Rescuing Revelation

The God of Second Chances - Week 4

(image from Dallas Theatre Center)

Everyone has had the experience of waking up from a nightmare with the shaky realization that it was only a dream. With quivering exhalations, we are relieved to know that the horrors of our nighttime imagination are suddenly lifted. Life is back to normal.

The best “wake up” scene after a bad nightmare in literature has got to be Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Three ghosts take the miserly Scrooge on a visionary tour of his life. Scrooge receives hair-raising visions, and the torment of his nightmares is palpable. He is shown his painful past and even more painful future. And just like the up and down cycles of Revelation, he also sees visions that inspire hope in the warmth and love of the Cratchit home. Those encouraging scenes are a bitter contrast to his own life.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is the third and most fearsome Spirit. Reminding us of the Grim Reaper, this wordless Spirit shows Scrooge his own lonely grave. When Scrooge sees he died alone and unloved, he asks brokenly, “Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?

The visions are wake-up calls for Scrooge, representing what the future holds if he does not change his ways. Scrooge pleads for mercy from the Spirit, begging for an altered fate in exchange for a reformed life. “I am not the man I was!” he cries.

When Scrooge wakes up and realizes he’s been given a second chance, he is reborn. "I don't know what day of the month it is!... I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby.

Revelation’s Wake-up Call

Perhaps this evocative example from literature is a good start as we look at the most terrifying chapters in Revelation, the vision of the seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. In this passage, the trumpets sound one by one to cue the apocalyptic events John saw in his vision. Like Scrooge, we are taken on a series of visionary, and terrifying, journeys as we read them, and scholars say it’s the most difficult section of Revelation to interpret. As each trumpet blows, the horrors multiply. Fire falls from the sky, water turns to blood, and horrific evil beings slaughter one-third of humanity. Scrooge’s question to the Spirit is the right one to ask about Revelation’s visions as well. Is this what’s going to happen, or what might happen? “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

What are we to make of it all? Those who use Revelation as a crystal ball think these visions are predictions. Like a hurricane, they think you can prepare for it but you can’t change its inevitable path. Much ink has been wasted over the years on speculations of which modern historical event, like the Gulf War, matches each trumpet vision.

This is the futuristic perspective, and it is indeed the one we are rescuing Revelation from in this blog series. In this perspective, history looks like chaos, where God has only a script of doom to be played out for most of the world.

A literary perspective on the other hand is much more hopeful and encouraging. Like Scrooge’s ghosts, Revelation’s visions do not predict literal events but provide a wake-up call for humankind. The goal of the book is to exhort us to faithfulness to God through a new vision. The God we see in the throne room of Revelation 4 is the Creator and life-giver. When Jesus the lamb enters, all beings break out in praise.

This piece of context is crucial, for if God is the Creator and life-giver, why would he want to destroy it all? From a literary perspective, we need to assume God is on the side of life not death. Like Scrooge, we ask, “Why would God show us this if we are past all hope?” We are shown the visions precisely because there is still hope for us and the earth.

A Taste of Revenge

We have to ask then, what is the Christic meaning to these “nasty bits,” these difficult sections? To answer this question, it’s helpful to remember the victims and martyrs of Revelation 6 who, like the oppressed in every age, cry out, “How long oh Lord?” In Revelation 8-11, we see that God has not forgotten them. God gives them a taste of what revenge would look like, a vision every victim has entertained. Whether the infraction is small or large, everyone wants to see justice done on the perpetrators.

In Winnipeg, many have followed the story of Cliff and Wilma Derksen, whose 13-year old daughter Candace was murdered in 1984. The Derksens are Christians, and early on they publicly chose to forgive the then-anonymous killer. Many years later, Wilma spoke in a TEDx talk that despite this pivotal choice, they had revenge fantasies. Though they tasted sweet in the moment, they had to be released. Not only would revenge harm the killer, it would become a downward spiral for them as well. Sadly, not everyone puts the fantasies aside. The story of vengeance gets played out on an international scale and in our own families and communities on a regular basis.

The visions of the trumpets and plagues shows that God could hurl down vengeful judgement, but it wouldn’t change a thing. In chapter 8, it’s like God says, “Okay, let me show you what an outpouring of wrath would look like.” It’s a nightmare! Like Scrooge’s three ghosts, the plot moves relentlessly forward, a veritable onslaught of horror. No pastel colors here! The seven seals, trumpets, and bowls and their tragic plagues are part of the book’s wake-up call to us.

