Biblical literature like the Revelation to John is called apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptics were written by and for people who were in crisis—people who needed reassurance that, in the midst of their chaos, God was in control. They needed reassurance that, when it appeared that other forces, other regimes, other empires, other kings ruled the world, that rule was an illusion. They needed reassurance that their struggles weren’t evidence that God was absent but rather were occasions that demanded faithful witness to God’s presence in the world. Apocalyptic literature that reveals God’s power in the world was written for people like the early Christians and for us.
Revelation is unique in that it was written as a letter—a letter that God specifically told John to write down in a book to be sent to seven particular churches. There’s some debate about why these seven churches were chosen—surely there were more than seven churches in Asia Minor at the time. Some say seven were chosen because, in the Hebrew tradition, seven is the number of completion and perfection. Others say their geography would have made circulation of the letter easier. Some even say that these churches must have had some kind of special connection to the Roman Empire.
But the most likely reason is that these churches were representative of the entire Christian community—that the challenges they faced were shared by other congregations. In the chapters after ours, we learn that just one poor, powerless church among the seven receives only praise for its faithfulness and is encouraged to hold on. The rest are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses—good works and endurance in the face of persecution, mixed with hypocrisy, apathy, and a tendency to accept the ways of the empire around them. These churches are much like churches we may know—or be.
But one thing the members of all those churches shared was the need to know that they were part of a story whose ending had already been written. Before John records the vision that fills the rest of the book, he lays the foundation for this story. It’s a story that began at creation, and before creation. It’s a story that holds a promised end or goal for the future. Most of all, it’s a story of the present.
John announces this at the very beginning of the letter. He writes, “Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.” God affirms this with God’s own verbal signature: “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God” and, we can assume, everything in between. John repeats that the Lord God who speaks is the one “who is and who was and who is to come.”
The “God Who Was” is the God who called the world into being with a word—who breathed over a dark and formless void, brought forth light, and harnessed the darkness. This God brought forth sea and sky, populated by birds and sea creatures, and dry land with its myriad kinds of plants and animals. This God created humanity in God’s own image, brought to life with God’s own breath. Creation was formed by the hand of “The One Who Was,” and it was very, very good.
Human sin threw a wrench into that beautiful beginning, but it couldn’t stop God’s intentions for the world. “The One Who Was” continued to act through prophets, earthly kings, and ordinary people. History would record its times of apparent peace and times of rampant violence, times of heroic faith and times of faith in name only. But at no time was God absent, and God continued to speak of the world’s intended end—the fulfillment of God’s promise that the world would be restored to its intended perfection, led by a king of justice and righteousness, mercy and love. That king entered the world as a baby in Bethlehem—the Word made flesh, the Word who was in the beginning with God. This is the work of “The One Who Was”—God who ruled the past.
“The One Who Was” is also “The One Who Is To Come”—God of the future. This doesn’t mean that God will morph into something new—a new model for a new age. “The One Who Is To Come” is the same God who ruled at creation. “The One Who Is To Come” is the same God who acted in the past. This God made a promise for the future: a kingdom that includes every human heart, a kingdom where every eye will be dried of its tears, death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be things of the past. This promise has not yet been fulfilled, but John’s Revelation tells us that it will be. The God who ruled over chaos at creation will not rest until the chaos now infecting the world has been subdued and erased. This is the promise of the “One who Was” and the “One Who Is to Come”—God who ruled over the past and will rule over the future.
Most importantly, we hear from John that God is “The One Who Is”—God of the present. We know just how important this is because John gives us a clue: “Grace to you and peace from the One who is,” he writes. We would expect him to write, “the One who was, is, and is to come”—past, present, future. But here, the present tense takes precedence. This is a word for today, whether that today is in the 1st century or the 21st century. The God Who Was and the God Who Will Be is the God of Now. We pray that the kingdom will come, but it is already here, and the king already rules from his seat at the right hand of God.
This may have seemed like a laughable claim to those outside the early church, and a dubious claim even to many inside it, because the worldly powers did seem to have the upper hand. The Roman Empire’s power was vast—in geography and in wealth. It had produced a peace of sorts, but a peace enforced by military might. Its emperors had begun to claim divinity for themselves, even before they died. Political maneuvering for power and position was par for the course. Systematic persecution of Christians involving gruesome and agonizing torture had begun.
