Revelation

crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

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The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

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We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


scary monsters

Over a timespan of about fifteen years, I had a recurring dream.  I might even call it a nightmare.  It involved McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

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I haven’t had that nightmare for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my feeling being trapped.

I say that because, after graduating from college, I worked there for over two years before going to seminary.  No doubt reflecting my Pentecostal influences, I was dead set on waiting for God to speak to me, to tell me what to do.  Lord, please give me a sign!  Give me a dream; give me a vision of what I need to do!

Please note, I’m not blaming the Pentecostals for my wrong-headed understanding.  That’s on me!

And of course, all the while, the Lord had implanted within me the calling that I needed to follow.  But I was resistant!

Maybe I would have been satisfied with what we see in the reading in Daniel.  We’re told that Daniel has a dream.

Starting with chapter 7, the last part of the book of Daniel is what’s known as apocalyptic literature.  (The word “apocalyptic” literally means a “revelation” or an “uncovering.”)  The book of Revelation is in that category.  (Surprise!)  Apocalyptic books are like movies with all kinds of weird special effects: dream worlds, cosmic calamities, and yes, scary monsters.

It’s been said, “One could say, calmly and rationally, that the world is a bleak and dangerous place, or one could make the point more fully and dramatically through apocalyptic fantasy.  The latter…will more quickly trouble and terrify us (as they did for Daniel), which is the point.”[1]

Think about it.  Even though the parables of Jesus and apocalyptic images aren’t exactly the same thing, they do serve similar purposes.

For example, Jesus could talk about grace and give us a definition.  He could call it “a free gift” or “an undeserved reward.”  He could do that, or he could tell a story about it—say, a story about a son who asks for his inheritance, shames the family, goes abroad and squanders the money, and after all that foolishness, after all those mistakes, is welcomed home with a lavish banquet.

I ask you, which of those makes a bigger impression?  Which one helps you to better understand grace?

And going back to those delightfully scary images, what would become of horror movies?  A documentary-style warning about the hazards of traveling alone on dark roads in the forest just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

So, even though apocalyptic language can be troubling and terrifying, that’s not the end of the story.  These images of mighty angels and stormy seas really do tell the story of God’s people being delivered from the foul beasts that would keep them down.  And those “foul beasts” are typically of the two-legged variety, the ones who walk around upright.

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The reading in Daniel has been chopped up.  Verses 4 to 14 have been deleted.  The Old Testament is often dissected to suit the purposes of the church.  It being a text for All Saints’ Day, the lectionary zeroes in on verse 18.  “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”  Those holy ones are the saints!

Still, we need to pay attention to the dream—or should we say nightmare?  Daniel seems to think so.  Look at the way the chapter ends in verse 28: “I was so frightened that I turned pale, and I kept everything to myself” (Good News Bible).  He was so scared that he looked like he’d seen a ghost (and he probably soiled himself).  And he wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.

He sees four great beasts rising from the sea.  In ancient Hebrew thinking, the sea was a symbol of chaos.  Who knows what’s down there?  This is a symbol that is primordial.  It goes back to the chaos at creation.  This is “darkness [covering] the face of the deep” (Gn 1:2).  So, toss in the tempest, and you really do have some chaos!

There’s some question as to which kingdoms the four beasts symbolize.  People pick among the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.  The point is, all these empires in one way or another persecuted the Jews, the people of God.  Or in apocalyptic terms, they’re scary monsters that tried to gobble up the holy ones.

John Collins says that “the vision functioned to give hope to the persecuted Jews.  This rather trite statement, however, does scant justice to the power of the vision, which attempts to shape a whole new view of history.”[2]  Daniel’s vision shapes a whole new view of history.

It can be difficult for us to realize how powerful this is.  Imagine the audacity of this powerless group of people.  They’re just one nation among many that have been swept up by the empire.  How dare they show this holy defiance?  How dare they tell their own stories?  They’re supposed to agree with the official version of history, one that lets them know they’re less worthy, one that puts them in their place.

As the church, we have inherited that legacy.  Still, we have to watch ourselves.  We have to be careful about how closely we identify with the qualities of, not Greek or Roman, but American empire.  Believe it or not, we aren’t immune to acting like the rest of the human race.  We too can imitate a beast ready to devour.

We have here the story of that great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).  It’s the story of the faithful from every walk of life.

It’s the story told in the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”  Referring to the saints, the second stanza ends like this: “And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, / And one was slain by a fierce wild beast: / And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, / Why I shouldn’t be one too.”

Yes, that’s right folks.  There’s not any reason why I shouldn’t be slain by a fierce wild beast!

3 dnThis is the story of saints past and present—and we can say, of saints yet to come.  It’s the story of the faithful from every background.  It’s the story of those who have faced all manner of scary monsters.  (Even one symbolized by a fast food restaurant!)

Here are some questions for us.  What are our scary monsters?  Are there any great beasts that fill our dreams with terror?

