The very first words of the book of Revelation are: “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Revelation is apokalypsis – “that which is uncovered.” And what is it, verse one says, that is being uncovered, or made clear? The revelation of what? (Jesus Christ). Right. So first and foremost, we should understand that this book is being written to get a clearer picture of who Jesus is. That’s the whole purpose for this book. To get a clear picture of Christ.
Who Jesus is in love;
Who Jesus is in the church;
Who Jesus is in rescuing those he loves;
Who Jesus is in setting things right, and bringing an everlasting kingdom.
If you miss this, you miss the entire purpose of the book.
And the whole first chapter is a series of snapshots of Jesus. Things we ought to know about who he is. None of them are new. It’s all stuff we learned in Sunday School. And then, each of those things are repeated in the 2nd and 3rd chapters, in the letters to the churches, emphasizing that one thing or two things that particular church needed to remember about Jesus. In the letter we’re looking at today, Jesus says his “eyes are like blazing fire” and his “feet are like burnished bronze.” The picture is one of penetrating vision, from whom nothing is hidden, and absolute power to judge and rule the nations. In this case, it’s about who Jesus is as that righteousness against which our lives are measured.
Christ commends them for their good deeds – acts of love and faith, service and endurance. He mentions their constant improvement in these things.
Through the years Christianity developed a more thorough understanding of good deeds; “works of mercy” that tended to the bodily needs of other creatures. The works include:
- Feeding the hungry and generosity to those in need.
- Giving water to the thirsty.
- Clothing the naked.
- Caring for the homeless, the immigrant and refugee.
- Caring for the sick and those in prison.
- Helping victims of disasters, and
- Comforting the afflicted.
And certainly Brethren consider good works to be essential to our understanding of faith. Brethren missions have always had an emphasis on cultural, agricultural, health, literacy and economic development as a means of good works. There are workcamps designed to assist people to learn development, self-care and mutual assistance. Disaster care workers go into places devastated by fires, earthquakes, wars and hurricanes to help people rebuild. Agencies are established to care for the homeless, prisoners, elderly and the hungry. Some build homes for the disadvantaged. Hospitals have been a strong work of Christians through the ages, as have youth and family related ministries to deal with the needs of orphans, the abused, and those living on the street. There are many who have spent their lives caring for our environment and for the care of creation.
These good works keep the world from falling into the abyss of chaos and disorder, and offers a hopeful and encouraging tomorrow for millions of people. If it were not for these agencies and ministries, who knows what the world would look like? How barren and bleak would our earth be if it were not for the perseverance of many who have given their lives in constant work to help, improve, instruct, build, heal, counsel, and make a better world? These are the places of evidence that “the Kingdom is among us.”
I like the Message translation that we heard today: “I am Jesus, God’s Son. I see everything you’re doing for me. Impressive! The love and the faith, the service and persistence. Yes, very impressive! You get better at it every day.”
Good deeds. I love the choir anthem today: “Order my steps in your word… guide my feet, wash my heart, show me how to walk, how to talk, let my words edify, take charge of my thoughts… please, order my steps in your word.” How is it we say that? “Continuing the work of Jesus.”
Thyatira was a blue collar town, a center for manufacturing. They were the Inland Empire of their day. Available housing, economic networks, transportation, distribution; The city was filled with dozens of trade guilds for commerce such as cloth making, cloth dying, leather-working, bronze-working, and pottery making. Apollo was worshipped as the guardian of the city, and the Roman Emperor was considered to be an incarnation of Apollo and son of Zeus, and the guilds required worship of the Emperor as the “son of god.” You gotta believe that was tough for Christians. John reminds them that Jesus is the Son of God, in opposition to the Emperor. (It’s the only time he uses that phrase.)