The nightmare reaches a breaking point after the 6th trumpet. Revenge, whether it’s physical or spoken violence, may feel right, but does it ever change anything? You would think it would change humanity’s relationship to God or each other, but nothing is changed! No one has repented. In life, we never see anyone actually change through wrath and judgement. They are controlled by power for a bit, but it’s not true justice because the change is not real. The message for victims of injustice is, “What you’ve just seen is not the kingdom of God, because it doesn’t work.”

God says “Stop” to the revenge fantasy.

Interrupted Judgement

The stop occurs with the 7th and last trumpet in chapter 11.
Just when we are expecting more violence, there is an interruption. It reminds us of the interruption in chapter 5, where the One worthy to open the scroll is revealed, and John sees not a fierce lion but a weak, slain lamb. (We’ll learn more about this in Week 5’s blogpost.)

Fast forward a few chapters, and instead of the last trumpet sounding with a full-out destruction of the world, a Voice comes and interrupts. God tells John not to write it down because it’s not the message He wants to send. As is typical in the upside-down world of the Gospel, God wants to do something different. Space is created. John is given a bittersweet scroll to eat and told to prophesy again.

Like Scrooge, God’s people are being given a second chance at a reformed life, and the horrifying visions just might shake them up enough to embrace it. The reason God has delayed in bringing down judgement is to provide space for his people to bear witness, to call for change to the world. After all, change, not revenge, is what God wants. It’s not that plagues of wrath are inevitable, but they are ineffective.

Martin Luther King Jr was someone who knew of the ineffectiveness of revenge. He said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting [promoting] the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

Authentic Witnesses

The surprising turn in Revelation is that we don’t have to be like the pre-reborn Scrooge, witnessing our dismal demise. Instead, we are to be engaged in speaking the truth, calling for change, calling on the world to honor the ways of the Creator who seeks life for the earth.

To show us a picture of what this would look like, chapter 11 first gives us a collage of prophets who had been authentic witnesses. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel — Revelation’s first audience would have recognized these heroes of the faith immediately. It was as though John was urging them to remember, “Here, this is what authentic witness looks like. This is the pattern of life to which you are called. This hope is what the visions of Revelation have to offer you who are suffering.”

When the 7th trumpet finally sounds, it marks not disaster but celebration, verses which inspired Handel to write the Messiah. "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev’n 11:15) The point of this part of Revelation is that God could pummel the earth, but instead, a space has been opened for us to see that God is calling for change, calling for us to honor the ways of the Creator who wants life, not death, for the earth. Empire has been overthrown and like Scrooge, we are called to a new life, bearing witness to the God of second chances.

In our humanness, we want revenge, and our anger is confrontative and violent, but the deeper desire of God is always to restore. Striking back is easy, but to come back with a more creative option, which really fits the context, is much more difficult.

The way of restoration doesn’t come naturally to us. When Martin Luther King Jr was urging the people to respond nonviolently to injustice, he had them rehearse the motions of what they’d do when confronted. Sit-ins, peaceful resistance and songs of “We Shall Overcome” became the enduring legacy of change.

The Creator seeks life for the earth and all its people, and to be God’s witness means to seek not just peace, but justice as well, like the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is not a simple peace, but a complete peace, which heals and mends the world, restoring of all creation.

Father Greg Boyle, the Catholic priest who gives jobs to ex-gang members through Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, often presides over funerals of kids who have died because of violence. Exemplifying the shalom of God, he sees all the gang members as God’s children when he mourns, “It’s kids I love killing kids I love.” That’s suffering love. As hard as it is for victims of injustice to accept, God loves the just and the unjust, and seeks shalom for us all.

Like the redeemed Scrooge, Cliff and Wilma Derksen, and the peaceful resisters of the Civil Rights Movement, Father Boyle would fit in the collage of witnesses of Revelation 11. Like Scrooge, we are called to a new life, bearing witness to the God of second chances.

Questions for engagement — Week 4

  1. Who have you encountered who exemplifies the interrupted judgment and mercy of God?
  2. Have you ever received a wake-up call? Did it change you?
  3. When have you received forgiveness when you were expecting judgment?
  4. What spiritual practices interrupt the downward spirals of your “lesser angels”?
  5. What signs of hope do you see in your community?

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