When I was in college I went with a friend, to one of her friend’s place to watch the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When we got there I noticed that this person had a poster of Buffy, and one of Xena Warrior Princess (both queer icons, which I had no idea at the time), and a rainbow flag. And that lifetimes ago and I thought, I watch that show, and I watched that one, am I missing something? Turns out, I was.
In the show Buffy, she saved the world a lot from countless “apocalypses” brought forth by all kinds of evil forces. I think there is a direct line between Buffy and a show called Supernatural–which had a similar premise. What it did do, was the ideas that exist in the visions of John found in the book of Revelation and personified them, mixed in a bit of myth and lore, speculation and TV flourish and you have a hit show that lasted 15 years and defines or supports what most think when we hear Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, Armageddon. Revelation is used and misused and abused time and time again. It is pulled out to scare folks into believing a particular way, or to fear the future, or to set the course of the future. Also my first year of college, a friend invited me to join with their pastor(?) to study Revelation, its connection with the book of Daniel, and how they tell us we’re in the middle of the end times. Much like my first year of college, the Book of Revelation can seem scary and overwhelming and confusing and I’m not sure we’re going to solve all that in the next 5 weeks but maybe we can come up with some ideas together.
We’re told at the beginning of the revelation letter that it is written by John to the churches in what we call Turkey. Does it look familiar? Modern Turkey is where we’d find ancient Galatia and Ephesus–and Ephesus was one the churches John wrote to. In our bible, we have 3 letters attributed to a John, a Gospel, and this revelation. It’s unlikely that the John in this letter is neither the John found in the Gospel nor the Gospel writer and this John doesn’t seem to claim to be one of the apostles. John has great knowledge, seems to treasure the Jewish texts and prophets, he is a Jewish follower of Jesus. He says that he was called to, destined to be on the island Patmos, in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey
This letter, this revelation is called apocalyptic literature: Apocalypse is an ancient Greek word that means to unveil, to uncover, to pull back the curtain, to… reveal. Revelation and apocalypse are translations the same word. Apocalyptic literature is found throughout the ancient world, but it is predominantly found in ancient Jewish literature. You’ll find it in Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and in the Gospel of John. It tends to arise out of times of struggle and strife and oppression and occupation. Daniel was written while they were under occupation by the Greeks and talked about that experience as if it were happening hundreds of years earlier when they were captive in Babylon. Apocalyptic literature is revealing a truth about God, the world, the church, our lives.
Revelation is also prophetic literature and I’m just going to take a moment to remind us that Biblical prophecy is not primarily about predicting the future but speaking truth, particularly truth to the powerful. They might say “If you don’t change your ways, bad things will happen,” but that is described less as predictive and more of the warning of consequences.
That brings us to when it was written. Most scholars date the writing to the end of the 1st century, after 70CE and the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem, after the great fire in Rome that Emperor Nero blamed on the Jewish community in Rome. The story is he played the harp while Rome burned. He has been penned as a mad man and shortly after the fire, in 69, his leadership killed him.
All of that context was vital for this first point: Revelation was written to 7 churches in western Asia who were under Roman rule, who were still learning what it means to be church, who were navigating life after the Temple and the imperial powers.
Remember, letters are often a response and the first 3 chapters of this letter is John’s anger, discomfort, response to the churches in Asia that, with Paul, have settled the discussion that followers of Jesus can eat meat sacrificed to other gods-because they just didn’t think it mattered. And that there were really wealthy people funding the church and they could stay there, they just couldn’t exclude the poor. And that there were women leading congregations. John is opposed to any kind of mingling of the powers of Rome with the church-just don’t. don’t overlap, don’t eat their food, don’t participate in their economic system, don’t let women in charge because he doesn’t seem to like women, at least there are only 2 women in this story and one of them he has nothing nice to say about. John thinks that the churches have gotten too wrapped up with Rome, too comfortable being that close to the powers, too complacent in the structure.
So, the way I see it, for John, there were 2 types of Jesus followers: The ones who are comfortable with the powerful and the ones who are under the feet of the powerful. John works in dichotomies, dualism, this is one of the ones that will drive the whole book: How do we distress the comfortable from their places of privilege and how do we comfort and bring hope to those who are in distress.
I know we’ve taken the long way around, but all this brings us back to chapter 4. Chapter 4 is the real beginning of the visions of John. They’re like a dream, they spiral, with no real timeline. Like dreams, they come with all kinds of interpretations, all kinds of interpretations. Like the ones where you’re flying mean you long for freedom. or the ones with lakes. I don’t know what those mean but I’m sure someone has an idea. Most the time, Revelation is interpreted in a destructive way, filled with war and fire. And yet, here at the beginning, there is none of that. Here are creatures.
There is a winged creature with 4 the head of an ox and a lion, a bird and a human. The domestic and the wild, those that fly and that walk, this creature might just represent all of the creatures of creation.
There is a sea and a rainbow and green everywhere–clean and colorful like gems–like they are the perfect color of blues and reds and oranges and purples and greens.
We might be told that Revelation is about destruction but here at the beginning it is bursting with creation and live and beauty.
And in the center of it all is not the creature, not the human face, not the river or the trees, at the center the throne of God. We’re going to see a lot of thrones throughout this dream. God’s throne, the elder’s thrones. Thrones for those marked as evil. This is a letter about the kingdom of his world where Rome, where Caesar is in control, controls everything, demands everything. And it’s countered by this throne, God’s throne, where God creates everything, loves everything, hopes everything.
We get to decide who we’re going to throw our crown? Who are we going to praise? We can praise and worship the Creator of the universe. We are invited into the praise of God that is happening throughout time and space. We participate in the worship in our songs, in communion, in prayers, in telling our stories of who God is in our lives and who God has made us to be.
We are invited into the praise of God. We add our voices to the song happening throughout creation, that is happening in heaven, happening on earth. We are part of the choir of heaven and earth.
There is this thing that happened before COVID, where someone would organize a group of people, sometimes very different people, to create one-time choir, and they would sing together and it wouldn’t matter if you were in tune, or you if you knew the song before, you would become part of this beautiful mass of voices. In 2018 one of these groups brought together Palestinian Arabs and Israelis to sing Matisyahu’s One Day, in 3 languages with just 1 hour of practice.
And that is where we start with this dream, this vision, this book–the invitation to participate in the song of creation–in song, in compassion, in care, in celebration, in our time and energies and talents and resources, in our love and action and the good we do. We start with celebration and praise of the creator who made everything, every star and fish, every bird and lion, every cow and duck, every planet and stream and mountain, and you and me and called it good.
It starts with this vision of peace and creation and hope. Let that be who we are and what we are about too.