You Can Preach Apocalyptic Literature with a Sure Hand
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You Can Preach Apocalyptic Literature with a Sure Hand
One of the most difficult tasks preachers face in terms of interpretation and application is making sense (for ourselves and for our hearers) of apocalyptic literature. Indeed, the authors of Preaching Apocalyptic Texts claim, "Many good and faithful preachers rank preaching on apocalyptic texts alongside handling serpents: they have heard that people do it, but they have no desire to come anywhere near them." This is the literature of visions and voices, symbols and signs, demons and dragons, horns and toes. Like a maze of high hedges with gold at the center, the genre of apocalypse does not easily yield its treasure.
The history of interpretation shows us that humility is needed when handling the literature of visions. Many predictions have shipwrecked on the reefs of hubris. For example, John Napier, in A Pleine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of St. John, correlated the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 with a "precise timetable [which] could be uncovered in Revelation, even down to the determination that the seventh and last age of history had begun in 1541 and would last until 1786." Jerome might have been right in saying that "Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words."
Preaching this genre may feel like handling snakes, but let's remember that God has given it a major place in the canon. That alone is sufficient reason to preach it, but I hope this article will motivate us not only by a sense of duty, but also with a sense of joy and confidence, because the central message of apocalypse graphically encapsulates our faith: the devil hates us, but he loses; God loves us, and he wins; it isn't even close; and it is permanent. That will preach!
What is apocalyptic literature?
The term apocalypse is not used in the Bible to denote a genre, although the Greek word apocalypsis is used to mean an "uncovering, disclosure, or revelation." As a term denoting a genre, apocalypse first appeared in biblical criticism at the beginning of the 19th century as a reference to visionary eschatological literature, but the genre itself existed from the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.) to the destruction of Jerusalem (135 A.D.). That is, the form of literature with the characteristics I describe below existed for about 700 years, even though it did not have a name. Many of the books of the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha (the books of the Intertestamental Period) belong to this genre. To my knowledge, we have no instances of it today.
I define apocalypse as highly symbolic literature with a rough narrative framework designed to exhort and console oppressed believers by disclosing a transcendent vision of the future God has prepared that will overturn present earthly circumstances. Apocalypse is a hybrid genre, partaking of narrative, poetry, and prophecy. As narrative, it has rudiments of plot, character, setting, and point of view. As poetry, it uses figurative language (especially symbolism) and heightened emotion. As prophecy, it is eschatological and hortatory, but it differs from prophecy in its view of the world.
Prophecy tells its recipients that, if they repent, disaster can be avoided. The world is redeemable. Apocalypse tells the faithful that the world is too far gone. Only the impending cataclysm will set things right, so hang on! As the non-canonical apocalypse 2 Baruch states, "The pitcher is near to the cistern, and the ship to the port, and the course of the journey to the city, and life to its consummation" (85:10).
In the Bible, the following passages are often categorized as apocalyptic: Isaiah 24–27; Daniel 7–12; Zechariah 1–6, 9–14; Matthew 24–25; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12; 2 Peter 3:1–13; and the Book of Revelation. Because Revelation is the longest and "purest" apocalyptic literature in the Bible, most examples in this article will come from that book.
How it communicates, what it does
This unusual form warrants examination. The first question we must ask ourselves is, Why did the persuaders use it? If the President of the United States used smoke signals and tom toms to communicate the State of the Union Address, we would ask, "Why such a form?" If you preached next week using grand opera, we would wonder why. So why did the divine Author use surrealistic visions to encourage the oppressed?
The answer can be found in Lloyd Bitzer's concept of the "rhetorical situation," which is composed of an exigence, a need marked by urgency; an audience who is capable of removing or altering the exigence when skillful discourse moves them; and constraints, or materials the persuader can use to move the audience. Just as epistles are occasional documents designed to address specific exigencies, so are apocalypses. They arise from urgent circumstances and alter those circumstances with rhetorical content and form.
Here's how it works: apocalypse addresses believers who are in crisis. They are being persecuted by a corrupt society, and it appears that God is not in control. Apocalyptic literature arises from frightened, dispossessed people who yet hope in God. Daniel and his friends were strangers in a strange land. In Zechariah, little Israel was bullied by the heathen nations roundabout. The seven churches of Revelation cringed before the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96), who, toward the end of his reign, demanded to be addressed as "our lord and god."
