Easter Sunday 2019
His mercy is calling our name, your name this morning. Jesus has you here for a reason.
Raise your hand if you want an outline. We’re going to turn back to Revelation chapter 1, Revelation 1. If you’re visiting, we’re in a series in the book of Revelation. We’ve actually come just about to start chapter 3. But when we did chapter 1, we moved quite quickly to try to catch the whole vision of Jesus. So I want us to go back and look at verses 17 and 18 for a few minutes this morning. If you want to use the seat back Bible, it’s page 1028. Verse 17, Revelation 1.
“When I [John] saw him, [Jesus] I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Notice this vision of the living One is the key to both inciting and expelling fear. Inciting in the sense of producing what we could call a good kind of fear when John fell as though dead, but then also expelling or removing a bad kind of fear as Jesus reached, out touched him, and said “Fear not.” This good kind of fear/bad kind of fear comes through the contrast in this passage between death and life. You’ll notice the word death appears three times in these two verses – dead, died, death. And the word life appears two times – living and alive. And right in the middle is the command, the main command of the two verses, “Fear not.” So a vision of the living One is the key to both inciting and expelling fear. Why is this? Well, two big truths are important to understand to see why this is so. Number 1, death is the norm for us.
Death is the norm for us. Now most of us view death as kind of an exceptional interruption, like the ultimate interruption to life. It’s not something we like to think about. It’s certainly not the norm, something that may happen to other people. But if you think about how death characterizes so much of our lives, both the fear and the prevention of it, and then also the inevitability of it. But then step back a little further and just look at the big picture, and you’ll see that for us death is this long, seemingly eternal thing, whereas life is just like a blip of light on the screen of darkness. Our lives are so small compared to millennia of death, which seems to be the norm of our lives. So death is our default setting for all of us.
This hit me again last Sunday. Last weekend I was speaking at a church plant up in Greensboro. Matt McCarthy had been an intern here many, many years ago, and God is really working powerfully in this new church up there. My wife got to go with me, and they put us up in a really nice hotel on Saturday night. And when we walked into the hotel, we noticed this big portrait of a man and his dog and didn’t think a lot of it, but then went up to the room, and there it is again in the room. So apparently this guy is important. And I found a little summary of his life and then began to dive into the Internet to find out more.
Who is this guy Joe Koury? His parents were immigrants to the U.S. They ended up in Greensboro, North Carolina. When Joe graduated from high school, he immediately began to build a real estate empire literally. Throughout his life, he and his company built thousands of homes, hundreds of apartments, offices, hotels, six shopping centers. But his greatest venture he began while doing all these other things in the 1960s to buy up property along I-85 just out of Greensboro, totaling eventually 1500 acres, what he called the Sedgefield project. And he spent 30 years purchasing and planning this massive project. In 1996 the first championship golf course opened, what he called East Course Grandover. In 1997, a year later, second championship golf course, so two 18-hole golf courses, the West Course Grandover. Two years later the Resort, Conference Center and Spa opened. This is the pitiful place they stuck my wife and me. The ministry is tough.
But here’s the tragedy. So this finished in 1999. On March 4, 1998, Joe Koury died suddenly. He was 72, less than a year from achieving what he called his grandest vision.
Is this not so often our story? Wherever you go and search out historical sites like castles or go to museums or wherever, you always hear stories like this. Someone worked their whole life to finish. And either they got to finish and then died, or they were almost finished and died or didn’t get to enjoy and died. That seems to be the theme. Like Macbeth said, we are these walking shadows. We strut and fret our hour upon the stage, and then we’re heard no more. That’s it. Death seems too normal, and life appears as if it is a short interruption in a long death. And so in verse 17 when John saw this vision of Jesus, he crumbled as though dead, communicating that if in our state of physical weakness we get a full glimpse of the life of Jesus Christ, it will take our breath away.
Overwhelming. And remember who this is, who this John is. This is John, the one described as the disciple whom Jesus loved. So John knew what it was like to eat with Jesus when Jesus was on earth, to hang out with Jesus, to minister with Jesus. He knew Jesus. But when he in his physical state of weakness as we are, saw a full glimpse of Jesus in his fullness of glory, his life radiating, he fell on the ground as though dead. We need to pause and let that soak in for a second and not just rush over that. Because some of us, in order to have a more user-friendly Savior, tend to shrivel up Jesus into more the size we feel comfortable with. But if our vision of Jesus cannot include a good kind of fear, it will not exclude a bad kind of fear. Does that make sense?
If our vision of Jesus cannot include an awe of Jesus Christ, he’s not just our buddy and our pal and a user-friendly Savior. He is the Lord of lords; he is the King of kings. Life radiates out of Jesus that is so beyond us, that when we get a full glimpse of it, we are as dead. A weak savior cannot defeat the powers of sin and darkness. A strong Savior can. John stood in the presence and then fell in the presence of a powerful Savior. Death is the norm for us.
