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May 7th, 2017

Isolated from all he loves, John has the greatest vision of Jesus ever.

Revelation 1:9-20

 

Truth into life

Early in my ministry, an older pastor told me that he didn’t believe a pastor could counsel and preach to the same people. He referred his parishioners to others for counseling, and did most of his counseling for people outside his church.

I can’t disagree more. Even though I don’t think my friend was talking about pastoral care – walking with people through grief and pain – I can’t imagine preaching the Bible to a congregation without some awareness of the deepest personal issues they’re facing. It would not be appropriate in many cases for me to name names and circumstances, but at least I need to know my people’s pain and joy.

I can name some names, of course. You know about the death of Justin Tramble, 33, whose young widow found him in the garage, still connected to the power source that had jolted the life from his body. You know about Elizabeth Geitner, the 25-year-old beautiful young lady with some mental disabilities, who succumbed to cancer this week. You may not know that Pastor Paul and I met with Mike May this week after learning that he had decided to stop all treatment in his four-year battle against melanoma.

You probably don’t know about marriages imploding, extended families overly enmeshed with their married children, faith questions, financial challenges, career decisions, anger issues, faith struggles, spiritual immaturity, behavioral issues with children, and a host of other things that tend to come to a pastor’s attention in a given week. I don’t know how I can preach the Scripture if I don’t know what the people in front of me are dealing with. The Gospel isn’t good news if it doesn’t connect to your world. And I can’t know your world unless we talk about it.

When the Apostle John spoke truth, he spoke truth into life. He knew his people – where they lived and what they were going through. It wasn’t just that he knew what they were going through. This is what he says:

I, John, your brother and co-partner in the distress and kingdom and patience was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  (9, emphasis added)

In other words, I live what you live – the struggle of life, the realization that you belong to another realm, the constant need to hang in there in the face of great odds.

Patmos, 30 miles off the coast of what we call Turkey, is a rocky, virtually treeless island where the Romans banished political prisoners they didn’t kill. I’m not sure what people ate there, because it’s not a particularly hospitable place for growing food. John is isolated from family and friends, lives in a cave, suffers from malnutrition. Patmos is like Siberia or Dachau – many people who went there never came back. He continues,

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard a loud voice like a trumpet, saying, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches:  to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamum, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea. (10-11)

Even in this remote place where calendars don’t matter, John craves intimacy with Jesus on the Lord’s Day. We don’t know exactly what he means by being “in the Spirit,” but apparently it is his way of expressing a deeper, more focused connection to God. He’s pursuing God through worship, silence, prayer.

John hears a voice identifying himself as “the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” We’ll come back to that. The voice tells him to write what he sees and send it to seven churches in Asia Minor that lie on a clockwise postal route.

Don’t you get a little more interested when a player on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune is from Hickory or even Charlotte? Or when your town is mentioned on the radio station or the national news? John knows it’s not just enough to say he’s writing to churches everywhere (which is what he means by “seven churches”). These are churches that he knows, people who know him. John’s only been on the island a few weeks or months.  The people on this mail route know that when he names their town he knows their situation. He knows it’s dire. Domitian has been emperor of Rome for a decade and a half, and no one is free of his tyranny.

John could never write Revelation without knowing his people and their struggles. What’s more important, he wants them to know that Jesus, though hidden to them behind the veil of heaven, knows. He’s thinking about them, speaking to them, caring for them. What matters to them matters to him. He’s on it. He’s delivering a personal message through someone they know and love and trust.

The voice

If you want, like, an entertaining experience, you should, like, look up the word “like” on Wikipedia. Well it might not be entertaining for, like, everyone. You have to, like, like language. After a half-page of more formal definitions and examples – “like” as a preposition, noun, adjective, adverb, mathematical enumerator, colloquial quotative (who knew one word could be so versatile?) – the page attempts to describe the informal ways in which the word “like” is, like, used a lot. Here are some examples –

  • “He was like, ‘I’ll be there in five minutes.’”
  • “I’m like, who do they think they are?”
  • “I’m like (roll your eyes).” (You don’t even need words.)

Wikipedia thinks this is a late 20th century phenomenon. I’m like, “No, it’s not.” When I looked up today’s text in the Greek, I was really surprised at, like, how many times “like” is used. Ten times, using two different words for “like.” You have already heard one of them, in verse 10 – “I heard behind me a voice like a trumpet.” Now let’s pick it up in verse 11 with my translation/paraphrase.

And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me, and having turned I saw seven golden lampstands,

and in the middle of the lampstands, like, a Son of man, robed to the feet and wrapped at the nipples with a golden sash,

and his head and hairs white, like wool, white, like snow,

and his eyes, like, a fiery blaze,

and his feet, like, polished brass, like, they had been refined in a furnace,

and his voice, like, the voice of Niagara Falls,

and, holding in his right hand, seven stars, and a two-edged sword protruding out of his mouth,

and his face, like, the sun blazing at full power. (11-16)

A left brain guy like me immediately wants to analyze all this. “Why is he robed to the feet? What does the polished brass mean?” And so on. Worse yet, people try to draw it, which does for this what The Chronicles of Narnia movies do for the books. Some fantasies can successfully become film, but not Narnia. Visual ruins the imagination.

This is something we need to grasp early in Revelation. Sometimes these symbols are explained by John, and sometimes it helps to try to analyze them. Most of the time we need to stay with our right brain to imagine them and feel them.

