Revelation 5:11-14

 Some of us here were alive, though likely not old enough to remember, when the infamous radio drama of The War of the Worlds aired over the radio on October 30, 1938. Sunday evening in 1938 was prime-time in the golden age of radio, and millions of Americans had their radios turned on. The story began in the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where listeners heard the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. Music played for some time, and then the scare began. An announcer broke in to report that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. Then the dance music came back on, followed by another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

The Martians mounted walking war machines and fired “heat-ray” weapons at the humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman, and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon “Martian cylinders” landed in Chicago and St. Louis. The radio play was extremely realistic, with Welles employing sophisticated sound effects and his actors doing an excellent job portraying terrified announcers and other characters. Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [1]

Though it does sound a bit far-fetched that so many people would be fooled by a fictional radio drama, I’m reminded of a recent spoof this past April Fools when John Stamos was recorded on video screaming at the office receptionist for Netflix after the company cancelled his forth-coming documentary. Soon, Netflix released a video of an executive issuing an apology to Stamos. Many fans reacted angrily, reacting on social media in support of Stamos, unaware that the whole thing was an elaborate April Fools’ joke.  Whether or not the Orson Welles broadcast actually did create such panic, the reactions by some from pranks this last April Fools should be evidence enough that we can often act out in fear and anger when we are confused as to what we are witnessing.

Genre

Are you familiar with the term “genre?” Genre describes “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” Movies are classified into the genre of drama, comedy, action, horror, science fiction; books in the genre of “fiction” and “non-fiction;” music by genre of rock, country, hip-hop, classical, and so on.  Seventy-eight years ago, listeners to The War of the Worlds broadcast did not understand they were listening to the genre of science fiction but rather thought they were listening to the genre of non-fictional news programming.  April 1, viewers did not understand they were watching an April Fools’ joke rather than a non-fictional documentary. Misunderstanding a message can cause confusion, anger, and fear.

Genre of Apocalypse

Today we are looking again at the book of Revelation, often misunderstood to be predicting violence and destruction at the end of the world. What I would like to propose today, is that like The War of the Worlds broadcast and Netflix’s John Stamos documentary, the book of Revelation has been misunderstood and created undue confusion and fear.  What many do not know is that the genre or writing style of apocalypse in which the book was written was a common in that time. While we use the word “apocalypse” to refer to an end of the world scenario, it comes from the Greek word, apokalypsis which means “that which is revealed,” hence, the title of the book, the “Revelation,” or “that which is revealed.”

While this genre or style of writing is unfamiliar to us today, it wasn’t exclusive to John. As one scholar writes, “Apocalypses were a popular kind of writing in ancient Judaism and Christianity.”[2] John was one of many writing books of revelation during his time.[3] To illustrate how widespread and similar this style was, I’ve actually collected a few different examples of apocalyptical writing and I’d like to see if we can correctly identify which actually comes from the book of Revelation.

Which one is Revelation?

 “For a period of time determined for them in proportion to their error, they will rule over the little ones. But after the completion of the error, the ageless one of immortal understanding will be renewed, and they (the little ones) will rule over those who are their rulers.  The root of their error he will pull out, and he will put it to shame, and it will be exposed in all impudence that it has assumed itself.  And such persons shall remain unchanged.”[4]

“I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.  The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.”[5]

“And these things shall come to pass in the day of judgment of those who have fallen away from faith in God and have committed sin: cataracts of fire shall be let loose; and obscurity and darkness shall come up and over and veil the entire world, and the waters shall be changed and transformed into coals of fire, and all that is in it shall burn and the sea shall become fire; under the heaven there shall be a fierce fire that shall not be put out and it flows for the judgment of wrath.”[6]

“’Let it therefore be handed over to the angel who is set over the punishments, and let him cast it out into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and let it be there till the great day of judgment.’  And after these things I heard the voice of angels and archangels saying, ‘You are just, Lord, and your judgment is just.’”[7]

What is Revelation then?

