Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Withdrawal Speech July 18, 2008

Please note this is reconstructed from notes and memory, and may differ slightly from words actually spoken. In addition, some of the references, like the beginning words, made sense in the context of the Jurisdictional Conference, but may make less sense out of context.

“It is good to be here. It is a blessing to be among friends.” I thought I would try this out if only for one brief, shining moment.

This morning my bishop, Sally Dyck, asked me how I was doing, and I told her I was doing fine. I told her I rather liked roller coasters. But as the roller coaster comes around the bend this time, the time has come for me to get off. The ride is coming to an end for me.

As I get off, however, there are two signs that face me. You know how that is when you get off a roller coaster and see such signs. On one sign are these words from the New Testament. I don’t often see them quoted, but they are beautiful words – I Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” On the other sign I see is this poem by Wendell Berry:

Whatever happens
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

As a Christian, I understand love to include justice, peace, reconciliation, joy, healing. Whatever happens, love.

I want to say “thank you” to a number of people. First of all, I want to thank those who shared this journey with me. Frank, Tim, Randy, Wesley, Jerome, Laurie, Jorge, Larry, Greg, Christina, Julius – it was an honor to have been on this journey with you. We can use a lot of metaphors for what this is like, some more harsh than others. I rather like to think of this as a stroll that we take together, and every so often, one of us peels off to return home until only one is left to take the next steps toward a new home. I have enjoyed your company.

I want to thank all the delegates who took time to listen to me. To those who heard me and said, “I think I could vote for this guy” – thank you. To those who heard me and said, “I could never vote for this guy” – thank you. Listening is a profound act of love.

To the Minnesota delegation I owe deep and profound thanks. You have surrounded me with love. When my energy was flagging, yours never was. Thank you so much.
I have had the great privilege and joy of sharing this week with the three most important women in my life – my wife, Julie, and our daughters Beth and Sarah. Beth was kind enough to take me up on my invitation to introduce me to delegations, and I shall never forget that.

Finally, I want to thank the God of Jesus Christ, this God who loves me and seeks to love the world through me, this God who loves you and seeks to love the world through you, this God who loves the church and seeks to love the world through the church. God embraced me at baptism and I reached back through the ministry of an eighth grade Sunday School teacher at a United Methodist Church. I said “yes” to God’s “yes” in my life. God continues to work on, in and through me so that I am different and the world is different – so that people are embraced, with God opening my arms wider than I had ever imagined as a kid; oppressive systems challenged – systems I did not even know existed growing up. God took this shy ninth grader whose greatest fear was public speaking and whose councilor told him the next step was to lead because he had the gifts for it, God took me and has brought me to this place. I can testify to the transforming power of God in my life and in the world.

Whatever happens, love. Whatever happens, do justice. Whatever happens, create peace. Whatever happens, reconcile. Whatever happens, heal.

Bishop Palmer [Bishop Gregory Palmer, Iowa Area who was presiding at the time], I know we have to take another ballot. I would like to invite all the delegates to join me in voting for Julius Trimble. Thank you.

Well, that’s it. Thank you, too, for your interest.

Trying to Create Beauty,


P.S. Now that I have completed my New Testament project, which occupied this blog for the past year, I wondered what to do with it. For now, I will use this as a companion blog to “With Faith and With Feathers.” I may take an idea introduced there and probe it in more depth or from a different angle. Maybe a new long-term project will find its way into this space. By the way, With Faith and With Feathers has a more detailed description of my experience as a bishop candidate.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Revelation 20

Revelation 20:1-3: In a way that does not reduce personal human responsibility, Satan has been pictured throughout Revelation as the transcendent cause of human evil and misery (People’s New Testament Commentary). When evil ends and God triumphs, one cause of human evil must also be locked away. He will be locked away for a great while, symbolically represented by 1,000 years. Satan is pictured not only as one who deceived individuals, but also nations. Evil is not simply an individual phenomenon, it is also systemic – think of racism, slavery, the Holocaust. People participated in these evils sometimes without thinking that anything was wrong. They were just going with the flow. One of the major functions of the prophetic revelation of the power of Satan behind the scenes was to disclose to the Asian Christians that their real enemy was not the Jews and Romans who were harassing and even imprisoning and killing them, but the power of evil of which, they, too, were the victims (People’s New Testament Commentary) John’s apocalyptic framework is basically either/or, but even with that the more complex reality of the world sneaks in. Evil is persistent and pernicious, and sometimes sneaks back in, even when it seems contained.

Revelation 20:4-6: The time of 1,000 years comes into play again, this time not as a time when Satan is bound up, but as a time when a special group is given privileged status. The martyrs rule with Christ for 1,000 years on earth. Like many of the pictures in chapters 19-20, this one seems very partial. The prophets and seers of the Old Testament had developed basically two different pictures to express the triumph of God at the end of history, which may be called the “prophetic” and the “apocalyptic.” In the “prophetic’ view, the world’s evil would be overcome and life would come into its own as it was intended to be in God’s good creation. Prophetic eschatology understood salvation in continuity with this world and its history; this world would be the setting for eschatological bliss. In contrast, apocalyptic eschatology saw this world as already too overwhelmed with evil for redemption to occur from within it. The present world must pass away to make way for eschatological fulfillment in the setting of new heavens and a new earth. In this frame of reference, the Messiah was not thought of as a this-worldly royal figure empowered by God, but as a transcendent figure who brings salvation from the other world. In apocalyptic eschatology, the final kingdom of God does not grow out of this world, but breaks into it from the beyond. By John’s time, these two views had already been combined into a scheme in which a this-worldly messiah brought this-worldly salvation during a transitional kingdom, which was then superseded by eternal apocalyptic salvation in the new world. (People’s New Testament Commentary) While John makes use of both traditions of his time, he does not easily harmonize them. One of the messages of this picture of the triumph of God is that the earth itself is an arena for the reign of Christ. Another message is an encouragement, once again, to remain faithful no matter the cost. “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection.” Those who share in this resurrection are those who have lost their lives for their faith. To call them blessed has a certain irony. John makes use of this to offer hope to beleaguered Christians.

