Thursday, November 03, 2005

In Preparation for Sunday: Revelation 7:9-17

I've been remiss about posting about the Biblical text that will be the focus of this coming Sunday's worship. Influenced by something my colleague, Tod Bolsinger, said at the recent GodBlogCon in Los Angeles, last week I decided to invite members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Church, and whoever else might be interested, to consider the text for the coming week. So, here goes...

The text for this coming Sunday's worship is Revelation 7:9-17.

We Lutherans have an interesting history with this book of the Bible, the last one in the New Testament corpus. Starting with Martin Luther, the monk and priest whose reforming work began the movement of which we're a part, we've been ambivalent about Revelation.

Luther himself didn't like the book, saying that he simply couldn't understand it. This is odd, in a way, because as a Johannine book--that means that, like the Gospel of John and the three letters in the New Testament, First, Second, and Third John, Revelation is attributed to John, the beloved disciple--employs many of the same symbolism one finds in the other books attributed to John.

(By the way, Luther hated the term, Lutheran. It was originally meant as a term of derision, the enemies of reforming the Church and its proclamation to the world claiming that those who agreed with Luther about such issues as justification by faith in a gracious God were more loyal to Luther than they were to Jesus Christ. Luther said that because he was nothing more than a sack of worms and because our hope comes not from a person, but from God, the appellation was completely inappropriate. He preferred calling the movement, evangelical, coming from the New Testament word, euangelion, meaning Good News. Of course, in more recent years, the term evangelical has come to mean something rather different from Luther's usage of it. But it still refers to being people of the Good News summarized so well in John 3:16. For more on Luther, see here.)

Through the years, Revelation has been misused by all manner of apocalypticists claiming to know what all the book's rich imagery means. Just as Craig Williams has said of The Chronicles of Narnia though, it's also true that to read Revelation as a crude allegory is wrong. People have always tried to do this, though.

Take, for example, Revelation's talk about Babylon. In my lifetime, I've heard a succession of preachers who have claimed to have Revelation figured out identify Babylon as the Soviet Union, the United States, China, Communists, or Islamofascists. From their "insights," these misguided souls have then extrapolated the meaning of other images in Revelation and what they tell us about the end of the world and the return of the risen Jesus.

Generations of apocalyptic preachers and writers have worked people up into fearful frenzies and have lined their pockets through such irresponsible talk.

They ignore Jesus' specific injunction not to worry about when the world will end. (See here.) In fact, He even said that all the signs that point to the end of this planet's life had already occurred when He walked the earth in first-century Judea. The call of the Christian isn't to play these endless games spun from Revelation, but to trust in and walk with Jesus Christ today!

But apart from ignoring what Jesus has told us, these folks also ignore the meaning of the Babylon imagery to John, the writer of Revelation.

In Old Testament times, the Babylonian Empire swept into ancient Judea, the remnant of even more ancient Israel, and conquered God's people. They were utterly subjugated and many of their leaders were killed or exiled to Babylon, where they served as slaves of their Babylonian masters. The walls of Jerusalem, walls being the marks and the guarantors of safety for ancient cities, were brought down or allowed to crumble. More seriously, the Temple, where it was thought that the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, was torn up and allowed to deteriorate.

The "Babylonian Captivity" created a massive crisis of faith for the Hebrew people:
If Yahweh, their God, was the Lord of all and omnipotent, how could this have happened?

If they were God's chosen people, how could this have befallen them?

Had God allowed them to suffer the consequences of their chronic reliance on themselves or on worldly power, leaving them naked and vulnerable before a superior army, a superior power in the world?

If God was only knowable in a Temple made with hands in Jerusalem, as many had thought, what happened to their God and to their faith when the Temple was no more and they were far from home?
Many Old Testament passages give voice to the anguish and the questions of God's people in these circumstances.

When John penned Revelation some seven centuries later and wrote about Babylon, the Babylonian Empire was a long-dead entity. But there did exist an analogous one, the Roman Empire. And by the time John wrote Revelation, at least some elements of that empire were persecuting the Church, the followers of the resurrected Jesus, in many ways. So, he may well have had Rome in mind. But to someone as tuned into God and to the history of God's relationship with the world, Babylon would have been much more than Rome.

