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Monday, April 15, 2013

A Letter From God

From God (Revelation 1:4-8)
Sunday, April 14, 2013

            In the Elders meeting this past week, I said, “The sermon this Sunday is about God.”  Responses went like this.  Um … good topic.  What else would it be about?
            Then, I emailed Starlyn.  “This sermon is about God; … Find songs that talk about how awesome God is.”
            Coming to church, one probably expects the pastor to talk about God.  What could be more obvious?  And yet, try it sometime this week.  Describe God to someone.  No matter what you say, something will be left out.  You could talk for days and barely scratch the surface of all you could say about God.
            No matter what you say, something will be incomplete.  In simply reviewing all God has spoken in the Bible, we realize God has not shown us all of Himself and if God did, we could not handle it.
            No matter what you say when you talk about God, someone will argue that you’re wrong.  Within evangelical Christianity, we see numerous not just different thoughts, but competing ideas about God.  Add the ideas of Protestants.  And Pentecostals.  And Anabaptists.  Now, throw in Catholics.  And Eastern Orthodox Christians.  And Coptic believers and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  That’s just Christianity.  What about Muslims and Jews and Mormons and deists?
            How do we even begin to talk about God in a way that is intelligible?  How do we talk about God in a way that’s helpful?
            Imagine you are a part of one of the churches in Asia Minor in 96AD.  Your congregation is one of the first to hear the Revelation read publically.  As a church, you’re torn from three sides.  Most of the Greeks around you think you are some sort of Jewish sect and in reality, Christianity is the faith that worships the Jewish Messiah.  But Jews who do not believe Jesus was the Messiah strenuously reject Christianity.  Because of this, over the centuries Christians have sinfully persecuted Jews.  There is nothing more Satanic in history than the treatment of Jews by Christians.  It is absolute evil and must be named and condemned. 
            However, in 96 AD, in Ephesus and the other Greek-speaking cities, the synagogue was an established institution within the Roman Empire.  The church was not.  The Jews actually had achieved an exemption from Rome.  Rome required all subjects to acknowledge that the emperor was a god.  Emperor worship and allegiance to the Emperor were laws enforced by pain of death.  The Romans knew the Jews to be monotheists and exempted them from emperor worship.  The Jews rejected the Christians – who themselves were mostly Jews and Jewish proselytes who worshiped Jesus.  So the Christians did not get the exemption.
            Unlike their Jewish cousins, Christians were required to practice emperor worship.  Christians were rejected by Jews, mocked by Pagan Greeks, and arrested by Romans insisting on emperor worship.  Romans did not always persecute Christians, but in the 90’s AD, in Asia Minor they did.  Emperor Domitian demanded allegiance the Christians could not give.  What resulted was a persecuted Church and it is to that church that an early believer named John sent the letter we call Revelation. 
Nowhere does John claim to be the Apostle John, so I don’t identify him that way.   I see him as a late first century Christ-follower who received a visit from the risen, glorified Jesus, and wrote down what Jesus told him to write.
One of the reasons modern believers struggle to understand Revelation is we don’t live in the circumstances of the original audience.  “Revelation is speech by and for the oppressed, those suffering under the sword of Rome.”[i] It is not for the successful, affluent, powerful church.  It is also speech from God and so even though the experience of the original hearers is foreign to us, the richness and truth of the message transcends the original environment.  What spoke to those beleaguered Christ-followers still speaks here and now.  And what is said helps us understand God.  It gives definition and substance and depth to our description of God.  Moreover, we are able to see who we are because of God.  Revelation colorfully demonstrates what it means to follow and worship and serve God.
Revelation is clearly a letter – “Grace and Peace to you from him who is …”.  We don’t see anything novel here, but there certainly is something quite new in this if we are reading it in 96 AD. 
At that time no one began a letter by writing “Grace and Peace.”  Greeks would start their letters with another form of Xaris from which we get the word “grace.”  They typical Greek letters began with the form of the word that means “Warmest greetings.”  It is a nice opening to a letter.  But it didn’t mean “Grace.”  Jewish letters would begin “Shalom,” which means, “peace, wholeness, well-being.”  But the Jewish letters did not begin “Grace and peace,” just “peace.”  Only Christian letter began this way.  It was new invention.  Why?  In 96 AD, we’re asking, “Why does this letter begin, ‘Grace and peace?’” 
Well, who is it from.
“From him who was and is and is to come.”  This can only be a god.  Many religions in 96 AD thought of their god as the one who is and was and will be.  So this new form of Judaism, Christianity, wants its god to offer ‘grace,’ whatever that is, and ‘peace.’
Wait.  There’s more!  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne.”  Seven spirits?  What does that mean? 
Listen to the uniquely Christian greeting.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ.”  The first statement unmistakably identifies God.  Only God could fit that preexistent, omnipresent, futuristic depiction.  This wish of grace and peace is from God.  Seven Spirits and Jesus Christ then are elaborations of God.  Thus we can say about God that God extends to all people grace and peace.  And God exists and presents God’s self to us in three persons – The Eternal Father, the Spirit, and Jesus the Son.  In talking about God, we talk about the giver of grace and peace.  And we talk about God who is three and three-in-one.