Revelation 20:7-10: In the fifth picture of the triumph of God and God’s dream for the world, evil has reared its ugly head again. This picture builds on the previous two – John is weaving together various traditions of his time. In Ezekial 38-39, Gog was a prince and Magog a land, but John uses them both as names for personal beings. In chapter 19, the armies of the earth had already been defeated, or so it seems. This is another picture, and the armies here may have a more mythological status. In any event, as this large army was approaching the camp of the saints, they are defeated by a fire from heaven. Not much of a battle for those who look to Revelation for battle scenes. The devil is thrown into the same lake of fire as were the beast and the beast’s prophet. The tormenting day and night seems like an excessive touch, but remember that these are beings cast in mythological roles and a mythic destruction seems appropriate even if the language is harsh.

Revelation 20:11-15: The sixth picture is a picture of a final judgment. A great throne descends. The presence is such that heaven and earth as they currently exist cannot stand in this one’s presence. How we might imagine that is difficult. All the dead appear to be judged according to their works, according to what they had done. At the same time there is a book of life. John does not clearly meld his pictures here. The book of life seems a document of God’s grace and love, and it is this which finally saves. What then of being judged by deeds? John seems to think both grace and works have a role to play in being God’s people. Perhaps the book of life functioned to remind those who were concerned about their ability to remain faithful that they were already in that book and that their job was to hold on. It might have been a way to reduce fear. Unfortunately in the history of the church that same image has been used to induce fear – “do you know if your name is written in the book of life?” Metaphors and images are multivalent, they speak a multiplicity of languages. That is wonderful, but it also means that images can be misused and to use the image of the book of life to induce fear is to misuse it, I think. Heaven and earth have fled. Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire as are those who are not found in the book of life. While this lake of fire seems to be the same lake of fire and sulfur where the devil and the beast are, there is no mention here of eternal torment. A better translation of verse 14 is “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life…” This is an even more hopeful possibility.

In the end, we leave final judgment up to God. For most of us, our lives are a mixture of good and evil, truth and lies, moments of grace and beauty and goodness, and moments we wish we could take back because we have hurt someone, been rude or angry or hateful. For most of humanity, the balance is probably in favor of the good, but trying to keep track of that is crazy-making. God does not desire to make us crazy, but rather to free us for goodness. To have the assurance that you are already in God’s book of life, an assurance John gives his readers, is to be free to love, to do justice, to make peace, to live the lamb-like life. Our deeds may still become fully comprehended some day, and they already are, by God. At that time we will understand more fully where we have done good and where we have failed, but in the end, God’s love and life will redeem our lives. That is the Christian hope John portrays here.

Revelation 21

Revelation 21:1-8: We begin with the final vision of what the triumph of God and of God’s dream for the world will look like. This vision is by far the longest and most hopeful. Evil barely makes an appearance here. In the end, God’s love and justice will make evil look small and pale by comparison, unlike in the heaven and earth that we know only too well.

When God’s dream for the world finally prevails, it will be a new heaven and a new earth. There will be a new city. Remember the lengthy description of Babylon/Rome in chapter 18, and how its lights and music were going out. Here, in this new city, there will be lights and music and feasting – but with justice, not created on the backs of the poor and oppressed. All will find a place in the new city, not just the privileged few. Unlike an oppressive emperor God will reign as one who wipes away tears from eyes. All things will be made new. The thirsty will be given water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who have courage in the midst of trials and tribulations will inhabit the city. In a negative word of encouragement, John tells the readers that the cowardly and faithless will not be found in the new city. There will not be murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and so on – probably references to John’s view of the nature of the Roman empire.

Revelation 21:9-27: Here we seem to have vision 7b, another angle on the holy city. The bride of the Lamb is portrayed both as a people and as a new community, a new city. The vision is of a city of spectacular wealth, with imagery that makes little literal sense -“pure gold, transparent as glass” (v. 21)? The city will have no place to worship, because God will be powerfully present everywhere. They will be the light for the city. There is an openness and inclusiveness to this vision of the city – nations and kings will come to it. To ask “What nations, what kings – haven’t they all been destroyed?” is to begin to realize that this is not some map of a particular future but the future painted with a wonderfully creative theological brush. Again, a note that nothing unclean will enter in, but here it is not clear what has happened to the unclean. Are they outside the city, but not in a lake of fire? Yet again, we are pushed to see poetry here. “Each picture has its own message, and each warns against taking the other with exclusive literalism” (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Revelation 22:1-7: Vision seven has yet a third element. If length of writing is any indication, we would do well to pay more attention to chapters 1-3, 18 and 21-22 than much of the rest of the book. Here we have a stark contrast between two cities – Babylon/Rome and the New Jerusalem. John is interpreting the world he lives in compared to God’s dream for the world and asking his hearers to continue to choose God’s dream. I can imagine the excitement that might be generated when this work was read aloud from beginning to end in the context of worship. These chapters would light fires in the hearts and minds of their hearers.

