Saturday, April 06, 2013

Α Ω



Revelation 1.4–8

We all know about the book of Revelation. It sits there, at the end of the bible, casting its somewhat ominous gaze into the future. Most people know it from peculiar books from America involving the sudden mid-flight disappearance of christian airline pilots, or from fragments of the book which appear in horror movies about the anti-christ or daemon possession – perhaps most notably for Guildfordians the 1976 Gregory Peck movie, The Omen, with its infamous scene at Guildford Cathedral. Everyone knows about the cryptic ‘666’ on the child, Damien’s scalp. And Patrick Troughton playing the slightly deranged priest, Fr. Brennan, quoting prophecy about the Anti-Christ to Damien’s father. We all know about the book of Revelation, and frankly, it all seems a bit odd. We all know about it, but we don’t know it. Which is why we are going to look at it today.

We are used to thinking of the book as a kind of prophecy, predicting weird and wacky events in the future. But instead of that, try thinking of it as letter. The opening words we read are the customary way that a first century person would start a letter. Listen to this opening sentence of an ancient letter: ‘Gaius Pliny to Septicius Clarus, his friend, greetings’, or St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace’. Now hear St. John, ‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace’. 

Revelation is a letter, and we are not the original intended recipients, which is why it often sounds completely mad to us. It is a letter written to seven churches in ancient Asia-minor, modern day Turkey. Churches which were facing persecution, and churches which also had some really normal church stuff going on. Christians were faithfully continuing God’s work despite struggles. They were having arguments about belief. Some of them were running after the latest religious trends. Perhaps most significant for us today, there was a good deal of apathy among the churches. Luke-warmness. Lack of commitment. I think it is quite encouraging, on a very basic level, to remember that the church was never perfect. The way we sometimes speak, you would think that the church started perfect and got progressively worse until you get to… well… now. But even at the very beginning, the church was a mess, and the church was also beautiful.

So this letter was written to give these Christians some perspective. Perspective which told them that in the midst of suffering and persecution, God hadn’t forgotten his people. That despite disunity and some of the grubbiness of human life, the church was still the place where Jesus’ resurrection life was bringing about new creation.

So what does this letter seek to lift the curtain on? What hidden truth does it seek to reveal?

Think about the opening greeting, John wishes ‘grace and peace’ for the seven churches. But this isn’t his grace and peace, it is God’s. Grace and peace aren’t words people would immediately associate with the book of Revelation. It seems to be a book more filled with divine judgement than divine mercy, or violence than peace. But perhaps we need to read the more ominous parts of Revelation in the light of these words. God’s purpose to the church and the world is not hostile, and this letter seeks to reinforce the message of God’s unshakeable love, and his ongoing project of bringing about peace.

The second thing to think about is the way that God is described. God is the God who is. This sentence is the most mangled bit of Greek in the whole book. First of all, if you or I were writing this we would probably go in chronological order, past to future. We would probably say ‘Grace to you and peace, from he who was, who is, and who is to come’. But John messes about with the obvious order. He says, ‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’ 

For us, the present moment is always experienced as part of a process, moving from the past to the future. But for God, everything is the present moment. Past, future, everything is in the present tense. We move from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, and the trouble with ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’ beings, is that we struggle for perspective on life. We can’t change the past but we dwell on it. We can’t know the future but we obsess about it, and all of that living in the past or the future tends to make the present unbearable. But God, John says, isn’t moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ all exist to God as a present moment. A standing now. God exceeds all creation, even as he spreads wide his arms to embrace past, present and future. John wants us to set our lives, our triumphs and failures, our joys and sorrows, and every experience we have in between, in the context of God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The one who holds all our times in his powerful embrace.

Here is where the grammar gets even more wierd. I might have written that God ‘is, was and will be’, all of which are tenses of the verb ‘to be’. But John writes that God ‘is, was, and is to come’. This brings us to the power of John’s message, because, like us, the first century churches were dealing with the dissonance of proclaiming that in the resurrection Jesus really has triumphed over the forces of darkness, and living in a world where those forces still feel as strong as ever. When church is going badly, or for that matter when church is going well, how do we avoid the twin pitfalls of triumphalism or despair? Not by trying to make church better, but by remembering who God is, the one who is to come. The work Easter is God’s and not ours, we are his co-workers, but not in such a way as the final triumph of good over evil depends on our brilliant plans. God is the beginning, and God is the end. He will come and complete his work.

1 comment:

Chris Jeynes said...

This is so excellent, thanks Barnaby. You say just the right things and highlight just the right things. I was interested and surprised by your stance. Is and was and is to come. Yes. Hmmmm. Makes you think, no?

Pity you didn't put up your Easter sermon. Does George Herbert make up for the lack of Barnaby Perkins? I looked up my copy of Herbert, which was good, but Barnaby is contemporary - a different kettle of fish altogether! Both please!