Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 16, 2010

5010.05.16 “The Last Word: Grace!” Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21

Central United Methodist Church

“The Last Word: Grace!”

Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21

Pastor David L. Haley

May 16th, 2010

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.  Amen.”  (Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21, New Revised Standard Version)

     Today we do something we’ve not done before, at least not together, which is see how the Bible ends.       

      My guess is that most of us, if we walk into a bookstore looking for something to read, will look at the jacket of a book, see who the endorsements are, read the first few lines, and then, maybe the last few, to see how it ends.  On the basis of this we may decide whether or not to read the book.

      Quite often, we may even judge a book by how it ends.  How many times have we read a book only to say, “I liked the book, but I don’t like how it ended,” meaning that finally, we didn’t like the book.

      In contrast to books written by a single author, the Bible is a mini-library of 66 books, written mainly in Hebrew and Greek by about 40+ authors across more than a thousand years. It’s long, has many plot twists, and is rooted in ancient cultural settings foreign to us today. We may know how it begins, there in Genesis, “In the beginning,” (not the Big Inning, as some of you Cubs and Sox fans believe).  But how does it end?  Today we find out.

      As we have seen over the last several weeks, the Bible ends with the rather extraordinary book of Revelation, a pastoral letter written by a Christian prophet named John, to the churches of Asia Minor around the end of the first Christian century. 

      It is written in a style of religious literature known as apocalyptic, a form of religious code, to assure those Christians – and all Christians since – who find themselves in difficult circumstances, that despite what things may seem, God and the Lamb Jesus do reign, and God’s eventual triumph over evil is assured.

      John wrote while himself in exile for his faith on the Greek Island of Patmos. I doubt that sitting there in that cave on Patmos, dictating to his scribe, John could have known that his work would conclude what we know as the Bible, but chronologically, it’s is one of the last books written, so those who affirmed the canon of the New Testament closed it with John’s Letter. If John had known that, I wonder if he would have ended it differently?

      Towards the end of Revelation, John’s final vision of a new heaven and earth ends in chapter 22 with the strains of the Hallelujah chorus (verse 5: “and they (the servants of God) shall reign for ever and ever!”) Then Revelation ends as it began, a letter from an exiled prophet to be read in the worship service of Asian churches. The splendor of the vision is gone, and they are back in the world, meeting together in their little congregations, much as we do ours. 

To some, the conclusion of Revelation seems choppy, a barely-held-together conglomeration of leftover pieces, stumbling toward the close.  Others say that John is in fact bringing the book to a careful, deliberate, and theologically precise end, with these final verses filled with echoes of the whole story John has told: Alpha & Omega, the washed robes, the tree of life, the gates of the city, the interpreting angel, the root of David and the morning star, the bride, the water of life. The overwhelming promises of God’s salvation made throughout the book are reaffirmed here at the end with this cascade of images.

Other verses are spotty, such that even our lectionary reading omits them. There is, for example, John’s exclusion of the outsiders: “the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Also excluded from our reading is the standard ancient writer’s warning – in lieu of modern copyright law – to anyone who would tamper with his book.  By this standard, I guess, the editors of the lectionary are in deep trouble.

This only acknowledges what we often discover in our reading of the Bible: there are some passages, inspiring and divine, where the human author transcends themselves; and others, where human ignorance and prejudice persist, despite the author’s divine intent. Thus the importance not just of reading but interpreting the Bible, using the best resources available.

      On the last page of the Bible, there are two things in particular I would like to highlight.  First, the Churches ancient prayer: “Come Lord Jesus!”

      For awhile, modern critical scholarship debated whether Jesus “Return” was something even Jesus himself taught, or was something projected upon him by early Christians, who expected Jesus to return again in glory. And so, a prayer of the early church was, “Come, Jesus, Come,” even showing up in the Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke: “Maranatha.”

      But with each passing century, the expectation of Jesus’ return has dimmed, and now 2,000 years later, especially with the distortions out there regarding such an event, even Christians  – especially Christians who love this life and this world – might wonder who would pray, “Come, Jesus, Come.”

      Yet all that John has revealed is the God’s intention to redeem creation from the grasp of sin, evil, and death.  It is to that intent that we, the church, respond joyously with prayer and longing.  We make this prayer because what John has really shown us in this book is not a timetable of end-time events, but the One who is the Lord of both Beginning and End, the Ruler of church and cosmos. 

      In fact, John goes so far as to say that where empire and oppression seem to hold the day, God and the Lamb are already reigning, already bringing sin, evil, and death to their ultimate end.  We see it in the resurrection of Jesus, and we experience a foretaste of it in the Eucharist, Holy Communion.

      In fact, it is to that table that the end of Revelation brings us. “Come Lord Jesus” was the table prayer of the early church. Remember, John’s letter was meant to be read in worship, probably just prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore John joins his worshiping congregations in the liturgical prayer that had already become traditional, words that can be a prayer for Christ to come in power at the End and establish the justice of the kingdom of God, and/or words that can be a prayer for the presence of Christ at the Eucharistic worship of the church:  “Come, Lord Jesus!” 

      In worship, through Word and Sacrament, Jesus comes to us as the ultimate End of the universe. It is there that we the church joyfully submits to his dominion, refuse to bow down to the cult of human self-interest, and find the beastly deception of earthly empire exposed.

Through the centuries, the faithful of the church have therefore made this cry not just their prayer, but the work of their lives.  For example, one of the great modern martyrs of the church is Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador. (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980)

Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at a small chapel, one day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, Romero was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite. When he was shot, his blood spilled over the altar.

      While the process for his canonization as a saint continues in the Roman Catholic Church, he is considered the unofficial patron saint of the Americas and El Salvador, and is one of the ten 20th century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.  Here he is, along with four of the others: Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   “Come, Lord Jesus.”

      The last thing I would like to highlight is how the book of Revelation, and the Bible actually ends, with the churches ancient benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all.

      It turns out, Revelation ends with one last surprise, in the form of a textual variant in verse 21. Is grace declared to “all the saints” (as the New Revised Standard Version text reads), or “to all” (as the NRSV footnote reads)? “To all” is actually the reading of the best Greek texts, with later manuscripts adding “the saints,” finding the word of universal grace too much to bear and limiting the pronouncement of God’s grace to the church.

      “Grace to all” is a fitting final declaration for this book: God reaches out not just to the church, but to all the world, graciously beckoning all into the New Jerusalem. Everything that John has seen and shown, in the end, is God’s grace. In this book, God’s grace is both beginning “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) and ending “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all.” (22:21). 

      And that’s how the book of Revelation, and with it, the Bible, ends.  Bruce Metzger writes, “There could be no more fitting end for a book that contains horrible visions of great monsters and catastrophic judgments.  John closes his book with visions of hope and heaven, promising that at the last we shall enjoy the vision of God because of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation, p. 106)

“O that with yonder sacred throng we at his feet may fall.

We’ll join the everlasting song and crown him Lord of all.

We’ll join the everlasting song and crown him Lord of all.”

–      Edward Perronet, 1779


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