A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 11, 2010.
We have passed from the season of Lent into the season of Easter. On the second Sunday of Easter the lilies still cast their perfume but are beginning to droop. In a sense, we may be like the lilies. On one hand, we claim the victory that God has achieved over sin and death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the perfume of the lilies. On the other hand, we live in a world where sin and death continues to operate. As followers of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the perfume of the everlasting life alongside the pain of daily living in a sin and death-scarred world.
Our constant challenge is to live in the power of resurrection faith even as we confront painful realities. That was also the challenge facing Christians when John wrote the Revelation. The “revelation” that John received and shared came from the tension between the victorious gospel of resurrection and painful realities. John was exiled on Patmos because he preached the gospel of resurrection. Christians were being persecuted by political forces because of that gospel. Many had been killed. Others, like John, had become political prisoners. Families were affected. Personal relationships with loved ones and friends were strained and sometimes broken. Many leaders of the Christian movement had, like John, been targeted. On personal, social, religious, economic, and political levels, living the gospel of resurrection meant living with painful realities.
How are we to handle that tension? How can we live with resurrection power while being battered by life? We are battered by personal setbacks, defeats, and disappointments. We are battered by illnesses, sorrows, and wounds. We are battered by false friends and by true friends who sometimes fail us. We are battered by political forces that seem to cooperate—whether by conspiracy or not—to produce painful realities that are unjust. In the words of a gospel song my mother often sang, we are “like a ship that is tossed and driven, battered by an angry sea.” This is the context from which we must read and understand the Revelation to John. The Revelation to John says something to us about living the resurrection gospel while being battered by the stormy sea of life. And in the prologue—the introduction if you will—John previews and summarizes how we are to handle that tension.
Remember Who is in Charge! John’s letter salutes the seven churches of Asia Minor that are his intended audience with a statement that is both stirring and settling. Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. [Revelation 1:4-5(a)] This is a stirring greeting to receive from someone who is a political prisoner. We do not expect to receive strong greetings from people who are being battered. What’s up with John?
John’s greeting—so stout, robust, and vibrant that it almost bristles—forces us along with his first audience to shift our perspective from the forces that batter us to the Persons who called and claimed us. “Grace and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come …” draws our attention away from the imperial powers that persecuted Christians and forced John into exile. That salutation directs our attention to the Alpha and Omega of life, the everlasting Father, the Lord God Almighty. John tells us that even when we are battered, God is still gracious. Even when we are battered, God still provides for us. Even when bad things happen to us, God still has goodness and mercy for us, with us, and for our future. The One who is and the One who was is also the One who is to come—the Everlasting One—is with us. The One who is “I am” to Moses is with us. The One who is “shepherd” to King David is with us.
God is not simply with us in a remote way, but God is with us in dynamic ways—and from the seven spirits who are before his throne—powerful ways that operate from God for us, to us, with us, and before us. Sometimes people are kindly disposed but little more. God’s goodness and kindness is not like that. However we are challenged by life, in whatever ways the forces of sin and death confront us and the angry seas of life batter us, the Spirit of God has grace and peace for us. God’s Spirit is with us.
But there is someone else with us. In addition to the Everlasting Power of God and the ever-dynamic Presence of God, John says to his first audience and to us, “Grace to you and peace … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” The Love of God, made personal and palpable in Jesus Christ, is with us. In Jesus, God is shown to be faithfully willing to share our plight as suffering people. In Jesus, God’s love became death-eligible, yet has triumphed over death in resurrection. In Jesus, God’s love has already become the Supreme Ruler over all the political forces that would dominate us.
What are you saying, Preacher? I’m telling you that God is in charge! God, who is, was, and is to come, is in charge. God, whose Spirit is always dynamic and working, is in charge. Jesus Christ, who embodies all the Love that God has for us, to us, and before us, who has suffered as the faithful witness, who has risen as the first of many who rise, and who over-rules all the other would-be rulers, is in charge. John could say “Grace to you and peace …” because he remembered who is in charge! The same is true for us. God’s love is still in charge. God’s goodness is still in charge. God still has peace for us, love, goodness, mercy, power, and joy for us no matter what the stormy seas of life bring. Remember who is in charge.
Remember that we can live with victorious praise because in Jesus Christ, God loves us. John continues with this statement: To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. This is a doxology—a declaration of praise—to Jesus Christ. John calls his those suffering Christians to whom he addressed his letter, and calls us today, to praise Jesus Christ. Why? There are three reasons.
Christ loves us! Look carefully, and see that the word is not “loved us” (past tense) and is not “will love us” (future tense). It is “loves us”—present perfect tense. We are loved, being loved, constantly loved, and wonderfully loved by Jesus Christ. This love is a gift. It is not a reward or entitlement. It is God’s gracious dealing with us.
Christ has freed us! We are no longer captives, prisoners, and slaves to the guilt and shame of our sins. In Christ, we are raised to new status. In Christ, although we continue to live surrounded by the evidence of sin, that evidence does not dictate who we are or the destiny God has for us. We are free to live in the power of resurrection. And we are free to love in the power of resurrection.
Christ has commissioned us! We are not freed from our sins and commissioned as partners with Christ in holy service to God. We have been commissioned for usefulness to God as agents of divine grace and peace. We, who know the love of Christ and are freed by the sacrifice of Christ are called to be servants of God with Christ. Yes, we are partners with Christ for God! And when we recall that Jesus Christ is the prince of the rulers of the world—the supreme authority over all other worldly powers—then we understand that our divine calling in Christ is from the highest authority in the world.
This is reason for praise. We are loved. We are free. We are called for holy usefulness. That is why we can live with victory even while the storms of life rage around us. Jesus Christ loves us. Jesus Christ has freed us. Jesus Christ has called us to join Him in serving God. No matter what we face, when we face it, or how things develop, we have good reason to give him glory and to recognize his authority over everything, forever and ever.
This means we live with victorious hope! That is the “what” in the sermon title. The everlasting “is-ness” of God –him who is and who was and who is to come—gives us the courage to face our storms with hope. The storms do not cancel the “is-ness” of God.
The dynamic evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power to deliver us gives us the confidence to live face our storms with hope. The Holy Spirit is constantly working to deliver us through our setbacks, through our sorrows, through our dark valleys, and despite the work of enemies. These things do not cancel that power.
In Jesus Christ, we are constantly loved, have been totally freed, and are commissioned to live as holy agents of the grace and peace of God in the world. Stormy things happen to us and to other people around us. Like John and the Christians of his time, there are personal, social, religious, economic, and political challenges to endure. Yet, we are loved by Jesus Christ, the faithful witness who sacrificed everything to free us from the tyranny of sin and death. We are called by Jesus Christ, the Supreme Ruler above every other authority in the world.
We are free to live in hope. We are free to love in hope. We are free to suffer in hope. We are free to confront evil and injustice in hope. We are free to grieve in hope, weep in hope, struggle in hope, share in hope, love in hope, rejoice in hope, worship in hope, pray in hope, live in hope, and die in hope. The storms of life may rage. The winds of change may cause the lilies to droop. Yet, the perfume of hope remains. So let us live in that hope and encourage one another with the words that John wrote in his salutation: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.