And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
--Revelation 21:3-4 NRSV
Once upon a time, I was a doctoral student in New Testament at Emory University. I ended up leaving the program to pursue a career as a local church pastor, but my time in a Ph.D. program has enabled me the privilege of teaching undergraduate courses on the Bible. One semester is only enough time to skim the surface of the Bible as a whole, and inevitably there was never enough time to adequately cover the book of Revelation at the end of the semester. So, I tried to stress a few key ideas.
There is so much more to say about Revelation, but I felt like if students at least knew these seven things, then that was better than nothing. (Not much better, but still better.)
Number 4 on the list has caused many problems for Christians down through the centuries. There is a never-ending list of failed predictions about the timing of Jesus’ second coming. Pretty much any time Christians had a spat (or a war) with anyone, they were convinced their enemy was the “antichrist” (a word actually not present in the book of Revelation). Yet, Revelation, Daniel and all the other apocalyptic stuff in the Bible was never meant to be read like a horoscope or the “prophecies” of Nostradamus. They were written for crises (real or perceived) in their writers’ times to offer hope to believers and to “reveal” the spiritual dimensions of the troubles they and their communities were experiencing.
My worst nightmare is probably getting stuck on a plane sitting next to somebody who wants to talk about Revelation. Most of what American Christians do with the writing is just plain nuts. The average TV preacher babbling about Revelation has more in common with fruitcake conspiracy theories about the Illuminati killing JFK than they do the Bible. The apocalyptic stuff in the Bible at times feels to me like more trouble than it's worth, but I would never want to throw it out, because of one thing: hope.
2020 has been an insane year—a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, violence by police setting off nationwide demonstrations, an economic downturn with tens of thousands of people out of work and weren’t “murder hornets” supposed to be a thing? Or was that last year? Who can keep track anymore? It’s easy to see why many people have said 2020 is “apocalyptic” in the more recent sense of the word, as in a cataclysmic end of the world.
Yet, I have appreciated writers who have used “apocalyptic” in the sense of its Biblical meaning to describe 2020, as in the trials of this year have revealed a lot to us which was previously hidden.
Baptist writer Joshua Sharp writes, “COVID-19 has laid bare the weakness, fear and sinfulness of humanity in a powerful way. Some could argue these realities were not previously ‘hidden.’ Fair enough. But the COVID-19 crisis is shining a bright light upon them and forcing us to face the facts.” As people fight in store aisles about whether or not to wear masks, we can take a look at ourselves and choose a better way, one of Christian concern for the health of our neighbors.
Catholic writer Mary Pezzulo writes about how the video of George Floyd being asphyxiated by a cop’s knee on his throat was an “apocalypse/revelation” for white Americans. For many white people, George Floyd’s killing made real to them what black Americans had been saying for a very long time. Pezzulo says, “[Our] country is having a revelation. Things are being revealed that some of us knew very well, but that the rest of us couldn’t see. Veils and masks are being pulled off.” The world as many white Americans had been raised to understand it was revealed as a false view of reality. Racism is not just a thing of the past but remains an ever present force at work in our culture.
You may be asking at this point, “Didn’t you mention hope a minute ago?” Yes, I did. Just as the crises of their times provoked revelations about reality, so do the crises of our time and every time. Yet, just as the bizarre apocalyptic language and symbols of scripture depict violence and destruction, they also assure their audience that appearances to the contrary God is still in control of the world. Behind the scenes, God is at work bringing about the goodness God desires for us and all creation. God is not thwarted by the forces of destruction which seem unstoppable to us.
The “apocalypses” of 2020 have revealed the failures of politicians around the world to respond to disease, the racism that exists in the structures of our society, and the illusion of control most of us had about our careers and finances. Yet, God is at work and therefore we can still have hope.
God is at work in the scientists striving to discover a vaccine and the healthcare workers caring for the diseased. God is at work in the activists and reformers envisioning a less racist America. God is at work in the generosity of ordinary people who share what they have with their unemployed and underpaid neighbors. God is at work in all these ways and so many more places that may not be evident to us.
2020 may be the end of the world as we know it, but with God’s help a new and better world is being born.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851