The Revelation to John revealed how God was working in present of the 1st-century church. In vivid images, which John attempts to describe in human words, the Revelation makes it clear that the claims of earthly rulers are hollow. Through the blood of the Lamb, victory had already been achieved. Sin and the earthly powers who relied on it had already been stripped of their power. The real power was held by the heavenly king, who looks more like a slaughtered lamb than a roaring lion. The true king is Jesus Christ, who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise made in the past. Jesus secures the fulfillment of the promised future. And Jesus is the assurance that God is with now, in the present.
If Jesus is the true king now, that means that his kingdom exists now. As his followers, we are part of that kingdom. Kingship and kingdoms are rather foreign concepts for us, having shed the monarchy nearly 250 years ago. But, if we were asked to describe what a king is, or what a kingdom looks like, I imagine we would speak in terms of wealth and power. We would think of people who are catered to by fawning flunkies who carry out the ruler’s every whim. We would see them bedecked in the finest clothing and adorned with jewels, paid for by the sweat of their people. We would assume that they exercise unlimited power over land and people, enforced by the armies at their disposal and the fear of their subjects.
But, through John, we learn how Jesus has turned every notion of kingship and kingdom on its head. Our king rules, not by the threat of bloodshed but by his own blood poured out. Our king doesn’t strip his people of freedom but, by his outpoured blood, frees his people—frees us—from the sin that binds us. Our king doesn’t treat his subjects as mere pawns in his kingdom but invites them—invites us—to be his kingdom.
What does it mean to be the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ? It means that we are called to be active participants in expanding the kingdom. We do this by adopting the ways of our king: ways of love and compassion that open human hearts so that they may become new outposts of the kingdom. Jesus makes us priests serving his God and Father, worshiping and proclaiming God’s presence and promise in the world and in our lives.
Being the kingdom under Jesus’ reign does not mean that our lives will be free of struggle. We can see that in the experiences of the churches for whom the book of Revelation was written. We certainly see it in our own lives. We see a world around us that seems to be controlled by powers other than the power of God, as politicians bicker and world leaders argue, refugees flee and the poor go hungry and homeless, computer hackers access everything from our oil pipelines to our identities, and the marketplace tries to take control of our wallets, our willpower, and even our celebration of our Savior’s birth.
And, of course, there are the events that turn our lives upside down in a direct and personal way—illnesses sudden or chronic, the loss of people we love, arguments that rupture relationships, the loss of financial security, and simply living in a world whose future seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster. Even the run-up to Christmas—the commercial one, I mean—can make us feel like
Those who don’t know Jesus suffer from fear and anxiety about how the world’s story is going to end up. But those of us who know Jesus can face the future unafraid, because we know the end of the story. According to pastor and scholar David Lose, this is a lot like watching the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” He asks, “How many times as a kid did you watch that movie with your stomach knotted up in fear over the fate of Dorothy and her friends (especially her little dog, Toto)? How many times did you watch it, unsure about whether or not the evil witch would be destroyed?” Eventually, he says, we become convinced that Dorothy will prevail. As a result, we can endure the scary parts of the movie, knowing that all will be well in the end.
We know the end of our story, because Jesus is the end of the story. All of God’s promises find their end—their completion, their fulfillment—in him. He reigns now, and no earthly power can change that. His kingdom is already present, because we are his kingdom. Our confidence in the future, supported by evidence from the past, gives us the strength to endure the hardships of the present. We know the ending. We know him personally. And our love and knowledge of him enables us to make it through whatever trials may come.
Today is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. It marks the end of the Church year and it is also a day to focus on how all of God’s promises have their end in Jesus and in his kingship over all of creation. We focus on him as the one who is the end of the world’s story, who was promised from the beginning of its story, and who is with us now, as we live in the middle of that story. As the Rev. Matt Kelley has said, “On Reign of Christ Sunday, we celebrate that God’s reign in the entire universe has already been accomplished. At the same time, we anticipate the day when that reign will be accomplished in every human heart.” Thanks be to God, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, and to Jesus Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth, who has made us to be his kingdom. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young