In the midst of the city is a river, the river of the water of life. Along the banks of the river is the tree of life, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. God’s dream for the world is not just the salvation of individual persons, it is a reconstituted human community. God is light and life and healing, and God’s people will be full participants in God’s dream for the world.

John proclaims that his words are trustworthy and true, a needed word given the dire straits of the communities to which he writes. He ends with a word of great hope and encouragement. “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” God’s dream is on its way, hold on.

Revelation 22:8-21: The visionary sequence has run its course, and we are left to hear from “I, John.” John has a few remaining words of hope and encouragement to offer, and he offers them straight up. Worship God (verse 9). “Let the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (verse 11). Wash your robes (verse 14) – a metaphor for receiving forgiveness and living in holiness.

And the liturgical chant begins – 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. One can almost imagine an altar call of some sort, an invitation to communion. As people come forward they also hope for the coming of Christ and of God’s dream for the world.

John cautions against amending his work, and we have seen how the various visions play off each other. In a real sense we need them all, for this is a highly creative work.

The letter ends with words of benediction.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen.


How can I add to John’s words? The New Testament ends beautifully, with a fervent prayer for a better world, the coming of God’s dream for that world as we know it in the Christ whose story we have been following since Matthew 1:1. And before God’s dream for the world arrives, we still hope Christ comes into our lives and our churches to comfort us and to shake us up. God’s grace in Christ is meant to do that – embrace us, comfort us, challenge us, move us, transform us. One of the ways Christ and God’s grace come to us is as we read the Scriptures together. I hope this has been a labor of love, a work of grace in your lives as we have read together. I know it has been for me. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
A Thought on Christian Scripture

Properly understood and interpreted, the Scriptures have the capacity to mediate the transforming power, grace, and love of God. Anthony Robinson, What’s Theology Got To Do With It? (47-48)

Revelation 17

Revelation 17:1-18: When the seventh bowl was poured out by the angel, the fall of Babylon was announced. Babylon is remembered in the Scriptures and in the history of the Jewish people of the time as the imperial power that overtook Judea in 586 BCE, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took many Israelites into captivity. Babylon is used here to represent another imperial power, the one which had sent John into exile on Patmos, Rome.

Babylon/Rome is called “the great whore” and this is not a compliment! Again, it is no wonder the author was using metaphoric, symbolic and poetic language. To name Rome as a great whore would have invited even greater wrath and the author had experienced to date. Fornication and drunkenness are metaphors here, referring to the acquiescence of peoples and rulers to the rule of Rome. Of course, many of the people were victims of Rome’s brand of injustice, and the imagery here suggests both human culpability and human victimization. More often than not, these are not mutually exclusive. We often participate in systems that have destructive consequences. We are now asking ourselves if our economic systems, dependent as they are upon energy sources like coal and oil have not led us some place we would rather not go.

Babylon’s judgment is announced again, and the scene shifts as the author is taken into the wilderness to see the great whore Babylon adorned with jewels but filled with abominations. Among Babylon’s abominations was that she was drunk with the blood of witnesses to Jesus.

The woman rides on a beast with seven heads and ten horns (see chapter 13). This is probably a reference to Roman imperial history. The author also sees this beast as a parody of the true God. This beast was and is not and is to come. This language echoes the myth that Nero would return to power. Rather than predicting some distant future, the writer is reflecting in theological and metaphoric terms on Rome and its consequences, and its final downfall.

“This calls for a mind that has wisdom.” This section is more like typical Jewish apocalyptic in that there is a detailed interpretation of the vision given by an interpreting angel. This is the only section of Revelation of which this is true, and may be an indication that John is here reinterpreting older material. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Rome is the city on seven hills, and John is making it clearer that the woman, Babylon, the great whore, is indeed Rome – seated on seven hills/mountains. John also uses the numbers to discuss Roman emperors. Seven is not literal but is used symbolically to refer to the complete number of emperors. John wants the imagery to convey to his readers that the series of Roman emperors, though it appears to be “eternal,” is coming to an end, that “Nero” shall appear as the leader of a final great persecution, but the kingdom of God will replace the Roman power. Domitian was only the leading edge of the great persecution to follow immediately, for when the beast appeared again, though appearing to be powerful, it would last only a little while, since it was already destined to go to perdition. All this John wanted to disclose in his evocative revelation of how things ultimately are, to Christians who had to decide how to evaluate the rival claims to ultimate allegiance made by the god represented in Rome and the God represented in Jesus Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

There is power in the beast – ten kings yield their power to the beast, if only for a short time. They will make war on the Lamb, but “the Lamb will conquer them.” This is startling imagery, and it continues. “He is Lord of lords and King of kings.” This is in direct contradiction to the Roman ideology where the emperor was king of kings and lord of lords. Those who follow the Lamb, John’s audience, are “called, chosen and faithful” – again terms that might be used for a ruling class but here used of a small and sometimes persecuted minority.

Verses 15-18 are a little confusing chronologically. Just prior, the beast, having gained authority from the ten kings, makes war on the Lamb. Here we backtrack – the beast and the kings make war on the whore. This is wonderfully symbolic political intrigue. History is littered with political upheaval. Powerful regimes make alliances and are betrayed by those alliances. Unjust power often breeds great discontent and given the opportunity, those who have been oppressed will oppress. Behind all the wild imagery, John knows something of the structure of empires and of political machinations. His basic message remains the same, the Lamb endures and the Lamb’s followers are those who are called, chosen, and faithful.

