Sun, Apr 28, 2019
Alienation and fear... and God
Revelation 1:1-8 by Craig de Vos
Series: Sermons

Last Sunday––

Easter Sunday––

a series of bombs exploded in Sri Lanka targeting Christian churches and luxury hotels.

The death toll has now passed two hundred and fifty.

Sri Lankan authorities have identified the culprits as a hitherto little-known Islamic group…

whose prior activity had been desecrating Buddhist statues.

As Waleed Aly pointed out this week…

Sri Lanka is a country that has had no history of tensions between Muslims and Christians.

Quite the opposite!

Both have suffered persecution at the hands of the Buddhist-dominant government…

and majority population. 

If Sri Lankan Muslims were to be radicalised…

and become militant…

the obvious targets ought to have been Buddhists not Christians.

That they have targeted Christians…

and luxury Western-owned hotels…

Aly suggests…

“relies on ideas imported from a completely different context”––

specifically, that they have adopted the ideology of ISIS and Al Qaeda…

which centres on “a global anti-Muslim conspiracy” involving Christians and Jews in the West.

Like all conspiracy theories––

and, certainly, all extreme and radical ideologies––

it’s predicated on fear…

and fed by ‘social and cognitive alienation’.

Being told that they don’t belong––

and experiencing racist attacks that confirm that sense of not-belonging––

is what drives many young Muslims into the arms of the extremists.

A similar thing is also at work with the growth of Far-Right extremists.

That growth is fed on fears that immigration––

especially from non-Western countries––

threatens our ‘Western identity’ and ‘way of life’.

The same could be said of the so-called ‘Men’s Rights Movement’…

whose growth is fed on masculine insecurity––

the fear that men’s cultural and political dominance is being undermined by women.

Alienation and fear are at the core of all forms of extremism.

And, faced with that sense of alienation…

that sense of threat from some hostile ‘other’… 

and the fear that one’s history, values, way of life, and place in the world are imperilled…

then it makes sense to cling to the past––

albeit a monochromatic and idealised past.

In the face of a fearful uncertainty it’s natural to crave a sense of certainty.

And it’s not just extremists who do that.

We all do, in differing ways and degrees.

It’s what drives so much of what we do.

It underpins so much of our belief.

And don’t we see it, especially, in the religious sphere?

The growth of theologically conservative and fundamentalist churches––

offering a soothing sense of certainty–– 

is a direct result of alienation and fear.

But in varying degrees we find it underpinning even traditional theological beliefs.

How much of the ‘traditional’ doctrine of Easter––

that whole complex of Jesus’ death as the means of forgiveness, salvation, and the promise of eternal life––

is predicated on the fear of death…

and, ultimately, a fear of God?


Alienation and fear are also what lie at the heart of the Book of Revelation.

It was written to a number of churches in Asia Minor––

modern-day Turkey––

who felt isolated and oppressed;

who saw themselves at the mercy of fickle authorities…

and an Emperor who claimed and wielded absolute power and control.

Many in those churches felt disconnected from the ‘pagan’ and ‘immoral’ society around them…

and they were increasingly fearful of what might happen to them…

if they were denounced to the authorities.

The author––

who simply goes by the name of John––

sought to offer them a word of encouragement and hope.

If you read the Book of Revelation you don’t always get that sense.

Through the bizarre, grotesque, and often-violent imagery that it employs––

such as likening the Roman Empire to a savage and monstrous beast––

John only seems to exacerbate that sense of alienation and fear.

Perhaps what we have, then, is a struggle between his own feelings of alienation and fear…

and his desire to offer hope to his readers.

And we get a sense of some of that struggle in our reading this morning.

In seeking to offer them encouragement he rightly begins with God:

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come”. 

Grace and peace derive––

not from the Emperor, as their world and culture asserted–– 

but from God.

While, on one level, that’s a politically provocative statement…

it’s also meant to be a reassurance that…

whatever the world might dish out…

their hope rests in God.

And his description of God, here, draws on a formula often used to speak of a Greek deity.

Thus, Zeus would be described as he “who was, who is, who will be”––

thereby emphasising that god’s eternity and unchangeability.

John is similarly emphasising God’s eternity.

But, by replacing ‘who will be’ with ‘who is coming’…

he eschews the notion that God is distant and uncaring––

as were the ancient Greek gods.

God does care;

and God is eternally present…

always near, always coming, always reaching out––

despite how it might seem sometimes.

God is in control––

despite appearances to the contrary.

To that point, clearly, John is offering hope via a sense of certainty.

And that sense of control and certainty is reinforced by his second use of this formula––

and the end of our reading––

when he combines it with the image of God as ‘Almighty’

and ‘the Alpha and the Omega’.


And yet, the change that he makes to that formula––

substituting ‘is coming’ for ‘will be’––

somewhat undercuts that.

It implies that there is a sense of movement that is inherent or essential to God’s nature.

And movement, of course, implies dynamism…

and, ultimately, change. 

And, of course, that sense of change is reinforced by the God that we see reflected in Jesus Christ…

whom John describes as ‘the faithful witness’––

the One who faithfully tells us…

and shows us…

what God is like.

Indeed, the incarnation––

however we understand it––

implies a major change in the nature of God:

God entered into human experience;

and God became helpless, powerless, and vulnerable.

The crucifixion also implies a major change in the nature of God:

God experienced pain, and loss, and grief;

God experienced godforsakeness.

And the resurrection points us to a God whom we cannot control…


or constrain;

a God who will not allow human hatred and hostility to have the last word;

a God who will not allow our fears and prejudices to triumph;

a God who brings new life out of death. 


Whether he intended to or not…

that is the God whom John points us towards;

that is the God in whom John encourages us to place our hope;

that is the God in whom John calls us to trust when life is uncertain…

when the world feels a hostile and alien place…

when our fears hold sway…

and we yearn for a sense of certainty and control.


we are called to embrace the paradox of the eternal but uncontrollable and evolving God.

We are called to live in the tension between the now and the not yet;

between the yearning for what was and the hope of what will be.

Indeed, we are called––

as priests––

to proclaim and to embody that paradox and tension.

For therein lies the hope for a peaceful and just world.