Monday, July 12, 2010

Preaching the Apocalypse

I am usually a lectionary preacher, but during the summers, I like to preach a series of sermons. Sometimes, I have even based the series on the lectionary itself. For example, when the lectionary takes us through the David stories, I preach a series of sermons on David, or Moses, or Joseph. In the Spring of this year, I let the congregation vote on an online poll on which subject they would like to hear a summer series of sermons. The choices were the book of Revelation, David, Moses, and the book of Genesis. The overwhelming percentage of those who voted opted for Revelation.

I had four weeks between annual conference and vacation. I am part of a clergy couple, so usually I preach every other week. My wife was gracious enough to let me preach for these four Sundays in a row. I decided that these would basically be teaching sermons- no cute stories and not too many applications. I let the congregation know what I was planning in advance, and I encouraged them to read the book of Revelation in advance, and I suggested that they read Mickey Efird's Revelation for Today as a guide. To my knowledge, no one actually bought the Efird book, but one person did buy another book that she saw at a bookstore. One man told me he tried reading Revelation on his own, but it was too confusing for him. I told him that it was confusing if you try to read it straight through without some kind of guide.

There was so much to cover in only four sermons; how could I possibly choose what to preach on? Finally, I decided to preach one introductory sermon, one sermon on the worship in Revelation, one on the reality of evil and judgment, and one sermon on the New Jerusalem. If you were going to preach four sermons on Revelation, how would you break it down? Here's a brief summary of each sermon:

In the introductory sermon, I talked about some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature and some of the different approaches to the book of Revelation. I closed with a look at the letter to the church at Laodicea. I closed the sermon by talking about (and leading the congregation in singing) the civil rights anthem, "We shall overcome," explaining how it is based on Revelation 3:21. (see Richard Hays' book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, chapter 8 for more on this connection. More generally, Hays' chapter on Revelation has had a profound effect on how I read the Apocalypse, as had John Howard Yoder's book, The Politics of Jesus, chapter 12.)

In the second sermon, the text was Revelation 4 and 5, the scenes of heavenly worship centered around the one who sits on the throne, and on the Lamb. I reflected on how we look for a lion, but what we get is the Lamb. Here, I was influenced largely by Eugene Peterson's book, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. I didn't think about it at the time, but in Simply Christian N. T. Wright's whole discussion of Christian worship is based on Revelation 4 and 5.

In the third sermon, I used Revelation 13 to talk about the reality of evil. This was the sermon that contained the most historical information because I went into some depth about the emperors Nero and Domitian as the ones John had in mind when he envisioned the "beast." I talked about how in Revelation, God's response to evil is appropriately wrath and judgment, which were actually signs of hope that were intended to lead us to repentance.

In the fourth sermon, I talked about the New Jerusalem, but first I cleared the air by explaining that in Revelation, there is no rapture, and that Armageddon and the Millennium were two of the kaleidoscopic images used by John to describe the Lamb's complete victory over evil. Of course, I explained that the sword of the Lamb comes from his mouth , meaning the Lamb conquers not through military swords, but simply by the power of God's word. The New Jerusalem is described in terms that recall Genesis 2 (the tree, the river, the garden, the fruit of healing). We are called to live now the way we know we will live in the New Jerusalem.

And that's how I preached the book of Revelation in only four weeks: introduction, worship, evil, and victory. How would you have done it? I would add that Marva Dawn's book, Joy in our Weakness: A gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation was very helpful for me. In the series, I included two quotes. One from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say why - I dream things that never were and say why not." Revelation invites us to imagine with John a new world and ask, "why not?" Revelation funds an alternative imagination from the limited imagination of Caesar. The other quote I included in the series was from Lee Camp:

We might summarize Revelation this way: in the ring of human history, there's a bleeding Lamb in one corner and a dragon in the other. "Common sense" would tell us we should place our bet on the dragon – but there's a new common sense, a new reality, in which the Lamb turns out victorious. It's the people of God, the church, who are supposed to know that secret, because the mystery has been revealed in Christ. (Mere Discipleship, second edition, p. 110).

10 comments:

Craig L. Adams said...

You say: In the introductory sermon, I talked about some of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature and some of the different approaches to the book of Revelation.

I fear that that might well have swallowed up all my time if I had tried it! I like to cover this kind of material in a Bible study class, so there is time for discussion

John Meunier said...

Sounds like you did a lot of good work and good thinking. I've not put enough thought in how I would preach the book to answer your questions, but I think you came up with a good way to lead your congregation into this book.

Craig L. Adams said...

As I said to you on FB, I once preached a very long series on Revelation, and regretted it. But, I continued to preach from the book of Revelation from time to time. Long, long ago Leon Morris' old IVP commentary convinced me the book is preachable - and it is!

Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Just in case you haven't heard: Methodist peace leader John M. Swomley died on 16 August at aged 95. You wouldn't have agreed with him on abortion, but would have done so on much else.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

You ever plan to finish your list of important Wesleyan/Methodist theologians?

Jonathan said...

Yes, I do. I might, however, simply continue the list as "important theologians in the Wesleyan tradition" and not give them a precise ranking.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Good that you plan to finish. I enjoyed arguing with you about where to rank them, though.

Jonathan said...

It is kinda fun to argue over ranking, but I am also mindful of Jesus' rebuke of the disciples for playing similar games (Luke 22:24-26).

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Yeah, but they were SERIOUS! :-)

It's been a hard decade for theologians:
http://pilgrimpathways.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/may-god-grant-us-new-prophets-and-teachers/#comment-363

Whom have I missed?