Earlier in the century, Jews had been exempted from Caesar-worship, but as Christianity became distinct from Judaism (no longer holding its meetings in synagogues), Rome's iron fist fell. Along with physical and social crisis came spiritual crisis. The old question arose: If God is just, powerful, and loving, why do the innocent suffer? Society is corrupt and hostile, and God seems blind. The rhetorical situation of crisis invites a "fitting response."
Apocalypse provides that response by announcing a competing interpretation of reality, which helps the audience change perspective. This kind of literature pulls back the curtain to reveal that God is certainly not blind—he sees his children surrounded by wolves; he is certainly not unfeeling—his pity and wrath gather like flood waters; and he is certainly not powerless—the shaft of judgment is ready to spring from his bow.
Apocalypse is also a vehicle for transcendence. The writers lift the hearts of the faithful to visualize the world with eyes of faith. As Long states, "Apocalypse does not eliminate the suffering or wipe out the possibility of death. Indeed, Christian apocalyptic literature is quite candid about the fact that the saints will suffer and die. It does, however, make possible the shout, 'O death, where is your sting?'"
Paul's words to the Thessalonians illustrate the rhetorical situation of apocalypse: "We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. … God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to those who are troubled. … This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction … on the day he comes to be glorified" (2 Thessalonians 1:4–10).
The genre of apocalypse not only consoles the persecuted faithful, but also chastises the prosperous unfaithful. In the words of the old saw, it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. You see, some recipients of apocalyptic literature had become friends with the world. Through compromise and accommodation, they gained a measure of security. But it was false security, for they had put their faith in jeopardy. Fear of man overshadowed fear of God. In this situation, apocalyptic literature's fitting response is a jangling wake-up call—opening eyes to the peril of compromise, lifting the curtain to reveal that the world that looks so alluring is actually a whore aligned with the accuser of the brethren.
The seven churches of Revelation may say of themselves, "'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But [they] do not realize that [they] are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:17). God has "a few things against" them because they "tolerate that woman, Jezebel" (Revelation 2:14, 20). They need to repent or God will fight against them with the sword of his mouth (Revelation 2:16). They are to "come out of her … so that [they] will not share in her sins, so that [they] will not receive any of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4). Thus, as Charry states, the "pastoral function of apocalyptic literature is twofold. It is both to bolster the faithful in their precarious situation and to hold their feet to the fire."
This genre seeks to change the hearers' perspective by means of dazzling language. This kind of language goes beyond a merely referential function of language whereby we talk about things, people, or ideas. Instead, apocalypse uses the "expressive" and "evocative" functions of language. Like poetry, it reveals and elicits attitudes and feelings. Leland Ryken puts it this way:
Visionary literature, with its arresting strangeness, breaks through our normal way of thinking and shocks us into seeing that things are not as they appear. Visionary writing attacks our ingrained patterns of deep-level thought in an effort to convince us that the world will not always continue as it now is, that there is something drastically wrong with the status quo, or that reality cannot be confined to the physical world we perceive with our senses. Visionary literature is not cozy fireside reading. It gives us the shock treatment.
Visionary literature expands vision. The first-century believers who heard Revelation may have walked the sturdy Roman roads and relaxed in the security of the Pax Romana, but all was not as it seemed. Those believers were actually looking at a beast who sought to tear and grind them with power granted by a dragon. Revelation reveals this, rouses emotion, and elicits response.
With its symbolic trumpet blasts, hideous hybrid animals, and dire curses, Revelation conjures dread, disgust, resentment, and pity—as when a modern reader or moviegoer sees Aslan at the stone table. The harpies, ogres, wolves, and hags—symbols of evil—bind, shave, and torture the great lion—a symbol of the Lord Christ. Our hearts are moved to see the truth represented through fiction, and we understand better what actually happened at the Place of the Skull. Apocalyptic literature may be surrealistic, but it captures the "deep magic" better than almost any other form of literature. Maybe it captures that magic because it is surrealistic.
Let's look now at some specifics of how the genre of apocalypse functions. I have in mind three literary/rhetorical features that it possesses: dualism, symbols, and hybridized narrative.
When you read apocalypse, hang onto your hat. You're in for a wild ride.
