Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
November 29, 2009
THE FINAL MERCY
Texts: Revelation 1:1-3; 7:9-10, 13-17; 13:1-4; 21:1-2; 22:1-2, 16-17, 20-21
There are many ways of reading the book of Revelation, each one with its entry-way into the truth.
There is the historical way, as a survival document for persecuted Christians in the late first century – and which has become important scripture throughout the centuries for Christians in violent situations. During Hitler’s Third Reich Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to fellow Christians in the resistance movement against Hitler. He said he hoped that they would be the kind of communities which “hear the Apocalypse” and so be at the service of “those who suffer violence and injustice.”1 In such a way Revelation has been important to suffering communities in South America and South Africa.
Then there is the interior, mystical way, as a glimpse into the kingdom within, Revelation as a land of archetypes and images which open to us the throne room of God, like St. Teresa’s “Interior Castle.”
Or as a work of sacred art – as did William Blake, the famous poet, mystic, and artist who painted scenes from Revelation and had visions corresponding to this book. You see his painting of the last scene in Revelation, the River of Life, on the cover of our order of worship. There you see the river flowing through the City, with trees bearing fruit in all seasons, and with leaves which are for the healing of the nations. This is the World of Spirit which is even now coloring our world.
Or it can be read like fairy tales or fantasy stories, like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia novels or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In such stories we glimpse our own inner and outer battles and see the final triumph of good and of God. To use the words of Buechner, “the battle ultimately goes to the good” and “in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name.”2
Or we can read it as the final chapter of the Biblical Story, of our lives and the life of the world. I call it the Final Mercy, or better, the Final Healing.
David Buttrick tells the story of how as a boy, he and his brother would sneak into the guest room before a guest would come to spend the night and tear out the last chapter of the paperback mystery their parents had placed on the bedside table.
The next morning the guest came bleary-eyed to the table and asked: “Who dun it?” How did it end? He went back home and found a used copy and finished it. Things he thought were important were not; some things he overlooked became very important in the end.
In the same way we need to read the last chapter of the Bible. For as David Buttrick says, “If God’s story will end in a world reconciled, with New Humanity engaged in grave, glad courtesies of love, with ‘the sound of them that triumph and the shout of them that feast,’ with the City and the Lamb and wiped-away tears, then all our stories must be revised.”3
Is there a way not to read Revelation? Yes: literally. To read Revelation literally, says N. T. Wright, is like saying Global Warming was caused by the end of the Cold War! The categories don’t fit.
And there is the way of reading called Dispensationalism, or its popular form, “Rapture” theology. This way of reading Revelation began about a hundred years ago with the British Plymouth Brethren minister John Darby. It was popularized through the study notes in the Scofield Reference Bible, which was the only Bible available to many in the last century, and it has been popularized in recent years through Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHoye’s Left Behind novels. I would make light of it if men and women today didn’t go to war with Armageddon on their minds.
In this theology the world is in its last days. Soon Jesus will come again, ride down on the clouds and swoop us up or “rapture” us into heaven, leaving behind most of humanity to endure terrible ordeals, punishments and destruction. What kind of god would set up things like that?
Rapture theology is a cut-and-paste job, taking verses from here and there in scripture to serve a theological vision which is if not un-Christian , sub-Christian. Sub-Jewish, too. It is revenge-fantasy parading as scripture. When God hates all the same people you do, it’s time to re-evaluate your theology.
St. Augustine gave us a great rule for determining whether our interpretation of scripture is good or bad. If your interpretation of scripture increases the love of God and neighbor, you are on the right track. If it does not, you may have a best seller on your hands.
So let’s proceed on to the book itself. Its title is The Apocalypse of John. Apocalypse means “revealing” or “unveiling.” The first verses tell us that a man named John has been banished from Ephesus to the Isle of Patmos and there has received visions from God.
It was late first century, sometime between the reigns of Nero and Domitian. John faced terrible questions: Who will win, God or Satan, good or evil, Christ or Rome? And what will happen to the churches?
The visions given to John gave him hope in the final victory of God. Its message is like that of the hymn:
This is my Father’s world,
O let me ne’er forget
That the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
I was leading a wedding along with an Episcopal priest a few weeks ago. He had spent his first years as a priest in Cuba and there met a remarkable Cuban priest. The priest had supported Castro against the oppressive regime of Batista. Then he watched Castro betray the revolution and began to oppose Castro in the counterrevolution. He was arrested and put before a firing squad. They blindfolded him. He asked to be unblindfolded. They did. “Ready, Aim, Fire,” the general said; and just before the word “fire” and the bullets reached the priest, he yelled out: “Long live Christ the King!” Such is the context and the faith of Revelation.
Now let’s go to the vision of chapter 7. It was said of the Scottish poet Robert Burns that he could not read this passage without tears. It inspired Flannery O’Connor’s short story where Mrs. Turpin sees a much larger group rambling to heaven than she ever imagined.
It is a vision of heaven, of the kingdom to come. It is also a vision of the kingdom within, the Realm of Spirit which is ever now interpenetrating our own.
