“I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future.” It’s a catchy phrase, a statement of faith, helpful to remember regardless of your circumstance. It’s an expression first coined by Pastor Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister and a major civil rights figure in the 1960s. He was a trusted advisor and close friend to Martin Luther King Jr. Together they founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and organized the yearlong bus boycott there. The boycott successfully caught the country’s attention but it also brought violence. As the civil rights movement progressed, danger increased.
In Pastor Abernathy’s lifetime, his church and home were bombed repeatedly, he was arrested more than 20 times and beaten more times than he could remember. Pastor Abernathy was at King’s side the night of the assassination. He accompanied his dear friend to the hospital that tragic night. And the very next day, because of faith and fortitude, he was back on the streets of Memphis, fighting the good fight for the rights of sanitation workers everywhere.
During his darkest times, he would say “I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future.” The declaration gave him the courage to keep on keeping on. It’s a catchy phrase but more than that it’s a statement of faith, helpful to remember regardless of your circumstance.
We don’t know what the future may hold, but we know who holds the future. This is also a one-sentence summary of the book of Revelation.
We begin a new sermon series today: Dream Big. And for the next 7 weeks, we’ll work our way through Revelation, the last book of the Bible (side note: there’s only one. It’s not Revelations as you might hear it called from time to time).
For most of us, this is a book we don’t often read. There are parts of it that are incredibly powerful, comforting and encouraging but it’s also a book that’s hard to make sense of. As a result, it’s been hijacked by misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It includes strange metaphors, peculiar symbols, and terrifying images. It’s content that makes for compelling movies and nail-biting novels for sure but the dominant themes depicted in the culture are not accurate renderings of the book.
To best understand Revelation it’s most helpful to start at the beginning, paying attention to how John sets up the vision that unfolds. The introduction reads:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
Revelation begins with an announcement: “The revelation of Jesus Christ”. The word for revelation in Greek is apocalypse which Merriam-Webster defines as the complete final destruction of the world, especially as described in the biblical book of Revelation Is it any wonder that the primary purpose of the book has been misunderstood by generations of Christians?
The book seems to be setting up a story for a play-by-play account of the end of the world. Sit up! Pay attention! The mystery of your future and the future of the world is about to be revealed. Then in verse 3, John refers to his words as a “prophecy” which perpetuates misunderstanding because many people define prophecy as a foretelling of the future, a biblical crystal ball if you will. But that’s not accurate either. Biblical prophecy is more about interpreting current events in light of God’s purposes.
The book of Revelation is not a timeless, abstract vision. It’s not a book of codes to be cracked by modern day Christians. It’s rooted: in a specific person, named John; in a specific time, the first century after Christ; and to a specific audience in a specific place—7 churches located in Asia.
John speaks as Christ’s messenger. He’s been exiled to the island of Patmos because his activities on behalf of the Gospel upset local authorities. He preached the Gospel—Christ crucified, resurrected by the one true God to be worshipped and glorified. It’s a counter-cultural message, then and now. This book matters—not because of hidden clues that unveil what will take place at the end of the world but because of the truth it reveals: that the battle between Good and Evil, the struggle between God and Satan–has already been decided and God has won—the victory has been sealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ. We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.
While the book begins with John’s announcement of revelation, it quickly takes the form of a letter written out of pastoral concern to Christians experiencing a crisis in faith. It was a tough time to be a Christian. The churches were struggling to survive in a world dominated by ruling powers not aligned with God’s vision for the world. Some faced persecution, some were being corrupted by society; some had stopped taking faith seriously. These are the challenges addressed in the messages to particular churches named in chapters 2 and 3 of the book.
But before these challenges are addressed John begins with who is central in faith, a description of who Jesus is: “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
This is at the core of Christianity: the person of Jesus, who was unwavering in his faith and paid the ultimate price. Though crucified and dead, God raised him up to new life. His resurrection conquered death. His resurrection is the hope of the world—a world in which God continues to be at work that all creation might be reconciled to him. John assures the people that despite how it might seem, regardless of their experience of oppression or persecution or feeling powerless in a hostile world, that the future is in God’s hands.
They may not know what the future holds, but he assures them who holds the future.
In the verses where we picked up today, John paints a vivid picture but it is the Word Christ speaks that is meant to catch and keep attention: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”.
I’d like to turn your attention to the News insert in the worship folder….
Notice the announcement that begins “Can you read this?” Read the whole announcement if you can.
I used this example over 10 years ago in another sermon I preached here—I wouldn’t expect anyone to remember…but maybe you do. Regardless, it makes for a helpful visual of the implications of what Christ has just said:
Can you read this?
Mnay poelpe can.
Cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulacity uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the human mind, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what order the ltteers in a word are, the only iprmoatnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.
Now you would think that most people wouldn’t be able to read this. There are some for whom it is difficult but the majority can ultimately read the message. How is that possible? I can’t tell you. It just is. For whatever reason, the only thing we need to have in place, according to the study is the first and last letter of each word. All the letters in between can be messed up but somehow the brain sorts out the letters to make sense.
Every day we hear stories about tragedies, terror, injustice, violence–none of it makes sense. Sometimes life gets really messed up—like the letters in that paragraph we just read: we lose a job and didn’t see it coming; a jury’s verdict seems to only perpetuate injustice; your beloved pastor dies too soon.
All of this and so much more can make a person wonder—does God care? Who is in charge here? Will justice ever be served? How will we move forward with the weight of grief? All fair questions, questions that can create a crisis in faith.
Into these questions, Christ speaks: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last and the living one…I am alive forever and ever”. These words echo the words of the Lord God quoted earlier in the first chapter of Revelation: “I am the Alpha and Omega” (a reference to the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet) and the Lord God who speaks again at the end of the book: I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”
You may not know what the future holds but know who holds the future. Christ is with you now—even when life is messy and doesn’t make sense. And you will continue to be with Christ into the future. That book of Revelation reminds us of that.
Christ offers you himself. He is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. And as it turns out that’s just what you need and it is enough. Amen.