Sunday, May 26, 2019

Everybody Worships: Sermon on Revelation 13

It was time. All across England, in town and country, eager readers counted down the days, marked them on the calendars, until the thirtieth of September, 1925. They were waiting for the latest book published at Hodder & Stoughton, the book the newspaper ads promised was coming on that day – the latest book by 51-year-old journalist and literary critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Known for his wit and his love of paradox, Chesterton was a sensation for those who followed his newspaper columns, his detective stories, his other books. And then came September's final day, and there it was on the shelves: The Everlasting Man, Chesterton's review of the spiritual journey of humanity. Just over three months later, even American newspapers ran reviews describing it as “a volume that has set two worlds astir.” As avid or curious readers pored over the pages of its fifth chapter, “Man and Mythologies,” they were captivated by passages like this meditation on the motivations and appeal of paganism:

Finally, it did satisfy, or rather it partially satisfied, a thing very deep in humanity indeed; the idea of surrendering something as the portion of unknown powers; of pouring out wine upon the ground or throwing a ring into the sea; in a word, of sacrifice. … The pagan... feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents. … But there was always trouble in the triumph … The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and maim him forever. Henceforth being merely secular would be a servitude and an inhibition. If a man cannot pray, he is gagged; if he cannot kneel, he is in irons. … When the man makes the gesture of salutation and of sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knows he is doing a worthy and a virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made.

Chesterton had an insight. The act of worship – its gestures, its attitudes, its sacrifice – is “one of the things for which a man was made.” Without it, we aren't satisfied. We find it natural, which is why worship has been such a human universal. Always has been. We always attach ourselves to something, always open ourselves to something, always organize our lives with reference to something, seek help and security from something, are distinguished and marked by whatever it is we deem worthy of our recognition and attention. To be that, to do that, is utterly natural, universally human. And that's worship.

Five years ago – many decades after Chesterton – an Old Testament scholar named Daniel Block put out a book titled For the Glory of God. And the opening sentence was just this: “To be human is to worship.” That's just what humans do: they worship. Invariably. Block wasn't the first to say it; back in '96, Rodney Clapp wrote: “To be human is to worship, to adore, to admire, to give our allegiances to powers greater than we, powers that grant our life meaning and purpose, substance and form. … At worship we consecrate our lives: what we worship or ultimately adore is what we live or die for. And at worship we celebrate our lives: what we worship is the source and sustainer of our existence. Thus worship shapes us, it forms us as a people.” Just the other year, philosopher James K. A. Smith defined the human species, not as Homo sapiens, but as Homo liturgicus, 'liturgical man' or 'worshipping man' – “embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate. … This sort of ultimate love could also be described as that to which we ultimately pledge allegiance; or, to evoke language that is both religious and ancient, our ultimate love is what we worship. … To be human is to be the kind of creature who is oriented by this kind of primal, ultimate love..., what defines us..., what we worship.” But to know all that, you could just listen to Bob Dylan when he sings:

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are;
You're gonna have to serve somebody:
Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

And in singing that, he was absolutely right. Every human is going to have to serve somebody. To be human is to worship. We find it natural to worship, because it's one of the things for which a man was made. Worship is a human universal, even if it disguises itself as a 'non-religious' allegiance. But everybody ascribes worth and value, makes sacrifices, is oriented to a primal love, seeks help and security somewhere, is marked and distinguished from others by what that 'something' is; and so... everybody worships. Everybody worships.

And I'd like to suggest to you that that little insight – those profound two words – sum up one of the key themes of the Book of Revelation. We're so accustomed to hearing about Revelation and getting all worked up, or trying to mine its pages for the newspaper headlines of tomorrow, or thinking that it's full of fear and confusion. As we're going to explore, it really isn't. Revelation, in many ways, is a book about worship. The main cast of characters might be boiled down to ten, two sets of five: a trinity, a crowd of worshippers, and a woman who embodies a civilization. We'll explore those civilizations next week. But I want you to meet the basic cast of characters of Revelation as a whole, and realize that Revelation is showing you the human options in worship.

