A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Beholding the Alpha and Omega

St. John on Patmos by Giotto di Bondone (1320)

Easter 2 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Acts 5:12a, 17–22, 25–29, Psalm 111, Revelation 1:1-19, John 20:19-31

Last week we celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This week we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church celebrates a fifty-day feast focused on the joy of our risen Lord. At the same time, every Sunday is a Resurrection Day for every Sunday we rejoice in his rising and ascending, hear the remember the story of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and every Sunday we eat His body and drink His blood as a joyous celebration of the life He gives to sustain and renew us.

Throughout Eastertide, our second lesson is taken from The Revelation. At first sight, this seems a bit odd since The Revelation is usually associated with end of all things, the war in the heavens, the fall of Babylon, and the judgment seat. The Revelation gave rise to a genre of writing called Apocalyptic writing and in more recent times, Apocalyptic and Post- Apocalyptic literature. These stories are usually set in the midst of a worldwide collapse due to war, pandemic, or zombie infestation. At the same time, The Revelation has given rise to a whole different line of stories about the war between angels and demons, vampires and werewolves, darkness and light.

Then when we finally come to the actual reading of this ancient book, we discover a strange world that seems difficult to untangle. Though many people have offered interpretations with complete confidence. In fact, for almost two thousand years people have been offering drastically varied interpretations of this book. One of the most influential writers, St. Augustine, suggested that it was a book about the church throughout time. Much like his magnum opus The City of God, Augustine suggested that The Revelation contrasted the City of Man (the empire) against the City of God (the church). He offered a very loose connection between Revelation and history but after Augustine some people tried to use the book as a way of interpreting the people and events that surrounded them.

Over the centuries, there have been all sorts of attempts to connect the events discussed in the book with the current events of a given era. While many of these attempts go too far and end up making ridiculous claims there is some value in seeing that Bible speaks to a given moment in time. I grew up in the shadow of Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” and Larry Norman’s “I wish we’d all been ready.”

As I look back over all the odd interpretations and strange connections between The Revelation and popular culture, I wonder how can we hear this book as the backdrop for a season of joy in the risen Christ? Over the next six Sundays, I hope to tease out the joy of beholding our Risen Lord in the pages of this text. Our lectionary readings focus on the worship passages in Revelation, which helps makes this a bit easier. At the same time, I thought our Monday night reading group could reading the entire book together and reflect a bit more on some of the encouraging themes that emerge from the text.

When reading literature, I encourage students to

  1. Read the text.
  2. Listen to the text. Waiting, sitting, rehearsing.
  3. See the text. Visual.

This may help us as we move through The Revelation. We begin by asking, “What is plain and clear?” This is where we can focus our meditation, trusting that the Lord is speaking a clear word to us. Then we might pause over the passages that are strange and mysterious? We must be cautious and humble when considering these more unusual passages. It might help us to simply think about the images and see if we notice similar images appearing in other parts of The Revelation or the rest of Scripture. We might ask, “How do these images echo images from the Old Testament?”

The Revelation brings together images and themes that cover the entire spectrum of Scripture from the opening pages of Genesis to the exile to the Gospel joy of the New Testament. Every page is packed with allusions to Old Testament stories and pictures. This unusual way of writing causes us to hear and see Biblical motifs even when they are not described in detail. There are so many allusions, we simply cannot follow all the trails, but we will try to listen for how this text speaks to us of Resurrection joy in the midst of our own specific time and season.

As our lesson opens today, Jesus is speaking to his church. Jesus sends his angel to John with a testimony for the seven churches in Asia. Through John, we also hear the word of the risen Lord speaking.  Immediately, we begin to hear the titles of Jesus. These and other titles for Jesus will appear throughout Revelation. All these titles carry authority and images of his role and the ways in which he blesses. Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. [1]

Who is God the Father? Jesus is the Faithful Witness. Is God good? Are we loved? Is there hope? Jesus is the faithful witness. As we behold Jesus, we behold the very image of God, we behold the face of love. Do we fear death? As we behold Jesus, we behold the firstborn of the dead. He has led the way through death unto life, and we rest in him to lead us into the fullness of life everlasting.

He is ruler of the kings of the earth. John lives in the Roman empire. The most powerful force on the planet. At times, the threat from the Roman empire on the people of God was terrifying and deadly. And yet, Rome did not have the last word. The ruler of the kings of the earth can exalt and can humiliate rulers and kingdoms and powers. No matter where God’s people live or work, Jesus is their true ruler. No parent, no manager, no prince, no spiritual power can stop the purposes of God. Jesus has not forsaken his people and rules over their rulers. In the fullness of time, He will make all things right.

