July 1, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “The Beginning and The End”: Revelation 1:1-8; “Things That Will Soon Take Place” by Tania Runyan

Intro

Back in 1987, the rock band R.E.M. released a stream of consciousness hit song. Adam played it for the postlude, but I’ve been referencing it these past couple weeks. How many of us could sing along? The lyrics begin: “That’s great, It starts with an earthquake…. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.” The lyrics then tumble on through It’s the End of the World as We Know It. For some unexplained reason “Lenny Bruce is not afraid.” They make almost no sense. Almost. Occasionally a few of those lyrics strung together hit home: “a government for hire” and “a combat site” or “world serves its own needs” or “You vitriolic, patriotic slam fight” or “a tournament of lies.” The song topped charts not for its thoughtful lyrics, but for its infectious hook:

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.

(And about halfway through the song, there’s an echo: “Time I had some time alone.”)

Of course, the lyrics were never the point. Or at least never the whole point. It’s how the song makes you feel. In R.E.M.’s case, somehow in this chaotic world burning down whirlwind, the singer can feel happy, can feel fine, can live. (Pause)

 

I.

In some ways, this wild, nearly psychedelic dream of a letter that bookends our Bible – the book of Revelatin – is similar. (Not just because with both R.E.M. and the poet of Revelation, we can wonder, “What were they smoking?”) Like the pop song, the book of Revelation is more than the words on the page. It’s about how it makes the reader feel. Or, how the poet-seer who first shared this vision with an audience hoped it would make its first audience feel. As we begin this series, before we jump into the meaty parts, I have to acknowledge that Revelation has been so poorly used – and to such destructive ends – many followers of Jesus have held this book at arms’ length. So, let’s start with what Revelation is not:

Revelation is not about the so-called Rapture. Despite a popular fiction series that has made a lot of money for a couple of authors. (There’s not even a rapture in Revelation; that comes from a rather picturesque rant of Jesus’ back in the Gospels.)

Revelation is not fortune-telling about the end times. (There is some prediction. But in that area John of Patmos, the writer, bats 0 for 2 on the only two predictions he really makes: that Jesus would come back, soon, and that Rome would fall, soon.)

Revelation is also not about your individual eternal destiny. It’s not a scare-you-saved pamphlet John was leaving in coffee shop restrooms. It’s not even written for “unbelievers” at all. John writes it explicitly to people already part of the early church, addressing it “to the seven churches that are in Asia,” that is the whole church in his part of the world, where Turkey is today. So, Revelation is not about your eternal destiny; It’s about all of our destiny, our purpose, our end. (Pause)

 

II.

So what is Revelation, then? And is it of any use to us here and now? To start with the poet-dreamer’s own words, this is “the Revelation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, which God gave to him (Jesus) to reveal to his servants what must soon happen. He made it known by sending his messenger to his servant John, who witnessed to all that he saw: the Word of God.” John, the writer, isn’t claiming that the Revelation is his private prediction for the future. This is an “apokalypsis” – an unveiling – but the message itself is nothing new. The content? John describes it as “the Word of God” the very same thing Jesus proclaimed in flesh and blood. But why does John have to retell it with such startling language? There are dragons and sea monsters, blood and fire, women giving cosmic births and armies swarming like locusts. There are riders on horses, and various swords. It may be difficult for us to imagine the way God and Empire were entangled in John’s world. The Emperor was God and God was the Emperor. In Rome, politics was a religious cult in which Caesar was worshipped as savior, as redeemer, as lord not just of all the land conquered by the Empire, but all the bodies and souls inhabiting them also. Jesus showing up proclaiming someone else is Lord is kinda problematic. John writes then at a time when the Christian witness is countercultural. And this many decades after Jesus walked and talked and hung out with his disciples, it’s getting harder and harder to hold on to that counter culture. In some ways, Revelation is a book written for those who are suffering. But evidence suggests that persecution was less widespread than we might assume from the vibrancy of the imagery. This many decades after Jesus, it wasn’t an era of hunting down Christians, dragging them out of their homes… It’s was more a time of “don’t ask, don’t tell” time. Of course, if you’re neighbor had a grudge and called the local official to report you, you’d be called in to be questioned. You’d be given a few chances to deny that you were a Christian, or that you’d stopped practicing that silliness years ago. You’d be invited to once again pledge your allegiance to Caesar and then get to go home. Evidence suggests a lot of Jesus followers by this time were doing just that: accommodating, keeping their heads down, bowing to the threat of violence. That’s what John worries about for these early Christians in the early church. John is really worried that it’s just going too get comfortable, and too inviting, to just go along, to accommodate Empire, to let Caesar be Lord. John worries Jesus’ followers will forget that God is God and Caesar is not, that God’s power isn’t a power of domination through violence, but of self-giving, compassion, and love. So, John is using his words, powerfully, to call them out Jesus’ followers, to demand they out themselves publicly before their neighbors tell on them by declaring their allegiance is elsewhere: the God Who Is, Who Was, and Who Is Yet to Come. “Those who turn to the book of Revelation should not expect to find a blueprint for constructing a spiritual escape hatch to heaven,” Brian Blount wrote in 2009. “John’s focus is not on running away from the world but on changing the world by standing up to humankind’s most draconian impulses and tendencies and witnessing against them. Revelation is about resistance.”[1] (Pause)

