The book of Revelation is famous for being filled with visions of judgment, bowls of wrath, a murderous dragon, an anti-Christ, death, pestilence, famine, plague, wars, and the literal end of the universe as we know it.
It’s probably the last place you would think to turn in these trying times.
If that’s how you feel, it may come as a surprise then that the first two words out of the mouth of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation are these: “Fear not.”
In moments like this, many of us turn to news anchors. We turn to our favorite political commentator. We turn to memes. We turn to our favorite online news media platforms. We turn to Facebook friends or Twitter personalities.
We are hoping that someone will tell us the coronavirus is on its way out. Or tell us that it’s a problem in Italy or Spain or China or even New York City, but not here in my town. Or we hope laughing about the pandemic will make it less real.
And you know what? Those things might work this time. The pandemic might never touch you personally, and years from now we might all laugh together about how seriously we took things: “Remember that time we cancelled church and schools and the whole world…for a little cold!” (At this point, I seriously doubt it.)
And all those ways you coped with your fear worked. The politicos proved to be right. The memes were hilarious. And no one you knew was seriously affected by the disease. And everything returns to normal. And we all felt a little silly for being so serious about something like the possibility of death.
But there will come a time when nothing—not the talk show host, not the comfort of your favorite Facebook group, no blog posts, not even the comfort of your own friends and family will quell the deep fear rising up.
When you get the news that your kid—the one you raised in church all his life—is getting divorced from his wife of 15 years. When your boss tells you that after 28 years of faithful service, your job is being eliminated. When you get that second, third, fourth opinion on your cancer diagnosis, and you’ve got 5 months to live. Or worse, your spouse is gone. Or your own child.
I’m talking fear. Real fear.
Fear is the sudden, abiding, unshakeable realization of your finitude. Of the extiguishability of your existence. That you can be here fully alive, and in one breath, on the floor. Gone.
John the Revelator came face-to-face with fear–with his own frailty as a creature—not by coming face-to-face with tragedy or cancer or the coronavirus but with his Creator.
On the Lord’s Day, says John in Revelation 1, he was worshipping the Lord in the Spirit, and suddenly a voice explodes behind him like a trumpet. That voice immediately begins issuing decrees and commands: “Write this down. Everything I say, and send it to my seven churches.”
John turns to see who it is, and there standing in a robe bright as lightning, glittering with ineffable holiness, spotless righteousness, and almighty power is Jesus Christ.
His voice roars louder than a thousand Niagaras. His words pierce with the precision, power, and potency of a razor sharp sword. His power radiates to the end of every strand of hair in blinding, white-hot perfection.
John looks into the light of a thousand burning suns. He sees Life in the flesh.
“I beheld him.”
I, finite, dead in less than a heartbeat, gone and forgotten in a breath creature, came face-to-face with my eternal, unconquerable, now and forever Creator.
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). I fell at his feet as though dead. No fear compares–not the fear of coronavirus, or the fear of a cancer diagnosis, or the fear of that tragic phone call, or the fear of economic uncertainty, or the fear of losing a spouse, or all of those fears combined. Nothing compares with the fear of beholding the Radiant Risen Christ in all his glory. Because when you do, and you will one day, you will be aware of your own mortality in a way that is inconceivable to our human minds.
This isn’t a fear we run from. This isn’t a fear we try to ignore. This isn’t a fear we laugh off. This is real fear.
In moments like these, when a pandemic may or may not be coming to our town, when we get a taste of that fear, even just for a moment, we do well not to try to squelch it–but to savor it–because this fear is telling us the truth. If something is not done for us, on the day we behold him, the Son of Man, we will not merely fall as though dead. We will fall dead.
As John fell to the ground and the life drained from his feeble frame…
…a hand reached out to catch him.
“But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not…’” (1:17). The very Son of Man—the One whom John glimpsed for only a moment and fell as though dead, the One clothed in blazing holiness, the One whose voice shook the foundations of the universe with terrifying power–this one stretched forth his right hand, the hand of power, and caught John in his fear. And with his swift double-edged sword and the roar of a thousand waterfalls uttered these unbreakable, unstoppable, unalterable words: “Fear Not.”
Friend, have you been caught by that hand? Have you felt yourself free-fall into the holy Fear of the Living God? Knowing yourself to be a sinner? Knowing that you could never pretend to lay even one eye on the Who Walks Among the Lampstands, let alone stand in his presence? Have you ever truly faced the fear that when you leave this earth, you will behold this Christ? And in that moment of fear, have you heard the words, “Fear Not”?
The One whom John beheld upheld John’s life: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (1:17-18).
The right hand stretched out has a scar. That scar tells the truth: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). Through that right hand a nail was driven.
The Jesus who experienced the depths of my mortality for me. The Jesus who died the death I deserved. The Jesus who took on my frailty, became human willingly, for the express purpose that he might be put to death at the hands of wicked men in my place. The Jesus who entered into my greatest fear—dying the hardest death humanly possible. This is the Jesus who says to us, “Fear not.”
Of whom, then, shall we fear? Of what shall we be afraid? The dead and risen Giver of Life, the one who holds the keys of Death and Hades has bid us, “Fear Not!” How dare we disobey his command?
How can I be afraid when the right hand that upholds the universe–the right hand that was crucified and unlocked the door of the grave–this right hand has stretched out to cradle my very life?
We need to repeat this to one another. Jesus told John, “Write this down! Because the churches are going to need this” (1:19, paraphrase). Jesus knew that in 2020, coronavirus would sweep across the earth, and small groups of Christians huddled in homes across the world would need to read Revelation 1 and see this vision, and know that the Christ who died and lives forever and ever tells them to Fear Not.
In the weeks to come, preach this sermon to your own soul: “O soul, the Living One has spoken. He has died. He is forever alive. He has the keys. I will fear not.”
We are not afraid. We will not fear though the earth may shake. Until we meet again, brothers and sisters: