Revelation 1:4b-8 – The Rev. Helen Havlik
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 1, 2019
Being physically or mentally fit means we’re in good condition or health. This summer we’ve been looking at what it means to be spiritually Fit for Life—the life God is calling us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. With fitness, nothing is one and done—it’s a lifelong challenge to get to and stay physically, mentally AND spiritually fit. The good news is we have a coach, a personal trainer, a mentor, a friend, a savior, a faithful witness to encourage us until we finish the race set before us. I’m reading from Revelation, Ch. 1, beginning with vs. 4. Here’s the holy word of God.
When my family moved to Grand Rapids in May 1961, I was just finishing 1st grade. The nearest school was Mulick Park, so that’s where my sister and brother and I went until I finished 2nd grade. At the end of that school year, GRPS told my folks they wanted us to go to Alger Heights as a safer alternative than crossing Burton St. My mom didn’t like that because of some major railroad tracks on Kalamazoo. That’s how we ended up at the newly built Shawnee Park almost a mile east of our house, walking that four times each day because we had to go home for lunch. I’m telling you this, because that was my intro to counting steps. Of course, that’s not what we called it back then. But walking that much every day greatly contributed to our physical fitness. I’ve never been an athlete—but over the years, I’ve jogged, walked, hiked, biked, aerobicized, yogaed, kickboxed, zumbaed, all in the name of my physical well-being. And I’ve taken classes, read, journaled, worked with therapists, cultivated life-long friendships and much more to be mentally and emotionally fit.
Fitness doesn’t just happen. Back when we were all farmers we didn’t have to think about “working out”—tossing hay bales and churning butter had the happy side effect of keeping us in good physical condition. Now we have to think about it, make time for it, find the motivation to keep our bodies and minds healthy. The same goes for our spirituality. Spiritual well-being doesn’t just happen. I’m not talking about salvation—that’s done. Jesus took care of that. What I am talking about is addressing the things that keep us from living the way God has called us to live as followers of Jesus. That’s what we’ve looked at this summer: pride and conformity to the world’s values, making material wealth all important and having a stingy, unforgiving attitude; resisting the changes that keep us from becoming spiritually rigid. Like any other kind of fitness, we can’t take our spiritual well-being for granted. I need to keep physically active every day otherwise my joints stiffen up and I have no stamina for what I want and need to do. So I stay motivated to exercise even when I don’t feel like it. And, likewise, my life seems so much better when I keep jumping those spiritual hurdles, which have this way of popping up. But where do we find the motivation to keep trying to clear them?
When John sits on the Island of Patmos, around 90 AD, writing the letter we know as The Revelation to John, Christians are hunted people, a minority group trying to survive in a pagan world. It’s the end of the first decade of a new millennium and nothing is certain and the future looks to hold more of the same. People are predicting the end of the world—faithful Jews have been on edge since the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and Christians are expecting Christ to come again at any moment to claim his throne as true ruler of the world. It’s a time of testing and tribulation. And then John had a vision. Like Old Testament prophets, his vision was a message to the people from God to open their eyes to the reality of God’s continuing interest in and care for creation. John’s vision is meant to help people be less afraid, more hopeful, more able to stand up for who they are and what they have, in other words, to be spiritually fit to face life as it comes to them. John’s vision isn’t so much a prediction of what will happen as it is an assurance. John’s vision, as wild as it gets sometimes, isn’t so much a script of how the end of the world will play out, as it is a wild and extraordinary promise.
John knows that Christians holding onto their faith need to hear this assurance—they need to hear God’s promises because they are in grave danger of giving up on faith. Depending on where they live, that faith can get them in serious trouble. Like Christians even now in many nations around the world, to profess faith in Christ in John’s day could get you arrested, tried, jailed, exiled—even executed. John is in exile on Patmos because of his faith! Why not just deny your faith? Why hold fast to your beliefs, when you’re definitely outnumbered? Why try to stay spiritually fit when you don’t know what the next day will bring?
Life has a way of tempting us to compromise our faith. We cover our bets, we think it won’t hurt to deny with our lips because God surely knows what’s in our hearts—you do know that I love you, Lord? Too often we get off track and lose sight of the assurance and promises we’ve been given. It’s easy to forget the bigger picture, so John gives us the grand sweep of history and in that bigger picture lies the answer to staying the course. In four short verses, John reminds us of who God is—the Almighty, who has always been and will always be—but not just that—God is a God who comes to us, not only at the end of time, but now. We don’t have to wait to be in God’s presence. We don’t have to be “raptured” to know that God cares for us and is with us as we face whatever comes our way. As Jesus Christ came to us, as the Holy Spirit still does, this God is for the here and the now of this heaven and this earth, even as we are pointed to eternity.
We know this because Jesus Christ is our faithful witness. A faithful witness tells the truth about what he or she has seen and Jesus is the one who tells us the truth about who God is and what God was and is doing in and for creation. Roman emperors called themselves “ruler of the kings of the earth,” but Jesus tells the truth that this title belongs to God and only God. And even more, Jesus loves us (in the present tense) and frees us especially to choose how we live in and respond to the culture around us, including human government. Indeed, we are made to be a kingdom, ministers serving God, the true ruler. Alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, are a short-hand way of saying that God is at the beginning and the end and everywhere in between. And hope lives not in what we see, but in what we trust is true.
Zumba, as fun as it is, isn’t an end in itself. It’s about strength, stamina and mobility—even laughter—so that I can use the gifts God has given me to live a good and meaningful life of service. We clear spiritual hurdles for a reason: to hear God more clearly and to respond by putting what God asks of us into practice. Clearing the hurdle of greed, for example, doesn’t mean much unless we then become more generous. Athletes—especially spiritual athletes—come in all shapes and sizes. Most will say that talent is good—but what really counts is persistence. Clearing those hurdles until there are no more hurdles to clear.