You can read no more than a chapter of apocalyptic literature before you see dramatic dualism. This is not the dualism of eastern religions, with their yin and yang—two sides of one reality—but the dualism of an old fashioned, John Wayne Western featuring good guys and bad guys. In Revelation, the beast that comes up from the Abyss attacks and kills the two witnesses (11:7), and the "mother of prostitutes" is "drunk with blood of the saints" (17:5–6). In Daniel, the beast is "terrifying and frightening and very powerful" with "large iron teeth." It "crushed and devoured its victims" (7:7). In Zechariah, Satan stands to accuse Joshua before the angel of the Lord (3:1–2).
This antagonistic mindset is foreign to most of us. We drink from the fountain of tolerance, which is in turn fed by the stream of relativism. And while tolerance is certainly a virtue, Allan Bloom feels that it has trumped traditional values like purity, humility, truthfulness, industry, and courage. Indeed, tolerance may be the last universal virtue of our society.
As a result, when we read of the judgment of God on Babylon—with plagues, torment, doom, weeping, smoke, and ruin (Revelation 18:8–19)—we squirm. Our squirming turns to flinching when we read, "Hallelujah! … He has condemned the great prostitute who has corrupted the Earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants. … The smoke of her goes up for ever and ever" (19:1–3).
The rhetorical function of in-your-face dualism relates to tension. For the first group apocalypse addresses, the faithful, tension is reduced. For the second group, the lukewarm, tension is generated. The first group already feels the tension of theodicy, but then they receive assurance that God has not forgotten them. This reduces their doubts and invigorates their faith. They can hold on, because they will soon be rewarded. However, tension arises for the lukewarm, because they see reality in a new light. They must let go of their worldliness, for they now recognize that they are in league with the synagogue of Satan (Revelation 3:9).
In this literature, there is no place to hide. You are either for God or against him. You wear either white robes or the mark of the beast. This world will give way to the next, but your fate is determined by how you act in this world. Your name is written either in the Book of Life or in the books of judgment. The faithful may sigh in lament, but they also sigh in relief, while the lukewarm sigh in regret.
Imagine that you are a devoted Christ-follower in the age of Domitian. You are harassed and marginalized, perhaps even imprisoned and tortured. Why? Because you love Jesus and have offered yourself to him as a living sacrifice. Imagine your feelings of vindication and relief when the curtain rises to show you God, called Faithful and True, who will soon strike down the nations (Revelation 19:11, 15). The tension of theodicy is resolved, and you determine to endure to the end.
On the other hand, imagine that you are a "secret disciple" in that age. You hide your faith, spin the truth, and compromise to avoid persecution. Imagine discovering that you have crawled into bed with an ancient serpent, and that the cowardly will take their place in the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 20:2; 21:8). Your tension rises. Dualism is a fitting response to the two audiences. It persuades both.
The second rhetorical feature of the genre may be its most obvious: an overwhelming use of visionary symbols.
When the curtain rises, we enter a mystical world of visions replete with symbols. This is not the world of the Epistles, with their flow of logic, or the worlds of narrative and parable, with their feet planted in the soil of everyday life. It is closer to the world of poetry, but this is poetry amplified, at least in its use of symbols.
The symbols can be animate beings—such as a red dragon (Revelation 12:3–4), living creatures with "six wings … covered with eyes all around" (Revelation 4:8), a warrior on a red horse (Revelation 6:4), or two flying women with wings like those of a stork (Zechariah 5:9). The symbols can also be inanimate objects—such as candlesticks, bowls, trumpets, swords, and crowns. In the world of visions, these inanimate objects can themselves become actors. For example, when the Earth helps the fleeing woman by swallowing a pursuing torrent (Revelation 12:13–16) and when the ram's horn grows to knock down stars (Daniel 8:9–10).
Numbers are also highly symbolic in this genre. In Revelation, there are seven letters, seals, trumpets, plagues, angels, and bowls. The foundation of the city is made of twelve precious stones, and 12,000 servants of God from each tribe of Israel are "sealed."
Most of these symbols were familiar to Middle Eastern readers, just as modern Americans would recognize a political cartoon of a donkey and elephant playing tug of war. But even with the advantage of cultural immersion, Daniel cried, "I heard, but I did not understand" (Daniel 12:8).
