The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
A few years ago Christy and I went downtown to see the Lion King at the Altria Theatre. It was part of that series where they load an entire Broadway show onto a few big trucks in New York City and then bring it to Richmond so that we don’t have to get on Interstate 95. And they bring the whole show! When Christy and I got settled into our seats we could see that the Altria Theatre had been transformed. I can’t imagine how long it took to rebuild that Broadway set on our Richmond stage, but when the lights came up and the cast began to sing the opening number the magic of musical theatre materialized before our very eyes. We weren’t in Richmond anymore: we were somewhere on the Serengeti Plain. And in that scene where the life-size giraffe slowly stilt-walks onto the stage I could hear the entire audience gasp.
It was magic, I tell you: magic!
But what we were seeing was a live-action version of a children’s cartoon about a lion cub who grows up to be king, and that’s how it is with Broadway musicals: they can be about anything. There’s one about the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s one about a Fiddler on the Roof. I think there’s even one about Cats. So, as I said to someone recently, “What if it were your job to write a Broadway musical about the end of Cancer?” What would the music sound like? What would the costumes look like? What would the characters say? That question, all by itself, can get the imagination going, and in a way, that’s what the Book of Revelation is like: it’s like a Broadway musical about the end of Evil.
Funny I should bring that up, because in his best-known book my old seminary professor, Jim Blevins, compares Revelation to drama, in fact he talks about it as drama. He writes about the theatre in Ephesus, the largest theatre in the ancient world, with a seating capacity of 25,000 people. I’ve actually been to Ephesus. I have seen that theatre. And, as Dr. Blevins would say, it is “impressive!”
It was built on the slopes of a mountain in the Third Century, BC, at the intersection of the city’s two principal streets, and by the time Revelation was written Greek tragedies and comedies had been acted out on its stage for more than 300 years. Like every other theatre of the time it had an orchestra, and then above and behind the orchestra a stage, and then above and behind the stage a skene—a “scene building”—kind of like a long shed with openings called thuromata where stage hands could place painted panels depicting scenes too difficult to perform on stage.[i] For example, if a scene took place in winter, a stage hand might place a painted panel in one of the openings showing snow falling while an actor walked across the stage wrapped in furs and shivering.
The interesting thing about the theatre in Ephesus, and what caught Dr. Blevins’ eye, is the fact that while all the other theatres in the ancient world had 3-5 scene windows, the theatre in Ephesus had seven. It was the only one of its kind. Blevins began to think about how the number seven features so prominently in the Book of Revelation, and how the entire book could be easily divided into seven acts of seven scenes each. He began to speculate that this was no coincidence: that John, the author of Revelation, who had lived in Ephesus for many years and almost certainly attended plays, may have cast his visions in dramatic form, as if they were going to be staged in that theatre.
Now, before you begin to think that John made the whole thing up, or that the entire Book of Revelation is simply a Broadway musical about the end of Evil, listen to what Dr. Blevins said in one of his famous dramatic monologues, dressed as John of Patmos. He said, “Finally, I would like to say to you modern readers that I saw these things: these are visionary experiences. I heard the beautiful music found in my book. I could not express what I had experienced in prose. Instead I chose this dramatic medium to express that which I had beheld. You cannot come to Revelation and just read it on the printed page. You must use all of your senses; you must see it, hear it, read it, open yourselves up to its great majesty.”[ii] And then he talks about the theatre in Ephesus and explains that, “In it were performed the great Greek tragic dramas. Tragic drama was always religious drama; a throne to God was always on the main stage; a chorus of 12 or 24 stood around the throne and sang the music of the drama; the actors were called priests.” And then listen to this detail, which may inform today’s reading from Revelation 21: Blevins writes, “At the end of the drama, God was always brought down from the upper level of the stage to solve the dilemmas posed in the drama.”[iii]
Did you hear that? God was always brought down from somewhere up above to sort things out and solve the remaining problems. Can you imagine those ancient Greeks acting out a tragedy on the stage and making such a mess of things that it looked like the end of King Lear, with dead bodies lying all over the stage? But then, in that moment when you think all hope is gone, when it looks as if Evil has won the day, here comes God.
