Few books in the Bible are as polarizing as the Book of Revelation. It’s the book of the antichrist, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the number 666, For some, its apocalyptic narrative provides a clear roadmap of the end times, each symbol and event aligned with doomsday.
For others, Revelation is easily side-stepped and ignored because of its weirdness. At times, I must admit, I fall into this category. In these days, particularly in the northern hemisphere, the Church is having such a hard time presenting itself to the culture around us as a voice of reason, and the heavily symbolic book of Revelation is hardly the place I would begin a marketing campaign for Christianity. Unless, of course, we wanted to host a film series on the Zombie apocalypse in which case, well, bring it on.
In between these two polar positions is a place which seeks to understand what this book meant then and what it can mean now. Self-described as being written by a Christian mystic named John of Patmos to seven Churches in what we now call Turkey, these pieces of correspondence intended to bring encouragement to Churches facing specific challenges, particularly at the hands of their Roman overlords. Heavy symbolism kept some of the most accusatory comments shrouded in secrecy for safety’s sake, yet the recipients would get what was being said. John of Patmos needs these Churches, under heavy persecution, to know that their struggles are not invisible, that the everlasting God is not ignoring their plight, and that the power of Christ’s resurrection will eventually win the day.
After so much time talking about beasts and dragons and growing turbulence and the destruction of Babylon, what is said in chapter 21 strikes a different chord. It is so hopeful, repeatedly using the word “new” as it describes the arrival of that Kingdom or Kin-dom of God that Jesus spoke of – a new world where power is completely inverted. These words emphasize not the turmoil, but the glorious unfolding of what God intends even now. As we step into this beautiful portrait of God’s new creation, we notice these features:
• All sense of separation from God evaporates, as God dwells with us.
• Death, put in its proper place when Jesus rose above it, no longer holds us hostage.
• Our pain and our losses are held in love, God’s own comfort wipes away our tears.
• The things we allow to define our lives and our days, our self-selected Alpha and Omega, are replaced by an acknowledgement that God as both source and destination.
• And: in a world where God’s everlasting intention breaks into the present, the thirsty will have all the water they need, without price. Imagine what the world we live in would be like, if healthy water was the birthright of all people, rather than a commodity.
In preparing for today’s service, I have found myself particularly drawn to the first part of verse four: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” What a beautiful, tender image for God, as present as a parent comforting a child, wiping away the tears of all who suffer.
As I picture God holding, nurturing, wiping away tears, I cannot help but think of the discoveries at Kamloops and other Residential School sites, which continue to have such impact. For generations, Indigenous children were not only taught but physically shown evidence by employees of Church and state, of a God motivated by wrath rather than love, as the gospel of Jesus Christ was weaponized into a tool for cultural conversion. What a different picture, to visualize what God is actually like: a God who is moved by the hurt and sorrow, listens to the betrayal and the abuse and the anguish, and wipes away the tears without dismissing or minimizing what has happened.
As I picture God holding, nurturing, wiping away tears, I bring to mind the woundedness of the earth, and her cries of anguish. I hear the Friday voices of young people in Glasgow, urgently pleading to COP 26 delegates to recognize just how dire a situation this planet is in. The God of my understanding is not insulated from the problems faced by the soil and the waters and the creatures who dwell here, safely ensconced elsewhere; the God who wipes away tears is the loving Creator who is impacted by the perilous fragility of this planet.
As I picture God holding, nurturing, wiping away tears, I am drawn to a two-fold reality: our hopes in Christ, of a world of peace, a world where threat, violence and intolerance have no place… and yet I cannot turn my back on the parents and spouses and children who lost a loved one in times of armed conflict, or the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds carried by many who served. I envision the comforting God patiently sitting with those trying to make sense of war, and encouraging those who give themselves to the path of peace.
As I picture God holding, nurturing, wiping away tears, I am drawn to God’s love for all who live in fear: fear of domestic violence, fear of neighbours who despise the colour of your skin or the accent in your voice or your choice of life partner, fear of social contact after twenty months largely spent away from others. My spirits are lifted by news of individuals and programs reaching out with encouragement of, solidarity with, and advocacy beside those who live in trepidation, for in those actions God is undoubtedly present.
And as I picture God holding, nurturing, wiping away tears, I encounter my own yearning for a world that does not resort to easily binaries. Rather than listening for the complexity of what it means to be human, it is so much easier to label those with different thoughts, or of different backgrounds or different circumstances as “other”, or “enemy”, or “lesser”, and automatically wrong. I lament the dearth of patience, respect and curiosity in newsfeeds and even in our conversations with one another; I hope that this present mode of judgmentalism will be replaced by a new way of listening, learning, confronting ones own biases, welcoming breadth of understanding.
It will be a long time, I think, before I become particularly cozy with the Book of Revelation, but it encourages me that once it moves through its tumultuous images and scenarios, it arrives at a place where God acts, decisively, with fullness of transformative love. As we face our sorrows and our upsets, as we struggle to find solid footing as COVID continues to baffle us, as we look for something we can count on – we encounter the embrace of God, hearing us out, binding our wounds, drying our tears. With hope and with gratitude, we lift our thankful praise. Amen.
Christian Bible Reference. “What is the book of Revelation about?” https://www.christianbiblereference.org/faq_Revelation.htm
Evans, Jonathan. http://www.boundlessvancouver.ca/the-book-of-revelation/
Frye, John. “The first and final word.” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/10/13/first-final-word/
Greenwald, Morgan. https://bestlifeonline.com/accidental-inventions/
McDade, Carolyn. “I See a new heaven”, #713 in Voices United, 1979.
Peterson, Eugene H. Reversed Thunder. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1988.
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.