Lord of the church - Revelation 1:1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by reading a report which appeared in the New York Times a few years ago about a woman who had a strange experience in Atlanta Georgia. A lot has happened here since Joyce Simpson saw the face of Jesus in a forkful of spaghetti on the Pizza Hut billboard near Colman Wattleys Jibee Loo. Throughout Atlanta people have taken to peering at other pizza billboards where some indeed do see Jesus; others make out bearded singers like Willy Nelson, Jim Morrison or John Lennon. Most, however, only see a clump of orange spaghetti flaked with oregano. Mrs Simpson, a 41 year old fashion designer and body builder, and mother of two teenagers, described what happened: The Holy Spirit simply said: Look up. And as I looked up I lost my breath, I simply lost my breath and saw the Michaelangelo version of Christ. I saw the crown of thorns, I saw the deep set eyes, I saw the nose, the moustache. I just saw a total vision of Christ. She took her daughter India and her cousin Gloria too see the billboard and they saw Jesus too. Mrs Simpson called the local paper to tell them what she saw and soon dozens of motorists, some who did U-turns to take a longer look, saw the same thing. Yet, many remain sceptical. I guess you can make of it whatever you want. said Donna Charmichael. If you wanted a religious experience you could probably have one, but you really would have to be in some state of mind to look up and see that riding on a billboard. Still, I didnt know before that Pizza Hut sold spaghetti.
We live in the age of the credulous. You name it, you will find people who believe it; no matter how strange or bizarre-even visions of Jesus on Pizza billboards. No one is claiming that some did not see such a picture. The question is: What significance is one to give it, if any? What difference is there between seeing a face patterned in a plate of spaghetti and the sort of patterns we used to see when as children we would look at fluffy clouds and pick out all sorts of animals ? Such pictures might appeal to our sense of amusement but they dont exactly constitute life changing experiences do they?
Now, the authentic visions of God given in Scripture are far from strange encounters of a third kind kind which create the sort of interest that took place at Coleman Watleys Jibee Loo! In fact they occur very rarely indeed and almost invariably they happen not when Gods people are making sweeping advances for the Kingdom, but when they feel downtrodden and sometimes when they are being downright disobedient. It happened at the time of Moses at Sinai when the Israelites started cavorting with the golden calf. It happened with Isaiah when bribery and corruption were rotting the very social fabric of Israelite society. It happened with Ezekiel when those in Exile in Babylon were claiming that a reversal of fortunes was just around the corner, revival was coming, and yet remained unrepentant about their idolatry and sexual perversity. And it happened with John when churches scattered around what is now modern- day Turkey were undergoing moral and spiritual decline. It is in such times of spiritual degeneration that the God of the universe who only has to speak and the mountains melt before him like wax from candle, intervenes directly, drawing back the veil of heaven which hides his dazzling glory, as if to say Do you realise who I am? Do you think I am a God to be trifled with-pocket size? To be shrugged off with some crude gesture as being of no consequence? Do you think that for one moment I have lost control and that all the plans which I have made in eternity for you , can somehow be thwarted by the creatures I have made? Do you? Well, now is the time to think again. To encounter this God is no laughing matter, it is the most serious thing in the world and you will never be the same as a result. God reveals himself, you see, not in order to entertain us, but to energise us, to bring about a change of perception and behaviour amongst his people so that they move towards becoming the sort of people he wants them to be.
So let us listen to what the Spirit was saying to the churches then in order to hear what he is saying to the churches now .
One commentator describes the situation of these seven churches, with which the apostle John had some special association, in these words : There is a manifest tendency in these churches towards spiritual deterioration. Some churches are being subject to the pressures of an immoral environment. Some are effected by false teachers. And in most of the churches there is the need for the call to repent. Tell me, if you were to write a pen picture of the churches in Britain today, wouldnt you find that many of those ingredients were there? Living in immoral surroundings , diseased by false teaching , and in desperate need of repentance-to change direction? But the overall picture in the book of Revelation is one of enormous encouragement and hope. Each of the letters addressed to the churches ends with a promise, and the whole book moves towards a climax of a new heaven and new earth and the victorious reign of Gods beloved Son -and we as Christians are going to share in that. So what we have here at the beginning and this tremendous vision, is the foundation to enable us to live as the people of God in a disintegrating and hostile world. Let me ask: What is it that is going to get you through when everyone else around you seems to be deserting you? What is going to enable you to keep on going when the whole culture in which you live is poisonous towards Christianity and belief in absolute truth? What will check our natural tendency to slide into spiritual lukewarmness left to ourselves? The answer: a grand vision of a great and faithful God.