Number 2, and this is the main point, life is the norm for Jesus. So Jesus sees us in our fearful, fragile state, and he does not cast us aside, he doesn’t give us what we deserve, he doesn’t turn us inward so that we can see how worthy we are. No, he does three things to John. First of all, verse 17, he touches him. He laid his right hand on me.
Think about that right hand. That’s the same right hand that was just described as holding the seven stars, which is the angels of the seven churches, which is communicating the fact that this right hand has authority over all heavenly and earthly beings. The same right hand that was nailed to the cross now rules with a rod of iron, yet touches John gently to assure him, to comfort him. Secondly, he not only touches him, he comforts him with the words, “Fear not.” Jesus speaks comforting words to John. The very same Jesus who incites reverent fear expels paralyzing fear, the fear of death, the fear of suffering, the fear of future uncertainties. Fear not. Fear not. And thirdly he reveals himself to him. Again he does not reassure John by turning his gaze inward, he turns his gaze on Christ himself with three key verbs: I am (communicating his identity), I died and rose (communicating his activity), and I have.
Let’s look at these one at a time. I have the keys. I am, second part of verse 17.
I am the first and the last. These words come out of passages like Isaiah 41 where Yahweh, God’s covenant, personal name is used to describe him as “I am the first and the last.” And the context there is one king named Cyrus, king of the Persians, who was wiping out all other kingdoms. He wiped out the Medes, he wiped out the Babylonians. Isaiah 41:2 says “He makes nations like dust with his sword.” So everybody’s terrified of this Cyrus king. And yet right in the midst of that, Yahweh says, “I am the first and the last.” Who is Cyrus apart from me? He does not begin, he does not continue, he does not end apart from me. None of you today are afraid of Cyrus. None of you are even familiar with him as a person. Kings rise and kings fall. Personalities appear on the front page and disappear. There is only one who is the first and the last, the start and the end. And Jesus now takes on that title as Alpha and Omega. I am the author. I am the finisher. I was before you. I will be after you. Do not fear.
There is nothing in history that begins, continues, or ends that I do not precede and exceed. I am the first and the last. And Jesus is saying this to John in a very personal way. My love preceded you. My grace exceeds your sin. My steadfast faithfulness will follow after you beyond anything you can imagine. Nothing can separate you from my love. I am the first and the last. And he also describes himself as the living One. Again life is the norm for Jesus. Whereas we are born and then die, Jesus always lives. We live brief, fragile lives that are from him, through him, and to him.
He is the source of all life. All life is sustained by the living One. Yet, verse 18, I died. “I am, I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore.” Again for us, death is the norm life, the exception. For Jesus, death is the exception, life is the norm. For Jesus, death is like the train of life coming into a tunnel of darkness, and then continuing right through back into life. He took on our death so that death would no longer be the norm for us, so that we could take on his life. That’s why he says, “I died, but then I’m alive forevermore.” Death was not characteristic, authoritative, or final for me.
Therefore he concludes, I have. “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Hades is another word for the grave. So I am. I died. I have.
Kathryn Schulz wrote an interesting article in The New Yorker back in 2017 entitled “When Things Go Missing.” She compares and contrasts what it’s like to lose an object like your keys and to lose a loved one in death. She writes this,
“With objects, loss implies the possibility of recovery; in theory, at least, nearly every missing possession can be restored to its owner.” What do you do when you lose your keys?
You pretend you’re the keys. You imagine what it would be like to be a key. And where would you be if you were a key. But you’re going throughout that frantic search with yes, sometimes very frustrated, but generally a hopefulness that you’re going to find what you’ve lost. But what Kathryn goes on to do is contrast that kind of loss with loss in death. And looking at it from a nonbeliever’s perspective, she writes,
“Loss is not a transitional state but a terminal one. Outside of an afterlife, for those who believe in one, it leaves us with nothing to hope for and nothing to do. Death is loss without the possibility of being found.”
It’s that feeling that comes over you when you lose something, and you know you’re never going find it again. But yet in this case it’s irreplaceable. In life, we desperately try to reset our default setting. And we can exercise and eat lots of kale and color our hair, but eventually we will succumb to death. And as Schulz is lamenting, when death catches up with us, it’s not temporary. It’s permanent. And what Jesus is saying, and this is where we need to imagine for a moment that feeling of frustration when you’re late for an appointment, you can’t find your keys anywhere, and it’s a mix of frustration with a little bit of hope that you’re going to find them. And imagine death and the fear of death where you suddenly realize, no, actually things aren’t going to get better or things aren’t going to improve, I’m not going to find them. And Jesus appears and says, “I have the keys. I’ve got the keys, the things you’re frantically looking for, what you desperately long for, what you fear will never be. I have the keys.”
