The Revelation to John 1:1-8
Union University Church
May 5, 2019
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Our book group is reading a book called “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know”. 1 We’ve been working on it for a long time because every chapter elicits so much discussion that it is hard for us to cover more than three masterpieces per week, but a little while ago, we finally reached the 20th century, and this past week were introduced to the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen who wrote his most famous work while captive in a German POW camp during WWII. Our book group listened to excerpts from that piece and I’d like you to share with you a little of what we heard on Wednesday.
[An excerpt from “Quartet for the End of Time.”]
If you reacted the same way the members of the Book group reacted, you found this piece difficult to hear: it is chaotic with little sense of melody or traditional harmony, and it is certainly not a piece that many of us would hum to ourselves while working in the garden. Why would Messiaen write such a musically inaccessible piece? The answer is in the composition’s title: “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen based his piece on the book of Revelation and inscribed these words in his score: “In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse who lifts his hand toward heaven saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’” Before the war, Messiaen had been a music professor and church organist in Paris, but he enlisted in the French army when war broke out and eventually was captured by the Germans. In the bleak conditions of the POW camp, he wrote his quartet to try, through the chaos of his music, to describe his sense that the world was unraveling, the familiar was disintegrating, and time itself had become unwound. As the author of 75 Masterpieces points out, “Surely it must have felt to many Europeans as though the apocalypse was at hand as Nazi aggressors stormed triumphantly across Europe, set on establishing their Third Reich.” 2
The word “apocalypse” has come to mean in popular speech, “the last days,” the great cataclysm when the world as we know it comes to end in dramatic fashion, but the Greek word from which apocalypse comes — ἀποκαλύπτω — means simply “revelation.” It has taken on its more dramatic meaning for Christians because the most famous revelation that most people know is the one recorded in our Bibles as “The Apocalypse of John” or as we call it in English, the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is a startling and disturbing book full of mysterious images, cosmic battles, and God’s judgment against the powers of oppression. In the book, John describes a day when it will seem as if everything is ending but in fact, the destruction will be the first step in God’s great cleansing in which the powerful and the cruel will be brought low and the meek will be raised to the right hand of God.
“Don’t despair,” the book says to those who suffer in oppression and torment, “God will bring the mighty to their knees and justice will be served. Though it looks like the battle is lost, remain steadfast in faith because God is still in charge and soon your torment will be ended, your sorrow will be healed, and you will be restored to new life.”
This is a tremendous word of hope for those who dwell in despair and the popularity of the Book of Revelation has increased whenever people’s anxieties about the future increase which is why, right now at the beginning of the 21st century, the language of Revelation has come to dominant much of our popular rhetoric. We are living in anxious times: terrorism, global instability, viral epidemics, and the fragmentation of our communities is causing people to feel like life is unraveling and many are turning to the rhetoric of Revelation to try to make sense of the present and give them hope for the future. This book, however, is not an easy one to read and while it may provide comfort in dark times, misreading the book can contribute to the very darkness it is trying to combat with its words. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther was so concerned about the misuse of Revelation that he considered removing it from his translation of the Bible. When he finally decided to include it, he wrote a preface for it saying, “About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions…. I [myself] miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic…. I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it…. Christ is neither taught nor known in it…. Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” 3
In spite of Luther’s warnings, the book of Revelation has remained firmly embedded in the Christian imagination and even in our cultural consciousness. The word Armageddon, for example, appears only one time in the entire bible — in the book of Revelation — and yet even the biblically illiterate know that Armageddon refers to a cosmic show-down, or if you are Bruce Willis, a showdown between an asteroid and one steely eyed man determined to save the earth. If I asked a class of college students, “How many have heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse?” a majority would raise their hands, but if I asked, “Who has read the chapters in Revelation describing those horsemen and can tell me what they represent?” most of their hands would go down. And just imagine what the store clerk would say if in ringing up your grocery bill, the cash register flashed $6.66. We all know that the number 666 is fiendishly bad even if most people have no idea why. These are all from the book of Revelation.
The images of Revelation are not all bleak, however; this book has also contributed some wonderful images to our cultural vocabulary. Have you heard the phrase, “[Jesus] stands at the door and knocks?” This verse, the subject of innumerable Sunday School paintings, is from Revelation 3:20. A couple of weeks ago Stu Smith asked me about the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, specifically the source of the line “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” I didn’t know at the time where that image came from but I do now: it is from Revelation 14:19. And in spite of Luther’s concern about the Book of Revelation, I am glad he kept it in if only for the inspiration it provided to Handel when he was writing the wonderful closing choruses of the Messiah. Revelation 5:11-12 says, “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him be unto him that sitteth upon the Throne and unto the Lamb.)
Because of its popularity in our culture and especially because of the frequency with which this book is used and misused, I am going to be preaching on the Book of Revelation over the next few weeks and so your homework is to go home and actually read this book. Or even better, find an audio version and listen to it because like Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” John’s vision in the book of Revelation is supposed to feel discordant and chaotic. It’s supposed to speak not to our heads as if this revelation is a dissertation about the chronology of the coming days but to our guts so that it grabs us, disturbs us, and stays with us. The book of Revelation is best understood as the first century equivalent of “Star Wars,” or for the younger generation, of the Harry Potter series. It is to be read as if you are watching a movie with tremendous special effects, a soaring score, and images that grab your heart. When you leave the theater after watching a Harry Potter movie, you don’t google “Train tickets to Hogwarts” as if such a place really exists or ever will exist — you know that Voldemort and Harry Potter, or Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are fictional characters— but at the same time you are stirred up by those movies and leave the theater encouraged and full of determination for the battle because you know that while the plots are fictional, the corrupting powers of evil and the suffering of the good represented by those characters is all too real. We may not be young wizards in training but when Harry has to decide whether to sacrifice his life to defeat Voldemort, our hearts are stirred in sympathy because we know that real people have made that very real sacrifice — Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein a nun who died at Auschwitz, and Kayla Mueller a humanitarian worker who was captured by ISIS in Jordan in 2015 and refused the chance for freedom in order to stay and protect two other girls who had also been captured. Mueller was tortured and finally executed by her captors and before her death she wrote, “I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else….+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.” 4
This is the experience depicted in the book of Revelation. Revelation, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles, and so many other works, depicts the struggle between good and evil: Frodo versus Sauron, Aslan versus the White Witch; Harry vs. Voldemort, Michael the archangel versus the dragon. We think that Revelation is obscure but it’s only obscure if you treat as a documentary or a puzzle whose meaning has to be teased out. Read it, however, as it was meant to be read, as a theater production, or a painting in words, or a musical score, or as the first century equivalent of Star Wars, and it is not obscure at all. Revelation is a dazzling, adrenalin pumping, gut wrenching challenge that simplifies the story of our Christian experience and says, “There are kingdoms and powers that are trying to enslave you, while the powerful love of God is working to free you. You, Christian, must make a choice: whose side are you on?”
We will be looking at the book of Revelation for the next few weeks, and I encourage you to be daring and take the plunge into this remarkable bit of scripture. Read the book or listen to it: use all five senses as you absorb it so that you hear the trumpets sound, you smell the incense of the prayers of the martyrs rising before the throne of God, you taste the bitterness of the scroll, and you feel the winds rising from the four corners of the earth. Don’t try to figure it out as you read; give your brain a rest and just become immersed in its passion, and over the next few weeks, we will see where that passion carries us.
1. By Terry Glaspey
2. ibid, p. 237