Sr. Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ (American, 1937?-), "O Root" (from the "O Antiphons" series). Of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Tags: Tree of Jesse. Source: http://csjstpaul.org/ansgar_holmbergs_o_antiphon_paintings.aspx; http://yokeofchrist.blogspot.com/2010/12/o-root-of-jesse.html

Saving Revelation: A Vision of Beauty

So, we are starting this new series, Saving Revelation. This message this morning is entitled: ‘A Vision of Beauty’. Because, we’ll just lay the groundwork for this series, by showing that this is what the book of Revelation really is all about.

But I want to start by having a look at a real short clip, about how the world and everything else will come to an end, from a scientific perspective. So lets watch this:

So there you go. Total theory of equilibrium, maximal entropy, which is virtual nothingness. All energy is used up, there is now going to be nothing but eternal darkness, void, an abyss, where nothing ever will happen again, ever, ever, ever. Have a great day you guys, God bless you, see you next week.

I will tell you that I’ve never found this scenario, which is the – basically – the uniform scenario in the scientific community, from a strictly scientific perspective, this is what’s going to happen.

Now, they say that all of the matter in the universe, which is just a manifestation of energy, all of it was once, at the beginning, condensed into this super, just, condensed ball of energy, which they estimate, I’ve heard estimates of – it was the size of a quarter, some would say a dime and I’ve even heard some say that it was condensed to the size of a pinhead. All the energy of the universe, those billions and billions of galaxies’ stars, were all just condensed into this pinhead, and then exploded. And if you ask the question: “Where did the pinhead come from?” The answer is: “It didn’t come from anything, it just was, it always was.” And so, the pinhead is just existing, and then it explodes, and that explosion, was so great, it caused about all the usable energy in the universe. And as that energy began to condense, it formed stars and galaxies and planets and – and ultimately everything in the universe is still operating under the impact of that initial explosion. Including human beings. Our hopes and our dreams and our aspirations and our though processes. All of it is reducible down to molecules bouncing off of one another like billiard balls, under the impact of that initial big bang. What I’m doing, right now, talking to you, is accruing the force of that big bang. It all is about that.

It leaves some questions unanswered, it seems to me. Like, for example: “Why did the pinhead explode?” every cause has an effect, that explosion is an effect, so it must have a cause, it must have a fundamental submission of science, every cause has an effect, and every effect has a previous cause. So what caused that explosion? Why didn’t it explode earlier, like an eternity earlier? If it’s always been? Why did it explode then? What changed? Something must have changed, cause it didn’t explode earlier.

Now, I have had the opportunity to ask that to several scientists, over the years, and the answer I’m always given is: “that question doesn’t make sense, because time begins with the big bang, there is no before, it begins with that.” And it seems to me, it does make sense to ask that question, since every cause has an effect, explosion has an effect, so what changed? Why wasn’t it earlier? It does make sense to ask that. And so, when you tell me it doesn’t make sense to ask that, I could only understand that to mean, your way of saying, ” don’t have an answer”. But it’s just not a complete theory, there’s something missing here. I’m not against the idea of a big bang, you know, if you look at the galaxies and stars, they are all spreading away from each other, and the further out you go, the faster they’re spreading away. And, if you reverse time, it all does come back to – you know – it’s the point back to initial explosion. Fine, you know that’s – I have no problems with that. But, it’s not a complete theory, things are lacking, they’re – it needs more of an explanation.

And then, you’ve got to ask the question: “How did nature, with this big explosion, evolve beings, like us, where we’re fundamentally at odds, with nature?” Nature doesn’t usually do that. And we have longings that outrun what nature can give us. How did that happen? How does nature naturally evolve through natural processes – beings – who have longings that it doesn’t answer? And who are fundamentally at odds with it. Something’s wrong with this scenario.

Now, at the root of the problem is this: You can’t get something from nothing. You can’t have nothingness and, all of a sudden, boom, there’s everything. No, if there’s something, there must have always been something. And apparently there is something, cause I’m up here talking to you. So, there must be something that has always been. And matter isn’t a good candidate for that, in fact, it’s an impossible candidate for that, for, everything we know about matter, which is simply a manifestation of energy, is that it runs out, that’s what we just saw. It runs out, and so, it’s by nature not eternal, so there must be something eternal, but it can’t be the physical cosmos, or anything physical, and here’s where the Bible comes in.

