Hell? No!


Perhaps you also have heard that phrase—if you’re going through hell, keep going. In other words, don’t stop where you are and just park yourself there in hell. Keep moving.


Or to look from the perspective of a story, don’t quit the story in the middle of the plot. You can see there’s more to the book—how is it going to end? Or do you stop watching a movie in the middle of the movie, just because the hero’s back is up against the wall and the forces of evil are closing in all around? Do you quit mid-game just because your team is behind? If you’re going through hell, do you just stay there?


Hell? No! You keep going. In some ways, you just got to the best part.


In these weeks after Easter, as we celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death, we are exploring the enduring wisdom in the book of Revelation, the vision recorded by John of Patmos, an early Christian imprisoned for his faith in Jesus. John addresses this letter to seven churches of the ancient world, encouraging them to persist in faithfulness to God.


John’s perspective is that because Jesus—often depicted as a lamb—died and rose again, the forces of death can no longer have ultimate power. Evil is conquered not by fighting but by remaining faithful. Death cannot mean defeat when Christ assures us of eternal life. The Lamb died but is still alive. You can die, and in the end, you can still win. In a way, you already know the end of the story before it even starts.


But think about other truly epic stories that have endured through human history—ancient stories like the Iliad, or in our generations: the Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter—you don’t keep going back to these stories because they’re simplistic and easy. These stories endure because they’re complicated: there’s a journey or some kind of monumental battle.


The story becomes a metaphor for life, because life is sometimes complicated. (Can I get an amen?) We need models for what persistence looks like. We need heroes that call us to our better selves. We need assurance that Good will prevail, that God will win in the end.


For John writing to encourage these early Christian communities, that enduring story is the Exodus, that ancient foundational story of the Hebrew people. Revelation has lots of references to Exodus: there’s a ruling power that oppresses people, oppressed people who are calling out to God for salvation, plagues that demonstrate God’s power and God’s displeasure over the situations of oppression. God is the one who liberates people from injustice.


In the book of Revelation, God’s people are experiencing a new exodus, but this time in the context of the Roman Empire. In a way, Jesus is a new Moses figure, leading God’s people not into a geographical promised land, but into an entirely new way of being—the reign of God, a place of justice, of healing and of eternal life. God’s people are not called to violent action, but the work of liberation is God’s own action, accomplished through the crucifixion and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Barbara Rossing, a New Testament professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has studied and written books and articles about the book of Revelation, about the message of hope that is the enduring heart of this ancient vision. And she has what she calls “strategies for getting through the scary middle chapters” of the book of Revelation. And they are scary—chapters six through 19 are filled with images of war, frightful plagues, dragons with multiple heads. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Bible is boring. The book of Revelation is where you find the dragons!


And again, you could ignore this vision, but the problem is that there are Christians out there who are just all-too-enthusiastic to interpret this book with real-world consequences like Zionism, which is fine with war in the Middle East and all the consequences for the people who live there, or the degradation of the earth, because God is going to trash this planet and give us a new one anyway. These interpretations are not faithful to the Bible’s vision, and as Rossing puts it, we cannot afford to accept their version of the story. [1]


So if this story is about how to remain faithful during oppression, what are some strategies for getting through these scary chapters? I think there’s some wisdom here for us today, who may similarly need encouragement to live to fight another day.


One strategy is to consider the full sweep of the story—don’t get hung up on the scariness of the middle chapters, and don’t try to interpret every single symbol or sign. Rossing says this book was written to be read aloud with no commercials![2] The goal is to get to the end of the book, with the vision of the New Jerusalem, where the promises of healing and blessing come to fulfillment.


Another thing to remember is the scary images are warnings and wake-up calls, not literal predictions. Rossing recalls the visions of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ well-known story “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge is presented with terrifying “what if” scenarios that show him what his life will look like if he doesn’t make some changes. These are not foretelling a terrible future but warning what will happen if there’s no change—it still isn’t too late.


Also the “woes” written into the book are meant to be God’s grief and lament, not curses against the world. In chapter 8, an eagle is crying out “Woe to the inhabitants of earth”—this “woe” is not a judgment against earth, but this is God grieving the world’s pain. Jesus is the lamb who was slain, God-with-us who knows our pain and experiences death and comes to deliver us. God is not cursing the world but God loves the world enough to weep and lament for all the pain in the world. God has not abandoned—God will not abandon—the world.


But what about Armageddon? That word does show up—ONCE—in the book of Revelation, a war to end all wars. However, in chapter 16, the one time where Armageddon is mentioned, notice that no battle is actually described. The armies show up at the mountain of Megiddo, but the scene suddenly shifts to the judgment of Babylon.[3] John shows us the armies but then introduces a delay—there’s still time for repentance. There’s still the option to lay down one’s weapons. There’s still hope! It is possible to read this book non-violently!


And throughout Revelation, even in the most intensely frightening moments, John interrupts the violence to draw our attention to worshipping God. There are scenes of gathered people, “those who have conquered the beast,” who are singing before God, singing the song of Moses and the song of Lamb. Singing is how we keep hope alive. In the words of the great musician Ella Fitzgerald, “The only thing better than singing is more singing!”


And friends, we are continuing the songs of our ancestors in faith. I’m willing to bet you know more of the book of Revelation than you ever give yourself credit for. It’s in the songs we sing in the early part of our regular Sunday worship liturgy—“This is the feast of victory for our God” and especially the part about “worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain”—all those lyrics come from Revelation. If you’ve sung “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” then you’re singing words directly out of Revelation. See? You know more than you thought you did! We keep the song alive.


After this pandemic, we will never again take singing for granted, will we? If you’ve had the experience of singing hymns alongside the faithful then you know what an encouragement this is in your spirit. We’re not in this alone. In fact, we’re singing the same song and praising the same God, the God who loves all creation, the God who is with us through the struggle, the God who will welcome us to the feast of victory.


We need these stories of hope, these stories of endurance. We will not give in to despair, and we will not quit. Even if we’re going through hell right now, we’re not going to stay here—hell? No! The story is not finished. Heaven yes! God’s glory is being and will be revealed. We’ll make heaven a place on earth.


Amen.


Pastor Cheryl





[1] Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, page 140. “Christian fundamentalists and Left Behind readers argue that the war story is the way Revelation’s story must unfold. I argue that the Lamb’s story gives us a very different model for God’s storyline in our world today. Christian fundamentalists are willing to let the Middle East become the battleground. Simply put, we cannot afford to accept their version of the story. The violent ending they desire is not the Bible’s vision for our world.” [2] Barbara Rossing, Journey Through Revelation: Apocalyptic Hope for Today, 2010-2011 Horizons Bible Study, published by Horizons Presbyterian Women, Inc., page 84. [3] Revelation 16:19

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