Come, Lord Jesus!

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

This is the last sermon in a series called “Good News for Hard Times.”  I’ve been wondering how to end it and I think the author of Revelation may have had the same problem.  Because he could have ended it in chapter 18, with the spectacular collapse of Babylon, which represents not only the city of Rome but also the Roman Empire—the Government—that was making life so difficult for the Christians of that time.  “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great,” says an angel, at the beginning of Chapter 18.  “Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has condemned her condemnation of you” (vs. 20).  That would have been a good ending, but John writes on.

He might have ended it in Chapter 19, when the Beast is captured and thrown into the Lake of Fire.  That’s the one who represents Caesar Domitian, the one who was directly responsible for persecuting the Christians of John’s time.  Once he was out of the way their problems would be over, right?  They could rejoice.  But, as in our own time, John seems to understand that evil is not the product of any one person.  You don’t bring evil to an end by doing away with Caesar Domitian or Adolf Hitler or Vladimir Putin.  So John writes on.

In chapter 20 he shares his vision of the great dragon who represents Satan being bound with a heavy chain and thrown into a bottomless pit for a thousand years.  That’s the real enemy, right?  That’s the one who’s behind everything.  You could end the book right there but for some reason John says he will only be locked up for a thousand years, and then he “must be let out for a little while.”  Really?  Nonetheless, John assures his readers that when the time comes Satan will be finally and utterly defeated.  Like the Beast before him, he will be thrown into the Lake of Fire where he will be tormented day and night forever.  Bad news for Satan, but good news for us.  And yet, that’s not the end.

In chapter 21 John writes about a new heaven and a new earth and the New Jerusalem coming down “like a bride adorned for her husband.”  God himself will be with his people, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  Not only that, but there is room in this city for everyone, and there is no darkness there—God himself is her light.  The river of life flows from his throne, and on both sides of that river there are trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  That’s good news too, right?  And yet it still isn’t the end.

That doesn’t come until Chapter 22, where John ends his story in the same way he started it: with a vision of Jesus.  Have you noticed how many times Jesus shows up in this book, and in how many different ways?  There he is in the beginning, looking like the Son of Man from the seventh chapter of Daniel: his hair white as wool; his eyes like flames of fire; his feet like burnished bronze.  But just a few chapters later he shows up again, this time as the Lamb that was slaughtered and yet stands.  All the host of heaven sings, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”  And then, near the end of the book, he shows up again, this time as the Word of God, riding a white horse and wearing crowns on his head.  From his mouth comes a sharp sword and on his robe is written, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

None of these is the way we usually picture Jesus.  We see him as he is in that famous Sunday school painting, looking up toward heaven with his blue eyes and long, beautiful hair.  Or we picture him in that stained glass window, standing at the door and knocking.  Or we picture him as the Good Shepherd, smiling down at the wayward lamb in his arms.  Or we picture him in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying on the night he was betrayed.  John’s images of Jesus, on the other hand, are almost disturbing.  You have to be able to read the symbols, and understand that he is talking about Jesus’ strength, his righteousness, his purity, his wisdom, his sacrifice, his sovereignty, his glory, his justice.  For John, Jesus is everything, and he tries to show it in every way, because in his world Jesus has competition, and the competition is Caesar.

Can you imagine anyone in our time demanding our absolute loyalty, our ultimate allegiance?  Can you imagine any human being requiring us to bow down to him and call him Lord?  I don’t think we always appreciate the meaning of that word.  A lord is “someone or something having power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler.”  But if you only have one lord, then that one has all power, all authority; that one is your sole master and ruler.  That’s why you have to be careful about who you give that title to.

Caesar Domitian wanted every citizen of the Roman Empire to call him Lord, and he used his power, his authority, to intimidate them.  If they didn’t call him Lord they could be imprisoned, tortured, or even put to death.  If they didn’t take his mark upon them they would not be able to buy or sell.  And yet the Christians living in that era knew there could be only one Lord, and that was Jesus.  The Book of Revelation was written to assure those Christians that in the end—if they didn’t give up, if they didn’t lose faith, if they didn’t bow down to Caesar—then their love and loyalty would be rewarded.  Jesus would be crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords and they would become the blessed citizens of his glorious kingdom forever and ever and ever.

On Thursday of last week I read the entire Book of Revelation in one sitting, just to get a feel for the drama of it.  But I hadn’t gotten very far into it when I read these words, from Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus.  He said, “I know your works, your toil and patient endurance.  I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.  I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.  But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”  And that reminded me of the first sermon I preached at my last church, just a few weeks after moving to Washington, DC, from Wingate, North Carolina.  I climbed the stairs to the pulpit on a warm, summer Sunday, looked out over the congregation, and said:

“It isn’t often that you get a visit from a prophet, but three months ago I did.

“He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and stood about six-feet-two, weighed about 225 pounds.  He was the husband of the daughter of a member of my church, someone I had met only a few times before at family gatherings.  He and his wife went to a big, Pentecostal church in the city and I couldn’t imagine why he had come to see me, a Baptist preacher, but I invited him to come in anyway.

