Sunday, November 24, 2019

Your Invitation: Sermon on Revelation 22:16-21

And so this journey comes to its close. Every journey must, I suppose. This is the twenty-eighth and final part of our journey through the Revelation. We've puzzled through the perplexities of the present age, and we've plumbed the mysteries of eternity to come. We've wandered the surface of the earth, and we've soared into the heavenlies. We've seen fire and fury, we've seen light and lightning, we've tangled with beasts and angels. It's been a journey, to be sure. A year ago at this time, what came to your mind when somebody mentioned this book? What did you think about the Revelation? Perhaps you found it cryptic – a puzzle whose pieces you felt little hope of unjumbling. Perhaps you found it imposing and intimidating – a book to be avoided wherever possible, deferred indefinitely. Perhaps you found it fearsome, frightening – full of doom and gloom; judgment and terror; woe, danger, and darkness. Perhaps, for one or more reasons, it didn't hold the right appeal for you.

And yet, as I've listened to some of you in the past couple of months, that's not the impression I've been hearing any more. From the sounds of things, we in this church are now thinking and talking about Revelation in a new light. We're finding it exciting. We're finding it joyful. We're finding it hopeful. We're finding it rejuvenating. We're coming away from it with our apprehensions turned to thanksgivings. Because we're no longer assuming that the Revelation is to be filed away in our mental box marked 'end-times prophecy.' We're seeing it as a book given to the church in every generation – a book made relevant to John's churches, a book made relevant to the times of Augustine and the times of Charlemagne, the times of Aquinas and the times of Luther, the times of Albright and the times we live in. It's a book that'll still be relevant to your tenth generation, if the Lord tarries long enough. It's a book that had a message before America came to be, and it's a book that'll have a message to speak after her stars and stripes crumble to dust. This is a revelation for every generation. Because it's not a revelation of future events, primarily. The first words John puts on parchment tell us it's a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1). Jesus is what Revelation reveals. The entire book is about Jesus. He is its, as he is the world's, “Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).

We understand that Jesus is eternally God – that his Father “loved [him] before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24) – that he dwelled in the high stretches of eternity when there was no time and where there was no space. We understand that Jesus is the Word who already was (John 1:1), the Word whom God spoke to call the first heavens and first earth into being (Genesis 1:1). We know that in the fullness of time, after many prophets, God sent Jesus down from heaven and into the universe we know, down even to this very terrestrial ball, to be born of the Virgin Mary. We know Jesus endured the hardships of our broken world. We know that his hardships rose to their highest point at the cross, where he offered up his life as a sacrifice. And yet we are told, in the Revelation, that in this, Jesus “has conquered” (Revelation 5:5) – thanks be given to God!

When the book opens, not only are we told about Jesus – that he's “the Faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:4) – but we get to see him, get to meet him, not in the lowly simplicity that clothes him in the Gospels, but in the glory he's attained with his return to his Father. This is the heavenly Jesus. We've encountered him as the Living One, who was dead but is alive forevermore, and who holds now the keys of death and the grave (Revelation 1:18). We've seen him as the Everlasting Man, the perfect glorified humanity, dressed as a high priest who gently tends the flickering candle of each and every congregation that stands within the worldwide temple called the church (Revelation 1:12-16; cf. Revelation 2-3) – his glory is more than we can now handle (Revelation 1:17), but we know we were meant for it.

As we ascend with John through the open door in heaven (Revelation 4:1), we catch a glimpse of heavenly worship as it had been – we meet the four living creatures and twenty-four elders, ringing 'round the emerald-banded throne of God, and they taught us how to worship like heaven worships (Revelation 4:2-11) – but then we catch a replay of the ascension, seen not from earth as in Acts but seen from heaven as he enters. And so we meet Jesus as a Lamb once slaughtered for the sacrifice, and yet now standing tall, his wounds glorified (Revelation 5:6). And we come to understand that he's the only one truly worthy, the only one who can unfurl God's plans for the salvation of the world, bringing all things to their final destiny (Revelation 5:7). And because all heaven can see it, we listen in on their thanksgiving to Jesus: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Jesus rises to heaven precisely as “him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6) – his blood, the impact of his atoning death and vibrant life, washes our lives clean (Revelation 7:14).

