Picks from the Pews: “Keep Calm and Carry On”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


We have read a part of the passage for today… before I read the second part, I want to tell you more about the background:

What we have here is a letter… a strange letter, but a letter…from a pastor, Bible scholar, theologian and poet who has been banished… and is writing to Christians in several congregations whose lives are in ruins— who are living in dark, dangerous times. (think images of Syria)

I want you to know what they have lived through in their time and ask yourself, “How would you feel?”

In the 60s (not the 1960s but the first 60s!): They had lived through a devastating series of earthquakes that shook the entire Mediterranean world. The armies of Parthia (present day Iran) had thrashed the invincible Roman legions—so much for national security. Christians were being blamed for the great fire of Rome… they were the scapegoats. Many Christians were arrested and cruelly murdered: dressed in animal skins and given over to wild dogs, nailed to crosses and even burned alive as luminaries at night.

Then, if that were not enough to shake your faith,  there was the event that shook them to the core of their faith: A civil war resulted in the destruction of the Holy City of God: Jerusalem. And, the holy temple. Get that—the temple… is gone. Where God resides. Gone.  Rubble.

Years later, in the late 70s, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying whole cities and casting a dark cloud of dust over the entire Mediterranean. People thought the world was coming to an end. In the 90s, crop failures leading to a famine were crippling the economy of the entire Roman Empire.

As if that weren’t bad enough, if you were a Christian back then—well it wasn’t a good thing. It did not pay off for you.  Truth is, you paid a heavy price for believing in Christ as Lord and savior for a good reason. This was not a Christian nation… it was the Roman Empire. Rome had ordered all people of the Roman empire to offer prayers and sacrifices to the Roman emperors who had declared themselves gods. If there was to be prayer in schools or in government, they were going to be made to Caesar—or Nero- or Domitian—not Jesus.

And anyone who said Jesus was Lord—was asking for trouble.

Which is why John the Christian, John the pastor, John the Bible scholar, John the theologian and John the poet is hauled off to Patmos away from the people and places he loves: Jesus is his Lord and savior and now he is paying the price.

So, if you want to know how Christians were doing at the time, think about how you were feeling after 9-11 and you get a glimpse into how they may have felt.

So, what is John to do in this situation? What is John to say to his friends who are constantly fighting to survive… fighting to survive worry and fear and hold on to faith?

John writes a letter…Revelation is what John wants to say… more accurately, Revelation is the letter that reveals what Jesus has to say to those suffering Christians who are trying to survive and hold on to faith for dear life. To people asking all of those questions we would have asked: “Why did this happen? Where was God? Is it worth it? Why not take the easy way out and worship the Emperor?”

It is a complicated book because it is written in a strange form of literature called apocalyptic writing… noted for strange imagery and symbols. Of course, if you can understand Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter—you have a chance to understand this. If you know your Old Testament, you will have a head start: there are 500 allusions to the Old Testament in this book… which the first Christians would have known.

So, now that you are ready, let’s hear from the second part of the reading… let’s listen for the core message John wishes to share with them and with anyone who is facing dark and difficult days:

READ THE TEXT: Revelation 7:12-8:5

So, what would you say to people undergoing such suffering and pain? Who believe as bad as it is, the worst may be yet to come? What would you say to encourage them… to help them through suffering… to offer comfort… peace and hope… so what would you say?

Here is what I think John is trying to say using all that strange language:

Hang on. It’s going to be all right… “Keep Calm and Carry On” with your faith… God will win and defeat all the forces of suffering and evil. So, Keep Calm and Carry On.

Maybe you’ve heard that phrase before.  I heard about it during the Olympics. I was listening to an interview of the man who found the poster with those words which had been lost for decades.

In the year 2000, Stuart Manley, a used book seller in England was rummaging around in a box of old books and discovered a bright red poster with the crown of King George the VI at the top. On the poster were these simple words:

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Manley liked the poster, framed it and hung it on the window of the bookshop.  He began to learn more about why it was developed. He discovered that it was created in 1939 by the British Ministry of Information, just prior to the Blitz, when German planes flew over Great Britain every night bombing London and several other towns. There was so much worry and devastation and suffering. Air raid sirens every night… citizens hiding in basements and subway stations… fires…explosions… death… every night for weeks and months.  This was the time when the Ministry of Information created the posters 2.5 million of them—to be distributed. But they were never distributed… and after the war, all but two were destroyed. When Stuart put the poster up in his shop, people kept asking him for a copy… and so he had it reproduced. So far it has sold 40,000 copies. Now there are mugs, t shirts—all of that—and a quarter of million items of merchandise have been sold. All with that simple message: “Keep Calm, Carry On.”[1]

When Stuart was asked why he thought it was so popular, he said, My theory is that we all live in stressful times, whether or are a nurse or teacher or whatever… and everyone is in distress and buying a keep calm and carry on poster is cheaper than pills.”

