Read Revelation 22:12-21, Isaiah 64:1-4 here.
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There was a young pastor who was still nervous about preaching. One day in the middle of the sermon his mind went completely blank. He remembered the advice he had received that if he lost his way, he should repeat his previous point, so he said, “Behold, I am coming soon!” Still not remembering, he said it again. “Behold, I am coming soon.” Still nothing. So he tried once more, this time with such force that he stumbled forward and fell into the lap of a little old lady sitting in the front row. The preacher apologized and tried to explain. “That’s alright,” said the woman. “It was my fault. I should have gotten out of the way. You warned me three times.”
The pastor said it three times. In Revelation 22, Jesus also says it three times. But these words are now 2000 years old. We’d probably all agree that 2000 years is not soon.
So is the Bible wrong? Or have we misunderstood? Are there no clocks or calendars in heaven?
My default answer is generally that I misunderstood. But there’s also something else going on here.
Today’s reading is the very end of John’s story about his vision in which Jesus speaks to him and an angel shows him the cosmic battle between good and evil that’s happening in the universe. This book is called “revelation” because it’s the revealing, the uncovering of an alternate reality. It’s an apocalypse, which means to uncover.
John was a pastor who’d been exiled to the island of Patmos because being a Jesus follower wasn’t ok with the Roman government. John pastored seven churches. All of them were struggling to hold on to their faith in a world that was hostile to them. In this book of Revelation there is encouragement to those churches to work on the things that need work, and to not lose sight of the bigger picture, the spiritual battle being waged across time and space.
To these struggling churches, Jesus says, “Hold on. I’m coming soon, and I’m bringing your reward for your faithfulness. It’s me, Jesus, the alpha and omega, the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
And Jesus reassures them that God’s ways will last. The words of the Torah about the value of God’s word still apply. Jesus, who is the word made flesh, says, “Don’t add to or take away from these words.” (Rev 22:18-19) Because, as God had promised through the prophet Isaiah, “Grass dries up, and flowers wither, but the word of our God will last forever.” (Is. 40:8)
Just like the first century churches, in Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power, the churches there needed encouragement. At our last presbytery meeting, Dr. Jo Ella Holman, PCUSA mission liaison, told us how the churches in Cuba dwindled during that time of persecution. A pastor might show up to preach and only find one or two people had come, but they worshipped anyway. And they kept on meeting through many lean years. And then, surprisingly, in 1998 Castro allowed a pope to visit, and the laws were loosened enough that people could go to church again, and they discovered that there was a spiritual hunger that drew people to church in growing numbers.
Jesus says, “Hang in there. I’m coming soon.”
John’s apocalypse reveals an alternate reality that stirs our imagination and makes us wonder if maybe time is really just an illusion. It goes quickly when we want it to go slowly and vice versa. We can measure it and track it with clocks and calendars, but in reality, time is in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15).
We don’t know when, and we can’t do anything about that, so we’re supposed to wait for God to act. But it’s hard to wait. That’s what we hear being expressed in our reading from Isaiah. He’s calling on God to act now. He says:
Do you still love us, God? Why did you let us turn away?
We had it good for awhile, but that is gone.
Sometimes it almost seems like that time never happened.
It would be awesome if you would do something dramatic again like you did before.
You are amazing, God. But we keep goofing up. Is there any hope for us?
We are such a mess and it seems like maybe you have given up on us.
But we are still your people, so, God, make us whatever you need us to be.
Don’t give up on us, God, and help us to not give up on you.
Eugene Peterson, the pastor who wrote the Message version of the Bible, calls this waiting on God “apocalyptic patience.” Waiting on God to do the big things that only God can do, and in the meantime taking the action we need to take. Peterson says that “Apocalypse is arson” because it “rips the veneer of cliché off our everyday routines and reveals the side-by-side splendors and terrors of heaven and hell.”
Apocalyptic patience is trusting that God is working, and prayerfully, urgently watching for windows of opportunity….kind of like NASA doing moon launches. In the movie Hidden Figures we learned about the mathematicians who spent hours calculating the launch windows for the Apollo missions. It might seem like it would be simple to shoot for the moon. We can see it from Earth. It’s a pretty big target. But the Earth is not still, it’s spinning at 1000 miles per hour, and it’s also moving around the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour. The moon is also moving, so they had to do some very complicated math to find the windows of opportunity when everything lined up just right. There would be only a few days in any given month when the coordinates lined up, and only a few hours in those days. If they missed one, they had to wait until the next one before they could try again.
