A couple of weeks ago, at Monday morning’s Accidental Saints group, someone asked me if I ever read for fun. And I said that I am a bad fun reader, but it wasn’t always like that. When I had a baby daughter and seemingly endless downtime with her, I was a fan of Michael Connely and his series of mystery novels with his tough and surly character, Detective Harry Bosch.
The thing that I have loved the most about Bosch is that he does a great job pretending that he doesn’t care. He comes off as the toughest and hardhearted guy in every room that he’s in, but he’s actually the only one who truly does care. He’s the only one who cares enough about victims to go the distance and bring them justice.
Well, Amazon has made a Harry Bosch television series and he’s the same way on the small screen as he was in the books. Titus Welliver, the star of the series, is as bad-tempered and soft-hearted as the Bosch from the books. He cares for others to the point that he doesn’t care about himself.
A few episodes into this current season, there is a poignant scene in which Bosch is sitting in his car, contemplating the reality that he might not actually be able to help, and he remembers back to his early days on the job as a detective when his mentor says, “Don’t fall in love with a victim.” Don’t fall in love with a victim.
But this is the story of this Easter season. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus reveals his love for us, the victims, and makes it known in bread and wine. On Good Friday, Jesus puts his love on the line and dies for us. On Easter Sunday he rises and brings us to life with him. Don’t fall in love with a victim? Christ falls in love with us over and over again and is willing to do whatever it takes to bring us justice.
That is the story of Revelation. It’s the story of Christ that looks out into a world that refuses to say, “Thy will be done.” And Christ responds, for a long, long time, “Okay. If not my will be done, then your will be done.” And it leads to the horror story that we are all living today, with mass shootings, and war for profit, and hungry people in a land of plenty.
Revelation is the story of God who sees it all, sees all the pain and turmoil, with all the blood and guts, all the scars it causes, and makes us a promise. God promises justice. The end of the story that is found in Revelation is the story of a God who constantly falls in love with the victim and finally brings his justice… and eventually eternal peace.
As you hear the scripture read, listen for the ways in which Christ shows his love for you and promises you justice. Hear now the word of God.
Rev. 1:1-4, 2:1-7
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne….
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
It seems like almost no one sits down and reads Revelation for funsies. [In my best Count Chocula voice]: “The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red….”
It’s not the nice stuff in the Bible that can find ourselves quite used to. It’s not, [in my best sanctimonious voice] “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want… he maketh me lie down in green pastures….”
Revelation’s not a fun read. It’s full of calling out evil for what it is, it’s full of the death and destruction of God’s people, and a version of Jesus Christ that we in the modern mainline churches seldom see and don’t recognize him when we do. No one reads this for fun… unless they are a bit masochistic.
But Revelation tells a version of the story of God that is deeply important. It’s a version that needs to be told. Because without it there is no final victory, there is no divine justice. All the things that we believe to be true about the future of creation because we believe in Jesus, we believe them because someone in the history of the Church read Revelation and let it speak to them… and then they shared that story. It’s how theology is born.
But the story of Revelation has been told so poorly. I remember back in the 1990s when Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins made millions of dollars off of their series of books called Left Behind. They had read Revelation at some point in their lives, I’m sure, but it’s a version of Revelation that I don’t recognize. It is a highly fictionalized account of one way of reading Revelation, but some read the books or watch the movie and think this is what Revelation says. I remember that it had people freaking out and worrying about the doom that Jesus would bring to them. But, again, it’s a highly fictionalized account of one way to read Revelation.
And there are actually at least three ways of reading Revelation. I’m going to show you this morning that Revelation is three things: 1) an inside joke; 2) its a theological correction of Paul’s teachings (that is to say, John of Patmos, the author of Revelation hated Paul’s theology); and 3) it is prophecy. It’s not just prophecy. And it’s not the kind of prophecy you’re used to hearing about. It’s not future-telling. It’s past-telling, present-telling, and future-telling prophecy. When we read Revelation, it’s so difficult to read that we limit its power. We have to read it for all it’s worth.
Revelation is an inside joke. It’s like the manager from the TV series, The Office, Michael Scott, said, “I love inside jokes. Love to be a part of one someday.” An inside joke is a moment between friends and confidants. It’s a private moment when you can have a coded message that tells a larger story. An example of one of these inside jokes that John of Patmos uses, but from our time is the elephant and donkey. Right now, you look at the screen and know that I am talking about Republicans and Democrats. Will people still know in 2,000 years? Will they still look at our political cartoons and understand? The likelihood is that they won’t.
We don’t understand all of what John of Patmos was saying in Revelation. What makes it harder is that he was trying to hide his message from the Empire who was busy persecuting and killing Christians. He didn’t want to say too much that the powers would understand. Unfortunately, this leaves us in the dark for much of what he told his people. So, Revelation, in some ways remains an inside joke, a joke that we are left out of.
But Revelation is also a theological corrective. John of Patmos is an ancestor to Eastern Christianity, those ones that we Eastern Orthodox. And he looked to his westernmost churches and saw the terrifying influence of Paul upon them. John would have seen Paul as a faith killer. He would have read Paul’s letters and been horrified because John believed that there were requirements for faith and life in Christ. So heard Pauls words like we find in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life…” and he wants to combat Paul’s teachings in his westernmost church, Ephesus. Ephesus/Ephesians.
Whereas Paul tells the Ephesians, “Faith not works,” John of Patmos writes, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first…. Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”
And don’t think that Paul doesn’t know about this. He’s deeply grieved by this theological movement. He writes in 2nd Timothy: “You are aware that all who are in Asia have turned away from me.” This is the classic debate of faith vs. works. Paul is one who believes that faith is not only primary, faith alone is proof of God’s reckless love. John, on the other hand, believes, like James, “Faith without works is dead.”
Revelation acts as a theological argument and corrective for the church in Ephesus and other western-influenced churches.
So Revelation is an inside joke and a theological corrective, but, yes, it is also a prophecy. Apocalyptic prophecy had been with the people of Israel for more than a thousand years. Just look to the four beasts of Daniel 7, and read all of the rabbinic literature around it, and you will know that this kind of prophecy was engrained in the people of Israel and the early Church.
But Daniel 7, other Jewish apocalyptic literature, and Revelation all have in common is that they are talking about their time first. They aren’t speaking to us as the primary audience. It’s just that they are telling the story of their world, to their people, but it is a truth that lasts throughout all ages. For example, the powerful are always powerful. The poor are always poor. The military always fights wars. Kingdoms always act unjustly. And God is always God. The actors and sets change, but the script stays the same. Prophecy is always true. It was true for its first hearers. It is true for us. It will be true for our children’s children… until Christ comes in the final victory promised by God.
Revelation is an inside joke. It’s an attempt to repair churches. And it’s a prophecy that is always true.
And so, as we close, this is the introduction to a series in Revelation and Acts, as we close this introduction to our Choose Your Own Adventure series: you have a choice to make. You’ve heard three ways to hear the story of Revelation… and you have a choice to make: How do you want to listen to God in these words?
It sounds like a big decision, but don’t despair. God is guiding us even when we can’t recognize his presence in our decision making. I’m going to leave you with a meditation from Wendell Berry the Christian writer. It’s from one of his novels and he’s speaking from the perspective of Jayber Crow, a man called to pastoral ministry, but who settled on being the town barber. But his life was full of ministry for others. And when he reflected on his life, and all the ways he had made choices, he said,
“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back…. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me… mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved…. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”
“I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led.” May we not be able to shake off the feeling of being led through this gift of prophecy. May we know that we are being led by God in this choose your own adventure life of ours. Make of that what you will. Amen.