Dangerous Inspiration | 25 October 2015

Text: Revelation 21:9-27
Speaker: John Kampen

Revelation is a book of the bible that is not a natural reference point for those of us who consider ourselves liberal or progressive Christians. We normally don’t know what to do with the strange visions, the bizarre imagery, for us Mennonites the violent imagery. This is bizarre and confusing material that challenges the rational mind. We want to be able to say that this is not the basis for my belief, my theology, my ethic. We want to move as far away from it as possible. This is what both the Christian Church and the emerging rabbinic movement did in the first few centuries of the Common Era. We can compile an extensive list of non-canonical Jewish and Christian apocalypses from that period. However, only two of those books are found in our canon, Daniel and Revelation. They considered this literature to be as elusive as we do, hence not very reliable for questions of doctrine and practice, perhaps even dangerous.

Now I know that all of your difficulties with this book have already been resolved through the careful thoughtful sermons of Pastor Joel. Consider me to be the apocrypha to his Torah, the hidden wisdom.

This chapter in Revelation begins with the more well-known lines, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . .” (21:1-2). Here we have the conclusion to the strife and the conflict that pervades the remainder of the book, its culminating vision. When we read this chapter we are reminded of sections of Isaiah such as Chapter 6:1: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. . . . And one (of the seraphs) called to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Or Isa 65:17-18 and 66:22. More to the point of our passage, but less well-known, is Ezekiel 40:1-4. This vision in Revelation is rooted in the prophecy of the Hebrew Bible, but is written in the style of the later literature we call apocalyptic. This same imagery also appears in other literature of Second Temple Judaism, that is literature that was written in the last few centuries before the birth of Christ and the first century of our common era. 1 Enoch is part of what we call the Pseudepigrapha, in this case a Jewish composition written before the book of Daniel about 200-300 BCE. Recall in the book of Daniel how he talks about 4 kingdoms that have to rise and fall before they are overcome by the appearance of the Ancient of Days on his throne and his appointment of the son of man to judge the world. Enoch divides world history into ten weeks. Remember that in apocalyptic all the good things happen at the end. In this case in the 8th week the righteous will be given a sword to execute righteous judgment on all the wicked and “the temple of the kingdom of the great one will be built in the greatness of its glory for all the generations of eternity” (1 En 91:13). However it is only in the 10th and final week, the culminating event of human history, when “the first heaven will pass away and a new heaven will appear and all the powers of the heavens will shine forever with sevenfold brightness” (1 En. 91:16). This is written about 400 years prior to Revelation, 300 years prior to the birth of Jesus. Interestingly, the temple appears at an earlier stage in Enoch prior to the appearance of the new heaven rather than a portion of it as in Revelation.

In other texts a vision or picture of a New Jerusalem is described at greater length. Within the Dead Sea Scrolls we have a text that has actually been titled “The New Jerusalem.” This text describes the tour that the author is given through the city and the temple, resembling in form the description at the end of Ezekiel. Herein are given the dimensions of a very large city as well as a description of some of the functions within the temple as well as the temple itself. However this description is grander, there is more gold, greater purity, its more glorious than anything ever found in the book of Ezekiel. It is a temple for the messianic era. Another composition is called the Temple Scroll. It is the longest scroll ever found in the collection from the caves at Qumran. In this work we see an elaborate sacrificial system, certainly more organized, much more systematic, and more extensive than what we find in our Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). At the conclusion of this description the author who is speaking in the voice of God says, “And I (i.e. God) will consecrate my [te]mple by my glory, (the temple) on which I will cause my glory to settle during the day of blessing . . . .” ‎(11QTemple‎ ‎XXIX‎:9—‎10‎)‎. He then goes on to describe a three story guilded temple that is surrounded by three square concentric courtyards. In other words the temple is located perfectly in the center, unlike the description of any biblical temple or the accounts of the Herodian temple in Jerusalem. And it is all gilded, pure gold. The most gilding I have ever seen in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy. It does not even start to compare with this description. The concentric squares surround the temple; the outer two have twelve gates, three on each side, named after the twelve sons of Israel just as in Revelation 21. Purity laws then are outlined to protect the holiness of the temple and all who enter it, as well as the city that surrounds this entity. How perfect! How splendid! How glorious! Just like the followers of Jesus in the book of Revelation envisioned a place where everything would be in perfect purity and harmony, fit for the presence of God, so other Jews had similar visions and hopes for a different future than the one they were presently experiencing.

