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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 7, 2013


Seeing Rightly

Revelation 1:4-11; John 21:1-14

             Patmos is an island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey about ten miles long and six miles wide.  It served as a prison colony for the Roman Empire, and to be sent to this isle usually meant hard labor and a one-way ticket.  According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Patmos was then a dreaded place, somewhat like Alcatraz used to be in our own country.  It was a terrible place where Rome sent people it regarded as trouble, and it was usually a place from which there would be no return. 

             In this most terrible of earthly places, John had a vision that he wrote down for all to read.  His vision was grand, and full of mystery, but at the very center of his vision was God, who is none other than the crucified, risen Jesus, “the Lamb who sits upon the throne” and rules all of human history as God brings it to fulfillment.  His vision is called The Apocalypse, or the Revelation of John.  It is one of the most glorious visions of the future ever offered, and yet it was written by a man who was in prison, confined to a terrible place.

             In this terrible place, John is caught up “in the Spirit” and given by God a vision of God’s coming, completed kingdom.  He is lifted out of terrible, confining circumstances, lifted up and given by God a stunning, sweeping vision of hope.  And all of this happens, according to John himself, on “the Lord’s Day,” or on Sunday, likely while John is engaged in the worship of God.  From that terrible earthly place John is lifted by God to see the grandest, most glorious vision of the future anyone has ever been given to see.

             We will attend to the words of this vision in a moment, but let’s first note that John was in two places at once – he was in jail on Patmos – a dreadful place to be – and yet he was at the same time caught up “in the Spirit.”  He was surrounded by a deep, dark threatening sea, that in his vision will one day be no more, and yet he was also standing upon a great vision that led him into the very presence of God, enabling John to see things that no other human being would ever see.

             John shows us that we too can be in two places at one and the same time.  You can be, as John was, in a horrible fix.  Perhaps some of you are today in a place you would rather not be.  But no matter where you are or what life has dealt you, you can also be alive and awake “in the Spirit.”  Patmos is most assuredly a place, a real place.  But Patmos can also be a state of existence, a frame of mind.  Patmos can be wherever you feel stuck, trapped by life’s circumstances, imprisoned somewhere dark and grim.  John teaches us that we all can be in two places at the same time.  We can be in our own form of Patmos – stuck, trapped, down – but we can also be “in the Spirit,” with the Lord, caught up in the company of the Lord Jesus at the same time.

             Remember the great psychotherapist Victor Frankl?  He was arrested by the Nazis and brought to a terrible concentration camp where he was treated horribly.  Most of Frankl’s fellow prisoners died under those terrible conditions of hopelessness.  But Frankl survived.  He said that in these bleakest of circumstances he discovered what he would call “the final human freedom.”  He had no freedom at all over what happened to him.  But what he did have was the freedom still to decide how he would respond to what happened to him.  Frankl said that on his way to hard labor each morning, he would not think about the forced, degrading, abusive conditions.  Instead, he would be composing in his mind the book he would write.  He would go over the book chapter by chapter, page by page, all in his mind.  And that kept him going.  In one way, he was a prisoner in a concentration camp.  But in his soul, he was free.  He was finding a redemptive way to use his imprisonment to free others.  He was in two places at once. 

             One of my all-time favorite movie characters is Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption.  Andy is in prison but he is also free.  Shawshank is a terrible place, but Andy also is dwelling in another world, one in his mind, where he keeps hearing beautiful music, and where he dreams of one day dwelling beside the Pacific in Mexico, where “the sea has no memory.”  Shawshank is a place of corruption and death, but Andy is holding onto life.

             Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also held in prison by his own German government for his part in a plot to kill Hitler.  Yet in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote of a faith in Christ that can set you free.  Ever since believers have found freedom and truth from his Letters and Papers From Prison.  He was in prison, but he was also “in the Spirit” and thinking theologically.

             John was a prisoner.  And yet, from his imprisonment, John was utterly free, free to offer the world the most glorious vision of its future that anyone has ever been given.  And notice just a few things that John sees clearly.

             He sees God in three tenses.  Twice he mentions “the Lord God who is, and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  This is a powerful idea!  We all need to see and experience God in three tenses.  We need to be able to look back to see the “God who was,” the God of all of our yesterdays.  Think about how very faithful to you God has been to you.  Look over your shoulder and marvel at God’s providence in your life.  Most of us have not wanted for food or clothing or shelter.  And God has rescued and redeemed us all from all manner of sorrows and losses and trials we have faced, and freed us from our sins.  Jesus says at this table, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  It is as if Jesus is saying, “Remember my faithfulness.  Remember my love.  Remember my death and resurrection.”  This is “the God who was.”  I love to read the great saints of the Church: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, the list goes on.  I find in them a large and living faith, and through them I encounter “the God who was,” and the Christ who “loved me” and “freed me from my sins by His blood….”

             Then there is the “God who is.”  “God in the present tense,” which is one of my favorite definitions of the Holy Spirit.  God is with us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can sense God’s presence.  By the Spirit, Jesus becomes our Eternal Contemporary, and we can sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus!”  Maltbie Babcock was a Presbyterian pastor in Baltimore who died a young man.  But in his short life, he would write these words: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, All nature sings, and round me rings, the music of the spheres.”  “This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”  Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you always….”  He promises that “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  That means right here, right now.

             Then there is the God “who is to come.”  Jesus is, according to John “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  He is “the Alpha and the Omega….”  And “He is coming with the clouds.”  I had a wonderful faith conversation with some folks this week, and they asked me about this central tenet of Christian faith.  I said where it comes to when Christ will come, I don’t really know.  But I believe with all my heart that Jesus will return, that Jesus is the God “who is to come,” the Lord of the future, yours and mine and ours.  And wherever you may be today, on Patmos or on top of the world, you can find hope and life in that.  Jesus is King, He owns the future, and tomorrow belongs to Him!  Jesus has the last word, and it is the best word of all!


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