For this next post in our Proclaim series, we chose a particularly insightful sermon from Caroline Barnett, a Senior Mdiv student from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS). She addresses a complicated passage from the Bible and how it is that we wrestle with these tough things.
Senior Sermon: The Word of God? by Caroline Barnett
Preached on: April 8, 2019 at APTS
Scripture: Revelation 21:1-8
1 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
home of God is among mortals.
He will dwellwith them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 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.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Friends, is this the Word of God?
On the one hand, God declaring that God’s home is among humans, that God will be with us, wiping every tear from our eyes… that sounds like a good word. In this text we hear that death will be no more, that mourning, and crying, and pain are all things of the past. That’s a word I can say “thanks be to God” for.
But the passage doesn’t stop there.
And then, we are treated to a different vision of God’s interaction with people. We read a word in which God’s comfort and life-giving waters only extend to some, and the rest—those so-called cowardly, faithless, polluted, murderers— well, the word of God sounds a little different for them.
And so, I ask: Is this the Word of God?
I’ve spent my last three years in seminary classrooms, and if there is one thing I will take with me as I graduate, it is that nothing is ever as it seems, especially when it comes to the biblical text. In class, I’ve approached the Bible confident I’ve got it “figured out,” only to find that my previously held conclusions are in fact only one way to see things. And I learn, I might even be missing some crucial information.
And so, potential pastors learn new languages, as baffling as they are. We build up new strategies of analysis, talk about redaction history, investigate the cultural contexts of the ancient world, and delve into the history of interpretation that has existed long before we ever showed up.
And sometimes— and this is my favorite thing I have learned in seminary—we discover no one actually “knows what it means;” we’re all just guessing at this point.
But all of this tells us that the text might say more than what we read on the page in our neatly printed and bound Bibles.
The Word of God is often far more complicated than we give it credit for. And it so satisfying that these words are big enough to hold all these complex questions, and we have all these tools for digging into it.
And yet, all these tools to analyze the Word of God cannot erase the violence in this passage.
Sure, we might look at the Greek and discover the various translations and connotations of the word pornois or fornicator. It might not mean what we think it means.
We might think about the recipients of this vision and how they live under the Roman Empire. Their lives are marked by war, violence, and conquest, and so the image of a conquering God, a God who could defeat an empire, that makes sense.
We might look at how the author quotes the Hebrew Scriptures—in this case the prophet Isaiah—to say that God will dwell among mortals. People have dreamed of God’s comforting presence for a long time.
And we might even look at how other Christians have interpreted this passage, and how it has affected our imagination about what the afterlife might look like.
All of this good and necessary work, and it adds much needed nuance to the text, but what if it can’t erase the fact that our Word of God says that some people will burn in a lake of sulfur and fire for their second death? What if, after all our work, we can’t explain it away?
If you haven’t guessed, I don’t particularly like this part of the Word of God, and I don’t really agree with it. It feels so contrary to the God of love, justice, and grace that I have seen in Scripture, at work in creation, and in my own life.
I can’t wrap my head around a God who says “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself” with a God who condemns some people—regardless of what they have done— to some sort of eternal punishment.
I just can’t.
But neither can I ignore it.
Because it’s there in the Bible. It is a part of our canon. It may not get much play in our lectionary, but long ago the Church decided that this is the Word of God, and I’m not inclined to start cutting up the Bible.
Of course, violence is not exclusive to the text of Revelation. If we started cutting out certain passages, who knows far we’d have to go. Though our holy Scriptures are filled with beautiful poetry, thrilling epics, and stories of a God who desires a relationship with humanity, they are also filled with stories of war, rape, violence, and subjugation. It is in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example with the rape of Dinah and Tamar and the unnamed woman in Judges 19.
These are violent words.
These are violent words.
And even Jesus, who I wish were above it all, has some less-than-commendable moments. He tries to deny healing to a woman’s daughter on the basis of ethnicity. He tells people that he does not come for peace, but with a sword, and though Jesus was a Jewish man himself, he calls a group of Jews the children of the devil.
These are violent words, with violent implications, and they are there in our Word of God.
Our Word of God is complicated, and we could spend a lifetime studying each of these complicated passages to understand them beyond the words printed on the page.
But what if, at the end of the day, after all our hard, studious work, the words are still violent? What if the Scripture we turn to for comfort are the words that end up bruising us the most?
And our text from Revelation hits me in the gut, every time.
When I attended college in Michigan, the arrival of spring and the melting of the snow was cause for celebration, but it also meant we would receive some visitors to our campus. Now, these visitors weren’t prospective students from nearby high schools, but they were a group of adults who were not allowed to step off the public sidewalk and onto our school’s property. They would stand there, and they would yell.
