A sermon (with a couple of annotations) on Revelation 21:1-8 (some of which is not in the lectionary)
Many of us love the beginning of this text, but would be happy to skip reading that last verse.
That image, of a lake burning with fire and sulfur – which is sometimes called “brimstone” – is the source for our phrase “fire and brimstone,” that we sometimes use to describe a particular style of preaching. That style isn’t everyone’s favorite, either.
As we’re meditating on this text, let’s remember first of all and above all that as Christians, our primary encounter with God, the one we always take as a touchstone, is Jesus Christ – the embodiment of God’s grace. We went through all of that earlier, when we acknowledged that we are sinful people, but that we trust God’s promise of forgiveness and redemption in Jesus Christ. We trust that.
That trust is meant to provide us with some insulation, some “flame-retardant clothing,” as it were, for when we run into fiery images of judgment and punishment in the Bible. Seriously.
Then, before anyone gets too distracted by thinking about how much we do not like to think about that lake of fire, let’s also get firmly in our minds how John’s very first audience would have heard these verses. Because we think they would not have heard them as horrible.
First, John has gone out of his way to reassure his audience from the very beginning of the book that they are beloved of God and held powerfully in God’s care. John begins the whole book of Revelation, back in chapter 1, by wishing the readers “grace” and “peace” from God and the Spirit and Christ. Then he praises Christ by saying:
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.Revelation 1:5-6 – emphasis added
Christ, who is great, cares for his people and has saved them.
Then, the next several chapters of the book contain individual letters to individual churches, which commend them for some things and encourage them to step up their game in some other ways. From those messages, it seems clear that on the whole the churches are holding their own against some significant pressures and threats. On the whole they are being commended by God. John is mostly trying to encourage them to keep up the good work.
Finally, in this climax of John’s vision, they hear that the disruptive, malevolent forces that are giving them such a hard time are the very ones that are going to be wiped out. Not only will there be no more mourning and crying and pain, but there will be no more trouble from the likes of traitors and murderers and spiritual predators and false teachers of different kinds. In their situation, that would be an encouraging word indeed. What a relief! We will not have to fight these battles forever.
So we think John’s first audience would have heard even the fire and brimstone in our text as something positive, from their perspective.
A few of us may still be thinking “But what’s the matter with the sea? I LOVE the ocean. I LOVE the beach. Why, when we get to heaven, does the sea have to be ‘no more’??!”
It may help us to remember that “the sea” has a long history in the Bible – which John and his audience would have been familiar with – of being a symbol of chaos, of danger. Against that background, “the sea was no more” would sound like saying “there’s nothing here in this new creation that would threaten its peace and tranquility.” Again, what a relief!
What we have in this text is a vision of a renewed heaven and earth, minus the disruptive, chaotic natural forces that cause so much grief, and minus the disruptive moral and social elements of ordinary life in the “old creation,” the fallen, sinful one, that cause people so much trouble. Those have been contained and incinerated and definitively eliminated. That all means, Good News, “the home of God is among mortals,” no more problems for God’s people from any bad stuff, just the free, full enjoyment of God in a wonderful, beautiful space.
That seems to be the original idea that every part of this text is pointing to.
This text seems meant to inspire us to praise God for being as great as God is. For being the Alpha and the Omega and the architect of this wondrous new creation which – from our perspective – is on the horizon. We can let John’s vision inspire us to thank God for gathering us in to the people of God. We can look forward to the day when we will get to join the choirs of angels and all the faithful of every time and place and glorify God and enjoy God forever.
In heaven, that is. Because of course, we can glorify God and enjoy God NOW, too; we can already be doing that, and we should be, and we are.
We are doing that now, by gathering together and worshipping God together this morning – or, by participating in that worship from a distance.
We do that in other ways, too, like by sharing food with our neighbors through the Community Meal [a local weekly hot meal program]; by showing care for one another in the many ways we do that, including visiting and phoning and sending cards and helping out, and of course by praying for one another; by supporting the women at Genesis House [a local residential half-way house for women in recovery]; by sharing our gifts and talents as musicians or technicians or teachers or record-keepers … we could go on and on. We don’t always think of all that human activity of ours as glorifying God, but it is, and it is good for us to notice that.
This text seems meant to have the effect of encouraging its audience to keep doing the good things they were already doing, and to keep resisting the ever-present pressures and temptations to stop doing them.
John seems to be saying, “Don’t give up!” Don’t start thinking that going along with the self-interested world around us, the world that is obsessed with power and prosperity and prestige, would be a good idea. That world and its values has no substance and no future. God’s goodness, Christ’s kind of goodness, that’s where the real life is.
If it has that same effect on us, we’ll be reading right along with its first audience.
We’re not that first audience, of course. We live in a dramatically different world from those early Christians. Yes, it’s still fallen and sinful and full of pressures and challenges for the life of faith. But we know different things. We take different ideas for granted. Those people, and their future – all the things that Christianity has done and has become over the course of the past two thousand years – are part of our history. We know things about the world, and even about this text of Revelation, that they could not possibly have known.