“He said, ‘Jim, I have something I need to say to you, and I think it’s a word from the Lord,’ and then he swallowed hard and looked away, struggling under the burden of his message.  ‘Go ahead,’ I said, bracing myself.  Say it.’

“He said, ‘Don’t lose your first love,’ and I recognized it right away as a quote from Revelation, where the Lord says to the angel of the church in Ephesus, ‘I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love.’  The words stung as he said them, because I knew what he meant.  Even in the ministry it is possible to become too professional, too polished, too slick.  You step into the pulpit for the first time with your heart pounding and your soul on fire, but after ten or twelve years you find yourself thinking about ‘appropriate eye contact’ and ‘deliberate pauses.’  You preside over the Lord’s Supper for the first time, with your hands trembling as you bless and break the bread, but after the hundredth time you catch yourself wondering where to go for lunch after church.  You sit beside a hospital bed for the first time, praying for a sick parishioner and rejoicing in the knowledge that you are helping, but after a thousand such visits you sneak a peek at your watch and wonder if you can beat the rush hour traffic home.

“It is possible for all the strange newness of ministry to become old and familiar.  And it isn’t only ministry!  It is possible for all the strange newness of Christianity to become old and familiar, for the holy to become common through regular use, for the warm fires of first love to grow cold.  The prophet who came to see me knew that and warned me not to let it happen as if he knew, even before word got out about my move to Washington, how tempting it would be in a place like this one to sacrifice love for success.  In the days that followed his visit I spent a good bit of time thinking about what he had said, and remembering my ‘first love.’”[i]

In the rest of that sermon I talked about falling in love with Jesus when I was thirteen years old, about being baptized in the muddy waters of the Big Coal River, about reading my Bible in those days as if every word had been written just for me.  But that kind of love can grow cold, can’t it?  Other things, and other people, can become more important.  There was a time in high school when I might have given up my faith in Jesus if I could get that one girl that I liked so much to notice me.  And these days it seems there are Christians who are willing to give up their faith in Jesus for a particular political candidate, or the concept of a Christian nation, or the right to bear arms.  Maybe that’s why we need the Book of Revelation, and maybe that’s why we need it now: because it forces each one of us to ask who or what is most important to us; who or what is our first love; who or what is Lord?

If I asked you right now you would probably say Jesus, but that’s not the way it usually happens.  I think about the man who cheats on his wife.  He didn’t set out to do it, didn’t intend to betray his first love.  It started with a friendly conversation while he was waiting his turn at the color copier.  The next time it was playful flirtation.  The next time it wasn’t playful at all.  And then the line between what was appropriate and what was inappropriate became blurred.  And one night, after an office Christmas party, he staggered drunkenly over that line.  Once he had crossed it he realized he couldn’t go back, he could only go forward, which he did again and again and again, until he came to the day where he found himself thinking about giving up his wife of 27 years for a middle-aged woman in the accounting department.

How did it happen?  Not all at once.  If someone had asked him on that first day if he would leave his wife for that woman he would have said no.  But it’s like the proverbial frog in the kettle.  Drop a frog into a pan of hot water and it will jump out, but if you put it into a pan of cool water and gradually turn up the heat it will sit right where it is.  What about us?  If I asked you this morning if you love Jesus more than you love Caesar I’m almost certain you would say yes.  We’re in church after all.  But if I asked you tomorrow morning, on Memorial Day, whether you love the Kingdom of God more than you love the United States of America you might have to think about it.  And if I called you on a Tuesday night, and asked you if you would rather listen to the Word of the Lord or your favorite news channel you might choose the news.

It doesn’t happen all at once, it happens a little at a time.  You begin to give your absolute loyally, your ultimate allegiance, to something or someone other than Jesus.  So, let me ask you: was there ever a time when he was all you could think about?  Maybe on that day you walked down a church aisle on wobbly knees, or the day you came up out of the waters of baptism, gasping for breath?  Was there ever a time when you stood in a church pew singing, “Jesus is all the world to me,” with tears running down your cheeks?  How did it get like this, where he is almost an afterthought?  Where, if you didn’t make yourself come to church you might not come at all?

The writer of the Book of Revelation knows that he is writing to people whose ultimate loyalties are being tested.  They are being asked to say, “Caesar is Lord,” and they are searching for the courage to refuse, to say instead, “No, Jesus is Lord.  He is all the world to me.  And even if I have to die for him I will do it!”  That’s the one who says he is coming soon, and those are the people who say, “Yes, come, Lord Jesus!”  And then he repeats his promise, “Surely, I am coming soon!”  And they say, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!”  This is the way people who love each other talk.  They can’t wait to be together.  They want it to happen now.

If I were John I might have ended my book in a different place, with something a little more dramatic, a little more climactic.  But maybe his hope is this: that every person who reads his book will come to the end, close it, put it down, and say along with his original readers:

“Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!”

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Jim Somerville, “First Love,” a sermon preached at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2000.

