text :: Revelation 22: 12 - 21
theme verse :: "Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift." (Revelation 22:17b)
A sermon from the book of Revelation. That should be plenty different. Is it a dream? vision? prophecy? something else? We've made ourselves afraid of this text ... when most of us have never even read it. We tend to do the same with our faith, somehow: Make assumptions. Go on rumor. Stay in the comfortable lane. Maybe this text - as poetic and beautiful as it is intriguing and mysterious - has something to say about the purpose and reality of faith. In a waterlogged city, can we still 'take the water of life as a gift'? Do we have ears to hear?
anthem :: 'I've Been In the Storm So Long' (J.L.Ames) :: Avenue a capella ensemble; Barry Epperley, director
reader :: Bill Queen
preaching :: Rev Courtney Richards
special music :: 'Revelation Song' (K.Jobe) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader; Andi Gross, lead vocal
closing :: 'Marvelous Light' (C.Hall) :: The Rising Band
Revelation 22: 12 – 21
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
14 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. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
16 “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.”
17 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.
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19 if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
In the early 1970s, an upstart troupe of British comedians was looking to break into the U.S. market. They had a couple of seasons of sketch comedy under their belt in the U.K., and an entrepreneur and producer convinced them that a feature film would be the way to go. The six men, drawing on the favorite sketches of their two seasons on the BBC, compiled 90 minutes of their quirky, entirely unique, and sometimes off-color humor. (insert disclaimer here: Your pastor is not endorsing, merely describing.) American audiences were at first less than convinced, but a second release of the film a few years later caught on in midnight movie showings on American television, and Monty Python – with their parrots, lumberjacks, and grannies – developed a cult following that’s only grown in the years since.
When you’re just stacking these scenes together, one after the other, there’s sometimes no obvious connection from one thought to the next. (The same could very well be said of many sermons. Maybe this one.) But if some words are good, more words are better, right? Need to move from a pub full of wink wink nudge nudge to a man shouting about an albatross? The Pythons took John Cleese, dressed in a plain suit and sitting at an empty desk … put the desk in a random setting like a cage in a zoo, or floating in the air held up by propellers … and then borrowed the catchphrase of a popular children’s program at the time: And now for something completely different.
Reading the book of Revelation feels a little bit like that: a bunch of scenes stacked together, perhaps connected by a few seemingly random thoughts from odd locations. Is it a dream? Vision? Prophecy? Fever hallucination? Something else entirely? Understandings and opinions vary widely. And most of us have formed an opinion – we’re convinced it’s beyond us – we’ve made ourselves afraid of it – and in most cases? We’ve never even read it. And we don’t intend to.
And if we’re honest, we do that with a lot of our faith and life, don’t we?
Steven Crowder is a Canadian conservative talk show host, sort of a known loud-mouth, whose resume includes lots of ‘former contributor’, ‘former voice’, on the list. His podcast Louder with Crowder is pretty much what it sounds like: controversial opinions and topics, at top volume. A few years ago, he sat a table on the campus of Texas Christian University, and draped it with a banner stating an opinion he knew would get folks going, and said ‘Change my mind.’
Well, as you can imagine, he got some traffic. And some attention. And he became a meme. Because what good is a publicity stunt if it doesn’t actually generate publicity?
So now, through the magic of the internet, you can actually create your own banner. Put whatever you want in there:
- Pineapple belongs on pizza. Change my mind.
- Game of Thrones ended perfectly. Change my mind.
- Ratatouille could take Stuart Little in a fight. Change my mind. 
Crowder didn’t want conversation, he wanted attention. We don’t really WANT our mind changed on the things we think we know. We want to be where we are, enjoy what we have, and make it through the day in one piece.
But when was that ever what Jesus promised? What Jesus promised was something … completely different. And in the book of Revelation, that’s what John is trying to say.
Exiled to the island of Patmos, John receives inspiration in word and image, and gathers those to a page for safekeeping and sharing with others. The book of Revelation – and side note, it is singular: THE Revelation to John – is built much like other New Testament letters:
- a greeting and salutation;
- an address to the churches, to the faithful, offering observation, correction, and encouragement;
- and a closing benediction.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. (1:1-3)
And then we panic, right there, when we read ‘the time is near’. But let’s not. Think how long ago this was written. And how much has happened since then. So ‘the time’ being ‘near’ is sort of a relative term, right? Let’s go on. He introduces himself to the readers and hearers, and greets them in the name of the Savior.
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1:4-6)
And then he goes on, to say that he’s been given these words, that they took him by surprise too, that they were written to proclaim the one who was and is and is to come.
Yes, it gets strange. Yes, there is a lot of imagery and symbolism. Yes, there is still considerable discussion about what it refers to and what it means. Ironically, the very scripture which, in its name, suggests that things will be uncovered, opened, revealed … is the very scripture which we usually leave covered, closed, and assume we can find no meaning.
But think of this: It is the very scripture that closes the canon, that concludes our Bible. What if it’s meant to proclaim to us the very best ending there is? Not the end of the world, or the end of time, or even the end of us …
What if it isn’t even about US necessarily, but about God’s power to sway the whole world?
