Easter 2, Year C, April 28, 2019
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Revelation is probably the single most misunderstood book of the Bible. When Christians today read it, we often try to crack the code and read it as a road-map of the future, a timeline so that we can be prepared for the end days. Or we try and figure out what people today are associated with the various symbolic figures in the book: who’s the Beast? Who’s the antichrist? And so on and so forth. Most of all, we get scared. We read about all the terrible things that happen in the book, and we get scared: of God, or of the world, or of judgment. But the thing is, the Book of Revelation was written to inspire and comfort its readers, not scare them.
Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written. The great persecution hadn’t started yet, but Christians were despised and discriminated against. Almost all of them were poor and marginalized—slaves, women, landless laborers, the sort of people who were easy to use and abuse. They were ostracized and mocked for their belief. They were persecuted and suffered for following Christ. American Christians sometimes complain about being “persecuted,” when what we mean is that we don’t have the respect and prestige that we used to. The Christians of John’s day had never had any respect or prestige. They had been despised their whole lives, and their faith was just one more thing to despise them for. And, when someone is poor, and has no social influence, and belongs to some weird minority—which is what Christianity was at the time—it’s really easy for that person to be hurt. To suffer. Anyone who likes to do evil can hurt them with impunity.
And the thing is, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly a good and kind nation. Their idea of creating peace was to kill their enemies and salt the ground so it couldn’t be used anymore. The whole empire was built on slave labor on a scale that wouldn’t be seen again until the 18th Century. They’re the people who thought up and regularly used crucifixion, one of the most sadistic ways of killing people ever created. They divided the world into “us” vs. “them,” and if you were not a Roman citizen (and most residents of the Roman Empire were not citizens), there was almost no protection from the brutality of anyone who wanted to hurt you. And most Christians were pretty near the bottom of the social pyramid. So the Christians of John’s day were very used to suffering. They were used to having evil done to them. They were up close and personal with death, with violence, with all the terrible things that people can do to one another, because most of them happened to them at one time or another.
When someone has suffered, you can’t just paper over it and smile and assure them of God’s love. When someone has had evil done to them, you have to deal with the reality of the evil. You have to deal seriously with the question of why good people die and bad people live, why good people suffer while their abusers prosper, why evil exists, and with the question of where God is in the midst of al of this. How can God be good if God allows evil? Where is God when there is pain? And if your religion doesn’t offer a convincing answer, well, it’s not going to last long.
The book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ answer to the problem of pain. Evil is always present and acknowledged. Yes, there is evil in the world. But you know what? Evil is temporary. Evil is defeated, always. God is stronger. Even if things look grim, even if things look weird and strange and horrifying, the book of Revelation is quite clear: God is going to win. Evil will be defeated and destroyed. God’s love is stronger than any other power in the universe, no matter how much it may seem otherwise in the moment. The book takes evil and suffering seriously, both showing the consequences of evil and the ways in which God will eventually defeat it, but the point of Revelation isn’t to dwell on the evil or destruction or suffering. The point is that such evil and destruction will be defeated. The point is that the suffering will eventually end and God will be triumphant, that God who created the world will also be there to recreate the world as the paradise God always intended it to be. The point is that no matter how grim or hopeless things seem, God is always at work, and God’s will—God’s peace and love and salvation—will prevail.
The book of Revelation isn’t a road map, it’s a vision. Like an impressionist painting, the purpose is not to provide an accurate, factual account, but to make you feel, to capture an impression. When we read it, we’re supposed to feel how terrible the evils of the world are—and we are supposed to be relieved and filled with joy by the knowledge that they will end, that they are finite, that God is greater than they are and their time is limited. We are supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that even if we have to live through the worst the world has to offer, even if we must suffer and die, our lives are not in vain and there will come a time when all evil will be destroyed, all sickness and injury will be healed, all people will be made whole, and all of heaven and earth will be made new. And all this great joy and hope comes to us through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.
The book of Revelation starts and ends with this hope, and keeps returning to this hope and joy throughout the book, even in the midst of some of the most frightening parts. So let’s take a look at the introduction to Revelation, which is our second reading for today: God is the one “who was, and is and is to come.” God was present before all things—God created all things, seen and unseen!—and God is with us now, and God will always be with us. We can trust in God, because God will never end. God is the Alpha and the Omega: Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega was the last letter of the Greek alphabet. So John is telling us that God is the A to Z, the beginning and the end. But also, that God is part of everything and in everything. There is no part of the universe that God does not touch. There is no part of the universe that is hidden from God, or that is more powerful than God. All the physical things that we can see and touch come from God, and all the unseen things—all the spiritual forces—bow before God.
Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who shows us what God is like in his actions and words. Jesus Christ is the one through whom we come to meet God more fully than any other path. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead. As Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so one day all the dead will be raised, when Christ comes again in glory. We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but the God who created us out of the dust in the first place will re-create us, will resurrect us just as Christ was resurrected. Even the powers of death are nothing before God, for Jesus Christ has destroyed death and rose from the grave, and will one day raise us from the grave as well. He did this because he loves us, and forgives us our sins. There is evil in the world—there is evil in us—but God forgives us through the saving actions of Jesus Christ. And because of that love, because of that salvation, we have a calling: we have been made God’s people, called to serve and be part of God’s kingdom.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. The day will come when Christ will return, and the dead will rise, and evil will be defeated, and all the living and the dead will be judged. So we don’t have to worry. No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil happens, no matter how much we suffer, we know that God loves us, that God is with us, that God’s love will win in the end and all the evils in and around us will be defeated.