Wait for the Ending

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

A few years ago Christy and I went downtown to see the Lion King at the Altria Theatre.  It was part of that series where they load an entire Broadway show onto a few big trucks in New York City and then bring it to Richmond so that we don’t have to get on Interstate 95.  And they bring the whole show!  When Christy and I got settled into our seats we could see that the Altria Theatre had been transformed.  I can’t imagine how long it took to rebuild that Broadway set on our Richmond stage, but when the lights came up and the cast began to sing the opening number the magic of musical theatre materialized before our very eyes.  We weren’t in Richmond anymore: we were somewhere on the Serengeti Plain.  And in that scene where the life-size giraffe slowly stilt-walks onto the stage I could hear the entire audience gasp.

It was magic, I tell you: magic!

But what we were seeing was a live-action version of a children’s cartoon about a lion cub who grows up to be king, and that’s how it is with Broadway musicals: they can be about anything.  There’s one about the Wicked Witch of the West.  There’s one about a Fiddler on the Roof.  I think there’s even one about Cats.  So, as I said to someone recently, “What if it were your job to write a Broadway musical about the end of Cancer?”  What would the music sound like?  What would the costumes look like?  What would the characters say?  That question, all by itself, can get the imagination going, and in a way, that’s what the Book of Revelation is like: it’s like a Broadway musical about the end of Evil.

Funny I should bring that up, because in his best-known book my old seminary professor, Jim Blevins, compares Revelation to drama, in fact he talks about it as drama.  He writes about the theatre in Ephesus, the largest theatre in the ancient world, with a seating capacity of 25,000 people.  I’ve actually been to Ephesus.  I have seen that theatre.  And, as Dr. Blevins would say, it is “impressive!”

It was built on the slopes of a mountain in the Third Century, BC, at the intersection of the city’s two principal streets, and by the time Revelation was written Greek tragedies and comedies had been acted out on its stage for more than 300 years.  Like every other theatre of the time it had an orchestra, and then above and behind the orchestra a stage, and then above and behind the stage a skene—a “scene building”—kind of like a long shed with openings called thuromata where stage hands could place painted panels depicting scenes too difficult to perform on stage.[i]  For example, if a scene took place in winter, a stage hand might place a painted panel in one of the openings showing snow falling while an actor walked across the stage wrapped in furs and shivering.

The interesting thing about the theatre in Ephesus, and what caught Dr. Blevins’ eye, is the fact that while all the other theatres in the ancient world had 3-5 scene windows, the theatre in Ephesus had seven.  It was the only one of its kind.  Blevins began to think about how the number seven features so prominently in the Book of Revelation, and how the entire book could be easily divided into seven acts of seven scenes each.  He began to speculate that this was no coincidence: that John, the author of Revelation, who had lived in Ephesus for many years and almost certainly attended plays, may have cast his visions in dramatic form, as if they were going to be staged in that theatre.

Now, before you begin to think that John made the whole thing up, or that the entire Book of Revelation is simply a Broadway musical about the end of Evil, listen to what Dr. Blevins said in one of his famous dramatic monologues, dressed as John of Patmos.  He said, “Finally, I would like to say to you modern readers that I saw these things: these are visionary experiences.  I heard the beautiful music found in my book.  I could not express what I had experienced in prose.  Instead I chose this dramatic medium to express that which I had beheld.  You cannot come to Revelation and just read it on the printed page.  You must use all of your senses; you must see it, hear it, read it, open yourselves up to its great majesty.”[ii]  And then he talks about the theatre in Ephesus and explains that, “In it were performed the great Greek tragic dramas.  Tragic drama was always religious drama; a throne to God was always on the main stage; a chorus of 12 or 24 stood around the throne and sang the music of the drama; the actors were called priests.”  And then listen to this detail, which may inform today’s reading from Revelation 21: Blevins writes, “At the end of the drama, God was always brought down from the upper level of the stage to solve the dilemmas posed in the drama.”[iii]

Did you hear that?  God was always brought down from somewhere up above to sort things out and solve the remaining problems.  Can you imagine those ancient Greeks acting out a tragedy on the stage and making such a mess of things that it looked like the end of King Lear, with dead bodies lying all over the stage?  But then, in that moment when you think all hope is gone, when it looks as if Evil has won the day, here comes God.

