by David Baer, July 30, 2017
Text: Revelation 4:1-11
Imagine you’re a contestant on a game show. The host shows you three doors, and he tells you that you get to choose one of the doors to open, and that you get to keep whatever is behind it as a prize. Behind one of the doors is a brand-new sports car. Behind each of the other two doors is a goat. It’s completely random. You’ve got a one-in-three chance of winning the car, so you take it your best guess and point to door number one.
“Great choice!” says the host. “It might be a winner. But before we find out, I’m going to open door number three for you.” He opens door number three, one of the doors you didn’t pick, and you can see there’s a goat behind it. Now the host says, “OK, so you picked door number one. There’s a goat behind door number three. I’m going to ask you now, do you want to stick with door number one, or do you want to switch your choice to door number two?”1
What do you do? The correct answer is that you should always switch. You should take door number two, because if you do this you have a two-thirds chance of winning the car, while if you stick with your original choice, you only have a one-third chance of winning. If you can’t quite believe it, you’re in good company. It’s a surprising result that confounds our instincts about probability. When Marilyn vos Savant ran a version of this problem in her “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade magazine in 1990, she got a flood of responses from learned mathematicians sporting Ph.D.’s telling her she was wrong, that there was no advantage to switching, that the chances were 50-50. The world renowned Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős refused to believe until he was shown a computer simulation that proved it.
It doesn’t matter how smart we might be. Sometimes we can’t see what’s true unless somebody shows us.
For the rest of the summer, today and after I get back from my vacation, I’ll be sharing with you parts of the book of Revelation. This is my favorite books in the Bible. It’s a very different kind of book. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger says that the psalms touches our emotions, the books of the law speak to our will, and Paul’s letters, with their elaborately crafted arguments, draw on our intellect, but the book of Revelation appeals to our imagination.2 Its words paint a series of pictures that combine to create a total impression of its message—that in a messy and often violent world, God is ultimately in charge and will win out, and that what God asks of us in the here and now is faithfulness, endurance, and trust.
Because the images Revelation shows us are so striking, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a wooden literalism. Over the years many interpreters of Revelation have tried to draw a one-to-one correspondence between one of its images and contemporary events. But when you do this, you miss the point of the book. Because this is not future history or journalism. This is not a message from someone who traveled forward in time and sent back a straightforward news report of what’s going to happen. The book itself tells us what it is—a man named John had a vision while he was “in the spirit” that gave him a glimpse of what God intends for the world, a message for a church suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman state. So these aren’t objective, independent observations—the images in this book are presented as God’s gift, means to inspire hope and perseverance. And if this is my favorite book of the Bible, it’s because the gift it gives us is so wonderful and so needed, especially now. Like the game show puzzle, sometimes we can’t see the truth that matters most unless somebody shows it to us.
Today’s passage shows us the beginning of John’s visionary experience. We’re starting in chapter 4, but you’re welcome to read the first three chapters on your own. There you’ll find a series of seven letters to seven churches dictated to John by Jesus himself in a vision. In those letters are words of encouragement and also rebuke. Hold out, hold firm, Jesus says. I see your struggles, and I am right there with you. But right now let’s jump into our first picture.
It begins with a door. It’s one door, not three doors, and there are no goats or cars behind it. There’s no game of chance here, just a single door. It’s not up to us to choose the future that’s waiting for us—that future is being prepared by God. So there’s just a single door in heaven. And the door is open! The future God is creating is no longer secret. As if to emphasize this, John says he heard a voice calling out, inviting him: “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” God wants John—and us—to see what’s inside. All at once, John says, he was “in the spirit,” his physical body left behind while his spiritual senses are attuned to what God wants to show him. He perceives a throne room in heaven, and someone sitting on that throne.
With worship and praise directed toward this figure, we are meant to understand that this is a representation of God. I don’t know about you, though, but every time I try to picture this figure in my mind, it just sort of slips away. That’s OK, though. When we’re reading Revelation, we never want to be too literal. Bruce Metzger says that the book of Revelation doesn’t mean what it says—it means what it means. It’s OK to let your mind play with the images you hear. We can begin to do this with the figure on the throne… It has the appearance of jasper and carnelian, John says–precious stones. Bruce Metzger points out that carnelian is red and perhaps evokes God’s wrath at human injustice and rebellion. Around the throne is a rainbow—a reminder of God’s promise to Noah never again to destroy the world—and the appearance of the rainbow is like emerald, which is a cool, soothing green, making us think of the green pastures of Psalm 23, where God is a caring shepherd who unfailingly provides for us. There aren’t obvious right or wrong interpretations, but they all seem to point to God’s character.
Twenty-four elders, perhaps representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles, symbolize all of God’s people in the old and new covenants, worshiping God together. The four living creatures with so many eyes and with six wings each remind us of the six-winged seraphim, the heavenly creatures that the prophet Isaiah saw when he had his vision in the Temple. They are the worship leaders in the heavenly throne room, and whenever they lead off a song of praise, the twenty-four elders follow, throwing down their crowns in a gesture of humble submission, and singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
God is in charge. God is worthy of honor and praise. In this first-century Roman world, this was a subversive, political vision. The Emperor Domitian had had the Roman Senate declare that he was to be addressed as “Lord and God.” Just by affirming that their first and highest loyalty was to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ, just by expressing their trust that God, not the emperor, was the one in charge of things, the one who was creating a better world, first-century Christians were being political and exposing themselves to danger.
It still happens. A couple of years ago, Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old man in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was arrested and given a citation. His crime? Feeding the homeless. "One of the police officers said, 'Drop that plate right now,' as if I were carrying a weapon," he said.3 As the founder of a faith-based nonprofit, Abbott said he was willing to be arrested again, under a statute that imposed burdensome health and safety regulations on organizations that provided ready-to-eat food to the homeless. There has been a disagreement over the purpose of the statute, but advocates for the homeless claim it’s designed to push their organizations and the people they serve out of the city. Abbott says, “I am my brother’s keeper and what they are doing is just heartless.”4 When the laws are cruel and unjust, even today, obedience to God can put Christians in conflict with the authorities.
What the book of Revelation asks of us is exactly what Arnold Abbott chose to do. Hold fast. Keep foremost in your mind the reality that God is in charge and holds the future. Act and make choices in accordance with this reality, even if the truth of it is often hidden. We’ll see when we read Revelation that doing this often means hardship and sacrifice. But as the book’s vision unfolds, we see the beauty and grace of the future God is creating, and we draw encouragement to live as God’s people here and now.
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,” sing the twenty-four elders, “to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” God is faithful to the world God made. God doesn’t leave us alone in wonderment and confusion, but gives us a glimpse of the future God is already shaping, not only in the heavens, but through the faithful witness of people on earth. Take courage. Hold fast. God is in charge. Amen.
A version of this problem appeared in the “Ask Marilyn” column of Parade magazine. The resulting back-and-forth between Marilyn vos Savant and her readers can be found online at http://marilynvossavant.com/game-show-problem/ (retrieved 2017-07-28).
Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993. p. 11.
Christopher Donato, “90-Year-Old Man Charged With Feeding Homeless Says He Won’t ‘Give Up’,” ABC News, 6 Nov 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/US/90-year-florida-man-charged-feeding-homeless-wont/story?id=26733223. Retrieved 7/30/2017.
Richard Luscombe, “90-year-old among Florida activists arrested for feeding the homeless,” The Guardian. 5 Nov 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/05/fort-lauderdale-pastors-arnold-abbott-arrested-feeding-homeless. Retrieved 7/30/2017.