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Who Is To Come
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
November 25, 2018
A Reading from the Book of Revelation
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.
My thanksgiving was entirely joyful and also kind of a mess. Sarah’s sister Marianne lives in Manhattan alongside her husband and their kids, two-years-old and seven months, and they determined reasonably enough that if the family wanted to gather for Thanksgiving we could come to them, so we had Thanksgiving, nine of us including Sarah’s dad and step-mom, in a New York apartment that could barely hold 11.2 pounds of turkey, much less the rest of us. And Marianne is a lovely host but she’d also be the first to admit that she’s not a deeply experienced cook and so the meal itself became something of a group effort, which, again, their kitchen is not equipped for groups. Fortunately we had use of a friend’s kitchen in the same building, and so my very simple job was to use the satellite kitchen to oversee the heating of the precooked turkey we had picked up the night before. The instructions were pretty simple — you put in a 325 degree oven for about an hour and that’s about it.
But an hour later, about fifteen minutes before dinnertime, I came back to check the turkey and found that the satellite oven had just turned itself off. I know. So there we were, the apartment having been thoroughly rearranged so that the nine of us could sit side-by-side, and the nap times having been thoroughly coordinated so that we could all eat together, and the rest of the dishes being well on their way to punctual presentation, here I am, fifteen minutes before dinnertime, with a 11.2 pounds of cold turkey. Cooked. But cold. And so we sacrificed a bit of presentation. I just carved that cold bird right then and there. And I stuck the butchered and sliced bird back in the oven as long as I could. And twenty minutes later, we had a lovely meal, even without a centerpiece worthy of Instagram. At least we had a hot meal — well, a hot meal with lukewarm turkey — and a warm family to share it with, and for that I am profoundly thankful.
But of course it could so easily not have been. Instead of cold pre-cooked turkey we could have had cold raw turkey and that would have been in its own kind of story. But even that’s not the point. We could so easily have had so much less. We could have been gathering at shelters with so many of the city’s homeless who would not have had a warm apartment to call their own, much less a satellite kitchen. We could have been living on the streets without the mental capacity even to find a warm shelter on what was a frigid day in New York. We could have been on the other coast instead, with families who lost everything to fire and destruction. We could be a family of migrants, or of survivors, or of refugees, without anyone willing to take us in. And then we did that Thanksgiving thing wherein we went around the table saying what we were thankful for and to be honest the question burned a bit like acid in my heart. Of course I value that meal and those people and that moment but also the world is much colder than it’s supposed to be.
It’s not that I can’t say what I’m thankful for. It’s just that it almost feels like an insult. Like, how are the families torn apart by fire or cold or political apathy, how are those families supposed to feel about my thankfulness? How does my thankfulness not just come off sounding like the easy comfortable acceptance of the world as it is? I still want to say thank-you. I was raised to say thank-you. But I was also raised to understand that saying thank-you was the polite way of indicating that the conversation had come to a satisfactory conclusion and in this particular conversation I am not yet satisfied. So what I want to imagine this morning instead is way of conversing with the world around us so that we can say thank-you at the very beginning. And so that we can stay restless while we do it.
The Book of Revelation begins with thanksgiving. Now, the Book of Revelation is a bit of a curious duck, curious in lots of ways that don’t quite yet appear in this morning’s reading, and I will beg your patience to find some other time in some other sermons yet to come to fully explore its wondrous strangeness with you. What I want you to hear this morning is that as strange as it is the Book of Revelation is also, like much of the New Testament, a letter; and, like most of those New Testament letters, it starts with thanksgiving. and even though John of Patmos writing here in Revelation doesn’t use the word thanksgiving itself you can hear its tone in the language of glory that begins the reading: “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.”
God has done amazing things, and this letter is profoundly thankful. But what is profound about Revelation and about this opening in particular is that its thankfulness is also restless. This is not always the case — Paul opens his letter to the Philippians falling over himself to thank them for all the good ministry they’re doing and he’s so busy being thankful that you really get the sense that nothing in Philippi has or ever could go wrong and basically everything is hunky-dory. Not so here. In fact the seven churches to whom John writes his Revelation are in dire straits. As the letter itself eventually begins to elaborate, these churches are worshiping in dangerous times, when most of John’s audience was living under the thumb of an emperor who worshiped himself far and above any civil or moral code, and who did not look kindly upon those who would worship elsewhere. The historical moment that Revelation describes is in no way a pleasant or satisfactory one, and yet it opens with this language of thankfulness.
