John never expected what happened that long-ago Sunday morning. There he was, worshiping as usual on Sunday morning, when all of a sudden a clear, loud voice - a voice as impossible to ignore as a trumpet call, lifted him to his feet and spun him around. And there before him was a vision, a blazing figure the likes of which no one had seen since Daniel and Ezekiel almost 700 years before. Or if they had seen anything like it they hadn’t told anyone. And John fell flat on his face, in awe and fear and sheer astonishment.
He was just worshiping. No doubt he had been worshiping in much the same way every Sunday of his life since the disciples had started to gather together in Jerusalem to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection some 50 or 60 years before. And certainly there had been wonderful, powerful, moving moments - like the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit first came. And there were the times when he or Peter or John had been telling the Gospel story and people had been healed, or felt the presence of God and shouted out with joy. And of course worship was especially meaningful as the day grew ever closer to the time the Lord would call him home. All the others who had been with Jesus when he walked the earth had already gone, and sometimes John wondered what more it was Jesus wanted him to do. He felt sure his work was done; he had finished writing his memoirs of his days traveling around Palestine with Jesus, not everything, of course, but the most important parts, the things people would need to remember. He had kept in touch with the churches in Asia Minor, his particular charge, and knew that they would copy his letters and send them on to the other provinces as well. He had warned them against false prophets and reminded them that the key sign of Jesus’ followers was love of one another and faithfulness to the crucified and risen Christ.
But there was one more thing John had to do.
John had to give the church a new vision of Jesus, a more powerful vision, a picture so overwhelming that everything else - persecution, temptation, doubts - would simply fade away in the blaze of glory.
"Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches,” [v. 11] said the voice. As we saw last week, although only the seven main churches in what is now the eastern part of Turkey were named, but the clear intent was that this vision should be communicated to all of Christendom, the church universal, not just a handful of local congregations. What John was about to be shown was the last gift the church would need to keep them faithful during the long years of waiting that were to come.
But not just anyone could have seen this vision. John had been specially prepared. Remember what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount? “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” [Mt 5:8] But where does purity of heart come from? One of the leaders of the church in the next century, a north African bishop named Tertullian, quoted Jesus as saying,“No one can obtain the kingdom of heaven without first passing through testing.” Well, John had been tested, John had been purified by the refiner’s fire. And he saw God. His
hearers would also be tested, and he is promising them that if they, too, endure, they too will see what he has seen. John had been persecuted, exiled, and flogged. He had no doubt been slandered and vilified and spat upon, as well. And so John reminds his hearers that he isn’t speaking from some lofty mountain of spiritual privilege, but from right in the middle of the same kinds of abuse and harassment and injustice that they are experiencing. He’s one of them. And as he reminds them of his participation in their suffering, he assures them that the vision he sees will also be given to them, because they, too, purified by suffering, will participate in the kingdom, if they, too, endure patiently what is to come. “I share with you,” says John, “the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” [v. 9]
But it takes more than testing to prepare someone for a vision of Christ. It’s also worshiping. John was, as he says, “in the Spirit”. Different churches and cultures have different understandings of what “Spirit-filled” worship is. And within each church and culture, each person brings his or her own expectations and temperament to worship. What is it that lifts you up into the presence of God? Is it prayer? Is it music? Is it Holy Scripture? Is it the sense of connection to the sisters and brothers worshiping with you in the pews? Do you come into the sanctuary expecting to hear from God? However you come, whatever the key may be to opening your heart to God, it is God’s Spirit who opens the door the
presence of God.
The final piece that needs to be in place for you to catch a glimpse of God is God’s own purpose. No matter how much you’ve been tested, no matter how sincerely you worship, the gift of a glimpse of God always has a purpose. Each person is given what they need to do the work God had called them to do, and just as Jesus did not give this vision to John for John’s own sake alone, your experience with God belongs to the wider church as well, for their encouragement and comfort.
What did John see, that long ago Sunday morning?
Did he see the strong, tanned challenging teacher they had walked with down the hot dusty roads of Palestine so long ago? Did he see the gentle shepherd, touching and healing and loving the vulnerable, the wounded, the hurting, the lonely? Did he see the sacrificial lamb, pierced and bleeding, forgiving his enemies even as they jeered at his helplessness and pain? What did he see?
John saw a blazing, fiery, dazzling figure that knocked him off his feet. “When I saw him,” John says, “I fell at his feet as though dead.“ This is John, the beloved disciple, who reclined at Jesus side at the last supper. Even he could not stand in the presence of this power.
And this is the vision of Jesus that the church is going to need. They are going to need to know - as we need to know - that Jesus has the power to defeat even the strongest enemy - even Caesar. They are going to need to be confident - as we need to be confident - that the injustice they suffer under isn’t the last word. They don’t want what some modern theologians are preaching - a flexible God, who suffers and changes and wonders right along with us what the future is going to hold. They need a God who will fight for them and make everything come out all right in the end. And that is just what John gives them.
What does all this mean, this blazing figure surrounded by all kinds of mysterious, puzzling symbols?
The first thing John sees is seven lampstands. And he tells us right off the bat that they represent the seven churches he’s supposed to write to. And it’s also clear that part of the symbolism is that Jesus is present with his church. But what do the lampstands mean? Why use lampstands to symbolize the churches?
