Today we continue with what the Bible teaches about last things. During times of crisis, we yearn to know, “why is this happening to me?” We become discouraged and wonder, “is any of this worth it?” The people of the Bible knew these times of wavering faith. Often, the word of God which came in these moments is in pictures, because words alone just won’t stick when life is falling apart. Pictures, word pictures, visions, given thousands of years ago, gave courage to their listeners, while sometimes all we get now is confused.
Are you one of those people who have never read the book of Revelation? It has a very mixed reputation. Always has had. It was one of the most controversial documents considered for inclusion in the New Testament. Then, it was a popular book in the Middle Ages, and its vivid imagery was portrayed in art and literature. Martin Luther did not include it in the list of books he thought acceptable to use in the church. This is the only New Testament book upon which John Calvin did not write a commentary. It has always been a difficult book.
I like to read some books which are classified as “fantasy.” My all-time favorite of this genre has to be The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien. But another close runner-up is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. In this series, a man with leprosy is mysteriously translated to another world in which earth is in crisis. People commune with earth through all the pores of their bodies. Since his feet are dead to him, he is unable to read the land. He is handicapped and angry, and unbeliever. But through the small community which welcomes him, he begins to trust them to be his hands and feet, and to become the hero he was called there to be.
These and others stories of the fantasy genre often develop stories of a hero, who must find his or her way through unfathomable obstacles in order to accomplish an impossible task, or to become a great person, and often both. The great themes of the hero myths are combined with all sorts of fanciful elements, from magic to odd creatures and whole other worlds. I love the stories of this genre in part because they inspire hope. Some of the chapters are so dark that you want to put the book down in discouragement. But there is something as subtle as a heartbeat underneath the words that says, “Read on. There is a way through. You won’t want to miss it.”
The book of Revelation is this kind of book in the Bible. Scholars don’t describe this literary genre as “fantasy,” but as “apocalyptic.” Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel are well-seasoned with apocalyptic visions. It is interesting to note, from our perspective in history, that the word apocalypse means, “unveiling.” This implies that it makes things clearer. But few people I know would say that the book of Revelation makes things clearer! It is odd, fantastical, and incoherent to many. But in its day, it unveiled a deep trust in God who will bring all things to a good end.
Apocalyptic literature was popular in Judaism from around 200 BCE to about 100 CE. These works often included elaborate visions, which required a guide, or angelic interpreter, to help the author and us understand the symbolism in the visions. The language is symbolic. The faith perspective of apocalyptic writers was that God had already determined the outcome of history, and its course was outlined in numerical patterns, especially sequences of sevens. Details of the symbolism are elaborate. Nearly every number, color, and animal has a symbolic value and therefore is not intended to be taken literally. Some of these interpretive codes we know and some of them we do not know, from our historical distance.
To add to the confusion, there are many popular writings over the past decades by people who see in Revelation a “roadmap of the future,” often skipping over the actual historical situation it addressed. Many have claimed that it tells us the day when this world will come to an end. But, no one has been right yet! Today many scholars are completely re-thinking this “roadmap of the future” approach, and seeing in it a tale of confidence in God consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the whole Hebrew tradition.
The first step to a fresh reading of this book comes by putting the text back into its historical context. It was most likely written during the violent reign of either Nero (60’s) or Domitian (90’s). Both of these Roman emperors are known to have actively persecuted Christians and other groups, seeming to take their entertainment from the suffering of others. McLaren comments: Life was always hard in the Roman empire for poor people, as it was for most of the followers of Jesus. But life was extremely precarious when the man at the helm of the empire was vicious, paranoid, and insane, as both Nero and Domitian were.  The first readers of this book faced a world situation which appeared to be terminal. They expected the end to come very soon because there was no other way out.
Things were so bad that church people were certainly considering whether Jesus had abandoned them forever. Jesus had been gone for decades. Could it be that Jesus was wrong? Is it time to reject the “turn the other cheek” attitude toward our enemies, and take up whatever weapons we may have to put up a fight? Or if Jesus was wrong, should we just give up the struggle altogether, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The world looked hopeless. And indeed, if you recall your history, Rome was on a sure path to collapse. The shadow of disaster to come was looming over Rome, but for the Christians, it was looming at their door, as the powers that be attempted to blame them for Rome’s weakness.
