Monday, April 04, 2016

Beginning (Understanding Revelation, Part 1)

[This was shared yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter, during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Revelation 1:4-18
Beginnings are important. For one thing, you don’t complete a journey unless you begin it. That’s true whether the journey is to Florida for spring break; to a new career; to deeper relationships with family members, friends, or even God. You have to start.

Today, we start a five-part series on the New Testament book of Revelation. Revelation can be strange for us. But digging into it and allowing its truths to permeate our everyday lives can help us to grow stronger in our faith, more confident in our relationship with Christ and in our witness for Him, more aware of God’s will for our lives, less afraid.

But today, I ask you to pay special attention to the beginning of Revelation. Not only does it just make sense to start this way, the beginning gives important themes that we will read and hear about throughout the book.

We call Revelation a book, one of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, one of the sixty-six in the Bible. But Revelation really is a letter written to Christians to encourage their faith.

Traditionally, the Church has held that Revelation was written by the apostle John.

He did so during a time of sporadic persecution of the Church. In fact, John was being held prisoner for his faith when he received the revelation that he records in his letter.

The word we translate as revelation is, in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, apokalupsis, literally meaning lifting the veil. For the benefit of the seven churches to which Revelation is addressed, the truth from God about many things are unveiled. We benefit from God’s revelation to John as well, even though the imagery we run into can make us crazy.

Revelation is less about some apocalyptic future than it is about how to live our lives in the mundane everyday places of life, especially in light of others' indifference or opposition. So, it has applicability to every time in history.

That’s because this universe is still largely held captive to the one Jesus calls elsewhere, “the prince of this world,” the devil.

As has been true since Adam and Eve rebelled against God, sin--from Satan, from the world, from ourselves--is still fighting against God, even though through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has already won eternal life for those who repent of sin and believe in Christ. Remember that the next time you watch the news on your TV or your computer: Jesus has already won!

Until we come to the ends of our earthly lives or until this world is brought to an end by God, we must be vigilant in our relationship with Christ.

Otherwise, we risk being eternally taken down by the sins that Revelation specifically addresses: despair, indifference, self-righteousness, lovelessness, the opposition of the world that makes faith inconvenient or hard, being heedless of God’s righteous commands, going along to get along.

Revelation comes to inspire us and put some spine in our faith so that no matter what, we will stand with our crucified and risen Savior.

Take a look at our second lesson for today, Revelation 1:4-18.

Verse 4: “John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.”

Right away, John makes clear who his original addressees are--seven churches in an area of the world we now call Turkey.

And he also makes clear who this letter is really from. John is simply the conduit or the mailman delivering a message that comes from the triune God.

He speaks on the authority of the Father, the one “who is, and who was, and who is to come,” Yahweh, I AM, Whose name in Hebrew can mean, “I was who I was,” “I am who I am,” and “I will be who I will be.”

John also speaks on behalf of God the Holy Spirit. His term “seven spirits” partly references the seven churches he addresses, but it's another title for the Holy Spirit, the number seven denoting completeness, as when God created the universe, then rested on the seventh day.

And John speaks too for Jesus: the One “who loves us...freed us from our sins...and made us to be” God’s kingdom, priests, and ambassadors.

There’s no doubt then, about Who this revelation is really from. It’s not like when you get a text message from someone who assumes you know who they are and you wonder who’s this coming from. John makes it clear this revelation is from God!

How do we know that Revelation is really from God?

Well, the Bible isn’t like the book of Mormon or the Quran, lengthy tomes penned by single individuals accountable to no one. The book of Christian faith, the Bible, is the record of multiple authors and whole groups of people based on their encounters with God. And the book of Revelation can be relied on as a Word from God because it fits in with the whole witness of God experienced by millions of people over thousands of years.

We see the consistency of Revelation's understanding of God with the rest of the Bible in verse 7, where two passages of the Old Testament, Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10, with their references to Jesus written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, are cited.

After establishing Who this revelation is from, John, tells us how it came to him.

Verse 10: “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit,and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…”

It was the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day that always marks Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and John was swept up with inspiration from the Holy Spirit. (Sunday is always the day to celebrate Jesus' resurrection, including the Sundays in Lent, even if Garrison Keillor says that "if you're Lutheran and from the Midwest, it's always Lent.")

John heard a loud voice, “like a trumpet.” This seems to be God’s MO. In Exodus 19:18-19, just before God gave the ten commandments, a trumpet announced His presence. One day, a trumpet will sound when Jesus returns to this world. God got John’s attention!

This clarion voice tells John to write the revelation he receives and send it to seven churches. Then, verse 12: “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

This voice had been heard before!

It was this voice that said, “Let there be light, and there was light.

It was this voice that said, “This is My Son, the beloved; with Him I am well pleased.”

It was this voice that once promised that “his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

This voice said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

John knew the voice because he belonged to Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep.

John describes the appearance of this “son of man,” a term Jesus often used about Himself during His earthly life. He is pure. He glows like a furnace. His face was like the shining sun.”

In Exodus, the people of God feared to look upon God’s perfect radiance and when Moses returned to them after encountering God, his face glowed with the fires of heaven. This light displays both God’s holiness and our imperfection. God’s fire also purges those willing to follow Him of sin. His fire also rages against unrepentant sin, which is why Hebrews 12:29 describes God as “a consuming fire.”

In Jesus, John sees God.

No surprise there because John had once heard Jesus say, “I and the Father are one.”

Extending from the mouth of “the son of man” is “a sharp, double-edged sword,” the Word of God.

Hebrews 4:12 tells us: “...the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

This Word judges our sin and, for those who repent and believe in Christ, it separates us from our sin, which can be a painful process, and it cuts us into the kingdom of God, a blessing of eternal healing.

John is looking at the fiery holiness of God he had once seen in Jesus of Nazareth. What would you do in this moment? Here's what John did, verse 17: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he [Jesus] placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.’”

Beginnings are important.

Here at the beginning of Revelation, John shows us that the message he shares in this letter is from God.

He shows us that we should have a holy fear of God, but that we never need be afraid of His good will for those who love Him.

And He underscores that just as Jesus had the first word at creation, the alpha word, He will have the omega word, the last word.

He was dead, but is alive, and now holds the keys to set free from death, darkness, sin, and despair for all eternity those who turn from sin and trust in Him each and every day.

We can trust in Jesus no matter what. This, really, is what all of Revelation is about. But we will let John unfold things more fully for us in the weeks to come. Amen