Grace Presbyterian Church
April 24, 2022, Easter 2C
Every Eye Will See
When I was younger and reading a book in which the plot was going less than wonderfully, I was the type who occasionally would skip ahead to the end of the book, just to make sure things were going to turn out all right and I wasn’t setting myself up for some huge crushing sorrow or disappointment.
If you do that with the Bible, you end up in the book called Revelation.
This book has acquired over the years a reputation as a deeply strange book, and that reputation is not unwarranted. However, it has also become the object of manipulation for a particular class of preacher or wannabe leader who sees the interior sections of the book, with those dark monsters and major battles and whatnot, as a prime opportunity for currying fear among Christians and ginning up unneeded warrior mentalities and hostility towards, frankly, anyone who could possibly be portrayed as an “enemy.” On the other hand, preachers not of such a mind tend to avoid the book altogether, with the possible exception of one or two passages deemed suitable for funerals.
This is a shame, because actually Revelation is exactly what one is looking for when one “skips to the end of the book,” as in my youthful reading habits. There may be monsters, but there is also, and most importantly, a God who reigns above it all, and to put it mildly, wins in the end. God will not be overthrown; if we take nothing else from Revelation, take that much.
Our reading from chapter 1 is more or less the author’s greeting to his readers or hearers, not completely unlike the openings of all those letters Paul write. This author John (who may or may not be the one who wrote the gospel of that name; scholarly research increasingly suggests he was not) is in a different situation than Paul, though, sent off to exile on a remote island called Patmos and under tight scrutiny in terms of what his letters might containing. Writing around thirty years after Paul’s death, John writes in an age where the church wasn’t quite yet under full-fledged persecution from Rome, but the pressures were increasing, and one who might get “ratted out” by others under Roman rule might suffer John’s fate, or worse. The full-fledged suppression wasn’t quite there, but it was close.
As a result John writes this missive in metaphor, creating all those monsters and such as a thin veil for the principal villain of the story: the Roman Empire itself. Wrapped around those scenes, though, are episodes of ecstatic praise of God and of the Lamb, the clear reference to Christ, and scenes of the final coming of the Holy City at the book’s climax. Today’s introductory note sets the scene for all that is to be portrayed and introduces two most significant statements about God and God’s doing that are meant to provide the reader with something to hold close while working through the thornier parts of the book.
The first point to be gathered from this greeting is what might called the immutable eternity of God. It’s so significant to John that he cites it twice in this brief greeting, and he does so in a way that delivers a clear shot across the bow of those worldly rulers with pretentions of divine power.
A common attribution to the power of Rome or of its emperor or of the deities to whom its power was attributed was to speak of “the one who was and who is and who will be.” You can see how John’s statement is similar in verses 4 and 8, but the differences are highly significant.
First, John forwards the immediate presence and preeminence of God now. By bumping up the “who is” statement to the front of the attribution John makes clear the importance of the immanence – the presence with power – of God. God is not relegated to mighty deeds of the past, nor is God confined to an unformed hoped-for future glory. God is, and that’s most important of all. God is present now, and God is as much in charge now as God was in that glorious past (which, like in most cases, wasn’t always particularly glorious) and as much in charge now as God will be in that final triumph. John is urging his readers to grasp this now and hold on to it for the rest of the story.
The other difference is also significant. You might note that John’s final clincher in this attribution is not simply the traditional “will be,” but God is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” God does not merely exist; God acts, and specifically God will come to the people of God, a coming that is described most vividly in verse 7. God isn’t static, and God isn’t finished with this world yet.
Verse 7 also makes another of the key points of this introductory note: this coming of God won’t be quiet. You might remember that after the resurrection of Jesus, the number of those who saw the resurrected Jesus was pretty slight; the disciples and followers of Jesus, mostly. There is that quote from one of Paul’s letter to Corinth that Jesus appeared to five hundred people after his raising, but even that is a fairly small number against the population of the time.
Not so in this future coming. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him…“. Even those who put Jesus to death – a first reference to the Roman Empire already – will see the one who they killed returning in glory and power. No secretive stuff here: the whole world will behold. Whether they behold in joy or behold in fear, you might say, is up to them. We’ll get a lot more of this glorious return at the end of the book.
One more statement worth noting is the now-famous “I am the Alpha and Omega” attribution. Even those for whom the Greek alphabet is, well, all Greek to them have mostly picked up enough to know that those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is the beginning of all things, and God is the end of all things – the One to which all is directed and will come at the last. That is fitting for “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”
A little summarizing now, to make up for the fact that I won’t be in this pulpit next week: what follows this introductory section is a set of mini-letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, a region that is now part of western Turkey. The letters are exhortatory in nature and sometimes rather pungent, as John has something rather harsh to say to most of them about their conduct and faithfulness in the increasingly perilous time in which they live. If a preacher gets brave, teaching through those seven letters becomes a stiff and provocative challenge, both to the church and to the preacher. Perhaps at a future time, we’ll see.
After the seven letters comes the heavy visionary part of the book. John’s apocalyptic vision doesn’t dive directly into the monsters and battles, though, The first stop in John’s vision is nothing less than the throne room of God, and scenes of tremendous praise and glorification of God upon the throne. Next week’s reading, which would have been from 5:11-14, gives a flavor of that praise, in words glorious and ecstatic enough to catch the attention of one Charles Jennens, the librettist who created the text for the wildly famous oratorio Messiah by George Friederic Handel; these verses contribute the words for the final chorus of that work, fittingly enough.
The darker stuff begins in chapter 7, and we will touch briefly on that in two weeks. But for now the part on to is what is being made clear from the very beginning: we are here to worship “the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come,” the first and the last, the beginning and the end; the one whom “every eye will see,” and the Jesus who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of earth.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #360, Christ is Coming! #260, Alleluia! Sing to Jesus