On the one hand, Revelation points us to one object of worship and devotion: the Holy Trinity. We know this Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Revelation describes the persons a little differently. The Father is sometimes just called 'God,' other times 'the One who sits on the throne,' or even 'He who was and is and is to come.' The Son is depicted most commonly as 'the Lamb' – the one who conquers by being sacrificed, the one who wins by looking like he loses but whose faithfulness outlasts and exhausts death. And the Holy Spirit, described as 'the seven spirits,' is what motivates a variety of witnesses and prophets throughout the book, who all point to “God and the Lamb” as the ones who deserve worship from all of creation, heavenly and earthly, angelic and human. In the opening of the book, John wishes the readers grace and peace from all three: first from the Father (“Him who is and who was and who is to come”), then from the Spirit (“the seven spirits who are before his throne”), then from the Son (“Jesus Christ the faithful witness...”).

This Trinity, the Holy Trinity, God and the Lamb and the sevenfold Spirit who points to them, are one option – the right option – for human worship. And so, in the pages of Revelation, we do see people who fall in love with that option and live faithfully by such worship. Sometimes they're depicted as a countable Israelite army, the “144,000” – and sometimes they're depicted as an uncountable crowd from all nations. We'll pick up on that at the end of July. For now, just notice that there are some people in Revelation who are described as “the servants of our God” (Revelation 7:3), who spiritually “stand before the throne and before the Lamb” and give worship to the Holy Trinity (Revelation 7:9). We find them standing on Mount Zion with the Lamb, singing songs of praise (Revelation 14:1-3). And of them it's said, “It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from the earth as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4). They serve God. They follow the Lamb. They were made to worship, and when they worship, they turn to the Holy Trinity and give their sacrifices and songs to God and to the Lamb through the sevenfold Spirit.

And as we read these passages, we find out that they bear a distinguishing mark. Long before Revelation, the Bible had already been depicting Israel as 'marked' or 'signed' by God. In the story of the first Passover, when Israel through Moses was being set free from Egypt, they were told that this observance, the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). In other words, the fact that they were rescued through sacrifice was to be what distinguished them from every other people; they should bear that memory in their thoughts and deeds and should bear witness to it. Forty years later, after they've received the instructions, the Torah, the word of God, they're told, “You shall bind it as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Many observant Jews even today will wear small boxes – tefillin, or phylacteries – containing tiny scrolls with key passages from God's word. The prophet Ezekiel heard God command an angel to pass through a corrupted Jerusalem and to “put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sign and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:4). That mark, in Ezekiel – the mark of loyalty to God, like the sign of the Passover – serves as protection, because Ezekiel describes, just two verses later, how the warriors invading Jerusalem as divine judgment are to “touch no one on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:6).

So it shouldn't surprise us, when we get to Revelation, that those who worship the Holy Trinity are also marked. An angel emerges in Revelation 7 “with the seal of the living God” and describes his mission as to “seal the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:2-3). Seven chapters later, John sees the worshippers on Mount Zion with the Lamb, and they're described as humans “who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1). In various places in the book, certain judgments only happen to “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Revelation 9:4).

Revelation is presenting us with one option, the right option. In this option, our human impulse toward worship is given entirely over to God and to the Lamb, to the Father and the Son, as the sevenfold Holy Spirit tells us, through the witness of the church. And Revelation shows us that some of humanity will do this. They will be sealed with the name of God and the Lamb. This isn't literal writing; it's showing that the thoughts and actions of those who worship God and the Lamb will be distinguished from the thoughts and actions of those who don't, and it shows that those who worship God and the Lamb are defined by that allegiance, that primal love, that worship. Whenever we see people like this in Revelation, they're singing and praising, they're testifying and suffering, they're following the Lamb wherever he goes. Even when he trots toward the slaughterhouse. Even when he ascends to his Father. They belong to the Lamb, are owned and operated by the Lamb's Spirit, and that is what marks them and defines them. That is what they were made for and redeemed for – that worship.

