Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Book of Revelation

On August 23 of the year 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted with a deafening roar. It shook the earth, sheets of fire shot up out of the crater, molten lava rained down, and it killed thousands of people as they fled in terror. If they were not burned to death, they choked on the smoke and falling ashes. The sky was dark for more than three days. And when it finally cleared, what survivors saw was an enormous field of ashes, and major cities like Herculaneum and Pompeii completely buried.

When mountains of one kind or another erupt, we get anxious, and we go searching for answers. The signs of the times are upon us, but what do they mean? Is it just a horrible bump in the road, or are we at the road’s end? Can we make things better, or are things so broken that our power to heal has been taken out of our hands?

“Not far from Pompeii,” writes bible scholar Elaine Pagels in her book entitled Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, lay the famous cave of the Sibyl of Cumae, which, [soon after Mount Vesuvius erupted,] issued an oracle that circulated throughout the Roman world. In the language of oracular tradition, the Sibyl warned that God was about to unleash his wrath on the world, causing earthquakes and raining fire and ashes from the sky.” Vesuvius, in other words, is a sign that the world is broken, that its integrity is no more. It’s the beginning of the end. That was the message from the famous Sibyl of Cumae…

What do you do when the mountain erupts in your life? How do you read the signs of the times? Think back to 9/11. Did it feel like it was the beginning of the end? In our private lives, the mountain can erupt in so many ways. A relationship breaks down. You discover you have cancer. A preschool director suddenly quits. Everything feels like it’s coming apart, and it’s hard not to get anxious. Hard not to wonder what’s ahead, where things are going…

Roughly ten years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a Jewish man belonging to a radical sect devoted to Jesus of Nazareth began to write. Vesuvius was no doubt on his mind, but above all, what was troubling him was the destruction of his homeland in Judea. The sixty thousand Roman troops sent in to besiege Jerusalem and put down the Jewish rebellion. The Great Temple desecrated and burned to the ground in 70 CE. The slaughter of thousands. The suffering of tens of thousands. These were the signs of his times. To understand them, and to share that understanding with the Jesus communities of Asia Minor (in such places as Ephesus, Laodicea, and Smyrna, among others), is why he began writing what we today know as the book of Revelation in the Christian scriptures. This morning, in this last installment of our year-long “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” sermon series, let’s take a closer look at the story that John tells. Over the past 2000 years, how has it influenced the way people interpret the erupting mountains of their times? And where do we go with it from here?

Revelation, says Elaine Pagels, is “the strangest book in the Bible.” A book of visions, a book of dreams, a book of horrors. If you read the chapter from Borg for today, you got a taste of this. But how many of you actually tried reading Revelation straight from beginning to end? Some have described it like a bad hallucinogenic drug trip. For others, it brings to mind Surrealism. For still others, it’s like the fevered imaginings of a person with war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Listen to an (incomplete) list of the images: A loud voice like a trumpet. A man whose hair is white as snow, with eyes like flames of fire. God on his throne, surrounded by four beasts each with six wings and eyes in the wings. Seven scrolls and seven seals being opened. A woman clothed by the sun, giving birth, and a great dragon ready to pounce on the baby once it’s born. A great battle in heaven. A beast with seven heads and ten horns. A harlot who rides upon the beast, named “Babylon the Great.” Christ on a white horse, leading an army clad in white robes, battling troops led by the dragon, who is now called Satan. Satan cast into a bottomless pit. Satan released, and a last battle. Satan vanquished. All whose names are not written in the Book of Life, cast into a lake of fire. And then, images of the New Jerusalem. Listen to Revelation 21:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

What do you think about that? Bad drug trip? An ancient form of surrealism? Perhaps the best off-the-cuff explanation here might be the fevered imaginings of war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, since John has just seen the center of his spiritual life as a Jew destroyed. It’s wartime. Crucifixions as far as the eye can see. This is a kind of erupting mountain that can crush your spirit, make you bleed in the urgency to interpret the meaning of what’s going on. Big bump in the road, or road’s end? Can we make things better, or is that power out of our hands?

