Sermon from December 5: Revelation – A Book for Advent
Revelation: A Book for Advent
Advent II; December 5, 2021
Isn’t that a beautiful song?
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power,
For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (v. 11).
Revelation has some of the most beautiful and haunting poetry in the Bible. Whenever you get the opportunity to hear Handel’s Messiah all the way through, it finishes, appropriately enough, with a chorus from Revelation:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood,
To receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
And honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne,
And unto the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.
Of course, the chorus most of you identify even more with Messiah, “Hallelujah!” has text from Revelation too. As much as I like “Hallelujah!” in my opinion it can barely hold a candle to “Worthy is the Lamb.”
That’s part of the reason I love Revelation so much: the poetry. The other part is the deep and encouraging hope that infuses the book, the hope that prompts me to say to you that it is the perfect book for Advent. Since we have been following the Year of the Bible in 2021, it is appropriate to finish with Revelation, the book the Bible finishes with. But it is especially appropriate to read Revelation at Advent and Christmas, because its message of hope is especially appropriate at Advent and Christmas.
That is the main thing I want to say to you today. I’ll elaborate a little, of course, but that is my main message to you today: let John’s message of hope in his Revelation be your theme this Advent. Two other thoughts for you: a general introduction and a warning.
John’s Revelation is a peak behind the curtain that separates Heaven and Earth or, if you will, the natural and the supernatural. God gave John a vision of the throne room of God, with God’s courtiers in attendance. That’s hard for us who live in a republic to envision, but the picture is the Heavenly Monarch on the throne surrounded by attendants. Today’s reading, chapter four, is a description of the throne room. The book then unfolds the story of what John sees in his vision; it’s a cosmic story, involving the collapse of stars, heavenly conflict, the clash of armies, and the triumph of a Lamb who was slaughtered as a sacrifice.
Here is the hope: the Lamb wins. Followers of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who had struggled to live faithfully in an oppressive, anti-Christian culture are saved from final death and those who threatened and harmed them are punished. Many of you will dislike some of the pictures of blood and plague and death, but let’s be honest: isn’t that what life in the world is like? In John’s Revelation those who are faithful to Jesus Christ get through the blood and plague and death to see the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City.
Although the observation of Advent is often lost in the bustle of pre-Christmas, it is an important season in the Church’s life. Historically Advent is an older celebration than Christmas; Advent above everything else looks honestly at the state of the world and prays, “Come, Lord Jesus.” In those years that we’re doing our normal readings instead of the Year of the Bible you hear Isaiah promise the reign of a righteous heir of Jesse because the government we have created for ourselves isn’t doing the job. We pray for the coming of the Prince of Peace because our temperaments and misplaced priorities get us fighting with each other.
In Advent we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord!” and in John’s Revelation the Lord comes. To his faithful ones the Lord brings blessing and peace; to those who opposed him and who deserted him and who harmed his faithful ones the Lord brings judgment. You and I may not much like it, but to those who have been ground under the heel of government, or refused service in public accommodations because of who they are, or scorned and abused by others Revelation has a message of hope, a hope that is particularly relevant in Advent. Maranatha! Come, Lord!
But the warning. Please pay attention to what I say. Don’t take it too literally in the sense of reading it as a future history. Too many people have done that over the years and they have done a lot of harm to God’s people by their misguided teaching. The book uses a lot of fanciful language, symbolic numbers, and mythological imagery. I like to think of it in terms of a political cartoon. If you see a cartoon in the paper – in those papers that still have political cartoons – it may have in it a donkey and an elephant fighting with each other. You and I know what that means, especially if the donkey looks a little like President Biden and the elephant looks somewhat like former President Trump. But we know donkeys and elephants don’t fight with each other. Likewise with the imagery in Revelation: it conveys meaning, wonderful meaning, but it’s not a photograph.
Consider the amazing description in today’s reading: the One seated on the throne looks like – what? – jasper and carnelian. A rainbow that looks like an emerald. A sea of glass, like crystal. Four living beings with the heads of a lion, an ox, a human being, and an eagle (you may remember that those bearing the throne of God in Ezekiel’s vision had those same faces). What do we make of all this? John was given a vision of something that no ordinary mortal can expect to see and he did the best he could to translate it into pictures that we could grasp, but that still strain the imagination. Because of that, many people look at Revelation and give up. They figure they’ll never understand it, so they don’t read it.
My encouragement to you: take hope from Revelation that the Lord will come, the Lord will look with mercy on this messed-up world and “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.” And don’t get bogged down in the details. One mistake when it comes to Revelation is to take it too literally; an equal and opposite mistake is to ignore its message of hope. We do not know when Christ will come; we do not know how Christ will come. Christ will come. In the meantime, the four living creatures sing and the twenty-four elders sing and you and I too are invited to sing: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master