Spoiler Alert sermon about Revelation 21:1-7
You all know the rule about saying “spoiler alert” whenever you talk about what happens in a book, movie, or television show. When revealing something the other person doesn’t know, you say, “spoiler alert.” You are supposed to pause, giving the other person a chance to say, “Don’t tell me. I want to discover it for myself.” But most people break this rule because they are so excited to tell you. And most people are okay hearing the spoiler alert because it saves them from having to read the book.
If you haven’t read Revelation or don’t intend to, “spoiler alert!” The Bible gives away the biggest spoiler of all about human destiny. And despite what you think you know; our end is not a fiery catastrophe but a sparkly new city—symbolizing a new way of living together in peace and harmony. It’s a different ending than most of us were led to believe.
Recently, a young woman came to my daughter’s house and asked why she thought so many horrible things are happening. “I blame MAGA,” my daughter said. The woman said, no, it’s the unfolding of God’s plan, as indicated in the book of Revelation. God’s plan is for everything to get worse.
I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound very Jesus-y. I’m more interested in hearing about a God working to make things better, not worse.
Reading Revelation as a predictor of future events
But I get where they are coming from. When I was a teenager, I hung with that crowd. I fell into a group that read Revelation as destiny’s blueprint. We believed that we were already living in the end times.
Much of the fervor was inspired years earlier by Hal Lindsey, who had written the blockbuster, The Late Great Planet Earth. He explained Revelation predicted current geopolitical events that signaled the beginning of the apocalypse. With the advent of the atomic bomb and the reestablishment of Israel as an independent nation, Lindsey popularized a way of reading the symbolic language of Revelation into current events. Lindsey was the intellectual precursor to the very popular Left Behind fictional series and every bumper sticker that warned their car would become a driverless road hazard in case of rapture.
The end was always just around the corner. Death and disease, and famine were coming. People predicted dates for the end that never came. Even if their timing was off, it was critical to live right because the rapture could happen at any second, and if your heart wasn’t right, you would get caught on the wrong side of the line and burn in the lake of fire forever.
Sounded good to me. I was all in, totally brought in—for a while. But I wouldn’t say I liked how it felt and how smug it made me think I had the inside information. Or how condescending I became toward people who didn’t believe like me. It felt wrong to be part of a group looking forward to a day that an airline pilot might get raptured and all unbelieving passengers plummeted toward their deaths. It felt ugly to give blind allegiance to Israel not because we cared about the Jews and Muslims living there, but because of how Israel figures in the book of Revelation that brings the end that condemns the Jews and Muslims. Most of all, I didn’t like the uneasy feeling about why the God Jesus talked about had changed direction and became an intolerant, vengeful source of suffering and pain. I didn’t like it, but had no alternative.
Reading Revelation as a reflection of the author’s current events
When I got to college, I was delighted to learn a different way of reading Revelation. This approach takes it into context and is more consistent with the God of loving-kindness Jesus presented. It’s a way of reading that inspires peace-making, humility, and a vision for a better world, not celebrating an obliterated planet.
Instead of reading Revelation as a spooky predicter of future catastrophy, it reflected the dire circumstances of the author (John of Patmos) and his audience of seven congregations. Revelation fits into a specific kind of apocalyptic literature filled with mysterious symbols. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament also follows the conventions of this style of writing. The purpose was to encourage people that God’s ways would win out no matter how bad it was in the present. So, hang on. Hang on. It gets better. It’s supposed to get better, and it will get better. Evil won’t defeat God’s ultimate purposes.
Read this way, Revelation is a screed against the corrupt and oppressive practices of the Roman empire, as John of Patmos and his congregations experienced it. To get away with writing subversive, they used code language. If caught by the authorities, they could say, “We didn’t say Rome and talk about the emperor. We said, ‘the great whore of Babylon.'”
Scholars say the coded imagery points to the Roman empire. The Babylonian empire had gone out of existence centuries earlier. Still, the memory of how they desecrated the Jerusalem Temple lingered and reminded them of how the Romans also destroyed the temple in 70 AD. No bulldozers cleared away the debris from the fall of Jerusalem, and they had to look at the ruins every day.
You’ve heard of 666 being the mark of the beast. They weren’t talking about secret tracking devices in the COVID vaccine. They were talking about the infamous Roman emperor, Nero. In a popular coding method called gematria, letters had a corresponding numeric value, which translates to Caesar Nero.
