Witness, Firstborn, King: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 25 November 2012
First the bad excuse: As some of you know, I got extremely ill (from an unidentified virus) in late October, and I was non-functional for seven calendar days. I’ve been playing catch-up at work ever since. Then my kids got sick, in turn, and so on. At any rate, I hope this is the first of a good, continuous series of lectionary posts, but I’ve learned not to expect constancy from Fortuna.
I don’t know what exactly happened in 2006, but I do know that in the six intervening years, after a decade when I would not teach Revelation, I’ve taught it three times, once to an adult Bible study group and once to an adult Sunday school class and once to a teen Bible study. I never would have pegged myself as one of those “Apocalypse guys” a decade ago, but then again, there are all sorts of roles I didn’t figure, back then, I’d be playing. But I’ve come to love the final book of the New Testament, largely because I’ve learned to be a more careful reader of the same. Someone who came of age in the late twentieth century (like me) can’t read the Apocalypse (the book’s Greek name) without some awareness of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye and other “end times” writers who have made not a few dollars from a very particular style of interpretation. But if one is willing to be aware and move beyond those readings (that’s the way I tend to teach the book), there’s theological gold to be had in this book.
This week’s reading from Revelation sets what should be the tone for the whole book: this revelation is about JESUS. The Son is witness to the gospel of the Kingdom and firstborn of the dead and lord of all kings, and reading over that list of phrases, the deliberate reader sees that Revelation is going to bring together some of the grand poetic images surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in ways that lift the imagination and put dreams before the dreamer. Jesus is one born from death, a theme running through the New Testament and encapsulated here in a grand paradox. Jesus is also a martyr, a witness to the powers that draw him forward, beyond his own demise, into the kingdom of all thrones that only makes sense for the king who has passed from death and the power of death into the glorious reign of the alive-again, the life-giver. And all that is just verse five.
The Jesus that the Apocalypse of John proclaims is one whose death is a shame to all peoples, not just the Romans and certainly not just the Jews. Recognizing the crime and violence at the heart of empire, “all the tribes of the earth will wail,” verse seven proclaims, and only out of that wailing do the nations have any hope of emerging into the grand celebration of Jesus, the witness and king, the one born from the dead, the one who later will be revealed as the lamb who is slain and affirmed now by none other than the Father, the Alpha and Omega. In the image-rich poetry of the Apocalypse, the grand stories of the Old Testament and the promise of life in the face of death and the unveiling of injustice are part of one grand work of divine and literary art, and we Christians do well to invite that art into our imaginations.
Perhaps most notably, in the face of the expectations that “end-times” celebrities manufacture, nothing “happens” in the first eight verses of Revelation. The poetry is neither epic nor tragic but lyric, the sort that invites a reader not to follow a story from moment to moment but to contemplate images and metaphors more deliberately. It’s a different sort of text from what comes later in the book, but it’s no less Revelation, and it’s no less a gift from God to the faithful.
May those who read this revelation aloud indeed be blessed, and blessed also be those whose eyes open because of God’s gift of Apocalypse.