Revelation is indeed a strange cocktail of images. But there is method to the madness. John, first of all, was steeped in a knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures; 65% of what he says draws from imagery coming from older Biblical sources. If you don’t know the Bible, then of course the images are going to seem cryptic. That image of the woman clothed by the sun giving birth, for example: John adapts it from Isaiah. The image of the dragon: we find it named as Leviathan in the Psalms, in Job, and also lurking behind the scenes in the Genesis (for, as you may recall, the universe, before God begins to creatively act upon it, is a watery realm, and you better believe Leviathan is swimming around in it…) The image of the four winged beings surrounding God’s throne: comes from Ezekiel. And so on.

Yet there is an additional reason for the cryptic quality of Revelation’s imagery: to prevent the main target of John’s wrath from becoming aware of his message. John is completely and utterly hostile towards Rome. Rome is the harlot, Babylon the Great. Rome is the dragon, the beast with seven heads and ten horns. Rome is what gets vanquished by Jesus when he comes again and leads the army clad in white robes. But until that time comes, John doesn’t want Rome to know what he’s saying about them. If it does, bad things will happen…..

So there’s reasons for why Revelation is so hard to understand. War-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Heavy reliance on strange imagery from Hebrew scriptures that outsiders are unfamiliar with. Obscurity for the purpose of safety.

But we’ve read Borg. So we’ve cut through all that and come to a sense of what John was really trying to say. And here it is, his read on the signs of the times, which he communicated to the Jesus communities in Asia Minor around 90CE:

1. We live in a harshly dualistic world, a block universe of moral absolutes. All evil vs. all good. Most people walk in spiritual darkness but there are some who dwell in the light and will be saved. John expresses all this through a spiritual geography that opposes Babylon with the New Jerusalem. Babylon, says John, “has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of very foul bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.” But the New Jerusalem, as we heard a moment ago, is a very different place. A city of pure gold, transparent as glass, foursquare; and there is no night there.

2. John also said this to the Jesus communities in Asia Minor: All the erupting mountains we’re experiencing these days are not just big bumps in the road. The end IS near. So as we careen our way there, our job is simply to stay pure. Don’t accommodate ourselves to the values of Babylon (which, remember, is code for Rome). Back away. Resist its temptations, remain apart. Call this exclusivism, and John preached it not only against Rome itself, but also against fellow followers of Jesus whom he judged soft on Rome, like Paul. Remember Paul, the guy whose importance to Christianity is second only to Jesus? The guy whose letters make up most of the Christian Bible? John flames Paul and Paul’s followers over and over again, calls them “cowards, the faithless, abominable, filthy … and all liars.” Why? Because Paul took a moderate stance on meat that had been sacrificed in local temples to state Gods, said it was fine to eat; and Paul said mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles was OK. Strictly observant Jews—and the writer of Revelation is one of them—believed that doing either represented the basest accommodation to Roman values, and polluted one’s soul. Relative to them, Paul was a flaming liberal!! John in Revelation says very plainly: Jesus hates people who eat sacrificial meat. Jesus hates people in mixed marriages. Jesus hates!

3. Besides saying that we live in a harshly dualistic world, and that the end is near so we need to stay pure, John said a third thing to the Jesus communities of Asia Minor around 90CE: It’s out of your hands. You can’t make things better through the power of your own hands. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s in God’s hands now, and let me tell you, God is like the Incredible Hulk. “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Too late! Jesus is coming back to smash Rome. He’s gonna out-Satan Satan in his violence. Open up a can of whoop-ass! Hold on to your hats….

4. But, finally, all will be well. If we’re living in Babylon right now, it won’t be forever. Soon enough, God will be moving us to a different place: the New Jerusalem, and God will wipe every tear, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Except for most of humanity, which will be screaming in that lake of fire with Satan and his minions…)

That’s how John read the signs of his times. The world as we know it is fundamentally broken. It must be totally destroyed, and God’s coming to do that. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be excruciatingly painful, but if we stay faithful, if we stay pure—if we stay away from false prophets like Paul—then we are assured of our place in the New Jerusalem, while everyone else joins Satan in the eternal lake of fire.

