Sermon from Sunday 12th May

Revelation 7 : 9 – 17

John 10 : 22 - 30

Sermon

Of all the books that we have in our bible, it is perhaps fair to say that the final one – the book of Revelation – is the one that most preachers would be happy to avoid.  It reads like something out of Lord of the Rings or one of those modern fantasy novels that are so popular these days.  Probably because of that it has provoked so much controversy, speculation, and blatant misunderstanding.

Right back in the fourth century, some of the great fathers of the church openly questioned whether it should be included in Holy Scripture at all.  At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther said, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely."   Even my man John Calvin produced commentaries on every single book in the New Testament - except Revelation.

It is not very popular, it seems strange and difficult to preach on, so how could I possibly resist!  I want to boldly suggest that the book of Revelation, with all its blood and thunder and terror, with all its curious numbers and its strange symbols is an essential part of the story of scripture.  For it tells us in the most dramatic language that, in the end, the one who created it all and the one who has worked to redeem it all is the one who is still in control.  It tells us that in the end he will heal all that has become broken about our humanity and renew his creation.

It is, if you like, a colourful description of the claims that Paul is keen to make in his letters, that the purpose and the plan of God is to restore the whole of creation and make all things new.  So the story which began in Genesis with a fall from grace in a garden ends with God putting things right again in a new city, a new creation, where all is again perfect and peaceful and according to his will.   With the book of Revelation we complete the journey from Eden to the New Jerusalem: a place where all the nations will finally be united, a place where there will be no death, no mourning, no crying, or any pain (21:4).

Now it is no accident or coincidence that we come to read this vision in the middle of the Easter season.  The two are vitally connected.  We might say that the physical horror of the cross and the confused wonder around the empty tomb are very earthly pictures of the all-powerful nature of God, of his sovereignty over all creation, while the visions of Revelation are images of what that power and that sovereignty look like on a cosmic scale.  In Christ, God has taken on the empires and the powers of this world and has triumphed, so we can be sure that the whole purpose of God will ultimately end in triumph.  There is nothing in heaven or on earth that can overcome him.  Or as St Paul put it: “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)

Great stuff, but it might sound as if the message of scripture for us is – don’t worry, be happy.  As if it is merely telling us, in the words of Bob Marley: "don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right.”  That is a good message.  God is in control, Jesus Christ has won the victory over the forces of evil in this world, and there are great things lying ahead of us so just get on with your lives and trust in God to do his thing.  In a sense that is the message of scripture.  Jesus told us to take no anxious thought for tomorrow, he instructed us to look at the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air, for if God looks after them he will surely look after us who are created in his image.

That is part of the message, but it is not the whole of the message.  Jesus did not talk about the kingdom of God and ask people to believe him.  He lived the kingdom of God, and asked people to follow him.  In fact, he said that the kingdom had already arrived, he said that it was very close.  He set about doing the work of God, and he invited people to join him.  Living that way did not prove to be easy or comfortable for Jesus.  We know that it led to a cross.  And if we think that following him should make life easy and comfortable for us we are going to end up disappointed and disillusioned.  The scriptures never imagine that the faithful life is going to be easy or comfortable.  Even when the writer of Revelation set out a dreamy picture of the faithful in paradise, people from every nation serving God in total harmony, he mentions that it was only possible after they have come through a great ordeal.  The promises of scripture are not promises of protection from pain or difficulty in this life.  If they were we would readily and rightly dismiss them.  But they are promises that we are not alone through those problems and those difficulties, and that they will not be the final word, that there is a shepherd who will be with us through every dark valley, and who will lead us out the other side.

OK, so we can expect life to be hard, but in the end God will rescue us from all the pain and turmoil and set us up somewhere better.  No, that is not quite it either.  The Easter faith is much more than that.  It is faith in a God who makes all things new, and who invites us to join in his work.  He invites us to do the work that Christ was doing; to heal and restore and forgive, to feed the hungry and lift up the weak and get angry about all forms of injustice.  He asks us to show mercy and compassion and to love, to love even our enemies, to love even if it costs us our lives.  He calls us to take our share in the great movement which Christ inaugurated the great work of renewing all creation.

It is not that we imagine that we might be able to achieve it ourselves: that would be rather ambitious.  It is not because we imagine that God somehow needs our help because he isn’t really able to manage on his own: that would be rather arrogant.  It is because our lives find their true meaning and purpose once we realise that this is what life is all about.  We are not here to pass a few years and then to be forever forgotten.  We are here to serve a higher purpose and a greater cause: higher and greater than we can yet understand.  And we do that – every time we do something caring, every time we speak healing words, every time we manage to be give some love, and show some kindness and do what is good and right and beautiful and honourable.

People might just think we are being nice, and there is nothing wrong with being nice – it is better than the alternative, but in fact we are playing our part in the great purposes of God to redeem his creation from all that gone wrong within it.  We do it because Christ calls us to do it, and we are able to do it because we understand that he has already done it for us, and our daily experiences of life take on a whole new significance when we understand it in this way.  That is the real purpose of all the visions which tell of God’s ultimate victory, and of the wonders of his new creation.  You might need the great promises of scripture to keep you going if you are living a quiet, selfish kind of life.  But you will certainly need them to keep you going if you are actively committed to serving the kingdom of God.

Whether in ancient Rome or in modern Pakistan, or Sudan, or Iraq, whether we are suffering or whether we are committed to help those who are suffering, the faith of last book of the bible is the faith that we need.  It is the faith that can keep us going in darkest of days, and the faith that gives us the strength to go on believing, and to go on serving the purposes of God, no matter how difficult it gets.  For it tells us that our efforts are not petty – but that they are deeply significant. It tells us that our efforts are not futile – but that they matter.  It tells us that our efforts are not in vain, becuase in the end this is what will be revealed as the greatest thing we could have done with our lives, and that it will all be part of what is triumphant and what is eternal.

We are called to keep on loving, and caring and working and giving, offering ourselves so that God will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We are called to do that because we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him, and we have recognised that as the word of God.  And we are helped in that calling by the vision, the promise, the hope, that none of our efforts will be futile, none of them will be wasted, but that God in his wisdom and glory will somehow be able to gather them all up and use them in the building of his kingdom.