Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/12/2019

Except for the reading from Acts, there are sheep and lamb and shepherd footprints all over the other three lessons today, not to mention the hymns and the choir anthem.  While this isn’t officially called Good Shepherd Sunday, unofficially it is because every year the Fourth Sunday of Easter has a gospel reading from Jesus’ “I am the Good Shepherd” discourse in John, the Psalm is always the 23rd, “The Lord is my shepherd” and this year when all the second lessons during the Easter season are from Revelation, today’s reading from there also includes lamb imagery.

I’m more accepting and appreciative of the imagery and imagination of the book of Revelation than I once was but I still tend to shy away from preaching on it because it is so strange.  On the other hand, while I still don’t pretend to understand it all, since it is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible, maybe by preaching on it I can reduce the level of misunderstanding and provide you with a little insight, perhaps another way to think about it. 

Revelation is especially misunderstood by those who want it to spell out God’s prediction and description of the end of the world.  Starting with that assumption various world leaders are then identified as representing the figures and creatures found in Revelation.  Along with that events like terrorist attacks, floods, earthquakes and wars are connected with Revelation and seen as part of God’s playbook leading up to what will be a great and final battle that will be part of Jesus’ return when some will be spared and enter into eternal glory, but many will be consigned to eternal damnation.

The trouble is…the assumption about Revelation as a prediction of the end of the world is false.  It’s an assumption that can make for a series of bestselling books and movies which is OK as long as they’re understood to be entertaining fiction and not biblical truth but that understanding doesn’t always happen. Properly understood, Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature, biblical apocalyptic being a genre that uses fantastic imagery not to predict end time events but to call people to repentance and, importantly, to provide hope in God’s faithfulness. 

It would be more accurate to say that the author of Revelation is the last of the biblical prophets following in the footsteps of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, maybe especially Ezekiel because he’s pretty weird too, but also the other prophets who weren’t in the prediction business either, but who offered commentary on what was going on in their world.  That commentary included words of caution and calls for people to change their ways, repentance in other words, but the prophets also provided images of hope at times when there didn’t seem to be much reason for hope.  Christian interpretation then sees Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of that hope.  The same kind of thing is going on in Revelation with the author, John of Patmos commenting on what was going on in his world.  There is a call to repentance in Revelation, but also a vision of hope that has Jesus, the Lamb at the center.     

I’m of the opinion that imagination is needed to really get at the theological truth of much of the Bible but it’s especially true in the case of Revelation.  With imagination we are invited into a vision of a strange world, inhabited by strange creatures, a world where things aren’t what they seem, but central to that world is the Lamb who was slain who has begun his reign as we sing in the Easter Hymn of Praise.  So, with that in mind, and with repentance and hope rather than doom and destruction as a staring point, as best you can, shut off the analytical part of your brain for a few minutes and let your imagination take hold as we enter the world of Revelation and the Lamb.

Today’s scene opens with a heavenly multitude robed in white, waving palm branches, singing and praising God saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  The multitude is then joined by the angels, the elders and the four living creatures, one like a lion, one like an ox, one with the face of a human, one like an eagle all with many eyes and many wings, picture it if you can, and they join in the singing, “Worthy is the lamb, blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever,” which I trust sounds familiar since we sang those words about ten minutes ago.

The singing though, is interrupted by a question from one of the elders who, like us, perhaps wonders what’s going on here.  “Who are they, robed in white?  Where do they come from?”  The answer that is settled on is that they are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal.  It’s phrases like that though, phrases that reference an ordeal, that gets those who want to see this as an end of the world playbook all excited.

The great ordeal referenced here though has to with what was going on in the world of the author and what was going on was the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire.  The author uses these apocalyptic images because if he came right out and challenged the Empire directly, the ordeal would just get worse.  So instead he creates the image of those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” which of course doesn’t make literal sense as something washed in blood isn’t going to come out white but this is a vision and anything can happen in a vision.

Those who have come through the ordeal are those who, despite persecution, have not wavered in their faith but have continued to confess Christ as Lord.  Cleansing their robes in the blood of the Lamb is a reference to the baptismal garments of those who have become part of the heavenly choir and its hymns of praise.  This isn’t a scary end times scenario; it’s encouragement to remain faithful in the face of persecution when it would be easier to take the path of least resistance, to just go along and bow to the Roman gods.  It’s encouragement to remain faithful to one’s baptismal identity when it’s not easy to do so. 

We don’t face the kind of persecution that the early Christian community did.  That however, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to remain faithful to our baptismal identity.  One of the things about Revelation is that it is the only apocalypse that pictures the divine hero as a lamb because we don’t tend to think of lambs as being heroic; they’re weak and vulnerable, not what we would expect.  More common is a figure like a lion, ferocious and strong and thus symbolic of the usual worldly values of power and strength, both economic and military, and also symbolic of a world of fear and anxiety a world of us versus them where neighbors are seen as rivals and threats and violence is a by-product of all of the above.

Revelation though gives us the Lamb and with that it’s a reminder that baptismal identity is different, that life lived in Christ is different.  It’s life lived according to Jesus values, values that lead to a life of healing and hospitality, forgiveness and welcome.  But it’s not easy in the face of the empire values that often seem to be the ones that carry the day.  Just like at the time of Revelation and persecutions by the Romans, it would be easier to just go along and say that Jesus values sound good but don’t really work in this world or to find ways to make Christianity a rubber stamp of empire values rather than being an alternative to them and those things do happen.

Revelation offers a different vision and a different way, one that leads to the worship and praise led by that heavenly choir robed in white.  It’s an invitation to imagine a future lived in the presence of God, an invitation to join the heavenly choir before the throne of God.  It’s a promise that we will hunger and thirst no more for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd.  He will guide us to springs of the water of life, and will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  What a vision!  What a vision of hope! If you can imagine it, that’s what Revelation offers in the face of all of life’s ordeals. 

When you think about it, a lot of how we approach life has to do with our vision and what images become our guiding images.  Voices are important too; today’s gospel is about voices and listening to the voice of the shepherd but that’s another sermon for another time.  The Bible though gives us voices and it gives us images and how we interpret those voices and images does make a difference.  The images of Revelation are strange, but how different it is to see them as visions of encouragement and hope rather than visions of violence and fear.

Seen that way, while I don’t think it will ever be my favorite book of the Bible, for me and I hope for you, Revelation represents a guiding image and vision worth spending time with and hanging on to.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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