A few years ago, being the thrill seeker than I am, I went to a national preaching conference.
It was held in Nashville.
Of all the amazing preachers I heard, the best was not on the program, so I skipped that, went to the Grand Ole Opry, and listened to Kris Kristofferson.
Kris offers a version of what we less artistic preachers call grace and truth in his song
Don't Cuss the Fiddle:
If we ever get to heaven, boys It ain't because we ain't done nothin' wrong We're in this gig together So let's settle down and steal each other's songs.
That's basically what's happening in our Revelation reading, and on your front porch.
When you order a package from Amazon Smile, with proceeds benefiting Shepherd of the Valley, thank you so much, it will likely arrive with a logo on the box.
There is an arrow pointing from the first A to the only Z in Amazon: A to Z.
Amazon is telling you in its brilliant, subtle way that everything you need, from A to Z, is available to you from them, and they will even deliver it all the way from Point A to you.
To Amazon be glory and dominion and inestimable profit forever and ever!
Worthy is the blue van who brings me all my sins!
Yes, that's a bit exaggerated, but Amazon stole God's song; God was the A and the Z, the Alpha and the Omega, not to mention the rest of the alphabet and a bag of chips, long before Jeff Bezos came down from heaven with William Shatner.
But Amazon is hardly alone in its pretensions to idolatry: Sunday now belongs to the NFL,
both political parties are peddling salvation from the hell governed by the other one, and Mark Zuckerberg is now king of a new reality called the Metaverse, which is Christmas for the internet, the incarnation reincarnated online.
Long after the Roman empire from Revelation days, the world is still stealing God's songs.
The Bible steals them back.
When Jesus was born, the angels announced the birth of a Savior in the same language used by the Roman imperial marketing department.
Today, John names Jesus the ruler of the kings of the earth, a phrase that Caesar copyrighted for himself.
Throughout Revelation, John takes Roman religious lyrics and reapplies them to a man that
Rome crucified, the criminal Christ, the sovereign from death row, the executed God.
He has no qualms about this theft, since he sees Rome stealing from God incessantly: stealing God's glory, God's authority, even stealing God's pride and joy—God's people.
After stealing the Christ's life, now Rome is stealing Christians—breaking them with poverty, threatening or wounding or killing them with violence, checkmating them socially and legally and economically into patriotic idolatry.
His letter tries to plug the dam, to reinforce the church against the onslaught of Roman conquest like an op-ed trying to close Amazon—or like a woman testifying against Facebook.
He is trying to point and woo and scare and shepherd his people back home to Jesus, which is a tough sell when your alternate king dies wearing a crown of thorns.
Today's reading is the overture introducing John's chorus: you're a different kingdom with a better king, you're sinners transformed into serving priests, and we're in this gig together.
So grace to you and peace from the one who was before Rome ever started, is now, and will long outlast Rome too, the A and the Z, and from the Spirit that one sends to unite and complete the church, and from Jesus the Christ, the real ruler of the kings of the earth.
But he's not just that.
Jesus is not just some big emperor in the sky.
He is also the faithful witness and the firstborn of the dead.
The Greek word for witness is martyr.
John is telling his people, living under the Roman sword of Damocles that can murder and
martyr them at any moment, that their true king has been there, done that.
The ruler of the kings of the earth who holds grace and peace for you also died at Rome's hands, and later lived to tell about it as the firstborn of the dead.
The guy in charge gets it.
He knows who you are and what you are going through, and he is faithful and reliable.
He made it through death to ultimate dominion, and he will guide you through too, because he loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.
Exactly how this works remains a mystery, no matter how desperately his church tries to figure it out—and there are multiple theories.
One of the earliest is a version of what Saint Augustine said: the cross is the devil's mousetrap.
God pulls a bait and switch on Satan, stealing back the souls Satan stole from God and then also getting Jesus back on Easter, the firstborn of the dead promoted to ruler of the kings of the earth.
Jesus is indeed a thief on the cross—he steals us home to God.
If we ever get to heaven, boys and girls, it ain't because we ain't done nothin' wrong.
It's because we are forgiven and freed by a dead and risen king who broke the rules to heal the same broken, delusional world that stole his life and keeps trying to steal ours, a world opposed to God, a world trying to be God, a world confused by God, a world beloved by God, the world into which God sends us to serve lovingly as priests, brokers of grace. We're in this gig together So let's settle down and share each other's songs.