It tells us that, there is – And I don’t think this story is competing with science at all, it’s just filling in the blanks – that there is a God whose very nature is existence. He’s an uncreated being, and this God created everything that we now see. And whether He used the pinhead of super condensed matter or not, I don’t know, but He created all that is and He created it for a purpose and He created it with a rational structure to it. And now, we can understand how we are the way we are; why we are the way we are, because we are made in the image of God, the Bible says. We’re moral beings, because He’s a moral being, we have purpose and intentions, because He’s an intentional being, we’re rational, because He’s a rational being. We’re little examples of what He is, on the infinite scale.

And, He creates this world, with a purpose and intention, rather than just being this, this irrational hiccup between two seas of infinite nothingness, the Bible tells us that this thing called existence is a – God’s creating a love story. And it’ll be the greatest love story ever told. And He created this world with a rational structure to it. Which is why we can figure things out, that’s why science is possible. There’s a rational structure to the nature of things. We can ask questions of nature, if you learn the language of nature, which is mathematics, you can ask questions of nature and you get answers. It’s hard to explain that, if you just think this is all just random molecules, bopping into one another. It’s what Einstein called, before he became a believer in God, he called it the “Incomprehensible comprehensibility of the universe”. He couldn’t comprehend how we can comprehend the universe. Because, our mind investigating nature presupposes that it has a mind like quality to it. And if you think it was created by a rational God, well now, you can understand that, but if you don’t, that becomes quite incomprehensible. And it all has a purpose.

And then, like science, the scripture tells us that this world, as we now know it, will come to an end. On that part we agree. The question is, how will it end? And, will there be a point to it? And the scripture, it says “yes, there will be a point to it.” But, it will come to an end, but rather than it coming to an end, that is an infinite void, nothingness, darkness, total state of equilibrium, death. Rather than that sad story, the Bible tells us that the end will be glorious. Because, this fallen creation will be redeemed into a perfected creation. The creation that God has always wanted. In fact, from a biblical perspective, this thing that we call existence, isn’t some kind of irrational hiccup between two seas of virtual, infinite nothingness. It’s rather a preparation for the real thing. This is a probationary, preparation stage of existence, for the real thing that is still coming. And when that real thing comes, it’s going to be, the scripture tells us, unimaginably glorious, unimaginably beautiful, it’s a vision of complete and full beauty.

And this is why we have longings that outrun what this world can give us. It’s cause we’re created for and long for the beauty of God. We’re created for God, to be in a relationship with God, to be sharing in the beauty of God, and we long for that. Until we have that, there will always be a part of life that’s going to be empty and unsatisfying. We’re longing for eternity, we’re longing for life with God. And the glorious end will happen when that relationship is complete, and that’s what will go on forever and ever and ever and it will be beautiful.

All right, so, it’s a very different scenario here. The Bible tells a different kind of a story. Now, what this series is going to be about is the biblical view of that end. How this thing wraps up.

Actually that’s not quite true, I just lied. Because, five weeks, five of the seven weeks, are going to be about the Book of Revelation, which many people think is about the end. They read the Book of Revelation like a sort of crystal ball, into which you can see, the last several years of world history and how this thing’s going to wrap up. And what we’re going to be sharing in this series is that that is not what the Book of Revelation is primarily about. It has some things about the end and it’s glorious, but even that, is not to give us detailed information about things, but rather to motivate us to live in a certain way. And what we’re going to see in this series is that the whole Book of Revelation is about the present, about present realities and about what it looks like to be faithful to God.

So, if you come from a background, where you were taught that kind of crystal ball model of Revelation, and I was, many of us here, I mean, most of us, that’s the background we come out of. I just ask you to patiently listen to this, hear it out. I understand your perspective, I appreciate the perspective. This series is going to push up against it, and I just encourage you to keep an open mind and listen. You may not end up agreeing with me, and that’s fine. You know, I don’t think anyone here agrees with me on every point. You guys are wrong on a lot of stuff, but we’re not into a group think here, where everyone has to think the same thoughts. But, you won’t even know what you’re disagreeing with, unless you hear it out, fair enough? So just hear it out and process it and lets see where it takes us. What I’ve observed is this: Every couple of decades, it seems, there’s this thing that comes on us, in America, and to some degree in Europe. Some have called it “Apocalyptic Fever”. Where Christians and sometimes others get obsessed with the end of the world. And, whenever that happens, the book of revelation takes center stage, and people start gazing into the crystal ball to figure out the details of this thing.