Babylon is a symbol of all worldly power at enmity with Christ and His Church. That power may be political, military, psychological, social, religious, or intellectual. Babylon is the world system, if you will, before which the Church stands naked and defenseless if it relies on the power of anyone or anything other than the God we know through Jesus Christ. But, as Luther would say, with Christ fighting by our side, the world system cannot prevail.

The name of John's book, Revelation, translates its Greek title, Apocalypse of John. In spite of the dire associations made with this word, apocalypse simply refers to something that has been revealed, a revelation.

In his book, John talks about a revelation he receives from the risen and ascended Jesus. I like the thematic outline of Revelation found in the Study Bible:
1. The church on earth (chs. 1-3)
2. The Lamb and the seven seals (chs. 4-7)
3. Seven angels with trumpets (chs. 8-11)
4. The church persecuted by Satan and the beast (chs. 12-14)
5. The seven bowls of God's wrath (chs. 15-16)
6. Judgment of Babylon (chs. 17-19:10)
7. Final judgment and final victory (19:11 to end)
Our particular text falls immediately following an enumeration of those in the heavenly places from Israel.

Our passage talks about "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." These are the non-Jews, Gentiles, who have come to know God through Jesus Christ. (Both Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:1-14, among other passages in the New Testament, point us to the fact that Jesus is God's ultimate, definitive self-disclosure.)

I'll cover the passage in greater detail in a post tomorrow, hopefully. But, here's a superficial consideration:

17:9: The "I" is John, of course, committing this revelation to paper.

The multitude of Gentiles stands in contrast to the 144,000 enumerated from among Israel. This can hardly be considered a polemic against the Jews since John, to whom authorship is traditionally ascribed, was himself a Jew. It rather demonstrates the universality of God's love for all people and the accessibility of God's grace, granted through Jesus Christ.

The Lamb is Jesus. This is one of many images and names used for Him. In the Gospel of John, another John, the Baptizer, sees Jesus near the Jordan River and declares Jesus to be "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world."

In ancient times, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a pure, unblemished lamb was sacrificed by the High Priest in the area known as the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. (The Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian Captivity ended. But it no longer exists, being the site today of one of the holiest mosques in Islam. All that's left is some of the wall, where pious people from throughout the world come to pray.)

Atonement is an old English word that can literally be rendered as at one ment. On the Day of Atonement, the sacrificial lamb bore the sins committed by the people in the preceding year. The animal's blood was then sprinkled on the penitent awaiting the emergence of the Priest from behind the curtain that concealed the Holy of Holies. This meant that all the sins of the preceding year no longer impeded the people's relationship with God. In other words, God and the penitent were one again.

The New Testament book of Hebrews, which uses many of the same themes and motifs as the Johannine literature in the New Testament, compares the atonement offered on Yom Kippur, when an unblemished animal is sacrificed and is effective for only a year, to the atonement that comes when the Lamb of God, God Himself, the Savior of the world, offers Himself as a sacrifice on the cross. Through Christ, Hebrews asserts, our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God are secured "once and for all." (That phrase, "once and for all," by the way, translates a Greek word, hapax, which the preacher in Hebrews repeats over and over, a lot like the "Gospel train," a rhetorical device employing repetition and heightened drama in the African-American Christian tradition, to great effect.)

White robes and palm branches symbolize purity and victory, respectively.

7:10: This is a bit like the welcome Jesus received on what's called Palm Sunday, when He entered Jerusalem triumphantly, just five days before He was executed on a cross.

7:11-12: This is an utterly worshipful scene. There is complete deference to God.

7:13-14: What is the great ordeal? I believe it's what all believers in Jesus go through, in one form or another, at lesser or greater degrees of severity. It's what happens when we attempt to live faithfully in following Christ and confront Babylon, the world system that rewards selfishness, greed, domination, and the idolatry of things.

The world, as Jesus points out in the Gospels, is currently under the dominion of darkness and sin, though God's goodness and love break out wherever He is honored. But when we buck that system, difficulties--ordeals, tribulation--ensue. You can bank on it. But Jesus promises that if we hang in there with Him, following Him and repenting when we have failed to do so, we will live with Him and all His children on the better side of history.

7:15-17: This is a great affirmation of God's promises to the faithful.

What strikes you, what questions or insights, strike you as you read this passage?

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