In Thyatira, in order to work at a trade, you needed to join the guilds – these associations of craftsmen and apprenticeships. You had to belong to one to work in that skillcraft. But these guilds were famous for their immorality and hyper-patriotism to the Empire. The adultery of Jezebel, in this case, may be a reference to giving yourself over to that Empirical System, rather than Christ, although the kind of everything-goes sexuality exhibited in guild get-togethers would have the wildest office party beaten by far. To refuse joining these guilds meant risking the means of making a living. Nevertheless, when the choice is between making a living by tolerating the excesses of the Empirical guild or being faithful to Christ, the message of Revelation is that we choose the latter, refusing to tolerate evil.
The letter to the church at Thyatira reports: in times of moral ambiguity, remain pure and constant in your work for God.
This scripture reminds me of the story about the man coming down from the Carolina mountains. He was all dressed up and carrying his bible under his arm. A friend saw him and said, “Elias, what’s happening? Where are you going?” Elias said, “I’ve been hearing about New Orleans. I hear there’s a lot of free runnin’ liquor and a lot of gamblin’ and a lot of real good naughty shows.” The friend looked him over and said, “But Elias, why are you carryin’ your bible under your arm?” Elias replied, “Well, if it’s as good as they say it is, I might stay over until Sunday.”
Tolerance is a liberal virtue. Sometimes it means forbearance, a willingness to accept forms of behavior or beliefs that are not always aligned with my own. Progressive Christians work pretty hard at being morally neutral, sometimes for the sake of larger goals and ideals. This involves a principled unwillingness to impose my views on other people. We see it as a virtue. But how far does liberal toleration extend? Where would you draw the line?
John R. Yeatts tells the story about his father who was a machinist during World War II. Because he believed that war was against the teachings of Christ, and when he was asked to make a piece on his machine that he knew would be a part of a warhead, he was faced with a question. Should he compromise and do the job? In the end, because of his faith and commitment to resist war, he refused to run the job. He faced ridicule and a decrease in his wages, but in this case he was not fired. (Yeatts, Revelation, page 88) Many people however, who have made the same choices have fared worse. Maybe some of you – when faced with the dilemma of making a living unethically or being faithful, what do you do?
The book of Revelation draws the line in all the places where accommodation to the social systems and structures of the Empire extend into the life of the believer, whose moral imperative is always and only “love for God and neighbor.” Does my job affirm or deny that love? Does my sexual life affirm or deny that love? Do my associations affirm or deny that love? How close to that line can I get without crossing over? Tolerance is a virtue, but a difficult one.
There are many who would not be comfortable with the idea that living in Christ puts Christians in conflict with the larger social, economic, religious and political powers, but that is precisely the coded message of Revelation. If you look at the book from that point of view, it will change your thinking about its message.
And if the Empire is that system of evil that perpetuates misery, corruption, and wrongdoing, racism, sexism, unquestioned patriotism and violence, eco-destruction, wage inequality, homophobia and xenophobia, then, the book of Revelation asks, what can you do to stand up to and make small chips in that system?
So choose, Jesus implies. If you want to be with me, stay away from that stuff. The letter to the church at Thyatira says, in times of compromise, keep your mind on Christ. It will not do to cross your fingers and participate in the Empire.
I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In spite of the prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be non-conformists. However,” he said, “the church has become so entrenched in wealth and prestige that it began to dilute the strong demands of the gospel and to conform to the ways of the world. And ever since, the church has been a weak and ineffectual trumpet. If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain once more its power, message, and authentic ring, it must conform only to the demands of the gospel.”
I love this quote:
“Stand up to hypocrisy. If you don’t, the hypocrites will teach. Stand up to ignorance, because if you don’t, the ignorant will run free to spread ignorance like a disease. Stand up for truth. If you don’t, then there is no truth to your existence. If you don’t stand up for all that is right, then understand that you are part of the reason why there is so much wrong in the world.” (Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun)
Wherever the Kingdom of truth and love is threatened, we must stand up.. There’s a little song we used to sing:
God bless the grass that reaches for the sun.
They roll the cement over it and think that it is done.
But it moves underground and searches for the air,
And soon the grass is growing everywhere.
And God bless the grass.
God bless the truth that reaches for the Son.
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
But it moves underground and searches for the air,
And soon the truth is growing everywhere.
And God bless the truth.