And, we gazed into that crystal ball a lot. In fact, I’d say, most of the time, reading the Bible, it was the Book of Revelation. And we had it figured out, and we knew, we knew that Henry Kissinger was the Antichrist, we could prove it. And we knew that the ten headed beast of Revelation, was the ten heads of the European Union in the mid 70s, and we knew that they had a computer, that was called the beast, and it was going to be part of the one world government. And the bar-codes, that were just coming out, that was part of the one world government, to take over the Antichrist. We knew that this was going to wrap up in a year or two at the most, and that we’re going to be raptured.

Well, it seems to me that we’re in one of those kind of periods now. You know, in the last – It’s not just Christians either – in the last two years, there’s been over a dozen movies, produced by Hollywood, about the end of the world. Apocalyptic movies. It’s really capturing people. Apocalyptic Fever is in the air. And a lot of folks are gazing into the crystal ball. That “Left Behind” series, that book series, was on the New York Times bestseller list. Sold millions and millions of copies. It’s all based on this crystal ball model of Revelation.

One of the things that concerns me the most, is I’m finding, in certain conservative Christian circles that, this obsession with the crystal ball view of Revelation is effecting people’s attitudes. Where they’re – It seems to me that they’re – they like the Jesus of revelation as they read it, this Sword Wielding Warrior, better than the Jesus of the gospels, and they’re imitating that, their reading of that Jesus in revelation, more than Jesus of the gospel, and in the end, there’s this kind of gloatingness going on about how their enemies are going to “get it” when Jesus comes back. He’s coming back and He’s ticked off. Have you seen that – have you seen that bumper sticker? “Jesus is coming back and man is He pissed.” well, that’s the kind of thing – Oh, our enemies are going to get it and they’re going to be thrown into, like, a fire, and they’re going to burn and that beast is going to devour them all and it’ll be great. And we’ll be watching from Heaven going: “Yeah, go on, do it.”

So, this series is something that’s very, very needed, I think. And, the hope here, is that it will help us get a re-revelation, the way it was intended, to be free, of the, kind of, crystal ball gazing thing, to be free of that obsessiveness, with regard to the future, and hopefully, to feel the beautiful impact of this profound book.

My prayer is that this is what we get out of this whole series, that’s why we’re calling it “Saving Revelation”. For me, Revelation was saved from just being a puzzling sort of irrelevant book, to being a profound book, because it was rescued from the crystal ball way of reading it. And so, we’re trying to save Revelation from the Hollywood way of treating it, and to read it in a way that we think it was intended, and a way that really ministers to us in the here and the now.

So what we’ll do each week, is we’ll take – we can’t possibly preach through the whole book, obviously in five weeks, but we’ll take a major theme, that’s woven throughout the book, and we’ll unpack the book that way. But what I want to do for the rest of this message, is just to read the first four verses of this book, because these first four verses say a whole lot, about the kind of book that we’re reading, and the kind of mindset we should have as we approach it. So here’s what it says, first four verses, it says:

The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants, what must soon take place. He made it known, by sending His angel to His servant, John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Now pause for a moment here. Notice everything John saw, was the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. And that word “and” there in Greek, is ‘kai’ and it can be translated, and I think should be translated, as ‘even’ not ‘and’, but ‘even’. It’s a conjunctive ‘kai’ which means, he’s saying, the word of God, which is Jesus Christ, the testimony of Jesus Christ. So, everything that John saw, was a testimony of Jesus Christ, and so this book is all about the testimony of Jesus Christ. Everything in this book is about the testimony of Jesus Christ, it’s very different than having this book being a crystal ball about the future. This is about Jesus Christ, here and now.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

This is John, the apostle John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia.

All right, he says that this is a revelation, from Jesus Christ. The word “revelation”, in Greek, is where we get the word apocalypse from. Apocalypse, and the word “Apocalypse”, in Greek means “to unveil”, to disclose something, to reveal. Now, it shows you already, how dominant this crystal ball mindset is, by noticing that, that’s not what the word “Apocalyptic” means to us anymore. The original meaning is “unveiling”, “revelation”. We use the word “apocalyptic” to be synonymous with “disaster”, end of the world, we say: ‘that was a disaster of apocalyptic proportions’, it means ‘it looked like the end of the world.’ But that’s not at all what the original meaning of it is, and it just shows you how our view of things has changed. This is not a book about the disastrous end, it’s a book that reveals Jesus Christ, which is what John says, that’s what he saw. It was the testimony of Jesus Christ. This also identifies the genre of this book. Genre is the type of literature that you’re dealing with, and it’s very important to know the type of book you’re reading, because that will influence the interpretation of it. You don’t interpret all types of literature the same.

