Thursday, October 1, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People in the World"

Scripture Readings: Revelation 1:1-20; Revelation 2:1-7

Boiled down to one sentence, the message of the Book of Revelation is this: Our side wins. If you come across anything in the Book of Revelation that you find mysterious, or confusing, or frightening, or threatening; take a breath and fall back on this one sentence: Our side wins.

Now here is another way to boil down the Book of Revelation into one sentence. It is this: This book is a picture of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus.

That’s it. The Book of Revelation is about the good news of Jesus. It gives us, in picture language, the message of why God came down from heaven in Christ. It shows us why Jesus became human and took the role of a suffering servant, and died for us on the cross, and rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. It shows us how to live in this world as the people of Jesus. It shows us his faithfulness to all people who put their trust in him. It shows us how serious it is to live in a world that is determined not to know him. It shows us how we can overcome the pressures that this world puts upon us to compromise and conform. It shows us that it is not easy to follow Jesus. It shows us that Jesus will not fail in his mission to recreate the world as a place that is free from sin, and injustice, and violence, and evil. It shows us that if the world, as it is, tries to prevent this liberating and transforming plan, then Jesus will put a stop to the world as it is and to those who stand in the way of this plan. It shows us that Jesus will not fail to make us, and all those who follow him, a part of that new world. Most of all, this book shows us how to be joyful and thankful people in this world as we know it. This may seem like a lot, but the gist of all of this is still the good news of Jesus.

We do not want to lose track of the summary. The Book of Revelation is a picture of the good news. If you ever come across anything in this book that makes you think it is about anything else; stop, take a breath, and return to the summary.

The very opening phrase of the book tells us this. It is: “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him.” (See also, John 12:44-50) The book reveals Jesus the Messiah. I find no reason to suppose that the Jesus we read about in the Book of Revelations is any different than the Jesus we find in the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. If we think it tells us about a different Jesus, then it is possible that we have never understood the Jesus that we read about in the gospels, in the first place.

Jesus has a cause and there are things in the world as it is that make him angry. In the gospels, Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove the merchants out of the Temple in Jerusalem, where they were set up to profit from the worship that took place there. Their activities made him angry and so he put a stop to what they were doing. But he did this out of love for his people. (John 2:13-17) He even got angry with his own disciples, when they did not trust him, or when they tried to stop him from going to Jerusalem in order to get crucified. (Matthew 16:21-23)

In the Book of Revelation we can read about the wrath and anger of God, but the motive for his anger is his love. There is a good saying that God loves us just as we are, but that he also loves us too much to let us stay as we are. When we know that God loves us, we can understand this.

Revelation is a book about love; and the action that takes place in the book comes through Jesus who has, himself, borne the brunt of the evil and cruelty and injustice of this world, as it is, in his body, on the cross. He has done this so that, in his own time, he can put a stop to the world going on as it is.

The Book of Revelation reveals Jesus and what it means to faithfully follow him. In many ways it is a commentary on our lives right now, where there are many things that are hard to understand, but we can summarize our lives by saying that we can see Jesus in our lives. The experiences that are so confusing and off-putting, in so many ways, can be dealt with by seeing how Jesus dealt with such things as he lived among us, and we can see our lives “interpreted by love.”

The author, John, identifies himself this way: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering, and kingdom, and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9) These three things (the suffering, the kingdom…meaning the kingdom of God, and the patient endurance) come up again and again in the Book of Revelation. They are the marks of the Christian life. Anyone who follows Jesus will have these three things: the suffering, the kingdom, and the patient endurance.

These three marks of the Christian life are like spiritual algebra. They are like an equation as follows: the suffering, plus the kingdom, equals the patient endurance. What are the parts of this equation?

There is the kingdom. The kingdom means so many things. The Lord is your king. Jesus has John write to the church in Ephesus to tell them that they have lost their first love. I think the kingdom of God is like being in love. The whole center and foundation of your life changes. It is centered in someone else. New things seem possible for you because someone loves you. There is someone else to think about besides your self.

And the kingdom is strongly about the future. There are promises, and hopes, and dreams. The kingdom of God is something that is here, now, and it is also something we are waiting for. The kingdom of God is like all this.

