Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:1-8[1]
The central affirmation of Easter is that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has once and for all vindicated him as Lord of all. But you and I live in a world in which we are surrounded by images and messages that contradict that central element of our faith. Between Hollywood and Washington, DC and Wall Street, the combined effect is to make it clear that Jesus is essentially irrelevant in our culture. The “lords” of our society are those with the most money, or the most power, or the strongest celebrity appeal. And they don’t typically promote the ideals that Jesus taught. The movies we watch, the athletes we cheer, the advertisements on TV, even the music we listen to proclaim the message that the survival of the strongest and the wealthiest and the most attractive is the true reality in our world.
It may be hard for us to recognize this because it has so thoroughly worked its way into the fabric of almost every aspect of our culture. If you ever find yourself in the Mall, compare the images of people that the stores use to sell their products with the actual people around you. There’s not much similarity. In fact, the “appearance” that our culture promotes couldn’t be further from who we are as a people. But we’ve gotten so used to seeing people with perfect teeth and hair and eyes and bodies trying to sell us everything from cars to clothes to prescriptions that we don’t even notice the subtle message that conveys to us: if you don’t look like this, or have this kind of wealth, you don’t really count.
This was the context into which the Book of Revelation was written. The Christian faith was definitely a minority in the Roman Empire. Christians would either rise before dawn or stay up late at night to worship Jesus as Lord. There was no such thing as a weekend or a Sabbath day in the Roman world. Every day was a work day. And as those believers made their way to homes to worship Jesus as Lord, all around them were images that proclaimed that Zeus was lord, or Caesar was Lord.[2] They, too, lived in a world that was dominated by images of the “powers that be” that contradicted the heart of their faith and the teachings to which they had devoted themselves, sometimes at great peril to their lives.
It is to that setting that the Book of Revelation was addressed. This unique part of the Bible was not written to enable the “fortune tellers” of our age to predict the coming of Christ or the end of the world. Rather it was written to the Christians of that day, living in a world that contradicted their faith.[3] One of the major purposes of this part of Scripture that so many of us avoid was to provide struggling believers with images of a different reality, a reality in which God is the one who rules over all things with “wisdom, power, and love.” Unfortunately, It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees in the Book of Revelation. Much of the symbolism seems strange to us. But at the heart of the book is the message that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s rule is the true reality in this world, and one day God’s rule will be fulfilled as God completes the work of making all things new.[4]
In our lesson for today, the Scripture simply hints at this by referring to God as “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”[5] As you may know, Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. So naming God as the “Alpha and the Omega” is another way of saying that God is “The First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”  In other words, we can count on the God who created all things in the beginning to make all things new in the end.[6] It’s an affirmation that we along with millions of other Christians sing every Sunday morning: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen! Amen!” The God who rules over this world will be the same God at the end of all things as he was at the beginning and is now: a God of infinite love.
The other affirmation in our lesson for today is that God is the “Almighty” one. This resonates with countless statements in the Hebrew Bible about the God who is the “Lord of hosts,” or the “Lord of the angel armies”.[7] The idea is very similar to another image in the book of Revelation: God is the one who “sits on the throne,” ruling over the whole universe.[8]  The purpose for this is to make clear that that God is the one whose rule is ultimately true. Despite the fact that the Roman Empire proclaimed itself as the ultimate power in the world of that day, and even demanded worship of those under its influence, the book of Revelation insists that this is an illusion that will one day be swept away.[9] And, of course, Rome’s claim to power was indeed swept away centuries ago.