The Lamb is an amazing and yet wonderfully disarming vision. In the face of Rome’s ideology of Victory, the victorious Lamb of Revelation looks almost incongruous. In place of overwhelming military strength, we are given the image of the Lamb’s nonviolent power. In place of Rome’s image of inflicting slaughter on the world, Revelation tells the story of the Lamb who has been slaughtered – and who still bears the scars of the slaughter. This reversal of images must have come as a big surprise to first-century Christians accustomed as they were to Rome’s images of power and victory. Revelation undertakes to reveal what true power and true victory is: At the heart of the power of the universe stands Jesus, God’s slain Lamb. (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, 109-110)

Revelation 18

Revelation 18:1-24: We have had one rendering of the fall of Babylon the great, poetic language in prose form. Here we will have the pure poetry version sung by angels.

This lamentation borrows much of the language and imagery of Old Testament lamentations that both protest and lament the sins of Israel and Jerusalem, protest and lament their destruction, combined with prophetic judgments that celebrate the fall of Assyria and Babylon…. John’s lamentation is thus double-pronged. On the one hand, he celebrates the final demise of the oppressive world power that had lived in luxury at the expense of the suffering of others. On the other hand, he mourns the passing away of the great city that had facilitated vitality and the joy of life. John’s application of biblical language used against Israel and Jerusalem to Babylon/Rome shows that he is not against civilization itself, but its perversion. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

In light of all that is wrong with Babylon/Rome, God’s people are cautioned about participating in her iniquities. The language in verses 6-8 are characteristic biblical language for evoking God’s judgment and should not be seen as personal vindictiveness. That such words have been used to justify vindictiveness should lead us to use them cautiously. The harsh judgment against riches and power and luxury should make those of us who live in prosperous countries in the world a little uneasy. Living well is not the issue, the nature of wealth and its distribution are. Verses 11-19 are a rather haunting picture of the collapse of an economic system – but note the subtle remark that among things bought and sold were “human lives.” An economy is collapsing, but one based on selling human beings, and selling them out. John paints a realistic picture of the integrated imperial economy, but sees it tumbling.

John’s perspective, while somewhat more complex in that he recognizes some of the achievements of Rome, is basically apocalyptic - - - “the general apocalyptic dualism of Revelation, in which all decisions are either/or; all people are worshippers either of the beast or of the one true God” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). In verse 20 God’s people rejoice over the fall of an oppressive power, one that accomplished much, but whose accomplishments were overshadowed by injustice in John’s mind. In Rome/Babylon “was found the blood of the prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”

Revelation 19

Revelation 19:1-10: Solo angels sang of the demise of the great Babylon, now a heavenly chorus sings out a song of praise and gratitude to God. Sometimes the tone is disturbingly vindictive. The basic point is that those who remain true to God and to the Lamb will be blessed, will be invited to a banquet. The readers are encouraged to stay true to the God who is worthy of worship and to the Jesus whose witness is the spirit of prophecy.

Each of the three major divisions of Revelation begins with a transcendent scene of the glory of God and/or Christ, from which proceeds a sevenfold vision. Revelation comes to its climactic conclusion with seven scenes of the final victory of God…. Though literary presentation requires that they be presented one after the other, they are not a strict chronology, but seven different pictures of the meaning of the triumph of God at the end of history. Each picture is intended to say something about the character of the end as such, not merely describe one part of the final drama. Here is no chronological calendar of the events of the end time, but a tour through an eschatological art gallery in which the theme of God’s victory at the end of history is treated in seven different pictures each complete in itself. (People’s New Testament Commentary) This is a wonderfully helpful way to view these final chapters of Revelation, and such a literary device is not unknown. It was used in the recent film Vantage Point where an event is portrayed from different perspectives, each adding something to the whole picture. Perhaps this is what John is doing – different pictures each adding something to our sense of what it means for the God of Jesus Christ to be the love that prevails in the universe. Some of John’s language and imagery will be unloving, but his basic point throughout has been the temporality of the evil Roman empire, the final triumph of God and God’s purposes in the world, and the need for God’s people to hold on to the true faith and to genuine values, even when they seem like a losing proposition. In that way, Revelation speaks volumes to our day and time.

Revelation 19:11-16: Picture one is a picture of a returning Jesus, riding a horse, leading an army. Images are borrowed from many places in the Bible to paint this picture. The figure is the returning Jesus, but he appears to be very different from the Jesus of the Gospels, who rides humbly on a donkey rather than a warhorse and who dies for others rather than killing them. Thus some have interpreted the “first coming” of Jesus as his advent in love, but the “second coming” as his advent in violent power. This is a fundamental mistake. The good news of the Christian faith is that at our own death or the end of history we do not meet someone different from the One we have already met in Jesus of Nazareth. Here as elsewhere, John adopts the traditional imagery of the conquering Messiah, but reverses its valences in the light of Jesus the crucified one. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Revelation 19:17-21: The violence of this image is stomach-turning. The great feast of God is ironically turned into a feast for carrions. John takes the pervasive reality of evil seriously and offers a grisly vision of its ending. Thankfully this is but one vision of the victory of God and God’s purposes. Note that in 21:24 the nations and kings of the earth bring their glory into the heavenly city. Also note that it is only the beast and the false prophet that are thrown into the lake of fire burning with sulfur.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Revelation 15