This greeting reveals something else that is easy to overlook.  It says God is the one who is and who was and who will be.  … No, that is not what it says.  It does not say God is the one who “will be,” it says, God is the one who “will come.”  God is present but is also coming.  In the future something will happen where the present God will appear in a way that God does not appear now.  A new God-event is surely coming.  To our understanding of God as giver of grace and peace and God as three-in-one, we add that God is to be anticipated.  God is one who is to come. 
The giver of grace and peace, the three-in-one, the coming God is most fully revealed in Jesus, God in human flesh.  Revelation 1:5 says that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus was the faithful witness.  In Revelation the word used for witness is the Greek word ‘martyr.’  One who gave faithful witness held his or her testimony even when threatened with death.  Jesus’ death on the cross showed him to be a faithful witness and after that event many of his followers showed that faithfulness, proclaiming Jesus as Lord even when doing brought suffering and death.
Jesus the Christ, the faithful witness is also called the firstborn of the dead. His death was short lived as the resurrection happened on the third day.  But Revelation does not simply refer to him as resurrected one, but as the firstborn.  There will be more.  His followers will rise from death to eternal life.
The Messiah faithful witness resurrected one is the ruler of the kings of the earth.  This statement was enough to get anyone who made into hot water – or maybe boiling oil.  That would have been one way to deal with someone who declared a king other than Caesar.  John was already exiled on Patmos “because of the word of God and testimony of Jesus" (1:9c).  He knew his writing could get him killed but he wrote on anyway.  Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth – including the Roman emperor; including the American president. 
This Faithful Witness and King of Kings can be known through his actions.  John writes to the end of verse 5 and into 6 that Jesus loves and frees.  Specifically he frees us from the bondage of sin.  John’s writing here is a doxology.  “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”  We don’t have time to explore all the implications of God’s actions.  I urge each one here to go back and read carefully word by word Revelation 1:5-6. 
God is known as he we see him in Jesus and what does God do in Jesus?  He loves us.  He sacrifices himself to free us from sin.  He makes us – not just the clergy, not just the seminary-trained but all of us – to be priests who serve God in the world. 
John emphatically ends his doxology with a declaration that his words are without question true.  That is the meaning of the “Amen.”
Verse 7 reiterates what was said earlier about God – he is one who “is to come.”  This sounds like a prophetic oracle.  “Look!  He is coming on the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of earth will wail.”  And this prophecy is punctuated just as the doxology was. With an emphatic “Amen!”
Do we notice that verse 4 described God as the one who “is to come,” and now in verse 7 Jesus is the one who is to come?  Do we notice that in verse the entire earth sees the coming of Jesus and wails due to complicity in his death?  This verse announces Jesus’ divinity and proclaims that his coming is the coming of final judgment.  Judgment is what caused the wailing of the those who pierced him and now see him resurrected and in gloried form.  This is implied here and laid out more fully throughout Revelation. 
One more reiteration of who God is and also an anticipation of who Jesus is comes along in verse 8.  “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.  Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  God is the A-Z.  God is everything.  In verses 17-18, Jesus appears in his glory before John, probably similar to the form he had in the transfiguration before the disciples, Peter, James, and John.  He says, “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 Hades.”  Coupled with the introduction to the letter in the verses we’ve been discussing, Jesus here asserts that he is the eternal God, the everything, a member of the trinity and of God; He was incarnated, took on human form, died, and rose.  He is alive forever – that’s a key part of his resurrection.  And he has all authority to judge.  This is who Jesus is and Jesus is who God is.
The book of Revelation is a letter from God.  Even though we are second-hand recipients and not the persecuted first century church that was intimately aware of John’s imagery and the conditions that sparked John’s writing, we see that Revelation is for us too.  The first thing for us to take hold of and never release is that this message is to us from God.  In this letter, we see our God and in seeing and hearing, we start to come to know God. 
I started out with a challenge.  Describe God!  Revelation has given us good starting material.  God is the giver of grace and peace.  God is eternal and is coming.  God is Father, Spirit, and Son.  God is Jesus, the one who died for sin and rose from death, and the one who loves and frees us from sin and who is king of kings.  He is the one who makes us a nation of priests – each and every one of us.  We are all called into God’s service.  Jesus is also judge, the one who will come and at his coming all who have rejected him will mourn.  God is the first and the last, all-knowing, almighty, and omnipresent. 
If you didn’t get this all down, review Revelation 1:4-8.  And this week, talk about God and think and pray about how each and every word that’s been spoken about God affects your life.  In thinking about God, orient life upon God.  Fix all your attention on God.  And next week, we will again talk about God.

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