Who Gets the Last Word? A sermon on Revelation 22:12-21

Who gets the last word? Well, one answer to that question is that since this is the final sermon in this series on Revelation – I do! Not really.

You’ve probably heard that “Men should always have the last words in an argument with their wife.” Those words are “Yes, Dear.”

And here are some really last words uttered on a death bed:
Actor W.C Fields, when asked why he was reading the Bible said, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A pastor was visiting an elderly man in the hospital when the man suddenly gasped for air and couldn’t breathe; so he grabbed a pen and paper to write his last words. He handed it to the pastor and died. The pastor took the note, put it into his pocket and ran to get the nurse. A week later at the man’s funeral the pastor is reading from the Bible and remembers the note in his pocket; so he opens it up and reads it to the congregation, it said: “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

Those bad jokes were inspired by a couple of verses in the text for today from the final chapter of Revelation. As soon as I began studying this chapter there were two verses that grabbed my attention, not because they inspired me but because they were very challenging.

Here they are, verses 18 and 19: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” John seems to be saying he gets the last word.

Interestingly, at least to me, is the fact that these two verses are omitted when this chapter appears in year C of the Lectionary. When the lectionary omits verses from the middle of a text I always wonder why and have to go look to see what was left out. In this case my guess is that like me, the authors of the lectionary would rather not deal with these difficult verses. But I left them in because these verses point to a central issue that has divided Christians over the years and is especially relevant in our time. These verses have to do with how we choose to interpret Scripture.

Some Christians take this warning to mean we are not to change any part of the Bible because it is the infallible, literal word of God dictated to a human author. Another approach which I subscribe to is that the Bible is a collection of books written over several centuries by different authors in particular times and places who did their best to describe their own experience of the mystery of God.
So, let’s review the history of this particular book. Revelation was written in the late first century during a time of terrible persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. The author, John, did not think he was writing the last chapter of the New Testament, and that’s a critical point. The New Testament as we know it did not exist until 200 or 300 years later when the church reached a consensus that the 27 books now in the New Testament should be included in our Bible.

Why is that important? Because it means that these two verses that say no one should change a word of this “book” are talking about the prophesy in the book of Revelation, not about the entire Bible. John wrote those words as the final word of his prophesy, not as the final words of the Bible.

Does that mean that we have carte blanche to rewrite other books of the Bible? Of course not. My point is simply that God did not stop speaking to us in the first century. The Bible is our primary source of inspiration, but that doesn’t mean it is the only one. Do we really want to limit God’s revelation to biblical authors who believed the earth was flat?

I think not. John Wesley, our Methodist founder recognized in his famous quadrilateral that in addition to the Scriptures we need to draw upon other gifts like Reason, Experience, and Tradition. Even though John closes this prophesy with a period, God’s word to us always ends with a comma because God is forever speaking to those who have ears to hear.

All of that is important because it helps us understand the other mystery in Revelation that is emphasized in this closing chapter. Our text for today begins and ends with the words, “I am coming soon.” Really? That’s like saying the Browns are going to win the Super Bowl “soon.” How do we reconcile “soon” with the fact that it’s been 2000 years since John wrote those words? Some people write off Christianity because the second coming hasn’t happened yet. Others use these words to try and scare people into believing. Neither of those works.

You can’t scare people into faith. Think about a time when you’ve really messed up and made a huge mistake. Do you want judgment or compassion? The fear-based approach says, “I made a mistake, my dad will kill me!” The Gospel of Christ says, “I made a mistake, I need to call my dad.” My understanding is that “I am coming soon” means it is very urgent to be living as if we are in God’s Kingdom now and every day because Christ is trying to break into our lives all the time if we invite him in.

Much of Revelation relies on the fear-based approach to evangelism, but notice what happens here in the last chapter. Right before those dire warnings about not changing the text are these two verses:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Warning has turned to invitation. Jesus says, “Come to the wedding, come to my party. Everyone who hears, come; everyone who is thirsty, come; ANYONE who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Eternal life is a gift, and gifts come with no strings attached. They are freely given, and that’s good news.

