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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Gems and Blinding Lights

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Since Easter, as we have gathered to hear God’s word each week, our second lesson has come to us exclusively from the book of Revelation.
Admittedly Revelation, the final book of our Bible, is a book many people tend to shy away from reading – me included. In fact, looking back in my files of sermons written and preached I can see only one other instance where I took on this mystifying book of the New Testament. Which is a shame because Revelation is, in many ways, a true gem in our scriptures.
 But the truth is that the writings found within this gem can be confusing, as they swing back and forth between grim destruction and heavenly celebration. Revelation can be alarming, with its depiction of things like the fearsome four horses of the apocalypse, slaughtered souls, a blackened sun and blood-red moon, with stars falling from the sky and destruction throughout the earth.
Yet the beauty of the book is in the vision of hope and assurance it also offers. The passages from Revelation we have heard the past few weeks contain some of the most beautiful imagery and wonderful songs of resurrection contained in the entire Bible.
Today we conclude our readings of these resurrection songs of Revelation. The texts we have heard over the past weeks, have contained certain images and phrases from Revelation which repeated over and over again. This kind of repetition itself tells us that these are important to our lives and our understanding of God. Let’s remember some of them together.
In the opening chapter of Revelation, we heard that the Lord God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty,” who greets us with Jesus Christ, identified as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” 
With that opening, Jesus’s identity is proclaimed and his deity affirmed.
Next, images of angels and heavenly choruses and living creatures and grand multitudes of people of great diversity, in fact, people of all nations in numbers too great to count are reported.
This image reflects the grand universal vision to which Jesus testified God’s love extends.  This diverse multitude surrounds the throne of the originator of all life, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and they sing songs of highest honor and praise, blessing the one now called the Lamb, identified as Jesus, who is its center.
Imagine a time when your heart may have been so full of joy and laughter and happiness and gratitude that you simply couldn’t hold back. You couldn’t keep it inside. You absolutely had to sing, cry, or shout with the emotion bubbling up inside you. Such an overflowing well of emotion is what is described here, as well as words of supreme promise.
 “the one who is seated on the throne will shelter [this multitude].
The multitude is described as having come out of a great ordeal where there was suffering, disease, destruction and death – what we have come to associate with end-times. But now, because of the Lamb, who rules over all, they are raised to new, unbelievable and indescribable heights because all trial and suffering is past and gone, to return no more. We read:
 ”16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them,
  nor any scorching heat;
17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
 and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
I cannot imagine any greater or more beautiful an image of this promise of what resurrection life will bring. A new vision is delivered to those who are ushered into the new creation which God will bring about:
“………a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. …….. the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And finally, ……a loud voice from the throne saying, 
 “See, the home of God is among mortals.
 He will dwell with them;
 they will be his peoples,
 and God himself will be with them;”
And then we hear again the reassurance:
 ”he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
 for the first things have passed away.”
In this passage from Revelation we are given a vision of what is at stake in God’s love for the world and desire to have all creation abide in unity with God – the ultimate defeat of sin, death, and destruction – and the promise of eternal life.
Then we hear the good news,
 ”5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
We are reminded in this passage that Jesus is not only the root but also the crown of the tree of Jesse. Christ is the beginning and the end of the tree, of the people and of the city. Jesus is the bright morning star that promises the arrival of the day, the light shining in our darkness.
I walk my dogs each morning sometimes very early in the morning, and in the dead of winter, it is still dark as we start out. Midway in our walk, we find ourselves headed east, and for many weeks this winter I was greeted each morning by the image of the planet Venus straight ahead of me, lighting up the eastern sky, and seen just before the rising of the sun.
There was something magical – and promising - about seeing the planet, appearing as a bright morning star each morning as the sky morphed from black to navy to azure blue. It’s the kind of promise we need. The promise that even in the cold black darkness of deep night, the bright morning star is heralding and issuing forth the coming sun.
That image held particular meaning for me this week.
You see, in the midst of some very difficult days, I received the news first of the sudden death by his own hand of a young man who had grown up with my children, and then the news of the death of the bishop emeritus of the Delaware Maryland synod.
The young man was at what should have been the pinnacle of his life, and now many who knew and loved him are asking questions that begin, “What if…? And “If only…” or “How…?”
The other man is being remembered and lifted up by many who knew and loved him for the lifetime of service and leadership that he provided as he served the church of Jesus Christ, and for his many accomplishments.
One was perhaps in the middle of a humungous struggle to find his way and to make sense of his life, while the other was leaving the large legacy of a life well-lived. And as I thought about them, as I asked many of those same questions, these words from Revelation and these images kept breaking through my own clouds of grief and sadness.
Many of the passages contained in these resurrection songs are read at funerals and memorial services, and for good reason. As if lifted up on the voices of angels and the multitudes who have gone before us, they offer the hope and assurance that eternal life is real. That in the end, what we experience now is fleeting. All the suffering and pain, the tears and devastation of broken hearts, sin and death do not have the final word and are not the final image to which our consciousness will cling unto eternity.
In the end, the same God who walks with us now, who accompanies us through the highs and lows of life, who lifts us up when we are suffering and enfolds us in his mighty arms, the same God who sent the Spirit to strengthen, guide, affirm, comfort and console us provides us the bright morning star that signals the new day, the light that banishes sorrow, and leads us to streams of living water.
We are reminded then that through eternity the brilliance of God’s love will provide the only light we need – brilliant, blinding light that will conquer every shadowed and shaded place.
The words of Revelation that we have read today bring to a close not only this book but the entire Christian Bible. They bring to mind the experiences shared by all of humanity. Not only the great losses we endure through death, but also the many losses of life itself. They remind us of long-distance separations and estrangements and years of waiting and yearning from all that eludes us. They recall for us the shock, the pain and the suffering instigated by the brokenness of relationships gone awry, the devastation of hopes blasted away by a single phone call, the instances of betrayal and deep disappointment.
The words of Revelation bring us the lasting assurance, hope and promise that in Jesus Christ all waiting will come to an end. In Jesus Christ those who are lost and forsaken will be among the throng who surround the throne singing praise and glory to God. Everyone who is thirsty is told to come and their thirst will be quenched, never to return.
For those who are lost and those who have lost – for the sorrowing and the grieving, for the joyful and the praising, for all of us, really, the resurrection songs burst forth, heralding the good news of salvation in Christ. May this truth and promise grant us strength as we walk life’s journey.
Let us pray.
While you call us to unity of purpose, heart and soul, O Lord, you provide the glorious tree of life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. For all who remain here on earth we pray for your mercy and grace to sustain, strengthen and bless them in their work and play. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with all the saints, both living and dead. Amen.

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