Sermon 2015-11-22

Revelation 1:4-8

I let my fingers do the walking the other day—wandered the world wide web–found some of this year’s most common baby names given by parents to their kids.  If you mix up the ethnicity a bit, on the boy’s side there’s:

  • Malik, Mason, Gabriel, Noah, Elijah, Santiago, and then Liam–the back half of my name…  Got a whole lotta Liam going on these days…  (Which is fine, but why not just call the kid “Will”?)

For girls, it’s:

  • Isabell, Sophia, Jada, Olivia, Jasmin, Emma

If you want to go a little more hipster with your kid, Elvis is making a comeback (or there’s Jagger)—for girls we’re seeing more Breahs, and even Clementine is returning as a name of choice…  We name our kids the way we do for a whole bunch of reasons, right?—might like the way it sounds—might give our kids a name we always wish we’d been given—sometimes it’s a name that’s been in the family (which is a pretty good way to stay in the will!)…

In the time of the Bible, people often chose names for their babies sometimes based on appearance—names like Esau, which means “hairy” (poor kid!); or Korah, which means “bald” (even more unfortunate!).  Some babies were named for a hope or a prayer of the parents—Zechariah means “God has remembered.”  It may have been something in nature that called out the name—Tâmar (which is a palm tree), or Tabitha (a gazelle)…  It might have been the condition of the mother that inspired the name—Mahli (which means one who’s sick) or Leah (one who’s exhausted)…  (Of course if we went that route, every kid would be named Leah, right?)

I didn’t know this, but biblical scholars have counted over seven hundred different names and titles given to Jesus in the Bible…

I’ve not counted them myself, but if that number’s even close, why, it’s amazing, isn’t it?  Jesus was first named prophetically—got his name from an angelMatthew’s gospel tells us (that): An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream–said, “Joseph son of David, your wife Mary will give birth to a son, and you’re to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”   All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child–will give birth to a son–and they will call him Immanuel – which means, “God with us.”  (And if you remember Immanuel you only got six hundred ninety-nine to go!)

Why so many names for Jesus?  Well, the names serve as a description of who he is—and describe what he does in our lives.  And here in Revelation chapter one–the verses we just read—I count no less than a dozen names or descriptions for Jesus in just five verses: he’s the one who was/the one who is/the one who is to come; he’s a faithful witness/ firstborn of the dead/ ruler of all kings of the earth/the one who loves us/the one who’s set us free from sin by his blood; he’s the one who’s made us into a community (established us as priests to one another in that community); he’s the Alpha/the Omega/the Almighty One.   And all that is because the more names and descriptions we’re given of who Jesus was—who he is—the broader and deeper our understanding is of what God was up to in sending him–and 700 names start getting’ us there!

Philip Yancey, in a book he called, The Jesus I Never Knew, talks about the Jesus he grew up with in Sunday School, as a kid—the all kind-and-reassuring Jesus—Jesus with no sharp edges–a kind of “Mister Rogers” Jesus.  It was a Jesus he felt comforted by as a child (which is no small thing, for a child to feel God’s comfort…).

But then (of course), the inevitable happened, Mr. Yancey grew up–began asking the harder questions–questions an adolescent starts asking—questions adults ask:

  • What was Jesus really like?
  • What would my response to him have been if I lived when he lived?
  • Would I have invited him over to dinner like Zacchaeus did?
  • Would I have turned away in sadness like the rich young ruler did?
  • Could I have betrayed him like Judas and Peter did?

And Yancey says: The Jesus I began to discover as an adult bore little resemblance to the “Mister Rogers” Jesus I’d met in Sunday School.  I learned that Jesus wasn’t tame.  Who knew?  The Jesus I’d grown up with had this personality almost like a Star Trek Vulcan—you know, all cool, calm, collected—walked around like a robot among all these excitable humans here on spaceship earth.  But that’s not the Jesus I found in the Gospels.  No, for this Jesus, other people affected him deeply: obstinate people frustrated him; self-righteous people infuriated him; simple, childlike faith thrilled him.  In fact, Yancey says, he seemed more emotional than other people, not less; more spontaneous and more passionate, not less…

See, the more you study Jesus, the more difficult it becomes to put him in a corner.  He said next to nothing about the Roman occupation (what everybody else was talking about), and yet took up a whip to drive petty profiteers from the temple; he urged obedience to the Law while making a reputation for himself as a law breaker; one day miracles just seemed to burst out of him, while the next his power gets blunted by people’s lack of faith.   He fled from arrest at one point, then marches right toward it at another.  His extravagant claims about himself kept him at the center of controversy, but when he did something truly miraculous, why, he tried hushing it up.[1]  So there you go—that’s Jesusall that!

