Summary: It seems like a long intermission between the Acts of the Apostles and the final act in God’s great drama of salvation. But we are the actors, not the audience, and we had better start learning our lines.
An old Spanish proverb says “We count the faults of those who keep us waiting.” Have you ever done that? Sat there at the restaurant or stood there at the theater or paced at the airport and rehearsed all the things you were going to say when the culprit finally showed up? It’s not just the waste of time that gets you. A kind of
emotional vacuum forms, sort of like disappointment only worse because you don’t know when to give up, stop waiting, and move on to the next thing on your agenda. And of course sometimes you simply can’t move on to the next thing because - like at the airport - the next thing on your agenda depends on getting done with this one, when making the connecting flight isn’t going to happen because this one has blown its schedule.
A lot of people in this congregation have experience with waiting - with delays, disappointment and frustration. Anybody out there not know what I’m talking about? We can fume at incompetence and rail at indifference and write letters to our Congressmen. Sometimes we change our plans and go at the problem from a different angle; sometimes we go after a different goal altogether. How do you cope?
The people back in John’s day had been waiting for Jesus’ return for quite a while already. And they dealt with it the same way we do. Some continued to work and watch and wait. Some dealt with their disappointment by going numb, by caring less and just going through the motions. Still others decided he wasn’t coming and started following a different path through life. Because there are always people who give up on God when he doesn’t fall meekly in with their agendas.
I wonder how the people in Ephesus and Smyrna and so on felt when John’s revelation started circulating around the churches. I’ll bet they read it read it something like Tim LaHayes’ series of novels about the end times... You know, Left Behind and the rest? As soon as the publication date is announced for the next one in the series people start putting in their orders at the bookstores and the libraries. You just have to know what’s going to happen!
I don’t know for sure that John’s revelation was circulated in installments, like a magazine serial or the old silent movie cliff-hangers like The Perils of Pauline, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And so imagine the announcement coming that a messenger has arrived from Patmos, the island where John is living in exile, and word passes from one house to the next, and next morning there’s the congregation waiting with bated breath for the next installment. Remember, we’ve
already opened all seven seals, and six of the seven trumpets have sounded. Famine and disease and war have been let loose upon the earth. The seventh trumpet is the last one, the climax, the final act of God’s whole mighty drama - this must be the moment when it will all come clear! What horrors, what surprises, what calamities can possibly surpass what we’ve already seen?
And at first they’re not at all disappointed. There’s a very dramatic scene coming up. John saw “...another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a little scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout, like a lion roaring. And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded. [v. 1-3] But just as the curtain is about to come up, revealing the scene, what do they hear? The angel tells John, “Do not write it down." [v. 4c]
What a letdown! It must have felt something like what the disciples felt back in the beginning, when Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after the Resurrection. There they stood on Mt. Olivet looking up at the sky, probably with their mouths open, wondering what to do next. And then “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them [saying] "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” [Acts 1:11]
Doesn’t this sort of thing happen all too often, though? We chart our path through life and set off on our way, expecting the road to be straight and smooth, with signposts at every intersection, the curves properly banked, and the mileage clearly marked on regular intervals so we know how much longer to the next MacDonald’s.
But life doesn’t work like that. There are roadblocks and accidents and storms and detours and we simply have to be prepared for it. Because even though this delay in reporting what John saw at this point in the revelation does have dramatic effect, it is not just a literary device. It isn’t put in there just to keep the audience keyed up, although that doesn’t hurt. It’s part of equipping them to deal with life.