A sermon drawn from Revelation 22:1-7
What a beautiful image of the eternal reign of God! Life, health, delight, light, the immediate presence of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, total absorption in worship … surrounded by all this beauty. Surely, the main message of this vision is the beauty and goodness in store for the servants of God …
That last sentence seems to be spoken directly by Jesus, and when we hear it, “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book,” most of us probably hear it, right along with the church down through the ages, as a promise that we ourselves will one day share this very vision – or at least something equivalent to it – life, light, the presence of God.
As long as we “keep the words of the prophecy of this book.”
So … we might ask ourselves … what do we think it means to “keep” – words?
What does it mean to “keep” words?
This seems like a difficult question. One we might need to think about for a minute. Because there are a lot of ways to “keep” things, and we might need to think about the kind of things these “words” are … and how we’re supposed to “keep” them.
Honestly, it would be so much simpler – maybe not easier, but simpler – if Jesus had just said to keep the commandments in this book. Because we know what it means to “keep commandments.” I think.
It means to do them. Or else to not do them, if they’re commandments not to do something, like not to covet what our neighbors have, or not to have other gods besides God, or the eight out of the ten commandments in between those two.
Or if we think of those words from the prophet Isaiah we read this morning, it means to stop oppressing people – to “remove the yoke” – and to stop speaking evil and “pointing the finger” of blame at others and take some personal responsibility; it means to actually feed the hungry and do something for the needy; it means to stop “trampling on the Sabbath” by relentlessly pursuing our own self-interest 24/7 … the prophet Isaiah has provided a list of instructions, a list of things people need to do and not do. And then, if people keep those commands, they are promised some specific blessings.
Those blessings make sense, too, because we can see how those blessings would grow out of the way of life people would be living if they kept those commandments, those words. Because the way the prophet is telling the people to live would be a way of life that honors God, and that expresses God’s care for the poor, and that way of life would invite the presence of God, would make space for the presence of God – and that divine presence is one of the blessings the prophet promises. That way of life would build up the community, too, which is another promised. Those blessings would grow right out of the people’s keeping the prophet’s commands, the same way the blessings of good health grow out of getting enough sleep and eating healthy food and exercising, or the way a the blessings of a flourishing, beautiful garden, and some tasty vegetables around this time of year grow out of planting and weeding and watering and fertilizing a garden.
That all makes so much sense, we would love to think about keeping the words of this prophecy that way, and the only problem with all that is … there frankly are not many commandments in this book. Most of this prophecy is a story – the report of a long, complicated vision, some of which is beautiful, like the part we heard this morning, some of which is honestly very disturbing, a lot of which is difficult to understand and to feel confident we have understood correctly … there do seem to be consequences, positive and negative, that give us a good idea of what kind of things we should and shouldn’t do in life.
Most important, at the heart of this vision report is the anchoring vision of Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Son of Man who walks among the lampstands that hold the lights of the churches, tending them and making sure their lights keep burning brightly; Jesus is the Lamb that was slain but now lives and reigns with God forever and ever and is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing; Jesus is the Lord of the new heaven and new earth that will conquer and outlast every earthly empire, Jesus is the faithful witness whose words are trustworthy and true. Obviously, if that’s what we know about Jesus, and that’s what we know about the world we really live in, it’s going to have an impact on how we think and what we do. But as for commandments, we don’t find a lot of specific “instructions” in the book of Revelation. So keeping its words can’t be as simple as doing a set of commandments.
In the Bible, “keeping” can sometimes refer to guarding people or things, in prison or by soldiers. It’s the kind of “keeping” people do with someone or something dangerous. In Matthew’s gospel, for instance, the authorities try to keep the tomb of the crucified Jesus under armed guard – which, as we know, doesn’t keep Jesus from rising from the dead on the third day. In the book of Acts Herod keeps the apostle Peter in prison, and then later the Romans keep the apostle Paul in prison.
Which, again, doesn’t keep them from sharing that dangerous liberating gospel. Peter is released from prison by an angel; Paul and Barnabas are rescued by an earthquake but stay on to preach the good news to their jailer, and his whole household accepts Christ. The apostle Paul makes a point of the futility of this kind of keeping in his second letter to Timothy, when he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” (2 Timothy 2:8-9)
So even though the book of Revelation does begin with the announcement that it’s “a revelation of Jesus Christ,” and even though words about Jesus have been considered dangerous in some times and some places, Christians aren’t usually the ones who think that way about them, and keeping the gospel that way doesn’t do any good anyway, so we probably don’t seriously think this is the kind of “keeping” we’re supposed to do with these words …
There’s another way to “keep” things … not as common in the Bible, but familiar to us, Americans, of the 21st century …
Does anyone here have a garage? My family, too. And does anyone here “keep” things in their garage? My family, too. And I believe I’m telling the truth when I say that we do not keep as many things in our garage as my late parents of blessed memory kept in theirs. Because we have two cars, which we can keep in the garage, AND we can walk almost all the way around both of those cars without having to turn sideways and squeeze past anything else we are also keeping in that garage. I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I am guessing I am not alone in having some personal experience with keeping stuff, accumulating stuff.
