It is a rare day that the lectionary brings us the Revelation of John. Revelation is a strange book. It is one scholars often struggle with—as one example, John Calvin wrote a commentary on every other book of the New Testament, and Zwingli, another of the great reformers, though one less well known today, rejected the book’s place in the canon, the accepted body of scripture, entirely.
Even today, there are four major camps of interpretation of Revelation. The first camp, called Futurists, view Revelation as a straightforward description of the end-times, a view held by the author of the “Left Behind” series. The second camp, the Preterists, argue that it is a prophecy of the future, yes, but only of the future from the time it was written—and that the events were fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple around the year 70 CE. Some in this camp then argue that the latter events, the second coming of Christ and eventual victory of God, are still to come. The third camp, Historicists, sees the book as a description of history, but of broad periods of history rather than specific, individual events. The fourth camp, called Idealists, see this text as describing not specific future or historical events, but as an allegory, describing broad themes in the on-going conflict between good and evil.
Complicating all four camps are some of the things that are known about the text, including that it was written by someone who was in exile and whose communication was subject to screening by Roman censors. This helps to explain why the book is so strange—because the author was trying to write in such a way that the censors would not understand what he was saying to the early Christian community, but it can still leave us in the dark, as we lack the context that may have been key to understanding the text. It is possible that the book reads a bit like a fever-dream because the author hoped the censors would read it and think it was exactly that, and thus safe to release. In light of that, I lean toward the Idealist camp, although I have not devoted substantial study to this book in particular. Honestly, I spend most of my time in the fifth camp of Revelation interpreters, those who mostly hope to not have to think about it.
But today is All Saints’ Day, a day which is normally marked on either November 1 or the first Sunday in November, and this year, those are the same day and even if I had chosen not to preach on it, I still would have had to think about it. I think our author, known as John of Patmos, since Patmos was the island on which he was held captive. It is possible that this John was the same John who wrote the gospel and the three Johannine epistles, First, Second, and Third John, or that it was a member of the same community, but that gets us into an area with much scholarly argument. Where there is consensus is that John was writing from exile, through Roman censors, to a Christian community facing significant oppression and persecution from the Roman authorities. This is, most likely, the “great ordeal” referenced in today’s text: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”
Many churches today are incorporating something called a necrology into worship. It usually involves reading the names of each member of the congregation who has died in the past year while accompanying each name with the ringing of a bell. I heard that is not something this community usually does, and so I am not, because, if you can believe it, my goal is still to change as little as possible, at least, in my first year.
One church, in New York, on Long Island, set out to mark All Saints’ Day by ringing its bill for every person who has died in the United States from covid. They are ringing the bell every six seconds. They started October 18 in order to ring the bell 218,000 times. Since they began ringing the bell, another 12,000 or so have died, again, just in the United States. They committed to stopping today, but if they had not, they would need to add almost another full day just to catch up with those who have died since they started ringing.
I know there are some who think this is a hoax, or is not that serious, or that efforts to minimize the human cost of the disease are too expensive economically, or spiritually. I remember telling someone back in March that the problem with preventative measures is that, if they work, they will appear to have been unnecessary. If they do not work, it can be difficult to know whether they helped. We have not been in this room together since March, and I would love to be able to attribute the fact that none of the peals of that Long Island Bell were for any member of our community to that fact. I cannot. Instead, I ask for all of you to extend patience and grace, not only to me, not only to the session, but to everyone who is trying to figure out how to navigate these waters, how to balance competing risks and risk factors, not all of which can be seen. We each face a moral call to minimize harm, to work to ease the suffering of those around us, even as we may each give different weights to the various physical, mental, social, and economic factors at play.
I have already said I fall mostly into the Idealist camp of interpreting this text, which means that we are not limited to applying John’s words to that specific history. There have been many “great ordeals.” Surely in this country we can count the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War for their broad impact on society. As one member pointed out to me recently, the fierceness of our current election season is not that different than 1968. The current pandemic is not that different from the 1918 Spanish Flu. All these things have happened before, and, until we finally do reach the Kingdom of God, all these things will happen again.
In the end, each of us is here because people came through previous great ordeals. We are, all and each of us, here today because we live ever in the hope of the time to come, when, like the uncountable multitude surrounding God in John’s vision, we “will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike [us], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
And just as we take solace in that promise of a time when God will wipe every tear from our eye, we remember that the promise of the Gospel is not only the promise of the resurrection, the promise that God will redeem us in the end, but it is the promise of the incarnation and the crucifixion, the promise that whatever we are facing, whatever struggles we are going through, God is not only a remote future salvation. God is with us now.