Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you’re a fan of the last book of the Bible, this is your time. Like last Sunday, our Second Reading today is from The Revelation to John. Again, if you like Revelation, it’s going to get even better. Each Second Reading from last Sunday all the way through Mother’s Day, the second Sunday of May, will be a Revelation text.
But you may be surprised to hear me say that this lectionary pattern is likely contrary to the wishes of one Martin Luther. Luther was not at all a fan of Revelation, nor for that matter, of Hebrews, James, and Jude, though all four were retained in Luther’s 1522 German translation of the New Testament.
In that work, in Luther’s preface to Revelation, he says he considers it “neither apostolic nor prophetic.” You, of course, may disagree, but Luther says Revelation does not present Christ “clearly and purely.”
Martin Luther’s opinions may give us cause to wonder about the relevance of such an ancient vision, of a book full of strange creatures and symbols, of a text that portrays God as both loving and redemptive and judgmental and punitive at the same time.
Bible scholars tell us that reading Revelation is like having a portal into the past: reading Revelation gives us insight into the lives of some of the earliest Christian believers.
In one way, you could say that reading Revelation is like looking at the stars. Science tells us that when we see a star, we are actually looking into the past, seeing the light from that star that has travelled across light-years of time, while in the lengthy interim that star may have changed, remained the same, or even burned out completely.
So, when we read Revelation, we meet up with early followers of Jesus, people who lived in a society and culture quite different from ours. In that place and time, there were the rich and the very poor; a middle class didn’t really exist.
Many folks back then believed that fate either dealt you comfort in life or delivered you into a very difficult life of hard labor and dependence on an unjust economic and political system. And in some places, there was the option of bowing down to the emperor and confessing him to be God, or there was persecution.
In that context, Revelation gave its original readers hope. Those who were persecuted for believing in Christ could very easily feel cut off and isolated from other believers, and even from God.
To hear of “myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands, singing with full voice” and praising God together at the end of time brings great comfort and reassurance to a people separated from those they love, reminding them that they, too, in the end, will all be together (Rev. 5:11-12).
And when we read these words that gave them hope, even though the images might confuse us a little, the invitation is there for us to connect with them. Being a Christian in the midst of the Roman Empire was sometimes a life-and-death matter.
For us, attending worship in church is part of polite, American society, and an expression of our religious freedom. For those early believers, attending church was sometimes a decision to stand in direct opposition to a government that had the authority to take everything from them, including life, without a judge and jury.
Stories of the early Christian martyrs are historical accounts of people who were persecuted because of their faith. Until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, those early Christians endured some 225 years of off-and-on persecution of varying severities.
The worst cases of persecution were horrendous in their brutality. To name just a few: Hippolytus was drawn and quartered, torn apart by horses; Ignatius of Antioch was sentenced to be eaten by lions; Lawrence was grilled alive; and Bartholomew was skinned alive. That’s just a short list of martyrs and their fates, but enough to make one nauseous!
Over the centuries, the stories of such martyrs became more and more sacred and revered, and fellow believers, whether in the sixth century or the sixteenth century or the 21st century, came to believe that if these saints endured persecution and stayed true to their faith, then those who came after could also remain strong in their faith in Christ, even in the midst of the darkest of social, economic, political, and personal circumstances.
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! (Rev. 5:13b)” These words told early Christians that despite their travails and anguish, despite their harsh suffering and severe persecution, hope is not in vain; in the end, all the faithful will be united and gather around God and Jesus and sing their praises.
These words may not have the same depth of meaning to us today, but two thousand years after the time of Revelation, we still live lives that need hope. Even though we probably possess more goods than any other generation before us, many today are searching for something more.
Hope is still a great human need today because we can say two very different things when comparing our time to that of the time of the book of Revelation. And both will be true! In many ways, our time is much different from the culture and society of those early Christians. And yet, in another way, our world is not all that different! As I said, both statements are true!
We today are quite aware of the economic crisis facing this world, with nations, cities and individuals with more debt than assets.
We are aware of the instability caused by fundamentalist and radical political and religious groups. We see on the news that unproven dictators have the ability to amass nuclear weapons and to engage recklessly in threats of war.
But like the saints in Revelation, we can still believe in, and place our hope in, the cause of God’s coming kingdom. We can still trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. We can still believe in a God of justice, mercy, and love.
And we’ll all do well to take note of the word in today’s text, spoken by the four living creatures: “Amen.” It’s a remarkable word. It was transliterated directly from the Hebrew into the Greek of the New Testament, then into Latin and into English and many other languages, so that it is practically a universal word.
“Amen” has been called the best-known word in human speech. Most lexicons show that the word is almost identical to the Hebrew word for “believe” and “faithful” (ʾāman). The word has come to mean “sure” or “truly,” an expression of absolute trust and confidence. “Amen” means “be it so.”
The value of reading Revelation reminds us that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, of those who hunger for something beyond the difficulties of this human condition.
Reading Revelation reminds us that this human condition is temporary. And with the eyes of faith, we can look beyond and see that in the end, all will be gathered as one, in peace, in the presence of God’s love.
The more we know this – really know this to be true – the more we will change how we live in this world. The more we can say “Amen,” the more we can be people whose lives are marked with love and hope, with peace and justice. “Be it so.” Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.