So let us turn to Revelation 1 and look at this passage under two headings: the situation and the revelation.
First of all, the situation-what is the occasion which gave rise to this amazing encounter between John and the risen and ascended Lord of the universe? Look at v 9 (read)
John is being presented here as the representative of the seven churches. As you may know, seven is always a significant number in this book, the number of completion or wholeness. So while this is a letter ( as we see in v 4) to these particular churches, in one sense it is a letter to every church in every age-the whole people of God-7. And so look at how John describes himself. He calls himself their brother because they all have the same heavenly Father. Their companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Christ Jesus. In other words, this is the normal Christian life John is describing. He links suffering with the kingdom. To be in the kingdom of Christ means suffering with Christ and for Christ. Its a sort of package deal. When we are in Jesus as brothers and companions we are going to share these things. John himself is in the equivalent of a labour camp ,isolated on Patmos. He is suffering along with the churches, feeling isolated and lonely. Now for John that is not a sign that things have gone wrong, but that he is doing right. He is there because of ,as he puts it, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. That is what faithful witness to Jesus brings, not a great pat on the back from the world, but hostility and contempt, they will try to shut you up and lock you away if you consistently bear witness to the truth of Jesus. In a pluralistic society not many are going to take kindly to the truth that there is no other name under heaven by which men and women will be saved, except Jesus. In a pleasure seeking society not many are going to welcome a message which says that true freedom is found in serving others. In a self-justifying society when everything is everyone else's fault, not that many will embrace a word which speaks of a judgement to come. But that is not the way many are presenting Christianity today. Just last week I received an email ad about some local event which ran as follows :Thursday-Saturday 24-26 May - "The Time Has Come" - God has given us spiritual power - NOW is the time to use it! The world wants a church that is spiritual but without TEETH! One that is "so heavenly-minded that it is no earthly use"! The aim of this conference is to cut through the cloud-layer so that Heaven's throne touches earth and so that souls can reach Heaven. Speakers include: Charles Ndifon who is involved in miracle crusades throughout the world - a "normal" day for him sees the dead raised, cancers destroyed, blind seeing, deaf hearing. Now what a contrast to what we have here. That certainly wasn't a normal day for John. There was no question of him attempting the arrogance of Babel and cutting through the cloud layer so that heavens throne touches earth, as we shall see ,it is God himself who does the cutting through, not us
Now it is so important that we grasp this, because the one thing the Bible always does is to keep us firmly in touch with reality. Like these churches we as a church and as Christian individuals will face many pressures -sufferings, more intensely at sometimes than at others: the pressure to look for some quick spiritual fix which is on offer, the pressure of bewilderment because a Christian you trusted has simply gone off the rails, the pressure of illness or the crippling grief which comes through the loss of a loved one, the list is endless-that is the world in which we live. And what God in his kindness grants to us in Christ Jesus is as John puts it patient endurance. That dogged ability to plough on regardless of how we feel. And this is something we need everyday, not just for the desperate moments. I need patient endurance on Monday morning, as you do. I needed patient endurance when I was a one week old baby Christian and I will need it when I am a 50 year old Christian. And the wonderful news is that all of this is ours because we are in Jesus. While he is on Patmos, John is in Jesus, nothing can take that away. And while he is on Patmos, suffering for his faith, John is also in the Spirit v10.The two go together, if you are in Christ, you are in the Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit who connects you to the Lord Jesus. And notice that being in the Spirit doesnt lift you off the island of Patmos-the place of difficulty, what it does is to open your eyes so that you can see your difficulty-your situation- against the greater reality of Jesus and his kingdom.
It is then that John receives a vision and a message which he is to pass on to these churches and so to us so where are these congregations? v19-20 (read). Now do you realise what that means? It means that while from one point of view these congregations of beleaguered believers are on earth in Asia minor, they are at the same time-in the presence of Jesus. The churches, and this includes St Johns this evening are the environment in which the risen Christ is walking. Look at v 12 (read).Before John sees the figure of Christ he notices the location of the figure, where he is. He is not simply on the throne of heaven, although he is there ruling the universe by the word of his power, sustaining all the constellations and galaxies, guiding every twist and turn of history and our lives towards his glorious return in judgement - that is where we are heading. But he is also, on earth, by his Spirit amongst his suffering people. Do you know that Jesus cannot be any closer to you than he already is at the moment as you are gathered with his people? Oh, you cant see him, that is why you need telling it is true. It is why we need this message of John as much as these churches did. Why else should we believe that the King of the universe is at St Johns in Hull England in the 21st century except that his Word tells us it is so, any more than the church in Ephesus could believe he was there in the house in which they were meeting in the 1st century? They couldnt see him, but he was there. We are not called to ask how, we are called to believe , take it on trust that it is true. You see, this is the difference between Christianity and pagan religion. It is paganism which speaks of us building a throne for God through worship or cutting through clouds to enable God to come down. The breathtaking news the Christian faith brings is that it is God who chooses to be and delights in being amongst his people. Notice too that the stars ,his messengers, probably the pastor-teachers of the congregations are in his hand too, so the very life and witness of his people are protected by his security. Isnt that a wonderful thought? No one is going to snatch them out of his hand. We are in his hands and he is in our midst as King of kings and Lord of Lords.