Revelation 15:1-8: Chapters 15 and 16 are one unit: The seven last plagues are announced in 15:1 and the last plague is referred to in 16:21 (People’s New Testament Commentary). This section represents John’s most thorough use of the exodus motif in Revelation (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Just as Exodus was “remembered history,” with events that may have been creatively remembered over time, a mixture of event and sacred memory with the point of proclaiming God’s redemptive activity, so these verses are a sort of pre-remembering, a projection of God’s redemptive activity into the future. The point is God’s redemptive activity and not the plagues themselves. These are literary devices, important literary devices, but literary devices nonetheless. Remember the difficult circumstances in which John and John’s churches find themselves. They deeply hope for an end to the world as they know it, and for a new world. There may be a streak of vengeance in John, so that he takes a bit too much delight in thinking about the end of the world – a natural human reaction akin to the words of Psalm 137 where the psalmist expressed deep anger and frustration during the Babylonian captivity: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We would not condone this as a course of action acceptable for Christian persons, but we understand it as an expression of a deeply oppressed people. We might do well to understand some of John’s writing in the same way.

In chapter 15, the seven plagues are announced and we are ushered into a worship scene. Just as the Israelites stood on the other side of the sea after leaving Egypt, so the redeemed of God gather by the sea to sing God’s praises. God is the just one and the true ruler of nations, not Caesar. God is to be glorified, not the emperor. To worship God now is to be working with the grain of the universe. Here is an interesting comment about verse 4: Biblical and apocalyptic tradition pictured the final triumph of God’s kingdom in two contrasting ways. In one picture, the pagan nations are defeated and destroyed in a climactic last battle…. In the other picture, the pagan nations are converted and become worshippers of the one God…. John juxtaposes these pictures without harmonizing them, including both in this one scene. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Again, the point is the final triumph of God’s way and a concomitant encouragement to live this way now, even if it is costly.

Revelation 16

Revelation 16:1-21: The final series of eschatological woes is not a chronological continuation of the preceding ones. It refers to the same period but presents it from a different perspective. It is a vision of cosmic catastrophe in which the preceding visions are paralleled but intensified. Not merely a fourth or third of the world, but all the world is struck by the blow against the sun and by the darkness, and everything in the sea dies. Not just the earth, but the cosmos itself is struck. Human rebellion against God has infected creation itself. As the created world is not finally to be destroyed but to be renewed and redeemed, so it passes through the judgment. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’ book on Christian faith, Tokens of Trust, and I think he does a nice job discussion the concept of judgment. He argues that it is important to acknowledge that “there is a proper adult awareness of the risk of our habitual unwillingness to face truth.” He also argues that “we have to know the proper fear that the choices we make are capable of destroying us” (150, 151). This chapter is Revelation is poetic, metaphoric and borrows from other such sources (especially Exodus). Given some of the ecological disasters that humankind has wrought, some of these wild pictures don’t seem as unrealistic as we might hope they would be. I had a teacher who once said that it can be helpful to think of “the wrath of God” as God giving over humankind to the full consequences of their own actions. If ever the skies become black and sores break out widely around the world, some sort of ecological catastrophe would probably be to blame, and it would be the result of human action. I am not arguing that John predicts such things, for I don’t think he does. That’s not the nature of this work. I am arguing that the language of judgment can be appropriate for our encounters with horrendous events that have very human causes and that reveal to us our failures to acknowledge our limits, to speak truthfully to ourselves, to live truthfully.

The first plague is a plague of sores. The second is the death of sea life. In the third, echoing Exodus, the waters are turned into blood. The author sees this as just payback for the shed blood of God’s people. Is John taking a little too much delight in such “vengeance”? The fourth plague is an increase in the heat of the sun. Interestingly, the possibility of turning around is presented in a few places – but those suffering would not turn, would not repent. Even in the midst of tragedy, John offers a small word of hope. The kingdom of the beast is plunged into darkness with the fifth plague. The sixth plague dries up the river Euphrates. It seems less a plague than a prelude to further trouble. Demonic spirits come from the dragon, the beast and the false prophet and an army from the East is assembled to march to Armageddon/Harmageddon. I will say a word about this in a moment. When the seventh angel pours out his bowl we reach the dénouement – thunder and lightening and earthquakes and hailstones. That this is poetic is evident by the hundred pound hailstones that fall on people. They curse God for the hailstones, but would they even live through such a hailstorm?

Armageddon/Harmageddon: These are rather famous words among dispensationalists – the Battle of Armageddon. However, no battle is here described, nor is one described later (wait until chapter 19). These words are helpful as we read this passage: Popular interpretations of this text have often supposed that it predicts some great battle at Megiddo in northern Israel as part of the final events of history. These assumptions are mistaken, however. There is no “Meggido” in the text, and there is no mountain at Megiddo, which is located in an extensive plain. That John is writing “prophecy” does not mean that he is predicting historical events of the long-range future, but that he is presenting an inspired interpretation of contemporary events for the Christians of his own time. John does not predict any historical event beyond his own generation. Nor is there any description of a “battle”; the victory is announced without elaborating on any war. John uses traditional military imagery to portray the final victory of God, but in his own theology the decisive victory was already won at the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Revelation thus contains no descriptions of eschatological battles. (New Interpreters Study Bible). We will take this up again in chapter 19, but it is helpful here given some of the language that is often used in interpreting this book.

