In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Revelation Decoded

Sermon preached July 14, 2013

Texts: Revelation 13:11-18, 22:18-19; Revelation 21:1-7, 22:1-5

Iron Butterfly, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”

Play clip of song.

I might have played “Super-Cala-Fraga-Listic-Expi-Ala-Docious” but I don’t have that on my i pod. What these songs share is some non-sensical words, or at least words that don’t seem to make any sense. Super-cala-fraga-listic-expi-ala-docious is intended to be non-sense in a fun song, so in that way it makes some sense. “In-a-gadda-da-vida” apparently was intended to be “In the Garden of Eden.” There are a few stories about how in the garden of Eden became in-a-gadda-da-vida, but at least we know something of the intent. It makes some sense.
The year I graduated from college, I decided I was going to read something entirely for enjoyment, so I read The Lord of the Rings, but I went back even further with The Silmarillion and then The Hobbit. There are a lot of characters and events to keep track of, so I bought a companion book, a Tolkein dictionary that listed characters, events, etc. If I ever was confused during my reading, I could easily look something up.
The Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Someone suggested tackling this during our summer of sticky Scriptures, and so here we are. Revelation shares with “super-cala-fraga-listic-expi-ala-docious” and “in-a-gadda-da-vida” the feeling that we need some help to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, there is no authoritative guide to what the symbols in the book meant to the author, no Tolkein-like dictionary for the book.
There is no question that Revelation is strange, mysterious, fascinating, difficult, and potentially powerful. St Jerome wrote, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words” (The Literary Guide to the Bible, 523). It elicits all kinds of reactions. A biblical scholar has written of it: The Book of Revelation remains for many Christians a book with “seven seals,” seldom read and often relegated to a curiosity in the Bible. For others it is the book of the New Testament, full of predictions for the future and revelations about the present. (Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza,The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, 1) An English novelist has reacted this way to reading the book: I found it a sick text…. There something not quite right about Revelation…. The riot of violent, imagistic occurences; the cabalistic emphasis on numbers; the visceral repulsion expressed towards the bodily…. In its vile obscurantism is its baneful effect. (Will Self, Revelations, 381)
Revelation is neglected by many, repulses others, and still others find in in a road-map for the future of the world. How might we read it so that the Spirit of God can speak to us through it?
It is helpful to remember that Revelation is a kind of literature. When you are reading science fiction, it is helpful to know that it is science fiction. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. This kind of literature, which had many expressions in first-century Judaism, purported to reveal mysteries about the cosmic dimensions of the world – what might be happening in the heavenly world and how that affects the present and future of this world. It relied on symbols and images, many of which made more sense the original audience. Reality tended to be portrayed in simplistic either-or terms – good and evil, light and darkness, God and the devil. Apocalyptic literature expected that the world would end in the near future, but only following a time of intense suffering. It was often written in times when people of faith felt themselves under threat of some kind.
One of the features of apocalyptic literature which puzzles us about Revelation is its use of symbols – seals, trumpets, beasts. Some of these symbols would have made more sense to the original readers, but even to them, some could have been mysterious. To us, we have really lost the code – the symbols are even stranger. All this use of symbolism has made Revelation open to wild interpretive flights. Kathleen Norris wrote: More than any other book of the Christian Bible, Revelation has suffered from bad interpretation; solipsistic, short-sighted, cruel (Revelations, 370). I was living in Dallas, Texas when the ATF and FBI surrounded the Branch Davidian compound about a hundred miles south near Waco. At one point, David Koresh promised to surrender if he was given broadcast time to explain his theology of Revelation. It was broadcast on Dallas radio, and I listened. It was wild. The images from Revelation have a strong echo in our culture. The last three digits of my cell phone number happen to be sixes. Don’t you suppose I get some looks!
So how do we read this work more thoughtfully, open to God’s Spirit? I think that we do so recognizing that much of the work was intended as a commentary on the author’s own day and time, a theological commentary about Roman imperial rule. A number of scholars make a strong case that the number 666 could be the numeric value of the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew. Symbolically, the number six also falls short of the number seven, considered a perfect number. Oh that my cell number ended 777.
