April 7, 2013
William G. Carter
We are spending the seven weeks of Easter in the book of Revelation. Revelation is an Easter book. It declares that Jesus is alive, that he is working out the purposes of God in the power of his resurrection. Despite what wild-eyed people have told you about this final book of the Bible, it is a hopeful book. A glorious book. Some of the opening chapter goes this way:
Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
If you drive down the road, you have probably seen the sign outside of some churches: “We believe in the literal word of God.” It’s a curious thing to say about the Bible. My hunch would be that they mean to take the Bible seriously. Nothing wrong about that. But it would be sad if the only way to take the Bible seriously is to take it literally.
Here’s the opening vision from the Book of Revelation. The Roman empire has put a Christian named John on the island of Patmos. It’s a small, rocky island off the coast of Turkey. This was an attempt to sideline him, to silence him by making him a castaway. And then, one Sunday, he hears a voice like a trumpet. Now, did that Voice say, “Too-too-too-too”?
John turns to see who speaks and the vision is really bizarre. It’s a human figure with hair white as snow. So far so good. But his eyes burn like a blazing fire. His feet are like burnished bronze and his voice, not only sounds like a trumpet, now sounds like a waterfall. He holds seven stars in his right hand. And the wildest detail of all is that a huge, sharp sword is protruding from his mouth. This is a picture of Jesus, risen from the dead. It’s almost enough for us to say, “Lord, don’t stick out your tongue!”
I’ve always wanted to ask somebody who takes the Bible literally what they would do with this. Especially the sword! There was a German woodcutter by the name of Albrecht Durer. He put this scene in a woodcut and kept it as literal as possible. The year was 1498, and there was widespread fear that the world would end in the year 1500. This was the first of fifteen woodcuts that Durer carved from a pear tree. It was dipped in ink, stamped on paper, kind of like an e-mail cartoon that gets passed around very quickly. There in the center of it is Jesus, glowing like the sun, with a large sword where his tongue should be.
It’s a fantastic image, and really strange. Many of us might quickly dismiss this as a symbolic picture out of a dream. Like the lady who told me that she dreamed of a castle surrounded by fire-breathing dragons, and inside, a maiden with long, red hair was protected by a singing harp. You might ask, “What did you have for dinner the night you had that dream?” The more astute would remind us that visions often come in the language of dreams.
But there are some people who can’t deal with symbolic language. Do you remember that series of “Left Behind” novels about ten years ago, all about the end of the world? The last one was called “Glorious Appearing” and it dealt with the second coming of Jesus. When Jesus finally comes, he speaks – and the sword comes out and literally cuts his enemies to ribbons. The novelist says their bodies were filleted. Pardon me, but that is stupid. Flat, violent, and stupid. One more reason not to read those books! 
We don’t have to take all of the Bible literally in order to take it seriously. As Frederick Buechner said somewhere, “If somebody claims that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask him if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he called Jesus the Lamb of God.” Chances are, the Lord is not covered with fleece.
When we enter the book of Revelation, and any other Bible document like it, we enter a world of imagination. We enter a constellation of images. If we try to photograph them, it might not work. They are not intended to be logical. Elsewhere in this book, for instance, John sees a “Lamb on the throne who will be their shepherd.” An eleventh-grade English teacher would take out a red pen and deduct a few points for “mixed metaphors.” The faithful Christian, however, knows exactly what John sees.
So what does he see when Jesus Christ, the Risen Christ, appears to him in a vision? There is the awesome glory – the bright countenance, fiery eyes, the pure-white hair. He is in the center of his people: that’s the meaning of the seven lampstands and the seven stars in his hand. But then there’s that sword – that resounding Voice with a sharp edge. The Christ who is risen is the Christ who speaks – not merely “spoke,” as in wise saying and parables long ago. But he speaks – he continues to speak. This is the Living One, was dead, but now alive forever and ever. This is the truth to which the picture-language is pointing. Jesus is still speaking.
The early church knew this. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, a preacher wrote, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Further reason here why we might be tempted to pray, “Lord, don’t stick out your tongue!” Because when Jesus speaks, it makes a difference.
In his earthly ministry, all he had to say to the crippled person was, “Rise, take up your bed and walk!” and it happened. In the same power of the One who said, “Let there be light!” He could say, “Your sins are forgiven!” and it was so. Some people around him said, “Who does he think he is? Only God forgives sins.” Well, duh…
When Jesus enters into conversation with people, they are rarely left unaffected. Our men’s group is working through the conversations that Jesus had with people in the Gospel of John. Every one of those people is exposed, affected, and changed somehow. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword.”
In the first century, the sword was a fierce instrument. There were no guns, no explosive devices. If somebody had a sword, they had a great deal of power. Indeed, when Jesus appears throughout the book of Revelation, he often has that sword. He invites people to return to him with that sword (2:16). He flashes that sword when evil rears its head (13:14) or threatens his people (19:15-21). This is the sign that he will not be trifled with, nor will he ever be dismissed. The Risen Christ is the Lamb upon the throne, exalted as the supreme authority over heaven and earth. Yet he is also the Lamb who is our shepherd, the Host who sets the table with bread and wine.
This is a lot to take in. I know it’s a lot to take in. And the great gift of imaginative piece of literature, such as the book of Revelation, is that it is rich enough to keep working on us. The picture language, the rich images, all of it is aimed to re-describe our world, so that we see the great glory of Christ, so that we are prepared to hear his thundering Voice that both comforts us and challenges us.
This is the Easter truth – not merely that Christ is risen, but that he keeps speaking to us. He can speak through the ancient words of scripture, even though he is greater than the printed page. The Bible points to him, after all, without ever confining him. That’s why Jesus can say to the people who love him, “I have many things to say to you, but you can’t bear to hear them yet … but I’m going to keep speaking in power of my Spirit.”
Who knows what he is saying to you today? Maybe he is calling you to a deeper relationship, a deeper trust in his love for you. Or maybe he sees that there is some part of your soul that needs surgery – perhaps there is a resentment that you are carrying, or a wound that you are not ready to have healed. It could be that someone has hurt you and you have a hard time letting that go; the sword may come to slice away that burden. Or maybe he speaks and calls you to some new act of service; you say you’re not ready for it, that you didn’t ask for it, that something is holding you back – and he may still speak and set you free to serve him.
As you come to his Table today, listen for his Voice. Listen as he speaks of great mercy. Listen as he invites you to a life of laughter and deep joy.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.