And there is suffering. Following Jesus does not protect us from the kind of suffering that everyone else has. Following Jesus does not rescue us from sickness, injury, failure, loss, acts of nature, accidents, bereavement.

And following Jesus actually adds to our suffering. Following Jesus will cause some people to laugh at us, or to take advantage of us, or to look down on us, or to try to tempt us or to get us to betray our faith, or to pass us over for opportunities or advancement.

The patient endurance is the sum of the suffering and the kingdom. It means knowing that there is a purpose, and knowing what is important, and staying true to what you know.

The interesting thing about the suffering part is that the older translations translate it as tribulation. And tribulation is a word that describes the special suffering that will be experienced just prior to Jesus’ returning. The suffering which John and his earliest readers shared, and which we share with them, is covered by the same special word for that period of time that precedes the coming of Christ.

I believe that the Bible teaches that the end times began with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The end times have been going on for almost two thousand years. John, himself, in the letter called First John wrote: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)

I don’t think there is any division between the present tribulation and the greater tribulation to come. It is only a matter of degree and what you might call progress.

There are common threads and common issues that we share with the ancient church in the days of the Roman Empire, and those same themes and issues will continue until the final days come. Patient endurance is about keeping watch and keeping alert on those themes and issues, and not to be fooled.

In the seven letters to the seven churches we find the followers of Jesus were challenged by temptations to compromise on issues of immorality and idol worship. Just to keep this simple, let’s concentrate on that idol worship.

There were three common temptations to worship idols (which doesn’t just mean worshiping statues of gods, but the worship of anything that is not God). People in the Roman world tended to worship money, sex, and the government (in the form of the Emperor). Imagine a world that worshiped money, sex, and government.

Our modern world tends to worship these as well. And some Christians would like to find reasons to fit in with the world as it is, and combine chasing after the same things that the world around them worships with their Christian faith.

John writes about this. When you see through the deceptions of the idolatry of our time and live a different way of life you can be one of those who overcome.

One strange thing about the Book of Revelation is its use of number. It seems like everything happens in sevens. The number seven, in the Book of Revelation, and all though the Bible, tends to mean the fullness or the completeness of a thing.
Knowing this helps us understand the main message without getting distracted by the details. For example, the seven spirits of God are not some special thing. Seven stands for fullness and completeness; and so the seven spirits of God, before the throne of God represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

The seven churches are real churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor, but as the unit seven they represent the fullness and the completeness of the church, the Body of Christ, all over the world, in every age of history. The promise of Christ to come to them, and the need for them to resist compromise, and the need for them to endure and overcome, so that they could meet Christ when he comes, really applies to all Christians in all times and places.

We all have our temptations. We all have our struggles with compromise. We all need the Book of Revelation to teach us about how to play our part as a follower of Jesus in our own time and place.

Revelation is a book about love: God’s love for us and our love for God. God’s love for us and our love for God are stimulated by the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the fellowship of God’s people who are the church.

Revelation reveals the good news about Jesus. John sees him in a long white robe with a golden sash around his chest. Here Jesus is dressed like a Jewish high priest who offers the atoning sacrifice in the holy of holies in the Temple on the High Holy Day, the Day of Atonement.

Jesus shows himself dressed this way because he is the highest of priests. He offers the sacrifice of his own life for ours on the cross.

The golden lampstands represent the churches, but the seven stars represent the angels of the churches. For the ancient Jews and the Greeks, as well, everything on earth had a heavenly counterpart, a spiritual reality that was eternal. Although the Lord’s people seem to be separated into one group here and another group over there, the heavenly reality is that all God’s people, in all times and places, are all together in one place, in the hand of Jesus.

Jesus, who gave his own life to make us one, in himself, with his Father, makes us (you, and me, and every Christian who has ever lived or will ever live) into one great thing that he is doing. And he holds us safe in his hand. And, whatever he may say or do in this strange and wonderful Book of Revelation, he says and does as the one who will, at all costs, hold you safe, if you let him in your heart. That is why we need listen to this book, and why it speaks to us.

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