Acts 13:156, 2633; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:917; John 10:2230
As most of you know, the Sunday readings for the Episcopal Church are on a three year cycle. This year, during Easter season, the Lectionary assigns portions of the Book of Revelation to be read. We will not hear them again for another three years. So I was shocked and awed to realize that the last time we heard these passages on a Sunday morning was during Easter season of 2001—less than six months before four planes full of human beings were turned into weapons of attack against our country. And this is the first time since our nation invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, declaring war, not on a sovereign state, but on the amorphous and shifting conjunction of worldviews, rhetoric, and sociopathic violence called terrorism, that these lessons, the most shocking and awe-filled in Scripture, have returned. Now, as not before in my lifetime, the Book of Revelation looms incandescently over us and before us, the book of destructive fury and of divine triumph.
So I decided to look at the readings from Revelation provided by the Lectionary and offer you in this sermon a commentary on that book. These are glorious lessons, full of the triumph and joy of Easter. They open with the vision of the Cosmic Christ that “John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance” has “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” He sees a burnished blazing figure who says, “I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever.” The next vision is of the Lamb “standing,” we are told, “as if it had been slaughtered”—an impossibility only the Resurrection can resolve—and before whom twenty-four elders and four creatures prostrate themselves singing “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered, and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
The Lamb appears again in today’s reading, and the hymn of praise is taken up by an innumerable multitude, identified as those who “came out of the great ordeal” and who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Next Sunday, the ecstatic cries become those that inspired Handel: “I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters, like the sound of mighty thunder-peals, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord, our God, the Almighty, reigns!’” We hear that the marriage of the Lamb has come, that the bride is ready, clothed with fine linen, which is “the righteous deeds of the saints.” The last two Sundays of Easter describe the New Jerusalem, the city that has no need of sun or moon, because the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb, from which everything unclean is expelled. The river of the water of life flows through it, and on its banks are trees with leaves for the healing of the nations. These six lessons conclude with the voice of the Cosmic Christ: “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.” To which the author replies, “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘come;’ let everyone who hears say ‘come;’ and let everyone who is thirsty come; and let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
Now it is perfectly clear what the compilers of the Lectionary have done. They have raised us up, during the Easter season, to witness and to participate in the praise and the glory which are ours in the Risen Christ. This is what God and Christ have achieved. This is their victory and our joy. This is the hope towards which we run. But you will note that in nearly every lesson there is an acknowledgement of the cost of that triumph. Today’s passage, for example, spoke of a great ordeal and of robes that become white by being washed in blood. Even the tender words—“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”—recall suffering. God will console them, but the path to that comfort lies through tribulation and blood.
In fact, today’s joyous vision only momentarily suspends the trouble of this book. The songs of praise we heard come between the breaking of the sixth and the seventh seals of the scroll that only the slaughtered Lamb can open. When he breaks the first four seals, he releases the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: a white horse, whose rider has a crown and a bow, who comes out “conquering and to conquer;” a red horse, whose rider has a broad sword and who “was permitted to take peace from the earth so that people would slaughter one another;” a black horse, whose rider holds a pair of scales, selling a quart of wheat for a day’s wages; and finally a pale horse, ridden by Death, followed by Hades—these four: ruthless domination, preemptive military power, crippling commercial control, and their result, death and hell. Not surprisingly, at the breaking of the fifth seal, John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God,” and these cry out, “How long, Lord God, before you judge and avenge our blood?” But they are told to wait until their number is complete, to wait for those others “soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.”
The verses that immediately follow today’s reading are among the most ominous. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” What is more desolate and terrifying than the silence of heaven? John continues: “Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar.” He tells us that this angel offers incense with the prayers of all the saints. But then, he says, “the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets made ready to blow them.” Then trumpet after trumpet is blown: hail and fire burn up the earth; a blazing mountain is hurled into the sea, turning it to blood; the star called Wormwood falls on the springs of water, killing many who drink of them with its poison; and the sun and moon and stars go dark. Only then does an eagle appear, shrieking, “Woe, woe, woe at the blasts from the next trumpets!”—and what follows are predatory monsters released from the bottomless pit the likes of which are seen only in nightmares, who torture people until, in the words of the book, they “will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.” And we are not yet at the halfway mark of this book, Apocalypsis.
Now many of you are grateful the compilers of the Lectionary left these portions out and may think that I am being sadistic and insensitive to quote them. And yet, I am troubled that our discomfort with them has led us to exclude them. This book, whose name means unveiling and uncovering, remains the least exposed to light, the least aired. To know this book is to know the fullness of Scripture, light with praise, dark with doom. To know it is to know the fullness of the church and of human history, dark and light.
