[This sermon was preached at Salem Mennonite Church, Freeman, SD, April 14, 1996]
I like the Book of Revelation a great deal. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Book of Revelation, I probably wouldn’t be here this morning. This is why. Back in the late 1970s, I really had no idea I would end up being a pastor. But I was very interested in studying the Bible. And I was faced with a challenge. Responding to that challenge changed my life.
At that time, Kathleen and I were heavily involved in a small, non-denominational church. Some of us became interested in peace issues, and began to speak often in our church about our understanding of God’s call to Christians to follow Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Some of the other people in the church didn’t fully agree with us. So we had some arguments—which unfortunately often generated more heat than light.
Finally, our pastor, who was kind of in the middle on this issue, organized a formal debate, with one person speaking from each side. This debate didn’t really solve anything, though I do think we all came to respect each other a bit more. And the fact that we were able to have an open, friendly discussion helped our relationships a lot. My friend Clyde, who spoke for our side did a good job—and so too, did their speaker, a guy named Doug.
One of Doug’s main arguments was that Jesus’ pacifist teaching is only one part of the Bible—both the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation teach that warfare can be okay for God’s people. I didn’t accept his argument, but I also couldn’t say much against it. I hadn’t really studied either the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation. I decided then to try to understand those parts of the Bible and see how they matched up with Jesus’ teaching. That process of study took quite awhile. In fact, it is still going on.
Last year I preached a long series of sermons on the Old Testament, which have emerged from my study which was stimulated by our debate those many years ago. You may remember that I tried to present a case for understanding the Old Testament a pointing ahead to Jesus. Perhaps the Old Testament as a whole cannot be seen as a pacifist book, but it does contain the roots of pacifism.
My strongest interest in the first several years that I worked on my response to Doug’s arguments, though, was with the Book of Revelation. As I started to study Revelation, I got more and more interested in it. I became convinced that Revelation should be understood as very much supporting our Mennonite understanding of Jesus and his peaceable way.
When I was asked to be interim pastor in the Eugene, Oregon, Mennonite Church in 1982, I decided to devote my first several sermons to the Book of Revelation. That was a pretty big challenge, but I enjoyed it and people in the congregation gave me mostly positive feedback. So I decided to be bold. I made the sermons into short articles, and submitted them to the Gospel Herald, the magazine of the Mennonite Church. I was quite surprised, and delighted, when the editor agreed to publish my Revelation articles.
By the time the articles came out, I had finished my assignment at the Eugene church and we had moved to Arizona. I believed that my pastoring career was over. However, the church we began to attend in Phoenix was looking for an interim pastor. Some people that we met figured out that I was the person who had written the articles on Revelation. In the articles I was identified as being a former interim pastor. So, they asked me if I would be their interim pastor for the next several months. I said okay, and ended up having a good experience. It if hadn’t been for that time in Arizona, I doubt I would have ever tried being a pastor again. And if it hadn’t been for the Book of Revelation and the articles I wrote on it, the people in Phoenix would not have given me the opportunity to try pastoring again.
So, I have a lot of affection for Revelation. Because of Revelation, I am a pastor in Freeman today. Because of Revelation, I now know what 30° below zero feels like and that indeed it is possible to have snowstorms in April.…
The Book of Revelation is indeed a challenging book to try to understand. I have spent a lot of time with it over the years, and I still have a feeling of fear—maybe I have totally misunderstood it. However, that fear has never been enough to keep me from talking about what I believe about Revelation. I do hope it has kept me from being too dogmatic, though.
There is a person in this congregation who several times has told me that he wants to hear me talk about Revelation. I don’t want to say who it is, because those of you who don’t like Revelation might be unhappy with him for encouraging me. But, partly due to this person’s prodding, I am going to spend my next several sermons talking about Revelation. I hope I can help you to see a little of what is so fascinating, challenging, and encouraging about Revelation.
I have a few assumptions about Revelation which shape how I understand it. First, I believe that Jesus, his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, Jesus is the key to how we understand Revelation. I start out believing that when the first verse of this book says this is “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” that means we are dealing with the same Jesus Christ we read about in the gospels.
If Jesus in the gospels teaches the way of peace, if Jesus in the gospels teaches compassion, empathy, respect, mercy—then I expect Revelation also to teach these things. The visions of Revelation, strange though they may be, are meant to encourage us to follow Jesus. Revelation is valuable because it helps us better to follow Jesus’ will for our lives. Just as the Old Testament looks different when read as pointing foward to Jesus, so too Revelation looks different when read as pointing to Jesus.
This means that I don’t see Revelation as a separate, independent statement, which might well picture the Christian faith in a way which is quite different from the Gospels. No, I read Revelation in light of the Gospels. What goes on in Revelation is meant to help us understand the same mission of Jesus which the gospels teach about—to help people repent of their sins of pride, violence, and disregard of God and to help people know God’s mercy and forgiveness which transform their lives and empower them to live in love just as Jesus did.
A second assumption I have about Revelation is that the way it portrays God is also consistent with how Jesus portrays God. Jesus tells us that God is compassionate and not impersonal. Jesus tells us that God responds to us and does not simply act on us. Jesus tells us that God is long-suffering more than judgmental. Jesus tells us that God is a healer and not a destroyer. At times Revelation seems to picture God differently. But if we look carefully, we will find the same God in Revelation as we find in the gospels.
The author of Revelation was God’s servant John—a pastor and a prophet. A third assumption I have about Revelation is that for us to learn from it, we need to focus on what John’s message meant for his readers. John was writing to encourage his fellow-Christians, especially those who were part of the seven churches in chapters two and three.