Then, as we catch glimpses of history unfolding, we didn't need a vision to tell us that things we dread, things like invasions and strife and famine and plague, are rampaging in the world. We know that, we've feared that. But what we did need a visionary to tell us was this: those things all, somehow, will be made to serve God's good and hopeful plan. Their hoofbeats echo loud and long through history's halls, but they can only plant their hooves where Jesus, unsealing the scroll, grants them permission to roam (Revelation 6:1-7). We still find these tragedies hard to understand, especially when we see them claim the earthly lives of our own brothers and our own sisters, those who've served Jesus and whom Jesus has loved. And so Jesus shows them in heaven, their souls under the sacrificial altar, having been living sacrifices that ended in sacrifice unto death – and while they cry out for an end to the riders' rampage, he tells them to wait until God's calendar of martyrs counts down, and he makes them comfortable in heaven to wait for what's in store (Revelation 6:9-11).

To understand why so much of history and so much of life brutalizes those Jesus loves, we're given a vision of a “great red Dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). And this Dragon, this Devil, wants only to devour (Revelation 12:4). Long did he persecute faithful Israel, the loyal remnant of God's ancient people, which was pregnant with the promise (Revelation 12:1-2). When she gave birth at last to the Child of promise, Jesus the Messiah, the Dragon couldn't devour him after all (Revelation 12:5). “Then the Dragon became furious” and “went to war” against all those whom Jesus adopts as his little brothers and little sisters (Revelation 12:17). The Dragon does this by summoning up beasts – vicious worldly powers – to sic on us, to trick or crush us (Revelation 13:1-18). Beasts like these – they try to pawn themselves off as compatible with Jesus, as similar to Jesus, or as superior over Jesus. But don't be fooled – they bear the serpent's image. They consort with Babylon, the world's corrupted culture and economy, and use her to their advantage (Revelation 17:1-18). And they're convincing. They trick all those who remain outside of the church (Revelation 13:8), and sadly, even many within the church are either seduced by the culture's wiles or browbeaten by the beasts' boasts (Revelation 2-3).

As a result, those within the church who do actually defy the beasts and follow the Lamb – well, they know they may pay a high earthly cost (Revelation 13:15). And yet Jesus seals his true disciples as his own, placing them spiritually under his protection (Revelation 7:1-8) – for the church's outer court – our physical presence on earth – can be trampled down by every nation; yet the inner court, the church's soul, is safe and sound (Revelation 11:1-2). Jesus the Lamb organizes his followers like an old-school army to stand with him on Mount Zion, equipped for a holy war (Revelation 14:1-2) – but our holy war is just to keep testifying to the good news of Jesus. In following Jesus, we're already forming an uncountable international crowd around God's throne (Revelation 7:9). Only Jesus can make that, because only Jesus ransoms people for God from every tribe and tongue. And no matter which tribe we come from, no matter what its customs or what its traditions, we're urged to gather together as those who “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).

If we live this life keeping the faith, defying Beast and Babylon alike, the worst they can do to us – even death – is only the shape of our exodus. Like God's people leaving Egypt for the promised land, so death becomes for us an exodus through the glassy sea into heaven; and in heaven, we'll sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, praising our Savior all the day long (Revelation 15:1-4). That's what each of us can look forward to, if we follow the Lamb. And yet we know the story hasn't reached its end when we get to heaven – getting to heaven is only the middle of your story. It gets so much better than heaven – thanks be given to God!

