The Revelation of Hope in Christ
May 1, 2016
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
Throughout Eastertide, we celebrate that time from the moment of resurrection to the Day of Ascension when Christ and His resurrection appears before the disciples. This next Thursday is Ascension Day. The church will celebrate Ascension next Sunday. We are coming to the conclusion of this season of celebrating the Resurrected One, the Easter when Christ appears to the disciples before ascending.
As we have read some of the stories, we realize that the disciples are initially surprised by the resurrection. They are fearful. They don’t understand. Then they recognize this is the same Jesus of Nazareth who walked with us, who called us, who discipled us, who went to the cross, and is now standing in our midst. They realize there is also something fundamentally different. Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.” Throughout the gospels and the letters of the New Testament, the disciples begin to work out, “What does it mean that this Jesus of Nazareth has died and risen again and that He is the express image of the Father who is in heaven?” John will write in his first letter, he says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning this word of life…” (1 John 1:1-3).
They will affirm that this person they encountered after the resurrection is the same Jesus of Nazareth, and that He physically entered their midst. They can’t fully understand it and yet they confess it. He pours out His Spirit upon them and they become His witnesses. Throughout this season of Eastertide, our lessons are from the books of Acts and from the Revelation: both books give expression to this Risen Savior.
In the book of Acts, we’ve seen the disciples become witnesses. First they proclaim the Good News in Jerusalem and then they extend beyond Jerusalem to the surrounding areas, and eventually Paul travels to Rome in the final pages of the book. The very witness that they share, we continue to share today. We are gathered today because of their witness of this resurrected Savior. The book of Acts also tells another story at the exact same time. It tells the story of a people struggling to follow this risen and ascended Savior.
Stephen is stoned to death. James is executed. Eventually most of the disciples will be killed. They will be kicked out of the synagogues. We find a troubling disagreement between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians: the Jewish Christians believe the Gentile Christians should become ritual Jews first before they can enter the Kingdom.
We continue to read the book of Acts and see Paul beaten, stoned, left for dead. We see struggles within the communities, temptations beyond the communities. We see a church that is struggling to survive. We get to the exile of John in the Revelation. John is cut off from his churches, living on the island of Patmos. As he looks across his churches, he sees some suffering so intently that they might not survive another year.
He sees others so tempted by the power structures of their culture, they are reproducing those power structures within their own church. He sees all sorts of challenges and problems within the churches as the people struggle to become the resurrected communities of Christ. The coming of the Kingdom of God is messy and painful, and it often looks like it’s on the verge of failure.
In fact, even to this day, we may feel like God’s Kingdom has failed, and God’s people are failing. The church often seems to be failing and on the border of betraying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is into this story that we encounter the book of Revelation. John is carrying all this weight of the struggling Christians in his own heart. How does he respond? He is worshiping on the Lord’s Day. He has carried these burdens and struggles of his heart into worship.
We actually continue this same pattern. When we gather, we bring our brokenness with us. Our questions come with us. Our struggles, whatever they may be, which are different for each of us, we carry them with us. In fact, they become part of our worship. We come in weakness. Sometimes we feel nothing in the midst of the worship. We bring our bodies and our voices and offer them for the presence of the Lord.
Other times we may feel overwhelmed with emotions. Either way we come in weakness to worship our God. John begins to worship the Lord. As he is worshiping, he hears and he sees Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, Risen and Ascended. John says that “the hairs of His head were white like wool, like snow His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze refined in a furnace and His voice was like the roar of many waters” (Revelation 1:14-15).
The same Jesus of Nazareth has ascended and is ruling in glory. In fact, John is so overwhelmed that he falls down as though he is dead. Jesus speaks and connects Himself with the Jesus of Nazareth that was on the earth. He says, “Fear not, I am the First and the Last, the Living One. I have died and behold I am alive forevermore. I have the keys of death in Hades. Write therefore, the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:17-19).
Jesus begins to address the seven churches. He addresses seven actual churches that are going through seven distinct struggles, and yet it’s clear that He is also addressing the entire church. In fact, the whole Revelation will be built on a series of sevens. Throughout scripture we see seven as completion. Creation week is completed in seven days: God rests on the seventh day God. Again and again, seven indicates the completion of a matter. The Lord addresses His entire church in the seven churches. As the book of Revelation opens, they have seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls and all of these are pointing to completion. They’re all pointing to completion: the completion of all things in Christ.
The consummation of time and space and finally the new heavens and the new earth are taking shape, revealing a new city unblemished by sin or evil. Throughout the book of the Revelation, there will be all sorts of visions and experiences, human sin, rebellion, wickedness, evil power, judgments, destruction. Beneath all of these visions, there is a constraint restraint, like a plainchant undergirding the entire letter. This plainchant is the never-ending echo of praise to the Lord Christ Himself.
Angels and archangels, martyrs and elders, and all the community of heaven are singing continuously, continuously, continuously: every vision begins with a song of praise. This never-ending song of praise rising before the throne is not disconnected from the events of this earth. It is celebrating the Lord Christ Himself who rules the heavens and the earth and is bringing all things under His footstool, even death itself. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Throughout the Revelation, God is actively participating in His creation. As this endless song of praise continues, rebellions rise and fall, judgments fall. Eventually Satan and evil and the false powers, false prophets, false kings, false priests, false cities, and false empires all fall under judgment. Finally the in completion of all things, we see total submission to the risen Lord. In the final refrain of the Revelation, Jesus will remind us again that He is and has been addressing the seven churches, His bride, His beloved and this song of praise will end in a grand antiphon of love and faithfulness where Jesus tells His beloved, “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20) and the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Amen, come Lord Jesus’” (Revelation 1:17, 20).
