Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

seeing God's kingdom clearly, 3.30.14

John 9:1-17

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Before we really dive into this story, let me say a word about John’s Gospel in general. The way John talks about Judaism is a stumbling block for many people and has even encouraged anti-Semitism at different points in the church’s history. John often talks about “the Jews” in his writing. What he really means is the religious leaders.

John isn’t opposed to Judaism. He wasn’t prejudiced against Jewish people. After all, Jesus and most of the early church leaders, including John himself, were Jewish. John does have a bone to pick with the leaders of the religious establishment. The religious leaders opposed Jesus from the beginning. They had Jesus arrested and executed. Religious leaders later persecuted the church. When you hear John talk about “the Jews,” substitute “Religious leaders,” and you’ll be on the right track. That keeps us from getting hung up on what sounds like anti-Semitic language.

It also helps us hear Jesus’ challenge to the leaders of his faith community as a challenge to us as well. People who are committed to the church, like us, face some of the same temptations the religious leaders in Jesus’ time faced, so we need to hear Jesus’ words today too. If we’re honest with ourselves, we fall into some of the same traps the religious leaders in this story fall into. This is a story about healing, but it’s also a story about how we get stuck in our point of view.

Let’s start by being fair to the religious leaders. They get a bad rap because they oppose Jesus, but they deserve to be heard too. The Sabbath commandment isn’t some tiny detail in religious life. It was one of the major things that set Jews apart from their pagan neighbors. Also, like the way Sunday dinner unites many families in the US today, the family rhythms of the Sabbath tied families and communities together in Jesus’ time.

Under Roman occupation everything that supported Jewish community life was crucial. Without the ability to rule themselves politically, the religious rules were more important than ever for the people of Israel. Leaders worried about all the pressures that encouraged Jews to leave their uniqueness behind to fit in with society. This day set apart for worship, family and community strengthened the Jewish community in a challenging time.

The Sabbath isn’t just a human tradition either. God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. The Sabbath was a big deal. Jesus wasn’t just disrespecting the Pharisees: he seemed to be trampling on God’s law.

The religious leaders are faced with a difficult situation. On the one hand, Jesus has obviously performed a powerful miracle. He’s freed a man from blindness and from a life of begging to survive. On the other hand, he has completely disregarded God’s commandment to rest on the Sabbath. The leaders feel confused; they don’t know what to make of the situation, but they feel threatened.

I imagine these leaders worrying that this disobeyed commandment will be the first step on a slippery slope. If they allow this traveling rabbi to heal on the Sabbath, other people will start ignoring the commandment too, and little by little the religious structure that held the community together would be worn away. Jews would start acting more and more like gentiles, and God’s chosen people would stop being the unique and blessed community God called them to be.

For many Christians same sex marriage is a lot like the Sabbath commandment was for the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. For many, the Bible is clear about sexuality, and same sex relationships are not included. Like the Sabbath in the story, marriage is crucial to the structure of the family and society, so the stakes are high.

Opponents of same sex marriage worry it will weaken heterosexual marriage and thus weaken the family structure as well. They also worry that marriage equality is one more in a seemingly endless string of changes that weaken the influence of scripture on the church and the church on society.

I can see where that fear comes from. Society does feel unsettled. We see so many families torn apart by divorce. We see shocking levels of crime and violence and poverty that break down our communities, and we know families are important in the health of a community. The world feels unpredictable, and that makes us nostalgic for a past we imagine, a past that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. The church has an important perspective to offer society in terms of love and family and grace, and for many Christians, supporting marriage equality is a compromise of Christian values to fit in with society.

For the leaders in our story, even though they could see something special about Jesus’ power to heal, he didn’t fit into their understanding of how God worked. His actions didn’t fit the rules, so they had to oppose those actions. In the same way, for a lot of Christians they see that gay and lesbian couples love each other, but homosexuality doesn’t fit the rules as they know them, so they have to oppose it. There’s a conflict for many people about love that seems good in one way, but in another way doesn’t follow the rules.

Jesus turns things upside down. He doesn’t reject God’s Law, but he makes us look at law and faith and scripture very differently. In this case Jesus isn’t rejecting the Sabbath, but he is rejecting any religious observation that stands in the way of healing and justice. It’s not about observing or not observing the Sabbath; it’s about loving our neighbor. Everything is about loving our neighbor and loving God.

Supporting same sex marriage isn’t about rejecting traditional marriage; it’s about expanding marriage so it can be liberating and life-giving for more people. Marriage is a covenant of love, and love knows no boundaries. LGBT couples getting married will not weaken the family; they will broaden the range of families blessed by the church. Families today don’t all look like the Norman Rockwell painting. They are often more complicated than a father, mother, 2 kids and a dog. But every family built on love is holy and beautiful and blessed by God, no matter what the church says.

Of course, this passage isn’t about sexuality; it’s bigger than that. Jesus invites us to look beyond the easy answers in every part of our life, both together as a church and individually. I believe that adults in loving relationships should be free to marry regardless of their sex. I believe in marriage equality both for civil marriage and marriage in the church.

I also believe that you don’t have to agree with me on that or anything else, for that matter. There are many areas where faithful people disagree, and one of the great blessings of our Presbyterian system is that we seek God’s will through prayer and conversation together. We need different opinions and perspectives to hear God’s will clearly. I promise to respect and protect your right to express you opinion in a loving and respectful way regardless of whether I agree.

The real problem with the religious leaders in this passage isn’t that they took the Sabbath too seriously. It’s not that they disagreed with Jesus. The problem is that when they felt threatened they settled the problem with power. First they bullied the man who had been healed; then they kicked him out of the community. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was raising questions that made them uncomfortable. Instead of sitting with that discomfort and reasoning together, they used their power to silence the question.

That temptation isn’t a conservative temptation; it’s a universal temptation for people in power who feel threatened. For instance, many liberal academics protested at the University of Minnesota and Rutgers University because those schools invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak. They didn’t like her viewpoint, so they tried to silence her. In communities like this one, we’re much more at risk of silencing a conservative viewpoint than a liberal one. If we truly value diversity, that should include theological diversity as well. If everyone is welcome, all voices need to be respected.

That’s a delicate balance because discussions of sexuality can feel like an attack on LGBT people very easily. This community needs to be a safe space where all people are valued. It especially needs to be a safe space for LGBT people and others who are not always heard and respected. But with grace and love, there can be space for honest discussion, even when it’s hard.