But when, Lord? When are you coming to quench our thirst for justice and righteousness? This verse reminds me of Isaiah saying, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” But Isaiah doesn’t say how long we have to wait. We’re tired, Lord. We’re tired of strife and bitterness and divisions. We’re tired of cancer ravaging healthy bodies. We’re tired of making our children go through active shooter drills in pre-school. We’re tired of endless wars and political squabbles that prevent any real work on all the problems facing our nation and world.

How long do we have to wait? What do you mean when you say, “I am coming soon?” Let us know so we can put that date on our calendar and be ready; so we know how long we have to hang on.

Our theme for this sermon series is “Victory in Sight.” But we’re like squirrely kids who can’t wait for Christmas. We don’t want to see victory off in the distance, we want to celebrate and sing the Alma Mater with the band now. We want to hoist the championship trophy and hang the victory banner in the rafters now!

But we have to remember that our time is not God’s time. What was only 6 days of creation in God’s time took billions of years in our time. It may help to be reminded that the original Greek language of the New Testament has two words for time, chronos and Kairos. Chronos is clock time, time that we can measure and count. Chronos is the timer you set to tell you when the cake is ready to come out of the oven. It’s the tardy bell at school or the time clock you punch at work; it’s what keeps trains and planes sort of running on schedule; and tells us how many candles to put on our birthday cake.

It’s baseball playoff season so for sports fans maybe this illustration helps – most sports are played on chronos time -there’s a big clock on the scoreboard that tells everyone exactly how much time is left in the game. But baseball is played on Kairos time, or as Yogi Berra put it, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That’s good news for a team that’s losing. There’s no game clock and they can keep the game alive as long it takes to win as they don’t make the last out.

But Kairos is God’s time. Galatians 4 says, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Kairos means when the time is right; it means when God, who knows so much better than we do, says it’s time it is; and we run grave risks if when we think we know better than God what time it is.

So let’s think one last time about the theme for this series: “Victory in Sight.” What does God’s victory look like when it comes to pass? Diana and I recently took two of our grandkids to see the new “Lion King” movie, and I was struck by how dark and violent it was, I guess because it’s more realistic than the original animated version. It got me thinking about how many of the stories we tell our kids and ourselves picture victory of good over evil in a violent way? Simba kills Scar; super heroes rely on violence to win, Hansel and Gretel push the witch into an oven, a lumberjack rescues Little Red Riding Hood by killing the big bad wolf – all those stories define victory in terms of a violent outcome.

Is that the victory people of God have in sight? Earlier chapters of Revelation describe the ultimate battle at Armageddon where God conquers evil once and for all. Too often that vision of victory has been used by Christians as an excuse for not doing justice and mercy here and now in Chronos time. If God is going to take care of things at Armageddon then we don’t have to be bothered. It’s not our problem; so we can relax and enjoy our lives.

But that’s not what victory in sight means. God’s peaceable kingdom is better described by those verses of invitation in Revelation. The invitation is to all, not just to some predetermined few. It is an invitation to a time like the vision in Isaiah where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

We live in a time of great fear. Some of us fear gun violence and some want guns because they are afraid of bad guys. Some of us fear immigrants taking over our rights and others fear what it means to refuse help to those who need refuge. Some of us fear unbearable pain but also fear opioid addiction. We have different fears, all legitimate, but we dare to believe this – faith and trust are the only cure for fear in whatever shape it comes.

Diana and I recently did a major renewal of landscaping around our pond and gardens by moving many tons of rock from where the delivery truck dumped it to where we wanted it. Thanks to a generous neighbor who loaned us his tractor with a front-loader the job was doable; and I got the easy job driving the tractor. In many places Diana stood bravely in front of the tractor right at the edge of the pond so she could direct me on where to drop the stone. One small slip of my foot on the brake and she would have been remembering her baptism in the chilly waters of our pond – and I would have been in the dog house for a very long time.

