"On Saying Something, but not Everything"

October 19, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Revelation 10-11

When I was in Brethren Volunteer Service, I spent a few days in Columbia, Missouri, a guest of the Quaker meeting there. Because of my service project in what was called a "Peace Caravan," they arranged a public session for me to explain what I was about to anyone interested. It so happened that a professor at the University there assigned his class to cover this meeting and write about it, as if they were newspaper reporters.

Now, I didn’t know this at the time. I just thought these were very interested college folks. They were hanging onto my every word, taking lots of notes. I confess my ego was highly gratified - so much so that I covered more than I had planned, going pretty far adrift. They just kept taking notes, and I kept talking. It would’ve been interesting to read some of their reports. A good title might’ve been: "All you didn’t really want to know, and were afraid to ask." The real newspaper reporter was quite kind in his published article. I look back on the event, however, with a bit of embarrassment. I learned from that experience that one can’t and shouldn’t say everything that needs to be said. I’ll try to be mindful of that lesson this morning.

In the scripture reading for this day, John receives a revelation, a vision of what it means to be a witness, what all it involves. Now, in legal terminology, a witness is merely an onlooker, someone who has seen something pertinent to an investigation. On the witness stand, they are called upon under oath to tell what they have seen or heard. The act of witnessing is thus seeing and telling the truth, at least so far as one is able to see it or tell it. That’s not a bad definition for what being a witness is from the perspective of our faith.

There is much to John’s Revelation that I don’t understand, I’ll be honest. I’m still learning and growing, as are you, hopefully. All these images which blow past us at breakneck speed in John’s vision are not intended to confuse us, however. Instead (as I cannot stress enough) they are meant to set our imaginations free. How else can we perceive the coming kingdom of God, how else can we touch the untouchable, see the unseeable, but through the imagination? This is the language of the spirit. Granted, there is real potential for abuse in the area of imagination. Just like elsewhere, everything that passes for truth is not. John, the shepherd who was separated on that island in the Aegean sea from his flock of seven churches on the mainline, was seeking to exercise the imagination of those he loved that they might grow in discerning the truth, separating the junk from what’s really real. Though his immediate flock has long since passed on, we are still among his trainees.

As I said before, there is nothing new in this revelation of his. It’s all been said before. This is the last book in the Bible because it pulls together and completes what has previously been revealed in these pages. It is not a "synthesis" however. That is, if you were making a stew out of all the books in the Bible in a great big cooking pot, what remains after all has been merged and the liquid boiled away would not be the book of Revelation. A better way would be to think of it as the aroma drifting upward out of the pot. God’s people have been cooking the scriptures since day one, seeking to find in them a Word for today.

The aroma of that cooking is the language of the spirit. Can you grasp an odor, put it in a jar and study it? Well, I suppose you can if you did it right, but would it be the same? No. This is true of the book of Revelation. The more we dissect it, the less power it has. It really is intended to be digested, to be eaten or, to follow through on this analogy, to be smelled. It’s okay to mix metaphors, for that is what John himself does. In the same breath, Jesus is spoken of as a Lion and a Lamb. John juxtaposes images left and right, which many times don’t fit together as we normally think of them. In the language of the spirit, however, they do.

In this morning’s scripture John first sees a mighty angel, the description of which boggles the imagination. This is no little cherub prancing around in a diaper. Instead, this messenger reveals the awesomeness of the One who is beyond us, the great "I am who I am." With a lion’s roar this angel speaks the "whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God." John hears it and is about to write it down, if indeed that was possible, but is prevented from doing so. "Seal up what the seven thunders have said. Don’t write it down," he is told.

There is more in our relationship with God than we ever could tell, isn’t there? I still remember a retired brethren farmer in my last church who had just traveled through open heart surgery, the suicide of his much-loved grandson, and the sale of his farm. In the middle of all this, he couldn’t put his faith down into any better words than: "I know that I know that I know." Yet, to this day, I find those very words to be some of the most profound I have ever heard. How do you say all that could be said? You can’t. Words do not suffice. A witness involves more than words.

