Thursday, August 12, 2021

Presence and Promise: The Center of Our Universe

The book of Revelation. What comes to mind when you think of this book? Maybe it’s the Left Behind series so popular a few years ago talking about the end of the world and the so-called rapture. Or maybe it’s all of the bizarre imagery in the book, ideas and word pictures that seem nearly impossible to interpret. Or maybe it’s 666 - the anti-Christ and the many people that have been identified as this being. Or maybe you’ve just never read it because, as one member told me, it just scares the bejesus out of her. 

Today, we are in the first of five Sundays in this book. This apocalyptic writing. Yet, it is more than this. So much more. It’s also a book of worship. As we read through selected passages, you will hear words that sound familiar to you, words that we have sung or spoken in our worship in the Church for over two millenia. 

It’s also an epistle - a letter to the Church. Originally addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor to prepare them and comfort them and challenge them, it is really a letter for the whole Church, the universal church. A letter that uses picture language, not to conceal, but, ultimately, to reveal. That opens with this claim - that it is “a revelation of Jesus Christ.” A revelation given to John that is intended to show us God’s ultimate mission and purpose for the world. 

We begin in Revelation, chapter 4.

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come.”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they existed and were created.” --Rev. 4:1-11 (CEB)

I’d like to begin today speaking about the context in which this book was written. The seven churches were churches all of which were likely planted by Paul. These were the seven churches of Asia Minor (present day Turkey): Ephesus. Smyrna. Pergamum. Thyatira. Sardis. Philadelphia (not in Pennsylvania). Laodicea. 

The number seven is the number of completeness, a number that figures prominently in all of John’s writings. The seven days of creation. The seventh day of the week, made holy by God as a day of rest. The seven clean animals Noah was commanded to bring in the ark. The seven years centered around the Year of Jubilee. Over and over again, we see the number seven used in scripture, intended to suggest wholeness.

This letter, although addressed to the seven churches, is really intended for the whole church, the universal church. A quick glimpse of these letters in the chapter preceding today’s text tells us that the positives and negatives of church life then are really no different from church life today. 

Ephesus is a congregation that is more interested in truth than in love. A church that has abandoned the love that first brought them together. Unable to distinguish between good theology and bad theology without becoming hateful. 

Smyrna is a persecuted church, rejected by people they had considered their friends, that has lost its privileged status as a “legal” religion and now faces the very real threat of persecution. 

Pergamum has also known persecution and martyrdom. It has experienced external pressure from the government, as well as, internal pressure from its own members to conform to the wishes of the state. 

Thyatira had secret societies and a fascination with a type of spiritualism that John describes as “the deep things of Satan.” He warns them about playing with people’s spirituality. 

Sardis is a church that has a great community reputation as a church alive and active. But, behind its facade, this church is dead. Only going through the motions. With little substance to its witness. Fooling everyone, including themselves. Because it is no longer a church able to tell the difference between real Christian witness and useless religious rituals and beliefs.

Laodicea is a wealthy, self-sufficient church. It’s a “show” church. Fat, smug, self-satisfied. Free of controversy. But neutral, lukewarm and paralyzed. Financially secure, it is spiritually useless. 

Only one of the seven churches escapes John’s wrath. Philadelphia. It’s not a fat church. Not self-sufficient. Not financially secure. Yet it too is under pressure to conform to the religion of the Roman empire and offered special status if it cooperates. The members of this church, though, have found the cost of power too high. And they have decided to remain true to the name of the Crucified One. As a result, they, too, have been rejected and now face persecution.  

Seven churches. Each different, yet all of them somewhat similar. Which of these seven churches is like a church we know? Better yet, which of these seven are we? Or perhaps, we can find a bit of ourselves in all of them.

The book of Revelation is intended to be either a comfort or a challenge. A comfort to those experiencing persecution because they have refused to follow the religion of the state. Or a challenge to those churches who simply want to get along to go along. It is a book that reminds us - especially in today’s text - that God the Creator, and none other, is at the center of the universe. Not us. Not our culture. And, particularly, not the powers and principalities of our world. 

This is the meaning of the vision in the throne room in today’s reading. God, the creator, is seated on the throne. God looks like jasper and carnelian - stones of paradise from Ezekiel. The throne is surrounded by a rainbow, recalling the promise to Noah of God’s commitment to show mercy to every living creature. There are the twenty-four elders representing the heavenly court - the community of faith gathered around God in heaven. There’s lightning and thunder, images that represent God’s awesome power in nature. Finally, there are four living creatures which, for John, represent all living things. Notice that the one with the human face - representing all humanity - is not at the center. These beings join the elders, all of creation, and all the people of God, day and night praising the Creator. 

This is how the universe is ordered. With no human or anything else at its center other than God, the Creator. It is a reminder for us that no matter the chaos or difficulty or persecution or self-induced mess we may experience, God is at the center of our world, our universe, the whole cosmos. And God is at work, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. And nothing. Nothing will separate us from God, ​​the Lord God the Almighty, who was. And is. And is to come. Amen.

Preached August 8, 2021, at Grace & Glory, Goshen, and Third, Louisville.
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 4:1-11, John 17:1-5

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