Tradition holds that the Book of Revelation—the book we just read from–was written by the Apostle John, the youngest of the disciples, now an old man, in the twilight of his life, banished to exile on the prison Island of Patmos, this kind of Alcatraz place, cut off from the people he loved.  He was there because he’d spent his life telling people about Jesus—but the powers-that-be decided that kind of behavior was against the law—meant there would’ve been every reason for John to come here, to the end of his life, with bitterness.  This was not, after all, the way it was supposed to end—wasn’t the life he’d signed up for back when he was a kid answering the call to follow Jesus.  Yet with every reason to cash it in—every reason to settle for disillusionment and resignation, John refused.  Instead, he persevered, and in persevering he was given this astonishing vision of hope, the Book of Revelation, this sense of an ending that is not a termination but rather the reaching of a goal, an end filled with promise and purpose and meaning.

You see, you and I live in the middle of time–the part between the beginning, the “Alpha,” the part where God saw everything he’d made, and behold it was very good—we live between that beginning and the end, the Omega, the new heaven, the new earth–the happy ending to the story.  And some of us operate under the assumption that everything between the good beginning and the good end should also be good, right?  We expect uninterrupted goodness, but guess what?  The good gets interrupted: I’m rejected by a parent, coerced by a government, divorced by a spouse, discriminated against by an employer, injured by somebody else’s carelessness or jumped-to conclusion about me.  Between the beginning and the ending there are disappointments, contradictions, bad decisions, bewildering paradoxes–all a reversal of our expectation.[2]  And John wants us to know that Jesus is the One who holds the whole, agonizing middle together.  Yes, he was there at the beginning; yes, he’ll be there at the end; but he is right here now, too–here to love us—here to make us into a community of faith—here to establish us as priests to serve one another–and we are sustained by him in the middle!

I heard Tony Campolo preach a sermon one time–one he became famous for–one he’d adapted from an older African American pastor at his church.  The title of the sermon was, It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’—maybe you heard it, too…  Once you know the title, you know the sermon, right?  And in the style of great African American preaching, the sermon ramps—up, up, up—ramps in tempo and volume as the preacher contrasts how the world looked for Jesus on Good Friday—when the forces of evil had won over the forces of good, when every disciple and friend Jesus had fled in terror, when the Son of Almighty God died on a Roman crucifix—contrasts that dark day with how the world looked on Sunday—on Easter.  And the disciples who lived through both days, Friday and Sunday, never doubted God again.  They had learned that when God seems most absent, he is closest—that when God looks most powerless, he is most powerful—that when God looks most dead, he is coming back to life.  They had learned to never count God out!

But Tony skipped a day in that sermon, didn’t he…  Because while those two days have names on our calendar–Good Friday and Easter Sunday–there’s another day, right?–the one in the middle–the one with no name–the day most of us live in.  Saturday–the in-between time–the day we find ourselves asking whether God can be trusted—the day the darkness hasn’t resolved yet–in a world that includes Beirut and Paris and Mali and North Minneapolis—a world that includes violence and overcrowded prisons and widespread poverty, even here, in the richest nation on earth–a world of the interrupted goodness of life—of your life, of mine: Can God make something holy and beautiful and good from all that?  See, it’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?

Easter gave us a glimpse of what will one day be, a kind of sneak preview of how all human history will look from the vantage point of eternity–when every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light.  Between the cross and the empty tomb hovers the eternal promise of history: hope for the world–hope for every one of us who lives in this world.[3]  But in the meantime, we have Jesus.  He has not left us alone on Saturday.  And he’s got 700 names to describe how he loves us, how he cares for us, so that with the Apostle John we can say: To him be glory and dominion, forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] From The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 23.

[2] I am indebted to Eugene Peterson in his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, for this insight (p. 8).

[3] Yancey again, pp. 274-275.