Exploring the Word | Spreaker

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

"To judge the living and the dead..." 1.12.14

Daniel 12:1-4

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”

John 5:15-30

15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

19Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. 21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.

22The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.

25“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. 30“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

As long as I can remember, I have loved the Bible. I think I finished reading the whole book for the first time in 7th grade. A lot of it didn’t make sense, but the overall story did make sense and something about it captured my attention and my heart.

I have also struggled with the Bible a lot in my life. The Bible is challenging and it comes with lots of baggage. I’ve especially struggled with John’s Gospel because it makes such strong claims about Jesus. Favorite passages like John 3:16, that express the amazing love of God in Jesus are followed by the idea that those who don’t believe in Jesus are condemned. I struggled; I still struggle with the image of God condemning people because they don’t believe in Jesus.

I’ve always had friends who don’t believe in Jesus. Whether it was Jewish and Muslim friends in my elementary school or atheists in high school and beyond, there have always been people close to me who don’t accept Jesus as their Lord. These are people who take their responsibility to other people seriously, people who want to make the world better. It has never made sense to me that God would send them to hell because they didn’t understand God the same way I do. I thought of John’s Gospel as the center of this exclusive way of thinking about Jesus, and that kept me from paying much attention to John.

I took another look at John during my seminary internship. During Bible study a great saint of the church I was serving said that her favorite Gospel was Luke but she thought John was most likely to make someone become a Christian. That made me take another look, and what I discovered was the welcoming grace of Jesus I love in all the Gospels in more poetic language.

When we read John or any other part of the Bible we have to understand the passage we’re reading as part of a bigger book. You don’t have to read all the latest scholarship or take a college course about it. But you do need to know what’s around the text. The Bible doesn’t make sense if we read one verse by itself without reading the story it is part of.

The John’s Gospel is about the eternal word of God that was with God from the beginning of creation becoming a human being in Jesus. Jesus came to his own people to show them a different perspective on God. In John’s Gospel Jesus does signs or miracles so people will believe he is the Son of God. When they believe in him as the Son of God they will see more clearly who God is and what God wants. That especially means they will see that God is love: God loves us deeply, and God wants us to love each other.

In all the Gospels Jesus and almost everyone he interacted with was Jewish. When John says, “The Jews,” he means religious leaders who shared Jesus’ faith but generally opposed Jesus. Over the church’s 2000 years we’ve done a lot of harm because we blamed Jewish people for resisting Jesus. For Jesus, he was talking to his own community, not a different group. As much as Jesus and the religious leaders argue, they are part of the same faith community.

When this passage begins Jesus has just healed a man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. Like many of the healing stories in the Gospels, this one took place on the Sabbath, the religiously commanded day of rest. The religious leaders get upset because Jesus broke the Sabbath. They get even more upset because Jesus says God is his Father, which they think is disrespectful to God.

The argument between Jesus and the religious leaders here is about the relationship between God and Jesus. The religious leaders think of God as holy and totally separate from humans. The way to connect with God for them was to follow God’s commandments faithfully. The commandments strengthened the faith community and connected people to God. Since Jesus wasn’t following the commandments, they figured he couldn’t be following God.

Jesus responds that he’s following God more closely than they can imagine. God sent him with a specific mission: to do God’s will and even to judge the dead. God has given all these powers and all this responsibility to Jesus to so people will be able to understand God more clearly.

The leaders see God in the commandments, and that’s right, but not the clearest image they could have. Imagine a preschool child. The child learns when school starts to find Jevon, his morning partner, so they can share markers and start the day with drawing. The “commandment” the child learns is about finding Jevon, but the point is learning how to share and developing a routine. The commandment isn’t wrong, but it’s part of a bigger picture. You can share without finding Jevon and sharing is the bigger purpose.

The same is true in this story and in Jesus’ ministry as a whole. The commandments teach us how to love God and love our neighbor. The Sabbath commandment is a part of loving God; we set the Sabbath aside as a day specially dedicated to God to help us be more dedicated to God in the rest of our lives. Keeping the Sabbath is also a part of how we love ourselves and other people because we all need rest and a break from our work routine. The Sabbath isn’t the point in itself, but it teaches us about honoring God, and caring for ourselves and other people.

In the strict sense Jesus is breaking the Sabbath, but he’s not going against God’s law. Instead he is showing the people an even clearer picture of love. We can learn what love means even more perfectly by watching Jesus than by obeying the Sabbath commandment. When we’ve faced with a choice between breaking the Sabbath and caring for another person, the more loving, more faithful choice is to care. So Jesus heals on the Sabbath. That’s not something the religious leaders can take in; they can’t accept Jesus because he is too different from what they expected.

