A sermon on Revelation 1 by Richard Keith on Sunday 12 March 2023
Sometimes I look at modern art and ask myself, “What on earth is going on here?”
This is a painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munsch called the Scream. And I think I can work out a couple of things by myself. I can see that the man is walking along a pier or a boardwalk beside some water. And I think he’s upset about something. Maybe a seagull stole his last chip. That would make me scream.
Fortunately, Munsch wrote a poem in pencil in the frame of his painting about the experience that inspired it.
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
And I think I start to get it. There are the two friends in the background. There’s the water of the fjord to the right. And behind there’s the blood red sky. It’s certainly not a pretty picture of nature in its majestic glory, but rather angry and frightening. It’s not a realistic portrayal of what happened, but it captures the feeling he experienced well. And that’s what a lot of modern art is about. It’s not about what things look like. But it’s about how they make you feel.
Today we are looking at the vision in Revelation chapter 1, verses 9 to 20, and it prompts the same question. What on earth is going on here? But like Munsch’s comments about his painting, I think there are enough clues in the description of the vision to work it out.
This vision of the risen Lord Jesus among the lampstands is his promise that he is with his people, his church. That we’ll never walk alone.
This vision is contained in a message from a man named John. Possibly the same John as the brother of James, one of the 12 disciples. Possibly the same John as the John who wrote the Gospel of John. Possibly the same John as the John who wrote the 3 letters that we have in the New Testament. They are possibly all the same John. Maybe even probably. But he doesn’t describe himself as a disciple or apostle or writer of Gospels or letters but as
your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.
“Brother” and “companion” describe his close solidarity with the people to whom he is writing. John is their equal, not a superior, going through the same experience as they are, an opportunity or maybe a burden. It is an experience he and his friends are going through because of their relationship with Jesus. He calls it “ours in Jesus”. And he describes that experience with three powerful expressions. Suffering. Kingdom. And patient endurance.
John and his friends suffered because Jesus their Lord suffered when he was rejected by his people and condemned to death as a rebel and blasphemer and crucified. As they followed their Lord they suffered the same rejection he did at the hand of family and friends and community leaders. For them, following Jesus was dangerous. There’s no use pretending that it wasn’t.
But it was also rewarding. John and his friends belonged to a kingdom. Jesus suffered, indeed he did, but he was raised to life and exalted to his Father’s right hand and he is king of kings and lord of lords. And by his death and resurrection he has opened the way to the kingdom of heaven for those who follow him. John and his friends lived in the hope of sharing that perfect joy with their saviour forever. And in this life they experienced its blessings in a peace with God and in a joy in the midst of their troubles that the world could not take away from them.
This burden of suffering and this opportunity of the kingdom’s blessing led them to patient endurance. It was something they had to endure, to put up with, to get through. But they could do it patiently, because they were not alone. They had each other, and they had the strength supplied by the Spirit of the risen Jesus.
John was separated from his friends because at the time of his writing to them he was on the island of Patmos, off the west coast of Turkey. He had been exiled there by the officials of the Roman Empire for his commitment to the word of God and because of his faith testimony to Jesus.
One Sunday on the island John had an experience, a vision that he was told to write to his friends who were members of the churches in the western Turkey cities of Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and Thyatira and Sardis and Philadelphia and Laodicea. It began with a loud voice speaking behind him and John described what he saw when he turned around to look.
The first thing he saw were seven golden lampstands.
But he went on to describe the second thing he saw which was someone standing among the lampstands. He was someone like a son of man. A human being like us and yet reminding us of Daniel chapter 7 which describes the son of man who approaches the throne of God to receive a kingdom.
He is dressed in the robe and golden sash of a priest with a ministry to offer a sacrifice for others. His hair is white with wisdom. He eyes burn with a passionate intensity. His feet are strong and immovable like glowing bronze. His voice booms with an authority that cannot be ignored. His word was as invincible as a two edged sword that cuts through all its opponents and his face shone with divine glory. And in his hands he held seven stars.
