Ready for (another) Roller-Coaster Year?

Oh, how we wished that the pandemic and all its problems would burn with our 2020 calendars. Alas, it followed us into 2021, promising another roller-coaster year. How do you buckle up and ready your heart?

Most of us enjoy a good roller-coaster.  The ride starts with a slow climb, followed by a sudden drop and quick turns at high speed. As you feel the wind in your hair and hear the passengers’ screams, your veins flood with adrenaline and dopamine, leaving your hands shaking and legs jittery.  One group shouts “Let’s go again!” while another cries “Never again!”

Roller coasters leaves you either ecstatic or terrified.

What causes these two groups of people to have vastly different experiences in the same roller coaster cart? It comes down to a sense of security: the ability to trust in the ride designer and the system’s integrity. The ones who trust in the integrity of the seat belt or harness don’t fear for their safety.  These passengers have peace on the track and enjoy the thrill of the ride.

The second or third round on a roller coaster is often even more enjoyable, precisely because you have come to know that you will not fall from the cart. With arms high in the air and eyes closed, you can smile wide and laugh loudly through the tight turns – once you trust the carriage and the rest in the seat belt.

2021 will be our 2nd ride in the Corona Coaster. We would have preferred a more docile track, but this is our ride for the year. How do you prepare yourself to push out the panic and enjoy the thrill that 2021 brings? Is there a harness we can strap ourselves into, to lend the sense of security we need for the months ahead?

A short phrase penned by a Jewish prophet gives us a plan. Isaiah warned the Jews that the Babylonians would lay siege and destroy Jerusalem, taking its people into exile. He promised a rough time ahead for them.  The Babylonians would rip them from everything gave them a sense of belonging and security. Yet the Lord comforted the Jews with this beautiful promise – a phrase that instils comfort, safety and hope in everyone who believes.

Isaiah 54:10

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

Isaiah 54:10

“For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed”

The Lord warned the Judeans of catastrophic changes – both sudden and permanent. They would suffer loss. Mountains speak of safety, security and a sense of permanency. Hills bring a sense of familiarity, normality, and a sense of belonging. These significant changes create anxiety, and the sudden onset thereof brings a panic.

“my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed”

In contrast, the Lord assures them that His constant, loving nature and reliable character do not change. His steadfast love “never ceases” and is always “abounding.” (Lamentation 3:23; Psalm 145) 

In particular, God’s covenantal commitment towards Judah does not change either. It cannot be removed (Numbers 21:12) and is stronger than the bond that draws a mother to her nursing child (Isaiah 49:15).

While these sudden changes create a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, the Lord assures them that His character and commitment towards them for their welfare (shalom) will never change. He is good and promised to do them good, always. Yes, even these sudden changes will work out for their welfare. (compare Romans 8:28)

“says the Lord”

The One who makes this pledge of partnership is indeed trustworthy. He is the LORD, Yahweh – “I AM THAT I AM” – the eternally existing God who never changes (Exodus 3:14; Malachi 3:6).  He is all-powerful yet very personal (Isaiah 40:28-29; Psalm 113).

While everything around them changes, they the Lord invites them to rest in the truth that He does not change, nor his loving nature and covenant with them.  Indeed, Yahweh has shown his goodness and faithfulness to them for generations since He first bound Himself to Abraham by covenant. Israel’s covenant God is trustworthy because of his character and power.

“who has compassion on you.”

God Almighty knows that the coming catastrophic changes would bring pain and panic. Moreover, God cares about them!  Their situation moves Him with compassion so that He would show them kindness. (Compare with Christ Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 1:41 etc.)  What comfort these words must have brought to the vulnerable and fearful Judeans who were plucked from their familiar homelands!

a MIRROR to our society

Isaiah depicts Judah’s calamitous change as “mountains disappearing and hills being removed.” Our generation can easily identify with his passionate poetry. For years we have experienced the stormy disruptions in our social fibre, and local economies and political harmony caused by the tsunamis of globalization, technological advancement and climate change. Now, on top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating social changes, affecting economies and governments at an unparalleled pace.

These rapid changes make us feel unsafe, like foreigners in our own homeland. Like the Judeans hearing Isaiah’s words for the first time, we too need of hope, some assurance that good may come, a reason to march on and direction for the future.  

a WINDOW into God’s Heart

Isaiah’s prophesy reminds us that God knows that big changes leave us vulnerable and insecure. These words reveal God’s compassion for us; his heart is moved because he identifies with us in our suffering.

A reporter asked John and Charles Wesley’s ageing mother, which of her children she loved best.  She replied, “the one who needed it most at that time”. Her compassionate heart was moved with kindness to help the one who was struggling at that time. David says God’s paternal love is the same: “As a father shows compassion to his children… for he knows our frame… he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14). God does not love us less because we struggle in our turmoil or temptation; instead, God’s fatherly love (compassion) is activated by our weakness, urging him to show us kindness. The Lord “is able to have compassion with our weaknesses… so let us boldly draw near to his throne room to receive grace [help]” (Hebrews 4:15).

