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!

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