So, think back to what you actually know about the Book of Revelation, and think about it not as a hodgepodge of bizarre animals, images, colors, and secret codes, but as a Broadway musical, or maybe an ancient Greek tragedy, where it isn’t over until God steps down from heaven to sort things out.  Dr. Blevins imagines it like this: The first eight verses of the book are an introduction in which, John, the narrator, introduces himself and the scope of the play.  And then we have:

Act I: the Seven Gold Lampstands, where Jesus—looking like a “Son of Man,” with hair as white as wool, and eyes like flames of fire, and feet like burnished bronze—dictates letters to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  How many churches?  Seven.  And how many scene windows?  Seven.  And in each one an image of a seven-branched candlestick with a different candle lit.  These letters to the churches take up most of the first three chapters and then we have:

Act II: the Seven Seals, where John is caught up to heaven and sees the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders around the throne.  He also sees the Lamb who was slaughtered but now lives, the only one worthy to open the seals on the scroll that is handed to him.  When he does, we see frightening images of the end that is about to come upon the earth (and maybe you can imagine those stage hands scurrying around inside the scene building to make sure they have the right painted panel in the window).  And then, near the beginning of chapter 8, we have:

Act III: the Seven Trumpets, with plagues of hail, fire, blood, and locusts that sound like something straight out of the Book of Exodus.  But remember that in Exodus God was trying to get Pharaoh to let his people go.  Maybe that’s what he’s doing here: trying to get Caesar to leave his people alone!  In Revelation 11:15 the choir gets excited and begins to sing, “Hallelujah!  The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!”  Which brings us to:

Act IV: the Seven Tableaux, where it becomes apparent that the choir has gotten a little ahead of itself.  The kingdom of the world has not yet become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.  The first tableau is of a dragon representing Satan.  The second tableau is the Beast from the Sea, the one who represents Caesar Domitian.  The third tableau is the Beast from the Land, Caesar’s prophet, who speaks for him.  But the fourth tableau is the Lamb with the 144,000, who represent the entire people of God.  And then we see the Son of Man on a cloud, the harvest of the grapes of wrath, and the great hymn of the Lamb (and this might be a good time to remind you that throughout this drama there is music.  Beautiful music!  Songs, and hymns, and choruses you can almost hear as you are reading).  In chapter 15 we get to:

Act V: the Seven Bowls of Wrath, where the angels of God pour out curses on the earth, the sea, and the sky, and everything else, until there isn’t anything that hasn’t been cursed.  But remember?  The kingdom of this world is giving way to the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.  Which brings us to chapter 17 and:

Act VI: the Seven Judgments, in which Rome is portrayed as a prostitute, drunk with the blood of the martyrs, and identified as Babylon: a previous empire that had also persecuted God’s people.  But then the heavenly chorus begins to sing, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” And you can imagine how excited the Christians in the audience would be as the chorus sings one funeral dirge after another about Babylon.  Jesus, now riding a white horse and identified as the Word of God, comes to make war on the wickedness of the world, to fight the final Battle of Armageddon, and throw Satan into a bottomless pit.  All of this would be good news for hard times.  But in Revelation 20 we come to:

Act VII: the Seven Great Promises, where the Beast who represents Caesar Domitian is thrown into a lake of fire forever (don’t you just love it when the bad guy gets it in the end?).  Evil is judged, the wickedness of the world is destroyed, and John sees a new heaven and a new earth, and then he sees the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.

I have to tell you, this is one of my favorite images in all the Bible, and just think how it would appeal to Christians who were living in the Roman Empire in a time of persecution.  This is like the god who comes down at the end of a Greek drama to solve all the remaining problems, right?  Except this is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and also, apparently, the maker of the new heaven and the new earth.

A loud voice from the throne cries,

See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them
and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

I will have more to say about the New Jerusalem in the next couple of weeks, but for now imagine those poor Christians of John’s time, some of whom had lost loved ones in the persecution of Caesar Domitian, being reassured that when this drama finally comes to an end, when God steps down from his throne to make all things right, then he will be with them and be their God, and they will be his people.  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

That’s good news for hard times.

Some of you may remember an Easter sermon I preached a few years ago where I quoted a song by David Wilcox called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.”  He said that more than a decade ago, when the world was going through hard times, but he might have said it yesterday, when a white supremacist with an assault rifle shot 13 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, 11 of whom were Black.  Listen to the lyrics.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.

And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

And I want to pause there for a moment, because you could think of the Book of Revelation like that, like a play somebody wrote to glorify what’s stronger than hate, but you might also think of it as a play in which the hero comes too late.  Because haven’t we lived through enough hard times?  If Revelation really was written 2,000 years ago haven’t there been hundreds of good opportunities for the hero to show up?  What about when those early Christians were suffering persecution?  What about when the Jews were going through the Holocaust?  What about the people of Ukraine, fighting for their lives even now?  And what about those poor people in Buffalo?

But the song goes on.  Wilcox says:

If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win

So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins,

It is Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us

But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love can show the way.

I preached that sermon on Easter Sunday, 2016, when we were celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the surprise ending of a tragic drama.  Here on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2022, we are still celebrating the Resurrection, and still proclaiming the good news that even in the hardest times, and perhaps when you least expect it, love can roll away the stone,

And show the way.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] James L. Blevins, Revelation as Drama (Nashville: Broadman, 1984), p. 17.

[ii] Ibid., p. 15.

[iii] Ibid.