The darkness of the Church, which we are unable to see if we neglect the Book of Revelation, is the mania latent in all religion: religion’s creation of the matrix of culture in symbiosis with violence, its cohabitation with insanity, its gestation of intolerance and absolutism. In the attacks nearly three years ago, what plunged from on high was this aspect of religion—the holy censer that contains incense and prayers, but also burning coals to consume the earth. Routine cultic indifference was scorched into cinders. The Church is not immune to these deadly religious diseases. In Revelation we see that rage circles us relentlessly, probing for a parasitic ride on faith. Better we should know what we have dreamed than pretend we never sleep.
This book is also about the darkness of human history. I am deeply troubled that in our age its passages of horror ring more true than those of glory. I am troubled because these dark materials excluded from the Lectionary have not therefore been “left behind” in the raptures of our readings. They continue to go to and fro upon the earth, spawning agitated cultural gibberish—another enormous elephant in a much larger living room. These very passages give shape to a terrified and hate-filled assessment of our world, the stuff of paranoid evangelists and, in a few alarming cases, of those who influence policy at high levels.
However, this dark picture of human history is the deepest and most systemic analysis we have in Scripture of the collusion of commerce and politics, of human greed and self-destruction, of power and deceptive propaganda. Those who gloat over the blood in this book seem not to see this. In Revelation we hear the lament over the fall of Babylon, the city seated by great waters, drunk with the blood of the saints. Rulers and merchants alike wail, “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! In one hour she has been laid waste!” Babylon is condemned for the ruthlessness with which she quantifies everything on earth for commercial transaction, of which our critics also accuse us. John says, “the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and human bodies and human souls.”
However, Revelation also glows with the most exalted affirmations of the Church and of history in Scripture. Now it is true that even these affirmations have a warning for us here in this city. As you heard this morning, the gathered saints, who rejoice forever with God and the Lamb, are those who have endured persecution. The comfort this book offers is for those who are already enduring the turbulent dismemberment of the Church. The bowls of wrath poured out are the present truth for too many of our fellow Christians around the world. For them, a ravenous beast and an engorged gluttonous city trafficking in material and spiritual goods are pictures of what is undergone and endured daily. Christian solidarity, let alone compassion, demands of us that we confess that the last days, these days our earth gasps its way through, are savage dangerous days, days in which the persecution of Christians has returned with brutality. The hymns of Revelation, which are ecstatic rhapsodies of relief and gratitude in the mouths of those whose robes have been washed white in the Lamb’s blood, become the flat chants of the complacent, when we forget our sisters and brothers, flesh of our flesh, for whom Christianity is costly. We may bid to join their chorus, but we have no part in their rejoicing and rapture there if we have taken no part in their relief and rescue here.
The world is burning—you must know this—and you and I have been bound hand and foot and thrown into that furnace. In that fire, my question for you is this: do you cry out “Alas! the great city, for in one hour your judgment came and all this wealth has been laid waste!” or do you sing “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, and God’s judgments are true and just!”? Can the loss of all things be for you the praise of God? Align yourself with those who know that we praise God in our poverty, because in poverty we learn that God is the one thing that cannot be torn from us. Then the lamps of the Lamb’s marriage supper will glow luminously for you. But beware detachment from this world. Every spiritual gesture, except the generous surrender of love, can be made in hell. Renouncing the world can as easily be done in contempt as in love. Beware!
The second joyous affirmation of Revelation is that the full course of history is held in God’s hands. Whatever the mystery of iniquity is, it cannot step outside the traces God has laid out. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” The unequivocal will of God is the gathering and healing of men and women “from every tribe, language, people, and nation,” into a city whose “doors are always open” without fear and in which “the glory and honor of all the nations” will be known. Our participation in that, located in our own time and place, can go forward confidently along these sightlines. Even this book’s terrible fury is, in John A. T. Robinson’s words, “a resolute refusal to allow that any person or thing or event can ever fall out of the relationship of personal love in and for which it has been created by God. … The divine wrath is ultimately the saving guarantee of the divine compassion, that God will not let [us] go, that the bands of love will hold on….”
However, here also, the affirmation of history comes with a warning. Abraham Lincoln, who knew deeply the cost of a just cause, once said, “A victorious democracy has to be reminded that it, too, is under God’s judgment; otherwise, it begins to think of itself as the instrument of that judgment.” In Revelation, God, not humanity, brings about the triumph. Beware engagement with this world. Every spiritual location you claim as your own to possess and every righteous vision you proclaim as absolute can become hell. Reforming the world can as easily be done in contempt as in love. Beware! We can only enter into this work as an act of praise, sowing and watering what is planted, but knowing that God gives the growth, and remembering that the trees planted by the river of the city to which we are headed are for the healing of the nations.
In the end, all, all, all is in God’s hands, who sits on the throne, who is the Lamb slain yet alive, and who inspires the bride to say, “Amen, come, Lord Jesus!” Joining our voices with all the company of heaven, we praise the One who made us and who guides us to the springs of the water of life: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”