 

III.

One of the reasons I like Tania Runyan’s poems, one of which [Worship Leader] read today, is that she gets the mundaneness of the discomfort of living as Jesus’ followers in the world today. She gets to the discomfort of just trying to try on a shirt in a department store.

Things that will soon take place

Will not rush through your heart like ball lightning

They will smolder under your skin as you wait

For your chalupa in the drive-through

Or latch the dressing room door at Old Navy[2]

As followers of Jesus, often our “not-fitting-ness” is less an earthquake than a smoldering under our skin, a discomfort with the way things are, how this world runs, and how people are valued or disvalued in it. In my experience, that’s true of our moments of revelation, too. It’s not always an earthquake, a cataclysm, a hurricane. Those moments that ask me where my allegiance lies come much more subtly than that. It’s the asphalt in the parking lot bores into our heels… It’s watching helplessly while a loved one gets poisoned from the inside out by drugs or alcohol… It’s that deep sadness as the state of housing smolders under our skin… or as we watch in horror as the headlines scroll by… Our discomfort with the way things work now is often much more subtle than an earthquake. So does John’s vision relate in any way or speak to our time? Are we challenged in our allegiance today? What must soon take place for us? One of you tipped me off that on Monday earlier this week, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention was interviewed on the radio. What was interesting about that interview is that he tried pretty hard to disentangle his church, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, from the Republican party line. “We need to decouple the identity of the church from particular political platforms about which there can be disagreement,” said J.D. Greear.[3] He acknowledged that for a long time, “evangelical” has been a political party, and that’s one of the reasons so many people don’t want to be associated with that term. Of course that’s not the only place the church needs to disentangle from a particular party platform. In our own tradition, we are often accused, rightly, of caring most about what the Democratic Party cares about any given week of the month. (Pause)

 

IV.

John’s wild, raucus vision in Revelation asks followers of Jesus to ask themselves where their allegiance lies. He does it with extreme language, in extreme ways. But what he’s asking is, “What is the end?” Not the end as in the termination point, but what is the purpose… of this world, of the church, of us. What is really important? To answer that question, John of Patmos goes back and tweaks the language and grammar of a traditional letter in the Roman society of his day to say that it is not Caesar who saves. Instead, he invokes the language of the Exodus, the language of the Spirit who shows up to Moses in the burning bush. He recalls the name of the God who Is, who Was, and who Will Be, the God who is “I-AM” to say that this presence, this power, this God is really in charge. “The Almighty Lord of Hosts who brought down Pharoah and set the people of God free was on the verge of unveiling a similar liberating act for the people of God in Asia.”[4] So John writes about what must soon take place. (Pause)

 

Concl.

What must soon take place for us, in our time and in our place? How do we disentangle Caesar and God today? What does it mean for us to follow Jesus? To let that “love-in-flesh” order and guide our lives? Nineteen hundred years ago, John of Patmos hoped and dreamed that it would be our witness to the liberating power of Jesus. Nineteen hundred years ago, John of Patmos hoped that what we would stand up and shout about is the liberating power of Christ. Nineteen hundred years ago, John of Patmos hoped we wouldn’t do it only if told on by our neighbors and forced to answer an uncomfortable question at a cocktail party, but that we’d live it with our lives. Out loud.

 

May that Spirit continue to guide our lives this week. Amen.

 

[1] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, The New Testament Library, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), xi.

[2] Tania Runyan, What Will Soon Take Place, (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2017), p. 22.

[3] “Southern Baptist Head Urges Evangelicals to Avoid Political Ideology Amid Crossroads,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, June 25, 2018, 5:01 a.m.

[4] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, The New Testament Library, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 34.