Isaiah reminds us that God’s steadfast love (character) and covenant of peace (commitment for our good) is unchanging. Through all these changes, God is working out his redemptive purposes work for our good and his glory. This window into God’s heart and plans brings us much comfort.

a DOOR into God’s Kingdom

Isaiah’s prophesy acknowledged the first readers’ uncertainty and invited themto walk with God into their new world. Likewise, this prophesy shows the door into the stable and peaceful world our overwhelmed generation longs for.  The Lord assures us that He is unchanging and his covenant unshakeable. Drawing close to him brings the security and familiarity that is fading in our rapidly changing context.

How do we strap ourselves in to feel safe in the 2021 roller coaster ride?

To cognitively know that “the God of the Bible is loving and does not change” does not bring the deep, lasting peace we pursue.  Instead, recognising and reflecting on God’s loving-kindness and reliability in my own life (and those around me) brings the security and hope I need in this changing world. This text invites me to remember and reflect on God’s steadfast love that I have experienced and how he has faithfully intervened on my life in the past. In a rapidly changing world, I feel safe to the degree that I am rooted and grounded in God’s love and commitment to me (Ephesians 3:14-17).

My friend, strap yourself in for the thrill-ride of 2021. Throw those hands in the air and let out a shout. God is up to something great, and it will work out for your good!

The End? Do not fear

This is our second post in our journey through Revelation.

Never before in recorded history have people been so aware of the fragility of our existence, of human life.  My newsfeed informs me of natural disasters, plague-like diseases, terrorizing wars, economic depression, political instability, brutal kidnappings and drug syndicates as they occur.  These updates and images are on every screen that catches my eye.

Knowledge of these threats leaves us uncertain and afraid.  We feel angry at the loss of innocence, the (illusion of) peace that we once enjoyed.  We live in a pandemic of panic, in a world longing for peace, stability and security.  We wall up, save up, or pack up in the hope of keeping the evil outside – but we learn that the spores of terror have landed on every continent, every community, every child.  Is This The End?  Is this THAT END?

Awareness of the destruction of our Father’s world brings believers down to our knees, looking up, praying our fears with tears.  “How long, Lord?”  “Lord, do you see?  Do you care?”  “Are you in control?”  “When will you act?”

There were the cries and concerns of John and the believers during the tyrannical, egocentric reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome AD 90-92 who banished the old disciple to Patmos.  But John’s prayers were answered when this island prison became his inner chamber with his Beloved Lord, containing a window into the throne room of God revealing the cosmic conquest of Christ’s victory over evil, culminating in the glorious restoration of all creation.

This letter of Revelation was a message of hope and comfort, to help and correct the early church in its struggle with evil – to endure both trials and temptation in faithful witness of Christ’s coming kingdom.  Although this prophecy was written for them, it is preserved for us.  Therefore, everyone who reads these holy words today and hears its invitation to “behold!” will also see how Christ is near to us, is moving in us, through us and for us his Church to accomplish the culmination of his glorious kingdom.  This revelation of Christ’s victory over evil in this world brings comfort and strength to endure until The End.

Guillaume-Francois Colson
Guillaume-Francois Colson, The Spirit of Evil Is Hurled into the Abyss After the Arrival of the Messiah, 19th century.

A note on my approach towards Revelation: In this discovery through Revelation, I will not write scholarly or critical, but rather devotional and encouraging.  The posts will be like all my other posts: an attempt to read the text from the view of the first readers.  How did these seven congregations make sense of this apocalyptic prophesy from their imprisoned apostle?  What was the message of hope to them?  For this I will keep with the explicit nature of the book: Revelation is an apostolic letter to seven congregations in Asia Minor (1:4,11), which contained a prophecy from the Lord (1:3), in the apocalyptic genre (1:1) which is rich in symbolic images and numbers, rooted in (a) their first-century geopolitical context, and (b) Old Testament literature.  If we stick with these principles, the symbolism in this remarkable book becomes alive and life-giving. (I expounded more on this in the first post in this series).

Greeting and blessing (Revelation 1:4-8)

This short greeting by John is a masterful introduction and succinct overview of the book’s message.  He blesses his readers (and hearers) with grace (divine help) and peace (wellness) from the Triune God.  His name for the Father “(He) who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) takes the readers back to God’s self-revelation to Moses (Exodus 3:14) before His great deliverance from Egypt.  The Spirit is titled “Seven Seven” (1:4) from Isaiah 11:2 in that great chapter that speaks of the Messiah’s divine wisdom and righteousness by which he will destroy the oppressive nations and restoration of all creation in peace. Here John says “God had delivered his people before from the tyranny you suffer, and He has promised to end this violence once for all!

Next, John answers the question “Can Jesus save us?” with a loud “Yes, he can, and he will!”  Jesus is first introduced as the “Christ” (1:5) – the long-awaited Messiah who will restore the righteousness rule of God on earth.  Then Jesus is hailed “the faithful witness” to a church struggling to maintain faithful witness under brutal persecution and the seduction of a perverse society.  He is held as their example who faithfully proclaimed and demonstrated God’s kingdom and eventually accomplished it by His vicarious death and resurrection: the ultimate witness of God’s Kingdom Coming to earth is Jesus rank “Firstborn from (or over) death” (1:5).  Not only does Jesus have authority over every spirit, even death, he is also “Ruler over the kings of the earth” (1:5) – good news the readers oppressed by Emperor Domitian!  These titles stirred flickers of hope to those battered congregations wondering whether Jesus is indeed the Christ who will bring righteousness and peace to the earth.

