Saturday, November 21, 2015

Getting the Tenses Right

Revelation 1:1-8
Christ the King
November 22, 2015
William G. Carter

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev. 1:8)

Our scripture text comes from the book of Revelation, the last book for the Bible. That may be enough to make you sit up straight or chase you out the door. The book of Revelation is a difficult book. It is a difficult because it is a book of Christian scripture, and anybody who has not done the necessary work of heart and mind is going to misunderstand this or any other biblical book.

In the front of your pew Bible is the name of somebody I once met. In fact, he is the only person that I have ever met whose name is printed in our Bibles. His name was Bruce Metzger. He was the general editor and leader of the translation team that prepared the New Revised Standard Bible. Dr. Metzger taught New Testament at Princeton for forty-six years. I took two classes with him, and one was on the book of Revelation.

On the first day of class, he said, “There are two things you need to know. This is a hopeful book about Jesus Christ, and it is also the happy hunting ground for heretics.”

A lot of people avoid the book of Revelation, because it’s full of fantastic visions, wild creatures, and ecstatic speech. Some people only read the book of Revelation, because it’s full of fantastic visions, wild creatures, and ecstatic speech. Both perspectives are unfortunate.

The book is a collection of visions by a Christian prophet named John, which he sent as a letter to seven churches. Near the end of the first century, the Roman Empire has exiled him to an island off the western shore of Turkey. I have been to the cave where this man lived. Now it’s a religious shrine with tour groups and a lot of incense; back then it was a cave.

In that cave, John had visions of the Risen Christ, who opened to him the truth about heaven and earth. He could see, at points, heaven and earth are in conflict, and he could also see that, in the end, heaven wins. That’s what the book is all about. Don’t let some wild-eyed crackpot make it any spookier than it is. Heaven wins, God rules over the universe, Christ is the king.

In its wisdom, the church put this as the last book of the Bible, because this is where all things are headed. It provides the last word on God. How can you say anything more? Heaven wins!

At the same time, Revelation needs to be read with the rest of scripture, if only because the 404 verses of this book make 518 allusions to earlier passages of the Bible.[1] The writer of this book points to the books of Exodus, Daniel, Zechariah, and quotes a lot of Psalms. John uses the language of a lot of Bible texts to point to whatever he sees and hears.

This is ecstatic speech, mostly. The Greek scholars say he doesn’t worry about sanding off the splinters and providing a polished text. No, a lot of Revelation is offered in bursts of praise, like poetry or pieces of various songs. We know some of the songs:  “Holy, Holy, Holy” – chapter four. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might” – the seven-fold praise is in chapter seven.  The Hallelujah chorus is found in chapter nineteen. It is possible for Christian people to sing their way through the book.

But as we heard in chapter one, twice John gives us an unusual phrase: “who is and who was and who is to come.” He is speaking about God, “who is and who was and who is to come.” But the tenses are out of order. How do we explain that?

Ever since English class, the teacher told us the proper order is past, present, and future. It should be “who was, who is, who is to come” – past, present, future, just like the three spirits that would visit Ebenezer Scrooge. That’s how John says it in chapter four: was, is, is to come (4:8). He knew the proper order, but here he rearranges it. Not once, but twice. What is he trying to tell us?

It is confusing. There is a proper sequence of events: something happened, then this happened, then that will happen. She graduated from school, has a job, and one day she will retire. The Penn State football team worked hard in the pre-season, didn’t look so hot yesterday, but there is always next year – past, present, future. That’s how it goes, but John begins with the present, and that moves him to the past and the future. What is he saying?

Sometimes it is the case that we experience something now, and it opens up the history of what happened before. The middle school class goes on a trip to Gettysburg, sees the fields and the split-rail fences. The guide points them to a house in the town with ancient bullet holes in the brick walls. What happened here? The present-day trip reveals an ancient event.

I recall overhearing a couple of kids talking in the early nineties. One of them mentioned the Beatles. The other one said, “Who are the Beatles?” The first one said, “Oh, that was Paul McCartney’s first band.” These days, of course, they might ask, “Who was Paul McCartney?” It is hard for a lot of people to imagine anything before they were born.

