Revelation: A Line in the Sand

Revelation 1:4-8

Jeremy Richards        

After our daughter Esther’s birth at Legacy Emmanuel, Brie and Esther were wheeled to a beautiful room in Randall Children’s hospital. The two hospitals are connected, so we never went outside. When we got to our room high up in the hospital, we had a beautiful view looking out over green treetops against a blue sky. It was like we were in another world. We had nurses caring for us, Brie had food delivered, and, of course, we had this new human, this new child. Our entire family had changed. Our whole world had changed. No longer were we two, we were three.

As I mentioned, Randall Children’s Hospital is beautiful. Our room was unbelievable. But there was one area where they were lacking, one flaw I could not abide. Their coffee was terrible. So the first morning we were there, after a night of that beautiful, new baby testing out her lungs and assuring us that our lives, or at least our sleep, would, indeed be turned upside down, I jumped in the car and drove to a new coffee shop that had just opened just down the road.

It was so bizarre to see that the outside world continued on unchanged. People were still driving to work, walking their dogs, grabbing coffee at the newest Portland coffee shop. I would never be the same, there was a new life born less than 24 hours earlier that would forever change my own life. And yet there were people all around me looking at their phones or doing crosswords like the world was the same as it’d ever been.

I got in line at the coffee shop, and after a few minutes it was my turn to place an order. I couldn’t hold back, “I just had a baby!” I beamed. The young guy taking my order looked at me and said, maybe with a little pity, if anything, in his eyes, “Oh. Congrats.”

“Oh. Congrats?!?!”

New life! A new 8.1lbs. body. Tiny fingers and tiny toes. That new, soft, bright pink skin. And all this dude could muster was a half-hearted “Congrats”?

I didn’t go back to that coffee shop for awhile.

When huge life events happen for us, it’s hard to believe the world keeps going on the same for other people. I know Lily and Kim can relate to a baby being born, as can many of you. Others know about marriages or job changes or degrees. Maybe a big move.

The same is true of tragedies as well: a life-threatening diagnosis, the death of a family member, a divorce or falling out with a loved one.

Whatever it might be, there are events in our lives that change everything, that alter our future forever. But the world keeps on spinning!

Last Sunday we celebrated Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, who the Christian Scriptures and Christian tradition down through the centuries have identified as the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and with his resurrection those same Scriptures and traditions have claimed that the world, the present, and the future have been changed – not just our individual lives and futures, but the life and future of the cosmos. To the naked eye, the world continues to operate in much the same way, but in reality, we believe new life has been born and all life is changed. “What has come into being in [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all people.,” the Gospel of John says at the very beginning. With the arrival of Jesus, a new kind of life was made available to all.

Last Sunday we shouted “Alleluia, death has been swallowed up in victory!” And most of the world looked at us with a hint of pity and said, “Congrats.” Because while it’s a nice story, it doesn’t seem very realistic. Like Brie and me, right after Esther was born, we believe the whole world has changed, but most of the world continues to live like nothing happened. This seemed especially true this week. First we learned that over 300 people were killed due to terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, many of them Christians targeted on Easter, then yesterday we learned of another shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California on the last day of Passover, leaving one dead and 3 injured. As these communities came together to celebrate life – the Christians, the resurrection of Jesus, the Jews, the angel of death passing over their homes and sparing them – they were met with death.

We’re proclaiming resurrection, but all around us people are dying.

Sometimes our Scriptures can seem too dualistic to our postmodern minds. Sometimes we have to be careful about how we read them, otherwise, they seem to promote exclusion and tribalism, the very things we believe Jesus was against. But I have to say that I understand why, sometimes, Jesus and his followers draw a line in the sand. This isn’t about my tribe vs. your tribe. This is about good vs. evil, the kingdom of God vs. empire. Scripture is very clear. Jesus was very clear – we can follow the way of Jesus marked by love, hope, faith, peace, humility, and compassion, or we can follow the ways of the world, the ways of empire marked by hate, domination, violence, greed, cynicism, pride, selfishness, and fear. We can believe in the power of life, or the power of death. Where does our faith lie?

I’m very excited that we’ll be in the book of Revelation for the 6 Sundays of Easter. Revelation can seem like a kind of dualistic book, but that’s because the Christians John of Patmos writes to in the book of Revelation know something about proclaiming resurrection in the face of death, they know something about choosing. Actually, they know it much better than we do. They, like us, are Easter people. They also have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. They believe he conquered the grave. And yet, they aren’t just watching other Christians be persecuted on their TVs, they are being persecuted for their faith. And it’s beginning to seem like maybe God isn’t all that powerful, maybe there are other powers with more authority than God. Maybe they are wrong. Maybe death is more powerful than life. Maybe violence, not peace is the answer. Specifically, Rome, the crucifiers, the ones John refers to in our passage today as “those who pierced [Jesus]” seem to be the dominant kingdom, not the kingdom of God. Ceasar, not Christ, seems to be the king of kings.

The vision John has received and written down in the book of Revelation, however, assures John and his persecuted readers that God is, in fact, the ruler of all, and God’s victory was accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

“Wait, wait, wait,” you’re thinking. “Isn’t Revelation all about the end-times? Isn’t it all about the end of the world?” Well…yes and no. But mostly no.

It’s true that there is a certain focus on the future in Revelation. Our reading this morning says, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.” So John does, indeed, look to the future.

But John’s primary concern isn’t the future, but the present. He wants the future to shape our present. The book of Revelation is an apocalypse. In fact, the first word of Revelation, which gets translated as “revelation,” is actually apocalypse. Apocalyptic literature isn’t all about predicting the end times, it’s all about uncovering. It’s often misunderstood as simply being about some cataclysmic, end-time event, but, while the future often plays an important role in apocalyptic literature, the emphasis is not on the future but on the present. How are we to live in light of the future we anticipate?