Well, first of all, it’s an image that would resonate really strongly with the Jewish Christians. The temple furnishings included a golden lampstand which was never extinguished by night or day, partly to symbolize the unquenchable spirit of God, but also because ordinary sunlight couldn’t reach inside the sanctuary and the priests needed light to function. But beyond that, the seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, was one of the most common symbols of Israel and of Judaism. The Jewish Christians believed, as we do, that through Christ we are the true inheritors of God’s original promise to Abraham. And by this time, much of the persecution the Christian churches were experiencing actually came from Jews rather than from Romans. In fact, the rabbinical Judaism which had developed after the destruction of Jerusalem had added to their daily prayers a condemnation of the followers of Jesus, So John’s use of this Jewish symbol may be intended to encourage the disinherited. But John doesn’t leave the symbol unchanged: the seven-branched lampstand as a whole may represent the new Israel, but here each congregation individually is a lampstand. That’s partly, I think, that each congregation has individual importance, but it also reinforces the idea that the seven churches stand for the church universal.
Next John turns to describing the figure that stands among the lampstands. Again, his Jewish hearers will recognize the imagery. It’s straight from the book of Daniel. “...His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude. [Dan 10:5] Now, this description is of the angel that brings Daniel his vision, but what John is looking at is no ordinary angel. If indeed one can think of any angel as ordinary. Because the reference
to the Son of Man makes it clear that this figure is the one to whom “the Ancient of days” granted “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” [Dan 7:13-14]
But that’s not all. John sees more than what Daniel saw. The figure is holding seven stars. What is that about? Well, fortunately, he tells us. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. Now, something to keep in mind is that almost everybody in those days believed in astrology. It was a basic first century assumption about life: everyone believed that your fate, your destiny, your future was controlled by the stars. I know astrology is popular nowadays, (I’ll wager that more than a few of you have been known to glance at your horoscope in the paper.) but reliance on the stars was even more prevalent back then because life
was so much more uncertain. Even Jews believed in the stars - if only for Gentiles. So what this particular image says is that Jesus is the master of fate, not the other way around. If you think the stars control your life, well, guess who controls the stars? That’s a pretty comforting thought, isn’t it... Because unlike the stars, Jesus takes an active interest in people. He can be appealed to. He understands.
And yet the very next image is of a sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth. What a frightening picture that is! It’s not how we’re accustomed to seeing Jesus, is it? And yet he is the living word, and the word of God is often referred to as a sword. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us that “the sword of the Spirit ...is the word of God. [Eph 6:17] Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
This shows us Jesus as judge. But he is also warrior, defender and avenger. A reference which more of John’s hearers would be likely to recognize, though, is to Isaiah: “He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” [Is 11:4]
Or, as Martin Luther put it in that great anthem A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure: one little word will fell him.” And then the figure speaks. Like the angels appearing to the shepherds, or the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, the very first words Jesus has to say are, “Do not be afraid.” But then he goes on: "I am the First and the Last.” This means exactly the same thing as “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” These are titles that only belong to God, so
you see, the very first thing Jesus says to John (aside from the necessary
reassurance) is an announcement of his deity. But he goes on. Jesus is also “the living one.” Now, this is another title that belongs to God alone, but it says more than that. It is an affirmation that Jesus has triumphed over death. The whole of verse 18 is a resounding repudiation of death’s claim on God’s people. Jesus goes on, “I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” [v. 18] Hades was the Greek name for the underworld, the place where the dead go. No mythical hero of old was ever able to rescue
anybody from Hades... even the celebrated musician Orpheus, who when he went back for his beloved Eurydice and sang so beautifully that Hades relented and let her go, wasn’t finally able to win her freedom. The Romans believed that Pluto held the keys, the Egyptians believed that Anubis held the keys... And they all believed - with fairly good reason, mind you, that no one could escape death. But they were all wrong: because Jesus has the keys. Deat
cannot hold his followers.
Even though the emperor and his subordinates were powerful enough to inflict death on anyone they pointed the finger at, they couldn’t grant life ... only Jesus has that power. Only God - in the person of Jesus - controls who lives and dies. Jesus had already taught his followers, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted." [Mt 10:28-30] This vision reinforces that teaching.
Well, that’s what John saw. He saw a blinding, dazzling figure, with stars in his hands and a sword in his mouth, who is Lord of life and death.
So what? Do we fall flat on our faces as John did?
Well, we could.
But we don’t have to. Because this figure is ON OUR SIDE.
Remember the beginning of Chapter 1? This terrifying figure is the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” [v. 1:5-6] His love for us doesn’t change like our love for him, blowing hot and cold depending on what’s going on in our lives and how distracted we are. This love that Jesus has for us takes into account our weaknesses, our failings, our compromises and doubts. Because he still dwells among all seven lamps, and he still holds all seven stars, even though five of the seven churches are not all they are supposed to be. Some, in fact, are
downright scandalous. And we all know of churches which are lousy advertisements for the gospel. But Jesus still loves them! They - and we - still belong to him, unless we ourselves turn our backs on him.
The power of this blazing, dazzling figure, the judge and warrior and avenger, can be frightening. And indeed there are many frightening passages in Revelation. But if we understand that it is only Jesus’ power that makes his love for us effective, then this vision becomes comforting rather than alarming. It is because Jesus is so powerful that we can go to him for refuge, that we can trust him to defend us, and to make sure history ends up where it’s supposed to.
We may not see Jesus as clearly as John did. In fact, we probably won’t, because we don’t have the same job John did - to write this all down with such vivid and startling clarity that people have been talking about it for 2000 years. But we can see enough to know that Jesus is not only the beginning and the end, he’s also the center that holds it all together. He’s the focal point, the axis of life, around which everything else falls into place. It is only when we see all things in relation to Jesus Christ that the world at last begins to make sense.