This summer our denomination will debate two overtures about same sex marriage. The realist in me expects that the discussion will be predictable and without much grace. Conservatives will make a biblical case against marriage equality. They will talk about the dangers of following secular culture too closely. At worst, they will say ugly things about LGBT sisters and brothers.

Liberals will make a case for same sex marriage. They will talk about the power of love and equality. At their worst they will equate conservative theology with bigotry. Both sides will basically dismiss the other position; both sides will leave the debate more convinced than ever that they are right and the other side is wrong. By a few votes either way we will have a narrow decision for or against same sex marriage.

I hope and pray for something better. I pray we will listen to each other. I pray we will actually discuss what the Bible says and what it means for us today. I pray we will talk about real couples and what marriage means for them. I hope we will actually seek God’s will for the church because both sides have something to offer.

Conservatives are right that the church isn’t always careful enough about following God. We are not supposed to mirror secular society; we are called to bear witness to God’s loving kingdom with our words and our actions. Liberals are right that love makes a family, and that discrimination has no place in the church. If we actually listen and learn from each other we will come out stronger and more faithful, still perhaps with a narrow vote, but with deeper love and respect for people with whom we disagree.

The truth of this passage for us goes far beyond marriage or theological discussion. The heart of this passage is that Jesus wants to open our eyes, because we’ve all got blind spots, and we all need healing. The more we are convinced that we see clearly, the more convinced we are that we are right or righteous, the more likely we are to have it all wrong.

Where do you need Jesus to clarify your vision?

Are you closing your eyes to some uncomfortable truth in your own life?

Where are you refusing to see a different point of view?

What easy answers are you still clinging to?

Jesus wants to help us see a righteous kingdom full of love and grace, but we can’t see it if we’re already sure we see it all.

Thanks be to God.

Hope for a peaceful kingdom, 3.2.14

Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Revelation 22:1-7

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

6And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” 7“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

Revelation and Isaiah were written about 800 years apart, but they have a lot in common. Both are prophetic books, which means they were written by someone called by the God to challenge and encourage the people. They both interpret the events of the author’s time in the light of God’s calling. These two passages especially have a lot in common because they lift up a vision of how God will bring the world to its conclusion, and they use that vision to inspire God’s people.

The Prophet Isaiah lived more than 700 years before Jesus in the Kingdom of Judah, which was the southern half of what had been Israel. He wrote to a nation that was doing pretty well on the surface but inside was very sick. On the outside Judah appeared economically strong and religiously active.

Speaking as an insightful observer and as a spokesperson for God, Isaiah sees a very different nation. He sees the powerful oppressing the poor. He sees religious leaders acting as cheerleaders for the nation’s sin by blessing leaders who turned away from the divine call for justice. Isaiah, like other biblical prophets, saw the problems in his society clearly.

He also saw hope for the Lord’s redemption, not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Our passage for today is a vision of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace, justice and wholeness where love would guide all relationships and all that was wrong would be made right.

John, the author of Revelation wrote in very different times. He probably wrote between 70 and 90 AD, more than 40 years after Jesus was killed. He wrote to a Christian community that was small and surrounded by threats. Christians were a distrusted minority. Their fellow citizens thought they were unpatriotic, even a threat, because they didn’t worship the Roman gods or the emperor.

While the Roman Empire hadn’t started persecuting the church actively, the Emperor Nero twenty or thirty years earlier had tortured and killed many Christians. John expected the near future to bring more persecution because the Roman Empire claimed divine power. That ultimately put it on a collision course with the church because the church believed only Christ was Lord.

As many of you have seen, Revelation is a collection of strange images through which God and John remind the church that God truly is in charge. No matter how strong the powers of empire appear, God’s kingdom of love will triumph in the end. The passage we read today builds on the last week’s description of God’s heavenly kingdom: a new heaven and new earth with its center in a new Jerusalem that comes down from. In this holy city God will be right in the middle of human life.

A restoring river of life flows from God’s throne through the street. That river brings new life to the world. We see a strong tree of life on both sides of the river and its leaves bring healing not just to Israel, not just to the church, but for all the nations.

There are all kinds of ways Revelation has been misused. The violence of other parts of the book have sometimes fueled an “us versus them” mentality in the church. The image of a new heaven and a new earth has made some Christians careless about the earth with which we have been entrusted. But the book as a whole is a powerful reminder that God is in charge, no matter what it looks like some days.

Both passages give us a vision of hope, and we need that. We need that as individuals and as a congregation. There are times that life feels overwhelming. Whether it’s family struggles, trouble at work, political turmoil or health challenges, there are so many things we feel we can’t control. When we look at the violence in Syria and the instability in Ukraine, the world feels like a threatening place. When we worry about our bills or a loved one’s illness, it can be hard to believe that the story has a happy ending.

Laurelton has been through a lot. The last three years have been better financially, but we’re not out of the woods yet. This year’s budget is challenging. Facing the end of our time together is sad and a little scary. We worry about our future as a community of faith. Many of the people you care about are not here anymore. There are so many things that are unsure about the world we live in.

Isaiah and John’s visions remind us that in the end all will be well. We are part of a bigger story. We’re part of the God’s restoration of creation. Our loving witness in this community for justice is part of the movement that one day will make a place for everyone.

In Isaiah’s vision the lion and the calf, the wolf and the lamb all live together in harmony. Our witness to justice now is part of God’s peaceful kingdom. Community is nurtured through worship and the Saturday Cafe. Laurelton’s welcome for neighbors is part of how God’s welcoming, inclusive kingdom is built up. The teaching ministry of this church whether in Sunday school for a few children or through preaching or through casual conversation over a cup of coffee is part of how the knowledge of God spreads so it can eventually cover the world with grace.

I don’t know what the future holds for Laurelton. I don’t know what the future holds for Calvary or for the Presbyterian Church. A big part of our future will be shaped with other churches, especially through Urban Presbyterians Together. I know that the One who calls us is faithful. I know that God’s grace is eternal and that God cares for each of us deeply.

I trust these visions of a righteous kingdom. I trust that one day God will make everything new, that injustice and oppression will be defeated and all people, in fact, all creation, will have abundant, peaceful, joyful life in a restored universe of harmony. I trust that future, even though I can’t see it clearly.

