Sermon for August 22nd, 2021
Today's scripture reading is the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, verses 1-20. You can find the passage and follow along in your pew bibles in the New Testament, near the very end of the book on page 245. I'm going to incorporate today's scripture reading into the sermon, so as we prepare to hear God's Word and message to us, let us pray.
Revelation: Seven Letters to Seven Churches, Part I
A long time ago in the dark ages, a certain wise man prophesied that the king’s favorite horse would soon die. Sure enough, the horse died, and the king was outraged. He was convinced that the prophet had somehow orchestrated the death of his horse in order to make his own prophecy come true. So he summoned the prophet, and said to him, "If you are so wise, prophet, then predict for me the day in which you will die!" Of course, the prophet realized it was a trap--if he gave a date in the distant future, the king would have him killed immediately in order to discredit his prophetic abilities. So he gazed out into the horizon for awhile, and then said, "I cannot see with certainty the day of my own death...but one thing I can see clearly: My death will occur two days before the death of the king!" And so his life was spared.
The Book of Revelation is the final book of the Bible, and it has often been viewed as a book of prophecies regarding the end of the world. In almost every generation since it was written, it has been the subject of great speculation, interpretation, and artistic representation. More recently, it has been the subject of fictional books and films graphically depicting all of its cataclysmic disasters with great certainty as to the times, places, and people who will be involved.
And of course, in a time of global pandemics, government lockdowns, civil unrest, rioting, and warfare in the Middle East...it's only natural for some people to ask the question, "Wait a minute? Is this what the Bible was talking about? Are we in the end times right now? Spoiler alert: People have been looking at the same kinds of things and asking that exact same question for the past 2,000 years.
So I thought it might be helpful for us to take another look at this mysterious and misunderstood book of the Bible--not just through the troubling lens of our own times, but also through the eyes of the people who first wrote and read it. What did it mean to them? And if it is not a prediction of impending doom, what hopeful message does it offer to people in all times and places? Let's dive in, beginning with Chapter 1, verses 1-3:
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, 2 who 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.
The word "revelation" in the original Greek is Ἀποκάλυψις, which is where we get the word "apocalypse" from. And when we hear that word, "apocalypse" we think of the end of the world. But despite that, I think the English translation gets it right here: Ἀποκάλυψις is made up of two Greek roots: καλύπτω meaning to cover or conceal, and the preposition ἀπό meaning "un." So Ἀποκάλυψις simply means to un-cover or to reveal what is hidden. A revelation, not necessarily of the end of the world, but of things that are hidden or mysterious.
And in fact, there is an entire genre of literature in the ancient world that the Book of Revelation belongs to: Apocalyptic literature. This style of writing was about as popular then as suspense thrillers or horror movies are to us today. And that's actually a great comparison: A lot of our modern-day thrillers are speculative fiction: They show us in graphic detail what MIGHT happen, or what COULD happen if we aren't careful--IF we mess around too much with science or nature or technology, or IF we fail to heed the warnings of wise people in our midst.
On one level, the Book of Revelation fits into that category: Its author, identified here simply as a man named John, is warning his communities of the consequences of their actions, with a little help and insight from none other than Jesus Christ, who sends his angel as a messenger to John. John takes pen to parchment, and faithfully passes on the message, beginning in verse 4:
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, 5 and 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, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Numbers are very, very important in the Book of Revelation, and none more important than the number seven. John is writing to seven specific churches in his day, and speaks of seven spirits standing before God's throne, representing those seven churches. Whether this is meant to be taken literally or figuratively, I don't know. But I do know that every church has a certain spirit, a certain ethos, and that every church (including this one) is ultimately accountable to God for what it does... or fails to do. John continues in verse 7:
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.
This is, of course, a reference to Jesus, whose crucifixion at the hands of the Roman government would still be a fresh wound in the minds of the early church. More so in John's time, as the Roman government had already begun to hunt down and kill those who identified themselves as Christians. There was a very powerful sentiment--a hope, even--that Jesus would soon come back to settle the score. Verse 8:
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
This is the second time we've heard that phrase--this idea that God is Lord over the past, the present and the future. This is a key, recurring theme throughout the book: You cannot understand all of the coded messages in the Book of Revelation if all you see is a book about the future. For John, this vision from God is wrapped up in the history of God's people and the recent events surrounding the life of Jesus, and also in his present day context as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. More on that in verse 9:
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.
We know from the Roman historian Tacitus that the Island of Patmos (just off the coast of modern day Turkey) was a penal colony, a place where prisoners and political dissidents were sent to prevent them from influencing others--kind of like Australia, or the American Colonies in the 18th century. John wouldn't be there if he weren't already considered a threat to the Roman law and order. John continues his letter in verse 10:
10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “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.”
Next week, we're going to take a look at what exactly God, through John, had to say to these seven churches. For now, it's enough to know that these are real, historical cities, not far from the island of Patmos, and all situated in present-day Turkey, which is the main stage of the early Christian church in the New Testament. Verse 12:
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and 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. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In 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.
The "one like the Son of Man" is a pretty clear reference to Jesus, and all of the symbolism--from the seven stars, to the double-edged sword, the feet of bronze, and the flaming eyes--appear later in the message to each church. But what catches my attention here are the seven golden lampstands. There's a coded message here, and one that highlights the importance of understanding the past to understand Revelation:
At the heart of the worship practices of the ancient Hebrew people, from the time of Moses right up through the time of Jesus, was the menorah--a seven-branched candle made of solid gold, placed upon the altar in the center of the temple in Jerusalem. In the year 70AD, just a few years before the Book of Revelation was written, the Romans destroyed the temple, leveling it to the ground. It was never rebuilt. John's vision of seven individual, golden lampstands, one in each of the seven Christian churches, is a symbolic message to those churches: Together, you are the new temple. You are now the light of God, shining in the darkness of a post-temple world. Verse 17:
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, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As 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.
Chapter 1 ends here, and we'll continue next week with the seven messages to the seven churches. But here at the end of the first chapter, and at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, is where we find our message of hope--in John's day and in our own time as well. It's a message that runs throughout the entire Bible, especially in difficult times: Do not be afraid.
The world tells us that the fear of death and disease and poverty and warfare should be the basis of our every action, our every decision, our every waking moment. This has been true for thousands of years. Fear is a very efficient means of control, for governments, for mass media outlets, and for churches, too.
But God tells us over and over again, in Revelation and throughout the scriptures: Do not be afraid of the things that threaten your body, your property, your reputation, or your livelihood. These things were never meant to last. Fear instead the things that threaten your soul, your humanity, and your relationship with a God who holds the keys to life and death in his competent and compassionate hands.
None of us knows the number of days that are allotted to us. None of us knows--or has much control over--the future, the rise and fall of nations and empires, the crises and cataclysms that unfold before our eyes.
But God has given you control over this one small thing: Where you put your faith, your hope, your trust, and your confidence. Don't put it in people or things that change with every passing day.
Do not be afraid. Put your hope in the God who was, and is, and is to come.