Sermon for 5-12-13
Text: Revelation 21:1-6
Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from the one who is, who was and who is to come. Amen.
The rapture seems to be everywhere these days. Every time we turn around we hear of another group trying to pinpoint the day of Jesus’ return. Last fall we watched as the supposed date for the end of the Mayan calendar arrived…and nothing happened. Many of you have read the Left Behind series and watched the movies, both of which depict the rapture event.
If you aren’t aware, the rapture describes when a small group of faithful and chosen Christians will be quickly whisked up to heaven (leaving behind eyeglasses, watches, jewelry, etc.) and those who aren’t faithful enough will face seven years of tribulation before Christ’s final return and judgment.
Those who believe in the rapture don’t know when it will happen, so they’re always looking for signs that it’s beginning. There’s a website called http://www.raptureready.com and each day it’s updated with possible new signs of the coming of the rapture.
The rapture is in our collective conscience. Armageddon and tribulation are now household words.
The rapture is based on a theological system, not solely on the book of Revelation. This system takes selected verses from Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians and Revelation (along with other Biblical books) and pieces them all together to create a timeline for how the world will end. This idea was brought into popularity in the early 1800s by an English writer named John Darby, and some Christian groups claimed it with a fiery passion we still see today.
The rapture is not a Lutheran idea. If you remember very little from this sermon, I hope you remember that.
Rather, Lutherans (and most mainline churches) rejoice in the entire book of Revelation. We don’t worry about the rapture. Revelation isn’t a mysterious code to be broken. Rather, it’s meant to reveal to us the character of Jesus, what our future holds, and the sense of urgency that exists as we live in a clearly broken world that needs our help.
Revelation is a letter written to give persecuted people hope. John wrote it to seven different churches who struggled with many of the same challenges we do. They knew persecution, violence, great poverty and suffering. Other churches were wealthy and apathetic–a theme that may hit a little too close to home for some of us.
It’s easy to get swept up in the sensationalism and anxiety that gets drummed up by Revelation and the idea of the rapture. Yet it’s important to view Revelation as a whole. Rather than getting caught up in the visions of the broken seals, the bowls, the dragon, the beast, the horsemen, and the creatures with human faces and countless eyes, it’s helpful to look at the pattern and the overall themes.
Revelation isn’t chronological, but cyclical. It moves from visions of despair and violence to gorgeous and expansive visions of the heavenly realm over and over. Every time we feel we can’t take any more terrible and disturbing images, John moves to a vision of worship and glory. The book ends, as we read this morning, with the most beautiful future vision in all of Scripture.
Revelation doesn’t tell us about the rapture when we might be chosen as the lucky ones who escape the seven years of tribulation. Instead, Revelation depicts how (as one commentator writes) God “raptures” down to us. Salvation is not us going to a mysterious place called heaven, but God coming to us. The book begins by telling us how Jesus Christ is in our midst. Jesus’ presence is a huge theme in Revelation—as is Jesus’ sacrificial love. Revelation is ecological. God has a commitment to the earth, and the earth is where salvation will occur. God embraces all of creation and changes it for the better. What we know and love is not abandoned, but transformed.
Revelation 21 tells us of the heavenly city of Jerusalem descending from heaven to the earth. Everything is transformed and made new—not annihilated, but changed. In this changed city, there will be no more dying and pain, no more tears, and no more hatred or persecution. There will be no more injustice. God’s holy city is made new. It’s wonderful how this newness is located in the city—a place of community, where all God’s people live together. This speaks directly against our temptation to live narcissistic lives, and calls us to embrace our community and creation itself.
The tears that are wiped away are not only the tears we have shed, but the tears we have caused. God will wipe away the pain of sin throughout time, not only now but throughout history. As another commentator writes, “God will not just comfort us and help us to forget the bad things, but God will redeem the whole sorry story of human history.”
This vision has given hope and life to Christians throughout the ages—from the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
This is the ultimate hope of the resurrection—when the lion will lay down with the lamb and creation itself will be completely renewed.
The following is a video of chimps seeing creation for the first time after being in laboratories for many years. Many of the chimps were in the wild before they were put into research, so seeing the world for the first time is at once familiar and transforming—just like God’s ultimate resurrection of us and all of creation illustrated in John’s Revelation.
To be released from the anxieties of the rapture frees us for life. We’re free to love, to transform, and to work for justice. We’re free to care for creation and to begin God’s transformation of the earth today. All the while, we cling to hope and find strength in what is to come.
There’s a story often told about Martin Luther. When he was asked, “If Jesus were to return today, what would you do differently?” He responded, “I’d finish planting this tree.” In other words, the best way to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God is to live our lives, caring for creation and one another. Amen.