St Barbara’s; 27.11.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
What do you first think of when you think of the book of Revelation? Apocalyptic images of dragons and serpents The four riders of the apocalypse meting out God’s judgment? Visions of heaven?
And what do you first feel when you think about the book of Revelation: excitement (my favourite book of the Bible)! “Oh no – its a crack-pot’s paradise.” Bewilderment – what on earth is it all about? Indifference – I’ve never really thought about it before, let alone tried to read it.
It would be safe to say that Revelation has been both a source of inspiration and a source of bewilderment for close on 2,000 years. It has inspired hymn-writers, emboldened martyrs, and given hope to the persecuted and oppressed. But it has also baffled theologians, and been interpreted in hundreds of different and often contradictory ways.
During Advent we are going to be giving time to trying to unpick its meaning and what it has to say to us today, and we may be surprised by how relevant it is to us in our context. And indeed, it is a particularly appropriate book to be reading in Advent, a season of the church’s year which traditionally focuses on what are called the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. We may be surprised by just how hopeful a message we will hear.
We start this morning by thinking about who the letter of Revelation was written to and why. Knowing that will help us to put into context some of what is to come.
Revelation was written by John, probably the same John as wrote the Gospel of John. He wrote it while in prison on an island in the mediterranean, and it was written as a letter to seven churches in modern-day Turkey: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The order in which he writes to them suggests that on reaching mainland Turkey, he expected his letter to be taken first to Ephesus and read to the congregation there before following the trade-route in a circle round to all the other churches. When so much of Revelation is a blur of images and fantastical pictures, it is worth noting that all seven of these cities actually existed, and their archaeological remains are still visited to this day.
The reason for John’s letter is in part to encourage and give hope to these seven churches who were going through tough times. These churches were small – probably no more than 30-40 people – cut-off from one another, living in cities where the prevailing attitude towards them was hostile, and in many places aggressive and violent. The Roman Emperor, Domitian, wanted everyone to worship him by the title of “Lord and God”, placing Christians who only worshipped Jesus as lord and God in direct opposition to the mightiest super-power of the age. Not only that, their spiritual home, Jerusalem, had been sacked and the Temple destroyed. These were times to feel weak and vulnerable as a Christian.
And so John writes to encourage them. After an extraordinary introduction to the letter, where John describes a breath-taking vision of Jesus, he gets down to the practicalities of addressing each of them in their contexts.
That alone is significant. The whole of this letter is caught up with visions of heaven and cosmic battles. John could so easily have lost himself in these visions, not wishing to descend to the realities and humdrum nature of everyday life. But instead, placed between his vision of Christ and the glorious ecstasies of heaven of chapters 4 and 5, he writes in a sobering and down-to-earth way to each church on the circulation list. For John knows that faith cannot be lived out in isolation from the church; it must be lived in community.
I often hear people tell me that they believe in Christ, but that church isn’t for them. For them, their church is their garden, or out walking in the countryside, or reading a book by the fire. They find church distracts them or puts them off their faith. They prefer to worship without having to interact, or dare I say it, put up with, others. I for one can empathise a little with that. Sometimes we can have extraordinary spiritual experiences outside of church, and also sometimes leave church feeling worse than when we went in. But here we find John putting the church at the very heart of his vision of faith. Its a theme he will keep returning to throughout his letter. He is under no illusions. The churches of first-century Turkey were no more perfect than our own churches today, and he quite readily points out their faults, but he is equally clear: it is the context in which faith is lived. Just as a coal removed from the fire will lose its warmth, so we, removed from the fellowship of the church, will struggle to retain our faith.
So what has John to say to these churches. Firstly, he encourages them. Being steadfast, being faithful matters. The church in Ephesus is commended for its untiring, unflagging work; the church in Smyrna for its brave suffering; the church in Pergamum for its courageous witness; the church in Thyatira for its growing discipleship; and the church in Philadelphia for its brave steadfastness. In our reading we heard Jesus’ words to the church in Philadeplhia, “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name… you have endured patiently.”
| think for many people in this congregation, those words could be said to you too. Because of age or poor health you too may feel like you have little strength. That it feels harder and harder just to keep going. That the demands of life seem to exceed one’s capacity to cope. That everything just takes so much longer, and requires more energy, than it ever used to. And yet you have remained faithful to Christ – you have kept his word, you’ve remained true to him, you have endured patiently. You’ve held on to faith, despite the struggles and hardships.
And to you, as to the church in Philadelphia, Christ promises a place in his eternal kingdom. You will be a pillar in the temple of God – in other words, the promise of being with God, in his presence, for eternity, in a new heaven and new earth. Please be encouraged.
So John encourages and affirms the churches. But he also challenges them too, especially because for many of them, their zest and vibrancy of faith has begun to wane. They have maintained the form of religion but have lost the Spirit. None of these churches were more than 50 years old, and yet most of them were in need of spiritual renewal, and none more so than the church of Laodicea, the second church in our reading. Jesus says of them: “You are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm – neither hot or cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
To understand this a brief geographical diversion. Laodicea’s water source was a river that dried up in the summer. To address this they built an aqueduct from some hot springs 6 miles away. However, by the time the water arrived it had lost its heat and medicinal value and was tepid and so full of chemicals as to be undrinkable until it had been left to cool right down and the sediment settle to the bottom. Likewise the faith of the Laodiceans: their faith was similarly unpalatable and unfit for use, for it was tepid, indifferent, apathetic.
It is a challenge to all of us. Do we care about our faith? Do we just go through the motions, because that is what we have always done, but fail to ask, if our faith is still really alive? Put it this way. Imagine a relationship between a husband and wife. In the early years, every Friday evening they loved frequenting a special restaurant, and they would always have such wonderful conversations when they were there. Over time, the conversation became more strained, less intimate, but as they had always gone out on a Friday evening, they continued to do so. The act, the ritual was still there, but the relationship had become distant.
Is that a challenge for us too in our relationship with God? Every Sunday morning we frequent church because that is what we do, but the sparkle, the aliveness of faith, has gradually dissipated. If so, we need to seek God’s renewal. Jesus’ words to the Laodiceans are to us too: “Be earnest, repent. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” It is a wonderful invitation: open the door to him.
If you want practical ways of how to do so, of how to invite Christ back into your life, of how to renew one’s spiritual life, then some suggestions. Join one of our home groups. Almost everyone I speak to who is part of one of our groups says how their faith has deepened as a result. Come along to a different service – maybe try out Soul Space or choral evensong or 8am. Take a gospel and read it from beginning to end. Reflect at the end of each day on where you have experienced the presence of God, and begin to notice how he is with you. And maybe simply pray each day: “Lord Jesus Christ, renew my faith. Fill me with your holy Spirit.”
We are part of one body the church. Let us encourage one another and affirm one another, and let our faith not become lukewarm.
“Lord Jesus Christ, renew my faith. Fill me with your holy Spirit. Amen.”