As the Revelation shows us, several times under several different images, the lead-up to the end, the approach toward judgment, it's called “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) – because Jesus loves human life so much, loves his people's lives so much, that it infuriates him to see any of you mistreated and scoffed at for his name; and there will come the point when he has sworn to tolerate no more of it, and to rebalance the scales. In that day, Jesus will harvest the earth (Revelation 14:14-20), and no one can stand in the face of Jesus' judgment except for those who truly belong to him and stay with him, those who know that salvation is only in Jesus (Revelation 7:9-10). Jesus' wrath against the rest is justified because, as John sees, anybody who doesn't follow Jesus will ultimately, in the way they choose to live, end up declaring war on Jesus: “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them” (Revelation 17:14). The violence of the nations claws deep gouges in culture time and again, and once the worldly powers have torn civilization to shreds and set it ablaze, expressing God's own judgment against a godless culture (Revelation 18:20-24), we hear heaven celebrate (Revelation 19:1-4). For all this chaos, only paves the way for us to see more of Jesus, someday riding in on a 'white horse' will all of heaven at his back (Revelation 19:16-21), letting his word be good news for all who know him, as his word wars against, and decisively defeats, everything that's wrong in the world (Revelation 19:15).

This same Jesus who returns is coming, not just as the Warrior to defend us, but as the Bridegroom to win us – the Bridegroom at the biggest wedding, his union to the perfected church, his Bride; for which God his Father will throw and host an eternal wedding-supper (Revelation 19:7-9) – thanks be given to God! But before this must come the final judgment. And for any one of us – no matter if you've lived like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mother Teresa – the only hope you can have in that courtroom is for Jesus, God's Lamb, to have recorded you by name in his book of life, the only exhibit worth any bearing in your defense, and against which not one protest can be heard (Revelation 20:15) – thanks be given to God!

Following the Last Judgment, we see that where the old heaven and old earth had fled away from God's face (Revelation 20:11), they'll be resurrected as a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). The glorified church will descend from heaven down to the new earth as a new worldwide civilization, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2), and be united with Jesus – this is the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9). When we at last peek over into this new creation, we see that Jesus is the cornerstone of its foundation (Revelation 21:14; cf. Ephesians 2:20); we see that Jesus shares a single throne with his Father (Revelation 22:3); we see that Jesus is the temple where we worship (Revelation 21:22); we see that Jesus is the lamp shedding divine light on the whole universe (Revelation 21:23). And as we return home to an Eden gone global, the Garden-City of God, with a river of life flowing from Jesus' throne and sustaining the tree of life only Jesus can grow (Revelation 22:1-3), we're told that Jesus will be the Shepherd who guides us to the springs of living water and who shelters us in an everlasting perfect peace (Revelation 7:15-17). In eternity, we will live in a perfect creation, but the very perfection of creation is how it resembles the Jesus whom we'll worship forever, when we see Jesus and his Father face-to-face (Revelation 22:4) – thanks be given to God!

Jesus is indeed “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). He really is the long-awaited “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5), the “Root and Offspring of David, the Bright Morning Star” which was to arise in Israel and will shine on us as a new day dawning. Jesus is the Lord who sent his angel, his messenger, to bring this revelation to all the churches, not so that we could keep it as our own secret knowledge, but so that the whole church and the whole world can hear (Revelation 22:16). Jesus is everything. And as John learns the hard way, when he tries to worship the angel who showed him all this: to turn aside from Jesus even momentarily, even to turn aside from Jesus to the best and brightest created thing, is a serious mistake (Revelation 22:8-9). Because what this Revelation wants to show us is that Jesus is so much better and so much brighter than any next-best thing.

The angel talks about how he's a “fellow servant” alongside “those who keep the words of this book.” And we might wonder what that means, to keep the words of this book. But to keep the words of this book means to live according to the picture it sets out for us. To keep the words of this book will lead us to fall head over heels in love with Jesus, to cheer him on heaven's throne 'with all his Father's glories on,' to be a true worshipper and true witness, to be ready to follow the Lamb into a new creation. That's keeping the words of this book.

