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Revelation’s First Beautiful Beatitude
Revelation 1:3


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost—August 1, 2010

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This morning we are beginning a sermon series on “Revelation’s Seven Beautiful Beatitudes.” “Beatitude” is the Latin word for “blessing.” We use the word beatitude especially to describe pronouncements of blessing which our Lord bestows upon us in Scripture, usually beginning with the words, “Blessed are . . .” 

Because of our sin, we all deserve not blessing, put punishment from the Lord.  As we confess in our liturgy: “We are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed. . .  We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.”

But, though we do not deserve it, we receive from the Lord as a free gift the greatest blessing of all, beautifully described in today’s Epistle Reading from Revelation: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.” 

Martin Luther describes this greatest blessing from the Lord this way in the Small Catechism:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. . .  He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.  On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.  This is most certainly true.”

That is the greatest blessing, the greatest beatitude you receive from the Lord: forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation, through faith in his Son.  The Good News is, he loves you and has freed you from your sins by his blood.

The new hymn we sang before the sermon beautifully summarizes the most famous and familiar beatitudes in the Bible, from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

In addition to these most familiar biblical beatitudes, there is another set of beatitudes, found in the book of Revelation. We begin our sermon series on “Revelation’s Seven Beautiful Beatitudes” with “Revelation’s First Beautiful Beatitude” from today’s Epistle Reading:  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

One reason the book of Revelation is placed last in the Bible is because tradition says it was the last book of the Bible to be written.  About 60 years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, in about 95 A.D., John was the last surviving of Christ’s original twelve Apostles.  It was a terrible time for the early Christians.   Jesus had said in his first set of beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness . . .  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”  And, some 60 years later, those words were being fulfilled in the lives of the early Christians.  They were being persecuted, insulted, and having all kinds of evil falsely spoken against them because of their faith in Christ.

This opposition and persecution that the early Christians faced came from three sources.  They were first of all being persecuted by the Roman government.  It began in 64 A.D., with the great fire that destroyed much of Rome.  Much like Hurricane Katrina or the oil spill, the government badly bungled handling this disaster, and the mad Emperor Nero needed a scapegoat to take the blame.  The ancient Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire.  Tacitus writes:

“To get rid of the blame, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a . . . group called Christians. . .  Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate . . . in Judea . . .  an immense multitude of Christians was convicted . . . of firing the city. . .  Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or they were nailed to crosses, or they were doomed to the flames and burnt.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness . . .  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” 

The persecution of the early Christians by the Roman Empire continued on and off for several hundred years, sometimes more savage, like under the mad Emperor Nero, and sometimes less severe, under more enlightened Emperors.  Being a Christian remained illegal until Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian in 313 A.D. and declared Christianity a legal religion.  In one of the great reversals of history, eventually Christianity became the official religion of the very Empire that had once crucified Christ himself and persecuted his followers so savagely.

In 95 A.D., when John as the last surviving Apostle wrote the book of Revelation, the Christians he was writing to were in the midst of a terrible time of persecution.  That is what John talking about when he writes in today’s Epistle Reading, “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”  As the last remaining Apostle, John had been exiled by the Romans to the remote, desolate island of Patmos, which is where he received from the Lord the visions in the book of Revelation.

In addition to official persecution from the Roman government, the second source of persecution which the early Christians faced was from the hostile culture around them.   The Apostle Peter wrote about this persecution from a hostile culture: “Beloved, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. . .  For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.  They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. . .  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. . .  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. . . if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

In addition to being persecuted, insulted, and having all kinds of evil falsely spoken against them by the Roman government, and the hostile culture around them, there was a third source of opposition and persecution which the early Christians also faced.  It was opposition from within, from those who claimed to be followers of Christ, yet rejected the teachings of Christ and his Word.

Jesus had warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. . . For false Christs and false prophets will appear . . . and deceive many people.”  In 2nd Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes them as, “false apostles . . . masquerading as apostles of Christ,” and he says that he is, “in danger from false brothers.”

The Apostle Peter warned, “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them . . . Many will follow their shameful ways.”  The Apostle John in his First Epistle also warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  And the next chapter of Revelation describes them as, “wicked men . . . liars . . . who claim to be apostles, but are not.”

It was bad enough for the early Christians to be persecuted, insulted, and have all kinds of evil falsely spoken against them by the Roman government and unbelieving, pagan culture.  Even worse was to be treated that way by those who claimed to be Christians, but were really false brothers.

In our country at this point we are not yet faced with actual persecution on account of our faith.  But, we have brothers and sisters in Christ in many countries around the globe who even in our modern world are being put to death every day simply because they claim Christ as their Savior and Lord.  It is conservatively estimated that in 2009 there were 176,000 Christian martyrs in the world; that’s about 500 put to death for their faith every day.