And what is the significant point John wants to make in all of this? One he has made time and again. In verse 15, there is a parenthetical word from the Christ. “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.” It is John’s way of reminding his readers and listeners that the visions are not to provide speculative information about the future, but are a challenge from the living Christ to orient their lives in the present toward the coming eschatological reality (New Interpreters Study Bible). John shares all these words of judgment to remind the readers that things can get bleak indeed, but our task as followers of the Christ is to follow that way in our lives. In the end, that way will prevail. In the midst of a very uncertain time – when we wonder about climate change, and energy, and food supplies and a planet whose population is stretching toward 7 billion, we are reminded to stay faithful to the Jesus way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Revelation 14

Revelation 14:1-5: These chapters in Revelation seem to have a first-century MTV feel, that is, we get quick cuts from one vision to the next – “then I saw, then I looked.” The previous chapter gave us two beasts along with the dragon previously introduced. This chapter begins with a counter vision – the Lamb and 144,000 people. The Lamb and the symbolically numbered 144,000 are a consoling picture, meant to reassure Christians that they will survive the assaults of the dragon and the two beasts (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 793).

Within this consoling picture are a couple of items that require some additional comment. The number 144,000 is certainly symbolic. It is a large number, thus reassuring to the minority Christian communities to whom John is writing. It connotes the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. It is a large number, but only represents “the first fruits” of those who will know God and the Lamb (v. 5). This first fruit is already in the heavenly realm (though they are also on earth with the Lamb – the images shift). In contrast to those who have the mark of the beast, these are marked by God and the Lamb. Not only are they marked by God, but they know a new song that only those who know God can sing. One might say that these people are “in tune” with God! The language about “virginity” is metaphoric – connoting ritual purity, ceremonial purity, the readiness of soldiers for battle, and the ascetic life of prophets. The more important part of the metaphor is that these are those who will follow the Lamb wherever the Lamb goes. There is a purity in their lives.

When things are difficult we all need to know we are not alone. We also need to see the direction our lives our going – toward a purer life of love.

Revelation 14:6-13: The vision shifts again – “then I saw an angel,” this will be the first of three angels John sees. The first angels has “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth.” The word “gospel” means “good news” and was used in the emperor cult to describe the deeds of the emperor. While there are 144,000 redeemed in heaven, God’s redemptive work continues on earth. All are encouraged and invited to get in tune with God, to worship the one who created heaven and earth – not the current ruler of the empire.

While this angel proclaims good news and invites people into a new relationship with God, a second angel proclaims that Babylon (Rome) has fallen. It was unthinkable that Rome, “the eternal city,” would ever fall, just as it was unthinkable that the Christian message would turn out to be the eternal gospel (People’s New Testament Commentary).

A third angel announces dire consequences for those who worship the beast. Anyone who tries to imagine this infinitely-worse-than-Auschwitz picture as somehow objectively real must ask whether God or John does not here overdo it. Such a picture calls into question both the justice and the character of God…. Such language does not function to give an objective picture of what shall in fact happen to God’s enemies, the outsiders…. John’s language does not deliver a doctrine about the fate of outsiders, but functions to warn insiders, who ponder the question, “Is it really so bad to participate in the Roman worship?” John regards this worship as making a this-worldly substitute for the one Creator and Lord, and answers, “More terrible than you can imagine!”… As objectifying language about what shall happen to our enemies, it is cruel beyond imagination; as confessional language, intended not to describe the fate of outsiders but to encourage insiders to remain faithful, it functions precisely like the language of Jesus in the Gospels. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

This interpretation is most consistent with the admonition in verse 12: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” The last phrase is literally “Jesus-faith.” John steps out of his visionary work to draw the lesson of the visions – stay faithful, hold on. For some this may mean death, but John argues that there is a fate worse than death, giving up what is most valuable, living by skewed values. To do so is to contribute to destruction and torment in the world, to create garbage out of one’s life. It is possible that John was not immune from the temptation to wish that his enemies would suffer torment. Most people I know who feel most strongly about hell are convinced that hell is for others, not for themselves. Is wishing eternal torment for one’s enemies consistent with Jesus and Paul’s admonitions to love enemies?

Revelation 14:14-20: The visionary scene shifts again – to a white cloud on which sits one like the Son of Man, and he is wearing a crown. The chapter begins with one Christ-vision and begins to wrap up with another Christ-vision. Chronology is irrelevant here, this is a visionary sequence, and as a visionary, metaphoric work, the same figure can morph from one image to another. In the first Christ-vision, the Lamb was with the faithful. Here the Christ-figure is ready to bring final judgement.

There is a mixture of imagery used here – a grain harvest, a harvest of grapes, a winepress out of which flows blood. Are all the images negative images of God’s judgment, or are there mixed images of hope and threat? In the Gospels, the harvest is a harvest of righteousness. Wine and blood are often redemptive images. The main issue in interpreting these images is whether these visions express unqualified judgment in a negative sense, or whether they also somehow represent God’s redemptive work, not only through the blood of Christ but through the blood of martyrs…. The pictures of blood, torment, divine wrath, and judgment all exceed what the imagination can comprehend, but the reader should also remember that the unthinkable has already happened in the transformation of the lion of God’s wrath into the Lamb. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The language of judgment is most helpful to me when it reminds me that I cannot simply go on forever without making important decisions about where I stand, where my life is headed, what values I want to be evident in my life. Everyday I make choices about living, loving, caring, compassion, justice and those choices matter. They are not inconsequential.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Revelation 12