Because we believe that one day God will make all things right, we are free to work for justice now without worrying about our successes and failures. We can try new ministries in our life together and in our individual lives. Ultimately, it’s not about me and it’s not about us. We are part of a bigger story with a magnificently happy ending.

No matter what happens, Laurelton is part of the amazing tapestry of divine love. When this neighborhood was first being established, Rev. Harrison was visiting new neighbors, welcoming them to something new. Changing times have taken a toll on this congregation, but each chapter has been a new chance to share God’s love. Whether through the Living Nativity, the Get out and Play ministry, Christmas baskets, Cameron or Café, this church finds new ways to remind our neighbors that God loves them. No matter what happens, that legacy of love, creativity and faithfulness will remain.

The last few years have brought some exciting hope. The Café has deepened our engagement with the community. Supper and Scripture has grown. New members have joined the church and our finances are better than they have been. UPT is working together to support congregations and reach out to the city more effectively. God is doing something exciting here

God isn’t finished yet. She’s not finished with Laurelton, not finished with you personally, and not finished with the world. The story ends with wholeness, peace, community, abundance and welcome for all creation. The story ends with creation renewed and restored, free from pollution and oppression and death. The story ends with God’s love powerfully present among us, so obvious that no one can miss it. The story ends like it begins, with creative love weaving a beautiful new world.

The chapters between now and then are not yet written. We don’t know all the twists and turns. We don’t know the victories and setbacks. We don’t know what we will learn about ourselves and our city. We do know that we are part of something bigger, something beautiful and righteous and true. We know that God has called us, that Jesus has gone before us, and that the Holy Spirit is with us, surrounding and filling us.

We know too that our efforts, our love, our welcome are precious to God. The Holy One has been part of our journey from our first steps. God feels our sorrow and our fear. She mourns with us and sympathizes with our worries. No matter what happens, we are not alone; you are not alone. Each moment of your story is part of the Creator’s loving story, a story that is more beautiful because it includes hardship and challenge. The work we have to do together is important, but the weight of creation is not on our shoulders. No matter what happens the good news of divine love will shine through our story as we follow our calling.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 24, 2014

judgment and a new creation, 2.23.14

Revelation 19:11-21

11Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

17Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.”19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.21And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

Revelation 20:11-15

11Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:1-8

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

These are strange and scary images. We see Jesus riding out to judge and make war. The armies of the world line up against him, led by the beast and the false prophet. Jesus and his followers defeat the powers of the world. The key weapon is the sword of Christ’s word.

The Bible often calls God’s word a sharp, double edged sword. That image totally fits my experience. When I’m not doing the right thing, I feel the word cut into my conscience. It’s that sword that levels the opposing armies. The battle scene reminds us that even though all the power in the world might seem to be against us, ultimately even kings who stand against God will be food for the birds.

The war scene fades out and God’s throne room fades in. Jesus sits on the throne to judge everyone. We see books of people’s lives, and another book that is the book of life. Everyone who has ever died is judged based on their life. 

When we think about God’s judgment sometimes we think about rules. We think about rules and laws and getting punished for doing something wrong. Many people grow up thinking religion was about what not to do. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t have sex. Don’t talk out of turn, respect your elders, give money, go to church and so on.

Those are the rules and we think of sin as breaking the rules. A lot of people, whether they go to church or not, believe that God will add up our good deeds on one side and our sins on the other side. We will “pass” or “fail” judgment based on which pile is bigger. If you read just this passage you might get that idea too. Does that kind of sound like an idea you’ve picked up?

When kids are young, they need concrete and specific rules. At first, they also need clear rewards and punishments to reinforce the rules. It’s appropriate and necessary to train little kids like that, but even then, it helps to explain what we’re doing. As they grow up, we help them think about the consequences of their choices. The goal of childhood rules is to develop adults who can think for themselves and understand how their choices impact others.

By the time your son is 17 he should clean his room (at least a little bit) because he wants to live somewhere decent, not because you’re giving him cookies. Your teenage daughter should choose not to say mean things about her friends because it will hurt their feelings, not because she’ll get grounded. The rules and discipline you’ve given them early teach them moral and practical principles that will be useful their whole lives, even when the specific rules don’t matter anymore. Ultimately you want them to understand the reason behind the rules instead of just thinking about the rules themselves.

When it comes to faith, a lot of people get stuck in about fourth grade. That’s true of whole faith systems as well as of people. We often think religion is about rules, punishments and rewards. So we approach our faith like reluctant students: “What’s the least we have to do to make it into heaven?” “What’s the worst we can do and still not end up in hell?”

That’s not a recipe for a vibrant and joyful faith, but it’s how many people feel. Many of us end up feeling like faith is irrelevant because it’s a bunch of rules we can’t understand or live up to. When we think about faith that way, usually our first emotion is guilt or fear.

A big part of the problem is trust. We can’t see God, and a lot of the things people tell us about God are confusing. When we see God through the religious rules we learn, often we imagine a strict teacher with rules that don’t make any sense to us. Talking about judgment is scary because the stakes are high and we’re not sure we can trust the judge. When our religious organizations focus on rules they reinforce this damaging image of God and the actually get in the way of people’s faith.

Instead of thinking about rules, think for a moment about Jesus, because he’s the one who’s going to be our judge at the end. Jesus loved all kinds of people regardless of what the rules said. When it comes to rules and punishment, Jesus took the beating, went to the cross and said, “Father, forgive them.” That’s the God who is going to judge us on the last day.

We can trust him to be fairer and more merciful than we can imagine. We don’t have to worry about being misunderstood. Jesus knows each of us completely, and he loves us dearly. The early images in Revelation of Jesus as a slaughtered lamb are so important because they remind us that the one who will judge us is the same one who suffered for us. We can trust Jesus.

We know that evil is powerful. We know that from scripture, from our experience, and from the news. We also know that evil is inside us. God wants to redeem the world from injustice, oppression, hunger and hatred. God wants to give us a beautiful, peaceful, kingdom to share. God will be right in the middle, close enough to wipe our tears away. John’s image of a new heaven and new earth and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven like a bride helps us imagine the beauty of the new thing God is waiting to do in our world.

The trouble is that our selfishness and desire for control keep getting in the way of God’s plan. God created a beautiful world for everyone, but we get so carried away with possessions and convenience that we destroy creation with thoughtless consumption and wasteful living. God gives us a world with plenty for everyone, but we concentrate wealth and resources while the vulnerable starve. God keeps trying to get us to change our ways, but we have not.