The Blood of the Lamb

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Revelation 7:9-17

 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we continue an Easter Season sermon series called “Good News for Hard Times,” based on the lectionary readings from the Book of Revelation.  And although I am familiar with some of the more popular interpretations of that book (like The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsay, or the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) I probably need to tell you that everything I know about Revelation I learned from an actual New Testament scholar named James L. Blevins, who loved this book and devoted his life to it.  Dr. Blevins was one of my professors at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I took New Testament Survey, Part II, with him, and also a graduate-level seminar on Revelation where we translated the entire book from Greek into English.  He wasn’t the most exciting teacher I ever had, but he did what he could.

In that New Testament survey course he once walked into class wearing a long, striped robe with a sash tied around his waist and the worst fake beard you have ever seen.  It looked as if he had glued cotton balls onto his face with rubber cement.  But when the room got quiet he said, “I am the Apostle Paul.”  And then he told us his story.  I had a hard time accepting him as Paul, in the beginning.  He didn’t look like Paul.  He didn’t sound like Paul.  But as he told his story I was drawn in, especially when he told us about his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  After that I learned that Dr. Blevins often performed dramatic monologues.  It was one of the ways he tried to keep his students interested.  Yes, the costumes looked like something from the youth Christmas pageant but I may have learned more from those monologues than from anything else Dr. Blevins tried to teach us.

Near the end of that New Testament survey course he came into the classroom dressed as John, the author of Revelation (I mean, that’s what he told us; you couldn’t tell from the costumes; they all looked exactly the same).  But when he began to tell his story I leaned in close, because most of what I knew about the Book of Revelation at that time I had learned from those popular interpretations like The Late Great Planet Earth.  But Dr. Blevins told a different story.  He didn’t talk about the coming persecution of Christians; he talked about the persecution of Christians near the end of the First Century, AD, under the Roman Emperor, Domitian, who thought of himself as divine and forced his citizens to say “Caesar is Lord!”  But, as Dr. Blevins emphasized, no real Christian would ever do that.  When they were baptized they would say, “Jesus is Lord!”  They would do it as an act of defiance, to show Caesar who was boss.  But they suffered for their convictions.  They were put in jail, they were put to death, they were boiled in oil.  John himself was exiled to the island of Patmos where he was forced to quarry rock in the hot sunshine.

Still in costume Dr. Blevins said, “In the cool of the evening we prisoners would be led up the hillside and locked in a cave.  Many evenings I stood at the entrance to the cave, looking out at the blue Aegean Sea, as still as a sea of glass.  One evening as I stood looking out of the mouth of the cave, I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘John, John, write down the things that I will reveal to you.’  Over a period of nine months I received these revelations and wrote them in a scroll to be sent to the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor.

“Because I was in a Roman prison I could not openly speak of Christ, so the Spirit led me to write the revelation of Jesus Christ in the apocalyptic codes of the Jewish people, developed centuries earlier [and used in other secret writings, like the Book of Daniel].  The first word in my book is the word apokalypsis, which means ‘to uncover’ or ‘reveal.’  It was a clue to my readers that this book was going to be written in secret code.”[i]

So, what is the secret code of the Book of Revelation?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  Well, Dr. Blevins shared it with us.  He typed it up and handed it out in class.  I’m going to attach it to the manuscript of this sermon and in a day or so you should be able to find it on our website by clicking the button that says “Church Anytime.”  No extra charge for that.  But for today’s purposes it might be enough to say that it is an elaborate code involving numbers, colors, and animals.

5-8-22 Secret Codes of Revelation

Let me give you a few examples:

In the first chapter of Revelation John has a vision of “one like the Son of Man.”  Christians would have heard that title before in the Book of Daniel, where it says, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven,” but in their own time they would have recognized it immediately as a reference to Jesus.  Still, this Jesus was not like any you have ever seen on the wall of a Sunday school classroom.  His hair was as white as wool, his eyes were like flames of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze.  It can be rather disturbing unless you know the code.

Dr. Blevins explained it like this: “In chapter 1 of my book I describe the Son of Man in color codes. I was in prison for preaching Christ, I could not openly speak about him, so I set forth a living sermon in colors. The Son of Man is described with bronze feet, depicting strength, white robes of conquering, white hair of purity, a gold band around his chest, representing his worth or value, a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth, representing truth. All the Christians hearing this passage read aloud would have known immediately the one of whom I was speaking.”[ii]

But Christians would have also known who John was speaking about when he talked about “The Beast.”  In the Book of Daniel four great beasts rise up out of the sea, each one representing a different historical empire.[iii]  In the Book of Revelation a beast rises up out of the sea representing the Roman Empire, and particularly Caesar Domitian.  Dr. Blevins, speaking as John, explained it like this.  “[In apocalyptic literature], monster beasts represent monstrous persons or forces. They are constructed from bits and parts of wild animals to represent extremely evil persons.  The Beast from the Sea in my book is a symbol for Caesar Domitian or political power.  It is comprised of the three symbols of the major world powers in my day: bear’s feet for Medea, leopard’s spots for Persia, and a lion’s head for Rome. There was no animal mean enough to represent Caesar, who had put so many Christians to death.”[iv]

You may have also heard about “the mark of the Beast,” and his number, 666.  Again Dr. Blevins explained that “Seven is the divine number.  In many apocalyptic works the code number for God is 777.  Many Jews added up the number of their name according to the Hebrew alphabet and this would be their code number in days of persecution.  The number six stands for imperfection or extreme evil.  In Revelation, 666 is the code number for Caesar Domitian, who was persecuting Christians and putting them to death.”[v]  Those citizens of his empire who would not pledge their allegiance to Caesar, that is, those who would not take “the mark of the Beast,” were in danger of losing not only their livelihood but also their lives.