The religious leaders are stuck. They think about God as a lawgiver, so following God for them means following the law first and foremost.

Jesus came to set them free from that limited way of thinking and feeling. Of course, God gave the law, and Jesus wants to be clear he comes from the same God. Jesus’ ministry fits into the same story as God’s creation of the world, the call of Abraham and Moses, the Exodus and the law. But God is much bigger than that. Following God is much bigger and simpler than following rules.

More than anything else, God loves the world and every one in it. The way we follow God is by loving others. Jesus came to show us that.

The commandments also teach love, and rules are part of how we learn love, but they can also get in the way. Rules are easy to twist to support our power instead of pushing us to do our best. On the other hand, without rules sometimes we let ourselves off the hook too easily and forget to make love the center of our life. The religious leaders Jesus argued with had more trouble letting the rules get in the way of a vibrant and open relationship with God; our culture has more trouble getting lazy about love and substituting some vague, wishy-washy idea about being nice for the demanding work of love.

Judgment is similar. When we think about judgment as a matter of living up to rules, we will be afraid, but worse than that, we’ll be selfish about following the rules. In other words, we’ll approach life as if it’s a test where the most important thing is for us to follow the rules. That makes it about us.

When we know that judgment is about Jesus, and really, about love, that reminds us above all else to love. That’s why Jesus says that those who honor him and believe that God sent him will escape judgment. Believing in Jesus doesn’t give us a get out of jail free card. Instead, if we actually believe that Jesus is the Son of God and we honor him, we will live as if love is the most important thing in the world. We will actually, in our everyday lives treat people with love even when it is inconvenient or even dangerous. When we do that we will do the right thing consistently and contribute to God’s loving kingdom. So when the dead rise and Jesus judges us, we will have nothing to worry about.

The key to the whole passage, the whole series we’re about to begin and to thinking about judgment in general is the closing line of our passage: Jesus says, “My judgment is just because I seek to do not my will but the will of him who sent me.” The Bible teaches us that God is love, which means love is the heart and foundation of all judgment. At the end of the day that is what matters more than rules or even believing something about Jesus.

God is love; Jesus shows us that love by becoming human, welcoming outcasts and dying for us. It is that active, courageous, loving Jesus who will judge us when the world ends, so we can trust him to judge justly and mercifully. In the end, all will be well because love is in charge.

Thanks be to God.

Reflecting on the new year, 1.5.14

Lamentations 3:21-26

21But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 25The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 26It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Psalm 90

1Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

2Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

3You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

4For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,

or like a watch in the night.

5You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning;

6in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

7For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.

8You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

9For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.

10The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

11Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

12So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

13Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!

14Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

One of the greatest strengths of the biblical faith we share with our Jewish neighbors is the ability to take in trouble and still rest in God’s care. We don’t read from Lamentations very often. As you might guess from the title, it’s sort of a depressing book.

Lamentations is a series of poems reflecting on the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem. It is heartbreaking poetry because the poet’s heart is broken. His city, not only his home, but the center of his religious and national life has been destroyed. The city lies in ruins. Many of the poet’s friends and family have probably been killed. The dead are still lying in the street.

The poet takes it all in and pours out his grief openly, mournfully and honestly. But right in the middle of this tragic book come the words we just read together: “But this I call to mind and so I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

There’s no covering over the shame and pain and grief. There is no disguising or pretending about the hardship that is still to come. And yet, there is still hope. God’s mercies never end; God’s love shines through even in the darkest night. We fail and fall, we suffer and we grieve, we get sick and we die. Through it all, God is faithful. Through it all, God loves us.

God is with us when things are going well, even though sometimes we’re too busy to notice. God is with us when things are just plodding along, when things are neither great nor terrible but just status quo. God’s faithfulness is great; God is steady and constant.

At the same time as God is constant, God’s mercies are new every morning. Each morning brings new joys and new challenges. There are new places we need God’s help, new failings and hurts that need God’s mercies. So every morning, every moment, God is finding new ways to show grace and love and care; we just have to open our eyes, open our hearts and receive.

The Bible teaches us about God. It also teaches us about ourselves. The new year is a natural time to reflect on our lives, on how we’ve done in the last year and what we want to do with the year to come. Psalm 90 is a great New Year’s passage because it invites us to that reflection.