  And that brings me to my first major point this morning, the reading of New Testament texts with regard to their religious background for the purposes of gaining a better understanding of what they meant, and hence what they mean for us, does not rely merely upon seeing how they interpret the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. It rather depends upon an acknowledgment that there were many Jewish groups and individuals, all of whom read the Hebrew Bible, and the followers of Jesus were one of those groups of Jews. Many varieties of Jews considered their views to be rooted in the Hebrew Bible, many of them thought they were fulfilling prophecy. So did the followers of Jesus. If we want to understand the New Testament in light of the Old, we must acknowledge that other Jews were doing the same thing with claims of equal validity. It is only with the type of reading that follows from that kind of acknowledgment that we can begin to use this text as a gospel of love rather than one of imperial domination based upon a theological premise of Christian triumphalism. Many Jews hoped for a new heaven and a new earth in which they would encounter the glory of God. So did these early followers of Jesus.

  Now let’s move on to the second half of this morning’s message. How does this literature work and why is it so appealing?  What is the source of its power?

Scholars examining apocalyptic literature have attempted to come up with a description, a definition, of what apocalyptic literature is.  One way to talk about what we have found is to say it is “a revelation,” it is not based on what we perceive with our senses, what we see and hear around us everyday, it is “mediated by an otherworldly being” such as an angel “to a human recipient” such as Moses or Enoch, in the case of Revelation someone named John. But more importantly for our purposes, these apocalypses are “disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, . . . and spatial. . . .” Let’s consider for a moment this claim and its significance. Our understanding of apocalyptic tends to center on the eschatological element, we perhaps in a somewhat sneering fashion regard it as an attempt to predict the nature and chronology of the end-times: Hal Lindsey; Y2K-January 1, 2000; the Left-Behind series. The most recent person to get a lot of publicity was Harold Camping, who predicted that Jesus Christ would return on May 21, 2011, commencement day at our seminary. However our study of the literature from antiquity suggests a slightly different angle, that “disclosing a transcendant reality” is at the center of the apocalypses and represents their significance rather than simply an enumeration of the end-times. In other words, what you see around you is not reality, it is merely what you can see and hear. There are bigger things to see and experience. In the case of Enoch it was to ascend through the multiple heavens into the presence of the divine. That is where he encountered what is real. In Revelation it is first of all being brought up to a high mountain, only to see “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” The author of Revelation, John, is receiving a revelation “disclosing a transcendant reality that is both temporal and spatial.” The temporal element has been developed in the various conflicts throughout the book. The spatial element here finds particular focus at the conclusion. Of course, if this Jerusalem is coming down from heaven, it must have been up there the whole time. It is saying, “If you look around and see the might of the Roman Empire that’s not real.” It’s rather this vision which represents reality and in that reality is where the power of the apocalyptic perspective rests. This vision is not powerful simply because it tells of heaven or it predicts the future. It is powerful because in the process of engaging and accepting the revelation the reader, the hearer, is transformed. Apocalyptic is powerful because the altered perception of reality it provides changes those of us who read it. These early followers of Jesus did not look to the Roman Empire to change their situation nor did they expect that some other military force would emerge that would bring the Roman Empire to an end, nor did they even expect that their local governors and bureacratic officials would treat them better. Their reality had been transformed, they saw a new heaven and a new earth, they saw a new Jerusalem coming down out of the clouds and in that occurrence the Roman Empire and its might became irrelevant. Because of that belief they were empowered, their lives were transformed, they could live their lives in a different manner because they could envision this gleaming gilded perfectly symmetrical city. By paying attention to that transformation we see the enduring power of apocalyptic literature.

For example, many of us are quite confused about the apocalyptic dates. Some are projected with great certainty and the dates come and pass by and the movement associated with it does not simply fall apart.  How can they still believe? We ask. We’re asking the wrong question. They already believe. Their lives have been transformed, they will never be the same because of their appropriation of an apocalyptic vision. So the actual date is not the issue, it is the transformation of their reality that is it at the center. We are part of that same tradition. Clearly both Paul and the early writers of the Gospels believed that the return of Christ, the resurrection, a great judgment would happen very soon. We sit here this morning almost two thousand and one-hundred years later, and we are still waiting. In the Gospel of Mark we are told to “be alert,” “the end is still to come.” There is something that happens within the lives of people who engage and accept the vision that gives it its power and that does not depend upon the literal details of the vision.

