The Revelation of John has way of inserting itself in the daily news, the way it is every time the planet heaves and quakes and people don’t know why. Network commentators who wouldn’t know Genesis from Geritol scan the Bible hunting for “Revelations,” bringing on self-anointed prophets who confidently announce, “This is it! Look at the signs! It won’t be long! God has to do it now!”
Just like they did in 1999 on the faux eve of the Millennium. And like they do after every earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack, really bad hurricane, stock market crash, bank failure, increase in the price of oil, drought, flood, war or rumor of war. They fall into the ditch of treating this book like a supernatural crystal ball whose inscrutable truth only they can divine, a secret treasure map which every Christian who has ever read it has misunderstood- until now, the real, honest-to-God, “last days.”
Before hearing the really good news of this text, be sure to read again verse 1, the key to the entire apocalypse. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” John was a good enough pastor to know that you don’t comfort persecuted people by telling them, “God has spoken and God will be working all this out in the 21stcentury. Be of good cheer!” People aren’t stupid. If they go to dinner and the waiter spends all his time telling them about the specials they’ll be serving next month, they leave and go find food now. Revelation is present food for the church getting kicked in the head by the Roman Empire. Those people didn’t need magic decoder rings to know who the Beast was. They didn’t sit around in fellowship halls trading theories on the identity of the Antichrist. They were living that persecution, and daily being slaughtered by it. And John comes with great good news which will “soon take place.”
First, he makes sure they understand he has a message from the Risen One. Don’t talk about Him in the past tense, he says; remember his resurrection. He is the firstborn from the dead, the precursor for all the rest of us for whom death still hovers as the scariest prospect we know. If you want to know what death holds for you, look at Jesus. If you want to know the worst thing that can happen for being faithful witnesses under persecution, look at Jesus. He died, yes, he did. But God raised him up! Just like God will raise you.
Second, he reminds them that the Risen Christ is not a silent partner in the work of the world, but in fact the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” It was from the Revelation to John that G. F. Handel chose that mighty clarion call toward the end of Messiah:
The kingdoms of this world have become
the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he shall reign forever and ever. (11:15)
Hear the cry of Easter morning all over again, persecuted church: He is alive! And, though we fail to see it as clearly as we should, he is in charge.
Third, John gives the persecuted church a new identity. The Risen One has made usa kingdom, a kingdom of priests, each of us, and all of us, serving God together. Now, Jesus was not a professional priest, nor did he ever refer to his disciples as priests, as though their role was to fulfill that clearly-defined biblical office. This call to be a kingdom of priests, to a church being persecuted beyond belief, is a reminder of who and whose they are, how they should conduct themselves, and what they are called to do. We are not just a priestly body, as in Israel, we are Christ’s priestly body now, offered afresh in obedience to God and in compassion for the human family.
And what do priests do? We serve and worship Almighty God. We speak praise. Our theology is doxology. Our gaze is vertical. We bear witness, in a world where gods can still be fashioned with our own hands and in our own image, “to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom” (5b-6).
And priests witness, which means we leave the altar and enter the world in Jesus’ name. As Carlyle Marney said so directly, “the church has got to get out of the house.” We minister at the intersection of life, where the vertical meets the horizontal, where we reach one hand out to God and the other to our fellow pilgrim, and spend a lifetime bringing the two together.
Finally, John leaves his trembling flock with a doxologyof such comfort one can scarcely imagine what else we would want to hear from the Lord in our distress:
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
Every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him.
He brings comfort and justice, as only He can, Alpha and Omega, pioneer and perfecter, who is and who was and who is to come. That’s enough God for all of us. And so, my friends, let us hear his call to be his priests at work in the world, scanning the clouds to be the first to see. Amen.