a sermon on Revelation 1:4b-8 and John 18:33-37
preached on November 22, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
One of the things I was most excited about seeing on my trip to Greece last summer with the New Amsterdam Singers was the island of Patmos. This small island in the Aegean Sea is the place where John is understood to have written the book of Revelation that we heard read this morning. This was my first trip to a biblical place, the first time that I would experience for myself a place that I have studied in seminary and beyond, the first time I would see with my own eyes something like what these biblical writers saw for themselves.
By these standards, Patmos was a bit of a disappointment. We spent all of four hours on the island. After being shuttled back and forth to the island from our cruise ship on smaller boats, we were herded with hundreds of others to and through the different sights of the island, the chapel built on the spot where it is believed that the book of Revelation was written and the monastery higher up the island where Greek Orthodox monks have found a home for nearly one thousand years. The mystery of the writing of Revelation was stripped away as literally every crevice in the rock was explained to us, and the wonder of it all was difficult to find beneath the spectacle. The spiritual experience I wanted on this holy island barely emerged through this rushed and crowded time, and in the end I left Patmos a bit frustrated that I had built up my expectations and had them so badly shattered along the way.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised about this, though—our expectations about the things ahead and the kingdom of God in Christ have been shattered over and over again since those words were first written. Since Jesus’ own lifetime, Christians have been expecting him to come and make things different right now. From the earliest disciples, those who have followed Jesus have wanted him to show his power and change the world, to “claim the kingdom for thine own,” as our last hymn described it so well. Even though we have seen the powers of death and hell broken in the wonder of the resurrection, the powers of our world still seem very much in control, and the reign of peace and justice that we long for seems further and further away each and every day.
This reign of Christ that we celebrate on this Sunday at the end of the liturgical year was not even fully captured in Jesus’ own mind. In the words of our reading in the gospel of John, Jesus made it clear that his kingdom was not what anyone expected. While he came proclaiming a new kingdom, he made the strange nature of this kingdom clear in his words to the Roman governor Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus had been accused of being “King of the Jews,” a preposterous and treasonous title in first-century Palestine, for in those days there was no king but Caesar.
But whatever others thought about him, Jesus knew that he would not measure up to the expectations that everyone had of this king. While earthly rulers would inevitably focus on some personal agenda and place the well-being of the ruling classes above the welfare of all, this king’s rule would be rooted in God’s truth. While the subjects of the earthly realm would rise up and fight to have this king recognized here and now, this king’s rule would be established not with weapons or even words but in the glory of death and resurrection. And while the politics of this world and the simple realities of life and death would demand that any and every rule would come to an end, this king’s rule would continue forever.
In this day and age, I think we need this kind of reign for the ages as much as ever. Our world is quite a mess, really. The rulers we have are struggling to guide us out of difficult days, care for the poor, and find a way toward peace—and the people who want to take their place aren’t likely to do much better or worse, really. The media bombard us with the latest news of violence and terror from around the world, leaving us to fear for our own safety in a day and age when we ourselves bear minute statistical risk even as we ignore the real danger faced by so many others. And our nation of immigrants fears so much for its safety that we want to slam the door on those who are trying to escape far more real danger than we can even imagine. Our expectations of good things have been shattered over and over and over again.
But the hope and promise of the gospel is that things will not be this way forever. Even when it is hard to see, we know and trust and believe that the reign of Christ has already begun. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see that the kingdoms that seem to define our world no longer do so. In the light of the resurrection, we begin to understand that the kingdom that Jesus once described as not of this world is yet moving into our midst. And in the hopeful witness of Revelation, we gain a glimpse of the great kingdom that is ahead, with us as its members and Christ at the head.
With the fullness of this reign for the ages still to come, we still must figure out how to live in these in-between times. We can’t just sit around and let things get increasingly worse until Jesus comes. Instead, we are called to follow Jesus into a new and different way of life, showing care and concern for the poor and outcast, working to change the systems that make some lives matter more than others, and setting aside our fears of the other as we recognize that we are united into one kingdom under Christ.
But we do not just do all these things on our own, as individuals, in moments when we find it easy to do these things. As a community who follows Jesus, we are called to a different way of life together, listening closely to one another’s concerns, seeking a route to forgiveness when we find ourselves at odds with one another, and being a living witness as a congregation and broader church each and every day to the abundant freedom for life and mission that we find for ourselves in Christ. We do not approach these things with the goal of making everyone believe and act like us but rather with the hope that our world will witness the continuing life and hope of Jesus Christ in us.
So as we celebrate this reign for the ages today, may God guide us in these days as we join in the kingdom that is among us even as we wait, watch, and work for the greater joy that is ahead in the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.