Because that is a kind of “keeping” that our world encourages. It is terribly easy for us to collect stuff, and then to hang on to the stuff we’ve collected, to store it with all the other stuff that we’re hanging on to “for when we need it” or “just in case” or because “this might be worth something one of these days” – like if Antiques Roadshow comes to town – or because “someone could still get some use out of this” and we know there will be a yard sale at church one of these days, and we’ll be able to donate it.
That’s a kind of “keeping” many of us know about, and that kind of keeping can even result in some blessing. If we ever do need those extra nails or those scraps of fabric or those old magazines we saved, we’ll be glad we hung on to them. When we do finally donate that piece of furniture that still has a lot of good in it to the church yard sale and we see someone leaving with it all excited because it was just what they needed, that’s a good feeling.
Words are not exactly that kind of thing …
But we might be able to think of one or two ways to collect words, store words, out of the way, just in case we need them one of these days … like in a file cabinet or on a bookshelf …
But Jesus’ words and words about Jesus wouldn’t be the kind words we’d want to “keep” that way.
Because the kinds of things we do keep that way – in the garage or the attic or the basement or up on a shelf – are usually things that we’re not using right now, or things that frankly aren’t particularly pertinent to our actual lives right now – we might even think they’re valuable, but we just don’t have a place for them in the living room or the kitchen … they’re not what we use all the time, like the kitchen table, or need to have on hand all the time, like our car keys or our check books …
But there is, in fact, a place in the Bible that talks specifically about keeping the vital kind of words we do want to touch our daily lives – one I think we can assume John and the Christians in Asia would have known, too, because it’s an earlier message, a well-known one.
It’s where Moses tells the Israelites who are about to enter the promised land “to keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart …” – and then gives them the instructions to:
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
To wear them on their bodies. To display them on their doors and your gates. Basically, to repeat them over and over and over; to bring them up again and again and again; to “keep them fresh in their minds.” To make them part of their daily life.
That kind of keeping works for words; that kind of keeping works as well for words that describe things or tell stories or paint pictures as it does for words that command things, that give us instructions.
I don’t know how many people here have spent time with toddlers … As I was thinking about these instructions of Moses’, I couldn’t help thinking of a movie … it was on VHS, which tells you how long ago this was … called “Baby Songs” … which was a gift from our daughter’s aunt, and our daughter loved it, and wanted to watch it at least daily, for what seemed like 500 years, but which was really only a year or two … and I’m pretty sure I can still sing all the words to “make way for the parade of colors” and “my baby has a sleepy face” even though that hasn’t been her favorite movie for over twenty years …
And that kind of loving rehearsal, that going back and going back again to those words, is exactly what Moses is talking about, when he says to keep those words in our hearts, and it is probably what Jesus is talking about, when he says to “keep the words of the prophecy of this book” … to keep them in our hearts, to keep them fresh in our minds.
And what that really means is to keep the book’s vision of Jesus Christ in our hearts and in our minds. Because for all the fabulous and mysterious imagery of the book of Revelation, the central message of the book – and we know this from the book itself – is “witness of [or to] Jesus Christ.” We hear that at the beginning, when we learn that this whole book is a revelation of Jesus Christ, the faithful witness; we hear it throughout the book, as it returns over and over to visions of Jesus that add to what we know about him; we hear it at the end of the book, when John’s angel guide tells him that “the witness of Jesus Christ is the spirit of prophecy.”
We usually think “the witness of Jesus Christ” is the words that Jesus has shared with the world, has given the world in his own completely faithful life, and all the things he shared with his disciples throughout his time on earth, Jesus’ example of how to live in the world, faithful to God, trusting God completely, fulfilling his mission here in his death and resurrection … surely we do think of that as the witness of Jesus Christ.
But “the testimony [or witness] to Jesus Christ” can also mean what the church has to share with the world: what people, including we ourselves, have witnessed, and the evidence we have of what it means to know Jesus Christ and to have him in our lives.
And the book of Revelation is that kind of witness or testimony, testimony that Jesus is alive; that Jesus sits on the right hand of God and is the first and the last, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the one who has life in himself and in his gift.
Keeping those words – the words of Jesus, and the word we have about Jesus – in our minds and hearts seems to be the important keeping that this text means.
And when we do that kind of keeping, it is once again a case of blessing growing naturally out of what we are doing. Because keeping Jesus Christ, the vision of Jesus Christ fresh in our minds and hearts will encourage us; and will give us an example of how to live a life that is satisfying and humane and compassionate and transformative; and will keep us oriented to whose world this is; and that kind of life will result in many good outcomes.
Though as we saw in the lives of the apostles, it can also be dangerous … from the perspective of the world around us … because it will make us dissident citizens of a world that cares more about stuff than about salvation, more about junk than about justice.
But that may not bother us, because we will be looking forward to the beauty, goodness, truth, and eternal presence of God that we already have in this world, and that we expect to see even more clearly and completely in the next.