That's one option. But famously, Revelation paints a picture of another option, an option it deems a bad choice, an option centered around counterfeits. If Revelation shows us the Holy Trinity, Revelation also unmasks an unholy trinity. When we get to the center of the book, we meet a very unsavory cast of characters. First is the Dragon – “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). This Dragon is hungry to devour, to consume, to kill, to destroy; this Dragon degrades human dignity, wrecks human lives, intends to be an enemy to all creation and to its Creator. And he's labeled “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). As the plot of the book moves forward, this Dragon and its allies are increasingly confined, increasingly frustrated, increasingly angry.

And at a pivotal moment in the story, the Dragon stands at the edge of the sea of chaos, and up rises Leviathan – or, as Revelation says, “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads..., and to it the Dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (Revelation 13:1-2). This beast from the sea, this Leviathan, is made in the Dragon's image, reveals the likeness of the Dragon, just as much as the Lamb reveals God, as the Son reveals the Father. And the Sea-Beast even appears as wounded but healed, a counterfeit of Christ's resurrection (Revelation 13:3). We find that the Sea-Beast derives its influence from the satanic Dragon; that the Sea-Beast is a slanderer of God and of his people (Revelation 13:6); and that the Sea-Beast even “was allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them” (Revelation 13:7). The Sea-Beast is a slanderer and persecutor, come to give death as much as the Lamb died to give life. But the Sea-Beast has widespread influence: “Authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation; and all earth-dwellers will worship it – everyone, that is, whose name hasn't been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8-9). We read that the Sea-Beast, drawing power from the Dragon, inspires “the whole earth” to “marvel” as they “follow the beast. And they worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, 'Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?'” (Revelation 13:4).

What would this have meant to the churches in first-century Asia Minor who first read John's vision? That's not much of a mystery. The Sea-Beast is Roman political and military power – the government and military of the empire. It seems to rise from the sea, in that its representatives come to these churches by ships across water. It presents itself as splendid, but the emperors lay claim to titles that belong to God alone. The emperors of Rome, by this point, were demanding worship, depicting themselves as Lord, God, and Savior. And imperial power was used to slander Christians and their God, as when the Emperor Nero had Roman Christians burned alive or dressed up like beasts and attacked by dogs, as scapegoats for a fire in the capital city. And yet the empire won the submission of many nations, and extended its reach far and wide. It promised peace, safety, a new day, and many blessings – but John saw behind the mask. And what he saw was a nexus of political and military power that was in the devil's hand, that was in fact a grotesque monster, that it had tricked the nations through false promises and slander and violence. This Roman government and military machine, John beholds as ultimately subhuman.

Today, Rome itself has come and gone, but the Sea-Beast was never limited to Rome. Any empire, any state, that becomes beastly – and they so frequently do – expresses the Sea-Beast. The governments of such states will tend to extend their influence through military power and strength. They'll tend to demand allegiance from those they can reach. That allegiance will require people to orient their lives to the state's goals, to accept the state's vision of what's good and what isn't, to orient themselves to the state's foundational ideology. And John calls that 'worshipping the beast.' Such states will tend to punish those who withhold that allegiance – some will use open violence as a weapon, others will hide it better and be craftier and more subtle. But the claims made by that kind of beastly political and military power will amount to blasphemy, and yet the influence those states wield will impress many, and many will be deceived into thinking the beast beneficial, or at least irresistible. And so they will marvel. And so they will obey and submit. And so they will follow the beast. And that will be their worship. It may not be all they worship. But it will be one thing they worship, among a petty idol host.

In this, the Dragon and the Sea-Beast have help from one more character. Rounding out their unholy trinity, we read of “another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs..., and by the signs... it deceives the earth-dwellers, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain” (Revelation 13:11-15). Elsewhere, this Earth-Beast is called by a simpler name: “the False Prophet” (Revelation 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). It may seem like a kindly presence, looking like a lamb, but it's no lamb – you can tell that when you hear the content of what it says, because it's the dragon's anti-gospel that spews from its mouth. Whereas, in the Holy Trinity, the sevenfold Holy Spirit inspires prophets to point to God and to the Lamb, this unholy trinity features a beastly False Prophet – the Behemoth – who points to the Dragon and the Sea-Beast. It provides religious legitimation for what the Sea-Beast does, acting somewhat like a chaplain and enforcer, all in one. It impresses on behalf of the Sea-Beast, it glorifies a moving and speaking image, but its marvels only draw lines in the sand, and any who don't participate must be ostracized and punished.

