Sunday, May 22, 2022

Sermon: “The Literal Kindom – Metaphorically Speaking”, Acts 16:9-10, 13-15/Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 (May 22, 2022)


Visions are relatively common in scripture. Usually, they’re described as if the person experiencing them were watching a movie play out in their mind. As a result, we tend to equate divine visions with literal instructions from God. It seems unfair that people like Paul and John of Patmos receive such clear direction, while we’re stuck praying and discerning. But biblical visions aren’t necessarily what they seem – and they aren’t necessarily just for those who receive them.

Paul’s experience in Acts 16 seems simple and straightforward: “A vision of a man from Macedonia came to [him] during the night. [The man] stood urging Paul, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us!’” This vision must have been especially welcome to Paul, since verses 6 through 8 describe how God had been thwarting his every effort to share the gospel in different places. So of course, he and his companions enthusiastically set out to find this Macedonian man, hoping that they’d finally have an opportunity to share the good news that had changed their lives.

Verses 11 and 12 describe their travels – they had been trying to preach in Asia (near modern-day Turkey) and were now being called across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia, northwest of Greece. This was no minor detour. But when they arrived in Macedonia, they met not a man, but a woman: Lydia. Lydia was no heathen beggar; she was a Gentile who already knew and worshiped God, and she was involved in the lucrative trade of purple cloth. By all accounts, she did not need Paul’s help. On the contrary, she was the one to help Paul: not only did she provide a place for him and his companions to stay during their visit, but she provided a “home base” from which they were able to share the gospel with many more people.[1] Paul never actually wound up encountering the man from his vision.

One might argue that Paul’s vision was a dud, but God doesn’t make mistakes. So we have to assume, then, that whatever Paul might have initially thought, the purpose of this vision wasn’t to give him a literal glimpse of his future, but to communicate something else. Maybe the man was a stand-in for ALL the people in Macedonia who would eventually hear the gospel through Lydia’s patronage of Paul’s ministry. Maybe he actually represented Paul and his companions themselves, and the help that Lydia would be able to provide for THEM. Maybe there was some deeper meaning known only to Paul and God. It turns out that Paul couldn’t just take the vision at face value; he had to trust God to grant him understanding.

Divine visions are a lot like dreams in that respect. Dreams can offer us insight into our subconscious mind, but it’s rarely a good idea to take them literally. Have you ever tried to describe your dreams to someone else? It’s not always so easy to translate the experience into words. Like that dream where you have to go back to high school for a test, even though you graduated decades ago, but you didn’t study, so you’re sitting in a classroom frantically trying to come up with answers when you realize you’re in your underwear: it sounds silly and strange when you say it out loud, yet when you’re asleep, the experience – and the feelings that go along with it – are very real. That’s why we feel compelled to share our dreams with others, even though they can be challenging to communicate. We understand dreams in a different way than we understand events in our waking life: in this particular case, not as a literal story, but as a manifestation of your anxieties.

Just as dreams can offer insight into our subconscious mind, divine visions offer insight into God’s mind in a unique way. Whether we encounter them firsthand or through scriptural or other secondhand accounts, we should be careful not to interpret them too literally, or we risk missing the actual message. This is where people usually run into problems with the book of Revelation. It contains some VERY strange imagery; it can be profoundly unsettling if we read it as a prediction of the literal future. But if we understand it instead as 22 chapters of John relaying this waking dream that he had, suddenly a whole world of interpretive possibilities opens up to us. The knowledge that can be gleaned from Revelation doesn’t lie within the literal picture it paints. It exists outside of the careful explanations that we cultivate in our waking hours. In order to benefit from the holy wisdom in apocalyptic literature, we have to let go of our longing for simple answers.

If we read Revelation literally, we picture the kindom of God as a brand new city modeled after Jerusalem, finite in size and dropping down from heaven like a holy spaceship. We imagine it existing in a bizarre, Alaska-like state where it’s always daytime, only there won’t be a sun. This city will be surrounded by a wall, which is rendered pointless by the fact that its gates never close for some reason. There will be a giant throne in the middle from which a river flows, a river that inconveniently runs right down the center of the city’s main thoroughfare. There will be unusual trees on either side of this river that bear fruit every month and whose leaves have magical, medicinal properties. And everyone in this city will walk around labeled with God’s name written on their forehead. This strange city would be unlike anything we’d ever seen before – if this literal interpretation were true.

But this vision CAN’T be literal. God has made a promise to never again destroy the earth, so there’s no way that God would displace Jerusalem. Not even the so-called “end times” could make God break a promise. So maybe we should try understanding this vision as more like a dream than an instruction manual, meant to provide insight that goes much deeper than mere description. This allows a much less strange, much more beautiful, and – crucially – a much more comprehensible idea of God’s kindom to emerge: not as a landscape depicting its visual appearance, but as a hard-to-describe impression of the kindom’s truest nature.

The kindom won’t be like a strange new planet; it will be a somehow familiar place that’s always been our home – like Jerusalem represented for John’s readers. Nothing will be hidden from our understanding, as the night hides things from view. All that we couldn’t fathom before will become clear in God’s kindom, with God’s wisdom pouring down on us like never-ending sunlight. The kindom will indeed be set apart, but its borders are not for the purpose of exclusion. Rather, they will be to delineate the place where our aspirations are truly fulfilled, where God and humanity are able to live in perfect harmony. Vile and deceitful things aren’t banished from this place; they simply can’t exist somewhere so utterly perfect. The gates which never close prove this: everyone who wishes to live this way is welcomed without condition. Abundant life will pursue those in the kindom like a river rolling down a highway; it will be utterly impossible for us to be separated from it. Every one of our needs – especially our yearning for peace and community with one another – will be provided for, continuously and plentifully, like a tree that blooms year-round. Our entire existence will be so intimately and perfectly intertwined with God’s that it will be as if God lives under our very skin like a tattoo. This certainly isn’t a perfect description of the kindom of God, but it’s able to get us much closer than we were before.

If we can let go of the literal descriptions, the metaphorical language of John’s vision allows us to understand God’s kindom more fully, in a way that words just can’t quite capture. I’m not telling you this to engender a sense of superiority over biblical literalists. I’m telling you this so that you understand what the Church is really supposed to be really working towards: not a specific set of circumstances that will trigger Armageddon, but a reality that grows out of this one, grounded in love and wholeness for everyone. I’m telling you this so that when you share the Good News, you aren’t filling people’s heads with superficial and inaccurate images but are instead doing your best to describe the deeper character of God’s kindom. We shouldn’t be talking about a wall that keeps people out and thrones made of gold; we should be describing the welcome that’s like wide-open gates, the unfettered access to life that’s like a river, and the place where we all dwell with God together that’s like our home.

This is the entire point of John’s vision: to help all of us understand what life can and will be in a way that overcomes the inadequacy of our vocabulary, and to know it deep within ourselves. What do you hear in this vision that gives you hope? What reality can you sense in John’s vision? The layers of the metaphor are so rich and so plentiful that there is more to be mined from it than can be covered in a single sermon. There’s always more that we can discover together.

Let’s let go of the images of eternal hellfire and strict gatekeeping that have been handed down to us through literal readings of Scripture for centuries. Instead, let’s embrace the much more beautiful reality that God is revealing to us even now. God’s kindom is something that cannot be understood with the mind alone; it requires the engagement of your heart and spirit to fully grasp it. When we approach this vision with the same trust and openness that Paul and John showed, we will find ourselves better able to share this vision, this dream, this wonderful promise, with the world, until that day we can all venture beyond understanding and experience it together. Amen.


[1] Acts 16:40.

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