It is a vision of the risen Lord Jesus in all his risen and ascended glory and majesty and power. He has inherited his Father’s throne, not just by right of birth, but he has earned it by his obedience to his Father’s will. His earthly ministry revealed his Father’s truth and grace, and his sacrificial death has healed the wound between heaven and earth. Men and women and children who surrender before the lordship of Christ and trust in him for salvation receive forgiveness. And they are called to live in service to this heavenly king, this priest of God who offered himself once for us all, this prophet of the truth whose Word, the gospel, is the announcement of the victory of God over death and hell and judgment.
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ stands among the seven lampstands, holding seven stars in his hand. The vision was so overwhelming that John fell before it like he’d been struck dead. But the Lord Jesus placed his hand upon him and said,
Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
He is the Lord of time, the one who was there at the beginning and stands at the end and rules over all times in between. He is the ruler of life who gave his life and now raised to life can never die again. And he is the master of death and king over the fate of the deceased. He holds the keys of death and Hades and he has unlocked the door of death so that it does not lead to a prison, but is simply a passageway for believers to the kingdom of heaven. And any door that he has unlocked no one can shut against you.
Jesus, the lord of life and death, had this message for his faithful servant John to give to his people.
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Like a poem written in pencil on the frame of a painting, the command of Jesus tells us what on earth this vision is about. It is about the seven stars that Jesus holds in his right hand and the seven golden lampstands that he stands among. It’s not about his robe or his golden sash. It’s not about his white hair or intense eyes. It’s about him and what he holds in his hand and what he stands among.
And what are the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands?
The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
The seven lampstands are the seven churches that John is told to write to. His brothers and sisters, his companions in suffering and kingdom and patient endurance. They are lampstands because they hold the light of Christ, shining in the darkness of evil and despair, radiating truth and hope, and showing the way to life.
And most importantly the Lord Jesus stands among them. His message to them is that he is with them and so they’ll never walk alone. Though they suffer and endure while they wait for the full blessing of the kingdom that is theirs, he stands among them, supporting them, giving them strength. He is not just the lord of life and death, but he is also the lord of his church. He is its only priest, its most faithful minister, its great pastor and shepherd under whom other pastors and elders and deacons serve.
The vision reminds us that we, the church of Christ, we are a lampstand in our community. We were made to bear the light of the grace and truth of Jesus to the people of our town. With a message to proclaim and a calling to live according to the values of that message. Reconciled to God through the gospel, announcing peace in our words and deeds, practicing reconciliation in all our relationships.
We are a lampstand and the Lord Jesus stands in our midst. It means that we are not left to our own resources. It means that we do not just wait for his coming like he is late for an appointment, but that he is already here among us. He knows us by name and he knows what we need.
It also means that the leaders of the church do not have to make up for his absence, serving in his place. But he is present. Where his word is preached it is just as sharp as ever. Where his rule is acknowledge, he reigns as king. Where his gospel is proclaimed, lives are saved and transformed. And where his followers dishonour his name and distort his truth and build their own kingdom on earth rather than Christ’s, he will hold them accountable.
Jesus stands among the lampstands and in his right hand he holds the seven stars. The angels of the churches. Whether each congregation throughout the world has its own guardian angel is an interesting question. There is not enough information in the passage to settle the matter once and for all. But what it does mean is that Jesus commands the powers of heaven for the sake of his people. Jesus holds in his hand, at his disposal, every resource that we need and could ever want for our light to shine in our community. His angels serve him and they serve us. Whether we need to repent or whether we need to grow, whether we face an important decision or have conflict that we need to resolve, whatever is dimming our light Jesus is able to take away to set his people free to believe and to live his gospel.
We are one of Jesus’ lampstands in Corowa. We will suffer just as he did. We look forward to the coming of his kingdom and in the meantime we patiently endure. But more importantly our special calling is to shine into the darkness the truth and grace of our Lord Jesus, to reveal his glory in our lives and to draw others to him. Jesus stands among us. He is present with us in our journey of faith. It is his promise that we’ll never walk alone and in his hands he has everything we need to shine brightly.