Revelation 1: 9I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet11saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” 12Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. 17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
When I start a preaching series, I try to get an overall picture of the book before I dive into the text for the week. Even after preaching over 2,000 sermons (you do lose count after a while…), I am regularly surprised by things in the text I didn’t notice before; little details that suddenly jump off the page at me, demanding to be addressed. So I was really trying to get the full sweep of Revelation, trying to make sense of horsemen and whores and hosts of angels, when I read 1:10 “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet”. Wait…wait. A voice? Not a vision?
It’s not a huge distinction, really. God’s message to Bishop John is so wild that it probably felt like Sensaround in a movie theater. If the elderly saint had dozed off, the whole thing could have been a Technicolor dream, complete with soundtrack. But it did start with the voice, not the vision.
A voice that was loud enough to get his attention, and distinctive enough to let him know that it was God. “Like a trumpet”; probably not Wynton Marsalis, but more like the flourish that preceded the entry of a Roman notable. He must have jumped a mile. It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon (interesting that he kept track of the days while in exile) and suddenly there’s God, loudly announcing a message.
By verse 12, having turned around (physically or metaphorically?) to check out the whole candlelight Son of Man scene, the poet is off to the races with descriptive detail. What would have happened if John had shaken it off, assuming that he’d been in the sun too long? What if he hadn’t looked, or hadn’t been willing to keep looking at the fantastical images presented to him?
It would have been understandable for John to think that God had abandoned him. After an active life in church leadership, the remote island didn’t offer many opportunities for interaction. Was the good bishop completely sane? Of course, we can’t be sure. But here’s what jumped out at me: John paid attention to the voice of God. He didn’t argue, he didn’t proclaim his unworthiness, he didn’t ask questions. He just listened and wrote what he was told. After he woke from the dead faint, that is.
I think most of us hear the voice of God more often than we are willing to let on. It may not be loud. It may sound like a bystander in the coffee line rather than a trumpet. It may not make a lot of sense at first. But there is something about the voice of God that is unmistakable; when it’s the Holy One, you know it. That reality alone makes us want to discount the message, because it’s scary when God is suddenly present in the middle of our carefully planned lives. Most of us don’t want to get close enough to the Son of Man to check out his sash. But there it is — The Voice — and it is impossible to ignore.
The Voice focuses our consciousness. The Voice tells us where to look. The Voice assures us of Divine Love. Whether we experience it as an auditory cue or a feeling or cascade of events or a sudden quickening, we need to follow John’s lead and pay attention. Those images, as weird and terrifying as they can be, have held Christians together through oppression, exile and fighting. The message of the two-edged sword to the seven churches still diagnose the dysfunction of the Christian church with amazing insight. The critique of the Roman Empire is just as true of modern empires. The church needed God’s Word to John. It still does. And we too, must listen.