We are the inheritors of the traditions associated with this literature. I have already mentioned its centrality for the New Testament. It is clear that those early Anabaptists who argued that we should live the life that Jesus laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount were impelled by apocalyptic visions. They were not merely fulfilling the commandments of Jesus, they had a vision that was not rooted in the religious viewpoints that were part of the late medieval world. They had seen a vision of something different from what they had experienced. In some cases the recipients of this vision such as Thomas Münster used violence to implement and defend the vision, in other cases they laid down their swords and refused to fight. However they were all impelled by these same apocalyptic visions, as was a Protestant reformer such as Martin Luther. These visions have power and we would not be worshipping here today if that were not the case. A similar case can be documented in African American literature. The same apocalyptic vision that provides a basis for many of the spirituals is the same vision that inspired Denmark Vesey to plan a massive slave revolt that was to result in the murder of a number of slave-holders and wreak general havoc. Incidentally he was a founding member of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which the seven members at a prayer meeting were recently murdered. It also inspired the presumably more-well known revolt led by Nat Turner. The spirituals were inspired by those same apocalyptic visions and they permitted thousands of African Americans to endure in quiet submission their place in a brutal system of human subjugation, keeping their focus on a different reality than the one they were experiencing. Similar apocalyptic visions will have inspired both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

However the basic premise of this literature is that you can’t trust the self-evident reality around you, you can’t necessarily believe what you see and hear. Reality is something beyond your present experience and it is that reality which you encounter in the apocalyptic vision.

So what do Christians that consider themselves progressive do at a time when most of our ideas of progress have been debunked? The myth of progress based in the enlightenment went up in flames in the Holocaust. The intractability of our own country to come to terms with and move beyond its own racial and racist history reminds us that there are deep and hidden forces within us that impact our actions in ways that are unfathomable. The same has become clear with regard to our homophobia, our own resistance to developing an understanding and acceptance of our own same-sex attraction. We need visions of what might be, we need visions that transcend what we experience, we also know that these visions carry dangers. I have visions of a new Jerusalem, of a different way of being and relating, and I know that I need that vision. Seeing it just isn’t as clear as it used to be.


Response/Reflection: Ryan Schellenberg

One of the things that always strikes me about John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is the way the image conflates city and garden. The Bible’s story started, as Joel reminded us last week, in a garden. Cities were a human idea—and not a very good one, if the book of Genesis is any indication. Think Babel here, and Sodom and Gomorrah. But God takes up and redeems the human project of city-building, incorporating it into the original garden vision.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I drive up highway 23 to Methesco each day, past a suburban sprawl that was, colleagues tell me, all farmland not very many years ago. Cities and gardens would seem to be mutually exclusive places—the only way to get more of one is to have less of the other. Which means, when one zooms out, that humanity is caught between a rock and hard place: a growing population, with all clamoring for a share of the land and its wealth, and a creation, groaning.

My own imagination generally remains stuck in a dualistic, either/or mode here, and so tends toward Malthusian visions of doom. There will not be enough for us. Not enough land, not enough food, not enough carbon credits. Human thriving on this finite planet just is not possible.

Perhaps this is why I found so compelling something Mark said a few weeks ago. He told our children that the prophet’s role is to imagine what is necessary, even if it’s not possible. This immediately brought to mind one of my favorite prophetic texts, Isaiah’s stunning vision of the impossible but necessary resolution of the basic enmity between predator and prey:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

The lion shall eat straw like the ox. Even the most basic violence—predation—violence that seems woven into the very fabric of creation, need not be, insists Isaiah. Another world can be imagined.

Scholars have long been fascinated by an oracle quite similar to Isaiah’s written by the Roman author Virgil. In his Fourth Eclogue, Virgil, like Isaiah, imagines an age of peace and plenty that dawns with the rise of a truly righteous king. In fact, these texts have so much in common that some have wondered whether Virgil had read and was influenced by Isaiah’s oracle.

If so, he fundamentally misunderstood it. For Virgil, peace requires the banishment of the enemy. The “monstrous lion” doesn’t come anywhere near the flock, poisonous plants go extinct, and the serpents all die off. Contrast this with Isaiah’s vision: “The infant shall play over the hole of the asp, and the toddler shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” For Isaiah, peace depends not on the extinction of some, but rather on the impossible but necessary resolution of creation’s fundamental oppositions.

We see something similar in John’s paradoxical twin assertions that nothing unclean will enter the holy city, and that its gates will always be open. Our own political logic demands, of course, that to keep out unwanted elements is to build walls high and strong, and to keep the gates closed.

John then, with his city that is also a garden, invites me to enlarge my imaginations. We need not choose, his vision suggests, between holiness and inclusion, between natural and built environments, between the survival of humans and the health of the planet. Another world can be imagined. Indeed, our lives depend on it.