Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The distinguished author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote, “Full disclosure: I do not like the book of Revelation. I do not like its violence, its vindictiveness, its opaqueness, its psychotic visions, its attitude toward women, its enemy thinking, its dualistic worldview or its vacancy of love. I do not even like people who like the book of Revelation. I wish it had been left out of the Bible, as it almost was. But since it wasn’t, I’ll grant this much: if you want a beatific vision of God’s end-game for creation, there is no better place to look than the last two chapters of Revelation.”
Criticism of the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, as it is sometimes know, is not new. When Martin Luther first translated and published the New Testament, he thought that Revelation should not have the same status or authority as the gospels or the letters of Paul or Peter. And so he put it at the end, but he didn’t number it or put “saint” in front of John’s name. He thought it was an curiously edifying book, but what’s interesting, it’s the one book that he added illustrations. Revelation allowed him to make one of his Protestant central points, which was that the papacy was the Antichrist, and the end of the world was coming. 300 years later Thomas Jefferson wrote in his edited version of the Bible, that the Book of Revelation is “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherencies of our own nightly dreams.” Even the Orthodox Church is skeptical of Revelation. In fact, no passage of Revelation is ever read in worship or included in the liturgy – even though they read the entire New Testament every year.
So why bother preaching on the Book of Revelation, much less lifting it up for reflection in this Lenten season? I must admit that like Barbra Brown Taylor it is not my favorite book of the Bible. I am reminded of the elderly church member who proudly announced that she had read the Bible cover to cover 4 times, but she hope she died before reached the Revelation a fifth time. So why read it? Personally, I would say, because living out the Christian faith today is just as challenging as it was 2000 years ago, but the book offers insight into what is essential of the Christian faith. So on this Ash Wednesday, let us begin with an introduction to Book of Revelation, and Jesus words of revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Throughout that first century after Christ’s death and resurrection, the church had experienced waves of persecution under the Roman emperors. Two emperors were particularly brutal. In the year 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians living in Rome for the great fire that had destroyed the city. The leaders of the Christian community were quickly arrested, imprisoned and executed. It was during Nero’s persecution of the church that St. Paul was behead and St. Peter was crucified. Thirty years later, Emperor Domitian unleashed a reign of terror on Christians living throughout the Empire. John of Patmos was arrested and placed into forced exile on a barren, volcanic island named Patmos off the coast of Turkey, what was then called Asia Minor. He was separated from his family and community and only heard reports of Christians abandoning the faith simply to survive.
Christians in that first century were an easy target for public blame and ridicule. There was a general disdain for this group of people who refused to recognize the emperor as divine, worship the various gods who were the patrons of their cities, or to take part in the sacrifices which was expected of those living in the Roman Empire. Christians were not a benign presence on Roman life. They intentionally rebelled against the social order. They refused to be cremated and instead were buried in secrets tombs outside the city walls waiting for the resurrection of the dead, The believed in revolutionary, democratic principles that all people, slave or free, Greek or Jews, male and female were equal in the sight of God, and so they should be treated impartially as brothers and sisters. For Roman society, Christians were a societal threat. They were disregarded as dangerous and superstitious sect, who practiced a strange ritual of eating the body and drinking the blood of their savior. Christians could not be trusted as members of good Roman society. So those who were being persecuted, and hoping to be upwardly mobile found it tempting to abandon the faith, and return to their former Roman ways.
Frankly, it is just as tempting today when the road is tough, and the shadows seems to darken every path forward. You may have once felt confident and certain about what is right and wrong, but now friends and neighbors are questioning you. Your faith and values seem to be growing increasingly contrary to the ways of the world. Indeed, voices are violently speaking louder and more pointedly against you. You may at times wonder why you are clinging so tightly to the faith, when others are scurrying away.
Or perhaps for you, faith itself has become a spiritual hurdle. You simply can’t understand what God is doing, or why he is not being more clear and demonstrative in what he intends for you and this old world. And so it feels, as if you are left on you own deserted island alone in vast sea that you cannot escape. That’s why the Book of Revelation is so appropriate for study and meditation in this Lenten season.
In the opening verses of Revelation, John addresses his letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who were struggling to a lesser and greater degree to remain faithful. These cities were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. First time readers of Revelation are often surprised that Jesus himself plays a central role in the book and not just the members of the churches. In the first chapter Jesus proclaims Himself to be the “Alpha and Omega.” It the image that we see on the bulletin cover of early the Christian painting decorating the interior of a catacomb in Rome. It was a sign and symbol of Christ’s divinity. The Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Among the Jewish rabbis, it was common to use the first and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet to denote the whole of anything, from beginning to end. It is our equivalent of everything from A-Z.
Another meaning of Jesus being the “Alpha and Omega” is that He was at the beginning of all things and will be at the close. It is equivalent to saying He always existed and always will exist. It was Christ, as the second Person of the Trinity, who brought about the creation: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” and His Second Coming will be the beginning of the end of creation as we know it. As God incarnate Word, He has no beginning, nor will He have any end with respect to time.
Yes, another interpretation of Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” is that the phrase identifies Him as the God of the Old Testament. and the New. He is the first and last in so many ways. He is the “author and perfector” of our faith, signifying that he begins it and carries it through to completion. He is the totality, the sum and substance of the Scriptures, both of the Law and of the Gospel.
Now, you may be wondering, so why on a snowy Ash Wednesday, should it matter when Jesus is the Alpha and Omega? It certainly was the question the first century Christians living in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea were wondering. But perhaps a snowy day is the apt metaphor. A single snowflake does nothing in our world. The same is true of a single, small problem. But when the snow begins to build up and you had a little wind, or frigid temperatures, all of life can be disrupted.
In the Book of Revelation, Jesus teaches warns and promises that that while we can and may plan all we want, there is no guarantee that we will even be around to see those ideas brought to fruition. There is no certainty that we will live to old age. The money we have in the bank right now may be gone before our we breath our last breath. We may be perfectly healthy today, and lying on sickbed tomorrow. Yes, there is no guarantee that a storm will not pass through your life or family. Life can change in an instant. We do not know what the future holds in this life. The early Christians who were persecuted daily for their beliefs understood that better than we do.
But the one factor that is constant in this changing world is that Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and the fullness of all living. Jesus knows all possible outcomes, and he understands what must be done to reach that desired end. No event will ever catch him by surprise. Not even an Ash Wednesday snow storm. He never ages; and there is no limit to his resources—For he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-over. Returning to him, and placing your trust in him is actually what Lent is all about.
My friends, as we begin this Ash Wednesday journey, let us return to Jesus, and begin again with him as our Alpha and Omega, the one who makes all things possible. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.