Commentary on Revelation 1:4b-8
Revelation is not a script for the end of the world.
Three Sundays ago, on All Saints Sunday, worshipers heard the end of Revelation with the new Jerusalem coming to earth where God makes a dwelling among mortals. In that reading from the end of Revelation, we heard that God is the Alpha and the Omega. Now, for the second time in four Sundays, we hear the same declaration again, in God’s own voice: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (verse 8). It is no accident, however, that at the end of the year we hear about the Omegas and Alphas from the ending and the beginning of Revelation. The first is last and the last is first, the Alpha is the Omega and the Omega is the Alpha.
The end of the church year is both the reminder of the end of mortal time and the beginning of divine time. It is the end of our waiting to be a community of priests (verse 6) and also the beginning of Jesus’s return (verse 7). The one who is and who was and who is to come (verse 8). This last statement is not a statement of finality, of fulfillment through singular kingly power, but a statement that God lives in and among our world, in ways that fill history, that make God present, right now and in ways to come, that we cannot imagine. Time limitations without which we cannot comprehend existence do not exist for this one who is Alpha, Omega, past, present, and future.
I will confess that I have difficulty this time of year when the readings and the celebrations of the church turn to monarchical, triumphalist, and even authoritarian images of God and Jesus. It is worth noting that on Christ the King Sunday, this reading from Revelation can sound heavy, even tyrannical, in many listeners’ ears. Our culture spends much time these days flirting with and shoring up systems that give singular authority to one person. What would it mean for us to note that our governmental leaders assert their singular authority with similar rhetoric that we use about Christ on this Sunday?
Particularly on this Christ the King Sunday, we frequently spend much proclamatory energy asserting Christ’s power, Christ’s royal qualities, Christ’s control over all things. This rhetoric is shockingly (if not surprisingly) similar to the rhetoric we hear in politics and business in our contemporary world. We long for assurances of control and power. We long for a king who is on our side. And often, even when we try as preachers to resist these contemporary assertions of singular power, insisting on the alternate empire of God only shifts the idea of crushing power from human to divine hands — which sets us up to replicate the same power structures in our churches.
From the very beginning of Revelation, however, we see an opportunity to undermine these lenses as the text marks a shift in time and space that comes with a God who is, who was, and who is to come. We need not have a vision of Christ as a king on a throne who has minions who unquestionably do his [sic] bidding in full obedience. While verse 6 does draw out the imperial power of Jesus (glory and dominion for ever and ever) and suggests that readers are priests who do God’s bidding, notice that priests worshipping Jesus or demonstrating dominion is not the point. Jesus and God are not the same person in this pericope. Rather Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of earth’s kings (verse 5) — not the divine son or God incarnate.
The richness of this pericope for preachers is the ability to shift our understanding of God in time. While the imagery of sacrifice, kingdoms, and imperial epiphanies (verse 7) suffuses this pericope, preachers have the opportunity to note that God is not just beginning and end but is the divine presence and holy ontology that cannot be erased from our human experience. Revelation itself lifts the veil of our shrouded existence that wants to force peace and security through violence and abuse.
Revelation itself shows the worst of human arrogance in our attempts to subdue the earth, exploit its glorious resources, and control creation’s interconnected systems. The idea that God is the one who is and who was and who is to come offers a moment of hope at the end of a very difficult season for many in our congregations and communities. God is with us in the day-to-day world, not necessarily as regal king or untouchable emperor, but as one whose very being infuses our collective past, our present, and the future.