This song has always haunted me. It is called Devil Boy, performed by Seven May Three, one of the many angst ridden post-grunge bands of the mid 90’s. The song vaguely deals with the loss of a loved one and also with loss of belief in the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. The song explores the problem of pain, suffering and evil in the face of a benevolent God, and the delay of the Parousia, or the second coming of Christ. “For Heaven’s sake its nearly been 2,000 years and I can’t wait any longer for you” shouts Jason Ross in his guttural baritone.
Just being alive and remotely aware that most sacred religious texts – including but not limited to the Bible – have affirmations of some sort about God’s loving nature, makes the former, the problem of pain, suffering and evil a hot topic at almost all circles of biblical discussion: from the synagogue to the cathedral, from the store front charismatic fellowship to the fellowship hall at the most formal Episcopal church and from pews everywhere to the classrooms and halls of seminaries. But unfortunately the latter, the delay of Jesus’ second coming from when the New Testament seems to envision it, this is rarely talked about outside of academic theological circles.
But neither of these issues are anything new. These are two of the most important issues that were facing the church in Pergamum. Writing sometime probably around 95, during the reign of Domitian these are the words John of Patmos relates from the Risen Christ to the church in Pergamum:
‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it (Revelation 2:12-17)
Did you catch that? The church in Pergamum knows the problem of suffering. The know the reality of evil in the world that delights in inflicting such suffering: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is… you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.” There are two references to Pergamum as the place where Satan lives. See, Pergamum was the epicenter of the Emperor cult, where people gathered to praise Caesar and Rome for doing what politicians and governments always try to do: unite the world by human achievement, military might and submission of enemies in the name of “peace.” To build a place where we could worship ourselves and ignore the need for a savior. In that regard it seems little has changed since the days of Pergamum, or the since the primordial days of Babel.
Oh! and then there is Antipas. Antipas is the only named Martyr in the book of Revelation. Revelation makes mention of 144,000 faithful witnesses who have the name of the lamb and of the Father written on their foreheads. There are 7 churches named. But only Antipas is named as a faithful one who was put to death on account of his faith. Scholars can and do debate the dating of the book of Revelation and how intense persecution of Christians would have been at that time. Some suggest these letters were not written in a time of intense systematic persecution but sporadic localized harassment that sometimes turned into a fatal threat. In any case, the naming of Antipas, the faithful witness cues us in to the fact that Pergamum is a place where harassment has turned to persecution. The church in Pergamum knows the problem of suffering and evil and longs for a savior. Someone or something more reliable than Rome to bring salvation from the hardships of life, rather than exacerbating the situation by inflicting more pain.
And there should be no doubt that the church in Peramum also knew what I have referred to above as “The delay of the Parousia.” Nearly everyone in the New Testament – including Jesus himself – seemed to think his return would be imminent. But the Christians in Pergamum knew this dilemma personally, existentially, experimentally. It was not an abstract problem to be talked about in class rooms that seemed to have little connect with the life of people in the pews. They lived day in and day out in a deep sense of longing and expectation for Jesus’ return. Surely someone among them knew those words common to Mathew, Mark and Luke’s communities of faith: “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Or Maybe some of them who had contact with communities of faith that Paul had touched had heard of Paul’s comforting of the Thessalonians about those who had died in Christ, saying, “We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” But do those words take on a different meaning when the loved one has not fallen asleep in Christ but was brutally put to sleep in “the place where Satan lives”? What does it mean that we will see the son of man come with power, when the community of faith has been weekend by some growing complacent in the face of temptation and others becoming disheartened by suffering? Perhaps some in the church of Pergamum began to sing a tune similar to Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross on Devil Boy:
For heavens sake
Its nearly been 100 years
And I cant wait any longer for you
I imagine that I might be tempted to as well. I guess the temptation is ever present for anyone who takes seriously the repeated narrative in scripture of a restored Heaven and Earth. But that hope, that longing didn’t begin with Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand. No. Jesus’ message was deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. Look with me at today’s Old Testament passage from the common lectionary, for Lenten reflection:
The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever. They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I might be glorified. The least of them shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the Lord; in its time I will accomplish it quickly (Isaiah 60:17 – 22)
Sadly, in my line of work as a pastor in a conservative part of the country, I am finding more and more through my interactions with parishioners as well as conservative friends on blogs and social media, that some of the staunchest proponents of biblical literalism are almost without exception complete theological liberals when it comes to their view of the final resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos. I find a nearly ubiquitous expectation (dare I call it hope) that we will escape our bodies. Our bodies are too often seen as traps, as reminders of a life marked by struggles with addiction, obesity, physical abuse, accidents, birth abnormalities. I find many people longing for escape rather than redemption of the body. The hope is also usually detached from promises like you shall “possess the land forever” and more akin to Norman Greenbaum’s goin’ up to the Spirit in the Sky. And it doesn’t even seem like people are waiting for the return of Jesus anymore. It’s either become a metaphor for when “we go home” or the world gradually becoming a better place (never knowing how much they sound like a classic liberal while otherwise using that word pejoratively in most conversations). Conservative Christians protest film’s like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah or who pull $840,000 worth of sponsorships from world vision because they were openly hiring gays for two day. But too often, the same folks have no place in their theology for Christ to literally to return to earth, unless perhaps to smite perceived enemies of the Christianity.
But this is so different than what Isaiah pictured. Isaiah envisioned a day when the least of them shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation. The book of Isaiah and indeed much of scripture is filled with this sort of very earthly, very material picture of redemption that is also cosmic in its scope. In Isaiah 2 the nations come streaming to the mountain of the Lord. And God judges between the nations and settle disputes. People lay down their arms. They beat their swords into plowshares. Weapons are refashioned into gardening tools and war is no more. In Ephesians 1, God’s sovereign acts of creation and election are inextricably intertwined: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of the Divine will, according to God’s good pleasure, set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Election is not about a free pass to another world but about participation in God’s redemption of this world.
This is the main narrative of the Bible!!! God calls to God’s self a people for the purposes of blessing the whole world. From Abraham on it becomes clear in scripture that the call and blessing of a covenant community always has something to do with God’s intention to bless all of the families of the earth. But because we our powerless to save ourselves or even love God our our neighbors very well, in Christ God has come imminently and intimately close. This was of course the plan from the beginning: the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world has come. And this same lamb he is Jesus the Christ. And Christ has died. Christ has risen and Christ will come again. I don’t know about you, but I am waiting for the day that the sun shall no longer be our light by day but God dwells on Earth among us and human beings live in harmony. I don’t want to escape to Heaven. I believe in the promise of Heaven, of peace on Earth. And anything else just sounds like Hell to me.
As always I invite you to share your thoughts, responses or questions below.