Sermon for April 7th, 2013
13As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Revelation: A War on Three Fronts
I'm a pretty future-focused kind of guy. I like gadgets, especially the latest ones. I keep up with trends in technology, medicine, science and biology. I read science-fiction and I love to speculate on where everything is headed a year from now, 10 years from now, 100 years from now. I am a futurist.
So it might seem somewhat surprising that when it comes to the book of Revelation, the one place where many Christians have looked to unlock the secrets of the future and what amazing or horrible things are in store for us...I'm a skeptic. I'm not at all skeptical of the Bible, or the Book of Revelation itself, I'm just skeptical of what seems to be the predominant interpretation of it these days. To be fair, the idea of Revelation as a book that unlocks the hidden secrets of our near future has been the "predominant interpretation" for hundreds if not thousands of years. That in itself is part of the problem: We're just as sure as the medieval monks in the 10th century that we can decode the complex symbolism in Revelation, see it unfolding all around us, and know that we are the ones living in the midst of its prophecy. And we're probably about as correct as they were, too.
They weren't entirely wrong, though. If we can see our own situation reflected in the visions and symbols of the Book of Revelation, it is not because we are living in the "end times." It's because there is a timeless message in Revelation that speaks to us in every generation, just like the timeless message in all the other books of the Bible. So if we absolutely must situate Revelation somewhere in time, it's not the time just ahead of us. If Revelation belongs to a specific time, it's the end of the first century, when it was written by John on the island of Patmos at the height of the Roman Empire. If there is any future to be seen in the Book of Revelation, then we must see it through the eyes of the past.
The picture on the cover of your bulletin is of an ancient city (Jerusalem) in the foreground, with an artist's depiction of a futuristic, heavenly city in the background. The two cities are in the right order. Eventually, we'll talk some about that heavenly city, but for most of the time, we should keep our eyes firmly fastened on the ancient cities that were the author's context, his focus, and his audience.
We read in the first verse that the Book of Revelation is written by John. John who? Well we don't know. Even back in the first century, John was a pretty common name. Some believe this might be the same John who wrote the Gospel of John, and the letters 1st, 2nd and 3rd John, but we don't really know. The language and style is very different between the books, so all we can do is speculate, and that doesn't really get us anywhere. A better question is this: Why did John write Revelation?
In verse three, we hear that it contains words of prophecy, and "blessed are those" who hear and obey. Prophecy. This is a word that has shifted dramatically in its meaning through the years. For most today, prophecy implies predictions about the future. But in the Bible it is the Greek word προφήτης, one who "speaks out" -- a prophet. The Old Testament concept of a prophet was not someone who predicted the future, but rather someone who spoke out -- someone who spoke out truth to the powerful, on behalf of the powerless. Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Samuel -- this is exactly what the prophets of old did, and this is the kind of prophet that John was intimately familiar with. In fact, he quotes and borrows from two Old Testament prophets extensively in the Book of Revelation: Daniel and Ezekiel. Compare verse today's Old Testament passage with the passage from Revelation for an example of this.
Throughout the Book of Revelation John speaks out, on behalf of the persecuted and the oppressed, to the great power of his day...the Roman Empire. In the war on three fronts, this is the first and foremost battleground. The basic claim of early Christianity was that "Jesus is Lord." The basic claim of the Roman Empire was that "Caesar is Lord." Judging by the persecution of Christians in the early church, Caesar did not take kindly to competition.
In this respect, speaking the truth that Jesus is Lord to the power of the Roman Empire, John stands squarely in the tradition of the prophet, as he would have understood it. When he says these things "must soon take place" we should hear his emphasis on the word "must." As in, this "must" be made right" or Pharaoh, you "must" let my people go...soon. It's not a prediction. It's a demand.
There is a problem with speaking truth to great power, especially when the power is Rome. John would have known what Rome did to Jesus, and if he is indeed the John of the gospels, one of the 12 disciples, he probably was familiar with what Rome did to Peter, James, Paul, and the others. Come to think of it, he was probably familiar with the fate of most of the Old Testament prophets too, and it wasn't a pretty one.
I don't think John is afraid of death. But he tells us that he writes from the Island of Patmos -- an island where Roman prisoners were sent in exile. It's likely he was more afraid of having his letter read by the authorities and confiscated, never making it to its destination. So to work around this, he writes in code, in symbols, in metaphors only his recipients would understand. We do the same thing today when we communicate with our global partners, who are proclaiming the gospel in dangerous places.