Scream, actually. Shout at the students who were walking by, and they carried signs with Revelation 21:8 printed on them. They told us that without a doubt we were polluted, lying fornicators, and they knew where we all belonged, and it was in that lake of fire and sulfur.
I’m not sure any student took these people seriously—I don’t think their message or method of communication swayed anyone to their worldview. Mostly, that day every spring was marked by frustrations and eye rolls that these visitors were ruining one of the first warm days of the year. We laughed about them and went on with our life. But even as I laughed, still I felt those words hit me.
And a bruise formed, because, despite what the nursey rhyme says about sticks and stones, words can hurt us, and, even if you don’t agree with what these words say, they are some seriously hurtful ones. But I didn’t know how to heal the bruise, because the words that had hit me are from the same source of words that usually wiped every tear from my eyes. How could both be printed in one book?
We can’t ignore these words from our Scripture even though they hurt. In fact, we have to look at them because they have caused so many people damage. People, both inside the church and outside of it, are walking around with bruises in the shape of the Word of God.
And it feels a little insincere to offer up healing without accounting for the pain we’ve caused. It is not enough to ignore this trauma, and say, “but we’re not all like that” or “those people, well they don’t understand God’s love.” Because the damage has been done, and the weapons are so clearly laid bare on the page. And if I’m being honest, I don’t know how to turn this one into a plowshare.
Some days it feels impossible to live with the knowledge that the things we love are the things that can hurt us.
Last February, my seminary community gathered for three days of worship and discussion to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the experiences of African American people on our campus. At this event, we admitted that a thing we love—this seminary—has bruised a lot of people. We learned a little bit about the history of our institution, and well, it’s not always a good story.
In particular, one of the people responsible for the creation of Austin Seminary, Robert Dabney was a Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and scholar, and he owned slaves and served as a chaplain in the Confederate army. He was an ardent defender of slavery, and he made his justification using texts from the same Bible you and I read today.
And today, when this community gathers for worship, for class, and even for fellowship, we are doing so in part because of Robert Dabney. Though I don’t think Dabney would be thrilled to see our community comprised of people of many races, he does have some responsibility for its creation.
Just as our text from Revelation is a part of the Word of God despite how much it might bruise, Dabney and what he represents are a part of the story of this seminary, the story of our Church, and the story of Christianity. We can’t ignore that. I’m not sure we can explain it away.
I’ve loved my time in seminary; it’s been a good place to me. But it is a complicated place, a place that even today is not without its bruises. Bruises we are trying to heal and bruises we have not yet uncovered.
But Dabney and the bruises he represents are not the end of Austin Seminary’s story; he’s a part of the story—a part we can’t ignore—but he’s not the end of it.
And just because this text in Revelation about a lake of sulfur and fire falls near the end of the Bible, it is not the end of God’s story.
We know who the end is.
It is God who is the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. God was there in the beginning, God is here now, and God will be here ‘til the end, if there even is such a thing as an ending in God’s time. And God has been at work in our complicated story making all things new.
In fact, sandwiched between a passage of God’s promise to dwell with mortals and the threat of fiery second death, God reminds us that even these words that God calls trustworthy and true, they are the not of the story because God can make all things new.
And if we believe in the transformational power of God, who’s to say that God cannot also transform the Word of God?
Why can’t God change God’s mind—and I know that’s a dicey subject for theologians—but why can’t God take a red pen to God’s word and say “this violence is not the end of our story?”
God is not done speaking even though we stopped writing it down.
The Word of God is still among us, changing and transforming, healing, and yes, it still bruises sometimes. And it’s not enough to simply cut out the parts of Scripture we think are wrong. It’s not enough to pretend that those who have committed violence in the name of God are reading from a different Bible.
But God is still speaking. God is still speaking in new and in ancient ways, and if we listen to God tell God’s story, we are given the opportunity to do the same. To rethink how we might tell our own story, our history. We can’t ignore the bruises, but they don’t have the final say.
Because God is not done speaking. And most days, God’s words sound an awful lot like that promise from Isaiah, recorded again in Revelation: God is with us, comforting the bruised, choosing life over death, and making all things new.
That is the Word of God I
love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 6:4-7; Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27
 Genesis 34
 2 Samuel 13:1-22
 Judges 19
 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:12
 Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22
 Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-29
 Matthew 10:34
 John 8:31-47
 Handbook of Texas Online, Daniel A. Penick, “DABNEY, ROBERT LEWIS,” accessed April 28 2019, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fda01.
For more information about how our Proclaim series started, click here.
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