Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2022
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 Commentary
Relatively few avid readers that I know enjoy surprise endings, especially to books they’ve come to savor. After all, life seems to end all too often in tragedy. Perhaps partly as a result, most readers prefer our literature to end at least hopefully, if not happily.
Sometimes, however, books end not surprisingly or hopefully, but mysteriously. Val McDermid’s 1979 basically ends with the Scottish journalist Allie Burns’ investigation of a beloved colleague’s murder. The book’s final pages are, in fact, a reproduction of her newspaper’s account of the arrest and conviction of her friend’s murderer.
But some of 1979’s reader may wonder if the courts convicted the right person of the murder. After all, the person whom readers may suspect of the murder is powerful and slippery. It’s enough to make readers at least wonder who really killed Sullivan. Did the work of fiction that is 1979, in other words, “end” properly?
It may be easy for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers to forget that it contains the Canon’s ending. What a proper ending it is! While it may be a kind of surprise ending, it’s the happiest and most hopeful ending that ever was or will be: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” Revelation 22’s proclaimers who are looking for a slightly new “angle” to it might consider what it means that grace gets its last word.
The Bible’s account of God’s love for God’s world moves from its creation from nothing by the power of God’s Word, through humanity’s rebellion against that Word and the saving life and death of the Word that was Jesus Christ, to the glorious new creation. But it all ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation moves from a description of God’s call to John and the Asian churches, through an account of Christ’s unveiling of God’s good purposes for God’s creation and a description of the horrific power that the powers and principalities exert over it, to those powers and principalities’ doom. But it ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, if its proclaimers wisely include the verses the RCL chooses to omit, moves from a promise of Christ’s return, through offers of God’s nourishing grace to warnings to people who would tamper with their neighbors or the book of Revelation. But it ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I think that the RCL was unwise to omit the strange ugliness of the mysterious verses 15, 18, and 19. They, after all, not only stand in stark contrast to but also heighten the beauty of the Scriptures and Revelation’s ending: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with God’s people. Amen.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains words of both promise and warning, sometimes in nearly the same breath. Yet the Scriptures, John’s revelation, and this Lesson all end with a prayer for God’s grace to rest on all God’s people. So Chapter 22’s proclaimers might ask ourselves and our hearers why both those promises and warnings end with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ’s promise, “I am coming soon” that basically bookends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson (12, 20) is, in fact, both a promise and a warning. As Bill Sytsma noted in an earlier commentary on this passage, it comforts Christ Jesus’ friends who endure great suffering. “I am coming soon” means that all suffering for Jesus’ sake will soon end when he returns.
When, however, Christ returns, his enemies will suffer judgment. The imminence of that return means that those enemies don’t have long to repent so that their judgment may turn to their salvation. God’s enemies who don’t soon confess their sins and turn toward God’s good purposes will be in danger of being barred from the new Jerusalem. Yet even the promise and warning of Jesus’ imminent return ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 14’s “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gate of the city” is full of promise. It graciously offers complete access to the tree of life from which God banned our first parents and their descendants.
Verse 15, by contrast, bristles with an implied warning. “Outside [the new Jerusalem] are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Whatever else that highly mysterious verse means, it reveals how the new creation that will have no room for mourning or pain will also have no room for the sin that sometimes causes them. But both that warning and the promise that immediately precedes it end with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 17-19 similarly pair a promise with a warning. According to verse 17 “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” It’s a promise of both the coming Lord Jesus Christ and the free gift of the water of life for all who thirst for that coming.
Yet verses 18 and 19 have a far sharper edge. They offer warnings to anyone who would tamper with the book of Revelation (rather than with the whole Bible that some mistakenly take those particular warnings to mean). In them John warns that people who somehow try to add to it or subtract from it are in danger of being barred from the glory of the new earth and heaven. Yet both the promise and warnings end with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So why might the Spirit end the canon, and John end the book of Revelation as well as chapter 22’s promises and warning, with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? Both this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and our hearers will benefit from a careful, prayerful, and Scriptural contemplation of that question.
In doing so, we might “land” in a couple of places. In an earlier commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee suggests that ‘What that benediction imparts when it talks about the “grace” of Jesus is really the very Holy Spirit of God in Christ. It is the very Spirit of God who wings afresh into our hearts in every benediction. By that Spirit we are sealed with the personal presence of Jesus, nurtured in the production of every spiritual fruit, and so given the power of holiness and righteousness.’
However, by giving God’s grace Revelation and the Scriptures’ last word, John may also be reminding his readers of this: no one is saved by claiming the promises the Scriptures, including Revelation, offer. No one is saved by refraining from those activities against which both warn. We are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alone.
The Scriptures, including Revelation, make it clear that those who receive that grace with our faith have a place near the tree of life in the new Jerusalem. God has reserved a place in its “shade” for God’s dearly beloved people.
But God’s grace also means that there’s still time for all living people to prepare to welcome the returning Christ by giving our hearts and lives to him. What’s more, since the grace of the Lord Jesus gets the Scriptures and Revelation’s last word, Christ Jesus’ friends can even hope that grace will somehow yet get the last word for those we assume are beyond its reach.
Julian of Norwich was one of the first Christian mystics. She told of how she had asked God why God had allowed sin to enter the world. Had sin not invaded the world, after all, she had reasoned, all would have been well.
Julian reported that when she was desperately ill in 1373, God responded to her by revealing to her fifteen things. Julian said that in her thirteenth revelation, Jesus appeared to her and told her, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
For centuries at least some Christians have heard in Jesus’ promise to Julian an offer of great hope in times of suffering. We might even argue that Revelation’s John is speaking of the new earth and heaven as that place where “all manner of things shall be well.”
However, in Louise Penny’s book, The Madness of Crowds, an American professor of statistics interprets Julian’s saying far more darkly. When Professor Abigail Robinson proclaims all will be well, she doesn’t mean that everything or everyone will be well. What she implies is that in order for all to be well, those who are unwell must be neglected, no matter to what that neglect may lead.
For The Madness of Crowds’ main character, Inspector Armand Gamache, however, that’s a deeply disturbing and personal prospect. He and his wife, after all, have a granddaughter who has an intellectual disability. Some of Professor Robinson’s followers have deduced that people like Colette who have disabilities should be allowed to die, so that all may be well.
How much more beautiful, then, is John’s promise that all will be well not because of human neglect, but because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ?
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