"What does the angel hear?"

September 14, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Revelation 2-3

The summer I turned 20, my parents up and moved away from where I considered home. I was working at a camp at the time. When I returned and began a new semester at the local state college, they were 500 miles away. Until their new home was ready, Dad and Mom lived out of their camper, away from a phone. It must have been quite a shock for Dad to receive a call from me saying I was quitting school. What can you do from such a distance? You feel pretty helpless.

The book of Revelation was written, it says, by someone who cared deeply about God’s people who were scattered in seven cities. This man named John chose to faithfully follow Jesus, and it was this decision that took him away from those he loved. Perhaps it was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, when worship of this head of state was actively promoted throughout the empire. Domitian was to be, in his own proclamation, "our Lord and God." To speak otherwise was dangerous, even in what was a religiously diverse society. John would not, could not follow the beat of this drum, and so he was exiled to an island off the coast of what is now Turkey. But he might as well have been on the other side of the world from his loved ones on the mainland.

You feel helpless, maybe even a bit hopeless. I’m sure my folks wondered what would become of their "baby," this impetuous young man in whom they had invested so much of their life. What future was there for a drop-out?... John may not have been the "parent" of those seven churches, but he cared deeply about the possibility of them "dropping out" of the faith. What future is there when that happens?

Did you know that God cares deeply about drop-outs? The Bible is not a collection of stories about highly motivated, successful, faithful people - often far from it. God’s chosen tend to be drop-outs. For some reason, though, the real "Lord and God" sticks by those he loves, consistently reaches out to them, waits for them, chases after them, pounds on their door - until they turn around and drop back in.

On the island of Patmos, John had himself been forcibly "dropped out" of any meaningful role in the life of those followers of Jesus Christ, the ones he so loved in the seven churches. He was as far from the "action" as one can get. However, God has a strange habit of "dropping in" upon such times and places. Often, when we feel the most powerless, the greatest power in the universe knocks on our door. Maybe it’s more the case that when we are caught up in our own worthwhile efforts we don’t hear the knock. John had plenty of time to listen, and what he heard and saw when he opened that door has set the imagination of God’s people on fire ever since.

You are not powerless. That is one of the basic messages of this book. There is so much more going on than what you can determine with your physical senses. Jesus alluded to this many times. In our Lord’s final hours before facing trial and execution, one of his disciples grasped for the last straw as he helplessly watched the soldiers arrest him. That disciple reached for a sword, in reality an act of powerlessness, and cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Think about it. This disciple did not strike out against the well-armed soldiers, or even co-worker Judas who betrayed with a kiss. No, the sword was aimed at a slave. A stupid act of a desperate man.

Matthew remembers Jesus at that point turning to this angry, helpless follower and saying, "put away your sword. All who take up the sword will die by it." In other words, such violence has a power all its own. Don’t fall into that trap. And then, Jesus opened the window a crack to reveal a larger reality. "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father," he asked, "and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?..."

As we make our way through this revelation of Jesus Christ, put down on paper by John, that window will be further opened. There is so much more to life than what we can literally see. Take angels. Once upon a time, angels were part of children’s songs, but rarely taken seriously by adults. Now, in what some call a "post-modern" age, the shelves of bookstores contain whole sections on "angels." Of course, some of these books aren’t worth the cost of the paper they’re printed on. Many speak glowingly of loving beings who help us at every turn, and who are, in effect, harmless. If that were they case, though, I wonder why the Bible always has angels say, "Don’t be afraid," whenever they appear on the scene? Why say such a thing if there were no reason to fear?

According to the Bible, Angels are God’s messengers, not gods in and of themselves. They are not spirits of the dead now performing God’s work - a common misconception. Their purpose, their mission lies in the hand of God. They do God’s bidding. Now, we don’t pray to angels. - our concerns don’t need to travel through them to the One who sends them. We pray to God directly.

The word "angel" literally means "messenger." When John lived powerless on that island in the Aegean sea, separated from those he loved, worried about their welfare, Christ sent a messenger, an angel to open the window of his imagination. "All is not as it seems," was the message.. Look. Listen. God is at work even now, and will not stop until the affairs of this world are set right. John, cut off from others, was empowered by this message..

The first chapter of this message, this revelation focuses upon Christ Jesus. In figurative language which can set free someone held captive, helping them to travel in spirit where they cannot journey on foot, Jesus is revealed at the center of all things: present, past, and future. This Christ leads brother John to those very people from whom he is separated. John’s task, of all things, is to lead those seven churches. Imagine that! Stuck on Patmos, he becomes a shepherd to these folks. He isn’t helpless after all. In reality, he is not separated from them.

The first thing he is led to do is write a letter to each church. When I quit school and moved back to the camp I worked at that summer, my only connection with my parents were letters. As I subsequently dropped back into another college, the letters continued. Those were stretching times for me, and I grew a great deal. I still have my parent’s letters, and Mom keeps mine in return. Letters are powerful medicine, you know.

There were common threads in each of those seven letters John wrote. In most of them, there was an affirmation. We all need to hear a good word about ourselves. Among the most difficult, yet most rewarding tasks your church board undertook at its recent retreat was to go around the room, one person at a time, and hear what others appreciated about them. It took over an hour, and most of us squirmed all the way through it. It was, however, time well spent! Affirmation is important. In his letters, John recognized and celebrated the untiring, unflagging, and vigilant work of one church, the brave suffering of another; the courageous witness of one, the growing and developing discipleship of yet another, as well as the steadfastness of still one more. Of course, two churches were not affirmed in any way. Ouch!

John’s letters were filled with more than just warm fuzzies. To see the good is also to recognize where we fall short, where there is need for reformation. John corrected one church for abandoning their first zestful love of Christ. These believers were zealous about defending the faith, but had in the process grown hard. Another fellowship had grown indifferent to heretical teaching, which John sought to help them discern. He called to task one church for being too tolerant of immorality, another for being apathetic, and still one more for letting their earthly riches substitute for life in the Spirit. Two out of the seven churches were not confronted with any sin.

Each letter contained a promise, actually the same for each church, though presented with a variety of images: a tree of life, a crown of life, a white stone, a morning star, white garments, a pillar in the temple, and eating and ruling with Christ. All are symbols of eternal life, the destiny which completes life begun in faith. All of the churches, even the two about whom John could not come up with anything positive to say, receive the promise, intended as a motivation to "drop back in" if they have "dropped out," and to keep on keeping on.

This is the threefold pattern of spiritual direction which John unfolds in his letters: affirmation, correction, motivation. We need each one of them in the church if we are to become who God wants us to be. "I reprove and discipline (that is, the lifelong task of making disciples of) those whom I love," God says through John (3:19).

What’s interesting about these letters John wrote is that they were addressed "to the angel" of each church. That’s kind of a "funny" way of doing it, wouldn’t you say? I suppose, though, that when you care about someone you have to trust beyond what you can see, especially when they themself are out of sight. Parents, whether consciously or not, depend upon a guardian angel every time they send their children out the door. It would seem that, in the book of Revelation, every one of those seven churches had an angel. I wonder, does this church, that is: Long Green Valley, have an angel? What do you think? If so, I wonder, what does this angel hear?

What are the affirmations? What can be recognized and celebrated as evidence that we are on the right track? What are the corrections? Where do we fall short? How have we dropped out? And have we got our eyes upon the prize, the promise of eternal life in Christ? What does the angel hear? In what ways is God discipling us here and now, like those seven churches in John’s day, to love, to suffer, to tell the truth, to be holy, to be authentic, to be in mission, and to really worship? Are we listening for our vocation? What does the angel hear? What does the angel hear?

1997Peter L. Haynes

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