For instance, whether to read the book of Revelation “literally,” as people often say, or “symbolically,” or some other way, was not even a question for John’s first audience. It is a question for us.
And once we read it in whichever of those ways we do, the effect it has on us may be hellishly different than it was in that first century.
Several years ago, I got a call at work from a total stranger, a friend of a friend of a friend, a young woman who wanted to talk to someone “religious” who “knew something about the Bible.” She wanted to talk to someone like that because she was making some changes in her life, working out some personal issues, taking some steps to become more independent – all things we might expect to hear from someone in their twenties.
On one hand she felt like the changes were “good for her.” She was getting healthier. She felt better about herself and about life than she had in a long time. But on the other hand she was worried – about the lake of fire.
“I just keep thinking about that lake of fire.” This young woman had grown up in a world in which stepping out of line in any way, as defined by her family and their community, was sin. And sin had truly fearsome, and eternal, consequences.
Whether she should get her own apartment, against the wishes of her parents, had become a cosmically difficult decision for her to make.
Remember what we said back at the beginning about our trust in the gracious mercy of God through Jesus Christ? One consequence of that trust is knowing that we have some freedom to take risks and even to make mistakes in our human lives, without terror. Because we trust that nothing at all in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Sadly, however, we are aware that sometimes, in today’s world, the Bible itself seems to have become the thing separating people from the love of God. As it was for the person on the other end of that phone call.
That’s an effect the text has, or can have, on people in today’s world that makes some readers want to cut verses out of the Bible, or at least skip reading them. That’s exactly what our Revised Common Lectionary, the calendar of texts for reading in church, does, as a matter of fact. If all we know is the Lectionary Bible, there will be a lot of the Bible we’ll never even know is there. (Like Revelation 21:8)
That approach has been tried historically, too. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, cut the entire Old Testament, along with all the miracle stories, out of his Bible. As far back as the second century, the early Christian Marcion [n.b.: officially a heretic] thought it would be a good idea to have a Bible that consisted of nothing but the gospel of Luke and the letter to the Romans.
[I was going to invite everyone to take the pledge, never ever to say “the Old Testament God of wrath and the New Testament God of love” again, in light of the FACT that there is lots and lots of divine love – steadfast love, forgiveness, forbearance – in the Old Testament, and a fair amount of divine wrath in the New Testament. I decided not to do that. But, it’s a good pledge to take, and this would be a good time to take it.]
A better response to the Bible than cutting out or skipping over the parts that we have trouble with, for whatever reason, is [I would argue] “going deeper.” We can dive into the text, so to speak, as if it’s a pool of water teeming with life, like snorkeling in Florida. We can look for its depths of beauty, and even its depths of – well, the parts of the text that are disturbing and that make us ask questions. But once again, we are undertaking this exploration in the company of Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church. So we can notice the questions we have about the text. In all honesty – that is, not denying we have those questions. And we can follow those questions, even to the possibly new and challenging places they may lead us, without fear.
Calvin says that nearly all the knowledge we possess is of two kinds, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. We can gain both kinds of knowledge by spending time with the questions we have about a text like this one.
What does this text tell us about God? How can we begin to understand a description of God like “Alpha and Omega”? [The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. So – does this mean God encompasses everything that could be said?]
Do we think God really sits on a throne somewhere?
Do we think God really destroys people in lakes of fire, even extremely bad people? The God we know through Jesus Christ, who came into this world while we were yet sinners, who was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself?
Asking questions like this in conversation with Scripture is the beginning of something people call by different names: a “spiritual journey,” or “an encounter with God,” or “spiritual practice.” We ask the questions. We hold the words of scripture in our minds and mull them over and think about them. We ask God for wisdom and clarity to understand. We consult our memories, things we’ve learned in church, other parts of Scripture, our experiences. We listen to what other people, our companions, say about their experience of these words. The more we do all that, the more we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit in our minds and hearts. To new insights into the text, and into ourselves, and into our own responses to the text. And, the more we open ourselves up to new awareness of and relationship with God.
This process, of reading and thinking and asking questions about the words of Scripture, and staying with those questions, is exactly what it means to “meditate on Scripture.” It’s an ancient practice. Christians, and their teachers, the Jewish rabbis, have been doing exactly this with scripture for literally thousands of years.
This practice is not reading the Bible as if it’s a kind of holy encyclopedia, in which we just look up some topic we have a question about, and get the right answer, and then put it back on the shelf.
This is more like reading the Bible as “an object of continual reflection and discussion in an ever-changing world that connects us with others across space and time.” (That is how Pete Enns, one well-known commentator, describes the Bible.)
In fact, it is more like reading the Bible as a means of grace.
The Bible is a record of people’s encounter with the living God. So even the difficult or objectionable images in Scripture – even the lake of fire and brimstone – can nourish our questions and our quest for our own deeper encounter with that Other who is God. If we approach it in that spirit, and read it through the eyes of faith in God’s grace, even the lake of fire can be a spring of the water of life, and an inspiration to singing and dancing [see Psalm 87], because we will find in it the Source of that water of life, given, as a gift.