Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ruler of All

Ruler of All
Revelation 1:4-8, 12-13, 17-18[1]
Like people of all times and place, our notions of power are defined by our experiences in life. Our culture is a pragmatic one: we tend to believe in what “works,” regardless of whether it’s “right” or “true.” Even before President Teddy Roosevelt said that we should “speak softly, and carry a big stick,”[2] we were already caught up in the quest for bigger and better weapons. These days, it would seem that an equally important part of our notion of power is that “money talks.” I think that’s something of an understatement. I think what we really mean is that money backs people into a corner so that they have no choice but to give in. I can’t say I find too much to admire about the “power brokers” of our world.
But I think that even though we have a tendency to be dazzled by big sticks and lots of money, many of us know where power really lies. It’s not found in boardrooms of corporations, but rather in households around the country, where people share the most powerful means of change there is: love. True power is found in what St. Paul calls the “weapons of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:6-7): kindness, truth, sacrifice, and the power of God. Despite our fascination with what masquerades as power in our world, God’s ways always have been and always will be the true power in this world.
Our lesson from the Book of Revelation for today touches upon that idea. In the first place, it speaks of our God as “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was and who is to come,” and “the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). This description of God is full of implications, but essentially, it is a reminder that God is the one who sits on the throne of the universe and it is his rule that will ultimately define all things and everyone.[3] It’s a reminder that “Our God is an awesome God; he reigns from heaven above; with wisdom, power, and love; our God is an awesome God.”[4]  
Alongside that image is another one that is equally important. Revelation also speaks of the one who stands at God’s right hand: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead” (Rev. 1:5). Again, there is a whole theology about Jesus packed into that phrase, and it takes the rest of Revelation to explain. One of the most important images of Jesus in the Book of Revelation is that his is the lamb who was slain and who has triumphed through his death. As in our day, so also in that time, sacrificing one’s life was seen as weakness, not power. But the Scripture contradicts that point of view by proclaiming that, as a result of his death and resurrection, Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).[5]
In the first-century world, Christians had to face alternative visions of what life is all about just like we do.  The ideal in their day was defined by Rome, and it was a dream of power through conquest, exploitation, and domination.[6]  The presence of Roman legions throughout the Mediterranean world constantly reinforced that vision. That posed a significant temptation for the Christians of the day.[7]  Some of them had been excluded from families who could not fathom why anyone would turn their backs on the culture of power and glory, prosperity and success, and its “family values”. In their worship, the central affirmation was: “Jesus is Lord”! And yet, all around them were images that contradicted their faith. 
So the book of Revelation was written to remind those Christians that at the heart of their faith was a very different vision of what life is all about.[8] It is a vision of the one who sits on the throne, who bends everything that happens, both evil and good, toward his purposes.[9] It is also a vision of the lamb who overcame all the so-called “powers” of the world by dying.  And because of his death and resurrection, he alone has the right to rule over all the earth.  And he is the one who will one day make the “kingdom of the world” into the kingdom of our Lord, and “he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15)!
At the heart of the Christian faith is a vision of a reality that is more true than our present world defined by power that takes the form of violence and greed.  What’s more, at the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that this ultimate reality is already present and working in our lives—it already undermines all the boastful claims of the rich and powerful.[10]   And the promise is that one day this ultimate reality, the reign of Christ, will overthrow all the false powers in our world and all people will beat their swords into ploughshares and the wolf and the lamb will lie down together (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6)!
I guess the question we have to answer is whether this vision is more convincing than what pretends to be power in our world. Things haven’t changed much—we can be just as deceived by grandiose displays as the people of that day. But the real question we have to address here is where we place our faith. If we place our faith in “chariots,” the Scripture reminds us that they will “collapse and fall” (Ps. 20:7-8). If we place our faith in “mortals,” no matter how powerful they may seem, we find that in them “there is no help” (Ps. 146:3). The Scriptures call us to place our faith in the God who is working right now to establish his kingdom and his justice, peace, and freedom for all peoples everywhere.[11] They call us to place our faith in Christ as our Lord, the one who exposed the sham of those who pretend to have power in this world by his death and resurrection. They call us to place our faith in our Savior who lives and reigns for all time. And one day he will be acknowledged by all creation as the “ruler of all."

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, 522
[3] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27, regarding the designations “First and Last” and “Alpha and Omega,” says, “God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.” Cf. Eugene M. Boring, Revelation, 75: “God is named as the one whose being and whose acts embrace all time.”
[4] Rich Mullins, “Our God is an Awesome God,” 1988, BMG Songs, Inc. Even though I take issue with the theology expressed in the verses of this popular song, I think the refrain is a sound expression of what the book of Revelation was seeking to convey.
[5] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 73, “Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil.”  Cf. also Boring, Revelation, 76, where he says that this phrase “attributes to Jesus the title claimed by the Roman Caesars, whose claim to sovereignty John wants his readers to see as a false caricature of the real lordship of Christ.”
[6] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 34, “The Roman Empire, like most political powers in the ancient world, represented and propagated its power in religious terms. … In this way it absolutized its power, claiming for itself the ultimate, divine sovereignty over the world.” I would say that all empires throughout history, even those in the present day, engage in this propaganda to some extent.
[7] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 8-23, where he summarizes the challenges faced by Christian communities in the Roman Empire, including being caught up in Roman wars, social and economic discrimination, and the pressure to take part in the worship of the Emperor as a test of loyalty.
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 7: “The effect of John’s visions, one might say, is to expand his readers’ world, both spatially (into heaven) and temporally (into the eschatological future), or, to put it another way, to open their world to divine transcendence. The bounds which Roman power and ideology set to the readers’ world are broken open and that world is seen as open to the greater purpose of its transcendent Creator and Lord.” Contrast Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book Of Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible XII: “Apocalypse demands a break from our present way of looking at things. It offers an alternative perspective—though not the authoritative, definitive statement for which we crave—that requires the recipient who understands to bear witness.”
[9] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 31, where he says that the “vision of God’s sovereignty in heaven” is what “makes it possible for John to enlarge his readers’ perspective on their own situation by setting it within the broader context of God’s universal purpose of overcoming all opposition to his rule and establishing his kingdom in the world.” This reign of God is “the true reality which must in the end also prevail on earth.” Thus Bauckham can also say, (ibid., 40), “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfilment of the first three petitions of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10).”
[10] J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 99: “with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead the power of death and all the domination built up on the threat of death have already been overthrown and their end is already in sight.” Cf. also ibid., 190-91.
[11] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Always Being Reformed, 69-70, where he insists that confessing Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that “he is the expression of God’s love not just for Christian believers but for all humanity, on one in whom God was at work to reconcile the whole world to himself. He came not to give his followers everything they wanted to be happy, successful, and secure now and forever, but to announce and usher in the worldwide reign of God’s justice and compassion for everyone.”

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