It has caused Christians no end of trouble. It has led to accusations of heresy and irreparable fractures within churches and denominations. It has encouraged the sale of millions of paperback books with titles like Countdown to Armageddon and periodicals such as The End-Times News Digest, not to mention those remarkable wrist-watches bearing the message 'One Hour Nearer the Lord's Return' on the dials. It has led some people to construct elaborate schemes for determining the exact day of the Last Judgment by reading the signs of the times: political, climatological, and economic. It is the Book of Revelation, and as we approach the turn of the Third Millennium, it is becoming for many Christians a road map to the Apocalypse.
Because of all the trouble it has caused, some of us would just rather pretend that the Book of Revelation isn't there in our Bibles at all. Since whatever truth it contains seems to be encoded in such complex symbolic and metaphorical language, perhaps it would be safer to wait until the Second Coming and then ask Jesus Christ himself what it is all about! As one bit of children's verse says:
Last of all is the book of Revelation.
It's full of mysterious information
Given us by divine inspiration...
But in the lectionary readings for these Sundays after Easter we are invited to confront the Book of Revelation head on. We are asked to take seriously this stunning (at times disturbing) vision reported by an elusive character called John, a man writing from prison, exiled for preaching a seditious gospel. We are invited to listen to someone who claims to have seen 'what is and what is to take place' (Rev 1:9) from the perspective of God's eternal purposes for the world.
Perhaps, though, it is an invitation which we should decline as responsible Christians. After all, the Easter season should be a time to get down to work, a time to learn how to live in and for the world as the church standing in the light of the Resurrection. Is this really the time to be mucking about in peculiar dreams and prophetic visions, playing with this arsenal of images and ideas which have armed so many generations of religious fanatics? Should we not keep to the centre, rather than the periphery, of Christian faith in this Easter season?
And yet when we hear these verses from the Book of Revelation read to us today, these images of the end times, we claim them as the word of God to the church. Not as idle speculation. Not as the product of a paranoid delusion. We claim them as the word of God and, more specifically, as that part of the word that is needed for the nourishment of the Body of Christ on this particular occasion. And so we ask ourselves: Is there a 'word of God' to be found in the Book of Revelation on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and what kind of word is it?
It is a strange time, these weeks after Easter; it is a strange time for us and it was a strange time for the earliest disciples. Excitement and joy at the reality of Jesus's resurrection continues, but it has gradually been turning toward the practical implications of resurrection faith. How will we preach Jesus Christ risen from the dead? What does the promise of Jesus's continued presence in our lives mean for our relationships? How do we address the conflict and suffering we see in the world around us in light of our new life in Christ? Easter has been a mountaintop experience, but we have come to realize in these past weeks that we cannot live on the mountaintop for ever. We must return to work at our jobs, to care for our children, to keep our church buildings standing and our neighbourhoods and communities healthy. And indeed this is why we read the Book of Acts in church during this season after Easter: precisely because it deals with such practical realities, describing how the disciples learned to conform their day-to-day actions, ideals, and thought patterns to their faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. After all, even after the Resurrection, there comes a time to face reality!
But Christians are also asked to confront another kind of reality in this time after the resurrection. And that reality is concerned with where and how these down-to-earth practicalities of the Christian life fit into the larger scheme of God's eternity. Like the earliest disciples we remember that Jesus's message was not simply about our daily behaviour, but also about our willingness to wait and watch for the completion of God's Kingdom. We know that Jesus was not only concerned with moving us toward social and political holiness in our everyday lives, but also reminded us that the 'ruler of this world' will always stand in the way of God's purposes (Jn 14:30) until the final consummation. And it is in the spirit of that strange juxtaposition of present and future, of 'now' and 'then', that we read both the very worldly Book of Acts and the very other-worldly Book of Revelation together during this time.
This sense of living in two worlds after the Resurrection is why these texts from the Book of Revelation have always been more to the Christian church than simply texts of terror, or a handy way to preview the Apocalypse. They have rather been, in so many times and places, texts of consolation, of reassurance. For generations of Christians the Book of Revelation has provided a set of images which have made real to people the promise Jesus gives today in John's Gospel, the promise of 'peace, but not as the world gives' (Jn 14:27).
In the vision of nations healed, oppressed people in every age have found hope that borders and sanctions and refugee camps will not last for ever and ever. In the vision of the 'river bright as crystal' those dying of hunger and thirst have seen that God has already established a future which is coming ever closer, a future in which the water of life will flow eternally. Political prisoners, exiles, those persecuted for consciences' sake are told that the lords of this world will not have the last word, but the true Lord of all creation will for ever reign in gentleness and mercy. And those who live in fear of the dark things of the world will find the gates of the City open to them, and they will be bathed in perpetual light.
So perhaps the contemporary prophets of Apocalypse have, after all, glimpsed something important in the Book of Revelation, something that we might have missed, caught up as we necessarily are with our practical, down-to-earth Christianity. Maybe what is terrifying in this text is not that it can generate bizarre speculation about the final conflagration, about the meaning of signs and portents and the particulars of God's vengeance. What is perhaps most terrifying, and most important, is the sense that this text gives us that at the end of the day God will transform all the practicalities, all the Christian preaching and caring and living, all of the suffering and the weeping and the dying that we do, that God will sweep them up into a glorious chorus of praise which will last for ever. What is perhaps most terrifying, and most important, in this text is that can give rise to hope. And to the 'ruler of this world' hope is a most dangerous thing indeed.