But she stood there dozens of times, as I marveled at how she trusted me more than I trusted myself. But here’s the other thing I noticed – her trust in me made me more careful because I wanted to be worthy of her trust.

It’s the same with God. When we trust God we become more trustworthy in our human relationships. When we trust that victory ultimately belongs to God and that we have no control over when or how then we no longer need to live in fear or guilt. Our God says, “Come, drink, live!” The invitation to live in the Kingdom of God is always there waiting for our reply. There’s no expiration date.

A God we fear won’t inspire faith – but a God of love will. No words, pictures, or stories can capture the infinite reality of God, but Revelation is one vision that helps us see some of the facets of God’s nature. We are all at different points in our life journeys, and none of us can rewrite our personal history. But we can start a new chapter today with the assurance that victory over our fear, our guilt, over hate; even over death itself is guaranteed because God is all in all, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end.

Genesis tells us that in the beginning all was chaos until God spoke the first word into the chaos. There was also terrible chaos in John’s time when Christians were fed to the lions as entertainment for the Romans. And we certainly have plenty of chaos today. But through it all we know who holds the future, and God’s victory is always in sight.

So, who gets the last word? All week long I thought I knew how this sermon would end, namely that God who spoke the first word gets the last word, in the fullness of time. But I realized yesterday that’s not true.

God’s last word in Revelation is an invitation to come, drink of the river of life and live in God’s new heaven and earth. But an invitation requires a response, an RSVP. So the last word is really up to us, and Revelation even tells us what our response should be—right there in verse 20, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Amen

When Oceans Rise

Earlier this year my wife and I joined another couple on an amazing five-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. We even had a bonus stop of 4 days in Tahiti on the way over. So many wonderful experiences it’s hard to even remember them all. We visited the bustling cities of Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney, took a tour of the fantastic Sydney Opera House, spent part of Ash Wednesday in awe as dolphins swam around the sail boat we were on in the harbor of Akoroa, NZ, sailed through Fiordland National Park on our cruise ship, petted some kangaroos and wallabies, saw glow worms in the Blue Mountains of Australia, toured the largest sand island in the world (Fraser Island), and spent time on the beautiful beach called the Gold Coast.

After all that I was pretty weary and getting tired of living out of a suitcase. Our trip involved 10 flights, staying in 12 hotels and a cruise ship cabin, more time zone changes than I can remember (not to mention crossing the International Date Line coming and going). We traveled over 22000 miles, had glorious weather everywhere, and thanks to our friends Barbara and Dave who did almost all of the planning and all of the driving on the left side of the road we were never lost, never had a delayed flight nor any lost luggage!! That in itself is a miracle!

But the best and most memorable part of the trip was saved till the end. All the tiredness was replaced by awe and wonder as we spent three days and two nights on Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of The Great Barrier Reef. Yes we actually lived in this amazing eco resort on the reef! It’s an eco-resort because the owners are committed to stewardship of this natural wonder. They generate 80% of their electricity from solar power and will soon increase that figure to 100%. They desalinate sea water for their guests and staff. The island itself is tiny, just long enough for a bumpy air strip, and only 80 guests are on the island at any one time.

The picture here is a sunset on the west side of the island, one of two places where we could snorkel every day. The south end of the reef is in good shape still, unlike the north where rising ocean temperatures are threatening to kill it. So we rejoiced to see spectacular coral and more sea life than words can begin to do justice. We did not have an underwater camera, and on one level I regret that. But on another I am glad my encounters with huge sea turtles, hundreds of fish of every color in the rainbow and gorgeous, graceful and gigantic manta rays were unmediated by a camera lens. Those experiences are so vividly burned into my memory that I will never forget them.