That’s John message for his friends in their time of distress: “Keep Calm and Carry On”… hold on to your faith.

He reaches deep into the resources of their faith… quoting the scriptures of the Old Testament…reminding them that God’s people have been there before (Exodus, Exile, story of Daniel) … and offering them a vision… and a hope that the way things are, are not the way things always will be.

Keep Calm and Carry on… because God will win in the end… and it will be all right.

In our passage today, he paints pictures with words and symbols trying to offer perspective– a view of the big picture… giving a preview of a better day to come: In the vision today, he sees the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads—a sign of baptism and God claiming them as his own… also a sign of safety in the Roman Empire.  He sees people from every nation and tribes and languages standing before a throne—dressed in white robes carrying palm branches—as signs of victory and joy following war. There will be justice. Do you see the message in the symbols?

Then he hears singing… thanksgiving… because the Lord God is on the throne.  He sees the friends who have gone before them—suffering and dying for the faith who have come out of the great ordeal… and he hears them speak words of comfort…He sees believers standing before God’s throne and worshipping God…  for God has sheltered them… it is a time when there is no more hunger or thirst or crying, anymore.

It’s a beautiful picture he paints of the future, to help them keep calm and carry on– hold on to hope for this moment. Indeed, he wants to tell them, “It will be all right.”  It’s just what they needed to hear.

I also think this is a message the world needs to hear from us these days. The world doesn’t need Christians offering doom and gloom – more fear than faith—there is enough of that out there… The world needs to hear us say, there is still hope… that we know the times we are living in are very difficult and the future can look bleak: but  we have glimpsed the future in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of his spirit into the world; we know God is not finished redeeming the world… there is still hope. There is always hope. We see the day to come which God has in mind.

Which means we can keep on and carry on… with faith, hope, love and even with joy!

I like how Ted Wardlaw described what John has done:
“…he has pulled back the curtain that obscured their vision of history, in order to show them a party going on in heaven. A party, of all things, people by those who, like themselves, had endured “the great ordeal” — had borne the cross of faithful living in the middle of time — and who now, vindicated by God, were in heaven praising and glorifying God’s holy name. He sees a party in heaven! Which was John’s way of saying, to them and to us: Have courage, you who bear the ministry of the cross and follow Jesus! For you are moving toward the triumph of God!

There’s a modern cathedral in England — a cathedral built within the lifetimes of many of us — that features one whole wall made of glass. The massive south wall of that cathedral made entirely of glass! And etched into the glass are the huge figures — four feet wide and ten feet tall — of saints and angels. They’re having a party — blowing trumpets and making merry and swinging from the chandeliers and dancing across that massive wall of glass.

And, were that the only thing you saw when looking at that glass wall… You might look at that wall, and ask how they could construct such a thing in the middle of time where there is AIDS and starvation, and the stalking hatred of militia groups, and the neglect and murder of children, and the meanness of our rhetoric, and the growing gap between those who have and those who don’t… [how could they construct that when the economy is so bad… with joblessness…?] You might look at that glass wall and wonder what sort of God would have the nerve to throw a party like that in times like these, and what sort of church would have the nerve to go to it?!

That cathedral is located in Coventry, England, which makes all the difference in the world. For, in November of 1940, Coventry suffered the longest air raid endured in any one night by any city in England during World War II. It was an air raid which killed and destroyed and reduced the whole city to ruins, including its cathedral. When they built the new cathedral, they chose, as the purpose of its ministry, the theme of “resurrection through sacrifice.”

So to look through that modern glass wall, beyond all the saints dancing in heaven, is then to see the painful ruins of the old bombed-out church. The rubble of those ruins…cannot be seen through that glass wall except in light of the promise from beyond time – the promise that God gathers up all of our flawed history, our broken up and busted history… gathers it up into God’s holy and redemptive purposes — and such a visual encounter with God’s promise for the future permeates that pile of rubble with meaning that is not otherwise there.”[2]

Revelation is John’s letter painting images of God’s promise for the future… a future John would say is full of promise… in fact, in God’s future, all tears and crying and pain and suffering will be no more, for the former days have passed away.”

Until that day comes, John is saying,  “Keep Calm, and Carry On, hold on to your faith”  it will be all right. God is not done yet. Or,  in the immortal words of Jimmy Valvano: never, ever, give up. Hold on to that hope. Live into that hope… and you too, may find yourself joining the great multitude as they throw a party—offering praise and thanksgiving to our God and to his son Jesus, the Lamb… who sits on the throne… and he shall reign forever and ever. Amen.

[1] Information from various sources on the internet and an interview on the Today show, August 11, 2012

[2] From Day1 sermon – along with other insights for this sermon

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