Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg on August 9, 2015.

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“What’s the Deal with the Book of Revelation”

(Revelation 1:9-19)

                  A few years ago…okay no, I’m a lot older than that now…many years ago, I was serving my first church, and one of my many responsibilities was leading the youth group.  I was still young and stupid, I mean, young and spirited, so I decided to take the kids on a week-long retreat to Yellowstone National Park.  It was a time of fun and reflection, and other than an ill-advised stop to swim in a shallow, but rocky and swiftly moving river, it was a great trip.

Other than the image of panic on the face of a 14 year old boy getting pulled under the water by the current of that swiftly moving river (he was scared, but not really in danger), there is another moment from that trip that has stuck with me.  We were driving through an area of Yellowstone where there had been an extensive brush fire, hundreds of acres burned leaving the ground black and largely lifeless.  At one point through we reached the edge of the blackened area, where the road had acted as a fire-break, and we got out of the van to look around.  I stood at the edge of the road and looked out over the burnt, lifeless expanse, a view of utter desolation.  But then I turned ½ way around, looked in the opposite direction, and saw one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Fields, forests, stunning mountains capped with snow, the sun lighting it all with an amazing golden hue.  I thought how strange it was to stand in one spot, face one way and see utter desolation, and face the other way and see luscious beauty.

I guess I don’t see it as so strange anymore.  It seems rather more like the normal state of things if you are really paying attention.  When you go up Garfield Ave, and turn right on Ogden, you soon get to the bridge over the Tri-State.  As you cross that bridge you can see the skyline of Chicago, an image I still find dazzling even after living in northern Illinois nearly all my life.  But as you see that dazzling skyline, you are looking right over some of the most struggling neighborhoods of Chicago: Lawndale, Austin, Garfield Park.  Stand in one spot, and see two very different realities.

When leading funerals, it is not unusual for me to face the family and the congregation and see loved ones quietly weeping from the grief and loss, and to see in the next pew a very young great grand daughter bouncing happily in her mother’s lap, or sleeping peacefully and beautifully on her father’s shoulder.  Stand in one spot, and see two very different realities.

The Book of Revelation dwells in the midst of this tension.  Open your Bible to any page of Revelation, put your finger on any spot, and from that point, you will be able to see, so to speak, beauty and desolation, abundance and suffering, grief and new life.  Revelation refuses to only look in one direction.  It refuses to look at desolation, suffering and grief and see ultimate defeat.  And it refuses to look at beauty, abundance and new life, and conclude the world is all rosy.  There are no one directional views in this book, no blinders, this book is a 360 degree panorama of life – honest about everything.

In being honest about everything the Book of Revelation also seeks to highlight the contrasts.  Life is presented in the most brilliant and beautiful images possible – Jesus dressed in white and gold and holding stars in his hand, and his face shining like the sun.  And that which opposes life is presented in the darkest and most horrifying way possible – a hideous beast, a dragon like figure, that arises from the abyss, with seven heads and ten horns, and scars, and ridden by a harlot, and spewing blasphemy.  The Book of Revelation is like the contrast setting on video screen, increase the contrast and an image’s bright parts become brighter and the dark parts become darker.

When the Book of Revelation was written one of the primary dark parts of life for Christians was also one of the most powerful: Domitian, the ruler of the vast Roman Empire.  As a ruler, Domitian used the same rhetoric many politicians still use today: he wanted to restore the former greatness of his people and his empire, and when you are working for such a great goal, sometimes you have to make some sacrifices.  Christians knew they were likely to be one of those sacrifices.  This made perfect sense, of course, because Christians wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the flag, so to speak.  They wouldn’t participate in all the various games people played to show honor to Domitian and to worship the great pantheon of Roman gods.

Persecutions began.  We only know the names of two who were executed for their failure at patriotism: Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla.  But several sources confirm there were many martyrs.  The author of Revelation suffered as well, banished to Patmos, the prisoner’s island from which he wrote his book.  One letter from Domitian’s time speaks of “the continuous and unexpected evils which have come upon us.”

As Domitian, and all he stands for, is portrayed in the darkest possible images, Jesus, of course, is shown as just the opposite: bright, pure, true, and most importantly, powerful.  Not powerful in the same way as Domitian and the Roman Empire, but powerful in the only way that ultimately matters – powerful not to destroy, but powerful to redeem, powerful to heal, powerful to overcome death itself, powerful to make all things new.

And that’s all the Book of Revelation ends up being.  It takes a 360 degree view of life, is honest about the good and bad, draws stark contrasts between that which aligns with God, and that which, like Domitian, aligns with death, and then tells us that in the end, Domitian, darkness and death don’t stand a chance.  All will be brought into alignment with the way of God, with the beautiful, bright reality of Jesus, whose face shines like the sun.

As the poetry of the Book of Revelation reveals it:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and so had the sea.  Then I saw New Jerusalem, that holy city, coming down from God in heaven. It was like a bride dressed in her wedding gown and ready to meet her husband.

I heard a loud voice shout from the throne:

God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people.  He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.

Then the one sitting on the throne said:

I am making everything new. Write down what I have said. My words are true and can be trusted. Everything is finished! I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will freely give water from the life-giving fountain to everyone who is thirsty.  All who win the victory will be given these blessings. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

I think the Book of Revelation is so important for us today, not because it tells the future, or reveals what is going to happen in some mythical “last days,” but it is so important for us today because it shows us what is happening right now.  It gives us the courage to face the fullness of life, to take in a 360 degree view of the world, and not crumble.  It gives us the courage to be honest about the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the beauty and the desolation, the dazzling and the struggling, the joy and the grief, to take it all in and to keep going.  Knowing that the ultimate victory is God’s, the ultimate power is love, the ultimate comfort is to have God wipe the tears from our eyes, we have what we need to carry on in the way of Jesus Christ.

But maybe I need to bring this a little closer to home.  In my more cynical moments, I fear that life out here in some of the Western suburbs is an attempt to wear blinders, to refuse to take in that 360 degree, honest, view of the world.  We go from our beautiful homes to our comfortable cars through our lovely neighborhoods to our attractive stores and restaurants, or our nice offices, or our fantastic work out space, or wherever it is.  It is probably impossible not to pass difficult things, but it seems to be possible not to see them.  The phrase “Hinsdale Bubble” exists for a reason.  And it is not just what we do in our cars, of course, but sometimes in our lives as well.  We too easily deny the racism that hurts so many, the violence on which we rely to keep our country safe, the loneliness of people with mental illness, the lack of opportunity among urban youth that leads to hopelessness, the pressure of opportunity among suburban youth that leads to depression.  What I am saying is that the Book of Revelation gives us the courage pop the bubble and take all that in, a 360 degree view of life, and to keep working for the well-being of all.  We can’t ignore it.  But we also need not be overwhelmed by it.  We can see it, be honest about it, and live to end it.

We can live to end it because we know who controls the end: the God who wipes the tears of struggle from our eyes, settles in among us, and makes all things new.

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