Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Two Sides Of Revelation

For the last several Sundays, the lectionary has led us through the Book of the Revelation to John, picking the passages that promise renewal and comfort and hope to God's people. Every week, we have read lessons about the triumph of the lamb or the elders gathered around the throne in praise or the martyrs who have come through the great ordeal. There's another side to Revelation, of course--the dark and scary and tortuous parts. Why don't we read those?

I find that most of the people with whom I work and worship on a regular basis don't have much of an appetite for God's promised punishment of the enemies of God's people. The lake of fire and the plagues of suffering and the indiscriminate death described in Revelation aren't as appealing. We'd just as soon read about the good stuff and lead the bad stuff to our ancestors or other contemporary Christians who are still living in the past. (How enlightened of us!) But there's a reason the suffering is described in such vivid, exaggerated detail. It's because that's what most Christians have endured.

Actually, if you read the Book of Revelation, you find that most of the suffering described in the text is not a punishment for bad people but a symbolic portrayal of what the early Christians lived through. The actual words of punishment are reserved not for those who fail to ask Jesus into their hearts before they die or before Jesus comes back (whichever happens first) but for the manifestations of evil itself in the great beast and the whore--symbols for the emperor and the empire. The apocalyptic suffering described in Revelation is God's way of saying to those in the first and second centuries who were being tortured and killed by the imperial authorities that their struggle is part of the end--that the suffering is nearly over because Jesus will return soon. Those of us, including the authors of the lectionary, who prefer to skip those parts have the luxury and privilege of not needing to confront the suffering of others, of not needing it to be redeemed.

God's people have long discerned a holy hope in the future suffering of their enemies. Those who oppress us now will become the oppressed. Those whose pursuit of wealth locks us in poverty will themselves become poor. Those who do not believe in the reordering of society as Jesus has revealed it will spend eternity in anguish. For some who suffer, that feels hopeful, but that isn't my hope. I don't need anyone to become poor in order for me to enjoy the fruits of wealth in this life. I don't need anyone to be locked up in order for me to be set free. In fact, there may be nothing more abominable than individuals who have power and privilege in this life preaching a hope that depends on the suffering of others. But I do not slight those whose hope depends on a complete reversal of this life. For most followers of Jesus, that is still true. I cannot, therefore, purge the Christian narrative of its references to suffering and the reversal of suffering without ignoring those whose hope depends on it.

It is a cheapened hope to say that, when God's reign is complete, the abuser and the one who is abused will simply shake hands and make up. It is an empty promise to say that, when Jesus returns, the poor who have struggled on the edge of existence will finally get a seat at the same table where the wealthy have been seated the whole time. This Sunday, as we read the end of Revelation and hear its promise of a new Jerusalem where all nations are welcome and all peoples gather at God's throne, let us not forget what it takes to get there--God's great reversal promised and enacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We cannot enter glory until we face the shame.

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