Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 11, 2010

2010.04.11 “Grace To You and Peace” – Revelation 1: 4 – 8

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

 “Grace To You and Peace”

Revelation 1: 4 – 8

Pastor David L. Haley

April 11th, 2010

 

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come,

and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,

and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness,

the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,

and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father,

to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;

every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;

and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God,

who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

-Revelation 1: 4 – 8

      How do we celebrate Easter on the 2nd Sunday of Easter?  The Easter eggs are eaten, the crowd of worshipers has gone, the alleluia’s have faded, and unfortunately, most of us returned from our glorious Easter service to the same old life – with its difficulties – that we knew before Easter.  So what’s changed? 

      The question becomes: In the midst of the difficulties we face, how do we affirm the reality of the Risen Christ?

      The answer on this second Sunday of Easter:  time travel!

      Let’s go back 1,910 years, to the end of the first Christian century, around the year 100 A.D., give or take a few years. 

        As a Christian, you’ve gathered to worship not in a comfortable and elaborately decorated sanctuary, but in a house church, somewhere in Asian Minor, roughly where Turkey is today.

      It’s been some 66 years since the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, about the same amount of time it’s been for us since WWII.  When those events happened, some of you were not born; even for the oldest the events are but a memory. Even sadder, most who were alive at that time have died, some even killed for being a Christian.

      So, as you meet to worship, you are confused and a little frightened. 

      You are confused, because it’s hard to know who Christians are anymore. Yes, the worshipers of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, initially, mostly Jewish. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Apostle Paul and others, Christians also include those who were never Jewish, but formerly pagan. Of those, few are well to do, because Christianity has spread primarily among the lower classes; there are even a few former slaves present.  Nobody has much prestige or money.  (Kinda like now?)

      Over the last 25 years, life has gotten more complicated.  Thanks to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland in the Roman War of 70, many Jews and Jewish Christians have migrated – some even to here, and there is tension between Jews and Christians, even between Christian and Christian. 

      Previously, the association with Judaism provided “cover” with the Roman empire, but that’s changed, and now Christians have become a misunderstood and persecuted minority.  Not by the Roman Empire, but by some provincial officials and locals who don’t understand Christianity. Jesus, after all, had been crucified as a rebel and enemy of the public welfare. Additionally, there are rumors of orgies (“love feasts”), cannibalism (“eating flesh and drinking blood”), and even charges of atheism, because Christians don’t believe in the Roman gods.

      As a Christian, as long as you’re “under the radar”, you’re OK, but should you get questioned for engaging in illegal cultic practices, it could prove tricky, even deadly. 

      You see, it’s like this. If questioned, you might be told you must prove your loyalty to Rome by offering wine and incense before images of the Roman gods, including Caesar, himself a god. All you have to say is two words: “Kurios Kaisaros” (Caesar is Lord”). The problem is, that’s the exact counterpart to the Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord.”  What do you do?

      Renounce your faith in Jesus, in order to save your life and the lives of your family? Understandably, some do. In this 1st century congregation, there may be such people sitting with you today.

      Do you close your eyes and cross your fingers and say it under duress, hoping Jesus and others will forgive you, given the extreme ethical conflict?  Again, some – including perhaps some sitting with you – have done so.

      Or you do stick to your faith, refusing to bow to Caesar, acknowledging only Jesus? At the very least, as a Christian in a pagan society, you’re likely to face social and economic discrimination, tension and harassment, perhaps even mob violence and the plundering of property.  At worst, you will be sentenced to death, to die as a martyr. That word in Greek, “martyr,” literally means “witness.”  Which tells you, that in that time and place, to witness to your faith, often meant to die for it.

      So as you sit there on that Sunday morning, given such circumstances, exactly what does it mean to call Jesus the Christ, Lord, the One Who Reigns?

      On this day in the congregation, there is a new text to be read in worship. It is a letter written by a banished Jewish Christian prophet named John, himself in prison for his faith, in exile on the Isle of Patmos. The letter is not intended to be read privately (not many can read anyway), but aloud, in worship. Some scholars think it may even have been read responsively, just as we did in the Call to Worship today.

      When it read, what you hear is this:

 “THIS BOOK IS THE REVELATION WHICH GOD ENTRUSTED TO JESUS CHRIST, SO THAT HE COULD ENABLE HIS SLAVES TO SEE WHAT MUST HAPPEN SOON.  JESUS CHRIST SENT THIS REVELATION THROUGH HIS ANGEL TO HIS SLAVE JOHN WHO, TELLING WHAT HE SAW, CONFIRMED GOD’S SAVING PURPOSE AS IT HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY JESUS CHRIST.

God bless the Reader.  God bless all who hear this prophecy and who obey it, for the season is at hand!

