Revelation: “The Vision Begins”

Durer Woodcut: "Christ and the Seven Candlesticks"

2nd Sunday After Pentecost, June 26th, 2011

Text: Revelation 1:1-20

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, 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 on earth.

To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

We begin our sermon series on the Book of Revelation, and it’s probably fair to say that no other book of the Bible, by mention of its name alone, is able to produce such a visceral reaction. The Book of Revelation, in Greek, it is the apokalupsis…the apocalypse. No sooner do we hear that word than visions of fiery explosions, menacing dragons, death, and destruction begin to fill our mind. It is a word that has been shaped by the contents of the visions within this book, coming to mean “the catastrophic ending  to things as we have known them.” Or simply anything really, really bad, like when some dubbed February’s record-setting blizzard “Snowpocalypse: The Snowdown.” For others, it brings thoughts of secret raptures and top-secret government conspiracies. The Revelation becomes a handbook for reading the newspaper and watching the news; a handbook for interpreting the actions of politicians and leaders in Palestine, Moscow, Tehran, and often, even Washington. A way to know who’s on the side of right in the world of international politics, or to figure out who’s in for a world of hurt when Jesus comes back. It is book that can inspires fear, dread, and morbid curisosity. And as a result, this last book of the Bible comes to be both the most neglected, and the most obsessed and over-analyzed book in the entire Scriptures.

But that word, apokalupsis…apocalypse…Revelation, that begins the first chapter of the last book of the Bible, and thus also serves as its title, this word means to make fully known, to reveal, to disclose. And beyond the images of death, and destruction, beasts and dragons, of people falling away, and battles in heaven—and yes, those are all scenes that we will see in the course of this book—it is first and foremost the apocalypse, the revelation, the fully making known, of Jesus Christ. Christ who received this vision from God the Father and made it known to His servant John. Christ who shows this revelation to John, but also serves as the subject of the Revelation. And His triumph, his victory over sin, death, and the powers of hell, and his reign at the right hand of the Father stand as the central themes of the book. In the midst of the wrath and plagues, riders on horseback, unnaturally-formed creatures, marks on foreheads, and the assurance that persecution and martyrdom will be facts of life for the people of God, there is the promise that Christ is alive forevermore, the promise of the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, and these will be the promises and themes providing hope and comfort throughout the reading of the book. Themes and promises that will find their center in Jesus Christ, who has freed us from our sin by His blood—this is the center of Apocalypse, the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

And so, with this in mind, we turn back to the beginning of the book, and in the first three verses of the chapter, we find a title page of sorts. The title of the book belonging to an age where titles were meant to do more than look catchy as they looked out from a bookstore shelf, but gave a summary of what could be found within its pages. And from this title, we know that what follows will be the Revelation of Jesus Christ, given to him by God so in order to show his servants what must soon take place.  And we learn who the author will be. Christ’s servant, John, and are told that he is a faithful witness, that he will proclaim the Word of God and give witness to Christ. This is St. John, who tells us in his gospel the purpose of his writings: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

Then, below the title and the author, a message, not unlike an inscription or epigraph at the beginning of a novel or a poem, a blessing to all who would turn the page and enter into the contents of the Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Echoing the beginning of the Book of Psalms “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night.” And the words of Christ in Luke, chapter eleven, “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Lk 11:28). As we will see, especially in the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three, when you are called through God’s Word to follow Christ, life will not be the same—the Word of God must not be only read and heard, but kept. And where it is not, as we will find out, repentance is necessary.

But all of this is only possible through the grace of God and the love of Christ….In verse four, the body of the text begins, John writes to the seven churches that are in Asia, and begins with a Trinitarian stamp of approval. “The one who is and who was and who is to come” God the Father, who revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3, “I AM WHO I AM/I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” “The seven Spirits before the throne” The Holy Spirit whose seven Spirits of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD,” which Isaiah prophesied would rest upon the Messiah to come, the shoot from the stump of Jesse. And from Jesus Christ, who made our relationship with God possible, through His death, His resurrection, and His reign at the right hand of the Father. Christ whose blood broke the chains of our bondage to sin, brought us out of slavery and exile and made us a people, His very own people, able to stand before the throne of God, washed clean in His blood.

This is the God we will see at work as we study Revelation. To His enemies, the forces of the Sin, Death, and Hades, a God of judgment, a God of wrath, a God of destruction. But to the faithful in Christ, a God of love, a God of mercy, a God of life. And just as John gives praise and thanks to Christ here, so will the angels and all the faithful throughout the vision, along with the church up unto the present day.  What has Christ done for us? Freed us from our sin by shedding His blood! Made us to be God’s people! To the one who has done all of that be glory and dominion, forever and ever!

Now, following all of the titles and introductions, blessings and salutations, the action begins.  In verse nine, we find John exiled on Patmos, because he spoke the word God and testified to the Good News of Salvation in Christ. As we will see in the weeks to follow, this will be a pattern for Christians and the church. As Christ said to the disciples in John 16 ““If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

But God reaches out to John in the midst of this suffering, calling out in a loud voice, commanding him to write to the seven churches all of what will be revealed to him to see. And John, who had seen a glimpse of Christ glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration, turned, in verse 12, to see who was speaking to him, and saw something far more glorious than he could bear. Christ clothed in a long robe after the style of the Israelite High Priest, with the golden belt of royalty like that worn by the Heavenly Figure in Daniel 10, snow-white hair like the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 as a mark wisdom and authority, eyes of fire, given to Christ as one authorized to destroy evil and purify His people, feet of brass that conquer all enemies, and out of His mouth, the sharp two-edged sword, showing that the Son of Man will execute judgment by the Word of God, as it says in Hebrews 4, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Seeing this vision, which drained the color out of Daniel and stole away his strength, here knocks John to the ground as a dead man. But Christ comes to him with a message of comfort, reaching out and laying his right hand upon the only disciple who witnessed the crucifixion, and the disciple that outran Peter to the empty tomb, and says “Don’t be afraid! You saw me killed and raised again, and now here I am, reigning in my glory, the conqueror of death and hell! Put your trust in me, continue to give witness to me as you have done, and to all that I am about to show you.”

And this message of comfort and hope is for us as well, as we study this last book of the Bible, and as we live our lives as God’s people in a fallen world. If we grow afraid as we hear of these visions, or as we hear about, and read, and experience the suffering and persecution that happens on account of Christ in our world.  When, we read about the beast and the dragons, and the horsemen and the plagues, and we wonder if the things of this vision are happening in our world, and our stomach tightens, and the blood rushes out of our head. How terrible will all of this really be? Will God really let these things happen? When push comes to shove, will I be one of those who falls away?

And when this happen, the temptation is to let our focus remain on our world and ourselves. And when this is where we look, there is nothing to see but darkness. But Christ’s words to St. John as he fell in fear, as though he was dead, are for us as well, and serve as a fitting introduction to the letter: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one, I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Amen.

The peace of God which Passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.