Here is an excerpt from John Wesley’s introduction to Revelation in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. It is scarce possible for any that either love or fear God, not to feel their hearts extremely affected, in seriously reading either the beginning, or the latter part of Revelation. These, it is evident, we cannot consider too much: but the intermediate parts I did not study at all for many years: as utterly despairing of understanding them, after the fruitless attempts of so many wise and good men. Wesley said his mind had been changed, some, by the discovery of certain resources that had helped open the book up, particularly the work of one “Bengelius” [Johann Albrecht Bengel (1684-1752) – a German Pietist and Biblical scholar who once predicted that Christ’s millennial reign would begin in 1836. Wesley did not buy into this part of Bengel’s thought]. Nevertheless, Wesley still wrote about his own notes on the text: Yet I by no means pretend to understand, or explain all that is contained in this mysterious book. Later in his notes, he wrote: Some have miserably handled this book. Hence others are afraid to touch it. Yes, indeed, Mr. Wesley, but even he would say of the prophecies of this book that “so considerable a part of them is on the point of being fulfilled.” Perhaps the church is always living in a time when we see the evil around us and long for a time when it will not be so. Now is always the time to stand up against and to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, being faithful to God and to Jesus Christ. The temptation is always real to give up and give in. Rather than see ourselves in “the end times,” perhaps this book is most relevant in its encouragement to faithful life no matter the circumstances.

Revelation 12:1-6: The book could have ended with chapter 11 – “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of God’s Messiah.” The reader anticipates that this might be the end of the book, but the revelation continues with scenes that expose the transcendent powers of evil and the announcement of the seven last plagues (New Interpreters Study Bible). John is not working with a chronological sequence here, it seems, but doubles back to see “what is to come” from a little different angle – the cosmic/heavenly angle. To this point, what has happened in heaven has led to events on earth. Here the action shifts to heaven. The basic message seems to remain the same – hold on, stay faithful though the going might get very tough.

Chapters 12-14 are a series of visions that take a more comprehensive view of the eschatological times in which the church lives, from the birth of Jesus to the end. The troubles experienced by the churches to whom John writes represent something deeper than appears on the surface. It is not merely a matter of religious and cultural conflict in a Roman province. John lets the readers see behind the scenes of the cosmic drama in which his readers are involved. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

A cosmic woman, whose description includes images from the Hebrew Bible and from Greco-Roman mythology, gives birth to a child – the Christ child, who will rule the world. The woman refers only in part to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She also represents Israel, as the people of God from whom the Messiah comes. Birth pangs are often used a symbol of difficult times which “give birth” to new life. The child is threatened by a great red dragon, who appears as a powerful, imperial figure. The mythical folklore of many peoples contains a story with the same basic plot: a cosmic monster tries to destroy a newborn king, is foiled, and the king returns in triumph. It is a variation of the story of how the forces of darkness, disorder and sterility/death rebelled against the divine king of light, order, and fertility/life, attempting to overthrow the divine order, kill the newborn king and/or seize the kingship, and establish the rule of darkness. (People’s New Testament Commentary) John thus makes use of cultural resources to share the Christian message.

The child is saved from the dragon by being taken to God. In Revelation, Christ is born and ascends. Do John’s readers know something of the life story of Jesus? Certainly they know that he was killed by the Roman authorities. The child is protected, but his mother, who now may represent the people of God, finds herself in the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is both a place of refuge and a place of danger. It is also a place where God is often encountered. The wilderness time won’t last forever, and it will be a time when the people of God will be nourished.

Revelation 12:7-12: A war breaks out in heaven between angelic forces and the forces of the dragon. The latter’s forces are defeated, and cast out of heaven, but unfortunately, they land on earth. John ties together various mythological elements here, identifying the serpent with the Devil and Satan – the great accuser of God’s people. The Christians were being accused in Roman courts, so the image of an accuser whose work torments God’s people was a powerful one. Pliny, the Roman governor of Pontus beginning in 111 CE wrote the following to the Emperor Trajan: I have handled those who have been denounced to me as Christians as follows: I asked them whether they were Christians. Those who responded affirmatively I have asked a second and third time, under threat of the death penalty. If they persisted in their confession, I had them executed. For whatever it is they are actually advocating, it seems to me that obstinacy and stubbornness must be punished in any case. (quoted in People’s New Testament Commentary, 761). God’s victory and the triumph of God’s purposes, God’s kingdom, has been assured in heaven, but the story on earth is not complete.

Again, John uses wonderful imagery to assure his readers that faith will win out in the end. It has already won in heaven. Hold on.

Revelation 12:13-18: The dragon thrown out of and down from heaven now pursues the woman who is on earth (the wilderness). The woman represents the people of God in this scene. She is pursued, but has been given two wings, wings like an eagle (cue the hymn: “On Eagle’s Wings”!). Imagery used for God’s shelter and protection in the Hebrew Bible is used here. The woman is in the wilderness – place of nourishment. The dragon devises a scheme to get her, even in the wilderness. It sends flood waters after her – water in the Bible is both a positive and negative symbol. There are living waters that nourish life, but also waters of chaos and destruction. Here water is clearly negative, and the earth is positive – God’s good creation comes to the rescue. Such an image might encourage a stronger ecological consciousness for the church. The earth is on our side, but are we on the earth’s side (forgive this metaphoric free association, but somehow it seems appropriate for Revelation).

