Revelation 1:4–8 (NRSV)
4 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, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; 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. Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Today is the second Sunday of the Easter season. Yes, Easter is not just a day but a season of the year, because Jesus did not just raise from the grave and jet up into the clouds like some ancient superman. He hung out for a while, he walked with his disciples, he ate some meals with them, and he continued to teach them. This is actually more important than a simple empty tomb because it is during this time so long ago that those that disputed the resurrection of Christ had to not only combat the fact that the tomb was empty, they had to answer the questions of why a guy that was supposed to be dead was sitting in the room teaching the people.
How often do you actually consider this? We know that Jesus appeared to the apostles. We know that Thomas the doubter, who gets the infamous honor on the second Sunday of Easter, join with the others on the second Sunday after the resurrection and declared to all around that not only was Jesus his Lord but his God. We know that during this season we know as Easter Jesus walked the streets of Israel, visiting his brothers, visiting his friends, and appearing to over five hundred people in one gathering. And he did this all while the religious leaders were running around trying to silence the crowds.
The resurrection is a vitally important part of our faith, not because of the empty tomb, but because Jesus lives. He defied death, he defied the religious establishment by living. They said it is better for one man to die than to have their hold on the culture hindered, Jesus rose from the grave and said challenge accepted. The resurrection is not a nice storybook ending to the gospel accounts, it is God standing up to the powers and wisdom of mankind and saying, “you cannot keep me in a box, and you cannot stop my will on Earth as it is in heaven!”
Jesus walked with his disciples for over a month after his death, for over a month he continued his ministry while everyone he met stared in wonder. He was dead, they all saw him hanging on the cross, yet He was there before them breaking bread and sipping wine just as He was before. An empty tomb would be easy to explain, there are countless theories out there for that. There is no power in the empty tomb, but there is great power in the resurrected Christ that walks with us, talks with us, and lives life with us. Do you believe in the resurrection?
It did not take long for the story of the resurrected Christ to grip the lives of those throughout the Roman world. When people began to travel out of Jerusalem and began to speak to others that they knew a guy that the Romans hung on a cross, that they saw him buried in a tomb where he laid sealed inside under guard for the weekend, and came out alive again on the third day people began to wonder. But when they continue to share that this very same man came over to have dinner the next week, those around them began to listen. What did he have to say? This guy visited death and came back from the other side. It is the ultimate mystery and they know the answer. Yes the empty tomb raises questions, but the real power is the resurrection, the life beyond.
Which brings us to today’s passage. There are many debates surrounding the origin and purpose of the Revelation of Jesus Christ that was given to John. Many would say that it was written at the close of the first century where others would say that it was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. I do not want to get into this debate, I will simply say that it was a given to John to provide encouragement to the people that faced unprecedented persecution for their faith. That is why it is included in the books of scripture, if it was only filled with images of a future beyond anyone’s imagination it would have been lost in the dusts of time, but it provided real encouragement to the people of that day. There is something interesting in the book too, it was written not to the people of Israel, but to the people of the seven churches of Asia. For the first time God directly addresses people outside of the nation of Israel, you can say that the letters of the apostles were written to the Gentiles, but those were letters written by men under the inspiration of the spirit. The Revelation was spoken by Jesus to John for the people of Asia, more specifically ancient Turkey.
This is important because Israel as always the frontier of the Roman Empire, it was this boarder land between the civilization of Rome and that of the remaining Empire of Persia. Persia was not the superpower it once was after the conquest of Alexander but beyond the boarder of Israel was still a threat to Rome. We know this because Magi from the East came to visit Jesus’ when he was a child, and this visit struck fear into the heart of the king who governed the land under the authority of Cesar. It struck fear into Herod’s heart because it threatened his authority as king, but it could also have been seen as an invasion.
So Israel was a borderland, a frontier of the Roman Empire, the far fringe of their authority, and because it was on the fringe the authority was not always seen. The people of Israel would have just as much contact with people outside the Empire as with those within. Just as when my ancestors settled the frontier of Kansas, they encountered native inhabitants of the plains as regularly as people of European heritage. This all changed shortly after Christ’s advent. The magi visited from the east which caused those in power to quake in fear, there was talk of a new king and a new kingdom, and so they killed this person that held claim to that title. Now there was something new, the king who was dead and buried was walking and talking. And this kingdom had spread into the empire, into the provinces of Asia. We see it as persecution but the reality is that it was a war between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God. God sent a revelation to these citizens of his kingdom to encourage them to stand firm, because this was something new to them. Israel has known this battle for centuries but the new citizens, the ones that have been grafted in we not accustomed to this sort of battle.
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…” This is phrase is one of the most powerful phrases in all of scripture. A form of this phrase can be seen throughout all of scripture because it is an expression of the very name of God that was spoken to Moses. “I AM” When God spoke those words to Moses there was no tense to the words. It can literal be translated as I am, I was, and I will be. What is being said to these people who are the seven churches in Asia, is the grace and peace that has been with Israel the people of God from the very beginning of time is with you and will be with you now and for ages to come.