The risen and ascended Jesus is speaking to His people, His church. He is speaking to communities that are in deep suffering, facing powerful temptations that weary their love and faith. He is speaking to those who are overwhelmed by spiritual and earthly powers all around them. He is speaking to a people who feel they ache of His absence. Where are you, Lord? When are You coming back? Have You forsaken us? My life is falling apart. My faith is in shambles. My heart is broken. My world is coming to an end.
If we look over the vast stretches of history, since the time of the Revelation, we discover generations, entire generations of people crying these same prayers. I love to study the ancient Celts. Yet, they faced the terrors of famine on a regular basis, the threat of enslavement on a regular basis, raiders who would come and kill and destroy and steal and finally invasions of the Norman that will bring an end to the Celtic world. Their world came to an end.
If we jump ahead to the 14th century we find several generations of people who live under the threat of black plague, famine, crusades, and the 100-year war between France and England, which is horrific. Nothing ISIS is doing is any worse than what was happening in the 100-year war between France and England. Unthinkable horrors. It was so horrible that something spread throughout Europe called the Danse Macabre where people would dress as characters from all ages of life and from all positions, from Popes to priests to emperors, kings, parents, children, and they would re-enact horrific deaths. They would march from city to city. They believed God had abandoned the world and we were left to die.
Jump ahead to the middle of the Reformation. We have the 30-years war. Roman Catholic Christians, Reformed Christians and Anabaptist Christians are all killing each other. Each group has its own book of martyrs that they celebrate to this day, talking about how the others killed them. Generation after generation has experienced the horseman of pestilence, war, famine, death.
The French Revolution, the Civil War, the Great War, World War II, Vietnam, all left scars on individuals and entire nations where people felt like God had abandoned them. Given over to terrors within and terrors without. To this day God’s people suffer unthinkable horrors. Earthquakes, wars, refugees, terrorism, child and domestic abuse, sickness, pain, every single day people cry out, “Where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”
It is in the Revelation that John hears the echo from Christ Himself to the church, “You are not abandoned. You are not forsaken. Though you are weak and failing, I am present and I am coming.” Our risen and ascended Savior addresses us with words of encouragement, challenge, sometimes rebuke and conviction. As our High Priest, He is ever interceding for His people. In our time and space, we still feel the pain of sin and death, yet the Revelation reminds us that this time will come to completion and there will be a time and space where sin and death are completely under His feet.
The Revelation calls us to behold Him, to worship Him, to kneel before Him, to praise Him. His Spirit is strengthening His people. He is forming His people. In fact, John will say in one of his letters, “He is shaping us with His love in such a deep way that we are literally becoming like Him in this world” (1 John 4:17-18). We are becoming the image of Him in this world. We get an image of that today in the reading from Revelation.
He says, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
In just that one paragraph, we see the fulfilling of Eden, the fulfilling of the prophecies of Isaiah’s Conquering King, the fulfilling of Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple, and the fulfilling of Zechariah’s vision of the nations streaming to the holy mountain. We don’t have time to fully discuss it, but this one vision, offers a glimpse of the consummation of all things. We see this holy city. It’s bringing healing to the nations: the fruit of healing flows from Christ, by His Spirit to His people. As we read that, we might be tempted to say that that is in fact the church, but we know the church is not fully healed.
We know that we aren’t always living in the full light of that glory. That is a distinct moment that comes at the completion of all things, and yet the church is the image, the foreshadowing of that holy city so that when the world looks at the church, we see a glimpse, a reflection of a city from far off. Even now this fruit of healing from the leaves of the trees, even now it’s flowing in and through the church by the Spirit of Christ, bringing healing for the nations, bringing healing to a broken world, pointing forward to a day of completion, foreshadowing the day when all things will be submitted to Christ.
That’s why throughout the New Testament, the most quoted passage from the Old Testament is in Psalm 110:1, “The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The church is constantly remembering that all things, all evil, all powers, all death, will be completely submitted under his footstool. We live as an image, a foreshadowing, a picture of this redeeming and restoring love. We are becoming witnesses. We are saying the “No” and the “Yes.” We say “No” to systems of power that oppress and dehumanize.
In the middle of World War II when Hitler co-opted the German church, a group of Christians gathered together as the Confessing Churches and said, “No, you are not a would-be Messiah. You are a false Messiah.” Some of them died for saying “No.” They did what this church does. It says “No” to sin and death, to systems of human power that would dehumanize and lead all humanity further into death and destruction.
This same church also says “Yes.” It says “Yes” to the broken, to the forsaken, to the abandoned. It says the blessing of Jesus Christ. We bring the blessing of Christ through our communities. We speak the word of healing in our homes, in our families, in the marketplace … we reveal just an echo, a glimmer, a picture of this Savior who rules and reigns and is leading all of us into His glory.
Today as we gather and we worship, we join Angels and Archangels and martyrs and all the company of heaven, and we sing His praises. The song of heaven and the song of earth is united in our gathering and we rejoice. Though we struggle, though we feel weak, He has not forsaken us. He is pouring out His love on us. We are responding to that love and His love is flowing through us with healing for the nations.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Image above – The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb by Jan Van Eyck.