"The Last (and first) Word"
Message preached May 27,
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Revelation 22:12-21
Order of Worship
When Karenís grandfather died several years ago, his second son shared a good word at his funeral that I will never forget. You see, back in the 1940's Pappy (as we called her grandfather) went away to war, as so many of his generation did. He left behind a wife and three young children.
Uncle Ed remembered well the day that Pappy left. As Grammy did not drive, Pappy took the family car, parked it in the garage, jacked up the wheels and placed blocks under the axles. In his leaving, it seemed as if their life together as a family was also put up on blocks, waiting for his return. It wasnít easy getting by, what with wartime rations, and single parenting. But they survived, and so did Pappy.
Uncle Ed also vividly remembered the day Pappy came home - the joy of reunion and the getting to know each other again, especially difficult with the youngest who was but a baby when he left. Taking that car off the blocks and out of the garage was a symbol of a brand new day for the Eckman family. Christ [short i] - that was Pappyís name - had come home.
Gathered as Christís [short i] - and Christís [long i] - "dearly beloved" in that funeral home, Uncle Ed spoke about how we were now "putting the car back up on the blocks," as we laid Pappyís body to rest. However, the day will arrive, he said, when that vehicle will come down off the blocks and weíll be reunited with him. On that last day (or will it be the first day?) the dead in Christ will rise, as promised (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - a new beginning. Resurrection!
I love that illustration, an appropriate one for this weekend of remembrance. This isnít merely the start of the summer season, you know. Memorial Day was originally set aside as a time to remember and honor those who died on both sides in that not-at-all Civil War between the states, when brother fought against brother in our sharply divided nation. Initially, the day was meant for healing and reconciliation. In "decorating" the graves, those who remained pledged to live in such a way that there would be no more war, no more casualties. They did not worship the god of war, but rather looked toward the Prince of Peace.
Looking toward the Prince of Peace... That is the focus of the last book of the Bible, something we need always to remember when we approach this revelation of John. It is all-too-easy to become lost amid all the imagery of this letter from John on the island of Patmos to the churches for whom he was still a bishop, an "overseer," even in exile. We can focus upon this vision of John in such a way that our eyes are taken off of God. Instead, we can wrap ourselves up in predictions and calendars of end-time events, such that we lose track of the One who is the Lord of time itself. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." (22:13)
"Behold, I am coming soon" (22:12). Thatís what Jesus said to John in his revelation. Thatís what our Lord says to us. I think back to that family automobile Pappy put up on blocks when he went away to war. Iím sure he promised his wife and children that he would return, even though he had no way of guaranteeing it. No doubt that was his intention, but he could have been buried in a distant cemetery in a foreign land like so many of his contemporaries who didnít make it home.
"I am coming soon," Pappy may have written in a letter home. And when that promise became reality, the car came off the blocks. Is that like it is with Jesus? Not really. Like all images, this illustration has its limits. In the first place, the promise that lies behind it is not in doubt. This is not merely the intention, the desire of our Lord, that he hopes to some day return - if he doesnít die on some distant battlefield. No, as the faith we have received tells us, the real battle is over. Indeed, Jesus did die, but his death was the beginning of the end of sin and death, of the evil One and the principalities and powers that darken this world. Rising from the tomb was the end of the beginning. No more would the outcome be in question.
As our Lord returned to his disciples on the first Easter Sunday, so surely will his promise be fulfilled to return on that last day, which will really be the first day of the rest of eternity. The outcome is not in doubt. We donít need to wonder if the family automobile will ever come off the blocks and run again. Itís a sure thing, almost as if it has already happened.
While I love Uncle Edís illustration, thereís a second reason why it doesnít exactly fit this promise of our Lord to return. You see, this image implies that our family life as sons and daughters of God in Jesus Christ is put on hold until he returns. That simply is not the case, is it? Yes, we live now with a sense of incompleteness, that all is not as it one day will be, that our existence in this world is temporary - but a fragment of the fullness that one day will be, merely a skeleton of what God will bodily resurrect beyond our wildest imagination.
