Summary: People have to be clean before entering the presence of God, and only Jesus can do the job.
This is taking forever, isn’t it... preaching through the book of Revelation. It doesn’t have the familiar comfort of the gospel stories, or the practical theology of Paul’s letters, or the colorful stories of the Old Testament heroes. It’s just one clashing, disturbing picture after another. And so what I’d like to do today is pause for a moment, recap where we’ve been, and preview what is coming.
Remember where we started. The Apostle John, by now an old man in exile on the island of Patmos of the coast of Turkey, near Ephesus where he had been living and preaching for maybe as much as 40 or 50 years, had a series of visions which he was told to write down and communicate to all the churches.
John was the last of the apostles still living, and the emperor Domitian was beginning the worst wave of persecution of Christians since Nero. The young church was under pressure from all sides, pagans and Jews alike, the eye-witnesses were dying off, and Jesus hadn’t returned yet. How could Christians continue to hope under these circumstances? Their expectations didn’t match their experiences.
The whole purpose of the book of Revelation is threefold:
1. God is in charge.
2. We live on a battlefield - messy and dangerous.
3. Jesus Christ wins.
The book of Revelation is sort of like a topographical map of eternity. If we can match our life experiences to that map, we can stop feeling lost or afraid and keep on heading in the right direction. Sometimes John gives us a glimpse of the mountaintop - the Lamb upon the throne, the angels and saints singing mighty choruses of praise and adoration, the glory of the sanctuary. These images remind us of the reason for our hope, they tell us that the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead is still operating, still holding the stars in their courses, still keeping the earth from falling into the sun, and still protecting his sheep. Do you remember your own mountain-top experiences? Think about
it for a moment - most of us have had them, when we have been touched in a particularly powerful way by the knowledge of the presence of God and the love of Christ. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hang on to those moments?
It’s the same reaction Peter and James and John had on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared next to Jesus and all three were surrounded by light and the voice from heaven said "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" [Mt 17:5] They wanted to stay up there, away from the demanding crowds and the hostile officials and all the other things they’d had to put up with since they’d joined the Master. But Jesus wouldn’t let them. He led them back down into the world of poverty and dirt and illness and evil and told them to get back to work.
Well, John’s vision reassures us that those glittering visions are still true, even when they’re out of our sight. But he spends even more time showing us the dark side of history. And that reflects our own experience too, doesn’t it? We spend more of our time in the valleys than on the mountaintops. Sometimes they’re grim,
dark valleys of despair, but more often than not they’re just humdrum slogging along life’s dusty roads, wondering where the next rest stop or scenic view or historical marker will appear.
To help us when we’re down in those valleys, unable to see the whole terrain spread out in front of us, John reassures us that God isn’t taken by surprise at the stubborn persistence of evil, God isn’t thrown by the wars and famines and murders, earthquakes and floods and epidemics, that are part of human life here on earth. They are unpleasant, but they are the side effects of the cosmic battle between God and Satan, and can’t harm us in the long run - if we understand what’s going on, and take our proper place and role in the story. John tells us how to stay safe, how to avoid getting caught behind enemy lines, how to recognize friend from foe. And he tells us why it’s necessary, why God doesn’t just snap his fingers and shazam! Mice turn into horses and rats turn into coachmen and rags turn into ball gowns, the black and white of Kansas changes like magic to the brilliant color of Oz.
The reason that God doesn’t do that is because he wants as many people as possible to find the emergency exit, to go to the bomb shelter, to head for the hills - to take advantage of the rescue operation he put into effect at the beginning of time.