In verse eight, Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” [2] Jesus is Lord of space and time. There is no time or place where Jesus is not. From the first moment of creation to the last second of this age, He is Lord on all. This could be terrifying if we didn’t know the character of Jesus. This could be fearful simply on account of our own shortfalls, quick tempers, weak loves. But we already know that Jesus has loved us in our weakness. He came to redeem even when we were enemies of the cross. And John reminds us, “That Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. [3]

So far, we have heard that Jesus is one true ruler before all other rulers must kneel and submit. He is the Lord of Time and Space, and there is nowhere beyond his rule of love. We have also heard that he loves us, has redeemed us, and has established us as a nation of priests and kings. We have been raised us to sing the praises of our God in this world. We have been raised up to live as faithful witnesses of his love by word and deed. As we worship Him, as we prayer for the world, and as we go out to serve a world in need, we are living witness of the goodness of God in the midst of this world. So even as we behold Jesus in the fullness of glory, we behold the priestly role of God’s people in this creation.

These pictures of who Jesus is and who we are will help as we hear the words of the book. Next we discover that this glorious encounter with the risen Lord happens in the midst of worship. Fr. Thomas Hopko, the late dean of St. Vladmir’s Seminary used to say this image of John worshipping when he beholds Jesus helps us to see in this entire Revelation, a glorious picture of liturgy, of worship. He went on to suggest that the liturgical pattern of Eastern Orthodox churches is rooted in worship we behold in The Revelation. The company of heaven and the saints of earth join our voices together in praises of our Lord and King.

As we praise Him, he walks among us. He watches us. He comes to encourage us. He speaks to us. John turns to see the voice speaking and behold the Lord in such glory that John falls to the ground as though dead. He writes,

“I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” [4]

In these strange and mysterious images, we see golden lampstands that should help us to visually connect this scene with the Temple. The son of man stands in the midst but he is described as the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 and Daniel 10, so we might think about how that image spoke to Daniel while in captivity in Babylon.

The overall picture is of Jesus as the glorious Ancient of Days is ruling the empires of the world from the Temple. He is both a ruler and priest in the Temple. But the Temple of His body and the church have replaced the physical Temple which was destroyed. We also see images of the created world: stars and sun and more as the book progresses. In this one passage, there is a visual connection with Genesis and the creation story, with the Temple and worship, and with the people in captivity in Babylon.

These three sets of images allude to the larger story of Scripture. The Lord creates the heavens and the earth. It is good. In fact, there is almost a liturgical call and response in Genesis 1. God speaks and creates. The creation responds. The Lord proclaims, “It is good.” Finally on the seventh day, the Lord sees that it is very good and he rests.

Genesis 2 shows man in the garden as the priest and king of creation, naming the animals and obeying the Lord. This pastoral picture is an image of pure communion, of holy worship and it even consummates with a marriage between Adam and Eve. Genesis 3 tells the dark story of sin and rebellion. It is the opposite of Genesis 2. Instead of the loving communion of Genesis 2, we see seduction, adultery or idolatry with the serpent that consummates in a false meal. It is the inverse of true worship. Thus we see a larger pattern of Scripture in short form: true and loving communion with God versus false worship. Eating is a part of both stories. One consummates in marriage and thus other in the curse of death. We have true and false worship. We see marriage and adultery or idolatry.

There is a similar inverse image in Proverbs 7 and 8. The adulteress whose house leads to death and Lady Wisdom who instructs the young to become true and just leaders.  

These images also connect with pictures of God’s people in Babylon.

The people of Judah betrayed the Lord and worshipped Baal. They sacrificed their children, their committed atrocious acts of sexual perversion, they oppressed the poor and needy, they become a curse on the land. The Lord sends the ravaging Babylon the destroy his nation. They are taken captive, their temple destroyed, their land ruined.

In Babylon, there are times of persecution as in the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and there are times of relative prosperity. It is in Babylon that many of the Jews will return to the Lord in their hearts. Daniel will have a vision of empires collapsing and only one true empire being established by the Ancient of Days, the Lord of Glory.

All these themes reappear in The Revelation. The true worship of God’s people that consummates in a marriage, and the false worship that will ultimately ends in death and destruction. The Revelation shows the restoration of the Temple but in people instead of stones. The Lord of glory rules the cosmos in place of the Sun.

In today’s text, the Risen Lord speaks to his people and encourages them. The heavens and the earth will be restored the Temple of the living God. He is the first and the last, the living one. He has passed through death and is alive forevermore. He will walk with his people through whatever challenges they face: some will face persecution and even death; some will exchange true and loving relations for effective techniques and administration; some will feel the seductive lure of wealth, of new teaching that goes beyond Jesus, of idolatry, of various indulgences in the culture around them; and all will face the weariness of living faithfully over time. In all seven letters Jesus repeats the following phrase: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

In other words, all seven letters are for all seven churches. He is present in the midst of His people as the great High Priest, standing in the Temple of the cosmos, interceding for us day and night. He is faithful and trustworthy. And he has raised his people up as priest and kings to worship in the midst of all the struggles of this life. Throughout our lives, we may experience all of these struggles that faced the early churches, but he is present. He can sustain us, encourage us, strengthen us, and send his Spirit to help us as we seek to walk in His ways and worship Him in all that we do.

For he is raising us up as light in the midst of a wicked and darkened generation. Or as Daniel 7 says,

And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. (Daniel 7:27)

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 1:5.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 1:8.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 1:5–6.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 1:12–16.


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