Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 21, 2021
Revelation 1:4b-8 Commentary
There may be little new to say about a passage to which the Lectionary returns twice every three years and about which my colleagues have already so ably commented. Their fine commentaries in the CEP’s library of commentaries provide more familiar approaches to a proclamation of Revelation 1:4b-8.
But proclaimers who are looking for another approach to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might consider its mysterious verse 7b: “All the peoples of the earth will mourn because of [Christ’s coming with the clouds].” John’s assertion there may, in fact, open new avenues into Christians’ considerations of Christ’s return, Christ the King Sunday, and the end of the liturgical church year.
Revelation 1’s proclaimers might begin by asking ourselves and our hearers just why Christ’s return will grieve all the peoples of the earth. While I’m sure at least some scholars have tried to explain this, those I read who dare tackle it largely shrink “all the peoples of the earth” to all of the “unbelieving” people of the earth. Yet the Greek word pas (“all”) doesn’t seem to allow for such a “qualifier.”
Most Christians can understand why Christ’s coming with the clouds will grieve, literally cause to “wail” those who have rejected his salvation and kingship. Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters may find it harder to understand why that “coming with the clouds” will grieve those who have received God’s grace with both faith and submission to Christ’s sovereign rule.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed Christian profess that the prospect of Christ’s return means that in all our “distress and persecution, with uplifted head” Christians can “confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgement of God in” our “place and has removed the whole curse from” us. God’s dearly beloved people “face that day,” the “Contemporary Confession: Our World Belongs to God” asserts, “without fear, for the Judge is our Savior, whose shed blood declares us righteous.” This ancient confession and contemporary testimony don’t even hint at any grief that Christ’s return will cause Jesus’ followers.
Christians do, on the other hand, see Revelation 1:7 as pointing to the grief that Christ’s return will cause those who have rejected him as Savior and King. He will, after all, as “Our World Belongs to God” asserts, “judge evil and condemn the wicked.” The Christ who will come with the clouds will, the Heidelberg Catechism asserts, “cast all his enemies and” ours “into everlasting condemnation.”
Yet how will both those who, by God’s grace, face that day without fear and those who probably ought to face it with at least some fear “mourn” because of the coming King Jesus? Those who face Christ’s return without fear may mourn about it because they’ll then fully realize the danger faced by the people they love who don’t yet love the Lord.
Those who face Christ’s return without fear may also mourn about it because we’ll then realize how much we’ve missed out on by not fully submitting to the returning Christ the King’s lordship. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers can probably add other reasons why Jesus’ adopted siblings might mourn because of his return.
Revelation 1:7’s proclaimers may find it easier to anticipate why those who have legitimate reason to fear Christ’s return will mourn when he comes. They may mourn their unwillingness to view him as anything more than an exemplary historical figure or figment of someone’s imagination. They may also mourn when they realize how much they missed out on by not submitting every part of their lives to the returning Christ’s kingship.
John’s somewhat mysterious assertion that “all the peoples of the earth will mourn” because of the returning Christ the King comes near the end of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. That Lesson, however, comes near the beginning of arguably the most mysterious of all the Bible’s books. So Christians might call Revelation 1:7 a kind of “enigma wrapped within an enigma.”
Yet God’s beloved children should consider this mysterious book as among the most important in all of the Scriptures. Right away in its first verse, after all, its author announces why he wrote it: to show God’s “servants what must take place.” The book of Revelation isn’t, first of all, a literary jigsaw puzzle that Christians must somehow assemble. It’s a pastoral word from one of the apostles to his fellow Christians.
The book of Revelation is, further, as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, not a prediction of what the future holds in precise detail so much as it is a profession of just who holds that future. It was certainly a vital profession for Christians who lived in an empire that both asserted that its Lord Caesar held that future and looked down on those who professed that another King holds it. Yet it’s no less important a confession for Jesus’ 21st century followers who are constantly subjected to others’ claims of some kind of sovereignty and superiority.
