Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
There is no getting round it, Revelation is a very strange book. It is filled with weird images and visions. We know they aren’t “real” in any sense that we might understand. But at the same time they are being offered to us as a picture of how things will be! They may not be real, but they will be true. But how could Revelation fail to be strange? It is a picture of the end of everything we know. It is the account of a vision given to John of the end of history. It disturbs us not least because it is an extremely violent picture. There is much in John’s vision that is meant to distress us. But it is also meant to be a vision of hope. It is the picture of the fulfilment of all God’s promises. The violence is the violence of the world being turned upside down, or rather, the world being turned “right side up.” The violence is the transformation of the world as we have known it into the world as God intends it. The violence is what comes before the establishment of the New Creation, which is the fulfilment of all God’s work. That vision actual finishes in the previous chapter (chapter 21). It reaches its end when the New Heaven and the New Earth are established, and in a picture which I think for people who live on an island with in intimate relationship with the sea, the “sea was no more”! [Rev. 21:1] The New Jerusalem descends from heaven and God makes a permanent home amongst human beings.
Then Jesus speaks, in a kind of postscript to this vision of the end of history. He announces himself as:
the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Whatever else we might say about ourselves a Christians, Jesus is and always should be the final focus of our attention. Who and what we are, what we can be, what we should be begins and ends in him. And here Jesus stands and speaks at the end of everything. He stands over the final resolution of all of existence, and he does so as judge. Central to who and what Jesus is, is that he is the final arbiter of everything, he is the “eschatological judge” who will make the final decision, not least over us. In the very final scene of the New Testament, the last words of all the Bible as we have and arrange it, Jesus passes judgement. This is a very uncomfortable image for us, for a lot of reasons.
I suspect the church and preachers have been avoiding this picture of Jesus, this dimension of Jesus’ ministry for some considerable time. And partly for good reasons. We have increasingly grasped the inadequacy human judgements. Even or especially when those judgements have pretended to be in God’s name and on God’s behalf. We know that human arbiters fall short, even when they aren’t operating out of self-interest, which of course they often do. And we are more conscious now than ever of the impact of those inadequate judgements. The way in which they affect those which the judgement themselves have marginalised. We are aware of the injustices which those judgement have created in the world, when they have been made against women, against certain races rather than other, against the poor, or just against those who are different in experience or outlook or nature. But that should not be to forget that the judgement which Jesus brings is a prefect judgement. It is not that human judgement. The violence of the Book of Revelation is precisely the divine violence which has been necessary to turn the world right side up against those human judgements and bring justice to those who have been marginalised in the world. God’s judgement delivered by Jesus brings justice to those groups, to women, to disparaged races, to the poor and to all those other groups who have been marginalised in the world.
But we are even further discomforted when we hear how Jesus is making that judgement. We are troubled by what Jesus says about his role:
My reward is with me
So to begin with we might be pleased to hear that. That certainly sounds like the sort of good news we are expecting to hear. But then Jesus explains how his reward will be distributed:
to repay according to everyone’s work.
This runs straight into what we believe about salvation. It is not what we do that really counts, but what we believe. Salvation is be faith alone. It is grace. What God has done, not what we can do to earn it! As we so often do we collide with the tension between faith and works. We know, and it is true, that it is God who saves. There is nothing that we can do to restore ourselves to God. And we cannot earn that reconciliation. And yet here Jesus announces that the basis of his judgement will be people’s deeds, not what was in people’s heads or even in their hearts, but what people did. For all that we believe that it is faith, placing our trust in what God has done in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, that counts, there is something that we cannot avoid, it is all meant to make a difference to the people we are, how we live, what we do. Even St. Paul, the greatest advocate of faith alone, was very quick to move from that to ethics, the difference that faith should actually make to the kind of people we are and the sort of lives we lead.
Jesus in fact points to those who fall on the right side of his judgement:
Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
Curiously the editors of the lectionary have missed out the contrasting verse where Jesus points to those who have fallen on the wrong side of his judgement. Jesus also says:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
Which is a typically lurid portrayal for the Book of Revelation. It is hard to see why you would want to avoid that verse, since I doubt any of us would contest that those things are bad and should be avoided. Even our human judgement at that point might prove reliable. But we are left with a positive definition, though it is a complex metaphor. It is one of those pictures, where perhaps we might sense what the image means, but please don’t ask me to explain it, short of me showing you the picture again. “Blessed are those who have washed their robes.” Earlier in the vision the angel had challenged John to identify those who were being saved by God. John couldn’t say. But the angel explained that it was those who had been washed, and added to the picture that we have here, by saying “in the blood of the lamb.” [Rev. 7:14] The point of the picture is that there is a need for humans to respond to grace by washing themselves in Christ. In the first instance that image invites us to think of baptism, of entry into the community of God’s people, but the picture doesn’t stop there.
One of the things that got John Wesley into trouble when he began preaching and building the movement that was to become Methodism, was the suggestion that people needed to work out their salvation. For all his emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, which none of his contemporaries disagreed with, he fell out with the church of his day by insisting that faith has to make a difference to the way people live. That is what this image of washed robes is pointing too. It is a complex, perhaps we would say deep metaphor, for the necessary response and action to what God has done in Christ. What God has done is done for everyone, it is offered to all, that is grace. But it doesn’t stop there.
Those who hear need to respond, it must change them. Throughout the Bible, the way we live is symbolised by clothing. As if what we do were the garments we put on. The garments are supplied by God. They have been washed clean by Jesus. But we still have to wear them. We still have to live lives worthy of the faith we claim, in response to the call that we have heard.
And as if all that were were not alarming enough Jesus has a further announcement about all of this:
See I am coming soon
Another of the reasons that we shy away from the visions of Revelation is the effect it has had on those Christians who have been most enthusiastic about them. That word “soon” has naturally inspired some to ask the question “when?” And then they have used the visions of Revelation as a kind of blueprint that will enable them to predict when. They try to match the events of the vision, one for one with the events we see in the world so that they can say, “soon is now” the moment before it happens. The trouble is the world is a violent place, and so far none of that violence has been the violence of God turning the world the right side up. So the predictions of those who have read Revelation that way have usually been rather silly and quite rightly rejected. But Jesus does say soon. Or rather he uses a word that in Greek means both “soon” and “quickly” or “suddenly.” What Jesus says is never quite as straight forward as we might like it to be. But what that word imposes on those who would put their trust in Jesus is a sense of urgency. Our garments need to be washed, and they need to be washed now! Our lives need to be lived as an appropriate response to what God has done for us, and those lives need to be lived right away. Jesus says he will come as judge. And he says that his arrival will be quick. The judgement will arrive suddenly at an expected moment. Which is another reason why predicting when “soon” might be is futile. You cannot predict the unexpected, the unpredictable. But Jesus says he will come in judgment soon. That quick, that sudden, might be right away. There is no time to delay our response, because unpredictable might prove to be now!
Interestingly the very final words of the Bible are left to those who have seen and heard and who are now to respond. They say:
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.
The response of those who have washed their robes, is that they are indeed ready for Jesus to come right away. This actually sets out for us what we are about here. This is what we are trying to do. The whole purpose of us being here, everything we are attempting to do and be, is so that we can become the kind of people who can willingly answer the judge of all: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0