But will we keep the words of this book? As we come to the book's end, that's the question it sets before us this day and every day. Revelation sets before our eyes a stark choice, just as Deuteronomy did before: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). So, too, does Revelation give us a choice: Jesus or no Jesus; Lamb or Beast; be washed or be unwashed; receive entry or receive exile. Either we can wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb and then follow the Lamb into the eternal city where the tree of life is, or we can cling to the uncleanness of our sin, ignoring the stains or trying in vain to wash them away our own way, which will only leave is outside the city where there is no life (Revelation 22:14-15).

And you might think, “Oh, I'm here this morning – oh, some decade long past, I prayed this one prayer – oh, the destiny is sure.” But Revelation was sent to the churches, precisely because people in the church can fall away, precisely because people in the church can knuckle under pressure, precisely because people in the church can be hoodwinked by the lullabies of Babylon and the serpent's hiss through the mouths of beasts. People in the church, people like us, can subtly let other things loom too large in our mind's eye, and make Jesus out to be too small. Or we can treat him as a figurehead and assure ourselves that our paltry devotions will suffice to please him 'til our journey ends. No – Revelation wants church-folk to see that the choice is an open question for each of you. If we compromise with false teaching and false living, then we're adding our excuses alongside the prophecy, adding to the words of the book – and “if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues written in this book” (Revelation 22:18). And if we back away from the picture Jesus gives us here of how he wants our lives to look, with all the agony and all the hope, then in our rebellion, we're taking away pieces of his word, we're subtracting from the words of the book – “and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and the holy city” (Revelation 22:19). To take either of those courses is to fail to keep the words of this book, keep them as they are and uphold them in life.

And that isn't what Jesus wants for us! Jesus doesn't want us to miss out on what he's offering. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:7)! Jesus carries it to you as a blessing, not as a curse; as a lightness, not as a weight. Jesus hands you this book to remind you of his solemn promise. Jesus is coming quickly, coming suddenly. A thousand years may be just a day on God's calendar, and the Lord may measure time by martyrs instead of months, but Jesus' second advent is the next thing God's got marked on it, the next big thing on heaven's to-do list: “He who testifies to these things says: Surely I am coming soon!” (Revelation 22:20). To him, the Holy Spirit is praying for his return, the whole Church is praying for his return (Revelation 22:17). And his return to us is “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). His return is so hopeful because Jesus wants good things for you.

And Jesus wants to give me, and wants to give you, the water of life, the same water that will one day irrigate and flood the cosmos from his throne on earth, the same flow of Holy Spirit he's been pouring out since that one Pentecost, the same issue of life he pours in every age. The prophet Isaiah predicted it long ago:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for what isn't bread, and your labor for what doesn't satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what's good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live! And I'll make with you an everlasting covenant: my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Jesus, “the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16), is our New David, our New Love, our New Covenant. Jesus is the One who invites everybody thirsty to his refreshing waters and satisfying table. Jesus denies no one. Jesus shouts an open invitation to all and sundry. From the ventures and adventures, from the humdrums and doldrums, you can come. From the highs and the lows, from the homelands and the hinterlands, you can come. No matter how dried-up and parched you are, you can come. No matter how sick you are, you can come. No matter how wicked and how stubborn you are, no matter your crimes and no matter your confusion, you can come! You can 'come to the waters' and be refreshed, be satisfied, 'without money and without price.' Why fritter yourself away for things that never satisfy? There's a better deal on the table.

Jesus doesn't charge for it. Hear the words of the book: “Let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). No, Jesus won't charge you. He already paid the price, paid it high, paid it in full. The sole cost he asks is your desire for him. He only wants to give, give, give. The 'water of life,' more valued, more precious than any diamond, more satisfying than a trillion years in utopia, he offers freely. Jesus only will ask you, “Do you want it?” Do you want it? Will you come and take it, when Jesus is the one offering it?