To the seven Asian congregations John sends grace and peace

from the God who now rules,

who has always ruled,

and is coming to rule,

from the seven spirits before his throne

from Jesus the Messiah,

who loyally confirmed God’s work,

who became the first of the dead to be reborn,

and who is now the ruler of earth’s kings.

To him be glory and power forever,

for he loves us,

he has freed us from Sin’s bondage by his death,

he has formed us into a kingdom,

to serve God, his Father, as priests. Amen.

There!  He is coming with the clouds.

Everyone will see him,

even those who pierced him.

All earth’s tribes will mourn over him,

I vouch for this!”  “Amen.”

This is what God the Lord says:

“I am the All-Powerful, am the A and the Z.

I now rule, I have always ruled, I am coming to rule.” 

(Translation, Paul Minear, I Saw A New Earth)

        WOW!  And that’s only the salutation!

        Welcome to the book of Revelation.

        With this, we begin a series of six sermons from perhaps the most controversial book in the Bible, the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John.

        The Book of Revelation has both comforted and confounded Christians for nineteen centuries, raising questions in all who read it.  Is it written in code? What does it mean? To what do its symbols refer? Is it a message about their times, or our times? Does it describe the End of the World?

For sure, the book of Revelation is not the place to begin your study of the Bible, though out of curiosity, that’s exactly what many do. For this reason, as early as 210 A.D., Gaius of Rome forbade the public reading of this book, because of its ability to create turmoil. In our own time, William Barclay once called it the “playground of religious eccentrics.”

      Even today, sensational interpretations of Revelation achieve best-seller status, as the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Chained to his rock there on Patmos, not even John the Revelator would ever have believed anyone would ever get rich by his vision.  And yet they do.

In other ways, it’s not surprising. After all, Revelation was written to people who felt like their world was falling apart. So throughout the centuries – whenever people have found themselves living in unsettling times – they have found themselves understood and upheld by John the Revelator, whose calls for faith and faithfulness strike responsive chords in distressed saints.

Here’s my premises:  The last book of the Bible is a pastoral letter from a Christian prophet, written in apocalyptic language and imagery, to Christians in Asia in the late 1st century who were confronted with a critical situation.

While much remains unclear, the purpose of the book is very clear:  It was written primarily to encourage and inspire particular Christians under Roman persecution to endure and remain faithful during their time of tribulation. It addressed both the internal battles waged within Christian believers between personal faithfulness and the abandonment of faith, and the external battles posed by living as a Christian in a culture out of control, threatened by unenlightened leaders and pagan values.  (Does that sound familiar at all?)

Although in many ways the times of the book of Revelation were unlike our own, there are other ways in that time is much like our own.  John lived in a pre-Christian society, before there were a common Christian culture and values.  The Christians to whom he wrote were minorities, in a pluralistic world, without legality, respectability, impressive numbers, or institutions. To live as a Christian in such a society often meant being a lonely witness to the way of Jesus, living in a counter-cultural way.

Now, we live in a post-Christian world, in the residue of Christendom, in which the church is again a minority in a pluralistic world.  Once again, to live as a Christian means to live as a witness to the way of Jesus, living in a counter-cultural way. No wonder John’s call to faithfulness resounds powerfully to contemporary generations.  Nowhere in the book of Revelation does it say it will be easy, despite the escapist theology many claim to find there.

At the risk of over-simplifying a complex book, let me put it like this.  In a sermon preached about ten years ago on Day 1, The Rev. Eugenia A. Gamble told the story of man and woman who were traveling home to Denver from a conference along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins.

As they rounded a curve in the road they came upon a serious motorcycle accident. The driver, without a helmet, was thrown quite a distance, and the bike landed not far away.

The man and woman were the first to arrive on the scene. The man, who was driving, pulled off the road. Before he shut off the ignition the woman was out of the car and at the side of the accident victim. She crouched next to the unconscious young man, stroking his hair and talking to him.

When the ambulance arrived and the young man was whisked away, the man and the woman got back into their car in silence. After a moment, the man said, “I saw you talking to that young man. He was obviously unconscious. He may even have been dead. What could you possibly have been saying to him?”

“I just told him over and over,” she replied, “I just told him, the worst is over. The healing has begun.” (Day 1, “Saltwater Apocalypse,” The Rev. Eugenia A. Gamble, November 16, 1997)

For those to whom John wrote, whose lives were marked by weakness and denial, terror and fear; who were haunted by the past, anxious over the present, and fearful of the future; to them or to us, God through the words of John the Revelator offers a vision of hope.  “The worst is over. The healing has begun.”

      And that’s how, on this second Sunday of Easter, even in the midst of the difficulties we face, we affirm the reality of the Risen Christ.  Amen.

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