“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Except for the final benediction, these are the last words of the Book of Revelation; the last words of the whole Bible. They provide an appropriate conclusion to Revelation, a text that reveals its author’s discomfort with the present on every page and in which John offers a powerful and attractive vision of a future in which Jesus Christ reigns triumphantly and God has made all things new.
While the editors of the New Testament who placed Revelation at the end of the collection may have thought John’s words were an appropriate way to bring the whole thing to a close, by the time they were compiling it, the notion that Jesus Christ would soon return to reign in glory had already lost significance for Christianity’s theological elite.
To us in the twenty-first century, the fervent pleas of John expressed in today’s reading seem little more than the relics of a different age. Those who believe fervently in the second coming, and especially those who act on that belief are subject to scorn, ridicule, and when the date they had set for Jesus’ return passes uneventfully, they become the subject of jokes, and perhaps pity.
Still, the Book of Revelation continues to fascinate our culture, whether we are conservative Evangelicals or largely secular. As Christians, it’s crucial for us to have some way to make sense of this difficult and intriguing text, and I hope that I have helped some of you, over the last several weeks, to develop a way of reading it that rescues it from the exclusive property of apocalyptic prophets.
John was writing in a very specific historical context and with a very specific purpose. I would point out that it’s unlikely the author of Revelation was the same person who wrote the Gospel of John or the letters of John. There are several reasons for making this claim. First, the author of Revelation identifies himself clearly as a “presbyter”—an elder. Were he an apostle, an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it’s likely he would have identified himself as such. Second, his theological perspective is very different from that of the gospel writer. I would be happy to go into greater detail with you if you are interested. Third, the language of the Book of Revelation is very different from that of either the gospel or the letters. It’s quite possible that all of these texts came from the same larger milieu, but it’s also possible that they didn’t.
The John of the Book of Revelation is writing at a time when he expects violent persecution to take place. He himself tells us that he was exiled to the Island of Patmos because of his faith, and he expects much more difficult things to happen to the people to whom he is writing. He sees the Roman Empire as a enemy of Jesus Christ and hopes to convince his readers that Rome is out to destroy Christianity, that there is no middle ground or gray area, no possibility of accommodating Rome and “just getting along.”
That theme is especially pronounced in the introductory material, which consists of seven letters he writes to seven churches in Asia Minor. To Laodicea, John says:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15-17)
In other words, there’s nothing of the Anglican via media, the middle way, or ambiguity, or Anglican fudge here. John will have none of it. It’s unfortunate that the lectionary doesn’t force us to confront that language and imagery.
In fact, the lectionary, as I mentioned in an earlier sermon, omits some of the most important imagery, and the most violent and troubling imagery from our reading. We don’t hear of the Whore of Babylon, or 666, or the great battles between the Lamb and Satan. And even in today’s reading, the lectionary picks and chooses from Chapter 22 to downplay the violence of the language and the text.
For those of you who haven’t been at Grace over the last five weeks, or haven’t been paying close attention to my sermons, I encourage you to visit my blog—gracerector.wordpress.com to catch up. But I will say this. Revelation does not provide a roadmap to future events. Rather, its author is writing about recent history—especially the Roman Empire. He’s using highly symbolic and obscure language, and hoping that his readers will understand, know how to interpret what he’s saying, and be convinced to interpret the world and current events from his perspective.
What that means for us is that approaching this text is fraught with peril. Its dualistic worldview, interpreting everything in the universe in terms of good and evil, often seems overly simplistic when the world in which we live is complicated and full of ambiguity. John’s hatred of the Roman Empire, of empire, should give Americans pause as we reflect on an imperial presidency, globalization, and perpetual war. And his fear and warning about persecution is problematic in a world in which Christians do face persecution and martyrdom, but American Christians cry persecution as they lose privilege.
Just as the lectionary editors took their scissors to the whole book of Revelation, so too, they severely edited today’s reading. Omitted are verses of condemnation. So verse 14, which we heard, is followed by verse 15, which was omitted:
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.
But after that, and in contrast to that, is the beauty of v. 17:
17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
We see hear the difficulty at the heart of this vision. On the one hand, there is the violence of exclusion. The impure, the unclean, sinners remain outside the New Jerusalem, prevented from sharing the fruit of the tree of life or drinking from the water of life.
On the other hand, the inclusive invitation offered by the Spirit and the Bride who say come. But that inclusiveness extends beyond the invitation, “let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life.” Included not just in the invitation, but also in the inviting: “let all who hear say come.”
According to many observers, we are witnessing the implosion of our political system. Our political and other institutions are failing us and collapsing around us, from Flint to UW Madison. We watch in horror at the violence done against people of color, Muslims. Many of us have the sense that the world in which we live, the nation in which we live, and where we have hoped for a better life for ourselves, our children, and our fellow citizens, it seems that such hope is empty and we have fallen into hopelessness and despair. At the same time, we are facing a global environmental catastrophe of truly apocalyptic proportions and no one seems to want to do anything about it.
In the midst of all that in the face of all that, our faith in a God who will make all things new seems absurd. Those final words, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus” ring hollow.
But there is something deeper here, something more powerful. The yearning hope that God will make all things new; the cry, “Come Lord Jesus” is not just a desperate plea, although it is that. It is also a statement of faith, that God’s work is not yet done, that all evidence to the contrary, God is still the Lord of history, that even as God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, God will, in God’s time, bring a vision of New Jerusalem, new creation into being.
We hear the invitation to come and as we listen, we raise our own voices to say to everyone who thirsts and wishes, “Come.” We too are praying, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.” When we say those words, we are offering to others hope for the coming of the new creation, hope for the transformation of our world and our lives, hope that God will make all things new.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.