The words we just heard come toward the end of a long, complex and controversial book. A book that just barely got into the Christian bible. A book that has made tens of millions of dollars for those who sensationalize it as a roadmap into violent upheaval that will occur before Christ returns. The book of Revelation may be the most misused book of the entire Bible. And that’s a pretty high bar.
The challenge of understanding Revelation begins for many people with the book’s opening lines. The writer describes Revelation as prophecy. But he doesn’t mean ‘prophecy’ in the sense of predicting the future. Commentator Gail R. O’Day says that Revelation “is not a foretelling or prediction of the future, but is a ‘forthtelling’ of God’s vision of and for the world.” (Theological Bible Commentary, 471). The spectacles and terrors that comprise much of Revelation seek to lend imagery and urgency to conflict between malignant forces in the world and the ultimate reign of God.
At the risk of seeming irreverent, Revelation reminds me a little bit of a couple scenes in the classic Disney movie “Fantasia.” There’s a segment in the movie set to a dramatic and clamorous musical piece called “Night on Bald Mountain.” The animation is dark, gloomy, and foreboding. Spectres and foul-seeming creatures fly and dance all around. The next segment is set to “Ave Maria,” and all is calm, soothing, pastel and almost boring.
Perhaps human psyches find it easier to dramatize and amplify visions of evil and destruction (which we know well) then to give power and vigor to visions of the Sacred prevailing (which we glimpse only occasionally).
Revelation tries imagining the Presence of God, though, as the writer’s vision concludes. The ageless conflict between death-dealing forces and life bearing Power ends with the reign of God—the City of God—established on earth. God makes a home among mortals. A place utterly infused with light. A place whose gates are always open. A place of spiritual integrity. A place where the waters of life flow freely. A place of healing and abundance and gathering for all nations. The Tree of Life stands there and “its leaves are for the healing of the nations.” This vision has deep roots among the Israelite prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah. Light and peace and harmony prevail in the New Jerusalem. And all are welcome.
The reign of God envisioned here enters this world, comes into this time-space continuum. Just as Jesus demonstrated and proclaimed—the kingdom of God is among us. And just as Jesus urged us to act and imagine, Revelation prompts us to act and imagine.
The closing chapters of Revelation provide a vision that have inspired others through the ages in efforts of utopianism and social reform. And in efforts of settlement such as Puritan aspirations to build the New Zion. Or in attempts to build renewed and dedicated community, such as the Shakers.
Perhaps this is a vision we can catch and embrace. Divine Light at the center of all. No gates barring entry. Healing and Life for all who enter. Can we find this compelling, as others have? Can we put hands and feet and heart into adding flesh to this sacred dream? That is the point, after all. To describe a vision that moves us to walk toward it even if we may not know every step along the way. Those who have visions rarely know exactly where they will end up.
Many mystics, for example, have had visions they spent entire lifetimes exploring and bringing to life. Julian of Norwich spent a lifetime teaching and guiding others while delving into a waking, sensate vision that seems to have lasted only a few moments. Francis of Assisi began his ministry at the prompting of a waking, sensate vision that urged him to rebuild the church. Many other examples exist, and examples still occur among us. An acquaintance of mine reports having had a waking, sensate vision recently that he has yet to absorb and process.
Other proclamations that we describe as visions might also be described as empowered imagination. Leaders in the early labor movement pursued a vision of human dignity and well-being that brough many changes to modern life. Including the three-day weekend which some of us enjoy. Martin Luther King’s proclamation of his dream still motivates and inspires activism and is a touchstone for many still laboring to change the world. The World Social Forum meets annually in different international locations, and gathers activists from around the world seeking to sow seeds for a new world.
Visions in various sizes and shapes still grow and thrive in this world, proclaiming possibilities. Daring to challenge the malignant forces of death: militarism, environmental devastation, wealth inequality, and much more. Just as the writer of Revelation sought to name the powers and principalities of his own day and proclaim their ultimate banishment. Visions cast a sense of possibility and hope; they move us in new directions. They shape our actions, our words, our prayers. Visions can, in fact, be a source for the healing of the nations. Or, at least, more peaceful communities. More whole circles of friends and family.
A few days ago I was listening to a free webinar about revitalizing personal ministry and congregational life. About fifteen minutes into the recording, the presenter started talking about the need for an empowering vision to move anyone’s ministry forward, any organization’s work forward. And in a fit of impatiently wanting to hear something new, I turned the video off. Then I stopped to wonder, again, about what my vision for myself in the world is…and I was glad to realize I could still articulate it to myself: to seek to presence Christ in the world.
I’m not saying that my personal vision is huge, or that it will change the world, or even that I’m very good at it. But it is among the touchstones I have to guide me. Perhaps you have a vision for yourself: to be a light; to be a source of healing for your friends and family; to be a powerful pray-er; to serve in a particular way; to nurture life in the world in many different ways. Whatever it is…
…explore it, develop it, be guided by it, claim it as a powerful source of good in your life and communities. Bring it among us here. And carry it into the rest of the world. Let it unfold over time.
And if, by some chance, you feel like you don’t have a vision for yourself, seek out the guidance you may desire. Begin with simply having an openness to dream in concert with God’s Spirit…imagine…be willing. And pray, individually and collectively.
And recall from time to time, the vision of Revelation: God’s presence dwelling among us and bearing light, healing, and thriving life for all the peoples.
-Rev. Ruth Moerdyk
Scripture text: Revelation 21:22-22:5