Sunday, June 3, 2012
This Week's Sermon: "Alpha to Omega"
A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw. 3 Favored is the one who reads the words of this prophecy out loud, and favored are those who listen to it being read, and keep what is written in it, for the time is near. 4 John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen. 7 Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.” (CEB)
"The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation," Week One
The man’s weathered, whiskered face was a case study in emotional agony. Peering at me from inside his wire-rimmed glasses, he looked from a distance as any typical, run-of-the-mill, middle-aged father would—some salt and pepper in his hair, maybe a wrinkle here or there, but still in good shape. But once you fail to meet his gaze, to let your eyes drop from his, you notice the mighty scar that runs across the entirety of his throat—an artifact of his most recent attempt to take his own life, and hard proof of why he was talking to me in that moment.
Sitting across from him in a tiny room in the inpatient psychiatric ward at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, the most ministry that I could muster at the moment was to actually maintain that eye contact as he unpacked his entire life for me, from his Ivy League education to his failing marriage and even how he used to hit his children and how deeply he regrets it now. Especially now, now that he has been involuntarily committed to a 72-hour suicide watch. For him, for many people who are incredibly smart and delightfully articulate, time in the suicide prevention psychiatric ward draws out slower and slower like an eternity. With nothing but your thoughts—of which there are many—to occupy you at moments, such folks wrestle with the meaning of life, love, family, and God, and invariably are left contemplating one simple, profound, but incredibly difficult to answer question: “How in the heck did I end up here?”
So they ask to see the psychiatric ward’s chaplain. And my pager would go off, I would walk across the street from the main hospital campus, and I would hear the stories of people living in the margins, people whose own thoughts were as fantastical and wondrous as those of our author of the book of Revelation, John of Patmos. And the resemblance, I think, is hardly coincidental.
Today marks the beginning of a brand-new summer sermon series for each of us. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the Bible’s past. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can at least promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over!
In allowing ourselves into John’s vision, we must, absolutely must, accept this singular fact as price of our admission into the book of Revelation—we are not John. Each of us, by right of being here on Sundays, belongs to a mainstream religious community that John no longer has. To the extent John has any community now, it is simply with God. John has been cast away, shunted off to a sort of psychiatric ward—not one where he receives treatment for mental illness, but one where he is isolated from the more ordinary members of society.
Our challenge, then, is to meet and recognize this lonely, mystical apostle for who he is—not who we want him to be. Because that, I promise you, is where nearly every other Christian who has come before us and attempted to say that they know exactly what Revelation says falls into trouble. It may trouble us to admit, but by this point in his career, John is an extremist. He does not fall neatly into the camp of any other New Testament theologian—he is not at all like Paul, or Peter, or James, or the writer of Hebrews, and he bears no resemblance to the writings attributed to him in the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John. In Revelation, John marches to the beat of his own drummer, and over the next eight weeks, I would ask us, and I would ask you to hold me to account on this, to not force him into marching to the beat of our drum.
Probably the most common way we have fallen into that trap is the ways we have divided ourselves over what exactly the End Times, that moment when the Second Coming occurs and final judgment is upon us, really looks like. You’ve got people who believe in the tribulation, or in the rapture, or in the battle between heaven and hell. You have your millennialists and your premillennialists and your postmillennialists, and then you’ve got people like me—the panmillennialists. See, I’m a panmillennialist because (to borrow from Nadia Bolz-Weber) I think that everything will pan out.
And in this way, Revelation is an excellent sort of Rorschach test of how you take the rest of the Bible. Are you a person who claims to have all the answers, to possess the key that unlocks the doors to all the right interpretations, or are you a person willing to admit that the scope and grandeur of God’s grace is beyond yours or ours understanding? Or, most likely, are you some of both, and perhaps not exactly sure where you fall on that spectrum?
If so, I think that the opening lines of Revelation are a pretty good indicator that it means that the reason we aren’t getting anywhere is because we are asking the wrong questions. We treat Revelation as something that is meant to divine these sacred mysteries of the future, when in truth, John is speaking of the present. As he writes about himself: “ the servant who testifies!” As he writes about us: “blessed is the one who reads, and blessed are those who hear it, and take it to heart!” As he writes about Jesus Christ: “To Him who loves us!” And finally, in verse 8, what John writes about God, in God’s own voice: “I am who IS,” not simply who is to come.
What John is writing about is not simply the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet that signify the beginning and the end, no, John is writing about the Alpha TO the Omega, of everything that is happening between beginning and end. It is not merely the destination that Revelation speaks of, but the journey as well, from sin into redemption, from death into grace, from darkness into light, and from earth into heaven. No sooner would you want to flip to the very end of a good book to see how it ends (unless it's Harry Potter) than would you flip immediately to the end of your life and of your faith journey on this earth, and that is what John is avoiding here. His visions may deal with the world to come, but his reality is still firmly planted in the present.
Which is where we too must ground ourselves, if we are to accept John for who he is, the isolated, visionary, mystical, devoted sage that he is. Because just like a patient in a hospital psych ward, John has hit his rock bottom. And it is so, so very tempting for him to skip straight to the end, to leap over these trials and tribulations, these hurts and hang-ups and pains that he is experiencing, and as we will see over the next seven weeks, he entertains those hopes to skip straight to the end a great, great deal. But before that, and before God Himself, John reminds himself—and in doing so, reminds us as well—that his current situation, and his current ministry, is rooted in the present moments of time, where sin and strife still very much exist, and not in the future, much as he would wish for that to be so. In this way, John is echoing the depths of the serenity prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, that includes the lines that we take “this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that God will make all things right.”
That is the trust that John places in God in the present moment. It is the trust we place in God as well in our own present moments. And it is that trust that leads us to our own salvation.
By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
June 3, 2012