And, finally, Jesus himself is pictured as an animal: a lamb with seven horns (representing divine power) and seven eyes (representing divine seeing).  That may seem disturbing to you, even more disturbing than the image of Jesus as the Son of Man with eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze.  But speaking as John Dr. Blevins explained: “Because I was in prison I could not openly speak of Christ, so I used this coded animal to symbolize my Lord.”[vi]  This lamb that had been slaughtered, and yet somehow still stood before the throne of God, receiving all the accolades of heaven.  Again, any Christian in the Empire would have known exactly who John was talking about.

There is more to say about these codes and the way John used them to communicate with Christians going through hard times, but for now that may be enough, and I want to stop with the symbol of the lamb for a reason.  This is not only Mother’s Day, it is also Good Shepherd Sunday, and we were called to worship with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm, the one that begins, “the Lord is my shepherd.”  As I said in the children’s sermon, David wrote that psalm about God, his shepherd, but in today’s Gospel lesson from John 10 Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.  He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (I hope those of you who are going through hard times can hear and appreciate those words).  In John 10 Jesus is presented as the Good Shepherd, but in much of the Book of Revelation he is presented as the Lamb that was slaughtered and yet stands.  Do you remember from last week’s sermon how everyone in heaven bowed down and worshiped him, singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”?  It left me wondering, as I thought about this week’s sermon, “How does all this work?  How does the Lord who is my shepherd, become Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and finally the Lamb who was slaughtered and yet stands?”

Well, let me explain it to you as I might explain it to a little child, and ask all you professional theologians out there to withhold your judgment, at least for a little while.  Let’s begin by imagining that God, the one who is our shepherd, became an earthly shepherd in the person of Jesus.  The author of John’s Gospel says as much.  He says that the One who was with God and was God in the beginning became flesh and lived among us.  Theologians would call that the Doctrine of the Incarnation but for today’s purposes we might simply say that the Divine Shepherd came down from heaven and became human in order to watch over his earthly flock; he became Jesus, the Good Shepherd.  But then there’s this other idea: the idea of the Lamb that was slaughtered and yet stands.  And you probably don’t even have to know the codes of the Book of Revelation to know that the author is talking about Jesus.  But how did that happen?  How did the Good Shepherd become the sacrificial lamb?

Some of you know that I have trouble with the concept of Substitutionary Atonement, the idea that God’s righteousness was so offended by our sinfulness that somebody had to pay, and the one who ended up paying for it was Jesus.  What I have trouble with is the idea of God, at the full height of his divine wrath, shouting, “Somebody’s got to pay for this!”  I don’t picture God that way.  I picture God the way many of the biblical writers do, as being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  I can’t imagine him saying, “Somebody’s got to pay for human sin!” and then pointing at Jesus.  But I can imagine Jesus, the Good Shepherd, being willing to do whatever it took to protect and preserve his flock.  And if someone came to him and said, “I need one of these sheep to offer as a sacrifice,” I can imagine him saying, “Wait just a minute,” and then—in the same way the Divine Shepherd became a human being—this Good Shepherd would become the sacrificial lamb, and offer himself willingly for the sake of his flock.  I can imagine that.  That seems so much like Jesus.  And apparently the author of Revelation could imagine that, and helps us picture this Lamb who was slaughtered now standing on his feet again, raised from the dead by a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” a God who honors his son’s willingness to lay down his life for the sake of his sheep.

And that’s us.

Friends I don’t know what kind of hard times you may be going through, but in today’s reading from Revelation there is a flock no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, an incredibly diverse multitude standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, waving palm branches.  They cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  One of the elders asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” but John says he doesn’t know.  So, the elder says, “These are they who have come out of the Great Ordeal.”  And any Christian in the Empire would have known who John was talking about.  He was talking about those brothers and sisters in Christ who had suffered at the hands of Caesar Domitian and died for their faith.  “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” the elder continues.  And any Christian in the Empire would have known that whatever sins these martyrs carried with them had been forgiven, that they were now perfect and pure forever.  “For this reason they are before the throne of God,” the Elder says, “and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[vii]

As I said, I don’t know what kind of hard times you may be going through, but here is an image to keep you going: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, slaughtered by the evil forces of the Roman Empire but raised by a gracious and merciful God—this Lamb at the center of the throne will be your shepherd.  He will guide you to the springs of the water of life.  And God himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] I didn’t actually record Dr. Blevins presentation to my New Testament class, but I do have a copy of his book, Revelation as Drama, which includes “John’s Testimony” as a first-person narrative. I’m quoting from that (Nashville: Broadman, 1984), pp. 11-12.