God gives us windows of opportunity in our lives. Our lives are constantly changing in big and small ways. We need to be using apocalyptic patience to wait for and seize the windows of opportunity to do the good things God is calling us to do. If we hesitate, we’ll miss it, and we’ll have to trust that God will provide another one. Sometimes God will, but sometimes those circumstances were unique and they won’t happen again. For example, there are times when we suddenly feel compelled to pray for a person or a situation. We need to act on that right away, even if we don’t know exactly why. We won’t always get to know why, but sometimes God blesses us with a glimpse, an apocalypse. I have a friend who woke up one night feeling compelled to pray for a friend. She didn’t know why, but she prayed. A few days later, she found out that the friend had been awake that night struggling with feelings of deep despair and fear, but then felt comforted and reassured, and was able to go back to sleep. Those feelings of comfort happened at the same time that my friend was praying.
Why does Jesus tell us repeatedly that he’s coming soon? To give us a sense of urgency, so we won’t put off doing important things. Life can change in an instant, and when it does, our perspectives and our opportunities also change. If we believed Jesus was coming a week from Thursday, what would we make sure to do?
We put off doing hard things. All the messiness of life can be lurking in the background for years, but becomes suddenly critical when someone is on the verge of death. There was a man who’d had a heart attack and was about to have bypass surgery. His next-of-kin would need to make decisions if something went wrong. He wanted the woman who came in with him to be the one to make decisions, but she was his girlfriend, and he was still married to a woman he hadn’t seen in several years. Because they’d never resolved the legalities, the estranged wife was still the legal next-of-kin. (She might choose to unplug him.) It hadn’t seemed urgent to take care of this before. But now it urgently needed to be reconciled.
Reconciliation is critically important – in our relationships with one another, and, most importantly, with God.
In our reading today, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes so they may have access to the tree of life and enter the city by the gate.” (Rev. 22:14) “Washing our robes” is a poetic way to describe being made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ. If you’ve never said yes to Jesus, don’t put that off. If you’ve turned away from God, now is the time to turn back. If you know a step you’ve been needing to take, do it today.
The reality is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. When Jesus says, “Hey, listen up, I’m coming soon,” it’s a call to us to be reconciled to God and to one another, and to prioritize. We need to make sure we’re taking care of the things that matter. I love how the apostle Peter, in his letter, explains what’s important. He says:
The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. (1 Peter 4:7-9)
You know what he’s saying there? Eat, pray, love. LOVE!
In the 2007 fantasy romance movie Stardust, a young man named Tristan ventures into the realm of the fairies on a quest to retrieve a fallen star. He expects to find a hunk of rock, but instead he finds a girl named Yvaine who is grumpy about being yanked out of the sky. She is the fallen star, and Tristan has no idea what that means, but others do and are chasing her, so he helps her avoid them. Along the way, Tristan gets turned into a mouse by a wicked witch. Yvaine doesn’t know whether either one of them will be able to escape the witch and live another day, so she makes the most of the opportunity to tell Tristan she loves him.
God’s unconditional love is there for us all. We never know what tomorrow will bring, and we too need to take every opportunity to tell people we love them, and to tell them that God loves them.
“I’m coming soon” is a call to trust in God’s unconditional love that is available through faith in Jesus, and a call to keep on doing the right thing because your reward is coming. And it’s a call to be vigilant in watching for and acting on windows of opportunity to be reconciled with God and with one another so that you can do the most important things, eat, pray, love.
Some things take time and for those we have to wait, but let’s wait with apocalyptic patience, trusting God who alone knows the time for everything, and watching for opportunities to say a prayer, say I love you, and take the steps we need to take, as we follow Jesus on into eternity.
 Stephen Bramer, The Bible Reader’s Joke Book: A collection of over 2,000 jokes, puns, … (Kindle, 2016)
 and Jesus told us that only God knows when the end will come (Mark 13:32).
 Krabbe paraphrase of Isaiah 63:15-64:9
 Eugene H. Peterson. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Kindle Location 367). Kindle Edition.