To bring the peaceful kingdom into existence, God has to defeat the forces that stand in the way. The power of God’s redeeming word rides out to break down the lying words of our world that claim some people are better than others, that some deserve to suffer, that there is not enough for everyone.

To bring the peaceful, blessed kingdom to earth, God defeats the evil powers of the world, including the evil powers inside us. When God shows us this vision of a final judgment it reminds us that our choices, our actions have consequences. It’s not about rules and requirements; it’s about living our calling and responsibility in the world. God calls us to love each other, so at the last judgment we will be faced with how we have responded to that calling.

In the end we will stand before Christ on the throne. The book of our lives will be open and so will the book of life. We will stand before Jesus and account for our lives.

How are you doing? This is not about guilt trips or inadequacy or pride or fear. We’ve been given an amazing gift: the chance to be part of the beautiful kingdom God is bringing into the world. Each day, each interaction with someone else is a chance to be part of God’s kingdom. How is your life contributing to that kingdom? How are your actions blocking God’s kingdom?

Jesus is on the throne. He knows us inside and out. He knows our secrets, our struggles and our shame. And God loves us no matter what. We can cover it up all we want, but when the dead are raised and the books are open we will have to face how we have used this life. One day we will each be judged and evil will be defeated.

On the other side of that judgment is a beautiful city, a new creation of love and peace and justice. God doesn’t need us to build that kingdom, but she invites us to be part of it. We catch glimpses of that kingdom even now. We see it when we hold an infant and think only about that new life. We see it when we take the time to listen to someone’s story. We see it when we open ourselves up in prayer.

We feel God’s peaceful kingdom in simple moments. In a meal shared with friends and family when we rest in the joy of relationships without worrying about the future. We feel it in the kiss of the sunshine on our face and the comfort of a beloved pet. We taste the kingdom in a favorite song or painting or a run along the river, in a hug from a friend, or a hot cup of coffee shared with a spouse.

God invites to use those moments to lead us forward. God invites us to throw off the chains of selfishness and fear. We may not see God’s kingdom arrive completely in this life, but the more we commit to God’s love today, the more we will live in that kingdom even now. See the kingdom, and let your life be a part of building it each day.

Thanks be to God.

Alas, Babylon, 2.16.14

Revelation 17:1-7, 18

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.”

3So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.

When I saw her, I was greatly amazed.7But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her… 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

Revelation 18:1-3, 9-20

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor.2He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. 3For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”

9And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”

11And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. 14“The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendor are lost to you, never to be found again!”

15The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, 16“Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! 17For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!” And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” 19And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste. 20Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.”

A friend of mine recently lent me a book called “Alas, Babylon,” and reading that was part of the impetus for this series on Revelation. The title comes from this passage, and it is a great story set during the nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union that, fortunately, never happened.

The white main character in the story and his brother grew up in a small town in Florida. They remember a childhood visit to a local African American church where the sermon cried out God’s judgment on the comfort and power of this world.

As the brothers grew up, the repeated phrase from that sermon, “Alas, Babylon” stood, half jokingly, for anything that went wrong. As they got older and one of the brothers started to rise through the ranks of the Air Force it became a code they hoped they would never use that meant, “Nuclear war is coming.”

The African American tradition has generally had a different view of political power and judgment than the white church. That’s because our nation’s history has been twisted by racism since the beginning. White people and institutions have controlled most US political and economic power through out our history.

When the pilgrims came to this continent they thought of themselves as a new Israel, a city on a hill where God’s light of liberty could shine. From that beginning, the mainstream white American religious tradition has linked the calling of God with the growth of the nation. While white Christians in the US have different ideas about how to improve our nation, the overall story is one of gradual change guided by God, leading to greater justice and righteousness.

When Africans brought here in chains learned the Bible stories, they saw America as Egypt, not Israel. They imagined themselves like the Israelites in slavery, oppressed by a wicked nation and longing for freedom. That means for African American Christians, stories of God’s judgment against the powerful make perfect sense. African American Christians know first hand that American power is a mixed blessing at best.

Other oppressed groups have also found good news in the Bible’s words of judgment. The Bible was mostly written by people without power, so it is skeptical of human power. Israel was a chosen nation with a special mission and a special place in God’s heart, but even they stumbled and sinned more often than they succeeded. King David, the standard by which all future kings were measured, fell into the temptation of power himself.

Other empires receive much more negative judgments. Egypt’s king and army are drowned in the Red Sea. Assyria’s army is nearly wiped out by God while they besieged Jerusalem. Babylon becomes God’s tool for judgment against a sinful Judah, but they also fall under God’s judgment because of their arrogance.

The relationship between Christianity and political power has always been complicated. Paul tells his readers to pay taxes and obey the Emperor, while John clearly saw the Roman Empire as a threat and an enemy. Later, Rome became a supporter and enforcer for the church, which brought new opportunities and temptation. While political power can strengthen or weaken the institution of the church, our calling is to follow God regardless of what political leaders say.

For us the issue is less intense, but more complicated. We take freedom of religion for granted. The separation of church and state and freedom for religious minorities are key ideas from the foundation of our nation. At the same time, many people think of the US as a “Christian nation,” and ideas of faith and patriotism are often woven together.

Sometimes that combination is a good thing. Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts learn the importance of devotion to God and to country. Our national history teaches us about the importance of freedom and equality, both of which are important in the Christian faith and provide a good foundation for life. Our nation has much to be proud of including helping other nations, supporting democracy and encouraging innovation.

Faith teaches us to make our lives: our work, our study, our activities, an expression of faith and values. Those values shape who we are individually and as a nation at our best. That’s why programs like Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts that focus on service and character building are so important. The best values of faith and the best values of our nation are worthy of respect and fit together in many ways.

Patriotism also has a darker side, so the combination of religion and patriotism can be a problem. For instance, misguided patriotism and Christianity fueled racist movements like the Ku Klux Klan. Even some Christians who supported Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights, felt he was being unpatriotic when he opposed the Vietnam War. Political power and faith have a complicated relationship.