In our verses this morning, the very conclusion of the book itself – the benediction and blessing – we see three things:
- a gathering of all peoples, more than can be counted, only named and included
- a tree of life, in reach of all who choose to come
- gates of a city, with some gathered on one side and some on the other, but gates which remain open
If this is what God promises in the end – if this is what John, in his revelation language, proclaims is ‘coming soon’ – if the promises of Christ are true to the Divine’s own word … what could this mean for us? Could this change us? Change our mind? As Princeton Professor Eric Barreto says,
Revelation can help us if we can but draw our eyes from the dazzling visions that dot this book for a moment and see that behind them all is a simple but life-altering hope in a God that calls us all. That hope resonated in the seven churches that received this powerful book. It can still be true for us today.
As a style of writing, an apocalypse – which sounds like a terrifying word, but really just refers to a type of literature – is a way of talking back to a world that feels abandoned to evil powers. It offers a vision of something else. In the midst of voices that speak death and destruction, it speaks of a different option. In a world of oppression and challenge, it is something designed to change our mind. In a time of fear and hopelessness, it is something completely different.
On this Sunday when we come to worship in this nation, praying through national losses in yet another mass shooting, and in shootings that didn’t make the news … when we come to worship in this city, still waiting to see what the weather is going to do, what is under the water that just kept coming … when we come to worship in our own skin, knowing that in so many instances, who we are has been labeled as too much, or not enough, or unacceptable …
Maybe what we need is to read a text that flat-out says You cannot change what I have written. Maybe what we need is a scripture that begins “Grace to you and peace…” and ends “The grace of the Lord be with you.”
Maybe what we need … what our souls long for … is something completely different.
You’ll notice in this reading that even in these concluding verses, there are some pretty specific cautions. And these verses are actually eliminated from the suggested lectionary reading for today. I included them, though, because I think we need to see the whole thing; we need to work through the words that challenge us if we are to reap the rewards of the words that bless us.
The late Wendell Frerichs, professor at Lutheran Seminary, said of this book of Revelation:
John’s is not an escapist theology. He knew that his people might well face martyrdom. But their suffering and their faithfulness have meaning. They are a witness to the suffering love of the Lamb. It is this proclamation, this witness, which wins the victory. It may be that some of the most fascinating chapters—those which portray a beast rising up out of the sea or bowls of wrath being poured out—have been bypassed. But the good news of Revelation is well represented in the texts chosen.
We are opposed to using the Apocalypse for scare-tactical purposes. Its basic message is one of comfort and assurance. Then people who have been assured of Christ’s power and love can be called to heroic faith. When they see the true character of the Lamb as contrasted with that of the dragon there is no choice between them. The empty promises of political and economic powers can be seen for what they are. Our seer lets us in on the inner workings of the demonic world as well as of the heavenly world. Without such help we just might get fooled, but no more. John’s scroll is very clear on this point. The Lamb who was slain is alive and victorious. The world’s empires and tyrants are on their way to oblivion.
Seeing how the proclamations challenged the authority of the day, how these words spoke to the people of the time, helps us imagine the challenges we face and their outcomes and corrections.
- How do we deal with an epidemic of gun violence?
- What do we do about a climate that is erupting in storms unseen for centuries?
- How do we choose those who make our local, state, and national decisions?
- What do we have to say about not just economic uncertainty, but full-on injustice?
- Where do we address gender violence, mass incarceration, white supremacy, mental health?
If we are just going to hang a banner and say ‘change my mind,’ but not really be open to the work, the conversation, the listening, the prayer, the transformation that has to come … the new heaven and new earth that is promised in scripture, in THIS scripture … then why are we even here? As New Testament scholar Micah Kiel suggests, “If there is good news at the end of Revelation, it is that God does not seem yet to have closed the door to heaven, even as God knocks on the door of our world.”
There is good news. This text that we’ve learned to fear – when we’ve never even learned to read it – is filled with good news for us. And it doesn’t take John Cleese at a desk on a beach to get us there.Here is the good news, without any imagery or symbolism or scare tactics or confusion:
*The last word in all of scripture is that grace is for everyone.*
Did you catch the part where the tree of life is within our reach, and where the water of life can be taken as a gift? We know a bit about water in northeastern Oklahoma these days, don’t we?
Mayor GT Bynum shared with us yesterday:
Just announced to a gathering of our emergency responders: the Arkansas River has officially moved out of flood stage and the Army Corps has confirmed the heavy water load is off the levees!
Riverside Drive is reopened and so is the Gathering Place.
Thinking back over the last couple weeks: our community experienced an earthquake, then we were hit by a tornado, then we began to flood, then we were hit by more tornados while we were flooding.
But the people in this community kept calm, kept putting one foot in front of the other every day, and kept our focus on what we could do to help our neighbors. It is when a community is tested that you see what it is really made of. In this historic test, our community stood tall – just like this symbol of the city we love.
We have to remain vigilant. The recovery is only beginning – and more rain is on the way. But we will handle that test when it comes, too.
Yes, we need the rain to stop.
Yes, we need to keep watch.
And yes, maybe what we need is scripture that reminds us it can’t be changed. Maybe what we need is scripture that also reminds us that it begins and ends with grace.
Maybe what we need is to remember that it isn’t about us getting what we want.
Or avoiding the hard verses.
Or not having to change our mind.
Maybe what we need … what our souls long for … is something completely different.
Maybe we read the text and remember that it is, after all, about God’s power to sway the whole world. That the last word in all of scripture is that grace is for everyone.
And who are we to change that?
 I knew of this story from general news when it first came about. More info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Crowder and the 3rd DIY example came from an online meme generator.
 Eric Barreto 5/12/2013 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1626