Tuesday, June 07, 2016


Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21[1]
Invitations can be tricky. They always involve the problem of balancing whom to include on the list and whom to leave out. There are some events, of course, where everybody is invited, because that’s just the nature of the occasion. There are other events, however, that call for a more thoughtful approach. Whom do you invite to weddings? Whom do you invite to birthday parties? Just the nature of the event and the costs that can be involved limit the number of people you can in all practicality include. Not to mention the obvious and sticky fact that there may be some people you don’t want to invite. Invitations can be tricky.
When it comes to church-related events, obviously everyone is by definition invited. But I’m afraid the reality is that we don’t always look at things with such an open mind. There are some people whom we may not actually want to show up at our “everyone’s invited” events. They are different from us, whether by race, or ethnic origin, or class, or convictions. And if we’re completely honest about it, we wouldn’t feel comfortable if they showed up. All churches have that dynamic going on. Even churches that proclaim themselves completely inclusive would very likely not welcome representatives from Westboro Baptist Church! Invitations are tricky, even in church.
This challenge extends to our lesson from the book of Revelation for today. As the book comes to a close, it extends what seems to be an unlimited invitation: “let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 21:17). It resonates with other passages in Revelation that include all people in God’s work of salvation. In one of the worship scenes sprinkled throughout the book, the victorious witnesses proclaim, “All nations will come and worship before you” (Rev. 15:4). And as we saw recently, God announces that his purpose is to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
The challenge stems from the fact that Revelation also contains images that seem equally sweeping in their condemnation of those who refuse to acknowledge God and the Lamb. In our lesson for today, the Risen Christ declares “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14). But immediately afterward he also announces ominously that all those who have aligned themselves with the false claims dominating their world would remain outside the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:15). This also resonates with other passages in Revelation that seem to exclude those who refuse to repent.[2] After declaring that he is making all things new, God proceeds to condemn those who have refused to line up their lives with God’s purposes, either from cowardice, or from an unwillingness to stay true, and who as a result have lived contrary to God’s ways (Rev. 21:8).
I would say that this “tug-of-war” within the book of Revelation is one of the primary reasons why most of us avoid it. The messages that announce God’s purpose to renew and redeem and restore all things and all people bring us encouragement and hope. The messages of widespread judgment and destruction can be frightening and depressing. The question we face is what to do with this tension if we decide we’re not going to simply ignore Revelation.
The traditional answer has been that God would like for all people to be redeemed, but practically speaking it depends on their choice. That would seem the logical answer, except for one problem. Both the declarations of universal salvation and universal judgment are all-encompassing.[3] “All nations” are said to fall down and worship God and also to curse God and fall under his wrath. Both salvation and judgment leave no one out. That doesn’t seem to lend itself to a “logical” solution.
I think, however, that a better approach is to look at this problem from the perspective of what the Book of Revelation was intended to accomplish.[4] It was written to Christians who were faced with difficult choices. They had to choose, sometimes daily, whether to remain true to their faith and pay the consequences, or to compromise with the “powers that be” in order to survive. In that context, Revelation affirms that it is the purpose of God’s grace to restore all things, to set right all that is wrong, and to bring all people to repentance through the witness of the faithful. But it does not enable us to predict the extent to which that purpose will be accomplished.[5] It leaves the question open, and it does so intentionally, because the Book of Revelation was intended to challenge the believers of that day to remain faithful.
Throughout the history of God’s people, we who identify ourselves with Christ have had an unfortunate tendency toward an exclusive mindset. We have tended to believe that “we” are invited, but that those who differ from us may or may not be. At times we’ve actually insisted that the “others” are definitely not invited. But the Bible’s witness to God’s saving purpose in this world will not allow us to take such an easy way out. In fact, the messages of judgment are meant to remind us that we are responsible for our choices and our actions. They challenge us all to reach for ever greater levels of faithful living. But the messages of salvation assure us that in the incomprehensible wisdom of God, no one is by definition excluded from grace.[6] In the infinite mystery of God’s love, everyone who is thirsty may drink from the waters of life. All are invited!

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/8/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 102: “The judgments of chapters 16-19 are primarily aimed at destroying the systems—political, economic and religious—which oppose God and his righteousness … . But those who support these systems, …, heeding neither the call to worship God not the threat to those who worship the beast (14:6-11), evidently must perish with the evil systems with which they have identified themselves.”
[3] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 102-3: “John seems content to place indications of the universal conversion of the nations alongside references in equally universal terms to final judgment. But he is not making the kind of statements which need to be logically compatible to be valid. He is painting pictures which each portray a valid aspect of the truth. He depicts the faithful witness of the church leading to the repentance and faith of all the nations. He depicts the world which rejects their witness, unrepentant in its final adherence to the beast, necessarily subject to final judgment. The two pictures correspond to the choice presented to the nations by the proclamations of the angels in 14:6-11. It is no part of the purpose of John’s prophecy to pre-empt this choice in a prediction of the degree of success the witness of the martyrs will have.” Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 806: “The issue is how to read Revelation’s language. If the vision is taken as a prediction that every human being will be saved in the end, then the warnings of judgment make little sense; conversely, if the visions of judgment are taken as predictions about the complete destruction of kings and nations …, then it is equally hard to explain where the nations and kings in New Jerusalem will come from … .” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 228.
[4] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 212: “In accord with traditional apocalyptic imagery, books are opened in which the deeds of human beings stand recorded, and people are judged by what they have done. This picture makes human freedom and human responsibility as serious as it can get. What we do matters, and matters ultimately. Yet in this same scene another book is opened, the book of grace, the Lamb’s book of life. Names are written there before the creation of the world, purely as a matter of God’s grace (13:8; 17:8). This picture takes grace with absolute seriousness. … In these two books are pictured the paradox of works and grace, … . We are ultimately responsible for what we do, for it has eternal consequences—we are judged by works. God is ultimately responsible for our salvation, it is his deed that saves, not ours—we are saved by grace.” Cf. similarly, Koester, Revelation, 792: “Judgment is not a purely human affair in which those whose good deeds outnumber their evil deeds are saved and the rest condemned. Neither does God simply choose to redeem some and condemn others. Logically, the tension is awkward, but rhetorically, it shapes the readers’ perspectives in two ways: On the one hand, people are accountable for what they do, so they must not capitulate to evil but resist it. When they fail, the proper response is repentance (22:14). On the other hand, the forces of evil are so pervasive that resistance can seem futile, but the scroll of life gives assurance that salvation is ultimately God’s doing. This gives people reason for hope and perseverance (13:8-10), knowing that the scope of redemption is wide (7:9-17).”
[5] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 228: “John knows the danger of claiming to know too much.” Cf. similarly above, Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 103. From a slightly different perspective, cf. Koester, Revelation, 806 where he interprets the tension between judgment and salvation in terms of an invitation: “as a vision of the future to which God calls all human beings. Sweeping visions of judgment warn about the devastating consequences of the reign of the beast, and expansive visions of redemption promise a glorious future under the reign of God. Both futures remain open in Revelation; the question is whether people will respond to the message with faith or rejection.”
[6] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 228, where he says that in the end, the tension between judgment and salvation comes down to the faith in “the God whose victory does not depend on ours, who loves us when we do not love him or ourselves, who forgives us when we do not forgive him or ourselves, who believes in us when we do not believe in him or ourselves, who saves us when we do not believe we need saving or are worth saving.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 806: “The vision of redemption includes all humanity because this is the future to which all humanity is called … .”

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