Now, Apocalyptic, the Apocalyptic genre, was a genre that existed from about 200 BC, to about 200 AD. During that period it was very popular. And one of the things that, that makes it noteworthy, is that, it was characterized by using dramatic, sometimes even surrealistic, symbols to denote historical events, and spiritual realities. It was a kind of literature that intended, through its graphic images, to make an impact on people, to motivate them to live in a certain way. It’s like surrealistic poetry. It’s very graphic, and there’s other reasons why they did that. Some have theorized that, part of this literature – the literature’s almost always subversive to the established powers. In the Book of Revelation, we’ll see, it’s very much so. It’s undermining Rome. And, some would suppose that, maybe one of the reasons that they spoke with these symbols is that the audiences, the Christian Jewish audiences, understood these symbols, but the Romans couldn’t. And so it was a way of communicating their message in a way that if this letter was confiscated by the authorities, they wouldn’t be able to understand it and therefore couldn’t persecute the people on that basis. But, even apart from that, the images are graphic and powerful. Intended to make a punch to change you, to transform you.

The Book of Revelation is like Picasso’s famous painting, Guernika. Now Guernika was a town that was bombed by the Nazis, just decimated by the Nazis, in 1942, and this is the painting. Picasso’s making a statement about a historical event. Like apocalyptic literature, this is a historical painting, it’s communicating a historical event, but not in a literal way. You’ll entirely miss the point of the painting if we start asking, start trying to extract literal information out of this. To get the point of this painting and to get the point of Apocalyptic literature, you have to stop analyzing in a literal way, and just let it impact you. Just let the images work together to create something in your heart.

A snapshot could give you an actual scene of what the town looked like after the bombing. And, if that’s what you’re looking for, fine, a snapshot will do. But a snapshot isn’t going to capture the evil of it. And so, he is here, using this expressionistic kind of style, bringing out a dimension that would otherwise escape our eye. And so it is with apocalyptic literature, it’s not meant to be analyzed in a literal way, and if you approach it with a literal mindset, you’re going to miss the point of the whole thing. It’s intended to be something that impacts our heart and that, thereby, changes us and motivates us, to move in a different direction. And to do that, we’ve just got to let it speak to us. And these dramatic symbols, it’s got to be felt. That’s why we find John saying this, he says:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud,

the words, this testimony,

And blessed are those who hear.

Notice this, John is assuming that this letter will be heard, for the most part. In the ancient world, most people couldn’t read, and so this is how you read a book. Someone would read it to you. And, you know, the early churches, would get together, this is what we need to envision, as we’re reading this book. They’re getting together in a house church, roughly 20 to 30 people. One person would read it aloud, in one sitting, and the others would hear. And see, you get a very different impression of the Book of Revelation if you’re hearing it in one sitting, and not stopping, and it’s all one piece, you get a very different impression, if you are doing it that way, than if you are micro- analyzing it, picking it apart, verse by verse, with your eye towards current events.

John intends us to be hearing it the first way, not using it the second way. It’s a little bit like a musical piece, an orchestral piece. You hear it, and you hear it as a whole. And it’s the ‘whole’ that impacts you, the relationship between the parts. Altogether it has an impact on us. But if you stop the musical piece every two seconds, to analyze each note, well, you’re not going to feel the impact of the whole, you’re dissecting it. Rather than experiencing it.

And so it is with the book of Revelation. It’s meant to be experienced, not to be dissected. Now, we sometimes have to – in fact, we frequently will have to stop – and analyze the images he uses, because, he’s using images that are going to be familiar to the people at the time, they’ll know what it means, but we don’t. Things are obvious to them, that aren’t obvious to us. And so, we’ll need to stop, and assess it. But we’re doing this, we’re assessing these symbols, not by correlating them to our time, but by correlating them to their time. Cause the question is, how would they have understood it? And we’ll find that the symbols begin to take on a profound meaning, and they stop being guess work, when you locate them in their time, rather than trying to locate them in our current time. If we’re assessing these symbols with our view on the newspaper, or the news, trying to read it like that we’re entirely missing the point of what John is getting at.