John sees a multitude gathered around the throne of God. They are too large to number, from every nation and all tribes, peoples and tongues. If this is not good news to you, you’ve not heard the good news.
They are wearing white robes and sing praise to God and to the Lamb. Who are these robed in white? John asks, and in an elder at the throne says, “These are they who have come through the great ordeal and have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We may recoil at the blood imagery. It has been taken too literally and tied to a theology impossible for us to believe. But it is our human poetry pointing to the ineffable self-emptying love of God poured out on a cross, and poured out throughout history for our sake. What we cannot do God has done for us. What we cannot wash God has washed. All is grace. On the first-century historical level it stands for the blood of Christian martyrs who now receive their heavenly reward.
Now let’s move to chapter 13 and the vision of the Beast. It reveals the original political and spiritual setting of the book.
The Beast from the sea is code for the Roman Empire. He has received power and authority from the Dragon, whose real name is Satan. The book of Revelation is written in code to persecuted Christians: an animal code, a color code, a number code. In chapter 17 the Beast is pictured as the great Whore of Babylon sitting on the seven hills! (Like Rome.) The Beast is given the number 666. Some have decoded it to refer to Nero. But we must be careful how we apply it to others to fit our political likes and dislikes. 666 has been variously applied to popes, kings, F.D.R., Ronald Reagan (Ronald, 6 letters, Wilson, six letters, Reagan, six letters). I’m sure some clever person is figuring out how 666 corresponds to Barak Obama.
Here, however, is its enduring message: The Beast stand for any government or institution that pretends God-like power and authority over people, God-like wisdom and goodness. Paul Tillich defined the demonic as whenever something finite is taken to be infinite. Do you remember when the devil offered to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world? Jesus refused, but there have been plenty of takers. In Revelation 13 people all over the world are bowing down to the Beast, saying, “Who is like the Beast? Who can compare with the Beast?” It is a haunting perversion of the psalm, “Who is Yahweh? Who can compare with Yahweh?”
I said earlier that the book can be read as a fairy tale, or a fantasy story. In my first church about thirty years ago I decided I would preach and teach the entire book of Revelation during Sunday night services. I began in January and was finishing in late May. I had my last sermon all prepared, twenty-five minutes worth. I had forgotten that this service was also the service where all the children’s choirs were singing their end-of-year anthems and songs. I didn’t realize it until I walked into the sanctuary and saw all the choirs. Jonathan and Fran, I do not know where my head was that week!
Anyway, I had only five minutes to preach and that on the heels of all these children and their songs. Now that was a challenge.
I left the pulpit and stood in front of the children and told them the story of Revelation as a children’s story.
I told them that the story began in the throne room of heaven, which is where all our stories begin. I told them that God’s face shone like all the jewels in the world.
And I told them about the Dragon, whose real name was Satan, who started a revolt against God in heaven, was cast out of heaven and came to Earth to carry on his revolt there.
And how the Dragon recruited the Beast and the False Prophet to help him defeat God. They became the Unholy Trinity – Dragon, Beast, False Prophet – who carried on their battle against the Holy Trinity – God, Christ (who is also the Lamb in the book) and the Holy Spirit. And how Christ took care of the Beast and threw him in the Lake of Fire and he was destroyed, and how the Holy Spirit took care of the False Prophet in the same way. Then God took care of the Dragon. First God cast him into a deep pit and chained him there for 1,000 years. Then God released him, and the Dragon went all over the world recruiting the forces of evil to meet the forces of God at the final climactic battle of Armageddon. I told them how God won the battle and took the Dragon and cast him into the Lake of Fire along with his cohorts in darkness, the Beast and the False Prophet.
Then I told them about the final scene where all people who love God will be gathered together in the City of God where there will be no more death and no more tears. It will be the Great Homecoming of the world in the presence of God.
A few members came up after the service and said, Preacher, you’ve been preaching and teaching this book all year long. I think I finally understood it!
The last scene in Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, is pure beauty and pure joy: a new Jerusalem, heaven and Earth joined, a world reconciled, wiped-away tears, a river flowing, nourishing trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. This is not just the Final Mercy, the Final Healing but the mercy, healing and joy God wishes for us now, available in some real measure now.
The invitation comes now and always. Revelation says an angel will give us each a smooth white stone on which is written a new name, perhaps your own secret name, or the secret name for God, the name of your true self you have been searching for all your life (Revelation 3:17).
“Now we see through a glass darkly,” wrote Paul, but “then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall understand fully even as I have been fully understood” – by God. Is this not the deepest yearning of our hearts and the fullest meaning of grace? That we will be fully known, and fullyl understood and fully received?
And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”
Let all who hear say, “Come.”
Let anyone who is thirsty come.
Let all who desire take the water
of life without price.
Kathleen Norris says that when we pray we say, “Lord, I mean these words even if I don’t know what I mean.”
So hear at least my prayer this day. It began last night: Lord, I mean these words even if I don’t know what I mean: Come, Lord Jesus, come. Come quickly, come soon, come even now, yes, even now.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords (London: Collins, 1965) pp. 324-5, as cited in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 12, p. 508.
2 Frederich Buechner, Telling The Truth (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 80.
3 From unpublished manuscript.