The goal is to reveal, to uncover, the truth, but often the truth goes beyond words, is too heavy for language, so the author must resort to symbols and imagery meant to move us beyond thinking and understanding, beyond linear reasoning and simple comprehension. Apocalypse, revelation, is meant to hit us in our guts, meant to evoke emotion. We’re supposed to feel the words, we are meant to be carried away by the imagery, swept up in the story.

So what is the truth that Revelation is uncovering? That despite evidence to the contrary,  God reigns now, and that God will reign in the future, that God is the first and the last, the alpha and the omega. Revelation asserts that God’s victory ultimately took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but it promises that Jesus will one day return to earth (not take all the good Christians away from earth) and make God’s reign ultimate and undeniable. That death will finally be defeated, that there will be no more pain or crying or mourning. What God did in Jesus will be done for all creation – resurrection.

Revelation presented its original readers, and us, with a future hope and places a decision before us: will we live according to the future presented in the book, a future where God reigns, where victory is accomplished not through violence and slaughter but through the Lamb who was slaughtered, where death, the great enemy holds no power? Or will we choose instead to align with the powers of this age? Will we place our hope in the crucifiers and not the crucified? Ultimately, who do we believe reigns? Where do we place our trust?

John presents Jesus as our example of one who’s trust was in God’s reign and not the reign of worldly kingdoms, and John encourages us to follow Jesus’ lead. The book of Revelation contains what one scholar calls a “shared Christology” – the idea that we share Jesus’ fate, that Jesus is what we will be, that we participate in the life of Christ. This idea isn’t just limited to Revelation, though. It’s throughout the New Testament. In our reading from 1 Corinthians 15 last week, Paul said Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Christ first, then us in the same way. The author of Hebrews calls Jesus “the pioneer of [our] salvation” (2:10) and a “forerunner on our behalf” (6:20).

So there’s this idea that Jesus goes ahead of us as a kind of trailblazer, and we’re following the trail he’s blazed. We’re becoming what he already is. Jesus has done what we could not – live a fully human, fully whole, complete life, in proper relationship with God and with humanity and with creation, and then he was resurrected before us in the way that we will be resurrected in the future. Because he has blazed the trail for us, he can now accompany us on the trail ourselves.

And so, much of the early church’s correspondence, which we have in the New Testament letters, is about how to follow the historical Jesus’ example with the living Christ accompanying us on the way, with the Spirit indwelling us and filling us, living into this new way of life, this new way of resurrection, made possible in Jesus. In v. 5 of our reading this morning, John identifies 3 characteristics of Jesus that we can share in, either in the present or the future or both. He says Jesus was 1) a “faithful witness,” “the firstborn of the dead,” and “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

First, John identifies Jesus as a faithful witness. At surface level, this refers to the way that Jesus always acknowledged the reign of God over the reign of worldly powers – in his day the worldly power was Rome. You might remember that in John 19 Pilate is shocked that Jesus won’t answer his questions and asks, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” and Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus is confident that there is always a higher authority than worldly rulers. Ultimately this is what gets him killed. His witness to the reign of God brings down the judgement of those who claim that they, not God, reign. This might be a good time to note that the Greek word for “witness” here is martus and, in time, will come to mean martyr. Jesus’ witness to the reign of God leads to his martyrdom.

For those of us who don’t face death regularly for our faith, this sounds pretty intimidating, but for John’s audience, some had already been martyred, and, by referring to Jesus as a faithful witness, he assures his audience that those who had been killed were in good company. Jesus himself was a faithful witness, even to the point of martyrdom.

The next identifier for Jesus provides hope for those who have been or may be martyred for their faith: Jesus is the first born of the dead. Jesus may have died for his faithful witness to the reign of God, but death was not the end, as we celebrated last week, and as we celebrate every Sunday as resurrection people. Christ was raised, and we will be raised. Life wins.

Lastly, John identifies Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Because Jesus has shown himself faithful to the point of death, and been raised, the firstborn of the dead, God, in the words of Philippians 2, “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It isn’t in spite of his faithful witness, but precisely because of it that Jesus has become the ruler of the kings of the earth.

You might be wondering how we fit into this identity, how do we have a “shared Christology” when it comes to ruling? Well, look at the rest of v. 5 and into v. 6, “To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father…” In the future Revelation anticipates, those who are faithful witnesses to the reign of God will, in some sense, participate in that reign. Not as power-hungry tyrants, but as those who have shown themselves to follow in the way of Jesus, who was himself, again, not the crucifier but the crucified, not the violent but the one who refused to be violent.

This is at the heart of Revelation’s message. Jesus is, again and again, referred to as “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” Jesus’ victory came not through wielding violence, but by being one who endured violence out of love for the world.

This week I was heartbroken to hear of the bombs that killed so many of our Christian siblings in Sri Lanka, but that heartbreak was only intensified when I learned that Christians, Christians, are now attacking innocent Muslims in response to the killings. They are letting their fear and anger control them, they’re responding to violence with violence. Because their innocent were killed, they are attacking innocent Muslims. This is precisely what God doesn’t want in the book of Revelation.

But this is always the temptation that lies before us. We are tempted to trust in the power of the death and not the power of life. We are tempted to give up on the hallmarks of the kingdom of God – hope, peace, love, joy, and forgiveness – and turn instead to the hallmarks of the kingdoms of this world – despair, violence, hate, anger, and retribution.

Revelation tells us to trust in the reign of God and the way of Jesus, the “Lamb who was slaughtered.” Revelation tells us to trust the new life we have in Christ, to believe that Easter changed everything. Amen.