Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.
As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
When I was a kid, I had a recurring dream that I was walking through my house. Just walking, everything familiar: bedroom, hallway, family room with our awful plaid sofas. Then, all of a sudden, I’d come across a doorway, and step across, and there would a whole other room, a room I’d never noticed in this house where I lived everyday.
It was rare that there was anything interesting in that room, but I always woke up with this sense of dread, of fear even. I didn’t like the thought that there could be something that huge I was missing in my own house.
The first time I read the Bible through, in college, was a bit like having that old nightmare.
Encountering two chunks of our Bible—the second half of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation—was like finding a room in my own house I’d never seen before. Not in picture books, not in Sunday School, not in devotionals, not in sermons. The lectionary doesn’t offer them to us. I never knew they were there, and that filled me with a sense of dread.
I thought I knew the Bible. But this—I didn’t know about this.
Unlike in my childhood dreams, these rooms—scholars call them the apocalyptic literature of the Bible—are, in fact, full of strange and dreadful and terrifying things, locusts and dragons and moons dripping blood. Many Christians I know—many preachers I know—treat these books like the crazy uncle at the Bible’s dining room table, spouting off impolite conspiracies and embarrassing the rest of the family. These apocalyptic scriptures are what make reasonable people roll their eyes at those of us who cherish the Bible—you believe that nonsense?
In a way.
We began this sermon series at the front of the Bible, when God said “let there be light.” I love the beauty and poetry of those opening words of Genesis. Many of us do. But I told you it was theology—not history, not science. Those opening words of Genesis are about who God is, not about the facts of the origin of the world, because the ancient people who wrote them didn’t have access to the facts about the origin of the world, but they did have access to God.
Now we have traveled, in just six weeks, through the Bible, and we’ve come now to the end—the end of both testaments, Daniel and Revelation—and once again, we are encountering stories that are more about God than they are the facts of the world. Apocalyptic writing is not the same as fortunetelling; again, the goal is to reveal something about God, as the entirety of scripture aims to do.
The writers of the second half of Daniel and of the Book of Revelation just do it with a whole lot of imagination.
This is Donald Jackson’s illustration of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the St. John’s Bible. And I’ll tell you something, I thought for years that the four horsemen of the apocalypse weren’t in the Bible, that they were made up, something out of Dante or the Apocrypha. But they’re there. They’re in there, in our Bible, and they’re discomforting, and weird.
In fact, I won’t ever tell you that apocalyptic literature isn’t weird. It really, really is, and just like a dream, the deeper you get into it, the less sense it makes. What I will tell you is that I think we need it. Need it for our faith, just as much as all the easier bits of the Bible.
When I had the chance to see the St. John’s Bible in person, a docent flipped through the pages for us. We saw creation, the prophets, the gospels, even Paul. But, ever polite, she never flipped all the way back to Revelation. I had to find that one for myself, on the internet.
And I love how Jackson has painted it.
I had wondered whether the images might be faded or blurry, like in a dream sequence. Instead, Jackson chose to saturate the colors—to paint in deep reds and greens and blues—to make these visions realer than real. It’s the same color scheme he used for the prophets.
One of my favorite shows is Pushing Daisies. It’s a show about a piemaker who raises the dead, and even though there’s a horrific murder in every episode it’s outrageously funny. One of the ways the show lets us know that we’re not quite in the real world—that it’s ok to laugh at murder victims—is by oversaturating the colors on the screen. It’s not our world. It’s something more—something magical—somewhere our rules don’t quite apply.
Revelation is like that. It’s not quite our world, but something more. An oversaturated place where our metaphorical battles become realer than real. Our rules don’t quite apply, but God’s do.
In apocalypse, the complex is simplified. It is one thing, of course, to give a lecture about wealth inequality and international conflict and the tendency of people to idolatry—it is quite another thing to tell a story about beasts that stalk and hunt humanity. We need to talk sensibly and reasonably about the causes of human suffering in 2022. But we also need to remember that, for those who are starving, for those who live under threat of war, for those who see no way out: for them, the beasts are very, very real.
Jackson weaves these together, the threats of our world and the threats of the world of imagination. You can see John’s vision of the four horses racing across the page spread, white, red, black, and green, come to bring conquest, war, famine, and death. But if you look closer, you can also see glimpses of our world peeking through—tanks stand at the ready, oil rigs gut the earth, radiation signs flash their warning, and a single nuclear tower rises in the right hand corner. Jackson was painting these pages as Japan was struggling with the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011—the apocalypse of his moment. Perhaps more prescient for us in 2022 are the red and blue squiggles at the very center of the page—a microscopic image of a virus.
What Jackson has painted into this image are the headlines that raise our anxiety—that make us feel like maybe the world is ending, like maybe there is no hope, like maybe we really are too far gone.
But the point of apocalypse is not to discourage us, but to encourage us. Really. Just like Genesis doesn’t know all the facts about the past, but does know about God, Revelation doesn’t know all the facts about the future—but knows exactly who God is. Apocalypse in our scripture tells us that no matter how bad it gets—and it can get very, very, very bad—God will always come for us. God will always win.
It won’t be an easy victory, or a quick one. But God will always win.
It takes a while to get there, but in the bit of Revelation we read today, the tide of battle is finally turning. Out of heaven comes a rider on a white horse, leading heaven’s armies against all the evils on earth. John gives him several names and titles, in true mystical tradition, but the one that intrigued me most in reading this passage was Word of God. In his vision, John calls this soldier the Word of God, the same thing we call Jesus, the same thing we call this book.
Somehow, in John’s eyes, these words—from the laws of Leviticus to the parables of the gospels to the faithful letters written to and from the early church—these words have a power to overturn evil.
I told you before, apocalypse is not a genre to be taken literally. Doing so would suck all the juice out of it. But in John’s imagination, this book—these words, animated in the person of Christ—have more power than we might otherwise think. These words—words like “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor” and even “love your enemy”—these are better weapons against the world’s suffering than anything else in the celestial armory.
Sometimes when we talk about Revelation, someone will object that the book is too violent, too far astray from the Jesus who said “blessed are the peacemakers.” And so it’s worth taking a moment to notice that even—or maybe especially—in this dreamworld, it is only God who gets to fight the battles, God who gets to hunt down the beasts, God who gets to make the judgment. Never us. Twenty-two chapters in this book, and never us who go to war. In fact, the only two things we humans get to do are to have faith, and to sing.
Our only weapon is a melody, a song of praise and trust to the One who protects us. That’s it. Revelation is not an invitation to violence, but an invitation to trust, that despite the scariest headlines, despite the worst news, despite our most anxious imaginings and fever dreams, God is with us.
That’s why we need these strange, scary books, I think. Because sometimes life is strange and scary, and we need to know now, ahead of time, before the apocalypse crashes in around us, that God knows the path. Even when we think all is lost, God is out to find us.
Throughout the St. John’s Bible, Donald Jackson paints the presence of God in gold ink, gold that gleams from the pages. But here, right at the end, he does something different. Jackson places thin bars of holographic foil throughout the pages of Revelation, which show a rainbow of colors when they reflect the light. This rainbow—more complex, more surreal, even more beautiful, I think, than the gold—is such a gorgeous way to show us God. God, at last, in full color.
I still don’t spend a lot of time reading the apocalyptic parts of scripture. I believe in a balanced diet, and too much time in other people’s dreams can be disorienting. But I am no longer afraid or ashamed that they are there. Because when the whispers are too loud, and the headlines are dripping blood, and the dragons are prowling around the edge, that’s when I need to know:
There is a rainbow in the darkness.