The storehouse of symbols comes not only from Middle Eastern culture, but even more dominantly, in the case of Revelation, from the Old Testament. In particular Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah contribute to the storehouse of symbols. Metzger has figured that, of the 404 verses in Revelation, 278 contain one or more allusions to the Old Testament: "John had so thoroughly pondered the Old Testament that, when it came to recording the import of his visions of God and of heaven, he expressed himself by using phrases borrowed from the prophets of Israel."
Why would a biblical writer use potentially hermetic symbols? What is to be gained from fantasy that cannot be gained from realism? Visionary symbols are more than stylistic choices; they are powerful rhetoric.
Like a riddle, this literature prompts contemplation. Apocalypse is parable-like, where one thing stands for another. While some of the symbols may make us feel like an illiterate with a crossword puzzle, many of the symbols are universal and accessible to modern readers. We know that thunder is the voice of God in judgment, that the lion is the king, and that the harvest is the time of judgment. Thankfully, five symbols are interpreted for us in Revelation:
Angels of the seven churches (granted, this itself needs interpretation)
Hills on which the woman sits (again, this calls for interpretation)
The great city (Rome)
With visionary symbols, authors engage our minds and emotions as we discern what is meant by the grotesque beasts and shining stars. Think of how a modern symbol, the skull and cross bones, functions: we comprehend that the bottle contains poison, and we fear to touch it. The communication occurs in a flash, but that flash illumines what might take a hundred words of realistic prose to convey.
The third aspect of form to consider is apocalypse as hybridized narrative.
Apocalypse possesses the rudiments of narrative. There is character, plot, setting, and point of view; however, those elements are modified. We encounter not only God, angels, and saints, but also bizarre characters like composite beasts and the forces of nature. Similarly, some aspects of plot are "normal" as the story moves from conflict through resolution. But as Leland Ryken observes, the plot of visions possesses a "kaleidoscopic structure" with "brief units, always shifting and never in focus for very long."
This visionary plot is like a pageant or parade—with jugglers, floats, animals, and bands passing before us without lingering. The procession moves forward steadily from beginning to end, but the flow is also fragmented and somewhat cyclical. Display follows display, band follows band, float follows float, and the impact overwhelms us.
The settings of apocalypse increase its fragmented yet overwhelming quality, for they transport us from Earth to heaven, mountains to sea, and we stand before the holy city descending. In terms of point of view, apocalypse uses panorama, the long shot. Epic, not lyric, captures the mood and mode of this genre. This is the grand opera of the Bible.
The rhetorical functions of hybridized narrative are similar to those of standard historical narrative. Plot creates suspense, but here we wonder how and when God will win, not if he will win. Character creates identification and dissociation as we side with the white-robed martyrs and recoil from the dragon and demons. Setting and point of view lift the curtain to show us the big picture. When you read apocalypse, hang onto your hat. You're in for a wild ride.
How can we take our listeners on that ride? Some preachers feel that the ride spins too fast, climbs too high, and plunges too low. Of all the genres contained within the Scriptures, apocalypse may be the least amenable to preaching. But surely we can find some ways to reproduce its vision-expanding and faith-heartening rhetorical effects.
One way to do this is to use imagination in your exegesis of apocalypse. Because this genre communicates through images, we must imagine. We must engage the "willing suspension of disbelief." This phrase from the Romantic poet Coleridge reminds us that the authors of surrealistic literature purposefully use images and symbols to capture reality and produce results. Therefore, we must yield to their strategy by voluntarily entering the kaleidoscopic vision. If we do not do so, we reduce the effect God intends.
Of all the genres contained within the Scriptures, apocalypse may be the least amenable to preaching. But surely we can find some ways to reproduce its vision-expanding and faith-heartening rhetorical effects. Here are five examples.
Apocalypse is a literature of extremes, and this produces tension. Don't shy away from it. For the faithful who are oppressed, surfacing tension is easy. They already feel it. The tension between what is and what should be and what will be is a daily experience. For the lukewarm, unaware of or hardened to their sin, surfacing tension is more difficult. Still, it can be done.
Apocalypse is not about hangnails. It's about the end of the age.
