Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 3, 2016
Revelation 1:4-8 Commentary
The Sunday after Easter (sometimes even called “Low Sunday”) can feel a bit anti-climactic. In 2016 April 3 is also the start of Spring Break for many schools in the United States and so attendance may be notably down in many North American congregations, especially compared to the prior Sunday when Easter no doubt had the pews and seats filled right up. Maybe that is part of the reason why the Lectionary decided to choose as its Epistle text for this day something on the trajectory of the apocalyptic—maybe Revelation can liven things up! Revelation 1 lets us take a few giant steps back from the ordinary frame of our daily lives as we witness the opening of “The Apocalypse of John.”
Of course, say the word “apocalypse” to the average man or woman on the street and you will conjure up in his or her imagination pictures of catastrophic happenings. With the success of TV shows like The Walking Dead of late, the Zombie Apocalypse will perhaps come to mind. The future may be very grim. And even The Book of Revelation has sometimes been turned into a kind of secret code by which to predict the future, and especially a version of the future that is “apocalyptic” in the popular sense of that term.
That’s generally the wrong way to approach the Bible’s final book but that is not to say this book does not tell us about the ultimate future of the universe. It most certainly does! But it is less interested in telling us WHAT the future holds in precise detail than in telling us instead WHO holds the future. The tone for the entire book is set in the opening eight verses. Although there is no denying the prediction about Jesus’ future return on clouds of glory, a good deal of the rest of these verses have more to do with how we should think and feel right now. And this makes it a wonderful text for the Sunday after Easter.
For John, and for us, the word “apocalypse” is not a word to conjure up the catastrophic, the unthinkable, the dreaded, or the terrible. “Apocalypse” is the very first Greek word of this book: “Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” The Greek apokalupsis means “unveiling” or “revealing.” This is the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is the revelation in the sense of the realization, the seeing and understanding of who Jesus really is and what that means not just for the future but for right now, too. God’s purpose in showing these things to John is to unveil, to lift whatever shroud may be covering over God’s Son, Jesus, so that we may see him clearly and perceive him accurately.
The first part of that comes in verse 4 when John identifies the God who sends this revelation as “the one who is, who was, and who is to come.” For Jewish-Christian readers that triple identification would immediately connect to the God of Israel known as Yahweh. A little later on, in verse 8, the Lord God further cinches this identity by claiming to be Alpha and Omega, the Almighty one who, once again, is, was, and is to come. Our God in Christ spans history. He has never been off-duty, never been an absentee landlord, never nodded off and so missed something significant that was happening in this universe. That is what our faith tells us. But this is indeed our faith talking precisely because a quick scan over the landscape of history will reveal any number of events that most certainly do not look like the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a universe that God is ruling.
In fact, Revelation 1 is itself a good example of this. Seen from the right angle, the words that John penned here stand as shining examples of what we could term the gutsy nature of faith. Because in verses 4-5, when offering this opening benediction on the seven churches to whom he was writing, John identifies Jesus as, among other things, “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” It took real pluck for John to write that, much less really to believe it. After all, if his Jesus was the ruler of the kings of the earth, then that would include the Roman Caesar. But if John’s Jesus was the Caesar’s Caesar, then why was John sitting on some desolate and isolated rock called Patmos, banished and exiled at the decree of the Caesar–why was John suffering at the hands of a man who believed that the Lordship of Jesus was one of history’s biggest lies and also the single most ridiculous thing that had been declared anywhere in a very long time?
The Caesar was, by his own decree, Deus et Dominus, God and Lord, of the world. When the Caesar spoke, the world listened. When the Caesar said, “Jump,” the world asked “How high?” And so if the Caesar got annoyed by some gospel-preaching itinerant named John, then with a stroke of the Caesar’s quill that man was gone, out of there, disappeared. And so the full might of Caesar’s strong arm had picked John up and hurled him out across the Mediterranean Sea. With a thud, John landed on his back on the rock of Patmos, that ancient version of Alcatraz. It about knocked the wind out of him, but no sooner does John manage to draw air back into his lungs, and with his first exhalation he still had the guts to say, “Jesus is Lord!”
John declared that Jesus is Lord in ways the Caesar or any king anywhere could scarcely imagine, much less change. It was the early church’s simplest, yet most profound of creeds. Jesus Is Lord! Impossibly, that small band of former fishermen, erstwhile tax collectors, woebegone Jewish peasants, and former prostitutes ran around the Mediterranean Basin declaring this scandalous message. Pious Jews heard the message “Jesus Is Lord” and they gasped at the heresy of it. Loyal Romans heard it and they were angered by the treason of it. If Jesus is Lord, then Jesus was the same as Yahweh, but how could that be? That’s heresy! If Jesus is Lord, then the Caesar was demoted a notch in the grander scheme of things, but how could that be? That’s treason! All over the then-known world, jaws dropped clear to the ground at the idea that some simple Jewish carpenter’s son from some hick, redneck town in the backwaters of Galilee had become so cosmically significant as to trump all claims or titles to the contrary.
