Once during the height (or depth) of the Vietnam War, I had occasion to fly from New York to my home in Orlando during the wee hours of the night. The plane was nearly empty and they kept it dark so the passengers could sleep. Because of the way the seat assignments worked out, I found myself seated right next to a young man about my age, which was to say at the time draft age. When he had boarded the plane, his eyes had betrayed some sort of distress, they darted here and there nervously. He was anxious to the point of panic. He didn’t speak a word. He dropped into his seat without even noticing me. He strapped himself in, and shortly after take-off, he fell asleep.
Even in his sleep it was apparent that he was greatly distressed. He twitched and jumped and made the noises one makes during nightmares. Perhaps a relative had died, I thought, and that explained not only his distress, but the odd hour of his departure. As the flight progressed, he slumped sideways into his seat until he was lying on my chest. He made himself quite comfortable there. I was embarrassed, but there was no one to see, and because of his distress I didn’t want to rob him of the shallow solace of his sleep. There was little I could do about it anyway: I had just completed a transatlantic flight and an eight-hour delay at Kennedy airport. Only the buzz of jet lag kept me in a zombie-like wakeful state. I let him sleep on my chest.
The plane began to tilt forwards; a sure sign that we were approaching Atlanta. The stewardess made her way down the aisle, gently waking each sleeping passenger to ask if they were flying on or changing planes in Atlanta, so she could make sure that no one slept their way to the wrong destination. When she came to my row, I gave her my answer, and then she tried to wake the fellow sitting next to me. By this time he was the picture of pathetic cuteness: all curled up with his hand over his face, holding on to me tightly.
He woke with a panic.
What? he asked, completely startled.
Are you flying on to Orlando or are you changing planes to San Antonio? the stewardess asked with a gentle smile.
Who, me? he asked. He tried to sit bold upright in his seat, but he overestimated his wakefulness.
I’m going into the Army! he explained, still drunk with sleep, and I pitied him even more.
The stewardess figured out his destination, but I learned his destiny. He had been drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam, and he was terrified that he would be killed.
This young man might as well have been the apostle John, for all I knew, because John was the youngest of the apostles who had slept on Jesus’ breast when the hour was long. He was the only apostle who actually witnessed the crucifixion and comforted Mary. Jesus gave him to Mary to be her son, and Mary to him to be his mother; I suspect that in the trauma of those days, he needed her as much as she needed him. In the end, Mary died, and all the other apostles were put to death for their testimony. Only John was left, the little one, tending congregations that Paul had founded; riding a circuit in what is now southwestern Turkey, until he himself was exiled during a persecution to the island of Patmos. He was terrified, even as the young man in the airplane had been terrified.
There he saw a vision of his best friend, Jesus Christ, who had transformed his entire life. The words that Jesus spoke were honey in those good days back then so far away, when Peter and James and all the rest were still alive; when the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ teaching and delighted at the way He got the best of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The words of Jesus were honey in those days. They were sweet, they delighted the ear, they lifted the heart. Oh, for those days so long ago when John as a young man had fallen asleep during many a discourse and had slept on Jesus’ breast!
But now he is a frail old man, isolated and all alone on the wind-swept, barren isle of Patmos. He had faced many tragedies and discomforts because of his testimony to the words of Jesus Christ. He supervised seven churches who were very inventive in finding ways of missing the point of the gospel message. He is all alone, lonely, cold, hungry, and afraid.
He remembered Jesus’ words, that He would never leave nor forsake him. Then came the vision in which Jesus Christ, his best friend, who lived and died and lived again, came to comfort him once more.
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more:Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me,Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told,You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.
—Revelation 10:9-11, NIV
Surely, the words of Jesus Christ are honey in the mouth, but sour in the stomach. They tickle the ear, but when we put them into practice, we find that they have greater ramifications than we imagined. We start as children playing a pleasant game, but awake to find ourselves as adults engaged in a deadly serious game with very high stakes.
But we don’t have time to complain about the stomach-ache. We have been given a tonic to strengthen us for the task at hand, which looked so romantic and cute, but which turns out to be hard work: we must spread His teachings to many peoples, nations, languages, and kings; and it’s not going to be all honey.