We read further that the Earth-Beast, the Behemoth, the False Prophet “causes all – both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave – to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark – that is, the name of the beast, or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:16-17). Whereas the Holy Spirit seals those who follow the Lamb, the False Prophet dishes out a counterfeit. In Egypt a few centuries earlier, a pagan ruler actually did brand Jews with the sign of an ivy leaf, the mark of the pagan god Dionysus. And similarly, the False Prophet brands people like slaves, making servitude and allegiance to the Sea-Beast a condition for participating in the full economic life of the community for people of every class.

Again, to John's first-century audience, this wouldn't be much of a mystery. In Asia Minor, a provincial council – local authorities, representing all their cities – was responsible for governing local life on behalf of the imperial authorities of Rome overseas. Their ranks included many priests of the imperial cult, and the council sought to encourage all residents to pay appropriate respects to the imperial cult, which worshipped the emperor and Rome itself as a god and goddess. Pagan priests of all sorts had ways to rig cult statues in temples – even in imperial temples – to make them seem to talk and speak, thus making the statues seem more like the living presence of the so-called god they pictured. And this council and its priesthoods had influence over the trade guilds and the money supply. Coins bore the emperor's picture and slogans attesting his divine status; receipts often included imperial propaganda. It became essentially impossible at times to participate in the economy of the Roman Empire without accepting allegiance to the imperial cult and other forms of pagan worship.

Beyond John's day, we find this Earth-Beast appearing under many other masks (corporations, movements, and more) – whatever provides legitimacy and spreads the propaganda of the Sea-Beast, whatever enforces the demands of allegiance to the Sea-Beast through criminal penalties or market boycotts or social engineering projects or an assortment of other means. Whatever it is, John looks at it, holds up this picture, and calls it subhuman – says it's part of the unholy trinity that, with Satan at its head, leads people to succumb to the state ideology (and other ideologies) that demand allegiance, that demand what John sees as worship. John would've agreed with what G. K. Chesterton said – not just in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man, but in another book Chesterton wrote seven years later, Christendom in Dublin, where Chesterton remarked, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. … Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.”

That's so often true. And that's what John sees at work here in the unholy trinity of Dragon, Sea-Beast, and Earth-Beast – of Satan, Leviathan, and Behemoth. Everybody worships, to be human is to worship, and if that impulse is derailed toward political and military power and toward state-ideology propaganda and economic strangleholds, all at their satanic worst... well, the result is subhuman. It marks the 'earth-dwellers' with a beastly sign – not necessarily a literal, visible tattoo, but symbols of allegiance to the state ideology, to this false option for worship. That might look like a hammer-and-sickle, that might look like a rainbow, that might look red and white and blue – but John looks behind the propaganda and sees the beastliness for what it really is.

And he sees humanity segregate themselves – some showing allegiance to the beast, others serving God. Some worship the Holy Trinity, others accept the unholy counterfeit trinity. What Revelation reveals is, ultimately, that everyone bears some mark. If it isn't the seal that marks allegiance to God and to the Lamb, it's the mark that cryptically names the beast. Without the mark of the beast, you can find yourself sidelined from society and from economic and political life, you can find the police powers of the state and its military strength aligned against you, you can find yourself belittled by its media outlets, find yourself pressed hard on every side. But without the seal of the living God, we risk finding judgment in the end.

For all our incessant wavering, we will, in the end, bear one and exactly one mark. For the two cannot ultimately coexist. You cannot remain both sealed with the seal of the living God, have the names of Father and Son on your forehead, and bear the mark of the beast and worship it. No – you must either worship God and the Lamb in spirit and in truth, or else worship what's beastly in its fearsome deception. You must accept the propaganda, or you must testify against beastliness in governance, beastliness in the courts, beastliness in the military, beastliness in the economy, beastliness in the media, beastliness in religion, beastliness in society. And that is a live choice. Churches and cathedrals (or buildings and gatherings that bear the name but not its substance) can easily be filled with those who bear beastly markings. But everybody worships. And every life of worship bears its cost.