The issues those churches faced are similar to issues Christians face today. The church at Ephesus was challenged to stand for the truth, but also to practice love. Good works without love are a clanging cymbal. The churches at Pergamum, Thyratira, and Sardis are challenged to be discerning. They are hearing religious messages from many sources, many people claiming to speak for God. But some of these voices are pushing them to depart from the ways of the gospel. These Christians must test the spirits—figuring out which of these messages truly point to the way of Jesus. The churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia are commended for remaining faithful in the face of suffering and persecution. They are challenged to continue. The church at Laodicea, the last mentioned—this might seem the most familiar to us in twentieth-century North America. This church is comfortable, prosperous, in need of nothing—new carpeting, new hymnals, a new education wing. But this church is in trouble. It has conformed to the surrounding culture, it has become at home in the world—and it has forgotten to follow Jesus’ way.
John writes primarily as a pastor. He writes to encourage Christians in those seven churches—and all Christians since then. He does not write to satisfy our curiosity about the future. He does not write to make us feel good about God destroying our enemies. John writes to help us follow Jesus. John writes to tell us that following Jesus is serious business.
Everything in the Book of Revelation serves this purpose—to help its readers follow Jesus, to remind them that following Jesus is serious business. One of John’s biggest concerns is with people in churches such as the one in Laodicea. One of John’s biggest concerns is with Christians who have become lukewarm in their faith—neither hot nor cold.
Now this image of hot and cold has commonly been misunderstood. We have interpreted this to say that it is better to be committed than to be wishy-washy. It’s as if Jesus is saying that it is better to be doing something, anything, even if it is evil, than to be passive. But that is not what he is saying.
In the ancient city of Laodicea, the water supply came from mineral springs and arrived to the city lukewarm. The water was useful “hot” or “cold” —for cooking, for drinking—but when it was “lukewarm” it was nauseating and useless. Jesus’ point then is not about the spiritual “temperature” of the Laodiceans. Rather, Jesus is talking about their usefulness for his kingdom. The question is how actively are they doing his will, how committed are they to showing the world the fruit of the gospel.
Revelation addresses Christians who are not living fruitful lives. Revelation challenges our imaginations. Revelation hopes to move us to respond, to take more seriously the lives we live as people of God. Are we useful? Are we actively expressing God’s mercy to others? Are we standing strong for the gospel of Jesus Christ? Maybe we are comfortable, secure in our material prosperity, at home in world—but are we useful for God’s kingdom?
John wants us to understand that this matters, to the utmost. We face a spiritual struggle, right now. The gospel of God, the way of Jesus Christ, the truthfulness of the kingdom—these are being challenged, these are being rejected. Our world is characterized by violence, by dishonesty, by an attitude toward nature which treats it as our possession to be exploited and abused for the sake of short-term economic benefit. How we live, as God’s people, matters, because God wants to use us to make known his ways of mercy, healing, and peace.
The Book of Revelation dramatizes this spiritual struggle. We see a conflict between the forces of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the Harlot, the city of Babylon) on the one hand, and the forces of good (the Lamb, the Bride, the New Jerusalem) on the other hand. This drama is presented especially for the sake of those, like the Christians in Laodicea, who are not real clear as to where they stand.
What is at stake are the heart-commitments of Christians. John is attempting to lay bare what is at stake with our choices in life. Certainly our choices in real-life are complex. Decisions—whether or not to expand our farm operation, whether or not to buy a new pick-up, where to vacation, whether or not to teach Sunday School, where to send our kids to school, how to respond to criticism—these are all complex decisions and often there is no clear right and wrong about them. John’s visions do not tell us what to decide with all these things. But John’s visions do challenge us to take with the utmost seriousness our calling to follow the Lamb and his way. John’s visions tell us that all of life has moral significance. Each decision matters. John’s visions warn us of the consequences of letting sources other than the gospel of Jesus Christ determine our values.
The central vision in the Book of Revelation comes in chapter five. I will focus on this vision in more detail next week. This vision tells of a lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered, opening the great scroll. This scroll, I believe, contains the final revelation of the outcome of history; or, you could say, the meaning of life; or, you could say, our salvation. This lamb is the meaning of life. This lamb is our salvation. The lamb has been killed (Jesus crucified), but now stands (Jesus raised from the dead). The thousands of thousands of voices sing praise: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and glory and honor and blessing!” (5:12).
What follows in Revelation is the working out of this triumph of the lamb. The final vision is the completed salvation: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city, [the New Jerusalem]. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (22:1-5).
Revelation pictures a battle for loyalty. There is another city portrayed beside the New Jerusalem. That is Babylon. And Babylon is destroyed. Readers such as the lukewarm Christians in Laodicea are being confronted with a choice—follow the Lamb and make yourself at home in the New Jerusalem, or turn from the Lamb and make yourself at home in Babylon. This is a crucual choice—one determined by all the little choices we make throughout our lives. Are we basing our decisions on a desire for God’s peace, wholeness, and mercy? Or are we basing our decisions on a desire to build our own security, to make ourselves look better than others, to hurt those who have hurt us?
There is both a carrot and a stick in John’s visions. The stick is a threat—make yourselves at home in the world, make yourselves at home in Babylon, and you will share Babylon’s fate. You will get what you want—independence from God, that is, separation from God. But the bigger, more central message of Revelation is that of the carrot. Life is to be found in the New Jerusalem. Life is to be found with the Lamb—abundant life. All people are invited to receive this life.
Even the harsh message to the lukewarm church at Laodicea is mostly a carrot. “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you , and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:19-21).
Let’s pray: Thank you, dear God, for your promise that as we turn to you, as we trust in you, you will eat with us, you will bring us healing, you will strengthen us so that we might live as your people. Help us to take your words to us seriously. Help us to recognize that we face choices all the time which determine which city we will feel at home in—the New Jerusalem or Babylon. And help us to make the right choices, so that we might more and more be conformed to the image of your son.