Sunday, May 3rd, 2015 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: John 15:1-8, Revelation 1:4-8
Hymns: “How Firm a Foundation”, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”, “Your Love, O Lord”, “I Need Thee Every Hour”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “I Know a Fount”, “Everlasting God”
Special Music: “Revelation”, by Third Day
Give Me Revelation
You know, there are some mysteries in literature that confuse many people. They’ve certainly confused me along the way, throughout the many books that I’ve read in my life. For example, the green light in The Great Gatsby. I know that it’s supposed to represent Jay Gatsby’s hopes and dreams, or at least, that’s what English professors seem to want you to believe. The extent to which they go on and on about it is practically mind-numbing. At the end of the day, though, my response to the green light was this: WHO CARES?
And then, there’s Ayn Rand’s massive tome, Atlas Shrugged. “Who is John Galt?” you get asked over and over again. “Who is John Galt?” I think I got halfway through that book before I said, “WHO CARES,” chucked it across the room, and picked out a different book for the paper I was writing. Of course, I ended up going with Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which while equally dense and mind-numbing, at least made some degree of sense.
Let’s not forget about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Now, that’s not a book that I said, “WHO CARES” about, because it was actually quite an engrossing read. However, it’s one that people seem to get wrong ALL THE TIME. People insist that it’s about censorship, about Bradbury speaking out against a dystopian future where the American people aren’t allowed to have books because they make them think critically and have opinions. And yet, in Bradbury’s OWN WORDS, it was a rant against television media, because he was of the opinion that television would eventually destroy the minds of American youth and make them not ever care about books again. But no matter the words of the author, people are so thoroughly confused by the book that they stubbornly maintain their opinions.
And then there’s George Orwell. Let’s not even go there.
Of course, one of the most confusing points of literature is how on earth the Twilight novels (and subsequently, the 50 Shades of Grey novels) ever got greenlit by any publishing house. I mean, seriously.
But more confusing to just about everybody than any of the books I’ve just named is the eleven thousand word novella that brings an end to the volume we call the Bible. It has baffled theologians and Biblical scholars since the time the canon was set forth. Martin Luther believed that Christians were so thoroughly distracted from their faith by this book that it should be removed from the canon so that they could concentrate on the Gospel. It has been interpreted by priests and scholars, laymen and non-believers, as anything from a wide, sweeping prophecy of the end times to the fevered dreaming of a man slowly going insane in exile on a desert island.
So given the amount of confusion that exists over this little book, the fact that I have decided to spend the entire month of May preaching to you on the Apocalypse of John, also known as Revelation, means that I may well have lost what few marbles I had remaining.
But that’s okay, because in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, “We’re all mad here.”
There’s many things to be learned from the book of Revelation, but over the five sermons this month, we’re just going to barely scratch the surface. There is, however, one thing that I want you all to know to start off, and that’s the way that Revelation is written.
The author of Revelation, John of Patmos, starts off by telling you exactly what you’re reading. “The revelation of Jesus Christ,” John says, “which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” John says that an angel was sent to him to tell him the story. That angel is never named; however, given the fact that whenever an angel appears to announce something, it’s almost always Gabriel, we can probably guess that he had something to do with it.
Of course, that’s not actually in any way relevant to the rest of the book, but you would be AMAZED at how much time people spend debating that one little facet of Revelation.
John then goes on to introduce the content of the book, before getting into the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Next week, we’ll be talking about the letters to two of those churches, Ephesus and Smyrna. Each of the seven letters is structured in a similar fashion to Paul’s epistles, although in much, much shorter form.
After that, John gets into the meat and potatoes of Revelation. The prophecies, if you will, that have been the basis for movies, books, sermons, and a whole bunch of nutjobs over the course of the centuries since Jesus walked this earth. Time and time again, modern day preachers have declared that they have received, shall we say, a revelation that tells them that the end is nigh, and that the horrors of the book of Revelation are about to come true!
You know, even though Jesus said that not even He knew the time and place when He would return, that that knowledge was reserved for the Father alone. And make no mistake, we Disciples of Christ had one very special Revelation-inspired nutjob of our own – but the story of Jim Jones is a story for another day.
Here’s the thing you have to understand about the prophetic part of Revelation – the way it was written is not in the same form as the prophecies you find in the Old Testament. No, if you were to read Revelation in the oldest Greek versions available to us, you would find that the structure of it is identical to that of a liturgical worship service of the early church. John sent this book of Revelation to the seven churches in Asia Minor to be read in worship.