[ii] Blevins, Revelation as Drama, pp.13-14.

[iii] Daniel 7:3ff.

[iv] Blevins, Revelation as Drama, p. 14.

[v] Ibid., p. 13.

[vi] Ibid., pp.14-15.

[vii] Revelation 7:13-17, NRSV.

Hard Times in the Empire

The Third Sunday of Easter

Revelation 1:4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…

Today we begin an Easter Season Sermon series called “Good News for Hard Times,” and we could use some of that, couldn’t we?  Because these are hard times.  For more than two years we have been suffering through a global pandemic.  Many of our members have been sick; some of them have died.  But just when we thought the worst of it was over we got the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine.  We haven’t been directly involved in that war but many of us have been prayer warriors, asking God to help and heal the people of Ukraine.  On this side of the world inflation has risen to levels we haven’t seen in forty years; the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride; and don’t get me started on the price of gas.  I saw a meme recently where someone was wearing a face mask over his eyes.  It said, “The CDC is now recommending the use of masks to prevent heart attacks at the gas pumps.”  These may not be the hardest times we have ever lived through, but they are certainly hard.  We could use some good news.

So, turn with me if you will to the Book of Revelation (laughter).  What?  You don’t believe Revelation is the obvious choice for people going through hard times?  Let me assure you, this book that was written specifically for people who were going through hard times.  Scholars believe it was written near the end of the First Century, AD, when Christians were suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  The Emperor, Domitian, wanted every citizen to say, “Caesar is Lord!”  He thought he was divine.  But the Christians of that time insisted on saying, “Jesus is Lord!”  As a result Domitian had many of them locked up in prison, boiled in oil, or put to death by the sword.  You think you’re going through hard times?  These people were going through hard times!  They needed a word of hope, and they got it from a man named John.

We don’t really know who he was.  Many scholars refer to him simply as “John of Patmos,” because that’s where he was, on the rocky island of Patmos, about sixty miles off the coast of Asia Minor, exiled for his faith in Jesus Christ.  Whoever he was, he cared for his fellow Christians suffering persecution.  He wanted to send them a message of hope, but it wouldn’t be easy with the Roman government watching his every move, censoring his every word.  He had to find some secret way to get his message across.  And so, like every good pastor, he looked to the pages of scripture for inspiration and he found it in the Book of Daniel.

I don’t know how much you know about Daniel.  It, too, was written for people living in hard times, specifically for the people of Israel living in the Second Century, BC.  The king of Syria, a madman named Antiochus Epiphanes, had invaded Israel.  He wanted to “Hellenize” the Jews, that is, force them to adopt Greek culture and customs, to give up the Hebrew language, the practice of circumcision, and the worship of God.  Some of the Jews were giving in, and that’s when the author of Daniel, like every good pastor, turned to the Bible for inspiration.  He found it in the story of the Jewish exiles who had been carried away into captivity in Babylon.  He began to write the stories of a few Jewish heroes who held onto their faith even when a foreign king threatened them with death.  You may remember from Sunday school the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

The first half of the book is filled with those inspiring stories, but in the second half of the book the author begins to record a series of mysterious dreams and visions.  Listen to this one: “I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings…”[i]  Sound familiar?  Yes, it sounds exactly like the Book of Revelation!  Or, rather, Revelation sounds exactly like it.  But the author of Daniel may have gotten his inspiration from the prophet Ezekiel, who actually lived during the time of the Babylonian Exile, and who starts his book with a vision of a bright cloud and flashing fire and four living creatures who “sparkled like burnished bronze.”[ii]

Whenever you find dreams and visions in the Bible, you find a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and it is written specifically for people who are going through hard times.  You can find examples of it in other books—in Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah, and even in the Gospels—but the best examples are in the second half of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  It comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which means “to reveal,” or, literally, “to remove the cover from.”  I like to think of it like this: like coming home at the end of the day and smelling something good coming from the kitchen.  You go back there and see a pot simmering on the back burner of the stove.  You lift the lid of the pot—you apo kalypsis—and see what’s cooking for supper.  It looks and smells delicious.  But apocalyptic literature is different.  When you lift the lid of that pot what you see and smell is anything but delicious.  But in scripture, most of the time, the ones who have it coming are not God’s people but their enemies: the ones who are making things so hard for them.

Let me take you back to the Book of Daniel for a moment.  The author writes about beasts coming up out of the sea, each one with a certain number of horns.  What he’s writing about, actually, are the different empires that emerged in history and the kings who ruled over them.  We know this because the visions in the Book of Daniel precisely parallel the history of the ancient world right up to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.  They describe the conquests of Alexander the Great and the four generals who succeeded him.  They describe the power struggle on both sides of Israel, between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.  They describe Antiochus Epiphanes as one who will “speak words against the Most High, and wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law.”  If you were reading this in the Second Century BC and thought it was written in the Sixth Century BC you would be amazed at the precise parallels between the visions of Daniel and what actually happened in history, right up until the Archangel Michael steps down from heaven and crushes Antiochus Epiphanes and all his forces.  That part didn’t actually happen.  But it allowed scholars to pinpoint the moment when history gave way to hope, and confirm the date of this book as somewhere right around 168 BC.

