by Daniel Harrell
I don’t know about you but I’m still working through my New Year’s resolutions. I made three: 1] Read Moby Dick. I’m currently lost at sea. 2] Visit Iowa. One of four states I’ve never been to. 3] Take a class on a topic totally unrelated to anything I have ever studied.
I completed this third resolution. I took a daylong beekeeping seminar with 250,000 little stingers. I was motivated by the recent, well-publicized plight of honeybees worldwide. According to the Star-Tribune, the number of crops depending on honeybees for pollination quadrupled in recent decades, while the number of hives available to pollinate has dropped by half. Every winter, beekeepers lose a fourth to a third of their hives, an alarming number, raising fears that the decline of these remarkably resilient insects will soon limit the food production Americans take for granted. There’s melange of culprits— pervasive pesticides, a flowerless, monocultural landscape dominated by cash crops, the spread of parasites and diseases, and bee stress as hives are trucked cross-country and back so we can eat almonds, apricots and blueberries.
On the upside, bees make honey, but it takes a whole hive. Bees operate as super-organisms; you can’t be a bee by yourself, every bug bears its share of the load, serving the one queen to whom the whole hive bows. Bees work together in unity, growing their community, raising their larva, making their honey, all the while providing for a flourishing world of flowers and fruit. If this description strikes a decidedly spiritual tone, it may be because my bee-keeping class was taught at United Seminary up in New Brighton. While seminary may seem an odd place for bee-keeping to happen, there are similarities between beehives and churches. Churches operate as super-organisms too; you can’t be a Christian by yourself. Every bee-liever bears its share of the load, serving the one king, Jesus Christ, to whom every knee bows. Christians work together, growing their community, raising their kids, all the while providing for a flourishing world of spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace and power for good; and in our case, fuel for social entrepreneurship which some see as the next generation of mission. As for the seminary, they make a supply of delicious honey (with the bees’ help of course).
On the downside, like bees, the church is dying off in alarming numbers. 40 percent of Americans say they go to church weekly, but less than 20 percent actually do. Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 churches close their doors every year. Since 2010, more than half of all American churches failed to add a single new member. It’s pretty depressing. Some of you here for our annual kick-off Sunday, perhaps having taken the summer off from church yourself, are now probably thinking, I came back from the cabin for this? Why did I come to church this morning? I could have been walking around Lake Harriet and finding God in nature. The news gets worse. A member of our church just back from northern Iraq spent the past month in that part of the world where Christians suffer vicious attack by the now notorious ISIS. The church isn’t dying there, it’s getting killed.
Scholars wonder long before Christianity joins the roster of dead religions, taught in universities as part of the folklore syllabus? Killed off in its ancient Syrian and Babylonian homelands by Sunni extremists. Killed off in America by secular indifference. Of course some wondered the same about Jesus. They definitely assumed the same about his followers. They all got killed off too. This is why we read Revelation. Traditionally composed by an exiled John of Patmos toward the close of the first century to Christians threatened by extinction. Roman Emperor Domitian had decreed that his empire acknowledge him as the one true “Lord and God.” The Christians refused. So they were rounded up and executed. Revelation was written for them.
Whenever I’m preparing a new sermon series, I ask folks for topic ideas, and Revelation always pops up as an answer. Everybody thinks they’d like to study Revelation until they actually read it. You’re attracted to its vivid imagery and predictions: Crazy creatures that look like nothing found in nature—multi-faced animals with wings and eyes in places you’d never expect them to be, math that doesn’t quite compute, funny looking angels with scrolls and lamps and bowls and horns. Battles wage against mythical purveyors of perdition with bizarre names like Gog and Magog, all doomed to end up cooked up in a final grim supper of burning flesh, the carrion of evil eaten by the victors. While gruesome fare, Revelation has inspired countless works of gorgeous art and music from the mighty Hallelujah Chorus to the tender strains of It Is Well With My Soul. Yet Revelation has also fueled social upheaval and sectarian religious movements which were founded then foundered on what were convinced to be the surefire decipherments of Revelation’s secrets. Frenzied Biblical prophecy bloodhounds with rapture-ready sun roofs, eager not to be left behind, scrutinize every geopolitical development, technological advancement and social crisis for clues as to the number of days until Christ’s return, despite Jesus’ own insistence that nobody but God knows the time. Confusion over Revelation’s imagery and meaning eventually proves so exasperating that most people are happy to get back to the gospels. Martin Luther thought Revelation shouldn’t even be in the Bible.
Yet here it is and here we are, on this first Sunday of a new church year, resolved to try and read it again in a day when Christianity’s days again appear to be numbered.
Revelation begins with seven letters to seven churches, that part of the book that reads less weirdly. We’re starting some new small groups this fall to look at these letters, so I’m going to dive into the apocalypse proper, starting here in chapter 4. John gets caught up in what might best be described as an intense religious experience. He pictures an open door into heaven and hears again a trumpeted voice that first blew back in chapter 1. It beckons him come and take a front row seat. He’s going to be shown the trailer for all that must take place in the last days.
The curtain draws back on the Celestial Command Center, the heavenly HQ captained by “one seated on the throne,” Revelation’s preferred title for God Himself. The blinding light of divine glory mercifully refracts off precious gemstones, creating an emerald rainbow that encircles the throne. Flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, reminiscent of Moses and Mt. Sinai, forebode the ferocious justice to be unleashed. At the same time, the rainbow, reminiscent of Noah, also forecasts God’s ferocious grace. The Lord fiercely determines to so love the world, but because love cannot be coerced, those who willfully resist God’s grace will drown in their stiff-necked misery. The calm sea of glass spread before the throne testifies to their ultimate demise. The stormy waters of satanic chaos, the abode of that Moby Dick the devil himself, finally subside.
