The Book of REVEAL-ation: Mythbusters Edition
A Vision of Christ
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet11saying, ‘Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
I wonder what comes to your mind when we speak of Revelation…
I wonder what scenes you envision….
I wonder what feelings emerge….
For many of us these responses may be shaped more by pop culture than scripture itself. Mostly I think of an epic movie genre – The Day after Tomorrow, Apocalypse Now, and Armageddon. From the small screen I can think of basically any Doctor Who episode. And the biblical text does have fantastical elements like dragons and kings and battles for power…but the backdrop is a different kind of drama.
The original Greek word for Apocalypse actually means “disclosure,” or an “unveiling.” The apostle Paul wrote in a letter to the Corinthians about the lifting of the veil, of God making the unseen, seen. Apocalypse actually translates as Revelation. And here, from the beginning of the Revelation of Christ to John, we see a book that isn’t actually so much about destruction as it is about creation.
This isn’t a nameless store of fire and brimstone; it is particularly given to John. It’s not some untethered epic floating around in the ether, it is within a particular place and time and people. John tells us, as he writing down his vision, he is writing with a particular audience in mind. “I, John, your brother who shares with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance…” John isn’t shouting these words from a street corner for any random passersby; his writing is for fellow followers of Christ, those who are already familiar with God’s story and wrestling with how to live it out into a new age. This community knows John and knows the scriptures, and so they would have already been acquainted with this rhythm and style, this apocalyptic genre of storytelling from prophets like Daniel, which is echoed over and over.
It is on this foundation of relationship, of being known to one another, of community in Christ, a shared home in the Gospel and in God…that this mountain of mysteries unfolds. And there will be many symbols and images that build on that shared story - a story of fledgling faith in the shadow of domineering empire, a story that began in the garden and looks toward a new garden. This Revelation will sometimes surpass what we can comprehend, goes beyond what centuries of scholars and historians can even interpret, and its narrative will become larger than life, and yet it does not separate from the specific communities that this Revelation is for.
And so, the visions begin. And they do not begin with an over the top fight sequence, but a vision and a message for the 7 specific churches of the area. This message is not only from John, but from God who is being revealed through John. Each of the 7 churches gets a personal address and here we read the first one.
The Message to Ephesus
2‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
2 ‘I know your works, your toil and your 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. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
It sounds like the newlywed glow has worn off in Ephesus. The bride of Christ, the church, has been in the thick of it while trying to remain faithful…and while they have held to their principles, it has exhausted their love. One traditional liturgy that surrounds communion reminds us that “it is our duty AND our joy to give thanks and praise to God.” The have forgotten their joy, their delight in the promises of God. Being a small church, a limited people, in a big city filled with other, much louder, more polished, much better equipped entities with way better Instagram stories than our own…vying for people’s attention, allegiance, and adoration…might possibly have left this fledging community feeling unknown, unseen, and starting to grow a bit weary. Perhaps you are also beginning to grow weary…of applying for assistance, of treatments that heal but don’t cure, of calling your state legislators, of hearing endless cries of pain and hurt, or click bait articles that heighten everything into end all/be all scenarios but leave us burnt out….
Perhaps this is why the messenger repeatedly says “I know, I know, I know.” “I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance.” I see you. Your faithfulness to God and to one another has not gone unnoticed. But….you have abandoned the love you had at first. Without love, the church is a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Like a marriage that has disintegrated into divide and conquer or that has been reduced to going through the motions…however well intended…there must be a return to love or it all rings hollow.
The invitation is to remember….to return to the love that grounded our beginnings…before it was all about appearances and the institution and the getting things checker off our lists…
Remember….those early days of excitement and wonder, of respect and mutuality, of dreams and possibilities….
Remember the love you had at first….
Repent, Turn your face again to that way of being…
React, by doing the works you did at first…
Because this, this anchor of love…is what it means to be the church. Without it, the church, the people of God… have lost their way and no longer has a place on the lampstand. This is what it means to be the church, the community of Christ, the family of God…to be rooted in divine love.
But it’s not all a love fest. “Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Now, I don’t know what the Nicolaitans did to get on everyone’s ish list…but whatever it was, God says that we must distinguish between what is holy and what is evil, what is to be hated and what is of love, what leads to death and what brings about life. For the church to be the church, it must be rooted in love, but also stand against what is evil….hunger, racism, lies, transphobia, sexism and the systems that support them. We don’t hate the Nicolaitans, but the works of them that go against God. Now….this is way easier said than done…cuz another way of saying that is hate the sin, not the sinner….which feels awful when someone else has labeled me as the sinner and is a mindset that is almost always abused. And honestly, I’m pretty terrible at it.
Yet in those moments of anger or apathy, I feel the Spirit tug me toward this new reality with the sometimes gentle, sometimes not…reminder that I have abandoned the love I had at first - the love which is marked by the promise of life as opposed to that evil which pursues death.
And that, THAT is what this book of Revelation is all about…a new Genesis, a new creation, a new life, a new beginning which surpasses our wildest imaginations. This is what God promises, that the old things will pass away, and that all will be made new, all will return to the love they had at first, in the beginning. Amen.