Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, December 10, 2012

"Conquering weakness," 10.14.12

Isaiah 55:1-13
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Revelation 21:1-11
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.

Revelation 22:1-5, 20-21
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….

20The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 21The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

            Who can tell me about the picture on the cover of the bulletin? Great. Now what’s the smaller picture below it? Good guess. I’m not going to make you guess what the Space Shuttle Endeavor has to do with the Book of Revelation, though I’m sure that could be an interesting sermon all its own. My point is much simpler: it’s hard to understand a piece of a picture or story if we don’t know what the big picture looks like.

I think for many regular church members and even more people outside the church the Bible is an intimidating book. It’s intimidating because we feel like we should know it, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it. A big part of that feeling is that we don’t know the basic outline of the story; we don’t know the big picture so it’s hard to understand the individual pieces we read. This summer I’ve tried to address that feeling by leading us in a tour of the Bible. We started in June with the creation story and today we’re wrapping up this marathon sermon series with the end of Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

When we look at the Bible as a we notice a ton of variety: different subjects, different authors, different kinds of writing, different perspectives and different times. With all that diversity, the Bible is also one story, though there are detours and intermissions from time to time. The whole story of the Bible through all its diversity is about God’s relationship with people.

Your urban ministry fact of the day is that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city. More important than that, many of the themes that began in Genesis find completion in Revelation. God created the heavens and the earth in Genesis and promises a new creation in Revelation. When Adam and Eve turn away from God by eating the forbidden fruit, God curses the ground so it will only produce crops with great effort. In Revelation’s new earth there is no longer any curse and trees of life grow spontaneously in the street.

When we look at the story from the end, which is the view John’s vision in Revelation gives us, we see that many of these themes have been echoed many times over in the Bible story. The pain and sorrow that came from that first sin, and from the human pride and lust for power so often on display throughout scripture, is healed in God’s new creation. We know from Genesis that God is the beginning of creation, the Alpha or first letter of the alphabet. We hear echoes of Genesis in John’s Gospel which starts with: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Revelation tells us that God is also the end, the completion, the Omega, or last letter of the alphabet. There is nothing before God and there will be nothing after God. As Paul preaches in Acts: “In God we live and move and have our being.”

There are more echoes too, because this vision from John isn’t the first vision the Bible gives us of God’s healing for a troubled world. The passage Karen read us from Isaiah is a familiar vision, as are other prophetic visions from Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others. Though there have been moments of doubt, God showed the prophets all along that the story has a happy ending.

That was an important thing for John and the churches he served to know 1900 years ago. John had been exiled for his faith and many other Christians faced ridicule, isolation from relatives who didn’t understand their new religion and even persecution from religious and political leaders. It was important for them to hear that they weren’t crazy, that even though their everyday experience said the opposite, God was in control and would bring the story to a happy ending.

John’s Revelation is that God is still on the throne, that Jesus in his scandalous death on the cross is stronger than Rome or Satan or evil, that one day healing would overcome suffering and joy would put an end to pain. That was good news to John’s churches facing trouble and persecution. It’s good news for churches and Christians facing persecution today in Burma or parts of India and Afghanistan. It’s good news for girls struggling to get an education in Pakistan or longing to escape sexual exploitation in Philadelphia. It’s good news for kids trapped in poverty and violence here in Rochester and Christians cut off from their family lands in Palestine. It’s good news for the church of every age longing for an end to evil systems that keep some in power while others starve and suffer. It’s good news for a church around the world longing for peace, praying for God’s new heaven and new earth, for the holy city coming down from heaven.

So is John’s Revelation good news for us? Sometimes this twisted world we’ve made for ourselves is pretty comfortable. We can’t usually hear the cries of the starving from our windows. The bullets don’t fly down our streets, and even the poorest children in our neighborhood can find clothes and food most days. Plus, we’ve got our own problems to worry about. We’ve worked hard for what we have. The rules and systems we live with aren’t perfect, but at least we understand them. What’s going to happen to the place we’ve earned here when this new heaven and new earth appear?

We’re closer to the fallout from our unjust world than we might imagine. Nationwide, about one in five kids can’t count on regular access to adequate and nutritional food, so the chances are pretty high that a family you know personally is in that situation, even if they’re hiding it well. Scripture reminds us over and over again, that we are all brothers and sisters and that Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourself. That means when a child shows up at school hungry in Rochester, while we have plenty to eat we are called to do more.

As a church we help through ministries like Cameron and today through the Peacemaking offering. That’s a good start, but our church spends about 5% of our annual budget on helping others. With our fixed costs as an organization, that’s the best we can do as a church at our current level of giving, but it’s a long way from the early church where people sold their possessions to make sure everyone had enough to live on. Laura and John have done a great job showing us how close we are to a sustainable budget: 35 people giving $10 per week more than they are giving now means a balanced budget and the ability to think about a stronger commitment to mission and programs. What’s the balance in your household between what you spend on your family and what you give away? That’s a question for each of us to consider prayerfully as we prepare to turn in our stewardship pledges.

            John’s vision of the future is a call for repentance and an image of hope. We all want a world where sorrow and pain have disappeared, where no one goes hungry, no one is homeless and everyone is loved. We cannot create that new world ourselves; it has to come from God. At the same time we cling too tightly to the world we live in now, to the things we have and the way things are to truly long for the new heavens and new earth God promises. To embrace John’s vision we have to loosen our grip on the world we know and the things we desire.

            The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with us, the story of creation, redemption and the hope of final victory for love and justice. Our journey through the Bible and our journey in our Christian faith is a journey towards embracing God’s vision of radical love and sharing, of freedom from fear and greed and hunger. We know that Christ’s return and the new heavens and new earth will mean radical change. Our calling is to grow in faith until we can join wholeheartedly in the last prayer of the Bible, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”

Thanks be to God.

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