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.