Consider the following from Preaching Apocalyptic Texts: "The apocalyptic preacher states without equivocation that the surrounding culture not only is not Christian, but also is against Christianity… The apocalyptic preacher wants the church to have absolute certainty about who it is and what it is, and, in order to meet this end, does not shirk from labeling the prevailing culture as dangerous, oppressive, and sinful."
For example, show the listeners how advertising and consumerism desiccate our souls. Show them Christian martyrdom in sub-Saharan Africa. Awaken them to the evils of pornography. My church sponsored a "Purity Weekend" to enlighten our minds and stir our hearts. To pull back the curtain on reality, we brought in experts who taught us how pervasive pornography is in America and how it ruins lives. It is not a "victimless crime." An apocalyptic preacher would say that it comes from the pit of hell.
Apocalypse also raises tension on that most vexing of all issues: suffering. Why is human experience a long and winding road, sometimes smooth and pleasant, but other times broken and steep under the baking sun? Here is a passage from one of my sermons which helps people connect emotionally to the conundrum:
A few years ago, I was teaching at a Bible College in the Northwest. One of our students named Mark died in his sleep. His roommate tried to wake him in the morning, but he was dead. Mark was popular on campus. He was a spiritual leader and member of the basketball team. The whole campus mourned, and a few days after his death, we held a memorial service.
As I entered the service through the double doors into the back of the large auditorium, two groups of students were positioned on either side of me. On one side, a group of basketball players and cheerleaders were weeping and holding each other; on the other side, not ten yards away, another group was laughing, hugging, and giving each other "high fives." One of their circle had just gotten engaged, and she was displaying her diamond ring.
There I stood in the middle, suspended between grief and joy. It struck me that that experience was a parable of the human condition. Grief and joy. Pain and pleasure. Mingled toil; peace and rest.
Besides the questions that arise from suffering, apocalypse raises tension over other issues as well, especially for those who drink from the fountain of relativism and tolerance. I'm thinking of issues like the wrath of God and the everlasting punishment of the wicked. In any case, biblical apocalypse, God's inspired Word, tackles hard questions. A faithful preacher does, too.
Tension is not an end to itself. In biblical literature, it is a means of addressing the rhetorical situation of the recipients in order to produce hope and praise. In apocalypse, according to Craddock, we "see through what is going on to what is really going on." We see angels, mentioned 67 times in Revelation. We see God's sovereignty, justice, and compassion. We see Jesus crucified, resurrected, and enthroned.
The Book of Revelation, in the midst of wrath and fire, sings 16 hymns. In apocalypse, weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Though we see oppression and violence, we have been to the mountaintop, and we also see God's victory. You undoubtedly catch my allusion to Martin Luther King's final speech. He was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage workers. In that mundane setting, King pulled back the curtain so his audience could see a transcendent reality:
The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion is all around… But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in our world.
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Apocalypse is not a genre of logical argumentation; it is a genre of eschatological vision. In Revelation 1, John witnesses, describes, and reports (rather than argues), and in doing so, gives the readers hope. In the same way, we can describe the glorious future to help listeners see themselves in God's unfolding drama. Hope is raised and faith is renewed when preachers announce that the Lamb who was slain will be enthroned in the New Jerusalem. Help your listeners catch that vision.
In Revelation, we finally see Jesus unveiled: "the ruler of the kings of the Earth" (1:5), the "Alpha and Omega" (1:8), "with a voice like the sound of rushing waters" and his face shining "like the sun in all its brilliance" (1:15–16). The Jesus we meet in Revelation, with his robe dipped in blood (19:13), has come a long way from the Jesus we met in the Gospels, where his glory occasionally flashed from behind the curtain. To be sure, he is still the Lamb of God, but now the Lamb is also "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, [and he] has triumphed" (5:5). Ask God to help you catch this vision, and ask him to help you convey it to the listeners.
Apocalypse dares us to be "identifiably different." Preachers should, too. Apocalypse rejects moral relativism. Preachers should, too. Preachers announce that history is predetermined, and the Lamb will win, so we must decide now which side to follow. Our behavior now determines our reward later. Preachers must not strip apocalypse of this stringent and no-nonsense worldview. We are in a war.
Let us remind our listeners that, in the words of Fee and Stuart, "Discipleship goes the way of the Cross, that God has not promised us freedom from suffering and death, but triumph through it." Craddock puts it this way: "Churches which try to have Easter without Good Friday are symbolized by the plastic lily—it cannot die and hence it cannot bloom. Resurrection cannot be celebrated if no one is dead."