What are Christians like us who live in the most powerful nation on earth supposed to make of a passage like this where the power of empire is destroyed? There are two messages here: a word of hope and a word of warning. For John’s readers, the word of hope would be the main one because empire was a threat to them, so the hope that in the end God would throw down the evil power and vindicate them gave them the strength to hold firm to their faith. It gave them the courage to bear witness, knowing that God’s love would triumph in the end.

We need that hope as well. We need that hope when we struggle for a better world. We need that hope as we minister to kids trapped in poverty and limited by racism. We need that hope as we care for those who have fallen through the cracks of empire. We need the hope that the forces of evil, of ignorance, of oppression that seem so strong, so insurmountable will one day be defeated.

One day the evil that prowls our streets and devours our young men will be judged and thrown down. One day the silence that allows domestic abuse will be broken, and the light of God’s truth will break through. One day the forces of violence and corruption that allow children to starve in Central Africa and girls to be shot instead of educated in Pakistan will be defeated by the power of God’s love.

We need that hope today. One day God’s power will prove stronger than all the forces of evil and hatred.

But we are part of the empire as well, so we need a word of warning from John’s writing too. The merchants’ memories of the good times of prosperity and trade ring in our ears. We remember when the economy was stronger, and we long for that comfort. We see the TV ads for flashing gadgets and shiny cars. We feel the temptation of empire, especially the empire of the mighty dollar.

For many of us there’s also a longing for the imperial church. We remember when the church was at the center of culture. We remember when no one would organize school activities on Sunday. We remember when people automatically looked for a church when they moved to a new area. We miss the old connections between the church and culture. We fear the competition of other ideas; we worry that as we lose our power over culture the culture will slide further into chaos.

We are also tied into the workings of our culture and our empire. When our nation sins, we are a part of it. Our hands are bloody when the innocent die in drone strikes. We are not innocent when families are locked in poverty. We are guilty when the nation cares more about luxury than about vulnerable people in need.

Even when we act for justice we need to remember that all human movements face the imperial temptation: the temptation to trust ourselves too much and to seek our own power. That means we need to examine ourselves and our organizations, including the church, to resist that temptation.

When we long for power and the security of empire we need John’s warning. When we are complacent and comfortable we need John’s warning. God reminds us through John’s strange vision that all empires fall, the United States included. Human power is important, but it is not ultimate. We can’t find salvation in political influence, organizational success or financial prosperity. We find salvation in God alone, and that is a gift.

We need the hope and the warning of this passage. We need to know that our small efforts for justice matter, because they are part of building God’s kingdom. We need to know that our small sins of indifference matter because they tie us to the sins of Babylon.

We are connected to the persecuted saints and the ruling empire. We benefit from the system and we long for freedom from its oppression. John calls us to choose God over empire. God calls us use whatever power we have faithfully, to act for justice, to protect the weak, to grow in faith, hope and love, to change the world for the better. No matter how things look, the powers of evil cannot last. The empire cannot stand against God forever. Ultimately, the empires of the earth will crumble and God’s kingdom of peace will come.

May that day come quickly. Thanks be to God.

witnesses for Jesus, 2.9.14

Revelation 6:9-11

9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.

Revelation 11:1-13

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.

3And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” 4These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.

7When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.

9For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
             Revelation talks a lot about witnesses and testimony. From the very beginning of the book the words echo over and over again. John introduces himself as a servant “who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” He offers the churches receiving his letter grace from Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness.” In chapter 12 we’re told Christians conquered Satan, “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Clearly bearing witness is an important part of the Christian life for John, and testifying has the power to defeat Satan.

            What does it mean to be a witness? First, a witness has to experience something; they have to know it directly. Second, to be useful, they have to share that testimony with someone else, and they have to do it honestly. The two witnesses in the second passage probably represent the church, the people of God following Jesus. Testimony is the job of the whole church, not just people who we think of as preachers or prophets or evangelists. The church bears witness that God is love and Jesus is Lord.

            The passage doesn’t say much about the words the witnesses say, but we see that the message isn’t popular. To bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to go against the empire, to live life against the grain. These prophets are described as a torment to all the inhabitants of the earth. People are so glad to see them killed that they give each other presents to celebrate.

            Shared values define communities. For community to work smoothly, most members of that community need to agree to live by the same rules. In the Roman Empire pagan ritual and worship of the emperor expressed and reinforced the values people lived by. People believed that worshiping the Roman Gods insured the Gods’ blessings of peace and prosperity. Worshiping the emperor reminded people of their unity under Roman rule. Even though there were many differences throughout the vast empire, everyone followed one ruler, so there was unity.

             Christians messed up that unity by refusing to worship the Gods and refusing to worship the emperor. Some people worried Christians would encourage others to ignore the Gods as well and the Gods would respond by withholding their blessings or even cursing the empire.

            While Christians followed the law and obeyed the emperor and his representatives, they didn’t worship him, so people felt they couldn’t be trusted. They were seen as outsiders within the empire. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a big deal if Christians kept their faith to themselves and tried to fit in, but John is encouraging them to stand out and speak up. That is seen as disruptive and threatening to empire, so people get scared, angry and violent.

            John encouraged his readers to be faithful witnesses like Jesus. That same calling is ours to since we are also disciples of Jesus. The hardest part of this calling for many of us is imagining ourselves as witnesses in the first place. We were not alive when Jesus walked the earth, so how could we be witnesses?

            John wrote Revelation late in the first century, probably around 80 or 90. That means many, even most of John’s readers hadn’t been alive during Jesus’ life. Very few of them met Jesus in the flesh. In some really important ways John’s readers were like us: they trusted in Jesus even though they had never met him.

            So how could they be witnesses for Jesus? How could they testify that he was Lord? The key to John’s readers being witnesses is that they experienced Jesus as their Lord. They each had a moment when they chose to let Jesus run their life. They made that decision in a community that had made the same decision, a community full of people following a different path than the path of empire. In that community they learned about Jesus’ life. They heard from his original followers and from people those first disciples taught.

They practiced living based on Jesus’ teachings. They tried to love their neighbor and their enemies. They raised their children in the faith, even though they knew that was risky and strange. They read scripture, prayed together, sang hymns, listened to people interpret God’s word and shared stories of how God was working in the world.

As they lived in that community, Christ’s lordship became more and more real for them. Caesar still ran the empire; the world around them didn’t change, but in their lives individually and as a church, Jesus was Lord. The more they trusted that, the more real it became for them. And the more they allowed Jesus to be their Lord, the more the world made sense. As they lived it, it became almost obvious that at the end Jesus would judge the world with love and defeat the power of evil. One day everyone would see the truth they already knew, and the world would finally be at peace.

