At the end of the visions I, John, heard these words:
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21
A few weeks ago was the end of an era; a culmination of a decades-long project that has spanned several continents, thousands of man-hours, millions of dollars, and captured the imagination of millions of people throughout the world. It is a bittersweet thing to come to the end of such a massive project, and let me take this opportunity to remind all of you that many people in our lives are going to need emotional support over these next few months. This is an opportunity for you to love and support them through this difficult time as they are adrift searching for a new sense of meaning. I see a few of you look a bit lost, I am of course referring to the end of the hit television show Game of Thrones. It is of course a bit silly to ascribe so much weight to the end of a television series, at the same time, we cannot underestimate the power of a good story. Whether fictional or real, humanity’s unique ability to empathize let’s us see ourselves in the characters, love them, learn from them and ultimately mourn for their loss when the story ends. Whether the story had a happy or sad ending is irrelevant, ending a journey with someone always carries with it a tinge of sadness, a certain emptiness and uncertainty about where to go next. Their story has ended, but ours keeps marching on.
We’ve reached the end today. The Revelation reading today are the last words of the Bible. Even though John had no idea he would be concluding the most widely read text in the history of humanity he does not fail to deliver. He ends with a stirring vision of Christ proclaiming his imminent return and a battle cry to rally behind: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”. So be it! What better way to end the greatest text ever written than with an optimistic and bold cry into the future. But the question is, now what?
This Easter season we have talked often about the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, that by living in the Resurrection we can hasten the coming of that kingdom. We have been treated to visions of streets of gold, of the light of God’s presence radiating from every believer, a time of peace where we will beat our swords into plows and live without fear of hunger, violence, and death. What we have spoken very little of is how one actually lives in the New Creation. This has been one of the deepest sources of frustration and anxiety that people have with the Bible, in the ancient and modern worlds. The whole New Testament is consumed and fascinated by the idea of the end times, when Christ will come again and set everything right. But here we stand at the end of Scripture, still waiting and unsure of when that time will be.
I’ll give y’all a Ten-dollar phrase for this anxiety, in Bible scholarship this is known as the Delay of the Parousia: which is basically wondering why Jesus’ second coming has been taking so long. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but when Paul was writing his letters to various churches, he was convinced that Jesus was coming any day. That’s why he says seemingly crazy things like no one should bother getting married since the end is coming soon (I Corinthians 7). This anxiety is why we even have books like the letters to Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, and other letters written by Paul’s disciples in his name. Paul gives us nothing as far as “Christian family values” or anything about how to set up a society in light of the New Creation that Jesus has wrought. He didn’t need to! He figured any day now Jesus was coming, and he wrote his letters mainly to address specific issues and bring as many people to Christ as possible, he didn’t have time to worry about anything else. The writers of the deutero-Pauline letters were the ones who realized that if Jesus was going to take a while, they needed to figure out how to set up a Christian household. This same anxiety is why we have the Gospels. Critics of Christianity note how much later all the Gospel books were written after Jesus’ earthly life. The earliest possible being a little over 30 years after the events described. Of course it took that long, they figured that Jesus was coming tomorrow! Only after years had passed did they realize that they needed to write the stories and sayings of Jesus down since the first-hand witnesses were beginning to dwindle.
It seems that the Bible has left us on a bit of a cliffhanger. Where’s the economic plan, the policy about freedom of speech, the method for eliminating poverty, understanding new science and conceptions of humanity? How are we supposed to live in the New creation when the story ends but time keeps passing by?
This is where many have fallen into the temptation of reading things that aren’t there in the Bible. Revelation is probably the most common victim of this tactic, with its strange symbols, real coded messages to circumvent authorities, and its subject matter people have taken Revelation and twisted it into any message they want God to say. In a desperate search for answers many people today have forgotten what the Bible really is. It isn’t an instruction manual, a political manifesto, or the only revelation that God has given to humanity. It’s a library. The name even comes from Bibilia or “library”. And in that library is story, myth, theology, law, history, wisdom, care, and even song. There are many things left for us to understand, but there is no great secret message or magic trick hidden in its pages that is going fix every problem humanity faces. Especially here at the end of it all, this reality seems to be supremely disappointing, we are still left with that sense of emptiness, unsure where to go next.
Let’s take a step away from the cosmic scale and think about this problem in a more mundane sphere; something more manageable like improving in a hobby. For the last few years I’ve been trying to be a better lead guitar player. This drive was sparked by awe at my friend I was in a band with. He was the lead player and I was always the rhythm guitarist, and I was amazed at how he could effortlessly move around the fretboard, making stirring melodies completely on the fly. Whenever in rehearsal he’d let me try a solo, just for the fun of it, mine were always awkward, stilted, and lost. I was mystified by how easy it seemed for him and how hard it was for me. I had heard that most guitar soloing was based on just two scales of five notes each. I learned them early and easily but my solos just sounded like awkward scale practicing, his solos sounded like songs. So I assumed what every red-blooded American assumes in that situation. “Oh, I must not have the right stuff, he can play that because his guitar is better than mine”. I bought all kinds of gear, spent every bit of money I could save on amps, guitars, effects, anything. When I finally had amassed enough stuff to be satisfied by how I sounded I realized something. I wasn’t any better.
Then I thought, “There must be some trick or technique that I just don’t know.” So I studied music theory, watched YouTube videos, bought books, spent hours and hours learning about the many complex ways one can make music. Then something miraculous happened:
I got worse.
Whenever it came my time to solo, or practice soloing: now I wasn’t just playing stilted scales, now I was playing stilted triads, arpeggios, chord-tones, double-stops. I knew the names for everything, but now I was spending so much time trying to figure out how it all fit together, and categorizing it into little boxes in my head, it wasn’t even as musical as it was when I started. Finally in my frustration I called my friend and asked him how he got so good at soloing what was his secret? “I just play the two scales, switching between them depending on the chord”. I was downright offended at how simple it sounded. He didn’t even know all the names of the notes he was playing! He hadn’t spent the hours studying theory, researching gear to purchase like I had. Then I realized something: all that time I had spent studying theory, or shopping for new gear, he had spent it practicing those two simple scales. While I was deconstructing the building blocks of songs, he was learning how to play them. So I started practicing those scales again, I finally got just a tiny bit better. After all this time, money, and effort all I needed to do was actually practice.
Sometimes it’s easier to believe that the answer is in some elusive mystery just around the corner rather than putting in the effort we know we need to actually improve. The Bible doesn’t actually leave us on a cliffhanger about how to live in the New Creation. God has been saying the same thing since the beginning: Love God, love your neighbor. That’s how we live in the New Creation. That is how to live in the Resurrection and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. What we seem to be struggling with so much is actually practicing it. If you’re still a little lost for what to do next, don’t worry, Jesus tells us the answer: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”