Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 1:9-20:
(9) I, John, y’all’s sibling and fellow sharer in the afflictions, and kingdom, and steadfast endurance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (10) I was in a spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a great voice like a trumpet, (11) saying, “that which you see, write in a book and send to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
(12) And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me, and, after turning, I saw seven golden lampstands, (13) and in the middle of the lampstands, one like a child of humanity, having been clothed in a garment reaching to the feet and being girded across the breasts with a golden sash. (14) And his head and hairs were white like wool, white like snow, and his eyes like a flame of fire, (15) and his feet like burnished bronze, like they had been burned in a furnace, and his voice like a voice of many waters, (16) and, having in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face shines like the sun in its power.
(17) And when I saw him, I fell to my feet like a dead one, and he put his right hand on me, saying, “do not fear; I am the first one and the last one (18) and the living one, and I was dead, and see, I am living, forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades. (19) Therefore, write the things that you saw, and the things that are, and the things that are about to happen after these things. (20) The mystery of the seven stars which you saw on my right hand and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
I’m struck by how wild this description of Jesus is. There is nothing gentle, meek, or mild about it.
He’s got lampstands lit with fire, and blazing white hair, and eyes like a flame, and feet like they’ve been through a fiery furnace, and a face that shines like the sun at its brightest. Did I mention fire?
He’s got a voice that sounds like a trumpet (v. 10)…and also like many waters (v. 15), like an ocean. Either way, it’s loud.
I spent a lot of time earlier this week working on a sermon on Luke 1:39-45, in which the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, and Elizabeth greets Mary by “crying out with a great clamor” (v. 42). Luke literally uses three different Greek words here to try to describe just how loud and clamorous Elizabeth’s voice was.
More on that to come―I’ll likely post the text of the sermon here next week.
But John’s description of Jesus’ voice reminds me of Luke’s description of Elizabeth’s voice. It’s loud, clamorous, like a trumpet. (Not sweet and melodious like a clarinet…and no, as a clarinet player, I’m not biased at all.)
Since we are coming up on the Advent season and Christmas and all, maybe it’s also worth pointing out that Jesus has to tell John, do not fear―just like the angel Gabriel had to tell Zechariah (Luke 1:13), and Mary (Luke 1:30). Apparently, angels are hella scary. And so is the resurrected Jesus, at least in John’s vision.
The description John gives of Jesus sounds to me a little bit like a description you might try to give when something is, in fact, not at all describable. Every feature of this Jesus is shining brightly, and yet is also clearly visible. He’s got seven stars in his right hand―casual―and a sword coming out of his mouth.
It reminds me of the angels that Ezekiel sees in a vision and tries to describe―the ones with wheels and lots and lots and lots of eyes (see Ezekiel 10:9-14). One gets the sense that Ezekiel was trying to describe something so strange and abstract and dream-like that a coherent description was beyond him.
I kind of like that Jesus has such a stunning, intense, wild appearance in John’s vision. I kind of like that he’s so terrifying that John can’t help falling on his face in terror. I kind of like that he’s beyond description.
These kinds of things give me hope that perhaps John encountered something Barbara Brown Taylor might call “the God I did not make up.”
(If you aren’t familiar with Barbara Brown Taylor, she is a former Episcopalian priest, former “World Religions” professor, and the author of several delightful books. Or, if you prefer her own words, which are more fun than mine, she is a “Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Contrarian”―the tagline of her website.)
In her book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara offers the reader this definition of spirituality from a friend of hers: spirituality is “the active pursuit of a God you didn’t make up.”
Sometimes people make up images of Jesus. In my experience, at least, these made-up images tend not to look like the Jesus John describes.
When we make up images of Jesus, they tend to look like us. And, since Europeans and people of European descent have dominated so much of Christianity for so long, that means that there are a lot of images out there of a Jesus who looks awfully like a person of European descent. It’s harder―not at all impossible, but harder―to find an image of Jesus that has hair like wool (v. 14) and feet the color of burnished bronze (v. 15).
This is an image of Jesus that John did not make up. With all of its fire and flames and double edged swords and great voices like many waters, it’s an image that startles and terrifies him. But it’s real.
There’s so much wildness in all of this. So much that’s beyond our control, beyond our full understanding.
Not only is Jesus’ appearance wild and hard to describe, but when he speaks, he says that the seven lampstands around him represent seven churches (v. 20) located in seven different cities (v. 11), and that the seven stars he holds in his right hand represent the angels of those churches (v. 20). This is also kind of wild.
It’s an intense but also kind of cool way to think about churches: each church―in some sense, whether literal or figurative―has its own angel.
Barbara Brown Taylor has some thoughts about this part too. This is from another lovely book of hers, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith:
Every church really does have its own angel, I think. Some of those guardians are still burning brightly, while some have lost their tail feathers and others are dead though not yet buried. Sometimes all you have to do is walk through the door of a church and sniff the air to know which is which. When I was deciding whether to go to Grace-Calvary, an experienced friend of mine gave me his advice. ‘Be sure you like the people,’ Bill said; to which I would add, ‘Be sure the angel is alive’ (pp. 217-8).
It’s interesting to think about this―not just in first century Asia Minor, but here and now too. In some sense, there may be some kind of unique spiritual entity that dwells in, characterizes, watches over, and empowers each church―an entity that is a bit wild and a bit beyond our understanding, but that is also real, and good, and vital to the life of that church.
I’m not totally sure I know what Barbara Brown Taylor means about sniffing the air. I’m not at all convinced that every person who walks into a given church would have the same sense of whether the angel there is thriving, or surviving, or sick, or dead, or dying.
But I do think it’s worth thinking about. To use Barbara’s words, is the angel of your faith community “burning brightly”? Has it “lost [its] tail feathers”? Is it “dead but not yet buried”? What would these things mean―for your church, or whatever church came to mind when you thought about this?
I wonder if this line of thinking could help us get at some deeper questions about churches and their spiritual vitality than we might normally ask. If we’re talking angels, we’re talking something beyond all the programs, the staff, the production quality of Sunday services, the slickness of the marketing, the quality or style of the music, the pastor’s public speaking ability, the number of people who attend the church.
We’re talking about the spiritual vitality at the core of the community. How open people are to God’s wild, unexpected, sometimes terrifying presence among them. How open they are to seeing Jesus in places and people they don’t expect―to catching glimpses of the God they did not make up, the God who refuses to fit inside their boxes.
May we embrace the wildness of this Jesus we did not make up. And may we embrace the mystery of the seven stars and seven lampstands, the angels of the churches.