King Jesus holds the future not a in bloody fist with an iron grip, but with the “grace and peace” about which John speaks in the middle of verse 4. Just as importantly, Christ the King also holds in his nail-scarred hands those who join John in the “suffering” that is Christians’ for Jesus’ sake (9).
That firm but gracious grip is a comforting place to be, not just for “the seven churches in the province of Asia” (4a) and those who proclaim and hear Revelation 1, but also perhaps especially for those who are suffering for Jesus’ sake in the 21st century. It offers grace and peace to beleaguered Christians in parts of south and east Asia, the Middle East, and other places with which many Christians are less familiar. So even as Jesus’ adopted siblings profess that our Elder Brother is King, we also pray that our siblings in Christ will experience the grace of King Jesus’ unconditional love and peace that comes from knowing that God will someday make all things completely new and right.
John’s letter of grace and peace is full of imagery that “reveals” (1). But its unveiling imagery was probably clearer to its original readers than citizens of the 21st century. In that way, its imagery looks to us a little like rotary phones look to people born after the year 2000.
Verse 4c, in fact, offers some of Revelation’s mysterious imagery. There, after all, John greets the churches on behalf of “the seven spirits before” God’s throne. Even the NIV’s text note that suggests it may also mean “the sevenfold Spirit” doesn’t do much to make the reference clear to modern Christians. So we assume it was more familiar and, thus, clearer to its first readers than us.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson relentlessly zeroes in on the more familiar image of Christ as King. It’s a vital focus because, as N.T. Wright writes, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship. John would agree with the second of these, but would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside.”
Who, then, is this Jesus whose “coming with the clouds,” we’ve already noted, will cause “all the peoples of the earth [to] mourn because of him”? John twice insists he is “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (4b, 8). The Spirit has inspired him to see that Jesus is not, like those who read this Starter, limited to the first century or to the early 21st century. King Jesus somehow stretches out over and beyond measured time.
However, John also boldly insists that Christ is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (5). To Caesar and his minions “them” was “fightin’ words.” They assumed, after all, that Caesar was the ruler of his world’s other kings. Rome’s emperor, in fact, claimed to be a son of god. It’s no wonder that he exiled John, as well as his preaching and teaching about King Jesus, to the end of their earth.
In this season of the year Christ the King’s subjects celebrate how he first “came” (7) not “with the clouds,” but into a virgin’s womb and some Bethlehem guest quarters. At that time not every eye, but only a relative handful of his contemporaries saw King Jesus. Some of those who saw him didn’t enthrone Jesus as King, but “pierced” (7) him.
Jesus’ return will change all that. “All the peoples of the earth” will mourn this King’s “coming with the clouds.” A question is, “What sort of grief will it be?” Will it be the kind of grief that simply comes from knowing that we missed opportunities to serve Christ the King with our whole being? Or will it be the kind of wailing that escapes the lips of people who realize they’ve endangered themselves by not giving any part of themselves, including their faith and obedience, to him? God’s dearly beloved people pray and work so that people’s grief at King Jesus’ return may be the first, not the second of those possibilities.
This personal but very homespun example of grief might help Revelation 1’s proclaimers identify their own example of various kinds of grief. My 88 year-old father died on Easter afternoon after a very short illness. He died nearly 650 miles from where I live and was at the time.
My dad’s death grieved me deeply. Yet it wasn’t the grief for a relationship that either of us had severed or never had. Though neither of us talked about it much, dad and I knew that we loved each other.
My grief for my dad involves missed opportunities. While he was vaccinated not long before he died, COVID had prevented us from being together for more than a few hours over the past 18 months. There are so many things I now wish I’d said to my dad and wish that I could have done with him before he died.
I also grieve in part because I didn’t get to say good-bye to him. The aggressive infection that killed him quickly rendered him largely unaware. While I prayed with my dying dad over the phone, I can’t know if he heard me because he didn’t respond. I continue to mourn because of that.
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