 Though we can understand that the book of Revelation is written in the genre of apocalyptic literature, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to understand.  In fact, a key part of apocalyptic literature was that it was written in symbolic language with hidden meanings.  Writers wanted their intended readers to understand but their opponents to not.[8] Many scholars believe John wrote in this coded, symbolic style of writing because he was disparaging the mighty and powerful empire of Rome. Because open hostility to Rome would have been dangerous, John used mysterious images.[9] There was no freedom of speech in the ancient empire of Rome, nothing remotely similar to our First Amendment. And, being as John apparently wrote some very nasty things about Rome, one can understand why he would want some kind of plausible deniability. So if nothing else, understand that John wrote in reference to Rome, for to miss the point is to miss the entire point of the book.[10]

Worthy of worship

We’ll talk more about this in coming weeks, but when John wrote his book so many years ago, he was concerned that followers of Jesus were trying to serve “two masters” as Jesus said,[11] worshipping both Jesus and the Roman ruler Caesar. During that time, Roman officials would require Christians to make an offering to the statues of Caesar[12] or say the Caesar is Lord and renounce Christ.[13] John’s point was that one could not be a faithful follower of Jesus while also being loyal to Caesar.[14] Therefore a tension arose between followers of Jesus and those in the wider culture who demanded worship of Caesar and the empire of Rome.[15] The book of Revelation then, especially the text we read today, is about revealing who is truly worthy of our worship. In a grandiose vision of worship in heaven, John illustrates to his readers that even though the Roman Caesar seemed to manifest absolute power and invincibility, in heaven—and one day on earth—God is in charge, and is therefore only deserving of our worship.[16]

Understanding the genre of the book of Revelation, understanding that it wasn’t written to predict some end of the world disaster scenario, but rather written to encourage and inspire first century Christians to live faithfully as followers of Jesus and worship God only is in many was comforting and reassuring. Our fear and confusion can subside; we can take a deep breath. When we understand the genre and writing style of the book of Revelation, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

But just because the book of Revelation isn’t predicting our future doesn’t mean we still can’t find meaning in it for our own lives of faith. Worship is a huge focus of the book; each song we sing today comes from Revelation. Each of us are still compelled to consider whether we are living in allegiance, in worship of God.  Often we can unnecessarily dramatize what committing our worship and allegiance God looks like. One popular movie presents Christians forced to defend their beliefs in a court of law. Such over-dramatizations minimize the importance of putting our beliefs into practice every day of the week.  Pledging our worship and allegiance to Jesus means following his values above all others. In our business dealings, we put people ahead of profits, in our politics we choose to love rather than hate our enemies, in our communities, we choose to love our neighbor, no matter who they are or what they look like.  Overly dramatizing choices to follow Jesus ignores the very real and important ways we can show our worship and allegiance to Jesus each and every day. Today I ask us to reaffirm our commitment to following the ways of Jesus.  Let us pledge allegiance to the Lamb.

 

 

[1] “This Day in History: 1938 Wells scares nation,” History.com < http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/welles-scares-nation> (accessed April 8, 2016).

[2] “Apocryphal Apocalypses: The Texts” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), 296.

[3] Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the book of Revelation (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 40.

[4] “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), 229.

[5] Revelation 6:12-16

[6] “The Apocalypse of Peter” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), 298.

[7] “The Apocalypse of Paul” in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, ed. Bart D. Erhman (New York: Oxford Press, 1999), 304.

[8] “Revelation” in The Word in Life Study Bible: The Book of Hebrews through The Book of Revelation (Carmel, NY: Guideposts, 1993), 876.

[9] Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the book of Revelation (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 30.

[10] Snow Flesher, LeAnn, Left Behind: The Facts Behind the Fiction (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006), 87.

[11] Matthew 6:24

[12] Lowery, Richard H. Revelation: Hope for the World in Troubled Times (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 13.

[13] Leonard L. Thompson, Revelation: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 28.

[14] Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 116.

[15] Thomas B. Slater, “On the Social Setting of the Revelation to John,” New Testament Studies vol. 44, (1998): 252-254.

[16] Stanley P. Saunders, “Revelation 1:4-8: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:393.

[17] Revelation 4:11

(Visited 334 times, 1 visits today)