Thankfulness for what God has done, yes, of course, because the good news about Jesus Christ is still spreading through Asia Minor like it happened yesterday. But there’s something more in this opening. It’s not just thankfulness for what has been. It’s thankfulness for what will be, for him who is and who was and who is to come. This threefold formulation is not original to John’s letter; in fact, historians have noted that salutations involving ancient rulers often invoked a version of this phrase, spanning past, present, and future, so that it would be said of the Greek god Zeus that Zeus was and Zeus is and Zeus will be; similarly for Athena, one of whose statues contained an inscription saying that “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be.” Nor is it unrealistic to imagine that as the Romans adopted these Greek gods they adopted these formulas alongside, so that the gods who upheld the length and breadth of the empire that was dictating terms to these upstart churches were the same gods who were and had been and would be for the rest of time.
But in Revelation, John switches it up. Here, he takes the common language of empire and he inverts it: the one who is and who was and who is to come. The one who is now and the one who was from the beginning and the one who is still yet fully to come into the world. Revelation speaks of God who is not yet done doing the amazing things that God is doing and will do. Jesus Christ is coming. Jesus Christ is not sitting comfortably on a throne presiding over the world as it should be. Jesus Christ is coming to make all things new. This is the whole force of the Gospel in the opening of this letter, sent all around Asia Minor to churches who were living in constant terror. Be thankful to God for what has been and what is. And be thankful to God for what is yet to come — “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him!” Be thankful to God for the unfolding of things that have not yet quite come to pass. Because you can be thankful and a little restless at the same time.
Some of that restlessness is built into the original DNA of American Thanksgiving. Not the story about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans that we heard in grade school, but the story of how Thanksgiving came to be a national holiday. There had been various regional traditions of having a day of thanks but it was not until the fall of 1863, two years into the Civil War, when Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year old magazine editor, wrote to President Lincoln noting that this scattershot regional thanksgiving practice “now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.” I find this striking — not only that Lincoln would see the opportunity in a time of deep division and national fracture to create something of national identity, but perhaps moreso that during the bloodiest and deadliest season in the American story we would be able to contort ourselves into a position of giving thanks. What possible reason could there have been, on fields so flooded with blood, what possible thanks could have been offered?
But Lincoln’s text is just as restless as I am. Yes, there is a recitation of blessings, the bounties of the field and the beauty of the skies. But there is also a hunger. A hunger for something still yet to be. A hunger for something still yet to come. A thanksgiving for the one still yet to come into the world, as imperative now as it was then, as truthful now as it was then. “I recommend to [the people],” Lincoln writes, “that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to God for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
A thanksgiving prayer to the God who is still yet to come. But of course this isn’t just a theology for Thanksgiving. It’s a theology for this Sunday in the Christian year, the Sunday we call Reign of Christ Sunday, the very last Sunday in our liturgical cycle. Next week it will be the first Sunday of Advent, which is the Sunday we begin again, the Sunday when we gather in the darkness to light the candles that will light the way towards Bethlehem, in fact after church today we will gather and transform this place into a sanctuary that looks the part for Christmas, and what we are doing really is resetting everything to first positions, resetting ourselves back to the beginning of the story, taking down the sets from the finale and setting up everything so we can do the opening number one more time. Which means that today, right now, this moment, for the next half hour, this is our chance to celebrate and give praise to Christ the first and last and alpha and omega who reigns where’er the sun, which sounds suspiciously like everything is exactly the way we want it.
Fortunately it’s not quite so simple. T.S. Eliot writes “in my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning,” and fortunately, here at the end, we can see with such clarity that the work of the unfolding promises of God that have just begun. Fortunately, here at the end, we can see with such clarity that this is still not the world that should be, but that the reign of Christ is coming. For families living on cold streets during the holiday season, we proclaim: this is not the world as it should be, but the reign of Christ is coming. For families made into refugees by fire or fearfulness, we proclaim: this is not the world as it should be, but the reign of Christ is coming. For all of us whose holidays are haunted by the ghosts of those taken too soon, we proclaim: this is not the world as it should be, but the reign of Christ is coming. So give thanks, for the reign of Christ. Give thanks, for the interposition of the Almighty hand which comes to heal the wounds of this and every nation and to restore it with divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace. Give thanks, with restlessness, and with fervor, and with hope, to the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is yet to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.