They testified for Jesus because they believed he truly was Lord. They had seen for themselves that life was better when they let Jesus lead. So they wanted others to experience that same peace and joy that they had.

I can testify to the same thing in my life. The more I try to follow Jesus the more sense the world makes, even when the world doesn’t make sense. I see that life really is better if we forgive other people. I truly am happier if I look out for others instead of just myself. My ministry works better when I let go of the steering wheel and trust Jesus to lead the way.

I also understand the story more the more time I spend with it. The more I watch human power, both religious and political, the more I understand why Jesus had to die. I see why the religious leaders and political leaders saw him as a threat, because he refused to live by their rules. It makes sense that religious and political leaders felt the same way about Jesus’ followers since they followed Jesus’ example. As they reached out to outcasts and ignored the rules about who was clean and unclean, they undermined the whole religious system.

The more I try to follow Jesus, the more things fall into place. I don’t get it right all the time. That’s how I know that grace is stronger than sin, because Jesus keeps picking me up and forgiving me when I fall down. And I see Jesus at work in this community. I see people who feel like the whole world is against them find a place of refuge here. I hear people say they have been accepted here. I hear stories like Bob’s story last week about the healing power of a visit from Santa. I listen to Donna talk about her new ministry caring for people at the end of life. I see the healing of Jesus taking place in this community, so I know that healing is real.

I also see people struggling. I see our church and other churches mess up. I see myself make mistakes. I see children left behind by society and let down by their families, so I know the power of evil is still at work. I know the dragon and the beast are still leading people astray. I feel the struggle of sin inside me and around us, so I know that struggle is real.

I know bearing witness to Jesus Christ can still cost us a lot. Caesar is still strong. It’s easier to fit in with the values of our time of everyone for themselves and bigger is better. It’s easier to ignore poverty when it doesn’t touch us. It’s easier to let kids in the city continue to fall further behind in school. It’s easier to turn away, lock our doors and decide it’s not our problem when gun violence claims another young life. It’s easier to believe the polarized left or the polarized right when they tell us they have the solution. It’s easier to keep our faith to ourselves and let Caesar be lord in the world around us.

But instead we are called to proclaim the truth: Jesus is Lord. We are Christ’s witnesses, or at least that’s part of our calling. Here’s the challenge. Most of us have witnessed something, some moment or word or experience that makes us believe that Jesus is Lord. But we’ve also seen things that make us wonder. Maybe we have a hard time really believing. Maybe we have the right combination of a little doubt and a little fear so it’s easier for us to live our faith quietly. Maybe we want to hedge our bets and keep peace with the empire around us.

There’s so much baggage attached to our faith that it’s hard to know what to believe. People say there’s only one way, that God is going to wipe out everyone who doesn’t believe the way we do. That doesn’t make sense if God is love. The Bible has terrible stories of violence, genocide, rape and murder. That doesn’t make sense if Jesus is the prince of peace. The Bible is our best witness to God’s story, but it’s so troubling. Does bearing witness to Jesus mean condemning people who are gay? Does it mean supporting the oppression of women?

There’s a lot to sort out in our faith and the guidance can be murky sometimes. I love the Bible like crazy, which means there are some parts of it I really dislike. And I’m pretty sure Christians are a bigger stumbling block for faith than atheists ever could be. The path of faithful witness isn’t always easy to see. But Jesus walked that path before you. God sent the Holy Spirit to us to help us know the truth so it can set us free. There’s no such thing as a perfect witness, but people need to hear the truth as you see it. They need to hear that you don’t have it all figured out, but you’re discovering what it means to follow Jesus and here’s why they might want to follow too.

The world needs your witness. The kingdom of peace and love grows stronger as we share the story of Jesus. The empire of indifference and injustice loses a little bit of ground when we act like Jesus is Lord. People are hungry for good news; will you give it to them? Will you seek in your heart to see what you really think is true so you can bear witness? Will you pray for guidance to experience the graceful rule of Jesus so you can tell others? Will you take one step today to let Jesus rule in your heart? I’m not promising you an easy road, but I can promise that the one who calls us is faithful. So open your heart, lift up your voice and follow with your actions as the chorus of witnesses grows stronger each day.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A call for faith and endurance, 2.2.14

Mark 13:21-27, 32-33

21And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. 22False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.

24“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven… 32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

As you’ve probably noticed, Revelation is a strange book. It’s visually stunning; it’s also highly symbolic. One of the books I’ve been reading warns that it’s not meant to be read literally as a textbook for how the world will end. And while some figures in Revelation refer to historical people or places, we shouldn’t limit the book to those meanings. Sometimes one symbol stands for several differet things. And sometimes the main point isn’t exactly what happens, but the overall feel and atmosphere.

Last week Carl talked about the Revelation Christmas story. Satan in the form of a dragon tries to snatch Jesus from his mother as soon as he’s born. The woman is Mary, but she’s also the church and the force of new birth too. The dragon is Satan and the serpent from the Garden of Eden and the force of evil in the world.

Last week we also read about the defeat of Satan in heaven and how Satan was then cast down to earth where he would unleash persecution and terror against God’s people. In today’s passage we’ll find out more about that. As we read along jot down anything that confuses you. I’ll get to some of it as we read, but then I’d love to hear your questions and stumbling blocks before we get into what the passage says to us today.

Revelation 12:18-13:18
(12:18) Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. (13:1) And I saw a beast rising out of the sea having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority.3One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed.

Let’s take a quick pause for a little explanation. We met the dragon, Satan, last week. Today his ally appears. The beast that comes out of the sea looks bizarre with ten horns and seven heads. The main thing John’s readers would have thought of when they heard the beast described was the Roman Empire.

Later on in the book (Chapter 17 to be exact) an angel reveals to John the mystery of the beast by saying the seven heads are seven mountains on which the beast sits. Rome was known as a city sitting on seven hills. The different animal features John notices reflect the beasts Daniel saw in his visions from 400 years earlier. In Daniel’s vision, the different animals symbolized different empires, so this fits the same trend.