But, as Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.” So each day, we must cultivate our love. Do we yield to and cling to the political and military and ideological and economic life of powers behind which beastliness lurks, or do we love God and the Lamb? Which will we love? Where will we run for protection, security, identity? What allegiance will we pledge: Dragon or God, Beast or Lamb? Whom will we follow to the last? What will we worship?

Is it clear to everyone today which mark you bear? Will that be just as obvious tomorrow? What about the day after that? What allegiance will you pledge? As you ponder it, consider the messages we hear in Revelation 14: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water. … If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on his forehead or his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger..., and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, whoever receives the mark of its name. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints: those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:7-12). 
Two trinities. Two marks. Everybody's gotta serve somebody. Watch your neighbors – what do they really love, what stories do they really buy into, where do they seek security and prosperity, what do they serve, what do they deem worthy? Watch your relatives – what do they follow, what do they worship? Watch your nation – what worship do its institutions proclaim? And then, what about us? Everybody worships – so what will we? What will I? What will you? Think on these things – and may you be found one of those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and bear no seal but his. In Jesus' name – Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Living One: Sermon on Revelation 1:9-20

The sun hadn't even yet risen. The dazzling blue of the Aegean Sea remained yet cloaked in black. But a man in his early eighties, his gnarled fingers gripping his staff, cautiously but with familiarity felt his way through the darkness up the mountainside path. A younger man walked with him, supporting him on his way to ensure he didn't fall. The elder was thankful. The pair made their way to a small cave in the rock, where two or three others awaited him. The elder struggled to adjust. He was used to overseeing whole districts, gathering with dozens and hundreds, not this tiny band of those he'd reached in just the few months he'd been stuck here. He felt sidelined, reduced, frustrated, idle. He was itching for freedom. But – he sighed to himself – he must have work to do here, else here he'd not be. He just hoped that he'd get some visitors from the outside world again soon. Being relegated to this isle of the sea – a penalty meted out for his 'stubborn' refusal to never lie about what he knew, his insistence on speaking divine words of truth and testifying to the One with whom he'd been privileged to walk – well, the relegation felt, at times, a bit like being hamstrung.

But no matter. It was the eighth day of the week – the day of new creation, the day that burst all bounds of all they'd ever known. Candlelight lit the cave, flickering, toying with shadows and glimpses across the faces of the little cell. They were there to worship a God whom governors and emperors knew not, a God for whose sake the elder had been punished by civil authorities like Bradua the proconsul – or was it Paetus? They all blurred together after a while, at his age. No matter. The elder welcomed his followers, announced the good news. They sang, hummed, bursting the silence of their dark cave with music. Having no texts to read, it fell to the elder to recite the holy words. He chose, for that day, to recall what the prophet Daniel had seen. A series of four beasts, rising from the sea as heavenly winds stirred them up – the grand empires of the earth, with the last being monstrosity of monstrosities. But then, the Ancient of Days – the Holy One, the Eternal – sat on a throne, with clothing white as snow, hair like pure wool, and beneath him flames for his seat, and a stream of fire before him as attendants hailed him. Court was in session, to judge the beasts that ruled the earth. Then approached a man, rising on clouds into the Ancient of Days' court. And the verdict was, this Son of Man would rule – the glory of humanity, not the ghastliness of beasts, would lead the earth, forever and ever, amen.

The thoughts stuck in the elder's mind as he turned to the cave wall, leading his little band in a chant to the Lord Jesus Christ, their God. The elder called; the disciples responded. The elder called; the disciples sang. But the elder's mind stayed on that beautiful prophecy. His heart swelled within him as he chanted, the words taking up every nook and cranny of body and soul; a sensation like lightning rushing down lit the synapses in his brain. His mind wandered, and it took a moment to realize that the responses of his disciples sounded muffled, distant. The elder paused, straining to hear them – and regretted it when they were silenced by a crashing crescendo of sound, a flurry of words, a voice that split eardrums and threatened to split earth.