Seven torches blaze before the throne shining light on the world and representing the sevenfold spirit of God—seven being a very important number in the Bible—seven signals Sabbath satisfaction and a job well done. Creation no longer stumbles in darkness. Redeemed from the dual curses of evil and death, freed from the its own suffering and sin; creation finally fulfill its purpose. As the Psalmist foretold: “Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Rulers of the earth and all peoples, men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”
John envisions the whole creation collectively and joyfully swarming and serving the Lord like happy bees in a hive. Four living creatures—a lion, an ox, a human being, an eagle—encompass all animate life from the four corners of the earth. Covered with eyes, God’s eyes, in front and behind shows how nothing escapes God’s sight. Rightly joining their constant chorus are twenty-four elders, typically interpreted as the 12 tribes of Israel plus the 12 apostles, together comprising the whole people of God, Old Testament and New. Robes and crowns are the rewards of their persevering faith, their own thrones their seats saved in heaven. Yet their rewards are readily relinquished before the Lord whom all regard as the only one worthy to rule and be worshiped. Why? Because, as they sing, “You created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” It is God from whom all blessings flow. In a book supposedly so focused on the future, take note that God’s creatures here give no praise for their salvation. They praise the Lord for creation.
Walking around Lake Harriet on a beautiful day like today, we instinctively thank God for creation too. Reading the Bible front to back, from Genesis to Revelation, it starts with a world made as paradise, which may explain why we like to look for the Lord in nature. We want to go back. Paradise hardly lasted a week before being ruined by a couple of stupid hominids, made in God’s image no less, whose offspring go on to mess up all the Lord intended as good. Following a number of failed attempts to fix things, from Noah to Moses to Elijah and David, God finally decides to fix things himself by sending his son to mop up our mess. Jesus died on the cross for human sin, then rose from the dead as a do-over. Everything’s all better now. We’ve made it to Iowa.
It’s a good gospel—with big problems. For one, how can a world made by God as good go so bad in the first place? And two, how could people made in God’s image be so easily duped by a talking snake of all things? Most problematic, Jesus died to take away human sin, but human sin didn’t go away. You read the news. You see your self. We’ll say that “God is not done with me yet,” which isn’t a bad answer. While we have indeed been saved by grace, we’re still need grace every day. What’s true for the creature may be true for creation. What if heaven and earth are not something made good and gone bad, but something started as good but just not yet complete?
Science describes an evolving universe—albeit a completely haphazard and directionless universe, science would say. It’s taken a ridiculous amount of time and expense to get to the life we humans experience. Still, primordial bacteria did make way for broccoli and bees and you and me, all having traveled a remarkably precise path of physics and improbable genetic combination. Call it random and directionless if you want, but there’s no mistaking real movement from simplicity to complexity and intelligence and increasing beauty. How do you make sense of the remote possibility of our ever getting to where we are? Open Revelation. Turns out all that death and time are core traits of God’s nature. The Lord who was and is and is to come is the same Lord who dies for the sake of new creation. The cross and resurrection are not mop up operations. Revelation will describe Jesus as the “lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.” Redemption has been in the works from the start. And because God always finishes what he starts, Scripture can speak of new creation to come as having already happened. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John will write. True for creation and true for its creatures. “In Christ we are new creations now,” the apostle Paul declares, “the old is gone and the new has come.”
It’s just that experience has yet to catch up with reality. We live in an ironic, already/not yet tension. The old is gone but still leaves a shadow. Saved by grace we still need grace, hamsters on a wheel of sin and salvation. Harvests abound yet hunger is rampant, food production increases but poverty does too. Technology designed to make life easier makes life more stressful. People live longer but fear growing old. The goodness of the environment conflicts with the needs for employment and a good economy. Weapons proliferate for the sake of peace, wars are fought for the sake of righteousness. We say we love and care want to forgive, but we hurt and harm and resent and envy instead. The tension is tight and the shadows heavy. We walk around the lake to find God in nature, but discover mostly milfoil and misery. Easily disillusioned, we could easily conclude with author Julian Barnes that, “life is but a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, it unfolds in emptiness, with our planet one day drifting in frozen silence, the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, completely disappearing and not being missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us.”
This is why you came to church this morning. No matter how bad it gets, it’s nothing compared to the good that will be. Instead of the eventual decimation of a universe spun out of control; instead of an earth drifting in frozen silence until fried up a billion years hence by an expanding, engorging sun; Revelation envisions a bigger and better bang, a glorious new creation, the completion of heaven and earth. The dust to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which new life rises. Ours is not a throwaway planet anymore than our flesh is a mere jar of clay carelessly tossed in the ground. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, a future glory that breaks back into our present, lessening the tension and diminishing the shadow. Instead of a world set on a roll by a disinterested deity, our world is being pulled toward its true destiny by a God who loves the world and draws us into an eternal embrace. As new creations already, we taste the not-yet now—in those moments when we do love our neighbors, when we do forgive those who wrong us, when we do care for the earth and the poor and speak truth and make peace and do right and even keep bees in our yard if our neighbors will let us—in these ways and more we are drawn toward courageously becoming the people in Christ we already are. And in that day when we finally are fully ourselves; we will join that blissful ancient-future buzz of creation fulfilling its own purpose in the unending praise of God who made everything possible.