I decided to do this summer series in part because I had done it before. That made it a little easier to think outside of this particular box. Yet, though I had done it before, since it was based on the questions and suggestions and preferences of the congregation it was still going to be new this time around. No pulling sermons out of the file and reusing them. So, it is designed to meet people where they are, with their questions and concerns and hopes and understandings and to help them love the Bible even more.
That’s the other part of why I chose to do this series again, this “Meet the Bible” series. Because I love the Bible and its narrative flow and vibrant diversity and spiritual depth. I didn’t want the congregation to see the Bible as tool kit for salvation or for evangelism, merely dealing with the nuts and bolts of hammering out a faith practice (was that a mixed metaphor?) It can be that. But it is so much more than that. It is a work of art designed to inspire. It is a love letter designed to make us swoon. It is designed to make us angry and ashamed, to make us hopeful and courageous, to help us find the light in our personal and corporate darkness, and to move us off the center when we buy into the message of the culture that says it is all about us. It is so much more than a tool kit or a blueprint for right living. It is about being alive, not just living.
Which means that what I hoped to do in this series is teach the congregation in my care how to use the Bible appropriately. Some might think that is not all that important these days. Unless you listen to the news and discover no less than the Attorney General of the United States misusing the Bible to justify a personal and arguably unjust executive policy. Mr. Sessions attempted to use Romans 13 (be subject to the governing authorities) essentially to tell us not to question our government on anything; neglecting to quote Romans 12 which tells us to hate what is evil - wherever it comes from. Not to mention the countless references to how the people of God are called to treat the immigrant in their midst. Or the summation of the law endorsed by Jesus that we are to love God and love neighbor with an equal passion and practice. One thing the Bible is not good for is hiding behind.
Am I straying into politics? Maybe. But the Bible is eminently political. To pay attention to the Bible is to pay attention to how we live, as individuals and as communities, but also as nations. It is to pay attention to both the promises and the warnings. The call to right living and the bestowing of grace for the times we miss the mark. And it does all of this in such mind-boggling diversity that we sometimes read with mouths agape as we puzzle through the images and the narrative, scratching our heads in wonder and confusion. It’s no wonder that sometimes the Bible is used for selfish purposes, since it seems you can use it to justify almost any position, no matter how outlandish. You can use it to condemn any thinking, any action, any person that you don’t like for some reason. That’s the danger of the misuse of the Bible. And the only check on this rampant misunderstanding is the Bible itself, and the people of God who have devoted centuries to understanding it - gotten it wrong many times, but can usually come to a new and deeper truth with time. Not without some angst and disruption, however. But then angst and disruption seems to be the lot of the people of faith.
Angst and disruption seems a good segue into what I’m really supposed to be about this weekend. I’m still, as I mentioned earlier, dealing with the things that puzzle you, the things that trouble you, the things that down right confuse the heck out of you. Number one on the top of that list is the single most troubling book in the whole Bible. And that’s saying something. There is trouble on every page. Even the Jesus we know and love can throw us a curve ball now and then that leaves us whiffing at the plate without a clue. But for most of us that “here be dragons” section of the Bible we stay away from has to be the Book of Revelation. Because there are dragons in it!
Revelation 1:1-7 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, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 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. 4 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, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.
No dragons yet. The book starts with a declaration of what it is. Actually, it starts with a declaration about who it is. Who it is about. Who it is from. Revelation is fundamentally not a what but a who. It is less a drama and more a character study. It is less a history - ancient, modern or future - and more a curriculum vitae. It is less about us and what will happen or not happen to us, and more about Him and what He promises will happen.
There is so much about this book that is shrouded in mystery. The author calls himself John. Tradition says it is the Apostle John. But as early as the second century there was some doubt about that. The text of Revelation is so different from the other writings that bear the name of John that it seems to come from another hand completely. Most historians believe that John died in Ephesus, and gathered a community of believers there who actually wrote the gospel and letters that bear his name. John in Revelation says he in on the isle of Patmos, believed by some to be a penal colony, a place of exile for political prisoners of the Roman Empire. The truth is we don’t know.
Most believe that Revelation was written in the mid-nineties AD. Some think it was much earlier. It was written during a time of persecution against the followers of Christ. It is a word from this Christ who says, in essence, I’ve got this. But that word is couched in a language we only barely understand these days - apocalyptic. Much has been made of the similarities between Revelation and Daniel, for example, or Ezekiel or other prophetic works. Images and symbols, codes and numbers that only make sense in this language system. The attempts at translating this apocalyptic drama into something that fits history have been many and various. And continuous, at least for last hundred years or so. Like so much of the Bible, Revelation has been twisted so outrageously that it has been used to condemn almost anything you’d like to consider, and to warn of the dangers of almost any group of people or even individuals. There are those who argue that the drama depicted in the bulk of the book is an ancient one, the early church’s struggle with the empire of Rome. Others argue that it is a depiction of current history with the characters pointing toward tyrants and politicians of various stripes. Still others consider that the references are all about a yet to come historical event for which we need to wait and watch. Which is it? Well, in a way, it could be all of these.
Not that I hold much credence to the momentary end of all that is and battle of Armageddon on our doorstep. But that the drama depicts the constant battle of human sinfulness that seeks to take the place of God and vanquish the enemy of the day. It is a story that is told again and again and again. Claiming that there is one historical figure, who lived or lives or will live to oppose God is to underestimate the power of sin in human existence. There are times when the beast is me, the anti-Christ is me, the harlot is me. And maybe you? Maybe not in such cosmic, world destroying ways, but in smaller yet no less destructive self-centered ways. And even those of us who pierced Him will see Him, that the promise, that’s the hope.
The theme of the book of Revelation is God’s got this. No matter how it might look at any given point in history. But a clear sub-theme it oriented toward us: Hold on. The biblical word is endure. Hold on to faith. Hold on to hope. Hold on to the Way of Christ. Hold on to hospitality. Hold on to invitation and inclusion. Hold on to justice for oppressed. Hold on. The point being, I believe, is that this is enough for us to be going on with instead of wasting our time trying to identify the characters in the drama of Revelation. Hold on to truth. Hold on.