Whipping around as fast as his aching knees would allow, the cave was gone, candles gone, faces gone, but he found himself – where had he found himself? It seemed like a vast field of mist, pulsating, roiling, stretching out beyond where the rock walls should be. Beneath his feet... he couldn't tell on what he was standing; blocked from view, it felt like crystalline clouds. He peered through the mist, or tried, but found it impenetrable, thick as the veil of old in the holy place, a denser blanket of fog than ever he'd stumbled into. Throbbing, gleaming, living, as if each molecule were an angel of light, dancing in chorus as they swirled round his shins and hid his very hands from his face.

Then a cutting wind started to blow, lashing his cheeks with a cold breeze. And in the stiff blowing of wind, the turbulent mist began to thin. First silhouettes, then light began to emerge. The stunned elder began to see... menorahs. Lampstands, tall, tall almost as he, with their seven branches each. How many menorahs? He knew ten had stood in Solomon's Temple, flanking the sanctuary five by five. But here, at least within reach, he could count... one, two, three, four, five... six... seven of them. Solid gold but bigger than he recalled, with branches with buds and blossoms, topped with seven lamps. And the wicks were ablaze – flames flickered, wavered, lit up the mist that seemed to give way for them, swirling around their lights. The elder was mesmerized. He'd not dreamt he'd see such lampstands again. But here they were, in the ethereal mist.

And then, the elder froze. There was motion in the mist. Behind and between the menorahs, he saw a figure looming, lurking. A human figure, striding with purpose. The elder at first could see no more than the shape, the form. But those clothes... As the mist cleared, the elder could catch glimpses of an ankle-length robe bound by a golden sash and an ephod and the glimmering breastplate of twelve gems. It made sense. Among the menorahs of the temple, there had to be a priest to tend them. But what high priest could this be?

Then the mist split open, cracked like the sky on Judgment Day, recoiled in awe and terror from the luminosity of the priest, and the elder's jaw dropped, his eyes bulged, his heart raced. Here was the man – dare he think of him as 'a man'? – but the man from whose voice that thunder of words crashed, like the collapse and resurgence of a billion oceans. The elder struggled to look that man in the face. His hair was white, like snow on the peak of the mountain, like wool on the purest lamb – it was the hair of the Ancient of Days, the hair of Daniel's God. Above his flowing beard, the elder saw eyes that burned like a furnace, eyes that crackled, eyes that smoldered – and the elder tore away his gaze as his knees buckled and he sank. How could he bear to look into those eyes – those eyes that surveyed the proteins in his cells and the contours of galaxies, those eyes that no seraph dared meet, those eyes that melt mountains, those eyes that lit the spark of creation with their heat? How dare the elder count the hairs that bespoke antiquities of eternity when yet every nebula was a newborn?

The elder tore away his gaze before the radiance could burn him out his body. But where to look? Every inch was overwhelming. The flesh of his hands, flesh of his bare feet, was like living metal, like burnished bronze of highest quality, glowing and molten and polished and perfected and glaring and beautiful. And the elder, the elder wept tears of joy and terror and agony and confusion and bliss. His ears were ringing, still aching from the boom of the voice – that voice that flashed bright, that pierced the mist, that split the air like a broadsword with every divine roar this priest spoke like a crashing ocean and howling tempest – this priest, Ancient of Days and Son of Man in one, whose whisper of command shook the fabric of space and time like an earthquake. The elder felt dizzy, felt sick – his vision pulsed white, fading from overstimulation. Features of the... the man... leapt forth to his view, discombobulated, jumbled, as if every twitch changed the whole picture – the elder felt like a dot, a speck, a fragment of a line trying vainly to comprehend all the unfamiliar dimensions of a meteor.

The elder struggled, from his knees, in a daze, to look up again. He glimpsed, if only for a moment, the priest's right hand. Swirling, spinning, a solar system of flashing light, the sun and moon and planets in their courses, all seven that dictate the nations' fates, were clutched in the man's grasp, nestled in his palm, brushed by his fingertips. The elder's vision sank into those stars, plummeted, toured the vast reaches of cosmic space – all within the man's hand. As the man raised that hand, the elder's sight tracked it almost involuntarily – until it came near the face. That face! That face, bright beyond compare, that face streaming rays of light, that face to which the burning noon is pale, to which the heavens are but a dirty mirror! That face was stronger and brighter than the sun at its height, unobscured. And the vision was too much. The light pulsed, and the elder's sight would have given way to blindness, save that the strength of the vision held his eyes captive against their will, against their protest, as he felt them itch and dissolve in their sockets, compelled to function beyond possibility.