John writes to the Christians he remembers. They are scattered in a circle of seven towns in western Turkey. These people gather to worship Jesus. They welcome his grace and share his peace. They know the present reality of faith – they know what is.  But to remember what was - ah, that points to a deeper history, a longer story, and it all happened before they came along.

In his memoirs, the great preacher Fred Craddock remembers his childhood. The family was dirt poor, and lived outside a small town in western Tennessee. At eight months old, he contacted diphtheria. In those days, it was almost a death sentence. Medical care was rare and expensive, especially for such a family. When Fred took a turn for the worse, his father ran all the way into town to get a doctor. They didn’t think it would do any good, but it was a last attempt.

The doctor came, tried a few things, said, “We will hope for the best,” and offered to  stay with the family.  Fred’s mother stayed up all night and prayed, “Lord, if you let my little boy live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister.” It was just like the prayer that the prophet Samuel’s mother prayed, as we heard last week. In the morning, the doctor said, “I think he’s going to be alright.”

“We will pay you when we can,” said the family. “I’ll send you a bill,” said the doctor, and he never did.

Here’s the thing: Fred never knew this story as a child. His mother never told him. He grew up, always a little sickly, but a good student. Through a variety of experiences, he decided to go to school and study to become a minister. The night before he took the bus, his mother said, “Sit down for a minute,” and she told him the story. “I never told you about my prayers,” she said, “because I wanted you to say yes to God and not to me.”[2]

Fred was stunned. He thought faith in God was his own idea. He believed that his faith prompted him to go forward.  But his mother had a head start on him. She asked God to influence Fred before he ever knew it. Before he could even recognize it, God was at work in his life.

God is, God was . . . and God is to come. That’s where everything is headed: toward God, in line with God’s purposes.

You know, when Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy will be done,” he is not saying “maybe,” as if to say, “God, we hope that you might get your way.” No, he is making a declaration: your will is going to be done. God is not going to wait for all of us to agree before God will do what God is going to do. God does not set the planet Neptune in orbit, then say, “I hope it keeps going.” Oh no, Neptune moves because God says it’s going to move. The orbit is not optional or conditional.

And when God says, “I’m the Alpha and the Omega,” that is, “the A and the Z,” the beginning and the end, the destination for all things belongs only to God. The end is not up to us. God gives us great respect, and lets us make a lot of decisions, but the final word is God’s. The whole story of our lives begins and ends with God. The whole story of the universe originates and concludes with God. God is that great.

As I told a couple of guys in the church choir, the reason why I picked the next hymn is because it has a phrase that declares God is “the potentate of time, Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.” You and I don’t normally talk that way. We are not accustomed to thinking in such grand terms. We want God to fit inside our hearts or to come when we call. But God already stands ahead of us. God possesses the future, and knows how everything is going to turn out.

I remember walking into a Bible study one time. Some of the people had a lot of questions about the end of the world. Are we going to blow up our planet with atomic bombs? Are we going to defrost the ice caps and flood the coastal cities? Are we going to unleash a deadly nerve gas?  I wondered if they had been watching too many James Bond movies. They were really working themselves up. They wanted to know what the Bible predicted about all of this.

I asked everybody to take a breath. Then I said, “From the second page of the Bible, it is clear that human beings are capable of doing any number of stupid and destructive things. All of us are capable of that. But the future is God’s future, not ours. It’s like our birth - we didn’t determine the beginning of our lives; our lives were a gift.” They looked quizzically, and one of them said, “What about the book of Revelation?”

I smiled and said, “Yes, the book of Revelation. Do you how the book of Revelation begins? After the first heading and blessing, it says, ‘Grace and peace to you, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come.’ (1:4).”

“And do you know how the book of Revelation ends?” They didn’t know. “Chapter 22, verse 21: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints.’”

We can spend a lot of time fussing about the difficulties in the middle of our very messy lives. It can be a real distraction from the truth of God: that we begin and end with grace. 

I don’t know what you are carrying on your shoulders today, what troubles you bear, what fears you have, but I do know God is with you. And the God who is with you was with you from the beginning, and will be waiting for you at the end.

In the name of the One who is, who was, and is to come, Amen.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 22-23.
[2] Fred Brenning Craddock, Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots (Indianapolis: Chalice Press, 2007) 20.

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