How many Americans, do you think, read the signs of the times today just like this? 59%. 59% of Americans believe in some version of the end times….

Clearly, the book of Revelation has been influential from its beginning, up until this very day. Doesn’t matter that John was writing specifically to the Jesus communities in Asia Minor in his time. Doesn’t matter that he continually told them that it all must soon take place, that the time is near. Doesn’t matter that he has Christ literally say, “I am coming soon.” Doesn’t matter that he was dead wrong about this! The book has nine lives. “The book,” says Elaine Pagels, “has lived for two thousand years by interpretation and reinterpretation. The way this book has lived has to do with the openness of these vivid symbols…” Very true.

One ironic reinterpretation of John’s message came around two hundred years after he wrote it, with the rise of Constantine the Great. Constantine becomes the Roman emperor, he makes Christianity the state religion, he says, “I’m ruling in the power of Christ and I’ve overcome the evil power.” So what he does is he has a huge banner created and hung in his palace, one that features the dragon image from the book of Revelation, and it’s being speared by Christ. Do you see the irony in this? John, who preached the need to stay separate from everything Rome, has his message taken up and appropriated by the emperor of Rome … because the message is so open, the images are ripe for being shaped and used in all sorts of ways…

Here’s a 19th century appropriation of John’s message—see if you recognize it:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

That’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by one of our Unitarian ancestors, Julia Ward Howe, in support of the Union cause in the Civil War. But Confederate loyalists would also draw from the imagery in Revelations to make their opposite case. They would portray Abraham Lincoln as being strangled by the great dragon that they saw as the Union. The book of Revelation lives because its images are so open to being used in all sorts of different contexts….

These days, we are painfully aware of how the book of Revelation is used by fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians. We’re talking rapture, great tribulation, Armageddon, last judgment, all that stuff. And millions of people just eat this up. As in Hal Lindsey and his Late Great Planet Earth—40 million copies sold. Even bigger is the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins—62 million copies sold…. Left Behind also takes the form of a video game, targeted at young teens. The premise is this: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group. You are issued high-tech military weaponry. Your mission? To conduct physical and spiritual warfare to remake America as a Christian theocracy. What do you think about that? Does that raise your anxiety level, at least a bit?

It’s a sign of our times, just one of the erupting mountains we need to understand. And it is so tempting to apply the same logic that John did in his day. So tempting to think that we’re living in a Babylon that is fundamentally perverse. So tempting to want to stay away from groups whose theologies we despise. Keep Paul, kick out John. So easy to fall into despair, thinking that there’s not much we can do to make things better. So easy to dream of a New Jerusalem that is a perfect place, without disturbance, without difficulty, without trouble. The Unitarian Universalist congregation of our dreams.

John’s Revelation would take us right there, but I would have us consider an alternative vision, one that is equally ancient. It was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. Like so many other writings, it never made it into the Christian Bible. It’s called Thunder, Perfect Mind. Here’s an excerpt:

I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek after me.

Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.

Isn’t that fascinating? Note that the divine power described here is feminine in nature…. What if the Christian Bible included this and left John’s Revelation out?

The vision of Thunder, Perfect Mind is absolutely not a rigid dualism of good vs. evil. Rather, it affirms the existence of a holy power that is fully in a world in which good and evil are mixed together and somehow need each other. There’s a secret door in Babylon that takes you straight to the New Jerusalem; there’s a secret door in the New Jerusalem that takes you straight to Babylon. Or, perhaps better to say that Babylons and new Jerusalems just don’t exist; no place is ever all bad or all good. As for our job: not to remain pure but to be whole, to comprehend both the darkness and the light that are equally in our hearts and to judge wisely, because sometimes what seems bad is needful and sometimes what seems righteous is evil. To judge wisely, and then to choose. God’s not going to come barging in like some Incredible Hulk. We don’t want a God who acts like Satan to vanquish Satan. We don’t want to be made over in the image of that kind of God, for the God we are worshipping we are becoming.

Mountains are going to erupt in our lives. They are. But it’s not the end. The road runs ever on. And in our hands is this: power to make things better.  Always.