The elder had seen what was impossible to see – had seen a man, a portrait of humanity far beyond anything the elder had ever dreamt humanity could be. But once he'd seen such a man, nothing less than this could ever seem human again, could ever measure up again, could ever make sense again. The elder's world was shattered by the encounter. Traumatized, shaken, overwhelmed, he swooned, he gave up his mind to the gulf, he surrendered consciousness, let go, and his body went limp as tattered rags. He collapsed, helpless and hopeless in imitation of death, at the burnished-bronze bare feet of the Everlasting Man.

And there he lay. His story closed. The book slammed shut. Transported to a lethal vision, lethal because too great for human sight. Paralyzed by grandeur, stricken by beauty into a coma, sapped of strength by a vigor so vital tornadoes seem lazily listless in compare. And so fell John, the elder exiled to Patmos, frightened by the sight for which he'd so long longed. Any pretensions of sufficiency, any illusions of competence, any will to achieve and accomplish, any self-concern – they lay slain, dashed to bits on that crystal-cloud floor. If only it could be so for us, who, for seeing and knowing less, can still feel ourselves strong in ignorant twilight!

But then the action goes on. The book is reopened in the Ancient of Days' court. The Son of Man stretches forth his starlit hand and touches the dusty skin of the catatonic elder. A booming whisper of thunder crashes through the elder's paralysis, shatters his chains, heals his hearing and sight and makes them able to bear itself. And the first words that revive the deadened elder to life are these: “Don't be afraid.” The trumpet of truth was commanding, compelling, irresistible, undeniable. It was the whip of an exorcist's words, and fear itself, like vermin, fled the elder's heart as from flame. The inward implosion of his psyche froze; every fragment of his soul stood in place. With a touch, the Everlasting Man restored the elder to himself, gave him back the gift of Johnhood, revived him to perfect peace and stillness, enabled him to stand under the unbearable weight of glory.

The elder's lost eyes and scourged ears became one with the Spirit of the Lord; through the Spirit, he could hear and see the Everlasting Man, look him square in the dazzling face unflinching, hear the surge of a universal ocean in his voice and yet make out the finest tones of heavenly melody. But still he did not understand. This great high priest, tending the seven menorahs – John the Elder could see some of them half-lit, some of them flickering, some of them glaring and blaring, some of them struggling 'gainst the breeze – but this priest who tended them, who dredged out the old and spent, who trimmed and pruned their wicks, who poured new oil into them, who touched them and bade each lamp be lit – this priest, this Everlasting Man: who? what? how?

And to the elder, the Everlasting Man explained. He explained that he knew what it was like for the elder to lay there on the floor, limp and lifeless. He knew because he, the Everlasting Man, had died once. On a chilling spring day, on a hill outside a city, stretched between dirt and sky, robe stolen, caked with gore had he died. He himself had been there. But look, look! The Everlasting Man is dead no more! He is alive again, alive again, and terminally so, interminably so! “I died, and behold! I am alive forevermore!” Forever and ever, forever and ever, lives the Everlasting Man – humanity beyond death, humanity beyond conquest, is he! And so gained the Everlasting Man his new title, new name: “The Living One.” The One who is himself Life itself.

This Living One – the elder was stunned by the revelation. He knew this Living One, had walked with him and talked with him before that chilling spring day, and after, too. Could it be? Could this priest of heaven, this tender of the lampstands, this holder of the stars, be the very Jesus who'd broken bread into his hands? Jesus, the Living One! Jesus, who effortlessly steers fates and destinies with a flick of his finger! Jesus, whom no law of decay can touch, whom no raging eon can wear down, whom no shadow can dim, no chance relativize – the Living One forever and ever! First before the dawn of creation, Last beyond the limits of all infinity, in himself he spans, encompasses all things; as God Most High he dwarfs the universe as the universe dwarfs a dust mite.