If the author of Revelation is offering a theological-political commentary on his own time, he does so out of a deep theological commitment, and faith and trust commitment that in the end, God’s purposes will prevail. In the end love wins. In this way, the writer, inspired by the Spirit, is sharing with us the central conviction of Christian hope – in the end God’s purposes prevail. In the end, love wins.
We often think about Christian hope in very individual terms – my hope for my life, particularly in the face of death. Christian hope means that my life will continue after death in God’s love, because of God’s accepting grace which I have accepted in faith. That is part of the Christian hope, but only one part of Christian hope. In the words of one of my theology teachers and mentors, Schubert Ogden: The great virtue of apocalypticism… is that it brings to expression the truly cosmic dimensions of Christian hope, which sees in the reality of God’s love the promise of final fulfillment not only for each individual person and the whole of humankind, but also literally for every created thing. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 135). In the end, God’s purposes prevail. In the end, love wins. In the end, for all creation.
If that conviction of Christian hope is the core of Revelation, we have to admit that it gets mixed in with a lot of other stuff, some of which seems very human, and not always the best of our humanity. Revelation takes some of the violent imagery we discussed last week and makes it a part of God’s work. God is seen in places in Revelation as a warrior wreaking vengeance on others. There are images of the great wine press of the wrath of God, with blood flowing from it (14:20). God drops hundred pound hailstones from heaven (16:21). If we remember that apocalyptic literature was often written in times of suffering and distress, this human element of vengeance makes some sense, and we need to read such passages in light of the whole Bible and its witness to God’s love. Whatever the character of God’s judgment, it cannot be separated from God’s love, and violent vengeance seems to do that.
Revelation is a mixed bag, but at its heart is the conviction that God’s purposes prevail and love wins. That should be our focus in reading the text. But the writer does not simply leave us with this. Inspired by the Spirit, we get a picture of what God’s purposes look like, about what happens when love wins. The writer describes a new heaven and a new earth.
What does this look like? God is near – the home of God is among mortals. God is near, and God offers tender care. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Human thirst, literal and figurative, is quenched. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. The nations are healed – the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation is about God’s purposes prevailing. It about a conviction that love wins. It is about the nearness of God, the care of God. It is about the thirsts quenched and nations healed. It is about hope, a tenacious and persistent hope.
And there’s where it hits home for you and me today. Hope. Don’t lose hope in your life, no matter how difficult. God is present. God is near. Even when we mess up, God’s love can come through – to heal, to forgive, to give us a new start. And we do mess up. The novelist Mary Gaitskill finds in reading Revelation “a terrible abstract of how we violate ourselves and others and thus bring down endless suffering on earth” (Revelations, 371). Revelation is terrifying in places, but in that way it is true to life. The world can be dangerous and terrifying sometimes, beastly. No matter how bad it gets, though, God’s purposes continue, and in the end, love will win.
The other dimension to this message of hope for us is that we are not to give up on working for God’s newer world. It is easy to lose heart, to be discouraged, to become cynical. This week I viewed two contrasting videos – a brief video produced in the 1950s about the power of the middle class and how post-war prosperity in the middle class was providing unique opportunities. I also watched Frontline about the difficult struggles of two formerly middle class families in Milwaukee. The kind of solid, good wage manufacturing jobs that were part of the core of our post-war economy are gone, and we’ve not yet figured out how to replace many of them. Discouraging. There are many other issues around which we could be discouraged. Revelation encourages hope, staying true to God’s purposes of building a newer world. When we do, our actions contribute to that newer world coming. I love the way theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff puts this. In the eschatological image of the city, we have the assurance that our efforts to make these present cities of ours humane places in which to live – efforts which are so often frustrated, efforts which so often lead to despair – will, by way of the mysterious patterns of history, eventually provide tiles and timbers for a city of delight. (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 140)
Hope. Because there is hope for your life in God, live hopefully. God’s at work building a newer world. Amen.