for ice cream.
But then we read the book of Revelation and it sounds just like one of those movies, but even stranger. There is a name for movies or books about the end of the world. They are called apocalyptic literature. When something sounds particularly disastrous we say it sounds apocalyptic. We call events apocalyptic when they remind us of the seven bowls of God’s wrath or the four horsemen or the beast rising from the Abyss.
But this is a mis-use of the word “apocalyptic”. Apocalypse is part of the Greek name for the book of Revelation. It did not mean some kind of earth ending disaster; it meant “revelation” or “disclosure”, like our English title suggests. The book of Revelation is originally titled The Apocalypse of John. It is an account of the vision John saw and it was a disclosure. It claims to make everything clear. But we read it as if it is a classified top secret document with the important words redacted. It seems to hide rather than reveal. How exactly is it a clarification? Have any of you ever read Revelation and said to yourself, “Oh, now I understand!” ?
The Apocalypse of John is so weird and obscure for two reasons: first because the symbolic language it uses is so creepy; and second because we no longer understand the end of the world like the Bible does. Admittedly, the Revelation would be pretty weird even if we understood it, but we make it worse than it is by trying to make it about something it is not about. We need to realize that Revelation is notabout the end of the world. It uses symbols and nightmarish visions to describe the way the world is right now, not the way the world will be at the end.
Perhaps the best way to understand what Revelation is really about is to look back at a short passage from Paul, Ephesians 6:12, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” That is what the visions and symbols in Revelation are all about: the spiritual forces of wickedness that we wrestle with today, the cosmic powers in charge of this present darkness. The book of Revelations is describing in lurid symbols the world we live in, the world every generation lived in. We don’t understand Revelation because we think it is about the future when it is actually about the present. It is not about what will happen, but about what we are in the middle of. Revelation is about what lurks behind the evening news.
Now, that may seem a stretch. When our best friend comes by for a cup of tea and a chat, none of us think “Oh, this feels like something from Revelation”. When I go out to my garden and sit and relax in the cool of the evening on a day without mosquitos, apocalyptic is not the word that comes to mind. Norwood is a pretty privileged and sheltered place. For most people in the world, the boundary between daily life and the visions of John is very thin. In Norwood, you have to use your imagination, you have to use the eyes of faith to see John’s revelation happening here.
By the way there was a great book popular in charismatic Christian circles about 30 years ago: “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti. It is about how the spiritual forces of wickedness lurk invisibly just beneath the surface of events in a quiet little village much like Potsdam. Bad theology, but I really enjoyed it.
Listening to the news is important, but it deceives us, sometimes in more ways than one. The main way it deceives us is by offering no true hope. It makes you hope for things that don’t deliver: the hope that the right party wins the next election; the hope that scientists will pull a rabbit out of a hat and stop global warming before it is too late; the hope that politicians around the world will finally get their act together and try to solve problems; the hope that Putin and Kim Jong Un and the other men committed to evil will all have sudden changes of heart; the hope that white Americans will learn to love black Americans before black Americans give up on us and turn to hate; the hope that bitter young men will quit gunning down school children. The evening news is all about the evil forces that control this present age, and not about the hope we have in Christ.
But in Romans 8 Paul despises the sufferings of this present time in comparison to the glory that is coming and the glory that is coming is the end of this world. Even the creation, the plants and the animals and the forests and the stars, wait with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The whole creation shares our hope. Even your dogs and cats are longing for the end of the world, the day when they will obtain the freedom of glory. Our animal friends understand the end of the world better than we do. In Isaiah 55:12 it says, “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” That is what the Bible calls the end of the world. Martin Luther, so I understand, was once asked what he would do if he knew for certain that the world would end that very evening. He replied that he would plant another apple tree in his garden. The end of the world is our hope, not our fear. The end of the world is the only thing that will stop the evil powers that control this present kingdom of darkness.
We will not “go to heaven” at the end. Heaven will come to us, like the New Jerusalem coming down from the sky in John’s vision in chapter 21. There will be a new heaven and a new earth set free from its evil minions. There will be no darkness left.
The book of Revelation finally does get around to describing the end of the world in the last chapter or two. The next to last verse of the last chapter ends with two words that sum up everything: “Come Lord!” It is just one word in Aramaic, the language the apostles and Jesus spoke as their native language: Maranatha! It means “Come Lord. Hurry up. Make haste to save us. Make haste to help us. Come quickly.”
Episcopalians do not talk much about the second coming of Jesus. It is in the Nicene Creed, one phrase right near the end of the creed. But there was an Episcopal priest who did speak about Jesus’ return rather eloquently: Robert Farrar Capon. He was a parish priest on Long Island for many years, and the canon theologian for the diocese of Long Island; he taught theology and Greek at a seminary down there. One of his first books was “The Third Peacock” and it is one of my favorite theology books, one of the few that isn’t dull. At the end of “The Third Peacock” he has the perfect description of the end of the world that I will read to conclude this sermon.
When I teach dogmatic theology, I try to set up the faith on the same framework I have used in this book: the Trinity creating the world out of sheer fun; the Word romancing creation into being, and becoming incarnate to bring it home … Having done that, I then ask the crucial question: How does the story actually end?
Invariably I get all the correct but dull answers: the Word triumphs; creation is glorified; the peaceable kingdom comes in. And I say, Yes, yes; but how does the story actually end? The class looks at me for a while as if I were out of my mind, and then offers some more of the same: The Father’s good pleasure is served; man is taken up into the exchanges of the Trinity. And I say again, Yes, but how does the story end in fact?
No answer. I try another tack: Where does the story end? Still no answer. All right, I say, I’ll give you a hint: Where can you read the end of the story? And eventually someone says,: In the Book of Revelation – but who understands that?
I’m not asking you to understand it, I say. I just want to know what your read there. What is the last thing that happens?
And slowly and painfully it finally comes out: The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to be the Bride of the Lamb.
They never see it till they fall over it! It is the oldest story on earth: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. He marries her and takes her home to Dad. The Word romances creation till he wins her: “You are beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.” By his eternal flattery he makes new heavens and a new earth; the once groaning and travailing world becomes Jerusalem, the bride without spot or wrinkle. And finally, as she stands young and lovely before him, he sets her about with jewels, and she begins the banter of an endless love: Jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald “Behold you are fair my love” Sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite beryl, “You are fair my love. You have doves’ eyes. Topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth, amethyst “You are fair my beloved and pleasant; also our bed is green. Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourishes, whether the tender grapes appear, and the pomegranates bud forth. There I will give you my loves. The mandrakes give a smell and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.”
That is the end of the world Maranatha.