With his burning sight, he surveys the true state of all things. Every person – you and me – his fiery view sees. Every collective, every society, every structure – his flaming eyes behold how they really are. The Living One speaks sharpness, striking down all that's unworthy, surgically separating reality cell from cell, atom from atom, quark from quark. His outcry instills and relieves fear, binds and looses the hearts of men and angels. And in his clutches, he's stolen away the very keys of Death and Underworld. No Caesar and no bandit can wield death as a weapon of tyranny forever – they go only so far as the Living One unlocks the doors, and when he locks death and grave against his servant, no power in creation can force them through. No dark chthonic demon, no petty idol, no binding necessity of nature can keep any hemmed in death and grave and netherworld, should the Living One unlock the door and proclaim release. To ferry soul or star or society from upper realm to lower or from lower realm to upper, from death to life or life to death, is to the Key-Holder effortless – and the keys are in the Living One's hands, and no one can steal them away from his grip.

And where does the elder see him? Ministering as a priest between the menorahs, the lampstands. Trimming the wicks. Cleaning out the spent oil. Supplying new oil of his Spirit. Bidding them receive him and burn with bright life. And what are these seven lampstands? He himself – the Living One, the Everlasting Man – tells the elder: They're churches. They're the witness of whole communities of believers, of disciples. Not all are lit up brightly. They flicker. Some have big flames soaring high; others sputter and smolder on just a few branches; some scarcely emit dim puffs of smoke.

But still, to these flickering, flaming, sputtering, smoldering lives, he reaches out his touch, he voices his speech. Even to the small lives, buffeted by stiff winds, choked and spent, he actively ministers, bidding them only receive and burn with bright life. Yet as they flicker still, he does not leave. He has not left. The Living One, the Everlasting Man, the Priest of the Lampstands, in all his splendor and majesty, is ever present among them. He walks between them, never far from the smallest and most misshapen branch, never distant to the brightest or dimmest flame. The Giver of Life, the Presence of Life, is never far from our lampstand here, never absent from your life, no matter how smoky or deadly the breeze.

When we're far from outselves, still he stays near. When we're few, still his starlit hand tends to us as much as to the tallest and most polished. When the hostility of a dark world makes our light seem pointless, still the Living One shines brighter than noonday. When the fashions of a restless world scoff at his antiquity, still he is First before them and Last after them, relevant unchanged for longer than the sun can burn. When the hemming and hawing of an uncertain choir peddles truth softly, still his voice slashes beyond the confusion and speaks a clear word. When the stars above seem dizzy and all fate seems up for grabs, still he nestles the spinning worlds in his hand as they dance from sign to sign. When the seismic shifts of modernity and tragedy threaten to overturn all things, still his burnished-bronze feet stand firm forevermore, and he stabilizes our lampstand if we rest on his hand. And when we swoon in helplessness and hopelessness, still his starlit touch can cast out all fears and raise us up to life and strength again, for every key is in the Living One's hands. All glory to the One who died and is alive forevermore, the Priest of the Lampstands, the Everlasting Son of Man!

Why do I bring you this message? Why do I recount this vision? Why do I share such things to the place from which a lampstand rises? Because I want you to see him. The Living One said to John, “Write, therefore, the things that you have seen” (Revelation 1:19). Write it down. Send it along. Make a record of this vision, that others might catch a glimpse through you. So, through John's obedient writing, may you, too, hear him, see him, know him. Encounter the Living One whom John, caught up in worship on the Lord's Day, saw amidst the lampstands. Find what the elder found. Grapple with a Jesus who is not tame, who is not simple, who is not dull or discountable. See the Jesus John saw, hear the Jesus John heard. Behold him for who he is; let his glory conquer you, yield beneath his starlit hand, allow him to raise you up and make you able. Then write, speak, share the Jesus you've seen faithfully among the lampstands. He is not far. He is not dead. No, no – never dead again. The Living One holds the keys, he holds the stars, he holds us all. Behold him, and be cast down and upheld. All glory to Christ the Living One, far as eternal ages run! Amen!