“Behind every prediction of disaster there stands a concealed alternative.”
~ Martin Buber
as interpreted by Deborah
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the ocean had vanished.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Do you see? God’s home is with humanity: dwelling among them as their God. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
The one seated on the throne said, “Look: I am making all things new.” And he said, “Write this down, for these words are reliable and true;” Then he said, “It is complete! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Whenever the lectionary brings us a passage from the book of Revelation — it can only mean trouble. Most of us would much rather avoid this notorious text. It is scary, weird, sinister, and hard to understand; filled with horrifying, unearthly images.
Frankly, I’ve always suspected that old John of Patmos was smoking an illicit substance while composing this material, like Lewis Carroll during the writing of Alice in Wonderland. Yet it remains a part of the Christian tradition that cannot be ignored, no matter what the condition of its author, no matter how unsavory and disturbing we find its message.
The Lord Jesus said, over and over, “Do not be afraid.” And so we must face this troublesome text with courage.
Any exploration of the Holy Scriptures must begin with prayer; a humble call upon the Divine Spirit for guidance and a wise heart. We should also keep in mind some basic questions: What had the author experienced, what situation was he confronting; what did he want to convey to his hearers; and what message can we draw from it for today?
Above all, we must ask ourselves: Where is the Gospel good news to be found amid the fire and brimstone, life-devouring dragon, and disease, disaster and death-dealing horsemen?
We know that John of Patmos had been sent into exile, separated from his community, and from other Christians. He had witnessed the martyrdom of hundreds of believers who had been killed — often with vicious cruelty — for their faith in Jesus as the Lord. Holy innocents who had professed peace and the love of God were brutally tortured and murdered, but not before their children were cut down before their eyes.
Knowing that such horrors were perpetrated against your friends and family, against kind and loving souls ... it would be hard — perhaps impossible — not to be bitter, angry, and outraged. Alone on his island, looking out over the gray and merciless sea, John pondered all that had happened and imagined how things could be put right.
And that’s where he went astray.
Confusing his own desire for vengeance with divine justice, John fantasized of a “redemption” in which the Creator of heaven and earth became a Destroyer of life. In his grief and rage, this wounded soul forgot that God’s grace is greater than our sin. He forgot our Lord’s teaching that God doesn’t “fight fire with fire” — but answers us with love.
In John’s defense, he did not turn away from the faith despite all that he had seen. That Jesus had not rescued his companions from physical harm in no way caused him to doubt the Lord’s power and stature as God’s own Son. Although their bodies had been destroyed, John believed sincerely that those who died would live eternally.
He was also convinced that the best answer to the attacks against Christ-followers was not to respond with violence, nor to hide in fear, but to live the Gospel ever more faithfully. Thus his strongly-worded letters to the Christian communities.
Our task, despite whatever may come, is to keep the faith. In our acts of love and mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity we prove that those who have gone have not given their lives in vain. Their belief, their passion, and their courage call us to a higher standard: to be stronger in our faith, more persistent in our prayers, more devoted to our works of mercy — to be better Christians because of them.
In doing all these things we shall be more than conquerors over those who would destroy the good news.
John was right, too, to warn us against putting our faith in earthly things. What initially seems as lovely and perfect as a fairy princess may turn out to be a cheap and vile “painted lady” who will lead us to ruin.
Corporate slogans and campaign promises cannot be relied upon; kings and rulers will pursue their own desires, worldly riches rust and decay. Only God is faithful. Only God is always on our side.
When self-interest overwhelms concern for others, greed and violence run rampant like a raging monster. When nations and peoples fail to follow God’s teachings, hunger, disease, and disaster will come upon the earth like wild horsemen bearing down upon us with swords drawn — and will slay all in their path, without mercy.
Even in the midst of his sorrows, John of Patmos wrote to encourage those who dared to follow Christ’s Way of peace and compassion. Though he believed in — and perhaps longed for — a violent, hurtful end to our world, the Blessed Spirit still managed to insert the Gospel in his message:
“God’s home is with humanity: dwelling among them as their God. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them.”
It is not too late. That is the revelation in John of Patmos’ long and often confusing narrative. There is still time to turn our lives and our world toward Christ’s Path of peace, compassion, and love. There is still time for a new beginning.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Resist hopelessness and despair.
“Behind every prediction of disaster there stands
a concealed alternative.”
~ Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith