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The Apocalypse for Now 1: Contemplating the Cosmic Christ

April 8, 2013

“The Apocalypse for Now 1: Contemplating the Cosmic Christ” Revelation 1:1-20 © 4.7.13 Easter 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The late journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said of his life: “It never got weird enough for me.” Maybe he should have read the book of Revelation. This is a piece of literature so strange that it had a tough time getting into the Bible. Our theological forebear John Calvin avoided it. Revelation was the only biblical book on which he did not write a commentary. Its weirdness has led to equally bizarre interpretations usually designed to make people afraid of the wrath of God or of being persecuted by the State for their faith.

We’re going to be taking a look at this odd book over the next few weeks. Portions of it are appointed as the epistle until the second Sunday in May. I’ve preached on Revelation occasionally since I came here, and we’re studying it in the Fellowship Hall class, but it’s probably a good idea as we start this miniseries this morning to review some basics about Revelation and ancient writings like it.

Revelation gives the name to a kind of literature from the second century BC to the second century AD called “apocalyptic.” The Greek word for “reveal” is apokalupto. It literally means “lifting of a veil,” as with the bride’s veil at the end of a wedding or when the cover is taken off a piece of artwork at a showing. What is hidden is now made known; what was mysterious now becomes clear.

This sort of literature was very common in the ancient world. It was usually written under a false name. In other words, the writer pretended to be Abraham or Adam or Daniel or Peter or Ezra or Enoch. That’s so the commentary he was making on his own day could appear to be prophecy written long before and now being fulfilled in the true author’s time. This was not considered dishonest; it was simply the way things were done, in order to lend authority to the work.

John of Revelation doesn’t write in somebody else’s name. He uses his own name and claims his own authority. He is not, by the way, the John associated with the fourth gospel or the elder John who wrote the letters. This man is a Christian prophet who fled from Judah after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Roman commander Titus in 70 AD during a revolt. He made his way to the province of Asia, which is modern day western Turkey, and started traveling around preaching in churches located in seven cities along a trade and postal route. He was not the pastor or the leader of any of those churches nor had he founded them, but they regarded him as a trustworthy person who should be listened to. For such preaching, he was eventually sent to the penal colony on the little island of Patmos.

For their part, the members of all seven communities of faith faced a bothersome problem, namely, their nosy and meddlesome neighbors. When Revelation was written, the Roman emperor, the Caesar, was considered a god in the flesh. It was the patriotic duty of every citizen to burn incense to Caesar and bow to his image. He was regarded as the Lord, the dominus.

Christians could not affirm Jesus as Lord and also bow to Caesar as lord. Their neighbors therefore regarded them as unpatriotic. In addition, the believers talked about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus at love feasts, language which their uninformed pagan neighbors could only understand as references to cannibalism and sexual orgies. There was no widespread persecution of Christians in the Empire as official policy, but in the towns of Asia, neighbors were ratting on Christians to the local authorities. This was usually done anonymously by the posting of a placard in public with a number of names on it. Those listed were rounded up and brought in. The ones who worshipped the Emperor and cursed Christ were let go; the authorities knew that no true Christian could or would do that. However, those who refused to offer wine or burn incense to Emperor Domitian were not so lucky. They were detained and might be tortured. Seldom, though, were they killed. Revelation actually mentions the name of only one martyr in the seven churches. The government officials apparently had a hard time taking Christians seriously as threats that could be put down only by execution. Instead, they regarded them as adhering to what Pliny the Younger later called “vulgar, excessive superstition.” However they were thought of or treated by the Powers That Be, Christians were looked on with suspicion and ostracized by their neighbors; they lost business, friends, and community standing for following Jesus.

John’s response to these troubles is this apocalyptic, prophetic epistle. That’s not at all what we would expect or want. For that matter, neither was it what his people particularly expected or wanted. Why doesn’t John stir them up to some kind of proactive response to the persecution, such as a demonstration or a boycott, a strike or even a riot? As for their neighbors, how about giving them a taste of their own tactics by spying on them and squealing to the government about their illegal or less than fully patriotic activities? Record an incriminating video. Start an online petition. Bring together representatives from all seven churches and start an organization devoted to justice for Christians. That’s what some of our solutions might be and surely, the first century folk wanted John to suggest some quite similar strategies. How could a letter possibly help?

It helps in this way. What discouraged and hurting people need more than a program or a plan is hope, the assurance that someone cares, somehow things will change, somewhere things are different. Specifically, the churches needed to know that the Romans or the suspicious neighbors did not have the last word, did not exercise ultimate control. They needed food for their souls, inspiration, amazement, a glimpse of the bigger, better picture.