Jesus sings in your ear, Jesus sings to your heart, “Let the one who is thirsty come” (Revelation 22:17). Does that touch on anything in you? Are you thirsty? Is there anything in you that isn't perfectly satisfied with life as you've known it? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that understands need? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that feels the contours of the God-shaped hole in all of us, which God alone can fill? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there anything in you that knows loss or fears for the future? “Let the one who is thirsty come!” Is there still any thirst in you, any desire to do anything but languish in the deadness of self? Then “let the one who is thirsty come!” Come where? Come how? Come to Jesus! Come with desire, come with thirst, having faith that he can satisfy where no one else can! Come to Jesus – run to Jesus like a panting athlete, trembling from the race; crawl to Jesus like a parched man dying in the desert; fall before Jesus, dehydrated by the arid sands of time. Come to Jesus to “take the water of life without price.” Come to Jesus because what he supplies is only what he is – you cannot take the fruit without the Tree, you cannot take the water without the Wellspring, you cannot take the peace without the Prince, you cannot take the grace without the Giver. Come to Jesus – and let Jesus give you the gift of Jesus.

I only don't invite you to come. “The Spirit and the Bride say: Come!” (Revelation 22:17). It's a single invite from both. The Holy Spirit tugs at you, pulls at wherever he can grasp in you, whispers in the cathedral of your soul: “Come on! Come on! Come to Jesus. If you've never believed, if you've never followed, start right here and right now – come to Jesus. If you've been a follower thirty thousand days, but you still have any thirst – come to Jesus. If you've strayed like a lost sheep, if you've been swept under the dirt like a lost coin – come to Jesus. If you're a spendthrift child wasting your inheritance in the far country – come to Jesus. If you're a fruitless fig tree, a branch fallen from the trunk – come to Jesus. If you're chained up in a graveyard of dreams, beset by a legion of fears and doubts – come to Jesus. If you're a boat tossed in a storm of wind and waves – come to Jesus. If you've never seen, been blind for longer than you recall – come to Jesus. If you've checked off the boxes and wonder what more there is to do to be satisfied and get the true life – come to Jesus.”

And the Holy Spirit doesn't speak alone. The Lamb's own Bride – the Church – bids you come. I stand up here this morning, speaking as one of John's brothers (cf. Revelation 22:9), and the voice I speak here is the voice of the Bride of the Lamb herself: “Come! Listen to what the Spirit says to the churches! Listen to what the Spirit says to the hearts! Listen, listen to the Spirit – come, come to Jesus!” The Bride says, “You don't know goodness 'til you've been swept off your feet by my Bridegroom. You don't know truth 'til you've heard my Bridegroom. You don't know beauty 'til you've fixed your eyes on my Bridegroom! You don't know life 'til my Bridegroom's brought you home! Go, go now, go now and wait not a second longer! Come to Jesus!”

Come to Jesus. And when you've come, add your voice to the chorus. “Let the one who hears say: Come!” (Revelation 22:17). It's an invitation of which the hearing of it authorizes you to extend it to others. Go invite your sons and your daughters, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, your brothers and your sisters. Go invite your family and your friends. Go invite your neighbors across the street and down the way. Go invite your workmates and colleagues, your doctors and your nurses. Find out who thirsts, and tell them of the Jesus with water of life to give. Find out who's bankrupt, and tell them of the Jesus who doesn't ask a price. Go invite the world to the Everlasting Man, the Living One, the Lion, the Lamb, the Warrior, the Judge, the Bridegroom, the Lamp, the Star – say to all the world, “Come to this Jesus, this Jesus who changes everything, this Jesus who holds out life in his hands, this Jesus who makes all things new!”

We invite others to come to Jesus, so we may all cry out to him, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). What other hope could we hope for? What else should be our truest desire? The Holy Spirit prays for Jesus to come back down. The Lamb's Bride, the Church, prays for Jesus to come back down. John prayed for Jesus to come back down. And each of us must pray, pray, pray for Jesus to come to us, come be with us, come make all things new. So we pray. “And may the grace of the Lord Jesus be with [you] all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).

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