Underground Kingdom

Maurice Sendak is my favorite children’s author. Not only is he the author of my favorite children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, but he’s also quite dark in his personality, which I find funny. He and I also share the opinion that children often have a clearer picture of what’s actually happening in the world than adults do. We often lose our senses of mystery and wonder as we age. He’s known to say, “Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”  He also said, “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

I knew terrible things, he said. It’s like the underpinning story of Revelation. We read its pages and we know terrible things. But Maurice Sendak also takes great joy from his life and his work. He tells the story of a little kid who loved his books and wrote him a little fan letter. So, Maurice sent off a little reply and drew a little head of a wild thing on the paper. The little boy opened his note and was so overjoyed that he ate it. He ate the note from his favorite author because he loved it so much that he wanted it to live inside of him. Maurice Sendak says that it was the most flattering thing that has happened in his entire life. When we hear this, it should become an aspirational moment… to love scripture enough to eat it, because it is a gift from our that God we love.

While we’re in Revelation, we’re going to try to remember its joy and its rebuke. If preachers ever get around to preaching Revelation, they seem to only focus on the fear and the horror and the age to come. It’s like hearing the song Amazing Grace and stopping when you sing the line, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” and not finishing with “and grace my fears relieved.”  Revelation relieves our fears. When we read it, we should know the fear that it causes, but we should also know the comfort it brings.

Because Revelation functions in many ways, it acts as a comfort and an agitation. Devastation and hope. Destruction and joy. Grace that causes fear and consolation. Each week, in this series, I’m going to try to remind you that Revelation functions in at least three ways: 1) as an inside joke; 2) as an attempt to repair theology that the author, John of Patmos, thinks is bad; and 3) as a prophecy.

As we hear it read, we’re going to hear both the joy and the agitation because John has two churches to talk to today. To Smyrna, he wants to share his joy that they have not shared in their culture’s evil. He says that though they are poor in material wealth, they are rich in faith because they have remained separate. On the other side is Pergamum. They are the opposite. They have assimilated. They have received much from their neighbors. They are too much like their culture. John of Patmos can’t say enough about what a bunch of heathens they are. He tells them to repent or else he will come and scream at them in the Spirit of God.

It’s not in our nature, as humans, to love words of challenge like this, but I hope as we hear the scripture read, we will love all the words that John uses to encourage us beyond our fears and the into the relief given by faith in Christ. Can we love these words enough to “eat them up, we love them so?” As you hear it read, know that when God speaks through scripture, it is wild and untamed thing and calls us into that untamed life in Christ. Hear now the word of God.

Revelation 1:1-4, 2:8-17

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….

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:
“I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.

Explaining the Inside Joke:

We all remember the dream… so when I flash his face on the screen, your minds automatically go to words like “pastor,” “prophet,” “leader,” “champion,” “saint.” But, most of us have another word that comes to mind when we see his face as well: assassinated. Killed for his belief that all humanity was created equal. We all know who we’re talking about. You may not have noticed that I still haven’t said his name: Martin Luther King Jr. I have didn’t have to say his name because he lives in our collective minds.

There are other faces for other communities that do the same thing: For Indian people: Gandhi. For LGBTQ people: Harvey Milk. In any of those communities, pictures of those faces speak more than 1,000 words, including “assissinated.”

For the people of Pergamum: Antipas. Just by the mentioning of his name in his letter, John of Patmos would have shown them that he was an insider and he knew their culture. It’s like if I say the words, “I have a dream,” you know exactly what I’m talking about. Or it’s like if I brought in a guest preacher and she said that she was Ina Sharman’s (of Sharman Hall fame) great-niece; you would think she knew something about this church and that she knew something about you. Well, John says, through the voice, of God, “You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city….” By using the name, Antipas, he lets Pergamum know that he knows who they are.

We don’t know a lot about Antipas, but tradition tells us that he was ordained by the disciple, John, as the bishop of Pergamum and that was put to death, by burning, by the emperor, Nero. This execution happened in Pergamum. They would have seen it with their own eyes. They had loved their bishop and they had served with him and they had to watch him die. Like MLK, there was a deep woundedness in having seen their friend and their bishop and pastor Antipas die in such a horrific way.

To these ones from Pergamum, John writes, “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” This sentence contains another inside joke, a word that has survived. We know double-edged sword from Hebrews 4:14: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” A two-edged sword is Christ. Who has a two-edged sword? God. God speaks through John of Patmos to tell the ones from Pergamum, “You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city.”  Antipas. If not for me, do it for Antipas.

Explaining the Bad Theology:

John of Patmos is trying his best to say something like, “If you ever loved Antipas, listen up!” He continues by telling them what he has against them. You did great in the time of Antipas, but you’re messing up now. This is the moment in which he moves from the inside joke to starting his own theology repair service. He says something like, “Let me tell you what I know about you. You have been involved in temple worship to gods who are not our God.” And here’s what’s involved in that: You have been eating meat sacrificed to idols. You have been fornicating in that temple as well. You are in a dark, dark place and you need to come to the light that first shown to you by Antipas.

How did they even get into a spot like this? How did they fall so far. Was it their hearts or their culture that was the problem? The truth is that Pergamum found themselves in a place of tension between eastern and western cultures because they were near a trade route. All kinds of people and diverse religions were represented. It was probably a lot like Atlanta, GA in the 1960s.

Here’s a weird question: Which city is more southern: Huntsville, AL or Atlanta, GA? Maybe you don’t know. I have spent a lot of time in both places. And the answer is complicated. Which is more southern? Geographically? Atlanta. Culturally? Huntsville.

Why would that be? Well, Atlanta is a very metropolitan place. Some might call it the New York of the south. People move there from all over the world. There is constant movement, constant cultural change. It’s one of the reasons that it was at the center of the southern civil rights movement. If Atlanta had been a city with one culture, the seeds of justice could never have been planted.

But, on the other side of the debate, cultural pluralism makes it difficult to recognize when a community is sliding away from their faith and faithfulness. It seems like John of Patmos thought that the people of Pergamum were over-influenced by the Nicolaitans who were, themselves, convinced that Jesus’ dying and rising again made it so that there were ab-so-lutely NO requirements for behavior as a Christian. Not only did they read words like, “I was hungry and you fed me,” and ignore them, they also thought that they could be involved in other worship of idols and emperors.

Part of the worship in the secular temples was to worship the emperor – the same emperor who killed Antipas. Knowing that Nero killed Antipas  means that they cannot worship Nero in those temples and still worship God in Christ. There is no version of the faith that allows these people who are in Christ to worship the one who killed their pastor. John tells them and tells us: Stop your idolatry.

Explaining the Prophecy:

Knowing that they cannot be like the Nicolaitans who worshiped Nero and gods who are not Christ, leads us perfectly into the realm of prophecy. We’re back at the beginning with that little boy and Maurice Sendak: It is like John is saying, like the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” It’s a warning. Know the word and will of God and then speak.

Know the word and will of God and then speak. The will of God for us is to eat this book, engaging our community, but not letting go of Christ. Loving our neighbors but not worshipping their gods. Hearing their hearts, but never letting go of our first love in Christ Jesus. The will of God for us is to eat this book and know that we must repent and turn away from the idols that get in the way of life in him. Never worship the one who kills us. Worship the one who brings us life.

And so, may we always be so overjoyed when we hear from God that we want to eat the words and then live them in spirit and truth. Let us pray…