The next portion answers the question in the heart of every suffering believer: does God care about me?”  John writes YES HE DOES!  Jesus is called “Him who loved us and loves us and frees us from our sin by His own blood” (1:5). This phrase is which more than a reference to His cross: it is a clear allusion to the Passover lambs slaughtered to deliver God’s covenant people from Egypt by judging the oppressors and preserving them (Exodus 12:21 ff).  And as God adopted and honoured the delivered Hebrew slaves, these em-battered believers were called “kings and priests to God” (1:6, compare Exodus 19:6), sharing in His eternal reign.

“But does God not see how we suffer by the hand of our oppressors?” Yes, He does, and his Day of Judgment will come!  Alluding to Zechariah 12:8-10, John writes how the Christ will defend and deliver his covenant people from their oppressors, and how he will reveal Himself in glory to those oppressors so that they will weep at his fierce judgment (1:8).

As the nature of the letter is prophecy, the greeting ends with Jesus introducing himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8).  For the contemporary reader of the day, the Greek alphabet was known to have each letter attributed to a major Greek god.  Thus, Jesus’ self-revelation comforted his hopeless church “I am the All-powerful, Ever-living One – your covenant God and Savior. Do not despair!”

Section 1: Christ among the Lampstands (Revelation 1:4-3:22)

seven-golden-lampstands.jpg

Like prophets of old John describes how and where he received this prophetic message to these churches (1:9-10).  Imprisoned on the island Patmos, John was “In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” – meaning in fellowship with the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship on resurrection day – what we call Sunday.

This is significant.  Although this beloved disciple was isolated, shamed and cruelly treated, his suffering did not lead him away from Christ to self-pity; instead, it drew him to Christ as he drew near to the Lord in Spirit.  And his cries and concerns in Spirit gave birth to one of the most excellent messages of hope the church had ever received.

A question every suffering believer asks is Lord, where are you when I suffer?” This is the question the Lord clearly answers in the first section of Revelation (Ch 1-3).

John hears Jesus a loud voice with the clarity and urgency “like a trumpet” declaring “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last” followed by the instruction to write what he sees in a letter to seven specified churches (1:10-11).  (Throughout Revelation, what John hears and what John sees is very revealing, because things are not always what they seem to be at first).

John turns and sees Jesus walking among seven golden lampstands – the precious, sanctified churches of Jesus, the recipients of the letters (1:12-13, 20).  Where is Jesus, while these churches are suffering? “I am among you,” he says, “and I am intimately aware of what you are enduring for my name’s sake.” (Ch 2-3).

Then John describes how he sees Jesus, a vision that makes him collapse with awesome terror (1:17).  John sees the Son of Man as described in Daniel: One who has received eternal dominion (Daniel 7:9-14; compare 10:4-9).  The white hair, long robe and golden sash reveal Christ’s dignity and honour. His burnished feet portray the strength of his kingdom. The force of his voice cannot be ignored. His fiery eyes see everything – open and hidden. The sword represents judgment from his mouth which brings both justice to the oppressors and mercy to the oppressed (1:13-16).  This is Christ in his ascended glory.

“Do not be afraid – I’ve got this”

The first message of comfort this exalted King Jesus speaks to his suffering churches is “Do not be afraid” (1:17).  Why not be afraid?  Because this exalted, glorified, All-mighty King Jesus is with you, and for you.  He is not distant or disinterested.  He is with you, knows what you face, and cares for you.  What’s more comforting is that he has met the greatest this world can do to you (death), and conquered the grave, holding “the keys to death and Hades in (his) hands” as eternal comfort to his followers.

Christ’s message of comfort ends with the declaration that He holds the angels (messengers/ pastors) of these seven churches in his hand (1:16, 20).  Thus Christ directs the world rulers and affairs towards his eternal reign (1:5) while protecting and leading his church in service of his unfolding reign, holding the leaders in the palm of his hand.  What great comfort this must have brought to these struggling churches!


“Sounds great, but I don’t see it (yet)”

For a church in an uncertain, harsh world, these introductory words brought so much peace.  The All-powerful, Ever-living Lord, is among his people, promising to fulfil his long-awaited prophecy to eradicate evil from the earth and establish his reign of eternal peace – as it was in Eden.

But how is Christ working out his Great Restoration if it seems that this world is ruled by evil in violence, seduction and deception? For that answer, we will be invited to look from God’s perspective, to “Come up here” (4:1).  But first, the Lord will encourage and exhort each congregation (unpacking the church’s battle against evil), thus revealing Jesus’ intimate knowledge and care for each community of believers (Chapters 2-3).

Quick links to full THE END Revelation Series posts

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26