Hymns of the Apocalypse

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
Lauren J. McFeaters
May 8, 2016

I grew up in a church called the Beverley Heights United Presbyterian Church. It’s located in Mount Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh. And in 8th grade I went through Confirmation. For some reason the Session of the church thought it would be a good idea to use the Book of Revelation as that year’s Confirmation Curriculum.

It was a mistake. Rather than have the Confirmands dive into Revelation as scripture that can inspire, a witness to the justice of God, the teaching team decided that for nine months we would focus on the bizarre, the horror, and the menace of Revelation. All this to 13-year-olds who were preparing to confirm their Baptism on Easter morning.

These Sunday morning classes took us through every possible image and enigma and secret message Revelation can throw at you. It seemed Satan and the forces of evil were trying to abduct our souls through music, concerts, and movies. One week we were given a list of all the musicians, albums, and songs considered to be a malevolent force for youth.

I’m going to completely date myself here but I remember, when I saw the list, most of the banned music I knew by heart, as did my friends. The list contained groups like (don’t laugh) Hall & Oates, Kansas, Marvin Gaye, the Eagles, and, wait for it, the Bee Gees. You know “Stayin’ Alive” and everything from Saturday Night Fever.

I know every generation has a conversation about the efficacy of popular music. The waltz was first considered to be an abomination of impropriety. Just ask Jane Austen.

My church’s fear was bone deep. How to protect children in a world gone mad was a guiding question. And the Book of Revelation was the place to begin. My teachers used the threats of eternal fire, the dread of weeping for the lost, and the terror of the pain of hell. Week by week we de-coded seals and beasts and disasters.

They believed if they could keep us scared they could keep us safe. If they could keep us scared they could keep us safe. Sound familiar? If they can keep us scared, they can keep us safe.

Let’s pause for a Revelation refresher and a corrective. We can forget about trying to decode Revelation. It can’t be done. We can’t possibly know if this particular seal means a future calamity, if a winged creature and a two-edged sword signifies disaster in a particular part of the world, if a sea beast with ten horns and 100 crowns indicates an impending catastrophe. It’s all so – Nostradamus.

And it’s all part of the Doomsday Industry I mentioned several weeks ago. Many churches continue to be caught up in it. There’s the old Left Behind series, the End of Time gaming apps, Judgment Day publishers, Armageddon Press, and big-screen, end-of-the-world Hollywood productions.

It’s all modern-day marketing, playing on fear, anxiety, and panic, and using the Revelation to John as a timetable for the rapture – the very end of the world. The word “rapture” never appears in the Bible. It’s all to make a buck on the backs of people’s anguish and distress. The Doomsday Industry has made billions and it’s nonsense. Garbage. All of it. Every bit of it can be left behind.

Wiped away. Goodbye. Fine. Amen.

And why? Why is it nonsense? Because Revelation is a letter written by the theologian John of Patmos to seven churches experiencing unimaginable persecution and tyranny. It’s nothing to be afraid of because John’s letter is, first and foremost, a book of comfort and hope for the suffering. It’s not desolation and despair.(1) Revelation is, first and foremost, proclamation, not prediction. It’s poetry, not blank verse. It’s lyrical, not discordant.

Can you hear it? Can you feel it? Can you sing it?

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth!
For the first heaven had passed away and the sea was no more.”
“I am the Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end.”
“Come, Lord Jesus!”

“And He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.”

“Blessed are those… Blessed are those… Blessed are those…
who wash their robes, who come to the font,
who profess their faith at the tree of life.”
“Come, Lord Jesus!”

“And here I am. Jesus your Lord!
I’ve sent you my angel.
I am the ground of your being. The descendant of David.
The Bright Morning Star.”
“Come, Lord Jesus!”

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
Everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
Everyone who is thirsty say, ‘Come.’
Come, there’s a gift:
Come, take the water of life.”
“Come, Lord Jesus!”

Riff upon groove upon refrain upon phrase.

This is no dirge or indictment or reprimand or reproof.

This is a Song of Life.
An Anthem to Hope.
A Canticle Divine.
A Chorale of Justice.

Brian Blount says, like rap, Revelation is a blend of memorial music and unruly rhetoric. And it ever, ever gives up hope. God’s purpose rings out, compellingly singing, “You, O Lord, are worthy.”(2) The entire book, the blues and spirituals, the gospel and rap — the Revelation Hymns are all fighting music.(3) Fighting for courage and fairness, optimism and encouragement.

These letters written to seven churches suffering persecution offer us hope in some of the most beautiful music of the Bible. There are nine hymns embedded in the Book. Seven of them are antiphonal in form. Call and response. Musical exchanges happen between angels, cherubim, elders of the church. Even the voices of those who have died cascade down to earth and rise back up to the heavens in joyful celebration of grace.(4)

And it is in this final Epilogue and Benediction that we hear the Finale with strands of both harmony and discord, insistently proclaiming, when all is said and done, after all the uproar, and suffering, and sorrow, after all the racket, and chaos, and drama human beings can make — it is singing that will endure. For John, ordinary everyday language cannot meet the deep need of our suffering.(5) A new song is born and his name is Bright Morning Star.

I loved the church of my childhood. I still do, but they missed a wonderful opportunity. In their fear and panic they only saw words printed on paper. They forgot to listen to the text. They failed to listen to the hymns, to enjoy the songs. They forgot that singing brings the healing. Singing brings the balm to the fear.

In the bleakest of days, John fills the church with audacity and confidence. His hymn becomes an anthem for an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. That when we forget how to sing our hymns of faith, our Lord sends new testimony. When we can no longer stand by ourselves, our Lord puts in our path those who are strong. When we witness someone being disdainful to new neighbor, or patronizing to the elderly, or condescending to children and youth, we can speak up of each one’s worthiness to the Lamb. As the world is crumbling and fear runs rampant we can turn to one another, offer the Peace of Christ, and then turn to the world and be the Peace of Christ. And rather than be self-applauding in our giving, or dominant in our talking, or self-complacent in our call to service, we come week by week to sing the songs of faith, and pray the prayers of devotion, and baptize the newest members of Christ’s church, and welcome new members, and weep and laugh and embrace.

That’s quite a song.

(1) Thanks to Susan W. Thompson for this reference from a class taught at Princeton Theological Seminary by Bruce M. Metzger.
(2) Brian K. Blount. Can I Get a Witness: Reading Revelation through African American Culture. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 102-107, 2005.
(3) Blount, 117.
(4) Blount, 103.
(5) Thanks to Tara Woodard-Lehman for this image.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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