Chapter 17 says the seven heads are not only seven mountains, but also 7 kings. One of those heads had a deadly wound that had been healed. The Emperor Nero, who ruled about 30 years before Revelation was written, was the first Emperor to persecute Christians. He killed himself, but there was a widespread belief that he had or would return from the grave. The beast’s wounded head is a reference to Nero.

Scholars say when John uses symbolic language about the rulers of his time the point isn’t to communicate who they are, John’s audience already knows who the rulers are. His point instead is to show what they are in the spiritual and cosmic sense. The Roman rulers are not just political overlords. John argues they rule by Satan’s power and authority. That why John sees the beast (Rome) receive its throne from the dragon (Satan). The blasphemous names John talks about on the beast’s heads probably refer to the Emperor’s claims to be divine. And now, back to the story.

In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 5The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.

It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. 9Let anyone who has an ear listen: 10If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

11Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed.

16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

We’ve got a dragon and two strange beasts in our story for today. We talked about the dragon as Satan and the first beast as Rome. One writer points out that from where John lived in Asia, Roman power would come from the sea since Rome was across the Mediterranean from Asia Minor, so the first beast rises up from the sea. The second beast comes from the land because it is local power.

We talked a few weeks about how the Roman Empire used religious language and ritual to support its power in the provinces. Asia was an especially important area for emperor worship. The second beast, also know as the false prophet, would be the local rulers, both religious and political, who supported the religious worship of the Emperor.

When we read this passage we don’t need to imagine an actual image with the power to speak and kill. Instead, think about the power of images to shape thought, and enforce common belief. Likewise, we don’t need to imagine an actual time when people will be forced to tattoo a number on themselves to buy or sell. Instead, we can think about how hard it would be for Christians to participate in the economy since many economic and social events happened along with pagan worship.

Is there anything you want to know about the passage? Any part of it that makes you say, “I don’t get it,” or, “what is John trying to say?”

The point of the passage is to show the world as a battleground. Both God and the devil claim authority over every people and nation and language. Both God and empire claim to offer peace, but only one claim is true. You can belong to God or belong to Satan and the Empire.

This passage shows how powerful, and therefore how tempting the Empire is. He says the whole world worshiped the beast for its power. There’s a sense that the global superpower has to be obeyed. In a hard world, people are drawn to power.

The beast and its false prophet demand worship. John knows the temptation to take part in emperor worship is already strong. He imagines a time when the temptation will become force. He sees persecution coming so he warns the churches. He doesn’t sugar coat the reality: the beast will try to kill those who stand against it. The empire will make war on the church, to kill its enemies.

John thinks most people in the empire will worship. Whether from the desire for power or wealth or the fear of persecution, most people will go along. Those who will not are those who truly belong to Christ. He calls them those who are written in the slaughtered lamb’s book of life. We can either be in the lamb’s book of life or the beast’s list of approved buyers and sellers. John reveals the truth he sees: worse persecution is coming; the saints will need endurance and faith to stand firm.

John’s prediction was accurate. Rome went from occasional harassment to a fully organized and devastating persecution of the church in the third century. As he hoped, many Christians did stand their ground and bear witness to God’s loving rule even in the face of death.

Then, something surprising happened. In 313 Christianity was legalized by Rome, then favored; in 395 it became the official religion of the Empire. From then on, Christianity and empire went together in the West. The first major ruler in Europe after the fall of Rome was crowned by the Pope and called the Roman Emperor.

Empires, conquering nations, have a strong sense of their importance. Often, they imagine themselves bringing peace to the world by spreading their values and civilization. That’s part of why they are so powerful: they think they are doing the right thing, so forcing others to fall in line is ultimately doing them a favor. Peace will come when everyone accepts the empire’s way of doing things.

The Greek Empire of Alexander the Great felt like it was blessing the areas it conquered with philosophical thinking, education and enlightened culture. Rome saw itself as continuing the virtues of Greek civilization. Later empires saw themselves as spreading the blessing of Christianity and civilization as they increased their reach.

The Bible has a consistent message about empire: every empire eventually falls. History tells the same story: no human power lasts forever. Whether it’s the Roman peace or the “thousand year Reich” of Hitler’s Germany or the British Empire on which the sun was said to never set because it was so big, every empire falls.

No matter whether the empire is pagan or Christian, empire is empire. The more people and groups and nations pursue power, the more likely they are to ultimately stand against God. We can be a part of several groups at the same time: nation, church, family, football team, etc. But when anything pushes for ultimate allegiance, when it demands the sacrifice of integrity or justice or faith, it stands against God. In the end, only God’s power and rule are ultimate, and in our lives there can be only one Lord.

In our time many things demand our attention, and that’s OK. Work hard, but don’t compromise your principles for a promotion. I don’t mean quit your job if they make you to work Sunday; I mean quit your job if they force you to treat people like objects. Be dedicated to your family, but don’t sacrifice the lives of other children to push your child ahead. Serve your country, but remember it is not always right, and God’s kingdom is where we ultimately belong.

There will be times it feels like you can’t hold all your commitments together. There will be times when the world tries to take first place in your life and make your forget your faith. That’s one of the reasons we come together. That’s why we come to Christ’s table, to remember that true love and power are made perfect in sacrifice. We remember where we truly belong, and we are given strength for the journey. We live in challenging times, but the gospel still calls us forward. No matter how the beasts and dragons roar, we are written in the Lamb’s book of life; we are invited to the Lord’s table. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, 1.19.14

Ezekiel 1:4-6, 26-2:2

4As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. 5In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. 6Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze…

26And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. 27Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. 28Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all round.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone. He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.


We’re digging into a pretty crazy book today. The Book of Revelation, also know as the Revelation of John or the Apocalypse of John is a powerful and bizarre read. It catches our attention with strange and dramatic imagery.

The more I’ve studied the book, the more I like it. It is violent, which I don’t love, but in scripture as in everything else, context is critical. When John was ministering, the church was under threat. There wasn’t the organized persecution the Roman Empire would unleash later, but Christians often faced discrimination, ridicule, official and unofficial harassment, and some scattered persecution. The late first century was a difficult time to be a Christian.

John’s ministry was in what he called Asia and we know today as Turkey. The provinces of Asia were an important part of the Roman Empire. One of the ways the Roman Empire connected with and controlled outlying parts of the Empire was through religion. People in areas that had conquered by Rome were allowed to worship their traditional Gods, but they were also strongly encouraged to worship the Roman gods as well.