One our of Synod’s seminaries overseas recently enrolled four students from a closed country.  It is an amazing story of how they converted to Christianity and clandestinely left that oppressive country, so that they could study to become ministers and then return to serve their fellow Christians in the underground Church there, and help spread the Gospel to their fellow citizens of that closed country.  But, they are in grave danger, for if the government discovers their conversion, or their studies to become Christian ministers, they will send assassins to kill them, and their families at home would also all be killed.  They are putting their lives in great danger by their confession of Christ as their Savior and Lord.

Although we do not face that kind of actual persecution on account of our faith, in our country and other Christian nations, there is a subtle but growing hostility toward Christ and the true teachings of his Word.

Last year a nurse in England with 30 years experience was demoted to a desk job by their National Health Service because she wore a small cross she had received as a Confirmation gift and worn every day since her Confirmation in 1971.  However, non-Christians working for the National Health Service are allowed to wear expressions of their faith.

Last month in Dearborn, Michigan, which now has a majority Muslim population, four Christians were arrested simply for handing out copies of the Gospel of John.  It is surreal to watch the video of them being arrested.  You think it can’t happen in America, but it did.

Last week a student in Georgia studying to be a school counselor sued Augusta State University after she was told she would have to renounce her personal Christian beliefs on certain moral topics or be expelled.  A faculty member told her, “You couldn’t be a teacher, let alone a counselor, with those views.”  She refused, saying, “I cannot alter my biblical beliefs.”

And, as in ancient times, this hostility toward the faith is sadly coming not only from the government, and the hostile culture around us, but also from within, from those who claim to be followers of Christ, yet reject the teachings of Christ and his Word.  There have been many shocking stories in the news recently about major denominations taking appalling actions that contradict the clear teachings of Scripture.

Paul wrote to Pastor Timothy:  “There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,  treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. . .  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth.”

In “Revelation’s First Beautiful Beatitude,” John was writing to the early Christians to help them cope with terrible times they were facing in their day, and his advice to them will help us face the terrible times that we are living through today: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

As Christians we have two sources of comfort and strength in terrible times like they faced then and we face now.  First of all, God’s Word and promises: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy.”  That refers not only to the book of Revelation itself, but coming as it does in the final book of the Bible that is a reference to all of Scripture.  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it.” 

There’s a story about a young man going to college whose father gives him a Bible, with the advice that if ever he is in need he should look in it.  The young man takes the Bible to college, but for two years he never opens it up.  Then one day the Bible accidentally falls to the floor, and five crisp $100 bills flutter out of its pages.  Because he never said anything about this treasure the young man’s father knew he hadn’t found the money.  And he knew that for two whole years his son hadn’t opened his Bible even once.

That little story is really a parable about you, and your heavenly Father.  For, in the pages of Scripture he has placed spiritual treasures which waiting for you.  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it.”  In personal Bible reading, in daily devotions with Portals of Prayer, in Bible Class and Sunday School, in weekly worship here in God’s house, read, hear, and take to heart God’s Word. 

There is an old prayer that puts it this way:

“Blessed Lord, since you have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

The other source of comfort and strength we have as Christians in terrible times like these is the promise and hope of our Lord’s return at the last day, when all things will be put right again.  As Peter says, “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” 

In all the hype over the supposed end of the world in 2012, that is portrayed as something horrible, to be feared.  The end of the world could happen in 2012; it could happen any time, even before I finish this sentence!  For, all the signs given in Scripture are fulfilled.  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

For Christians, the Second Coming of Christ and the end of all things at the Last Day is not something to be feared, but looked forward to with anticipation.  Jesus put it this way:  “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Jesus does not want you to cower in fear at the thought of his Second Coming, but to rejoice in hope.  The early Christians actually coined a word for this: “Maranatha,” which means, “O Lord, Come!”  In the earliest recorded Christian liturgy, dating from about 150 A.D., the congregation would cry out “Maranatha,” “O Lord, Come!” expressing their longing and desire for Christ’s second coming.

Paul says in Philippians, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And in Titus, “We wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  And in 1st Corinthians, “You eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.”

Paul explains in 1st Corinthians why you look upon Christ’s Second Coming not with fear but with confidence and hope and joy: “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Jesus Christ.”  You need not fear Christ’s Second Coming, because you have God’s own assurance that in the final judgment you will be found blameless, innocent, not guilty, because God’s own Son is your Savior, who gave his life to pay for your sins and earn you total forgiveness.  He makes you worthy of eternal life in heaven.  This confident, hopeful, joyous anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming that is yours as a Christian is summed up at the very end of the New Testament, in the last verses of Revelation: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

In “Revelation’s First Beautiful Beatitude,” John was writing to the early Christians to help them cope with terrible times they were facing in their day, and his advice to them will help us face the terrible times that we are living through today.  As Christians we have two sources of comfort and strength in terrible times like they faced then and we face now: God’s Word and promises, and the anticipation of our Lord’s return at the last day, when all things will be put right again. “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it, and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

Amen.

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