Emphasizing discipleship means that we will deliberately preach on issues of culture and lifestyle. When the text warrants it, we will address with candor topics like homosexuality. Of course, we will strive to understand our culture and its misunderstandings of the gospel, but we will not fail to emphasize the indissoluble relationship between works and faith.
Revelation knows no dichotomy, so do not soften its message by downplaying obedience. In your ardor to maintain the cornerstone of the Reformation (justification by faith), do not embarrassedly mute the trumpet which calls us to repent and return to the works of our first love (Revelation 2:4–5).
Preach big themes in big ways
This suggestion is implicit in the previous points, but let me be explicit here. Apocalypse is not about hangnails. It is about the end of the age. Apocalyptic preachers will preach on big themes with forms congruous to that scope. We present God as pantocrator ("ruler of all," see Revelation 1:8 and eight other times in the book).
One way to recreate the panoramic quality of visionary literature is with panoramic illustrations. In these sermons, suffering will not be presented as a fever and stuffy nose; it is Richard Wurmbrand tortured for his faith. Save your illustrations of failing grades and traffic jams for another sermon from another genre, because "they do not have Golgotha written on them; they are not analogies of cross-bearing." Let your people know that martyrdom is raging even in the 21st century—that the government of North Korea is in league with the dragon.
Another way to recreate the grand scope is by using a slightly elevated style. Leave chattiness behind: "So, the other day, I was, you know, walking down the street, and I kinda tripped or something. I don't know. But anyway…" Instead, mirror this style: "Woe to the Earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short" (Revelation 12:12). Of course, we have to be careful with such a lofty style. Effective communicators do not call attention to themselves.
For a good example of the right balance, listen to Allan Boesak speak about the evils of apartheid:
The South African government's time is up. That we know. We are seeing the beginning of the end. But that does not stop them. Still they invent new weapons, which they display with great pride at the Arms Fair in Brazil. Still they announce newer, more refined anti-riot equipment: barbed wire fences falling out of the back of a truck like deadly vomit out of the mouth of a dragon. Still they legislate new powers for the Minister for Law and Order….
But oppressed people know what that means: the respectability of "law" for wanton destruction; unending streams of arrests; besieged townships; invaded communities and homes; fear-ridden streets; thousands of policemen and soldiers, grim and wild-eyed as they feverishly grip their guns—in a word: legalized murder.
Another way to preach big themes in big ways is through the nonverbal channel. We must remember that we communicate not only through what we say, but also how we say it. Every genre and passage suggests a nonverbal mode, and apocalypse is no exception. The literature of visions will call for your highest level of energy. I hesitate to suggest anything more specific than that, because adopting a particular tone or manner without an accompanying deeply felt conviction will be perceived for what it is: a sham. But when your heart soars by the vision of the lamb who is also a lion, let it soar!
Work in concert with entire service
Perhaps you could intersperse the sermon with other liturgical elements, thus mirroring the pageant-like quality of the text. In any case, the sermon need not be, indeed it should not be (since it cannot be), the only vehicle of worship in any given service. Craddock says it well:
Let the whole liturgy bring Revelation to the congregation. The sermon is not alone the bearer of the Word of God. Anthems drawn either in Spirit or in text from Revelation, hymns inspired by the Apocalypse, and healthy portions of Revelation well-read but without comment do not simply serve as context for a sermon but, on their own, can say and do what the prophet John sought to say and do. In fact, given the highly liturgical nature of Revelation, this final suggestion to the preacher is weightier than an option; the book itself demands it.
In this vein, group reading of apocalyptic Scripture is especially effective. The effect is amazing when you successfully capture the antiphonal and climactic spirit of a doxology like Revelation 7:9–12. Robert Coleman's book about the poetry in Revelation, The Songs of Heaven, models how to weave hymns and other music into the flow of a sermon. Or, following your sermon with a great hymn like Samuel Rutherford's "In Emmanuel's Land" will inspire faith, hope, and endurance.
If you have gifted artists in your congregation, why not unleash them when preaching from apocalypse? Discover the joy that comes from working with a team, and discover the power of proclaiming visionary literature with symbol and song.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.