That wasn’t really a problem for many people. Most religions at the time welcomed the worship of many gods, and since the Roman gods had been victorious, they seemed like good gods to worship. This arrangement worked well for Rome. Different parts of the empire kept their own religions and traditions, which let them feel true to their history and in some ways independent. The shared religion of the empire helped provide a sense of unity to a very diverse group of people.

The Roman Empire also used religious language for the Emperor himself. This was a slow development, but it was most active in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, especially in John’s part of the world. There were temples and shrines to the emperor and people called him King of Kings or Savior. The message throughout the Empire was that people had lots of freedom, but Rome was still in charge.

In that setting, worshiping God alone as God was a challenge to the Empire. Those who participated actively in emperor worship had an easier time advancing socially and economically. Those who didn’t participate made things harder on themselves. And those, like John, who actively spoke up about God being the only God and Jesus ruling the universe risked persecution, exclusion and death.

When Revelation begins John says he is writing a letter to the churches in Asia. The letter begins with John on the Island of Patmos, a small island off the west coast of Asia Minor. It seems John had been exiled there for his faith. In his vision he sees Jesus, and Jesus tells him to write down what he sees to send to the churches. After that Jesus gives specific messages to each of seven churches in the area. The messages offer encouragement to stay strong in hard times; they also offer challenge to do even better. After the seventh message, the revelation continues with the vision we’re about to see.

We’ll talk through the vision as we go, since there’s a lot to unpack. I’d encourage you to open your Bibles so we can read and discuss together.

Revelation 4:1-4, 6b, 8b- 5:10

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind…Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”

9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Revelation 5
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.

5Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.

8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.9They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 10you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.”


The Book of Revelation was written to comfort, encourage and challenge the church. In hard times, we need the good news of Revelation most. The main idea keeps being repeated because it is important: God is in charge. Our passages for today shows us that by giving us an image of God’s throne room in heaven. God’s throne is surrounded by strange creatures and elders on thrones of their own. This heavenly congress sings praise all the time to God because God created the world and rules it for ever.

The second point is connected to the first: Jesus is Lord. We read last week from John’s Gospel in which Jesus says God has entrusted all judgment to him. This passage shows us that same good news in a visual way. God holds a scroll that only Jesus can open. When Jesus starts opening the scroll the judgment of earth starts to unfold. As each seal on the scroll is broken different disasters shake the earth to its core and bring down the rulers of earth.

We’ll get deeper into that judgment in the weeks to come, but the purpose of judgment is building God’s righteous, loving and peaceful kingdom on earth.

The reason John’s churches needed this passage so much, the reason God gave this vision to John to share with them, was that they needed encouragement that God really was in charge. They needed to know that Jesus really was Lord. The needed to know because the facts around them every day said something different.

Roman soldiers were everywhere, announcing with their armor and banners and weapons that Caesar was in lord. Roman temples and priests and shrines shouted the same message with religious symbols. Rome’s power was always on display, and the message was clear: Rome is strong, Caesar rules and resistance is futile. For the Roman Empire power came first: Rome conquered territory and then, when the local leaders were subdued, the blessings of Roman culture and rule were given to the people, but power and victory came first.

With the constant reminders of Roman rule around them, John’s churches faced powerful temptation to fit in. A little emperor worship here: a small statue in the office or a touch of incense might go a long way in helping someone’s career by showing others they were part of the club.

In our time the symbols of empire are different but still constant and still powerful. People talk half-joking about the almighty dollar and the bottom line. Our stars and celebrities are fantastically wealthy and lottery advertising promises that we could be next. TV ads show the blessings of the empire of cash: success means beauty and wealth; it means dressing right, driving the fanciest car and buying the newest gadget.

We certainly see military power on display as well. We’ll be treated to a fighter plane fly over at the Super Bowl to remind us how important military strength is. We see frequent articles about the dangers of terrorism and how we have to put everything else aside to stay safe. Never mind that drone attacks kill civilians, including children; we’re told that is the sad but necessary cost of freedom. Military power and financial power, we’re promised, will mean we get a piece of the pie.

That’s not the message of God. There’s only one person who can open the scroll of the future. There’s only one who can reveal the secrets of the end of history. The powerful Lion of Judah is the only one worthy to judge and redeem the world. How has this roaring and mighty lion earned the right to judge the world? Through power and the strength to conquer?

No, the Lion of Judah is a slaughtered lamb. Jesus conquers the world’s powers by weakness; he overcomes the mighty with love that is willing to die for the world. Jesus rules because he was killed by the empire, but his death was not the end. Still showing the marks of his execution, the lamb of God is standing at the throne. Death doesn’t have the last word, and the power to kill isn’t the ultimate power. Instead, love, sacrifice and witness win the day. No matter what Rome or the United States or Babylon or the stock market say, Jesus is Lord and judgment is in his hands.

That means your paycheck can’t judge you. Your bills and your credit score can’t define your value. Your popularity and your looks are not the true story. Jesus is Lord, no one else. Jesus is our judge and our redeemer. Jesus is the one who holds the future his hands. Jesus rules the universe.

Jesus knows what it means to be pushed down by the people who think they’re in charge. He knows that the hypocrites will make a show and the haters will hate. He knows the kings of the world will strut around feeling on top of the world, and they will crush whoever stands in their way.

But at the end it’s God on the throne and the Lamb at God’s side. At the end love and sacrifice and weakness are strong. Power and violence are ultimately fragile and they will collapse under their own weight in the face of love. In the end it’s worship and love and justice that are victorious.

It’s fitting to remember the way of the lamb this weekend as we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In city after city the forces of fear and segregation unleashed the power of the law, the dog, the fire hose against crowds of non-violent marchers, non-violent followers of Jesus. The bodies fell, some broken, but the spirit of justice rose up in righteous victory.

King’s legacy isn’t just about segregation; King stuck his neck out for poor people of every color. He risked his popularity to oppose a war he knew was wrong. His last campaign was a strike for fair pay and working conditions for sanitation workers. King bore witness to the way of the lamb, slaughtered and yet victorious.

That’s the way God calls us to follow too. God calls us to love, no matter what the cost. God calls us to serve, to speak out, to care. John shows us this vision to remind us of the truth no matter what it looks like on TV. God is on the throne, the slaughtered, conquering lamb is there too, and all creation sings praises. Worthy is the lamb who was slain; let us follow in his way.

Thanks be to God