However, our life in the here and now is not just a matter of marking time. We are not up on the blocks, put on hold until he returns. In the first place, Jesus is not absent from us. The One whom he promised to send is with us always, his presence in Spirit. This Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, is like the gas and the air and the spark that explodes in the piston of the vehicle that makes it go. This Holy Spirit is like the coolant and the lubricant that helps the parts to move, the force that makes the wheels go round... No, life in the here and now isnít time put on hold waiting for the Lord of time to return.
Secondly, in this time between the first Easter and the last day, God is not at rest. The great "I am" is not up on blocks, either. Sometimes thatís how we may feel in a world where rotten things still happen. "Get off your almighty throne and do something, Lord," we can cry out in despair in our darker moments. However, this throne is nowhere in the Bible portrayed as "up on blocks," powerlessly watching and waiting. No, God is living and active.
Around this throne is continually voiced these words, "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (4:8, see also 1:8). Please note, itís not just "who was," as if God is some ancient deity derived from humanityís long ago subconscious yearnings, a myth not relevant to this modern age. Hardly! This One "who was" also "is." Not only "was" and "is," moreover, the Lord God "is to come."
It might be helpful at this point to remember that there are two words for "time" in the language of the New Testament. The first is time as we usually approach it - "chronos" time. Chronological time. Time which is lived out second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year... We can measure it, count it - though when the psalmist implores God to "teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart" (90:12), I donít believe that the learning of real wisdom is discovered in the numbering of units of measure that make up chronological time. Another perspective is needed.
"Kairos" is the second word used in Greek for "time." Kairos time is not something you quantify. There is no clock that measures it, no calendar that you can mark off the days with an "x." That doesnít mean it isnít real. Would you tell a woman with a tiny seed of life growing within her that her baby is not real because you canít yet see evidence of it? Of course not! One of my seminary professors used to translate "Kairos" as "pregnant time." Now, granted, there is a measurable aspect to pregnancy. But I tell you, that baby will come when itís ready to come - not when some calendar says itís time.
Kairos time is time full of Godís possibilities, which come to birth when they are ready. But this doesnít mean that the "baby," so to speak, isnít real and growing, does it? Of course not! Godís coming kingdom is growing all around us, even within us. Thatís what the final book of the Bible is trying to get across. This very moment (not just in some far off tomorrow, but this very moment) is pregnant with what God is up to in this world and the next. "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." The car isnít up on blocks. No, the motor is purring, the clutch is in, and the light is changing. This is the moment in which we are living right now. Itís Godís time.
How easily we forget, though. Thatís why we get together - to remember. Not just to get nostalgic over long ago times, to open our history books to the way things once were / maybe, to see how God was but no longer is. To the contrary, this is a living story that is moving toward its fulfillment. We also gather to celebrate. But our celebration isnít lost in the nitty-gritty of the daily grind in which we presently find ourselves. Uh-uh, we rejoice that there is purpose and meaning to our lives now, that we have past roots and future wings, and these are gifts from God.
Furthermore, we come together to look forward to the One who will make all things new, no doubt about it. That doesnít mean that we get lost in speculation over when things are going to happen, or the exact details of how God will complete what he started in the beginning. No, in the here and now we look toward the One who is the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and in expectation sing, "Maranatha," "Come, Lord Jesus" (22:20c).
"Maranatha" is a kairos word. Itís a future word, yes, for the "birth" day of the kingdom is not yet - but itís coming soon, very soon. Thereís an urgency to it, but weíre not panicked. We know the day will come when the time is right - not one minute before, not one minute after. "Maranatha" is also a past word, for in this coming the loose ends of our story will be woven together. God has been sewing worn and faded patches to one another and, with a quilterís thread, will connect what has felt torn and frayed, making something new and beautiful.
"Maranatha" is, finally, a present tense word, for Jesus "comes" into this very moment. "It is no longer I who live," wrote the apostle Paul, "but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). The car isnít really up on blocks, is it?
The song "Soon and very soon" (#611) lifts up a few of the promises of his coming as revealed in this last book of the Bible - no more crying, no more dying. The focal point remains clear throughout, however - "we are going to see the King." Letís stand and sing.
©2001 Peter L. Haynes
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