So John offers a vision, a dream, an ecstatic prophetic word grounded in the Old Testament tradition. It’s a feast of the senses, abounding in color, sight, and sound. It touches the emotions more than the mind. Revelation is a work for the right brain. There are impressions and images here that are best appreciated not by analyzing them one by one, but by experiencing them as a whole. Above all, Revelation is meant to be heard; it’s an oral work, as the book itself says. meant to be presented in its entirety in worship that leads up to the celebration of the Eucharist, the foretaste of the great feast of the Lamb.

Revelation can be rightly compared to an epic poem, a surrealistic painting or a complex modern symphony. That last seems a fitting metaphor this morning, since the vision begins with something like a note of music from a trumpet. As we go forward through this little series, we’ll be hearing John conduct his assembled players in a number of variations on a theme. We have become familiar with the program notes and learned about the composer. Let the morning’s text now sound the theme for the first time.

John is "in the Spirit" on "the Lord’s Day" when he hears the voice like a trumpet blast. In other words, he’s in worship on Sunday, the day of resurrection. There he encounters a figure before whom John is so awed that he falls down as if dead. Somebody with a Pentecostal revivalist background might say he was "slain in the Spirit." Whatever we call the experience, John is overcome by what he sees. There before him is a figure so fantastic that it would tax the talents of any special effects wizard to create him for the screen. But the way the "Son of Man" looks is not just for the wow factor. Every aspect of this being is significant and symbolic.

The figure in John’s vision is not the simple, lowly Jesus who walked dusty roads with his disciples so long ago. The one John presents is no less than the risen and ascended Christ, garbed as king and priest, with golden sash and long robe. As the hymnwriter put it, he is “no longer bound to distant years in Palestine” (Brian Wren, “Christ Is Alive!”). It’s a portrait that will not appeal to everyone, but it is nevertheless the one given to John in his situation as a way to provide encouragement to the churches.

This majestic Christ speaks the Word of God, as prophet, an identity symbolized by the sharp sword coming from his mouth. What someone has termed the “messianic weapon” can slice away pretension and falsehood and expose the truth like a sharp sword wielded in battle. Note that speech is the only weapon the Messiah ever uses in this book. The impression of this one as a messenger of God is further enhanced by the feet of burnished bronze and the voice that sounds like a waterfall or rushing river. In the Old Testament, both are characteristic of those who bring a revelation from God. Imagine–a deep and resonant voice that sounds like a giant waterfall. Pretty hard to ignore! And immensely attractive.

What is most striking here, though, is that this figure is at the same time human and divine. He is "Son of Man" yet also bears the distinctive marks of the One who is called Ancient of Days, God himself! His face shines like a supernova, as we might say. Glorious! Overwhelming! Here is One who was and is and is to come, the “first and the last,” yet who also shares with John and his people one important common reality, a fear and destiny they face every day. He has died.

It is this very one, who is so mighty as to hold stars in his hands, that touches the prophet’s shoulder. Can you imagine—the One who controls all that is reaches out to comfort and strengthen this man shaking with fear? The State that so threatens the churches does not control their destinies nor does blind fate. Instead, the guide of his people is the One who has gone before them into a land of darkness and emerged alive with the keys to lock up Death and Hell forever. It is because he has been in the darkness that Jesus can say: “Do not be afraid,” and we know we can trust his word. It is the One who conquers fear who walked among the churches then and still is among us today.

Certainly the God we worship, revealed in the risen and present Christ, is not one to be approached casually. We do not waltz into his presence as if we had a perfect right to be there. Annie Dillard, the noted writer, once even said we should issue crash helmets at the door of the sanctuary, so convinced was she of the awesome power of God. But our grasp of this majestic power of God and of our lordly priest, our kingly prophet ultimately brings comfort and hope. For we realize that whatever is dished out by forces that seem for all the world like Death and Hell, Jesus Christ has felt their fury and touches us with his “righteous, omnipotent hand.” He gives us his word and his presence and assures us concerning the past, the present, and the future—what was, what is, what is to come.

The theme sounds loud and clear. “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” The popular writers and the pulp theologians can have their grand and incredible scenarios that titillate, tease, and frighten, even as they force spurious meanings from the text. I’ll take this simple message of hope in and from our risen Lord: “Do not be afraid.”

That’s the apocalypse, the revelation, I need for now.

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