In this context the book was there to encourage Christians that even in the midst of the bleakest times, it is not the end. There is a way through. God and goodness will hold the world again one day. Count on it!
Apocalyptic literature also comes from the broader genre of literature of the oppressed. Among the oppressed, one is not free to criticize the government. At the same time, in the face of such injustice, silence also seems morally wrong. This picture language gave the Jesus followers a way of calling out the injustice of the day. They couldn’t say, “The emperor is insane and his violent regime will not stand.” That could get them thrown into the coliseum to be killed by wild animals! Instead, Revelation says, there is a great monster coming out of the sea who will be defeated.
We see this same kind of picture language in the literature of the oppressed slaves of the United States. The spirituals are full of yearning for freedom in a images like crossing the Jordan, or chariots swinging down from heaven. Their apocalyptic literature comes down to us today in their songs.
Reading Revelation as a roadmap of a predetermined future, has done great damage to the message of Jesus. Let’s take just one scene as an illustration. Revelation 19. Here Jesus is seen emerging from heaven on a white horse carrying a sword, leading the whole hosts of heaven. Is Jesus coming back for revenge? A quick reading could lead us to conclude that, and many have rejoiced to see a Jesus who has finally taken up a sword. The Bellamy Brothers put this sentiment to song in, “Jesus Is Coming, and Boy Is He Pissed.”  Will Jesus, in the last days set aside his message of nonviolence?
Look a little closer. First, when Jesus rides out of heaven, his white robe is already bloody, even before the battle. This leads us to believe that the blood is coming from within him, his own blood, not that of enemies. Further, he does not hold the sword in his right hand, the soldier’s stance, but in his mouth. Jesus’ power is his word, the same word he preached while he was on earth. The statement is that Jesus’ words of peace, love, and justice will be more powerful than any army. His own blood is evidence of it. He did not give up the truth of love and grace in order to save his life in Jerusalem, nor will he in the future. So, as you face your crisis, know that Jesus has been through it too, and did not turn back. One day goodness will triumph!
What a message of hope, encouraging Christians to stay the course with Jesus, no matter how bad it gets.
In the twenty-first century, we have become aware of looming disaster, too. This weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris, then Beirut brought some people to the tipping point. The French president said, “We will lead the fight, and we will be ruthless.”  The world seems to be devolving into chaos! In the past, the end of the world was considered to be in the hands of the Creator. Now it seems clear that we have the power to bring it about with our own violence, or with our own greed for earth’s resources.
The truth is, the church has seldom had times when there was no crisis. In Jesus’ time Jerusalem was considered by the emperors as a powder keg, ready to explode at any minute (which it did in 70 AD). The rest of the New Testament is literature from the downward spiral of the Roman Empire.
Today we can still take courage from the visions of Revelation. In particular, there are the visions at the end. The scene is of earth restored. No, humans are not miraculously evacuated to heaven while the earth is destroyed. Instead, God, the creator comes back to earth, to establish his presence forever in the place where it all began – in the garden of creation. It will be as God intended from the beginning – that we will walk and talk in the garden in the cool of th evening. The new Jerusalem (the place where God dwells with humans) comes down out of heaven to earth. There will be no need for the sun and moon, but God’s presence itself will give light from within. The gates are never shut. Anyone can come in. Through the middle of the city is a river of life, and the Tree of Life, stands on both sides of that river, bearing fruit for the healing of the nations.
It is creation restored, renewed. In times of crisis, like the first century Jesus followers lived, or like we live today, Revelation assures us in pictures that God’s abundance has never abandoned us. Jesus’ way is still the way to life. One day life will be more than we could ever ask or imagine! Count on it!
With the visionary we say, Amen, Come Lord Jesus!
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, New York, Jericho Books, p. 255.
 Listen to the song here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvsYE3VBlOU