The rich diversity of God’s creation, the peacefulness and majesty that appeared every time I moved from seeing nothing but water on the surface to simply putting my face in the water was transformative! God’s glory is right around us or below us in this case. All we have to do is pay attention. One day a huge sea turtle swam right under me so close I could have reached out and touched it. These big lumbering creatures on land move as gracefully as a ballerina in the primordial waters from which all life emerged

I have that sunset picture as wallpaper on my iPhone for several reasons: just for its beauty and as a reminder of the inspiring snorkeling we did there in that very water. But there’s another memory associated with that place that I have not really written or talked about much. We’ve been home over a month now, and we’ve told some family and friends about our last day snorkeling. It was memorable for a very different but equally moving reason.

We had snorkeled the day before out by the sailboat in that picture and had a marvelous time. It was the first time we saw manta rays, a real highlight of our time on the reef. The wing span of those rays is 8-10 feet, and even in a depth of 50 feet or more they dwarf everything else in the water. So of course on our final day there we wanted to relive that experience. We were in the same place that day, but what we didn’t realize while we were out in the water was that the current changed. It became so strong that we were unable to swim back into the one narrow opening in the coral where we could return to the beach.

Fortunately we were wearing life jackets so we were in no immediate danger of drowning, but no matter how hard we tried to swim toward shore we were gradually drifting further south, parallel to the coast but unable to get there. I am not usually one who prays for divine intervention in such situations, but I was just beginning to converse with Jesus about what in the world we were going to do when I saw a beautiful sight. One of the glass bottom boats from the resort had taken other snorkelers out nearby, and the captain saw we were in trouble and came over to rescue us.

He picked Diana up first and then came over toward me. When I swam over to the boat and grabbed onto its ladder nothing ever felt any better. The captain asked me if I was ok, and my reply was; “Now I am!” He probably had seen us and headed our way before I prayed, and I’m sure God had. They say God watches over animals and foolish people, right?

And now back to reality; another school shooting, number 35 of this school year. 49 years ago this week 4 students were killed at Kent Stated and this country came to a screeching halt. Now we barely notice. Our Secretary of State makes a fool of himself again by saying (to an Arctic conservation conference no less) that the arctic ice melt is “good for commerce” because it will open up new shipping lanes! I kid you not. Who does he think is going to engage in commerce with when our seaports are under water and climate refugees are overrunning the parts of the world that are left inhabitable? That kind of selfish short-sighted thinking will literally be the death of this planet, and it is of little comfort to me that I will die before the worst consequences of our stupidity are realized.

This week my grandchildren in Houston are reliving the nightmare of hurricane Harvey as their neighborhood streets and schools are once again flooded by torrential rains predicted to last the rest of the week! Does anyone in our so-called government care about these obvious impacts of climate change? No, they are all too busy trying to stay out of jail for their own lawless power grabbing behavior.

I realized this week why it has taken me so long to process our scary experience in the Great Barrier Reef waters. That experience ended well. We were rescued before our plight got really serious, but on a deeper (pun intended) level, who is going to rescue our nation and world from the morass of overwhelming problems we have created for ourselves? When nearly 50% of our population (according to latest polls 46%) supports our lying, power-grabbing president what hope is there for democracy? Many self-avowed Christians support Trump enthusiastically, even though he is on record as saying his favorite Bible verse is “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a verse directly vetoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the. Mount. Yes, the Jesus who says “the greatest of all is servant of all.” Can you imagine Trump trying to wrap his mind around that one?

The Sunday after our trip to Australia our church’s praise team did a contemporary song called “Oceans” that touched my jet-lagged soul. In part those lyrics say:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me”

It is so hard to have water-walking faith when the storms of life are raging all around us. I had a massage this morning, which is usually a very relaxing experience. It still felt good on my body, but my mind would not relax. The hate-filled rhetoric going on in DC and in my own United Methodist denomination, fears about the physical and emotional health of my kids and grandkids in Houston battled for attention in my mind with how to pay my bills and how to keep up with my yard work and getting my taxes done (we took an extension).

And yet in spite of it all the words of “Oceans” still float in the depths of my soul:

“Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”