So, think back to what you actually know about the Book of Revelation, and think about it not as a hodgepodge of bizarre animals, images, colors, and secret codes, but as a Broadway musical, or maybe an ancient Greek tragedy, where it isn’t over until God steps down from heaven to sort things out. Dr. Blevins imagines it like this: The first eight verses of the book are an introduction in which, John, the narrator, introduces himself and the scope of the play. And then we have:
Act I: the Seven Gold Lampstands, where Jesus—looking like a “Son of Man,” with hair as white as wool, and eyes like flames of fire, and feet like burnished bronze—dictates letters to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. How many churches? Seven. And how many scene windows? Seven. And in each one an image of a seven-branched candlestick with a different candle lit. These letters to the churches take up most of the first three chapters and then we have:
Act II: the Seven Seals, where John is caught up to heaven and sees the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders around the throne. He also sees the Lamb who was slaughtered but now lives, the only one worthy to open the seals on the scroll that is handed to him. When he does, we see frightening images of the end that is about to come upon the earth (and maybe you can imagine those stage hands scurrying around inside the scene building to make sure they have the right painted panel in the window). And then, near the beginning of chapter 8, we have:
Act III: the Seven Trumpets, with plagues of hail, fire, blood, and locusts that sound like something straight out of the Book of Exodus. But remember that in Exodus God was trying to get Pharaoh to let his people go. Maybe that’s what he’s doing here: trying to get Caesar to leave his people alone! In Revelation 11:15 the choir gets excited and begins to sing, “Hallelujah! The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!” Which brings us to:
Act IV: the Seven Tableaux, where it becomes apparent that the choir has gotten a little ahead of itself. The kingdom of the world has not yet become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. The first tableau is of a dragon representing Satan. The second tableau is the Beast from the Sea, the one who represents Caesar Domitian. The third tableau is the Beast from the Land, Caesar’s prophet, who speaks for him. But the fourth tableau is the Lamb with the 144,000, who represent the entire people of God. And then we see the Son of Man on a cloud, the harvest of the grapes of wrath, and the great hymn of the Lamb (and this might be a good time to remind you that throughout this drama there is music. Beautiful music! Songs, and hymns, and choruses you can almost hear as you are reading). In chapter 15 we get to:
Act V: the Seven Bowls of Wrath, where the angels of God pour out curses on the earth, the sea, and the sky, and everything else, until there isn’t anything that hasn’t been cursed. But remember? The kingdom of this world is giving way to the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Which brings us to chapter 17 and:
Act VI: the Seven Judgments, in which Rome is portrayed as a prostitute, drunk with the blood of the martyrs, and identified as Babylon: a previous empire that had also persecuted God’s people. But then the heavenly chorus begins to sing, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” And you can imagine how excited the Christians in the audience would be as the chorus sings one funeral dirge after another about Babylon. Jesus, now riding a white horse and identified as the Word of God, comes to make war on the wickedness of the world, to fight the final Battle of Armageddon, and throw Satan into a bottomless pit. All of this would be good news for hard times. But in Revelation 20 we come to:
Act VII: the Seven Great Promises, where the Beast who represents Caesar Domitian is thrown into a lake of fire forever (don’t you just love it when the bad guy gets it in the end?). Evil is judged, the wickedness of the world is destroyed, and John sees a new heaven and a new earth, and then he sees the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.
I have to tell you, this is one of my favorite images in all the Bible, and just think how it would appeal to Christians who were living in the Roman Empire in a time of persecution. This is like the god who comes down at the end of a Greek drama to solve all the remaining problems, right? Except this is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and also, apparently, the maker of the new heaven and the new earth.
A loud voice from the throne cries,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them
and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
I will have more to say about the New Jerusalem in the next couple of weeks, but for now imagine those poor Christians of John’s time, some of whom had lost loved ones in the persecution of Caesar Domitian, being reassured that when this drama finally comes to an end, when God steps down from his throne to make all things right, then he will be with them and be their God, and they will be his people. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
That’s good news for hard times.
Some of you may remember an Easter sermon I preached a few years ago where I quoted a song by David Wilcox called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.” He said that more than a decade ago, when the world was going through hard times, but he might have said it yesterday, when a white supremacist with an assault rifle shot 13 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, 11 of whom were Black. Listen to the lyrics.
You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe
‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.
And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?
And I want to pause there for a moment, because you could think of the Book of Revelation like that, like a play somebody wrote to glorify what’s stronger than hate, but you might also think of it as a play in which the hero comes too late. Because haven’t we lived through enough hard times? If Revelation really was written 2,000 years ago haven’t there been hundreds of good opportunities for the hero to show up? What about when those early Christians were suffering persecution? What about when the Jews were going through the Holocaust? What about the people of Ukraine, fighting for their lives even now? And what about those poor people in Buffalo?
But the song goes on. Wilcox says:
If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?
He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins,
It is Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play
For in this darkness Love can show the way.
I preached that sermon on Easter Sunday, 2016, when we were celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the surprise ending of a tragic drama. Here on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2022, we are still celebrating the Resurrection, and still proclaiming the good news that even in the hardest times, and perhaps when you least expect it, love can roll away the stone,
And show the way.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] James L. Blevins, Revelation as Drama (Nashville: Broadman, 1984), p. 17.
[ii] Ibid., p. 15.