Now, if I was to get a letter in the mail that contained something like Revelation telling me that I needed to utilize it as a liturgy for worship, I might look askance at it. But worship in the first and second centuries AD was very different than it is now. Liturgy and music were not then as they are now. It was a different time, and so to use an epic telling of the power of God was actually not that out of the ordinary.
But before the leaders of the churches got into the prophetic part of Revelation, they would read the introduction to their congregations, and that’s the part that I’d like to really focus on right now. At the beginning of Revelation 1:4, John says this: “Grace to you and peace from Him who was, and is, and is to come.”
He who was and is and is to come.
Seems like the perfect text to read during the season between Easter and Pentecost. Christ was crucified. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
They’re words that we’ve no doubt all said before at one time or another. I know that I said them time and time again during the years that I was involved with the Lutheran church, both in college and then in California. And we believe them to be true. We believe that Jesus Christ was crucified. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And we believe that Jesus will, someday, come again.
Of course, John then threw a big ol’ monkey wrench into the works by saying that Jesus was coming back with the clouds, meaning that for the last two thousand years, every time there’s been a cloudy day, somebody or other has been convinced that Christ was going to return. And given that before his ascension, Jesus told his apostles that some of them would not die before his return, it’s understandable why they thought that.
So let’s look at that. In fact, just for a moment, I want us to imagine that Jesus has already returned.
Now, you may be asking yourselves, why would we imagine that? I’ll tell you why. A few weeks ago, on Easter, I talked about how when Jesus, the Son, went to the cross, it meant that since he was of one and the same being with the Father, that meant that God personally went to the cross to demonstrate divine love for all of God’s children and the subsequent power over death. But those are only two aspects of what we often refer to as the Trinity, the third being the Holy Spirit. You know the words to the doxology – praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. They’re all one God, in different representations.
So what I want you to think about next is Pentecost. Three weeks away, that’s the day that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon the disciples in the form of tongues of flame. God was among the people.
“There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
What did Jesus teach us to pray? “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What was the Holy Spirit? A representation being of one God with the Father and the Son.
What happened on Pentecost? The power of God came upon the disciples to go forth and bring the kingdom of God to all people on earth.
Y’all, I’m not the brightest scholar in the world, nor am I the preeminent expert on eschatological matters, but that all seems to me like the kingdom of God came upon this earth just a couple days after Jesus ascended into heaven. God’s kingdom is already here. We’re living in it.
And it makes sense. This world is not our own. This world was created by God for the people of God. It was not created by us.
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
We may yet see the person of Jesus return to earth some day. But I really think that what John was trying to get at with this book of Revelation was that the kingdom of God has already come on this earth, on the day of Pentecost. It’s entirely possible that this wasn’t a prophecy so much as it was an instruction manual, John’s way of telling the seven churches (and the greater church beyond them) that they needed to straighten up and fly right and live into the proper way of being in God’s kingdom!
Of course, as I always tell the Chi-Rho kids when I try to answer their tough theological questions, I could be wrong. I don’t have all the answers. I just have to go based on faith and based on what I know. And what I know is that we have a call to live in the kingdom of God on earth, not just sit here waiting for the kingdom to come.
We are loved and were freed from our sins by the death and resurrection, John tells us, so that we could BE THE KINGDOM. He calls us to be a priesthood of all believers – which is especially ironic, given that that was one of Luther’s big points of faith, and he wanted to do away with Revelation entirely.
But we have responsibilities as part of that priesthood of all believers. If we look at the Gospel lesson from today, we see that we are all part of the vine that is grown by God through Jesus Christ. Each branch, though, must bear fruit. We are each called to be priests in the order not of Levi, not of Melchizedek, but Jesus Christ, who was, and who is, and who is to come.
Now mark my words, I cannot promise you that living into the idea of the kingdom being present on Earth is going to make Revelation any easier. I cannot promise you that the idea of being called to be a priest in the order of the one who was, and who is, and who is to come is going to make Revelation any easier. My hope, though, is that looking at Revelation through that lens will help each of you understand it at least a little better.
And next week, you’re going to see why. Next week, you’re going to see about how we are called to be the witness and the comfort to the believers who endure the crushing weight and weariness of the world. Next week, you’re going to see that sometimes we’re called to go to those who have endured everything that the world has thrown at them and say, “I am not God, I can’t make everything right again, but God has sent me to try to fix you.”
Until then, I hope that each of you will pray for understanding and ask for clarity. Open yourselves to the teachings of the Holy Spirit, and live into the idea that we are priests in the kingdom of God already on earth. Be the branches of the vine of Christ, and when it all gets to be a little too much, empty your minds, turn to our Lord, and say, “Give me revelation.”