And that relates to this final point: He says, he’s writing to the churches of the seven provinces of Asia Minor. That’s the initial audience that John’s writing to, these were churches that John had – was an overseer of – and so, he is thinking of them as he’s writing this. These are actual people, in actual churches, in an actual location. He’s not writing to the 21st century. He’s writing to these actual people, and so, our job, is to try to get into their mindset to understand the book the way they would have understood it. And to assess the symbols the way they would have assessed it.

See, if Revelation was in fact an inspired cryptogram, that 21st century people are to decode, then it couldn’t have possibly meant anything to the people in the 1st century. In fact, as I just said a little bit ago, it wouldn’t have meant much of anything to anyone up until the last several years of world history when it’s too late. But John is communicating things that he intends his audience to understand. And we’re – it’s true of every book of the Bible that, the primary meaning is going to be the meaning that it had to the original audience. And it amazes me how people who understand that, and they apply it to every other book in the Bible, when it comes to the Book of Revelation, all of a sudden, they forget that. And they’re always just looking at how does it – what does it man to us in light of current events. No. The book applies to us, as all books of the Bible, they apply to us, and they apply to people throughout all time, but, before we can apply them rightly, we have to know what it means. You can’t apply it before you know what it means, and to know what it means, we’ve got to get inside of their heads, and go back to the 1st century. And so we speak about events that are happening in the 1st century, this is why he says, you may have noticed this, in the beginning it says that:

These are events that are soon going to take place.

And then verse three:

The time is near.

And then he ends the book by saying that:

The Lord sent His angel to show His servants the things that must soon take place.

Throughout this book, we find an emphasis on doing things quickly, because the time’s on us. Now, we need to understand soon and near, the way they would have understood soon and near. And when they hear the word soon and near, and act quickly, they’re not thinking: “oh, 2000 years from now.” No. They’re thinking: “It’s right on us, here.” If they would have thought that this was about what’s going to happen 2000, 2500 years from now, then they wouldn’t have been motivated to act quickly. The reason that they’re motivated to act quickly is because they told that these things are right here now, this is going to happen tomorrow.

I want to end by just saying two things about our attitude as we approach this book. The first thing: We are told throughout the whole bible, Old Testament, and New Testament, to trust God with our future. That’s the essence of faith, it’s trust. But if we don’t trust God, if we take our future into our own hands, things are not going to go good. It’s a repeated theme, throughout the whole biblical narrative. We’re to have a confidence in God that it makes us carefree about that, not obsessed with the future, and not trying to control things. This is one of the reasons why divination is strongly condemned in the Bible. Divination is when people try to get divine knowledge about the future. You’re trying to divine the future. And it was a real common practice in the ancient world, especially in ancient Greece, man, they consulted oracles for everything, they were trying to divine the future. And the reason they would do that, was because it would give them an advantage. If you can get a “peekaboo” into the Gods’ view of the future, well then, then you can adjust your life accordingly. You get more control, knowledge is power, and to get knowledge of the future is to get power of the future and you can control your destiny better. And the reason it’s condemned in the Bible is partly because you’re dabbling with the spiritual world in ways that God forbids, you’re outside of His perimeters and that’s always a dangerous thing to do.

But the second reason is because it shows a fundamental mistrust in God. We’re trying to take – trying to get His perspective, or what we think is His perspective, of the future, in order to gain more mastery of our life, which is the opposite of what Jesus tells us we’re supposed to be doing. It’s the opposite of having a carefree attitude. I also think it’s misguided, because divination presupposes that you have a subtle future out there, with all the facts already in place and that’s screwed up for a lot of reasons. But that’s a different message, we’ll come to that some other time.

Now, the folks who advocate the crystal ball view of Revelation, they’re sincere and godly and, and God understands, you know, maybe all they know. So we leave that to God. But the truth is that, it’s motivated by the same thing that divination is. We’re trying to get the secret of the future, we’re trying to get an advantage. It empowers us.

Our job as disciples of Jesus is not to figure out the future. Our job is to be passionate disciples in the present. God is not a God of the past, or a God of the future, He’s the great “I am” who’s always in the present. Because the past is gone and the future’s not yet, the one thing that’s real is the present. And God is the God of reality. He’s the God of the ‘here’ and He’s the God of the ‘now’. And if we’re obsessed with the past, or we’re obsessed with the future, we’re going to miss what God’s doing in the now, and that’s the only thing that’s important. Our focus should be on the now. Right now, God loves you with an everlasting love. And so, right now, you need to accept that. That’s what’s important. Right now, God wants to keep growing us as disciples.

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