Build Your Kingdom Here
The lectionary calendar for our scriptures has taken an interesting turn in our continuation of this Easter Season. The weeks leading up to Pentecost are meant to be inspiring, full of the hope of the resurrection. But it is often during these weeks after Easter that we are left feeling much like the disciples after Jesus’ ascension. We find ourselves even asking some of the same questions:
We celebrate the fact that our Lord is risen but what do we do with that information?
We know that we should spread the message and ethic of Christ but how?
In what ways?
These questions are what formed the very earliest church, a people who sought to continue the legacy of Christ through evangelism, hoping to inspire people until the return of Christ on that glorious day—a return we seem to be promised in our scripture reading today. Well it’s been almost 2,000 years since John of Patmos wrote down the dramatic events that he saw in his vision, which would soon become our Book of Revelation. And in that time, Christians have wrestled, interpreted, and even fought with what exactly this book is saying about God’s revelation to us.
We’ve spoken in the past about the expectations of the disciples, about their hope that Christ would return within their lifetimes. But when that didn’t happen, when tens of hundreds of thousands of years went by, Christians have had to wrestle with these difficult passages. Christians have explained and reasoned for God’s delay. They’ve split into different traditions, different denominations, “are you a ‘pre-tribulation’ Christian or a ‘post-tribulation” Christian? Do you believe the rapture will happen before the end times or after the Antichrist rises in power? How about the saints who have gone before us—are they awaiting us in heaven or are they simply asleep, awaiting the day in which we are all reunited through the witness of resurrection.” Or perhaps you are more Presbyterian in your beliefs and just don’t like to talk about those kinds of things...
I think this book gets a bad reputation because we have largely ignored the style in which it is written. We ignore the fact that John was writing as a prophet, interpreting a vision that he had experienced. And in order to understand his words, we must have a fundamental understanding of prophecy. We hear the word prophesy and I think we go to a place in our minds of fortunetelling or predicting the future. We think of prophecies as fact, as something that is going to happen. What we don’t realize is that prophesy does not address what will happen…but it addresses what can happen depending on our choices.
Prophesy presents us with a diverging road, one in which we have a choice. It is meant to address a certain group of people and a certain problem of that time. So to take prophecy out of its context, to pull it out of scripture and apply it blanketly to all facets of life would not only be a fundamental mistake, but a dangerous misuse of our texts. In Revelation’s case, these words were meant to address a society and people who were being killed for their beliefs. Revelation speaks to a dramatic turn of events in which the people of God are liberated from an oppressive regime. It addresses the issues of the day but also looks forward to a time and place where people could one day live at peace, united in a place where there is no war, no pain, no suffering.
This understanding of prophecy is important because not only does it keep intact our vital doctrine of free will (the fact that we do have a choice in this life) but it also helps us to understand a text that is often shrouded in mystery and misinterpretation. In addressing this, how can we begin then to interpret such texts? How can we apply meaning in the belief that God is speaking to us today, even through the Book of Revelation?
Well you’re in luck, I’ve started you out easy today. Our passage from Revelation speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. It speaks of the new eternal dwelling place of God, one in which there will be no mourning, no crying, no more pain. In this existence, God stands as the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, as the beginning and end, one who satisfies our needs and is with us always. It’s a beautiful vision, isn’t it? To imagine a world in true peace.
Some of you may know that I am a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works and I try to read through the Lord of the Rings as often as I get a chance. (And yes, my wife and I have sat through all 11 ½ hours of the extended cut version of the movies. We’re pretty cool people.) One of my favorite scenes from the movies, although it differs in the books, is when Frodo and his friends are returning to the Shire after the great war. For such a long time now, they’ve been surrounded by rocks and mud and war and dark, colorless landscapes…when all of the sudden…they come back home and are met with the soft rolling green hills of the Shire. They are met with a land that has never known war. We can once again hear the gentle rolling brooks of water and the sound of laughter—something we thought we might never hear again.
This vision of the Shire is one I often go to in my reading of this new creation. For you, it may be somewhere different, but why I think Tolkien stands out in my mind so much is because this world, this new creation that exists in his books, doesn’t happen by chance. It is not a random occurrence. It is not even miraculously transformed by some sort of deity, but it takes the work and the effort of thousands of people to create. The process is difficult and it’s messy and lot’s of people probably felt at times like all hope was lost. But even the humblest, even the smallest and meekest of those chose to join the cause of a better world. Because it takes the work and the effort of all these characters to create this peace, this utopia. I wonder how that can speak to us today? I wonder about the power there is in seeking to create a world you would like to see, rather than waiting for God to miraculously make everything better.
When I got my first car in college, I had a part that went bad on it and so I called my dad and asked if he knew any mechanics in town who could fix it. He asked me what was wrong with it and I told him and he said, “Oh, you don’t need a mechanic, you’ve got the internet!” I told him, “Dad, I don’t know the first thing about cars, I’m going to make things worse.” He said “Son, bring it home, I’ll be right next to you, guiding you along the way if you need help.” I could have taken it in somewhere, paid someone to do it and there are certainly times for that, but I wouldn’t have learned in the process. I wouldn’t have received that guidance from my father and been able to learn about more than just cars that day.
How often do we wait on God to fix the issues of the world for us? How often do we ask for God to build the kingdom here, forgetting that we are the stone masons? We are the ones responsible in ushering in the love and kindness of God that we so desperately seek. In what ways are we sitting in silence while people we love and care about are being marginalized. What we do on this Earth matters and it matters because we are creating, here and now, God’s kingdom. It matters because to be silent, to be inactive, as I will remind you with a quote from Desmond Tutu, “to be neutral in situations of injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor.”
We have a responsibility to stand up for human rights, but we don’t have to do it alone. With God as our guide, we have the motivation and the inspiration to create a place where there is no more pain, or suffering, or violence towards one another. We are not a lost cause. Let us build the kingdom together.