John’s exile was proof of the Caesar’s clout. And yet John said it didn’t prove a blessed thing. Faith showed him the real structure of the universe, and Jesus was on top of that hidden but holy organizational chart. In the light of that apocalypse, that faith-granted revelation, all else in life is relativized.
John believed this on faith, but his faith was so strong that he also could foresee a day when knowing about Jesus would be a matter not of having the eyes of your heart opened by grace but simply a matter of opening your eyes, period. John claims there will be a day when faith will become obsolete because everyone, even those who signed Jesus’ death decree and hammered nails into his hands and feet, even they will see Jesus coming on the clouds of glory. If our Christian faith is true, then at some point it will be clearly true for everyone. If the claim that “Jesus is Lord” is anything other than a pious wish or a faith-filled fantasy, then it represents reality and reality will, ultimately, be tough for anyone to deny. They say that only the past is inevitable. The future is wide open. The future is what you make of it. The future is unknowable by virtue of its not yet existing.
John would heartily disagree. Perhaps we can allow a certain amount of randomness and chance to play a role in future events. And perhaps we can properly hedge that claim by saying that it is God himself who designed the universe to include a degree of chance such that God can also intervene at any given point to shape things according to his will. Even so, we cannot and must not, if we are to be Christian, claim that the future is not known to God. At least one thing most assuredly is known by God, and that is the coming again of the Christ. God does not claim that he is simply the one who was and who is. He climaxes his self-identity by adding that he is most certainly also “the one who is to come.”
Right now we live by faith, not by sight. Right now, however convicted we are in our hearts as to the gospel’s truth and the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot prove such things according to the rigorous standards of logic. We cannot empirically demonstrate any part of our faith in ways that would satisfy the methodology of science. Again, however, if what we believe in our hearts is right, then the day will come when the reality of Jesus will surpass the need for logic or scientific proof. The day will come when we will no more need to prove the truth of Christ than we today would need to prove that there is earth under our feet and a sky above our heads. Everyone will just see it.
But what are we supposed to do with this claim, this belief? Does this mean that we can go around wagging a bony finger in the faces of unbelievers even as we yell, “Just you wait! You’ll see! He’ll be back, and when he comes back you’ll get your comeuppance, boy oh boy, you sure will!” Does this mean we have the right to be a bit smug, quietly brushing skeptics aside because we just know that the day will come when we’ll get to see them, mouths agape, wailing at how wrong they were?
Obviously that kind of attitude cuts so directly against the grain of Christian compassion that we cannot entertain for a moment any such lip-smacking desires for our own vindication. Instead, perhaps our belief in Jesus’ return can have a different effect on two related fronts: the urgency of our witnessing and the peace with which we face the future. If we have this kind of certainty that all will one day see Jesus, then we should be interested in reducing the number of people who will regard that final apocalypse of Jesus as an apocalypse in the popular sense of that word.
When Jesus’ apocalypse at history’s end happens, we want this to be a joyful unveiling, a happy revelation for as many people as possible. So if we are certain that history really will pan out this way, then we should be less interested in seeing ourselves vindicated and more interested in helping others join Jesus’ victory. It’s not our vindication but Jesus’ victory that matters. If we can be as convinced as John was as to the reality of Jesus’ second coming, then we are not going to sit around passively and wait but we will actively tell others that primal message, “Jesus is Lord!”
The Book of Revelation is filled with strange, wonderful, and ultimately hopeful things. But if somehow, by some accident of history, we had lost this entire manuscript except for just these first eight verses, Revelation would still be worth reading. For even just this much of this book reveals to us a most wonderful apocalyptic truth: the God in Christ who was and who is remains now and ever shall be also the one who is to come.
When it comes to wondering what the future holds—and particularly whether or not it holds something dreadful and “apocalyptic” in the worst sense, a lot of people seem rather resigned, somewhat fatalistic about it all. As writer Daniel Wojcik noted in his book The End of the World As We Know It, you can detect the fatalism people carry around in their hearts just by listening to certain popular catch phrases. People will refer to this or that event in their lives (be it something good or something bad) and they’ll say things like, “It was fated that we meet this way. This was your destiny. It was meant to be. It was in the cards.” Or, when someone dies, people may characterize this by saying, “I guess his number was up. It was just his time. It was his fate.”
When facing the uncertainties of the future, many people will say that since there is nothing we can do about it anyway, the best we can do is grit our teeth, press forward, and hope for the best. And if the worst happens and some apocalypse comes, then that’s just the way it has to be. It’s all rather random anyway and so, in the meanwhile, we’ll live life while we have it and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, many people are perhaps not aware of the fatalism that colors their perceptions of the present and the future. It reminds me of the man who once declared, “I am not a fatalist! And even if I were, what could I do about it!?”
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