We live in a world that is dominated by those who make claims that can seem just as false as the claims Rome made in ancient times. In the face of those claims the Scripture reassured the Christians of that day that God is the one who would have the last word. I think the message of Revelation for us today is the same. It stands as a reminder that we too can trust that God will see to it that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. That means all those who (falsely) claim to wield power over the world in the present time are only deluding themselves. Their power may seem very real here and now, but ultimately, just as God’s rule had the first word at creation, so will his rule have the last word in the end. As God was in the beginning, so he ever shall be: the Alpha and Omega.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/3/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version of this sermon is available at
[2] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation,  17: “Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, … all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and the splendor of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world … . The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.” Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 132: “John’s message ran counter to the public rhetoric of the Roman era, which celebrated the peace and prosperity that the imperial rule had brought. According to the dominant discourse, Roman rule was invincible and benevolent.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 40, where he argues that the point of apocalyptic documents like Revelation in the ancient world was not to answer the question “Will there be an end of the world?” but rather “Is God faithful?” He says that they “lived in impossible situations, … when children saw their parents imprisoned or killed because their faithfulness to their confession of Jesus as the only Lord made it impossible for them to yield to the imperial religion … .” In that situation the question was “how can one still believe in the faithfulness of God?” He continues, “It was the honor and integrity of God as God that was at stake, not just human selfish longing for golden streets and pearly gates.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 132, where he reminds us that the setting was actually somewhat complex: “Readers who were overtly threatened would be aware of the challenges and needed encouragement to persevere, but those who were complacent or accommodating would not have sensed the problems. John would need to challenge them  to see issues of which they were unaware, while calling for commitment that would set them at odds with the dominant social, religious, and economic patterns of the cities where they lived.”
[4] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 40: “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfillment 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). John and his readers lived in a world in which God’s name was not hallowed, his will was not done, and evil ruled through the oppression and exploitation of the Roman system of power. But in chapter 4, he sees in heaven, the sphere of ultimate reality, the absolute holiness, righteousness and sovereignty of God. From this vision of God’s name hallowed and God’s will done in heaven, it follows that his kingdom must come on earth.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:53, where he points out, as many do, that “the one who is and who was and who is to come” is very likely an interpretation of the revelation of God’s name in Exod. 3:14; “I am who I am.” He says, “From the fact that God is He who exists and therefore is the Living One in the supreme sense and therefore the Almighty, it follows that He is not only this, but, as this, also He who was and He who cometh, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. And vice versa, by the fact that He is the first and the last, it is indicated that He is truly He who is. the Living One, the Almighty.”
[6] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27: “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. also Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation recalls texts that stress the singular lordship of Israel’s God: ‘I am the first and the last, there is no other god but me’ (Isa 44:6; cf. 41:4; 48:12).” Cf. further J├╝rgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 28: “the God to whom [John] bears witness is the living and historically active God.”
[7] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 30: the designations “The Lord, the God of hosts” and “the Lord of hosts” are used especially in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible to indicate “Yahweh's unrivalled power over all things and therefore his supremacy over the course of historical events. … The Greek pantokrator (‘almighty’) indicates not so much God’s abstract omnipotence as his actual control over all things.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation, …, refers to God as pantokrator, ascribing to him power over all things. In Revelation God’s supreme might is expressed in his acts of creation, judgment, and righteous rule (Rev 1:8; 4:8; 18:8; 19:6; 21:22; 22:5-6).”
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 31, where he emphasizes that the vision of God on the throne provides one of the major starting points for the whole book: “the vision of God’s sovereignty in heaven.” He continues (ibid.), saying that this “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.” From the perspective of Revelation, God’s sovereign rule is “the true reality which must in the end also prevail on earth.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 29: “whereas human rulers like to claim total dominion over the world and have themselves celebrated as rulers of history, …, in truth it is God alone to whom dominion over the world and history belongs.”
[9] 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. Its state religion, featuring worship both of the deified emperors and of the traditional gods of Rome, expressed political loyalty through religious worship. In this way it absolutized its power, claiming for itself the ultimate, divine sovereignty over the world.” By contrast (ibid, 35), Revelation sees the “the view of the Empire promoted by Roman propaganda” from “the perspective of heaven, which unmasks the pretensions of Rome. Revelation portrays the Roman Empire as a system of violent oppression, founded on conquest, maintained by violence and oppression. It is a system both of political tyranny and of economic exploitation.” Cf. also ibid, 39: “it was the Christian vision of the incomparable God, exalted above all worldly power, which relativized Roman power and exposed Rome’s pretensions to divinity as a dangerous delusion.”

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