The End Is The Beginning – sermon on Revelation 1:4b-8

November 21, 2021
Christ the King B

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1:4b-8)

The Alpha and the Omega … the “A to Z” … the beginning and the end: God is the one who is and who was and who is to come – in other words, God is beyond time. This is a pretty big idea for us to get our heads around. We often think in linear terms, so A to Z means a finite string of letters to us, not an all-encompassing understanding of everything that ever was or is or ever will be.

To consider the eternal nature of God, it might be helpful to connect the ends of that string so they make a circle that continues without end. But then, we are faced with a new dilemma. The beginning and the end are suddenly at the same point on the circle.

And that’s exactly the idea John’s revelation on the island of Patmos is supposed to give us. God’s beginning and end are the same exact thing – and yet, God has no beginning and no end. God is the beginning and the end of everything.

Is your head spinning yet?

Let’s take a step back, and remember the people John was writing to from exile, and what they were experiencing at that time. Imagine what it must have been like for Christians living in what was then called Asia toward the end of the first century. Rome had grown increasingly powerful, and had made life increasingly difficult for anyone following the Way of Jesus.

There was great pressure to worship the emperor, Caesar Domitian. He insisted on being called “Lord and God.” Christians who refused to do so were persecuted. Some had been killed. John has been sent into exile.

For those first century Christians left without a pastor, it must have been tempting to give in to the pressure, to try to find some way to compromise their faith with Roman culture. But then a letter comes from John. He encourages the church to remain faithful to Christ, by showing them what is coming.

John shares the vision that has been revealed to him. It’s a vision of heaven – not necessarily the future, but heaven as it exists right now in a realm just outside earthly awareness. It may look like the Romans are beating the snot out of the church, but the view from heaven is quite different. The battle is already won. The Alpha and the Omega is seated on the throne of heaven, and the heavenly perspective is glorious.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was going through a period of heavy stress. I knew he was up to his eyeballs in work deadlines and some added duties he’d been assigned. His family was facing some difficult decisions, and it seemed like everything had piled up on him all at the same time. I asked him, “How are you, … really?”

He gave me one of the most peace-filled smiles I have ever seen, and he said, “I am at the end of myself.” He went on to explain that he was exhausted, primarily because he’d been trying to manage everything under his own power. When he realized he had nothing left, there was nowhere else for him to turn but to Jesus.

Releasing his worries and his deadlines and his ever-growing “to do” list into Christ’s care had given him an amazing sense of peace. When he’d come to the end of himself, he’d come to the beginning of grace. His Omega became God’s Alpha. He realized that it’s only when we reach the end of ourselves, that God begins making us new.

We are at the end of the church year. The disciples we’ve been following through Mark’s gospel have reached the end of their time with Jesus on earth. John in exile on Patmos was at the end of his life, and his church was at the end of its resources. What was true then is still true. When we reach the end of ourselves, God begins making us new.

This opening to the book of Revelation tells us three things to encourage us when we reach the end of ourselves. It tells us who Jesus is. It tells us what he’s done for us. And it tells us how to respond to that gift of grace.

Who is Jesus? He is “the faithful witness.” What he says is true. The Greek word that means “witness” is “martus.” It’s root is where we get the word “martyr.” We’ve come to associate that word with persecution, or even dying for one’s faith. But it really means giving testimony, as you would if you were called to be a witness in a court of law. Jesus is the faithful witness. What he says is true. You can depend on him when you come to the end of yourself.

He is “the firstborn of the dead.” Isn’t that an interesting way to put it? Firstborn, not just “formerly dead” – this isn’t some kind of zombie existence. Death is necessary for birth to new life. Death to ourselves – coming to the end of our own capacity – is required if we are to be made new in Christ Jesus.

He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” This was especially important for those first century Christians to hear. Even Domitian had to bow to Jesus the Christ. It was a bold claim in that time to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Making such a claim meant you could lose your life. In our own time, it’s just as important for us to remember that Christ is the ruler of all earthly rulers. He’s got this. This is who Jesus is.

Once he has established who Jesus is as faithful witness, firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of all earthly rulers, John goes on to describe Christ’s work, and he uses two different tenses in the same sentence. First of all, Jesus loves us. That’s present tense. It’s right here, right now.

John goes on to tell us that Christ has freed us from our sins by his blood. This freeing us from our sins uses grammar we don’t really have in English. It means that Jesus has completed the work in the past, but the effects carry forward into the future. Christ did free us from sin on the Cross once and for all, so that we can remain free from sin into eternity. Isn’t that amazing?

And then, John tells us, he “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” This is not just something Christ has done on our behalf. We aren’t mere spectators in this drama. Christ invites us to participate as citizens in his kingdom, fully authorized as priests under Christ’s reign. Just as Jesus came to the end of himself on the cross, so that God could begin to create something new – a kingdom where Christ reigns over all rulers, and over all creation – so we come to the end of ourselves in order to join in the reign of Christ.

How do we do that? The same way Jesus did. We live our lives as faithful witnesses to a heavenly reality that reshapes our view of the world, and the trouble we experience in this world every day. We come to the end of ourselves, taking up our crosses to serve others in a sacrificial way. And we claim Jesus as Lord, recognizing that when we reach the end of ourselves, God begins making us new. We “make it our life’s goal to bring others into his reign of love and praise, which will last forever.”[1]

You see, our primary identity, the one we claim when we come to the end of ourselves, is “beloved child of God.” This is the only identity that matters. Not “church member” or “committee chair” or even “pastor.” All of us, each of us is a beloved child of God. We only have to choose to claim that identity by coming to the end of ourselves, and surrendering to Christ.

If you are ready to claim with all your heart that “Jesus is Lord,” Christ is ready to free you from your sin, your pain, your guilt, your shame, your doubt, your anger, your despair. In fact, he’s already done that work. Now it’s up to you to accept this gift, with effects that continue into the future, your future in the Kingdom of God. Because it’s only when you can come to the end of yourself that God can begin to make you into something new.

[1] Peter M. Wallace, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, 331.

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