When I was a child growing up in Alabama, I was sick a lot. I had asthma and was subject to respiratory infections which often left me hospitalized and sometimes very close to death. It was a reality of life that lived with my family in an almost tangible way like an uninvited guest or a troublesome distant relative.
The Springtime was always the worst, when the luxurious display of new life in flowers left houses, cars and lungs coated with thick yellow pollen. The spring was battle time. And often the battle was hard fought and I would sneeze and sputter and wheeze. And wait. Wait for the last gullywasher of a May rain to sweep the residue from the porches and shutters of the house and from my lungs.
The tension under the surface always seemed to me to be higher in the spring. There was a threat and vigilance was needed. My parents watched and worried and tried to make sure that what ever happened I was safe and, if at all possible, didn't grow up thinking of myself as a sick child and obsessed with my health.
Sometimes when things were at their worst and I was confined to bed, my mother would come into my room, close the windows tight against the pollen, wipe and cover the sills, while I struggled and watched propped up against pillows to help me breathe. When she was finished she would sometimes lie across the foot of my bed and tell me stories of Sea Grove Beach, Florida, a little spot on the Florida panhandle where my family often vacationed. She would tell me of the magical qualities of saltwater and sea breezes to sweep away any hint of a wheeze. "Close your eyes, Genie," she would say. "Close your eyes. Can't you see it? Breathe deep, can't you feel it? Dig deep Genie and we'll go there and you can feel the sun on your shoulders and splash in the water. And breathe."
Those moments were little apocalypses for me, little revelations, in which through the love of my mother, God painted for me a sustaining vision, a vision of me whole, a vision of things the way God intended. A vision in the midst of struggle and pain of a time when I would have weathered the onslaught and found my promised glory.
The Book of Revelation provides just such a vision. It is the product of the marriage of hope and despair, of promise and pain. It is a book/dream/vision/poem/letter written in all probability toward the end of the first century by a banished Jewish Christian leader named John who was in prison for his faith on the Isle of Patmos.
The Book of Revelation has confounded Christians for centuries, much the same way that life itself confounds us. Was it written in code? What does it mean? To what do its symbols refer? Is it a message about the past, the future, or the present? As early as 210 A.D. Gaius of Rome forbade the public reading of this book because of its ability to create turmoil in the people who, as we all tend to do, sought to interpret the work solely from their own context. William Barclay called it the "playground of religious eccentrics."
While much does remain unclear, the purpose of this book is very clear. It was written primarily to encourage and inspire particular Christians under Roman persecution to endure and remain faithful during the time of tribulation, both the internal battles waged within a believer between personal faithfulness and the abandonment of faith and the external battles waged by a culture out of control, threatened by unenlightened leaders and pagan values.
It was a time of turmoil and terror in which the promise of ease and safety long believed to be a result of faith, could only be achieved by abandoning faith altogether, or by living a maddening double life. People of every race and circumstance saw every other as the enemy. The only hope for unity seemed to be in the heavy handed control of an out-of-touch government that was basing its values on greed, power and the lack of visible dissension.
It is into that context that John offers his vision of another way. It is a vision of hope.
To understand Revelation for our day, we have to understand the nature of hope. For Christians hope is not a wish. It is not a tooth under a pillow, or fingers crossed or just one more Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes try. Hope for a Christian is an assurance, a firm and binding promise. It is a sure thing. Hope is not a feeling. It is a fact. It is a fact rooted in the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and assured by the amazing, steadfast, unshakable love of God for God's people. God will not be shaken. Hope is independent of circumstances and it will never be conquered by evil. Even if hurt seems to be winning, the battle for God has already been won.
Several years ago when I was a pastor in the Denver Colorado area, a colleague of mine told me a story of a friend of hers who was traveling home to Denver on a Sunday afternoon from a conference north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins. The conference had been a good one. The man and the woman were driving home full of what they had learned and talking about how they might use their new learning in their work situations. As they rounded a curve in the road they came upon a serious motorcycle accident. The motorcycle seemed to catch on something and flip into the air. The driver, without a helmet, was thrown fifty yards or so, and the bike landed not far away.
The two were the first to arrive. The man was driving and pulled off the road just north of the accident. Before he shut off the ignition the woman was out of the car and running to the side of the accident victim. The man stopped another car and sent the occupants for help while he began to try to direct traffic. At one point in the chaos he glanced at the woman. She was crouched next to the unconscious young man, stroking his hair and talking to him.
When the ambulance arrived and the young man was whisked away, the man and the woman got back into their car in silence. There was blood on the woman's hands and around the hem of her skirt.
After a moment, the man said, "I saw you talking to that young man. He was obviously unconscious. He may even have been dead. What could you possibly have been saying to him?"
"I just told him over and over," she replied, "I just told him, the worst is over. The healing has already begun."
To those long ago hurting ones to whom John wrote, to those long ago ones whose lives were marked by pain and fear, by weakness and oppression of injustice and death, whose lives were marked by the terror of the now and haunted by the past and uncertain of the future, to those ones and to us, to you, God through the words of Revelation offers us a vision of a brand new life; a life lived in a brand new order in a brand new way. Maybe the images in Revelation are frightening and confusing to you, serpents and lakes of fire, but what is that to us? What God has to say in this letter is that no matter what comes against you in this life; no matter if all of the power of pain and chaos of the universe seems to overtake you all at once; no matter if you can not control one single thing or fix one single thing in your life, the worst is over, the healing has already begun. The lamb is on the throne. Come Lord Jesus, come.