Frustrated, the dragon seeks out the woman’s other children, the followers of the Jesus way. This brief word is powerfully encouraging – the churches to whom John writes are filled with the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Revelation 13

Revelation 13:1-10: This section really begins with 12:18. The dragon is by the sea and out of the sea comes a monster. In this vision a beast comes from the sea and receives power and authority from the dragon. A second beast from the land compels people to worship the first beast, and marks his followers with a mysterious number. Those who do not worship the beast and have this number are killed. This imagery was transparent to John’s first readers, who were living through the history it symbolized. Their question was not who the persecuting power was, but what it was. This is what is communicated in John’s revelatory letter to them. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The background for the beast rising out of the sea is the mythical figure of Leviathan. The beast also has a history in the book of Daniel. John uses these images to speak of the Roman Empire. In chapter 17, the number seven is both a number of mountains and a number of kings – Rome was built on seven hills. The blasphemous names may refer to the fact that emperors used titles for themselves such as: Son of God, Lord, Savior, King of kings and Lord of lords. Domitian, the emperor during John’s time insisted on being called “Lord and God.” The description of the beast uses ideas from Daniel 7, where successive beasts represent successive empires. John seems to be saying that the Roman Empire combines the worst elements of all of these. Its power is demonic, coming from the dragon. No wonder John uses coded language – this is a stinging criticism of Rome, the kind of criticism it did not tolerate. The wounded beast come back to life is probably a reference to prevailing myths about Nero. Nero killed himself in 68 CE, but in some myths he never died and was said to have fled to join the Parthians in the East. He would return to wreck havoc on the empire and its people. The other myth was that while Nero had died, he was coming back from the dead to get vengeance. Again, John is quite the creative artist. Dispensationalist interpreters don’t see that aspect in John’s work. Instead they look to see who the beast might be, and any number of candidates have arisen through the years – popes, Hitler, Soviet leaders. In a sense, all those who rule with ruthless and unquestioned power have best-like qualities.

For John, the imperial cult with its worship of the emperor, was equivalent to worshipping the Devil/Satan. John has harsh words for the kind of cultural accommodation that may have been tempting to the churches to whom he was writing. Those who belong to Jesus, the Lamb, would not engage in these imperial rituals, even at the cost of death. John offers both a word of assurance and a word of encouragement at the end of this section. He tells his readers that they, as part of the church, have been a part of God’s people from the foundation of the world. I think this phrase should be read pastorally and poetically, not literally. “Be who you are” might be a contemporary translation of the idea, at least to some extent. John encourages resistance, endurance and faith, but it is to be non-violent resistance. While John is often very willing to use the imagery of war, here he is clear that “if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.”

Revelation 13:11-18: Now a second beast arrives on the scene. The second beast, later identified as s the “false prophet” represents those who encourage worship of the emperor and participation in Roman idolatry, including (but not limited to) the priesthood of the imperial religion (People’s New Testament Commentary) The religious quality of this figure is hinted at when it has two horns like a lamb – a perverse Christ figure.

The cult of emperor worship had its signs and wonders, and no doubt there was an appeal to the power of the empire itself. How could the gods not be blessing such a powerful ruling force, bringing peace to the world. The argument from success is not always a good argument! John’s reference to the mark that was the precondition of economic engagement may be a reference to the use of imperial coins. John has such a harsh reaction to the empire, that he may have had qualms about the use of money with the images of emperors. The people in John’s churches had probably experienced economic discrimination because of their faith. People have used these verses to speak out against things like social security numbers – a rather poor interpretation of the material.

666: the number causes a faint chill to arise. This continues to be one of the most fascinating and misused passages in Revelation. The number of the beast is the sum of the numerical values of the numerical value of its letters. John writes before the invention of Arabic numerals. The languages he would have known and used – Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew – all have letters equivalent to numbers, so that every name had a numerical sum. Of the many possibilities for the identity of the beast, the most likely is “Nero Caesar,” whose numerical total in Hebrew is 666. Nero had been the first emperor to persecute the church. Domitian, the threatening emperor of John’s time was thought of as “Nero redivivus,” Nero-back-from-the dead.” (New Interpreters Study Bible)

This chapter of Revelation has been subject to some interesting readings over the years, but such readings often steer readers beyond the significant challenge of this text. John is here harshly critical of the prevailing government of his time. His point of view is in tension with other New Testament writers. In Romans, Paul had written “let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (13:1). John has argued, poetically, that the authority of Rome comes from the dragon. The First Letter of Peter also encourages obedience. “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme…” (2:13). In First Corinthians 8, Paul makes a case that it really doesn’t matter if one eats food that has been sacrificed to idols, though he argues that one should consider those for whom this might be a stumbling block to faith. John vehemently opposes participation in pagan rituals of the empire.

What accounts for such differences? Some of it is probably the context. John is writing to a church that has become, in the eyes of the imperial government an enemy, and Jesus’ people are suffering. In John’s mind, the government has exceeded its reach, scope and authority.

I think we need to hold all these various passages together in tension. Governments may overreach, and when they do, Christians should oppose them – as Bonhoeffer did in Nazi Germany. In democratic societies, we have the privilege of opposing government policy through participation in the political process – that makes democracy a valuable form of governance from a Christian perspective. Christians participate in political life as critically aware citizens. Blind patriotism has no place in a Christian ethic of the state. Even more deeply, we need to be critically aware of our culture. What aspects of our culture seem to move us away from the values of compassion, justice, love, care for the poor, peace? Paul may have been more sanguine about the empire, but his own thought encouraged a self-critical attitude toward culture and state. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) I like the way Eugene Peterson renders this passage: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” In John’s words, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10); and as rendered by Peterson: “Meanwhile, God’s people passionately and faithfully stand their ground.” Instead of trying to figure out who the beast is, we would do well to figure out how to resist the beastliness in our world.