Sunday, April 11, 2010

Understanding Revelation, Part 1 (Revelation 1:4-8)

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Revelation 1:4-8
We Lutherans tend to approach the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament--the last book, in fact, of the 66 books of the Bible--with about the same excitement we have when going to the dentist for root canal. We shy away from Revelation.

One reason for that, I think, is that we’ve watched Revelation get so misused by people. Some take the word pictures of Revelation, so strange to us, and use them in the way psychics use astrological charts, Ouija boards, or palm readings.

We see many so-called end-time experts (and well meaning Christians) treat the book of Revelation not as God’s Word, but as some sort of code that they have unlocked, as the repository of secret information which only good folks like them have figured out, as an object of superstition.

Back in the 1960s, there was a guy who had a best-selling book. In it, he claimed that the final battle described by Revelation was going to be between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Soviet Union passed out of being. So, I assumed that this fellow would have decided to hide himself away, his tail between his legs. Not so. A few years ago, I was channel-surfing and saw this same author, now saying that the final battle would be between the United States and Iraq. I've heard that others of his kind today tell rapt audiences that the final war will be between the United States and Iran.

This kind of superstitious fear-mongering may sell books or draw the financial contributions of the gullible. But let’s take a look at what we know about Revelation, based on what we find in Revelation and what we know of the times in which it was written. Let’s let the book speak to us as the Word of God alone. Right now, I’ll say a few words about Revelation, a few more about today’s lesson, and then close.

The title of the book—Revelation, not Revelations, by the way—comes from its first word as it appears in the Greek, the language in which it, like all the books of the New Testament, was originally written. That word is apocalupsis. It means a revelation, or more literally, a lifting of the veil. It was written, many scholars believe, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, between 81 and 96AD. The reasons for believing this is that the conditions on the ground as Revelation describes them fairly match what we know about those times from other historical records.

It was a time of sporadic persecution of Christians.

It was also a time of increasing tension between Christians and Jews. Because the first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that God had set out to do from the time of Abraham, they and the world first saw Christian faith as another part of Judaism. But as Christians came to appreciate more fully that Jesus died and rose for all people, not just the Jews, more non-Jews became Christians and many Jews became uncomfortable with Christianity.

After the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, many Jews left the holy land and settled throughout the Roman Empire, joining synagogues that had already been established following previous persecutions of the Jews. At this time, Jews understandably tried to make nice with the Romans. (After all, who wants to be persecuted?) But some Jews also used this as a time to separate themselves from Christians in the eyes of the Roman Empire.

You see, by this time, Christian faith was growing and the Romans were wary of Christians. Christians made a subversive confession: “Jesus is Lord.” Romans believed that only the emperor was lord, maybe even a god. So when Christians confessed Jesus as their only Lord, they were seen as threatening the empire. They were saying that Jesus is more important than any emperor, government, or economic or social system. More important than anything!

It was to Christians facing persecution, marginalization, and misunderstanding that Revelation was written.

Revelation really isn’t a book, but a letter. It was written by John the Evangelist, to seven churches in what the people of his time called Asia, but which today we know as the western provinces of Turkey. Because “seven” was the Bible’s number of completeness—you know, God rested on the seventh day, it’s believed that John was writing to all the churches in that region. This letter was meant to be read aloud—all 22 chapters--in one sitting during worship.*

It’s clear that John wrote Revelation for two basic reasons. First: John wanted to assure Christians that Jesus is returning one day. No matter what may go wrong in this life, one day Jesus will return and make things right. All who trust in Jesus Christ will be part of His everlasting kingdom. Second: John also wrote Revelation to affirm that “God is God.” Sin and evil may rage, but God is ultimately in control.**

Christ is returning and God is God: Those are messages that we need to hear today because, as one of our Saint Matthew members said to me this week, sometimes life feels like a giant snowball that just keeps rolling and rolling and we can’t control it. Revelation tells us we can’t control it, but it does assure us that God is still God and our Lord Jesus is still coming back one day to claim His kingdom. The God we know in Jesus Christ is in control of our ultimate destiny.

There’s a lot that could be said about today’s lesson from Revelation. But I don’t want the lasagna or spaghetti to get cold.*** So, I call your attention to three phrases that John uses to describe Jesus in verse 5. John clearly believes that we are to follow our Lord in living a life like His and that like Him, we need not fear, because through the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross, we share in the life of the God “Who is and Who was and Who is to come.”