This passage has been hugely encouraging to me this week. I spent a few days with my parents this week, and my dad is slowly disappearing into the shadows of dementia. He still recognizes us but can’t get a sentence out, can’t get out what’s inside. And it’s almost like a slow motion disappearing. And throughout the week I had a lot of really good talks with my mom, just about medical cures and research and plans and changes that need to be made and hard decisions that need to be made, and that kind of thing. And along with that the bigger picture of life and how we’re born in weakness and dependence, and how we die in weakness and dependence, how cyclical life is.
But in the middle of that, reading Revelation 1:17 and 18 over and over again, and Jesus speaking into that, saying “I have the keys.” You can search for cures, which is good. We need to do the medical research. You can try to figure out answers, you can plan all you want, which again you need to do that. That’s wise. But ultimately only one person has the keys. Only one person. And keys implies authority to unlock, open up what is not open, and access. Only one! In Christ alone!
As the hymn says,
“No guilt in life, no fear in death;
This is the power of Christ in me.
From life’s first cry [when we are weak and vulnerable]
To life’s final breath [when we are weak and vulnerable],
Jesus commands my destiny.”
I am the first. I am the last. Nothing happens in your life that I am not with you and over.
“No power of hell, no scheme of man,” [no germs or biological changes or political upheaval, none of them]
Can ever pluck me from his hand,
‘Till he returns or calls me home.
Here in the power of Christ I stand.”
Amen? Today Christ is speaking to us. “I know your physical weakness. I understand your fears. But I have come, the living One, to speak two words to you today. Fear not. Fear not. I am the first and the last. I am the living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and the grave.”
So what does this mean for me? For us? We are a people who do not need to be dominated by fears, fears of what we don’t know, fears of what could happen, fears of the future and its uncertainties. And this is not idealism. I’m not talking about pretending that we’re not going to suffer or pretending that death is not going to come. That is not what we’re talking about.
Even now as we worship on this beautiful Easter morning, our brothers and sisters around the world, many of them are suffering for Jesus Christ. Even a few hours ago as churches were worshiping in Sri Lanka there were bombings of these churches. Jesus promised we would have tribulation, promised there would be suffering and death. But what he’s saying is that they are not the final word. That is not the norm for my people. I hold the keys. Remember John 11 when Jesus was so hesitant to respond to the news that Lazarus was sick. He could have saved Lazarus from dying, but he didn’t, communicating the fact that yes, you will be sick, yes you will die. He could have left Lazarus in the grave, but he didn’t.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Whoever believes in me, though he dies, [yes, die physically] yet shall he live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never ultimately die. Do you believe this?”
Yes. This is not idealism. We are putting our faith in the source of life. This is also not fatalism. We’re not talking about fatalism. Because some people would say, man all this talk of death and disease. I just want to watch more TV. I want to have fun. I want to ignore all that. How could I possibly enjoy life if I know that it’s going to end with death? How can any kind of creative art or enjoying family or anything be meaningful if we know it’s all going to end in death?
Matthew McCullough summarizes a Christian response to this question so well. Here it is.
“Jesus’ death and resurrection have purchased freedom to enjoy what you have even when you know you’re going to lose it. Enjoy your vacation even though it will be over in a flash. Enjoy parenting your preschoolers even though they’ll be grown in the blink of an eye. Enjoy your friendships. Enjoy your marriage. Enjoy your productivity at work. Enjoy whatever health you have left in your body. Of course these things won’t last. Yes it will hurt when they’re gone. But they don’t have to last to be wonderful. They’re delicious God-given, God-glorifying appetizers for the hearty and satisfying meal that’s still to come. They are true and worthy foretastes of the banquet spread for all peoples. And Jesus saves the best wine for last.”
So all the good gifts can remain gifts and not become gods, because we know they are appetizers preparing us for the tastes and the joys that one day will exceed all of our expectations.
Father, we thank you that we as your people can be honest about the hard, the sad, the difficulty, the hurtful, the fearful things of life. And you allow us to face those things squarely, to talk honestly and candidly and not evade hard conversations. But Jesus, you step right in the middle of our fearfulness, and you touch us, and you comfort us, and you reveal yourself to us. Father, we thank you. We thank you that perfect love casts out fear, and your love is perfect.
We thank you that you reveal yourself to us as the living One, the one who did die our death so that we could rise with you in life. When your stone rolled away, and your tomb was open and empty, that was a promise to us that our stone will roll away and our tomb will be empty. You have the keys. And so we pray that as we continue to worship you, that you would unlock the chains of sin and death that bind us. That we would repent and believe, repent of the lies which hold us and turn from those and believe your Word.
We pray that your Spirit would transform our taste buds so that we could enjoy the appetizers of life, but not believe that they are ends in themselves, but there are signs pointing the way to the marriage supper of the Lamb, to an eternality that is a life that defies the death that we were born into. Jesus, we behold you, the risen One. We worship you alone. Because in you, fear dies. Life lives. And we thank you. In Jesus name, amen.