So what is the God like who is moving amongst us tonight if only we had the eyes to see it? Well, John gives us the eyes, this is what he saw and what we would see if we were in his position-the revelation v13-16 (read).
Here is someone like a son of man yet clearly a figure who is more than a man. And John begins by describing his clothing which symbolise the office that he holds. The same principle applies today, we can identify a judge in a court of law by the clothes he or she wears-the wig, gown and red sash. So it is here. the long robe reaching down to his feet is a mark of distinction and honour. He is the King-we are in the presence of royalty. The golden sash around his chest is the mark of the high priest-this is the one whom we are told in v6 made us to be a kingdom of priests because, v5 he loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. This is the victim-priest, the one who both offers the sacrifice for sins and is the sacrifice for sins. So as soon as you have a vision of the Lord Jesus you immediately begin to understand his work on the cross. In fact it is that work on the cross which enables us to come into his presence and he into ours, because as we shall see in a moment, he is a being of such holy intensity that if we were not protected in some way we would simply burn up. Just as it would be the height of stupidity to run into a burning room without some form of protective clothing, so it is the height of foolishness to think that we can rush into Gods presence without protection. Well, the protection is the blood of Jesus. The sins which would draw Gods consuming anger towards us has been removed and we are now clothed in the robe of Christs righteousness. Do you see how God has thought of everything and provided everything we need so we can know him and experience the richness of his sovereign love?
But then the vision moves from the symbols of office to the person himself. And I guess the one constant reoccurring feature is the blinding intensity of his radiant glory-v14 head and hair, white like wool, white as snow;-shear moral purity; eyes like blazing fire - piercing into our hearts so nothing is hidden from him - burning away all the pride and hypocrisy we so easily erect. Feet like bronze glowing in a furnace-ready to trample down his enemies.v16 A face like the sun shining in all its brilliance. And yet just as the sun is the source of all our life on this planet, the face of Jesus is the source of all our spiritual life-as Paul says For God made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ As we behold him, then slowly we are being transformed into his likeness. Do you remember the chorus Lord I want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch him. Well, what would we see? We would not be able to withstand seeing very much actually. Like with a nuclear flash our retinas would be burnt-such is his purity and holiness. That is the Jesus who is here tonight.
But it is the word of Jesus John finally focuses on v15b-16a (read).Like the breaking waves crashing on the shores of Patmos, so the voice of the Son of God thunders throughout the universe. His word is like a two edges sword, tongue-like in its shape. This is the weapon by which he rules. It is the declaration of his will and his mind. It is the Word of God which accomplishes the work of God. So the declaration of his truth, this message which John is about to pass on to the churches, it is this word that overcomes and defeats Satan and all his hosts of evil. All those powers which oppose God and his people, all the philosophies and world-views which hold men and women captive to the lie, are crushed by this Sovereign Word of power-the Gospel.
So what is the outcome, how do you respond to a vision and message like this? v17-18 (read).So if we really saw Jesus we wouldnt be reaching out to touch him, we would be falling at his feet -prostrate. And if we have never known being in the dust at his feet we will never know the security of being in his hand. And it is that same right hand which holds the church life, that touches John and bids him to stand and not be afraid. Why shouldnt Christians be afraid, especially when the world around them seems to be falling apart? Well, because as Jesus say, he is the first and the last. .He is the one who is at the beginning of our spiritual journey and is at the end of it. Our past, present and future are hedged in by his sovereign love. He is the one who is alive for ever, who holds the key to death and Hades Do you feel, as I often do, overcome by the world, by circumstances ,dragged down by spiritual failure again and again? Well, know that you have a Saviour who has overcome all of that and has triumphed. And what he offers to you, and to me, is a share in that eternal kingdom which will never end.
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