“And from the seven spirits who are before the throne…” This is an oddity in scripture. We are aware of the existence of angelic beings because we have instances where they visit with the heroes of the faithful in ancient records. One visits Joshua prior to the battle of Jericho and gives him the encouragement to stand firm and go with God. We see messengers speak Mary and others. But this one statement says that there are seven spirits before the throne of God, as they send this letter of encouragement to the seven churches. What we can gain from this statement is that we are not alone. Not only do we have the grace and peace of God that has been, is, and will be, but there are spiritual beings standing before God that are there on our behalf. An angel like that of Michael who is the commander of God’s heavenly army over Israel, is there for these seven churches. There is a Spiritual battalion set aside to fight for us.
“And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth.” God has given us the grace and peace that has always been with his people, he has set aside spiritual warriors on our behalf, and Jesus Christ the resurrected one is with us. Notice if you will how Jesus is described, first he is said to be the faithful witness. Jesus the witness, this means that wrapped up within Jesus is all that we need to know. He is the witness of God to mankind. If we look to Jesus, if we seek to follow his ways, and bide by his teachings and example we will know all that there is to know about righteousness or right living.
The word witness can also be translate the martyr. Jesus, the faithful martyr. Look at the way that Jesus lived his life and the sacrifices that he made. He lived a life that was contrary to every aspect of the Empire life, he made it his custom to worship with the community in the meeting places, he withdrew often to isolated places to pray, and he would serve others. Worship was something that was common throughout Roman society, Paul went so far as telling the Greeks of Athens that it was clear that they were a religious people. Shrines and temples were a common thing and worship in pagan cultures was often a central theme in life. So worship with others was not uncommon. But it was uncommon to go to isolated places to pray. Religion is something that we do together, it is something that connects the community in some fashion, but this personal relationship with the divine is something unique. To withdraw from the community to interact with God one on one. In Jesus we are not only united to a community but we are intimate with God. This leads Jesus to serve the community around him, not for his own personal benefit but to encourage others.
Jesus lived and continues to live for relationship. He lived in a community, he was intimate with his father, and he served others. This is why John was directed to say faithful Martyr or witness to describe Jesus. This is the holy lifestyle that all who claim Christ should live. It is amazing to see life lived out in this way. We see it all around us, even in this Meeting. The most recent example is how we have come together to help a friend in need with her vehicle. A need was seen and it was brought before the meeting. We discussed it and said we will help, in that discussion it was mentioned that we should take up an offering and we did. Members on the Meeting then took it upon themselves to take time out of their lives to make sure the car was towed, they then personally got involved in the repairs. And we will be able to present to our friend a safe vehicle for her to use. It amazes me and humbles me to see. Imagine if we lived this way all the time. Yes it is a great deal of work but what a blessing it is to use our abilities to honor someone else. I thank all who was involved in this work and I pray that we will be able to do more. That we like Christ will be faithful witnesses of grace and peace, the very grace and peace that is, that was, and will ever be.
These churches in Asia receive this message from the Jesus, they need this message because they are facing struggles and God wants them to know that it is and will be worth the sacrifice. The kingdom of God has move the boarders from the land we know as Israel, and it has now taken root in Turkey and continues to move. It moves and expands not by force but by sacrifice. It changes lives not only because it offers a lovely ethic to live by but because it offers life. We know it offers life because Jesus was, is, and will be because he rose from the dead and lived with us not only before his death but after.
He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. No earthly power can stand before him because though they may offer death Jesus is life. The churches of Asia, face the powers of the world and they begin to shutter, but Jesus does not want them to live in fear. God, the one that is, was, and is to come offers you Grace and peace. As do the spirits that stand before the throne, the commanders of God’s heavenly armies are being directed to uphold you and support your work for the kingdom. And Jesus himself, the faithful witness and first born of the dead, the one that has shown us life, and has taken on death is with us as we face the rulers of this world. And if we stay faithful to him we will see his glory.
The question remains, do we believe in the resurrection? Do we believe that the one that did all this so long ago is still active and living for us today? Do we believe that God’s grace and peace is available to all people, that his angels are still active in ways that we cannot see or fathom? Do we believe that Christ still lives and lives in us that call upon his name? If we believe there is power there. The power that can overcome any and every obstacle, the power that will go with us so that we can participate in the resurrection of life to those bound to death. It is there for us just as it was for the seven churches of Asia, if we too become faithful witnesses in Christ. If we take on his life and lifestyle of Worship, prayer, and service. If we turn from the lifestyle of Adam and return to God. The kingdom of God is around us, so as we enter into this time of open worship and communion with God, let us say together your kingdom come, and your will be done here as it is in Heaven!
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