God is eternal, but we are not. We ignore that fact at our peril. Our culture is so scared of death and illness that we are unable to face those things honestly or well. Instead, we rush around trying to cram as much as we can into our time while almost denying the reality of death. I’ve seen families in the hospital refuse to admit that their loved one is dying even in their last days. Most patients don’t take full advantage of the extra care available through hospice services because patients, families and doctors keep battling death long after the outcome is clear.

The psalmist encourages us to count our days so we can gain wise hearts. That means that we need to think about our life, our days and weeks and years, knowing that they are limited. Our time on earth is precious because we don’t have forever.

The trouble is, sometimes when we think of our time as precious, it makes us stingy with it, and that’s different than taking it seriously. We want to be generous with our time, like with our money and energy. We want to give freely, partly because that means we enjoy them (our energy, time and money) more than if we clutch them with white knuckles. At the same time, we don’t want to throw away our days because we can’t ever get them back.

Having a wise heart is not just about being generous with our time either. It’s about knowing our time on earth is precious and limited, but also that our impact is limited. We are fragile and, in the grand scheme of things, nothing we do will last forever either. The psalmist imagines us returning to the dust from which we came and pictures our days like grass springing up in the morning and withering away at the end of the day. Our lives, our accomplishments, the things that seem so important in the moment are fragile and temporary.

At first that sounds discouraging; it almost makes us think, “Why bother?” But ultimately it is liberating. We tend to get caught up in ourselves, caught up in our work or our family struggles or our decisions. The stakes feel so high; everything feels like an emergency, so we rush around constantly trying to manage situations to keep them from getting out of hand.

Thinking about life from the perspective of God’s time frame reminds us of that in a thousand years, whatever we are so worried about now will not matter. No one is going to remember why we were so mad at someone else. No one will care about the church budget or the rent or the election.

The moment at hand is both precious and ephemeral; both important and fleeting. That means taking our time, our decisions, our work seriously because they are precious. It also means taking them with a grain of salt because none of it lasts forever. It seems like those two things are opposites, but they aren’t. Holding on to our time and decisions lightly actually helps us make the most of them because it helps us see them more clearly, while treating every issue like a crisis makes us more likely to mess up. In almost everything we do, humans perform better if we are relaxed.

That’s where our passages come together. Our lives are temporary and precious. God is trustworthy and loving. God is faithful in hard times and in good times, and, while our lives are short, we also have the chance to be part of the work of God’s kingdom, which is eternal. God calls us to share in building up community, in making life better for others, to work for peace and reconciliation. That can be as involved as starting a hospital and as simple as saying a kind word to a stranger. Our calling as disciples of Jesus touches every part of our lives. We’re freed from the anxiety of our own lives because it’s really not about us in the end.

The new year is a great time to step back and take a look at our life. How are we doing at trusting God? Are we spending our time in a way that fits with our true priorities? Are we treating others kindly, like their lives and feelings are precious? What do you want to do differently this year?

The new year is also a time to think about our life and future as a church. As you probably know, I’m leaving this coming summer. That’s sad for me to think about because I love serving with you; this is a wonderful church. We have been a good fit for each other and we have grown together. There’s going to be a time to say goodbye to each other, but now isn’t that time.

Now is the time to think about how to use the time we have together to get ready for what’s next. We’ll be talking about that the next couple of weeks, including right after worship. Pastoral transition has not always been kind to Laurelton, but here we have time to do it right. So think about what do we need to work on together to help you take the next steps with courage and confidence.

A church is not about a pastor. It’s about a community making God’s love real through relationships and ministry. It’s about finding ways to make God’s eternal faithfulness make sense to people in everyday actions and words. It’s about growing together in trust, in faith and in love. It’s about learning to trust each other, to be honest and open with each other and to treat each other like the precious children of God we are. It’s also about having fun together because the message of faith is good news for all people.

This church has so many of the gifts the wider church and the world needs. You are relaxed and able to absorb change, which equips you well for the world we live in. You are open to all kinds of people, so you can welcome the community and invite them in to God’s story. You are committed, generous givers of time and money and energy. You have the gifts you need to thrive in ministry. This next six months we will work together to consolidate and polish your gifts and to discern how God is calling you in the next step of your ministry.

In our lives as individual disciples and our life as a church, a new year is a new beginning. It’s also a small part of the great tapestry of God’s love. God has been faithful in the past and God will be faithful in the future. This moment is full of potential for joyful, exciting ministry. So let us number our days, gain a wise heart and rest in God’s endless grace as we spend the precious time God has given us.

Thanks be to God.