the heart of the matter

Last week. It was a rough one. There was the Boston bombing on Monday, the explosion in Texas on Wednesday. The families from Newtown were back in the news on Wednesday as the Senate decided not to take action. Then our eyes turned back to Boston on Thursday night and Friday. We have been faced with images of young amputees, grieving parents, enormous explosions, heavily armed police, and one bleeding, injured nineteen year old who brought a city to a standstill. 

Closer to home, we all have loved ones whose personal lives have been tumultuous and painful, exhausting and exhausted this week. 

In the face of all this we come here, searching for something real, something true, something that will shed some light on the darkness. 

That impulse, that deep longing connects us with the early seekers who first heard the words of the book of Revelation. 

The book of Revelation gets a bad rap. In pop culture it’s a book full of codes and symbols that spell destruction and judgment. And while there is a fair helping of fire and brimstone in Revelation, that’s not the whole story. I promise we are not about to have four weeks of hellfire and damnation.  

When you actually read Revelation, it doesn’t purport to be a secret prediction of the end of the world. Instead, Revelation is an account of a visionary trance that a man named John had. 

We don’t know much about John. He doesn’t claim to be the same person as the disciple John, and he never talks about seeing the earthly Jesus, so he probably isn’t the same guy. When John has this vision he’s on the island of Patmos off the coast of Greece. It’s not clear if he was on the island because he’d been exiled as punishment for his faith or if he was there in some sort of spiritual search. Either way, he’s alone and one Sunday he has an wild spiritual experience. He records it and shares it with his community.

The most important thing to know about John’s community is that in addition to all the hardships of life 2,000 years ago, they seem to have been facing persecution. At the time you showed your patriotism by worshiping the gods at the temple, proclaiming that Caesar, the emperor, was Lord. But Jesus followers didn’t do that. They didn’t go to the temples or do the right sacrifices or say Caesar was Lord. Instead, they said this executed criminal from the backwoods of Palestine was Lord. That made them pretty suspect. People questioned if they were really good, upstanding members of society. Sort of the way that we might tend to do that with Muslims following September 11. 

And John’s community was facing more than prejudice. They were facing active persecution. Some of their friends had been killed. As bad as our week’s been, it has not been that bad, but we do share something in common with them.

John of Patmos and his friends knew what it was to feel like the world was spinning out of control, to feel small and helpless in the face of senseless violence and incomprehensible evil. Maybe we know what that feels like this week. 

That’s John’s context for this vision. And it’s really important to remember it’s a vision. It’s not a letter or a historical accounting or a carefully reasoned piece of rhetoric. It’s an account of a wild, outrageous, unbelievable spiritual experience. It’s not logical or linear. Its uses imagination and symbol and myth. It’s full of vivid, dramatic imagery. The point is not to analyze each part and reduce a poetic whole into prosaic pieces. Rather, this is a text to let wash over us, to engage with our imaginations and our hearts, to let it grab us at some part deeper than reason and speak to our spirits. 

So, bringing all of this—our kinship with the first hearers of this wild good news, our own weariness and questions and barely there hope, the terror and violence and uncertainty of this week, bringing all of that, I invite you to listen for the word of God. Close your eyes if you like. Let the images wash over you and fill you. Listen now, from the book of Revelation, chapter 1:

A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw.Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
 
John, to the seven churches that are in Asia:
 
Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, and from Jesus Christ–the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. 
 
To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father–to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen. 
 
Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.”
 
I, John, your brother who shares with you in the hardship, kingdom, and endurance that we have in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and my witness about Jesus. I was in a Spirit-inspired trance on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice that sounded like a trumpet. It said, “Write down on a scroll whatever you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”
 
I turned to see who was speaking to me, and when I turned, I saw seven oil lamps burning on top of seven gold stands. In the middle of the lampstands I saw someone who looked like the Human One. He wore a robe that stretched down to his feet, and he had a gold sash around his chest. His head and hair were white as white wool—like snow—and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like fine brass that has been purified in a furnace, and his voice sounded like rushing water. He held seven stars in his right hand, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His appearance was like the sun shining with all its power.
 
When I saw him, I fell at his feet like a dead man. But he put his right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, but look! Now I’m alive forever and always. I have the keys of Death and the Grave. So write down what you have seen, both the scene now before you and the things that are about to unfold after this.
 

This is how John’s vision begins. It is strange, bizarre even—a luminous old man with flaming eyes and a sword coming from his mouth, surrounded by light and stars. There are voices and instructions and images upon images. But through it all one thing pulses again and again: I am the One who is and was and is coming. I am the alpha and the omega. I am the beginning and the end. I am the first and the last. I am the one who is and was and is coming. 

To John and his community in the midst of their violent, broken world, Christ comes and says here is the truth: I am the beginning and the end. The things you face, the violence and hardship, they will not endure. I am the beginning and the end. And I am not done. I’m not done with you or with this world. I am the one who was and who is and who is still coming. 

My father used to teach at a seminary. At seminaries you tend to have a lot of highly educated people who think they know better than anyone else what the Bible means. One day one of his colleagues came upon a custodian reading the book of Revelation, and this colleague, with more than a little condescension, asked the man, do you understand that book says? And the custodian answered, of course. It says that evil doesn’t win. God does.

That’s the heartbeat of Revelation. The news we see each night and the brokenness of daily living is real, but it is not the whole story. Because the story begins and ends with the love we know in Christ. Yes, there is heartbreak and horror along the way. Christ was, indeed, crucified, and all of us will face death as well. But the story does not end there. Evil and violence and darkness will not ultimately prevail. They are not the beginning or the end. Christ is—the One who was and is and is coming—Christ is our beginning and our end. 

This conviction, this trust in a deeper reality gives us courage to face our everyday reality. It is only when we become convinced that the world doesn’t begin or end with us that we are able to let go of judgment and fear, and turn our hearts toward love and peace. 

If you, like most people, like those early followers, like John of Patmos, have trouble believing this, have trouble trusting that death is dead and that light has come into our world—light that cannot be put out—if you have trouble trusting that, then do as the early followers did: come worship with your fellow travelers, and lean on this vision. Say again and again, we do not trust in powers or principalities, in the brokenness and death of this world, but in the One who meek as a lamb and mighty as a lion was crucified, died, and on the third day rose. Lean on these words, write them on your hearts, cherish them and ponder them, and the One who was and is and is coming will come to you and will lead you in the way of life. Let us stand and sing the good news.

by Sarah W. Wiles
April 21, 2013 
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA 
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2 Responses to the heart of the matter

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Amen and amen.

  2. Bob Braxton says:

    Is it true that a shepherd leads by walking behind? I have watched young boys with their goats in East Africa.

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