Rome issued laws that one could practice their religion, but they must also worship the emperor as the Son of God. Christians, of course, had a problem with this. But failure to obey meant death. And many Christians met gruesome ends because they refused to capitulate.
Much of Revelation’s symbolism is meant to upend Rome’s imperial mythology by showing it is Jesus, the “lamb who was slain,” by Roman power who has the real power. The book is trying to explain that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
But Revelation goes further. It implicates the ethos of any political system based on violence, intimidation, and oppression and rigs itself against the ordinary person in service to powerful elites.
That is why the author, John of Patmos, encourages his audience not to be seduced by the wrong values. Don’t capitulate to the ways of domination and exploitation. Resist. Remain true to a higher vision. Ultimately, God’s ways, not Caesar’s, win. Revelation continually reminds us that they put Jesus to death, but he rose. His movement and values cannot be defeated by evil.
The message of John of Patmos is just as relevant now as it was to his original audience. It’s not a guide on how to escape tough times but how to live through them with integrity and guided by Jesus’ vision. Hang on. Be true. Remember who you are. Don’t capitulate to the lies, to the greed. Treat others how you want to be treated. Pursue justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:1-8).
A story of good versus evil
Fitting with apocalyptic literature’s conventions, Revelation uses imagery where forces of good and evil lock in a violent confrontation before the victor emerges. Even in the modern era, we do it this way. Think about stories we enjoy, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The violence is symbolic, a metaphor for good against evil. Just as we don’t go around swatting each other with lightsabers, we get that the message is to align ourselves with the light side of the force. So too, we can read Revelation as an inspiration not to turn to the “dark side” of human nature.
My seminary New Testament professor, Abraham Malherbe, talked about when he saw a custodian reading Revelation. Steeped with all this information about apocalyptic literature, Dr. Malherbe asked the man if he understood what he was reading. The custodian replied. “Yeah. God wins.” That’s the takeaway.
The concluding hopeful vision
Although most of Revelation is a reaction to what had already happened and was happening to these early Christians, John of Patmos reveals a future vision in chapters 21-22. Far from an escapist idea, where the righteous escape to heaven, it’s a vision of the city of God descending from heaven to earth, where God’s presence is felt and known in this world. The city sparkles. Instead of borders designed to keep people out, its gates are wide open to all nations.
It’s a vision of a world where we end the ways of violence and oppression that cause so many tears and suffering. God will wipe away every tear, and we will learn to live together in peace and harmony. It’s a vision that inspires us and pushes us toward a world where rules of fairness matter, truthfulness matter, compassion, and character matter.
In chapter 22, we learn about the river of life and how God gives us physical and spiritual nourishment. By the river is a tree of blessing whose leaves bring healing to the nations. It’s a vision of a transformed world that we pull closer to us whenever we follow the ways of Jesus.
We pull on the threads to bring it to our here and now. What thread is yours to pull?
I called this sermon Spoiler Alert. So, I’ll end with a litany of Revelation’s spoilers. If you like, give me an Amen after each stanza. One of the meanings of the word amen is “so be it,” and I’ll do my part in making it so.”
Guided by a vision of the city of God:
Let us spoil the designs of leaders and systems that keep people down, feeling worthless and inferior.
Spoiler alert—all the top-down authoritarian movements God is actively working to invert.
Spoiler alert—values of greed and thinking only about oneself, God will subvert.
Spoiler alert—amid religious gloom and doom, a hopeful vision of a better world, we will insert.
Spoiler alert—whenever we make progress, the powers will howl and try to revert to the way things have always been. But they don’t know what they are up against with the faith in a promised land we exert.
Spoiler alert—right now, God is working through us to divert the rising tides of intolerance and human cruelty and turn them toward the river of life that renders them inert.
Spoiler alert—Instead of smug condensation, arrogance, and hypocrisy, we realize that we each have work to do, so we pray that more faithfully to God’s ways of humility and forgiveness we will Convert.
Spoiler alert—a new world is coming. God’s will is for things to get better. So, no matter how bad it may seem to you, no matter what trials and tribulations you face, God will give you the strength to get through it with a community of support.
Spoiler alert—a new world is coming. Let us be driven to summon the courage, to have the faith, hope, and love to believe in it enough to say with John of Patmos.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kin-dom of our Lord’s ways, and he will reign forever and ever.” So be it. Amen.