Easter 7C Sermon (2004)

7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Rev. 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21;
John 17:20-26; Acts 16:16-34


This morning we finish our reading of the Book of Revelation during this Easter season. The biggest new thing for me in reading Revelation this time around has been the suggestion to compare it to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge has a visionary Christmas that he will never forget. It changes his life. He wakes up on Christmas morning a new man, generous when he had been miserly, cheerful when he had been cantankerous, warm and loving when he had been cold and callous.

I believe that we are supposed to read the Book of Revelation and wake up similarly changed. All the dark images of Revelation are not about predicting the future two thousand years later, like so many people read Revelation today. The dark images are meant to show us terrible sides to those powerful empires of any age. In John’s time it was meant to show them the Roman empire. It was very alluring to join in with the Roman empire if one was allowed. They held that part of the world in tight control through military might. They wielded the wealth of taxing all the provinces they controlled. If you could get in on their side of power and wealth, it was hard to turn down.

Yet John’s vision is meant to say, ‘Hold on! Don’t get drawn in. Don’t get seduced by that kind of power and wealth. Stand fast in the faith of God’s power of life and love shown through the Lamb slain who gave himself up to those powers but even now has been raised from the dead and has begun to reign. Shape your life today by that power of love and life, because as the vision shows us, someday that power of military might and uncontrolled wealth will play itself out and be its own punishment, sinking into a hell-hole of its own making. Well, to the extent that we truly see the dark side of this world’s empires built on military power and material wealth, doesn’t this make for waking up a changed person?

On the other hand, we’ve been also considering the very common way of reading Revelation as represented by the popular series of Left Behind books. By reading Revelation as a prediction of the future, I submit to you that these books have not only missed the point, they’ve also gotten sucked into exactly what John was trying to help them not get sucked into. These books try to see the future as God turning the tables and in the age-old scenario of rewarding the good people and punishing the bad. They dream of one day having a military victory to end all battles. They dream of great wealth and reward for themselves alone. In short, these books get caught up in thinking of power exactly like all the beastly empires throughout history. They completely miss the point of Revelation’s main character, the Lamb slain, who shows us a completely different kind of power to put our faith in.

These books also completely miss the significance of the ending that God promises. Revelation shows us the collapse of the imperial power and the day, then, when the Lamb’s power of love and life will descend from heaven and merge with the earth to completely renew creation. It will be like experiencing a new heaven and a new earth. It’s gleaming city will have its gates wide open for all who choose to enter, even those kings and nations who had been deceived by the satanic powers of military might and material wealth.

But the Left Behind way of reading Revelation shows us not only a completely destroyed earth in the end but an entirely destroyed population. The only survivors are those who have continued to believe in Jesus as one who would someday return with the rewards of military might and wealth. There’s no hint of Jesus the Lamb at the end of these books because they have accepted the world’s view that military might and wealth are what really reign in the end. They do not put faith in the Lamb’s brand of power in loving service.

Now, if these are two completely different kinds of visions that wake us up to how we live our lives right now, can you see the difference?

Do you remember Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan? James Watt. As Sec. Of Interior, he was charged with caring for the environment, but he told U. S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Watt’s “use it or lose it” view of the world’s resources is a perspective shared by many Rapture proponents, whose chief preoccupation is counting down to earth’s violent end.

Contrast this bunker mentality to the traditional Christian understanding in Martin Luther’s oft-quoted remark that “If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow I would plant a tree.” Luther is saying he would continue to live even more deeply rooted in the confidence of God’s love for the world. “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven,” is what Jesus taught us to pray. It is not a prayer to take us away from earth, nor a prayer for escape in a bunker, but a prayer that God’s reign will come to earth — and that it will even come “through us,” as Luther explains.

Moreover, in the Left Behind view of the end-times, normal life gets suspended as the countdown gets closer. Hero Buck Williams was probably a law-abiding driver in normal circumstances. But the Left Behind message is that times are no longer normal. In these final days on the cusp of a new era or “dispensation” in God’s prophetic clock, the rules are suspended and ethics shift. Every male reader’s road-rage fantasy is fulfilled when Buck bypasses a long line of traffic:

Buck saw a mushroom cloud slowly rise and assumed it was in the neighborhood of O’Hare International Airport … Buck looked quickly behind him and out both side windows. As soon as the car ahead gave him room, he whipped the wheel left and punched the accelerator. Chloe gasped as the car jumped the curb and went down through a culvert and up the other side. Buck drove on a parkway and passed long lines of creeping vehicles.

“What are you doing, Buck?” Chloe said, bracing herself on the dashboard.

“I don’t know what I’m doing babe, but I know one thing I’m not doing: I’m not poking along in a traffic jam while the world goes to hell.” (Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, vol. 3 of Left Behind series [Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998], 9-10)

Buck’s decision to bypass the long line of cars makes perfect sense in the Left Behind mentality that the end-times are upon us and only born-again individuals matter. So does his decision to drive right to the car dealership and buy the largest, most powerful car he can possibly afford — a fully loaded Range Rover “under six figures.” After all, gas mileage and global warming are hardly a concern if the planet only needs to last seven more years.

Extemporize concluding remarks contrasting Left Behind with the Sermon on the Mount

NRS Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

NRS Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, May 23, 2004

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