Title #1 for Jesus: the faithful witness. The word for witness in the original Greek is martus, which also gives us the word martyr in English. Jesus first shared the word about our salvation from sin and death: all who turn from sin and believe in Him live with God forever. Then, He went to the cross, in spite of His fear of suffering, in order to activate salvation for all who believe. The faithful witness became a martyr, the Word took on flesh and died, giving His life for us, certain of the Father’s purpose for His life. Jesus has commissioned us to be faithful witnesses, to invite others into fellowship with Christ and the Church, to be used for God’s purposes, and sometimes, to do so in the face of hostility, condemnation, or worse.

Yesterday, after finishing this sermon, being a nerd, I decided that while dusting my office, I would listen to a podcast of a Dr. Patricia O’Toole lecture on our twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt. (Not exactly Lady Gaga, is it?) In her lecture, O'Toole said that you could actually Google recordings of Roosevelt speaking. TR died in 1919. So, recordings of him are rare and I had only previously heard a few seconds of audio of his voice. But I Googled as O'Toole suggested and found a nearly five minute speech of Theodore Roosevelt's. Because I had just been working on this sermon, I was struck by the last line of his speech. Listen to what he said, “In the long fight for righteousness, the watchword is spend and be spent.”

For the Biblical Christian, righteousness isn't some personal attainment of purity. The Bible teaches that righteousness is the gift of being made right with God through Jesus Christ and our faith in Christ. We know that because of Christ, we are counted righteous for all eternity and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

For us then, "the fight for righteousness" to which Roosevelt referred, is the fight to introduce the spiritually disconnected, those outside the fellowship of Christ and the Church, to the Savior Who gives life to all who repent and believe in Him.

Our call and our commission from Christ is to spend our lives, to be spent by God, so that those who don’t know Jesus can know Him and be made be right with Him too. We can spend ourselves in this way because we know that we already are saved forever and nothing we might gain from a life of leisure and repose is worth a fraction of what our guaranteed life with Christ is worth!

To spend and be spent in our lives pointing others to Jesus. That’s our purpose. That’s what we’re made for. That’s a life worth living. Like our Lord, we are called to be faithful witnesses.

Title #2 for Jesus: the firstborn of the dead. Jesus had raised Lazarus and others from the dead, of course. But, they would one day die again. Jesus is the first to rise from death and to stay UNDEAD. The New Testament book of Hebrews calls Jesus our “pioneer.” Jesus is the One Who has blazed the trail, tearing open the morgue of sin and death into which we were born. No matter what this life brings to us, we live in the certainty that death no longer stings. In Christ, we have nothing to fear.

Title #3 for Jesus: the ruler of the kings of the earth. The message about Jesus as King of kings and Lord of all lords was frightening to the despots of 96AD. They saw Jesus’ lordship as a threat to them, because it was a threat to them. If Jesus is Lord, you can't keep thoughtlessly ignore the will of God. You can't cavalierly pick and choose which of God’s commandments you’ll obey. You can't justifiably treat your neighbor unjustly or without love.

Frankly, I wish we all had a little more respectful fear of Jesus today. I wish that we took Him more seriously. If we did, we would live our lives differently.

We would let Him and His Word have the final say in all our decisions, even the decisions we make in His Church.

We wouldn’t replace Christ’s authority with our own thoughts, feelings, or reflections.

And you and I wouldn’t be afraid to tell others the greatest news the world has ever heard: That the God of all creation has shared our lives, has suffered death, and has risen again so that all the petty kings of this life we so fear and all the discouragement, difficulty, and even the tragedy we endure here, are nothing compared to the promise we have of living with Jesus for all eternity.

Jesus is coming back and God is God forever. In Revelation, John the Evangelist has lifted the veil on these truths. Now, let’s you and I ask God to give us the faith to live like we believe these truths!

*The commentary of M. Eugene Boring is a source of much of the material on Revelation shared here.
**New Testament scholar Walter Taylor, one of my seminary professors, is the source for this very good, succinct summary of Revelation's message.
***The men of the congregation served an Italian dinner after worship today. The proceeds from the dinner are going to help support two local emergency food pantries.

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