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First Things

Revelation 21:1-7
Mark Edwards
May 19, 2019
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We don’t talk much about monsters here at Nassau Presbyterian Church.

The Book of Revelation, which we’ve been selectively reading and preaching from this past month, and from which I have just read, has some fantastic monsters in it.  It tells of a “great beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads” (13:1). It tells of a “great red dragon” with a tail that “swept down a third of the stars in the heavens” (12:3-4).   It tells of “another beast that rose out of the earth” with “horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon” (13:11).  This latter beast is the infamous beast numbered “six hundred sixty six” (12:18).  Interestingly, given that the original languages that John, the author of Revelation, had access to and likely employed- Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew—given that these languages did not use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc), each letter in the alphabet also has a numerical value. Thus “666” could be another way of referencing the Caesar Nero whose numerical total in Hebrew is “666.”[1] We don’t talk much about Nero.

 

The OT book of Isaiah has some beautiful monsters in it: the Seraphim that Isaiah sees flying around the throne of God: they have six wings and cover their feet and faces (Is. 6:2).  These are the monsters that sing “Holy, Holy, Holy (6:3)”  We like that part, but we don’t talk much about the monsters. In Revelation, when these creatures reappear, their faces are uncovered and they have heads of different animals, and they are full of eyes all around their heads- they see everything. Again they are singing, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY.”  If were were medieval Christians living in Constantinople, now Istanbul, worshiping at the Hagia Sophia (built in 537!)- one of the great masterpieces of world architecture (and in fact the world’s largest building at the time), we’d have these mysterious and bizarre seraphim right above our heads on the four main pillars of the church, holding up the massive dome. But here, now, we are Presbyterians and we don’t talk too much about monsters.  We don’t decorate our sanctuary with them, instead choosing the proclamation of the Word of God, which is 1. Jesus,  2. The Bible, & 3. Faithful preaching. We paint pictures with words, not with plaster.

 

When you were a child, maybe you read this book- Where the Wild Things Are.[2] It has great monsters who “roar their terrible roars, gnash their terrible teeth, roll their terrible eyes, and show their terrible claws.”  And then Max says “Let the Wild Rumpus Start” and he becomes the most wild thing of all.  But then you come to church and we talk about Bible stories with sandals and brown robes, right?

 

When you were in Middle School, maybe you read Harry Potter with basilisks, werewolves, that thing that guards the Chamber of Secrets.  There are so many Fantastic Beasts.  But then you come to Sunday School and we mostly talk about the New Testament and church history.

 

Maybe some of you are into Lord of the Rings. It has Nazgul, Mountain Trolls, Uruk-hai, and of course, the  dragon Smog.  These are the best monsters ever.  But then you come to Fellowship and we are all about Questioning Jesus, stories from prison, and Stupid Stunts. No monsters.  Of course, there is the Grog, the legendary feared creature of late night Fellowship- but you all know that I’m the best Grog and I’m not that scary.

 

At Nassau, we don’t talk much about Monsters.

 

Maybe as you grow up, you will  be convinced that the scariest things in the world aren’t monsters, but the systemic evils, thoughtless prejudices, and oppressive practices that prey on the vulnerable, the poor, and those already scared into submission.

 

Maybe you’ll read Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusualem”— I hope you will. Maybe she’ll convince you that real evil is located not in grandiose figures of wickedly epic proportions, with telltale horns, claws, and big sharp scary teeth, but in the mindless bureaucracies that entrench senseless structures of incarceration, that institute dehumanizing programs of family separation and deportation, that care only for the financial optimization of the spreadsheet, regardless of the lives those numbers represent.  Why bother with fake monsters, many would say, when there are monstrous acts of racial bigotry, of active shooters, or of economic collapse in countries we are trying to muster the energy to care about?

 

I can understand why we don’t talk about Monsters. Maybe we don’t want to scare the kids. Maybe we don’t want to scare the adults. Maybe we don’t want to offend the intellectuals. Maybe we simply prefer to talk about policy, ethics, politics, & engagement.

 

I’ll tell you why I don’t talk much about monsters.  It’s because of the hope that gets talked about here. It’s because of the trust in Jesus that is manifested. It’s because Jesus will outlast all the monsters.  For you see, if we are lost among the monsters, “it is only for a little while.”[3]  Someday all the monsters, at least the bad ones, will pass away.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God’s —-self will be with them;

[and] God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

 

The horrific and monstrous? They are among those ‘first things’ to pass away.  They have no future. They will not be.  Their ability to destroy will itself be destroyed. All those consumed, will be made new again.

 

The seven headed monsters, and the dragons, and the cave trolls and all of the terrors they represent? The cruelty of Nero-.  The murderous treacheries of Herod-.  The captivity of the innocents-.   In those ‘last days’ these are all among the “first things” that will pass away.

 

But you know what won’t pass away? This faith that you all are coming here to profess.  I say that to these confirmands, but I also say it to the whole congregation.  These first things, these early steps of faith- these initial promises to understand our lives in light of Christ’s redemptive love, this ‘willingness to follow Jesus a little farther.’ This is something that will continue to happen, and grow, and be built up to that last day, but then, can continue even again.   These beautiful Statements of Faith, which the Session and staff have read, yes, perhaps some of the typos and stories about dropping your brother on his head will pass away, but the one in whom you all are professing your faith? Jesus Christ? Jesus will not pass away.  Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”  And the one you are beginning to see now, Jesus, is the one you will fully know then.  Because the great revelation amidst all the other visions and revelations that are seen by John, is that Jesus is the one who’s says “I am the first and the last (1:17).  Jesus is the one who is the great Son of Man, the ransomed Lamb (5:9), the victorious rider on the White Horse (19:11). He is the one who says “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (21:6).

 

Jesus is, as I hope you’ve learned this year in Confirmation,  the very first “first thing” the first born over all creation, the Word who was in the beginning and who in that beginning was already heading toward God; Christ, the firstborn from the dead; the one whose name will be glorified first above all other names (Col. 2:9). Jesus Christ, the first to love you and form you and redeem you and guide you. This is the great Revelation of the whole bible: that “God was in Christ reconciling God’s self to the world” (1 Cor. 5:19).

 

And your faith in Christ, now in its first things, however small,  it can grow and deepen, and get toughened up, can whimper and fail, and can get kick-started again by acts of kindness, compassion, or plain old I-can’t-account-for-it-any-other-way-except-by-divine miracle.  Christ’s faithfulness to you will lead right up to those last things, so that you are there when Satan, death and Hades is zipped up, when the monsters at the end of this book vanish, and when the final credits role.  Many things in this world will pass away, but these waters of baptism, these lives of faith,  will keep flowing clear and strong:

 

 

Then [the one seated on the throne] said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

 

After all, even Max sails back “over a year, in and out of weeks, and through a day’ to find his way back home where his hot supper is waiting for him.

 

AMEN.

 

[1] See, for instance, commentary on 13:18 in New Interpreter’s Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper & Row, 1963)

[3] “Monsters” by Band of Horses. Songwriters: Benjamin Bridwell / Christopher Early / Timothy Ian Meinig © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.