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Below, you’ll find Steve’s reflection and prayer for this week.
Scripture: Revelation 1: 1-11
Music: All Is Done for the Glory, I Am the Dream
Well many years ago, when ice covered the face of the earth and I was a teenager, the war was raging in Vietnam and there were those who warned us that the communists in Russia were ready to bomb us into oblivion and the Chinese army was getting ready to overrun us. It felt like the end was at hand then too. To add fuel to the fire, “The Late, Great Planet Earth”, by Hal Lindsay predicted the end of the world and Garner Ted Armstrong on his TV show, “The World Tomorrow”, was predicting we were done for – unless you were a true believer! Both Lindsay and Armstrong claimed they knew this because of the book of Revelation. So I pulled the family Bible off of the shelf, dusted it off, read a few pages, realized I didn’t understand it and that Lindsay and Garner Ted were reading stuff into it so I slid it back on the shelf to collect dust and didn’t worry about it.
We didn’t pay much attention to it when I was at the Atlantic School of Theology. I remember one lecture on the Reformation when one of the profs spoke about the debate about around whether it should be included in the Protestant version of the Bible. (His opinion was that it probably was included because of the time it took for some correspondence to move back and forth across Europe.) I remember a lecture in another course on scripture about how it was a different kind of apocalyptic literature than other examples in the Old Testament and the Gospels – but we didn’t pay much attention to it.
A few weeks after I arrived in Margaree in Cape Breton I learned that at the Baptist Church Christmas Eve Sunday School concert, the senior class came announced it was everyone’s last Christmas because Saddam Hussein had the mark of the beast and the end was at hand – according to Revelation. Eight months later, some people were still pretty freaked out. Pastorally, I couldn’t ignore this part of our Bible any longer because most of the people in the congregation either had family or close friends who were just waiting to be raptured. I couldn’t just say that they were misinterpreting Revelation if I didn’t have the faintest idea of what the book actually said. So, I called one of my old Profs, David McLachlan who is one of the leading scholars in North America on apocalyptic literature, he sent me the course outline, book list and even some of his lecture notes on a course he had taught so I could deal with some people’s very real fear.
I studied everything I could get my hands on but I’ve got to admit, I did what I needed to at the time and since then, like my family’s Bible, I’ve left most of my books on Revelation on the shelf.
But it is a book in our Bible and it is really interesting especially in these times. Today, I’m going to talk a little about some background that is important for us as people of faith to know about this book that is the most misunderstood text in the Bible by some and the most ignored by others.
I like to imagine John sitting on the Greek island of Pathmos and looking across the water where he could probably see the coastal cities of Ephesus and probably Smyrna. He could probably easily envision the five other churches that he was writing to even if they were a little way inland. I imagine him thinking to himself about what he wanted to say and he decided he needed to offer his judgement on each of them; some were doing well and others needed to improve and a couple really needed to pull up their socks. It sort of sounds something like someone who offers their perspective on some different churches today.
It is really helpful for me to keep in mind that the context of those churches was radically different from St. Paul’s. People were being persecuted for their faith, for their beliefs, by the Roman emperor of the day. They were afraid, not unlike the fear that many are facing in Afghanistan today because of their beliefs. Standing firm in one’s beliefs had significant consequences then just as it does in parts of the world today.
In order to avoid persecution, people often spoke in sort of a code, where those who were “in” understood and those who were out were left scratching their heads. So John’s letter is filled with strange and bizarre imagery for us but it made sense to the people who the letter was intended for.
But instead of attempting to calm the readers and reduce tension between the pleasures and norms of everyday life on the one hand and faith commitments on the other, John’s message was that faith is irreconcilable with the demands of the state and expectations of society. He wanted the followers of Jesus to be focused on what Jesus sacrificed for them and that meant their time was at hand – and for some it truly was.
Strangely to us, for the people in those seven churches, even if John’s timing of the end was wrong that was not what was important to them; it wouldn’t shatter their faith, after all nobody really wants to die in some cataclysmic, apocalyptic catastrophe. What was important was the life, death and especially the resurrection of Jesus. This was not an isolated miracle to them but instead it was a cosmic event. Jesus would come back and there would be judgement. . . . And for them the end was coming soon – whenever that would be, but again, that was not something they worried about. They knew the followers of Jesus had been waiting about 60 years for his imminent return and they were still waiting. But until that time came, John wanted the readers to know they would face persecution and that in the end it would be worth it for the reward of being with Jesus for eternity.
The persecution that John was pointing toward came from two places: First, being rejected by society because of their refusal to follow in the ways of the culture. Second, being persecuted by the state for failing to take part in emperor worship and many of the other demands the state made.
Revelation uses strange images that would have made sense to the people of that day. There are only two I want to mention today.
He talks about Babylon, he doesn’t mean the ancient empire that finally crumpled about 600 years earlier – Babylon in Revelation is Rome and that was evil in it.
Probably the most famous image is the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They stood for death, famine, war and conquest – those would be the ways that John predicted the Roman Empire would end.
Much of the strange imagery of Revelation is really quite beautiful and it has inspired the imaginations of artists, writers and musicians for centuries. It is rich and it is deep.
But Revelation is more than that and although it does not speak about our time, it does speak to our time and next week, I’ll dig into more of what that means for us.
But, if you see four horsemen charging down the street on a white, red, black and a pale horse – give me a shout and let me know because that means I’m entirely wrong in what I believe Revelation is all about.
In the mean time, may God be with us and guide us to richer and deeper understandings of Revelation and all of the Scriptures. For God is still speaking through the scriptures, other people and our own intelligence.
May God guide us with wisdom and grace today and in all of our days.
We give thanks for the beauty of this summer in this region with its warm sun, the rain that has helped everything to grow, and gentle breezes, we are truly blessed. It is a time to enjoy the company of family and friends, many who we have not seen for too long, to visit beaches and to drink in the beauty of this part of the world.
We pray for your church – for those who have gathered online and those who join together in person, here and with millions of others around the world. May we be filled with strength and courage to serve by the guidance of your Spirit. Help us to grow especially in love and compassion, for all people and for all of the creation. Unite us so we may bear faithful witness to you and your call.
God of grace, the world around us seems broken by climatic and political chaos, and many of us feel overwhelmed – so much so, that it is hard to have faith in the future.
God you call us to be peacemakers and to work for justice, we ask that you bring your healing touch of peace to the people of Afghanistan, may calm prevail and may the leaders of the Taliban be faithful to the true calling of Islam as a religion of peace and not extremism.
We pray for all people who face violence and who do not live in a place where there is a true peace.
We pray for the people of Haiti where the needs are so great as a result of the earthquake. Be with all who are grieving and with those who are caring for the many that have been injured.
We pray for those who continue to respond to the needs of others throughout the pandemic. May our leaders be blessed with open and generous hearts so that all people around the world who can, are vaccinated to protect themselves and those who cannot receive the vaccine.
We pray for the hungry and homeless—the oppressed—the victims of war.
Comfort those who sorrow and are in need, sickness or adversity. Have mercy on those to whom death draws near. Bring consolation to those in mourning, and to all give your peace.
We remember that in life, in death and in life beyond death, that you are with us, we are not alone. For this and for all of the blessings of our life we give you thanks
And we pray in the words Jesus gave us, Our Father, . . .