I remember learning this in seminary and being blown away by the idea that this biblical writer, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was combining history and hope in a way that would strengthen and encourage the people of God.  In that sense it was like preaching, but instead of filling his sermon with colorful illustrations, the author of Daniel had filled his sermon with dreams and visions.  This is typical of apocalyptic literature.  It says, “Things may be bad now.  You may be wondering if they will ever get better.  But I’m telling you they will.  God is still on his throne, and God has not given up on his people.  You just have to remain faithful.”  Which isn’t easy in hard times, but it also isn’t impossible.  Those people Ezekiel was writing to?  They made it through the Exile.  Those people the author of Daniel was writing to?  They made it through the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes.  And those people John was writing to, those who were suffering through the persecution of Caesar Domitian?  Well, let’s take a closer look.

The passage that Allison read earlier, from Revelation 1, is actually last week’s reading, but it serves as a helpful introduction to this series.  The author identifies himself only as John, but he addresses his apocalypse to “the seven churches that are in Asia,” and that is a brilliant strategy: before he gets into the visions that will comprise the major portion of this book he takes time to encourage each of the seven churches with words from Jesus himself.  “Get ready,” he says.  “Prepare yourselves for what is about to come upon the earth, because it is going to be like nothing you have ever seen.”  Can you imagine how we might respond, if we got a letter from Jesus addressed to the church in Richmond, telling us to get ready?  Don’t you think we would do it?  “Look!” says John, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.  So it is to be.”[iii]  And so, we had better get ready.

But after John has shared the words of Jesus with each of the seven churches he writes, “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’”  John sees some strange things up there.  Some people think he may have spent too much time breaking rocks in the hot Mediterranean sun.  He sees a throne, and someone sitting on the throne who dazzles the eye like a jewel.  Around the throne are 24 elders, twelve of them representing the tribes of Israel and the other twelve representing the disciples of Jesus.  And he sees four living creatures standing around the throne, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like an eagle, and one like a man.  All these creatures do, day and night, is say, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as the 24 elders fall on their faces and cast their golden crowns before the one seated on the throne.

Today’s reading from Revelation 5 comes from that heavenly throne room, where John sees a lamb standing as if slaughtered, and this may explain why this particular passage was chosen for the Season of Easter, because slaughtered lambs don’t usually stand up again, crucified Messiahs don’t usually get up out of the grave, but here is this lamb standing there, and John says, “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!  (when we all get to heaven, right?  What a day of rejoicing that will be).[iv]  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”

Take that, Caesar Domitian.  You may be King of the World now, but one of these days you are going down, and the only one left standing will be the lamb who was slaughtered.  You see?  This is good news for hard times.  It is a reminder to those Christians who were being persecuted that their suffering wouldn’t last forever.  If they could just hold on a little longer, if they could just remain faithful, God would deliver them yet.

That’s apocalyptic literature, and it’s different from prophecy.  I read an article last week that said, “Prophecy believes that this world is God’s world and that in this world His goodness and truth will yet be vindicated….  The apocalyptic writer despairs of the present and directs his hopes to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present.”[v]  When I read that I thought, “Well, I must be a prophet.  Because I still believe in this world.  I still believe that God’s kingdom can come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  You’ve heard me: I keep on telling you to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.  I believe the KOH can actually come to RVA.[vi]  The apocalypticist is different.  The apocalypticist doesn’t see any hope for the world as it is.  He’s like that scientist who believes a gigantic asteroid is going to hit the earth and there is nothing we can do.  Our only hope is that God will do something, that God will save us.  Otherwise, we are doomed.

I am not an apocalypticist; I’m a prophet.  I still believe in this world and in our ability to make a difference.  But you may not be in the same place.  You may not have that same kind of hope.  Your world may be so broken that you don’t see any way of putting it back together again.  If so, then the Book of Revelation may be good news for you.  Because no matter how bad things look the writer of Revelation believes that one day God Almighty is going to get up off his throne, and when he does the earth beneath our feet is going to shake.  And then God is going to roll up his sleeves, he’s going to reach up with both hands, he’s going to take hold of the wheel of human history and then begin to turn it ever so slowly in the right direction, until everyone who is on the top is on the bottom, and everyone who is on the bottom is on the top, and everything that has been broken is repaired, and everything that has been ruined is restored, and everything that has been lost is found.  We can’t do that.  Only God can do that.  But in the pages of this beautiful and often neglected book the author insists that one day—one day!—God will do exactly that.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Daniel 7:1-4, NRSV

[ii] Ezekiel 1:4-7

[iii] Revelation 1:7, NRSV

[iv] One of the anthems of the day was “When We All Get to Heaven”

[v] “Apocalyptic Literature,” Wikipedia

[vi] Our acronym for “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”