Words, however, are important. I believe that John was prevented from writing down what he saw when the great angel roared, not because he was supposed to keep it secret, but to emphasize that when we give our witness, when we tell what we’ve seen of God and his Kingdom, we aren’t supposed to say everything. Any good communicator knows that nobody will listen if they don’t want to. Part of the task of conveying truth is enticement, opening up interest. If there isn’t a question in the heart of a listener, what good is an answer? Now, we live in a communication age, where advertizing agents are the high priests. They know well the art of enticement. But what they sell only feeds the hunger they elicit. It never satisfies. As Isaiah asked, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" (55:2a)

The bread we offer as witnesses is manna, or daily bread. It isn’t everything that could be cooked up. It is meant for this day and this day alone. Even so, it can satisfy more than a 20 course meal. Now, forgive me for all this talk of food, especially if breakfast was a long time ago and lunch is looking pretty attractive right now. However, I’m not done with this image. In John’s vision, he is given a little scroll and told to eat it. Ezekiel was given similar instructions in the old testament, the scroll containing what he was supposed to convey to God’s people as a prophet. Someone who speaks the truth needs to ingest it, to eat it, and in so doing to become what they are to say. Brethren have long believed that witness involves who you are as much as what you say. It’s not enough to take an oath that you’re telling the truth. Saying "I will" doesn’t make you a truthful person, even if your hand is on the Bible. You’ll have a chance of being believed only if you live out what you say.

Now, we don’t have to say everything about everything. Likewise, we don’t have to be everything. However, we have to be something, and say something. Like John, we need to eat the scroll, whether that scroll reveals what God wants us to say or do, or what the future holds. Warning! There is a sweetness as well as a bitterness to it, whether we’re speaking of living out the message, or sharing it with others. Our forbearers in the faith knew well that witnesses are often rejected. Living out and speaking the truth is dangerous business. The good new is sweet as honey in the mouth, yes, but living out and sharing our witness can prove bitter.

In the original language of the New Testament, the word for "witness" is "martus," from which is derived the English word "martyr." In chapter 11 of John’s revelation, he saw two witnesses who spoke the truth and were martyred for it. Now, whether or not we see in these two witnesses a foretelling of future events; whether or not we give them names as some have, seeing here a replay of the transfiguration when Moses and Elijah were revealed with Jesus on the mountain to Peter, James and John; whether or not we say these witnesses represent the Law and the Prophets, the revelation and the application of God’s truth; regardless of all the threads we see in this scene which pull our imaginations back to other parts of the Bible’s message, one thing is clear - speaking the truth caused these witnesses to be killed.

Of course, there’s more to the story. The cross could not silence Jesus. He could not be shut up in a tomb. That’s part of the story we love to tell, isn’t it? Just like the stone was rolled away for our Lord, so also these witnesses live on. The tongue cannot be silenced which God has called to speak. Not really. Additionally, there is so much more happening behind the scenes than what we can imagine. John is training us to see beyond sight. Before his telling of the two witnesses, he turns our thoughts to the Holy of Holies, trying to measure the heavenly Temple of God, as if that were possible. After the tale of the witnesses, the seventh trumpet sounds with all heaven breaking loose in song, ending with the door of that Temple opening. There is the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, we could spend a lot of time talking about the significance of this picture. Suffice it to say that what we think is lost, gone, impossible - is not. God is at work above, beyond, and behind the scenes, even when things turn bitter. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to give witness to in this age? Where people think God is an afterthought, or yesterday’s fad, or a piece of religious fiction, on the witness stand we tell what we know = God is real. And somewhere in the process we draw attention beyond us to the One who really sits in the Judge’s seat. God has to be reckoned with, one way or another.

Well, we’ve a story to tell, brothers and sisters. We don’t have to tell everything, but we do need to say something. What we say, though, has got to be real, that is - it needs to be real in our own lives, so that people can see the truth in and beyond us even as they hear it - even if they don’t accept it, even if they reject us for it. That’s all we can do, all we’re called to do. The rest is in God’s hands.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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