What does it all mean? Really? You don’t know? You can hear that description and not get it? How? This is an overwhelming visual of strength and wisdom and power and authority and victory and truth and brilliance and majesty. You don’t have to pick it apart image by image or word by word. Just, like, fall down on your face and worship!

That’s exactly what John does. He says,

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet though dead. And he placed his right hand on me. (17)

The sight and sound is too much, too overwhelming, too awe-inspiring. John believes he has seen God (the Father), and he’s going to die. The One with the voice puts his right hand on John to assure him.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, that’s impossible. We just learned that he had seven stars in his right hand. How can he hold seven stars in his hand anyway, and then take that same hand and put it on John?” Stop it! Right here in chapter one, stop trying to do that to Revelation. This is not a book that has to make sense. This is a vision, and some of its symbols are fluid in their meaning. In one place the right hand symbolizes his authority, in the next it symbolizes his assurance.

With his hand on John’s prostrated body, here’s what the voice says –

Stop pulling back from me in fear. I AM before all things and the future of all things. And I am the Living One. And I was dead, and (Look at me!) I am living to eons and eons! And I hold the keys of Death and of the invisible world where the dead live. 

Therefore, take notes on the things you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to happen after all these things. 

As for the secret of the seven stars in my right hand, they are my envoys to the seven churches. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches. (17-20)

That’s pretty straightforward, don’t you think? These churches are to shed light in a dark world, and he will send messengers to them.

Who is this?

What is it that the Holy Spirit through John wants his churches – then and now – to know in the midst of whatever life is like? He wants you to ask, “Who is this?”

First, this is the Jesus you know. Did you notice that in this vision the Voice never says, “I’m Jesus!” We’ve read the name “Jesus” four times in the first nine verses of Revelation, but it disappears when we come to the actual vision of Jesus. If you have a red letter Bible, you will notice that the words of Jesus begin in 1:17 and don’t end until the end of chapter 3.

This is the Jesus of the Gospels. He says, “I was dead and Look! I am alive forever.” That’s not God the Father. He was never dead. John remembers the day Jesus died. He was there at the cross with Jesus’ mother. John saw Jesus in his resurrection body while still on earth, and now, in this exalted vision, Jesus wants him to know, “I’m that same person.”

This is the Jesus who fulfills the Old Testament. We spent several months recently on the connecting threads between Jesus’ life and the Hebrew Bible. Revelation has more allusions and quotations to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. There are several allusions to the Old Testament in this vision which would have been apparent to John – “Son of Man” (Daniel 7:13), full-length robe (Exodus 28:4), the First and Last (Isaiah 41:4), and a number of others. We don’t need to list them all, but we do need to know that John understands the connection, as will many of his readers.

This is the Jesus of eternity. Much of the language in this description of Jesus and in the words uttered by the voice can only be expressed by God himself. Earlier in chapter 1, the “Lord God” had said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Now this same language is uttered by One who is unmistakably Jesus. Jesus declares himself to be One with the Father in eternity and glory and power and authority. This is the Jesus who co-exists with the Father and the Spirit – as the Nicene Creed expresses it, “of one substance.”

Second, this is the Jesus you need. As I said earlier, this week I know our church family has dealt with pain and uncertainty and death. This is the Jesus we needed when we gathered in this space yesterday for Justin Tramble’s funeral. I chose Revelation 1:17-18 to read as one of the texts yesterday. Jesus says, “I know what it’s like to live in your suffering world. I even know what it’s like to be dead. But look! Look at me! I am now alive and will never, ever die. I am the One who has unlocked the prison of death, throwing open the bars forever.”

This Jesus is not intimidated by the systems and powers of this world. He is not worried about outcomes. He is not concerned that things won’t work out. He started it all and he will finish it.

More personally, he is your beginning and end. You can hear echoes of your mother:  “I brought you into this world and I can take you out!”

What does it mean that Jesus is your beginning and ending? I heard a wonderful sermon this past week on this passage by Tim Keller. Keller focused on Jesus as the First and the Last – your beginning and your end. If he is your beginning, if he brought you into the world, your life has significance and purpose. If you are a random collection of molecules, then life has no meaning except what you make of it.

If he is your ending, then all of life must be lived through that filter. If I find myself saying things like, “Where was God when Justin died?” or “Why did my child not get into that school when we prayed?” or “How can God allow my pain to go on?” that is evidence that Jesus, for me, is not the goal, not the finish. Instead, I think of him as a means to get the life I want – the one with no need and all happiness. But if he, indeed, is the goal, the consummation, then I can trust him to use whatever happens in my life to get me to him.

Third, this is the Jesus you serve. It turns out that Patmos is a blessing in surprise. There in his isolation, uncertainty, and seemingly senseless existence, the aged Apostle experiences the greatest encounter with the glorified Jesus ever. Jesus commissions John to write down his vision and then share it with the seven churches. He gives him something to do, a purpose, a mission. And it’s not just any mission. In his case he is given a job that will have an enduring impact until the end of the age.

Who would have thought it? There he sits in a cave, hungry, removed from his family and friends, undoubtedly dealing with physical discomfort and pains of old age, cut off from opportunities to strengthen churches and share widely the gospel, and right there he is given something so significant to accomplish.

God is never done using you. When you are in your loneliest, darkest, most meaningless place, he will use that experience in your life – but he will also use you. Write down what you’re going through. Share what you’re learning. Keep trusting him that he’s not finished with you yet. Someone needs you – you, right where you are! Jesus won’t be finished with you until you take your last breath. Amen.

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