We see in verse four that John's intended audience is the seven churches in Asia. This is Asia Minor, or present day Turkey. There were many more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. But he chooses Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea--seven is a good, round, biblical number that shows up often in revelation (seven letters, seven lampstands, seven stars, seven seals, seven trumpets, etc.) It's the biblical number for completeness, a sign that by these seven churches, he means ALL churches everywhere. In fact, at the end of each letter to a specific church, he says "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." The message is specific--to seven very real churches in the first century--and also timeless: to all churches everywhere, in all times.
If we had more time, I would have included all seven of the letters in today's scripture reading. I will be talking about them in today's sermon, however, and I hope you'll take the time to read them on your own at some point. You might even read one of the letters and say "hey, I've been to a church like that!"
In John's War on Three Fronts, Rome is the first front. In fact, six out of the seven cities he writes to were dominated by imperial temples. But the second front is actually the churches themselves--or rather Christians in the churches who were constantly trying to strike a compromise, a balance between worshiping Jesus and worshiping Caesar. Five of the seven letters are highly critical--you have abandoned the love you had at first; you have a name for being alive but you are dead; you are lukewarm and I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Even the two that aren't criticized are warned to "hold fast" and to "remain faithful."
John is probably writing this around the year AD 90. That's about 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's about 40 years after the last missionary journeys of Paul. The original apostles and first-hand witnesses to Jesus' life and ministry are dead or dying, and their stories, their memories are fading fast. The new generation of Christians is young and vulnerable, and I think the grandparents in our congregation today may have a good sense of how John must have felt--how hard it is to impress your beliefs and values on a generation who didn't see what you saw, who didn't live through what you lived through.
And of course, to make matters worse...there's a third front in this war: John is not the only one claiming to be a prophet, writing cryptic messages to the churches about the end of the world. In fact, it's kind of the trendy thing to do in his era. The book of Revelation is part of a genre of writing known as "apocalyptic" writing. Like the word prophecy, this word has changed, in part because of its connection with the Book of Revelation. Apocalypse, from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις (un-covering) doesn't actually mean the "end of the world." Apocalyptic writing about revealing hidden knowledge (which Revelation does). But from roughly the same era, we also have discovered manuscripts containing the so-called Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Thomas, and at least thirteen other similar writings. It is doubtful they were actually written by Peter, Paul, Thomas--but they all certainly claim to be.
And even in the Book of Revelation itself, in John's letter to the church in Pergamum, he writes of a certain Balaam, "who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel." He writes also of those who "hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans" and tells them to repent. In the letter to Thyatira, he writes of "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants."
To summarize, John's prophetic letter is a life or death struggle against the imperial idolatry of the Roman Empire, against backsliding Christians in comfortable churches, and against competing "prophets" who threaten to lead believers astray. John has his work cut out for him. And hopefully now I've done a good job at setting the stage--the context--for the next five weeks. You didn't think I was actually going to get to the solution of those three problems in the next five minutes, did you?
But what can we take away from today's scripture--aside from John's tangled mess? Where is the gospel, the "good news" in today's scripture passage? I think it's in verse 4: "Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come." And then this same thing is repeated in verse 8: "‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." Repetition in the Bible usually means something is important, we're to take notice.
Where does our grace come from? Where does our peace come from? From the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters, respectively, of the Greek Alphabet. They encompass and contain all the other letters. Both this title as well as "The Almighty" remind us of God's all-encompassing power. But in between is that formula again: The one who is and who was and who is to come. I think the order here, repeated the same way twice, is important.
The one who is. That's present. And it comes first. The most important place for us to focus, to live, to be, to exist. Be present in the moment. Live in the moment.
Then, the one who was. That's the past. And it comes next. The second most important thing is to remember. Remember where we came from, remember what God has done. Remember what Christ has done. Remember.
Finally, the one who is to come. And there it is...the future. But it comes last; not exactly the place you'd expect in the Book of Revelation. And I think that's good to point out. We do have a future, and God is there already, waiting for us. But it's not the most important thing, and certainly (despite all the books and films about Revelation and the end of the world) it's not something to worry about, to fret over. The future is in God's hands, and we think about it from time to time. After we've remembered the past. After we have lived fully in the present.
Where does our grace and our peace come from?
From the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.
John had a war on three fronts. But we have God's peace on three fronts.
Thanks be to the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.
This is the Word of God for the People of God.