In a sermon Banu preached one time, she dealt with Goliath the giant.  A quote from her sermon was, “When you focus on your giants, you stumble.  When you focus on God, your giants tumble.”  How does that translate into scary monsters?  How do scary monsters come at us?

Here’s another way of framing it.  Are we trapped by the past?  Do we carry around undeserved guilt?

Chris Gehrz speaks of All Saints’ Day as a call and opportunity “to be a steward of the past.”[3]  We’re called to be stewards of the creation, not only in space, but also in time.  All Saints’ Day “underscores the importance of preserving [the] past against the erosion that comes with the passage of time.”  We are called to remember—and to remember well.

This may come as a shock, but there are those who like to zap us by unfairly reminding us of our past.  They would have us remember, but not remember well.  Still, I fear that at some level, that tendency resides within all of us.  But to the extent we give way to that tendency, we only speak from our own fear, our own insecurity.  We are not speaking—and being—from a place of love and hope.

In Christ, those voices of accusation are silenced.  In the face of the glory of Christ, they have nothing to say.

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[pixabay.com]

In Christ, the great beasts, the scary monsters, are rendered toothless.  We’re given a whole new view of history.  We are ushered into the communion of saints, the holy ones of the Most High, who we join in receiving the kingdom and possessing the kingdom forever and ever.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=714

[2] John J. Collins, Daniel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 324.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/11/all-saints-day-and-the-stewardship-of-the-past


royal revelation

What do you think of when hear “Revelation”?  And yes, it’s “Revelation,” not “Revelations.”  It’s very easy to know the difference.  Just look at the name in the Bible!

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As might be expected, many people’s reflections deal with confusion, crazy creatures, future disasters, scenarios of the rapture—a theology, by the way, which is built on a single verse (though not in Revelation) and given an extremely questionable interpretation.  But I say, “as might be expected,” because much of the teaching on the book of Revelation presents horror-movie-like themes, including 666, the number of the beast.  Folks have all kinds of fun with that one!

And then, there are the timelines of the future.  People have taken plenty of tidbits from the book and devised their own interpretation of “what soon must take place,” as it says in verse 1.  I have heard many sermons in which sober reflection has been tossed to the wind.

So having said all that, we need an approach with humility.  “If you’re unwilling to live with any uncertainty, you’re more likely to read into Revelation things that are not there.  Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the small questions.  ‘Experts’ who claim absolute knowledge about every detail of Revelation should immediately raise suspicion.”[1]

“Revelation” means “apocalypse.”  And apocalypse: oh, that’s another fun word!  What does our popular culture make of “apocalypse”?  What do we see in movies and on television?  The aftermath of nuclear war?  A global pandemic?  Zombies walking the earth?

2 rvApocalypse refers to a revealing, an uncovering, a showing of what was hidden: indeed, a revelation.  Pablo Richard adds that apocalypse “is not neutral: what the wicked and the oppressors cannot understand is revealed to the upright, to the childlike, to the oppressed.”[2]  It’s a gift to those who love God.

As the book begins in verse 1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  The revelation, the message, is intended for the servants of the Lord.  It is sent, via angel, to God’s servant, John.

In fact, in Matthew 11 for example, Jesus uses the word “apocalypse.”  “Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (v. 25).  The word has been “revealed” (απεκαλυψας, apekalupsas) not to those who think they know, but to the humble—to those who are as humble as infants.

And these humble ones are blessed.  There are seven beatitudes (“blessed”) in Revelation.  (In the book of Revelation, seven is a number that appears over and over and over.)  Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud.”  This was read to the community as part of worship.  That underlines something about the entire book.  Revelation, as much as anything else, is a book of worship.  Add to that, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.”  Blessed are those who hear.  Blessed are those who, in church, stay awake and set their cell phones on vibrate—or turn them off altogether!

If it wasn’t clear already, “We were not the intended audience of Revelation,” as Eric Barreto says.[3]  It wouldn’t make sense to have a book directed to people in the distant future.  Verse 4 says John sent his message “to the seven churches that are in Asia.”

I think most of us understand that the scriptures were written for the people alive at the time.  Still, they have enduring meaning as the inspired word of God passing down through the ages.  Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.

The problem with Revelation is the symbolism which would have been familiar to most of John’s audience, now speaks a language we struggle to understand.

Perhaps we weren’t the intended audience of Revelation.  Nonetheless, “This is the word of God for us today.  They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus…  Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.”[4]

There’s a whole lot more in this introduction to the book, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.  I want to consider what today is: Christ the King Sunday (also called the Reign of Christ.)  What is this day all about?  What does it mean to say Christ is king?

The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians near the end of the first century.  Two or three decades before them, the emperor was Nero, a man who insanely persecuted the church, as well as a bunch of other people.  Now, Emperor Domitian picks up where Nero left off.  He takes things even further in how he wants to be addressed.  He demands to be called “our lord and god.”  (Here’s a guy with a real messiah complex!)

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As you can imagine, Christians are put into an extremely awkward, even deadly, position.  Do you simply go along, do the expected duty of a patriotic citizen, even if your heart isn’t in it?  You could avoid the unwelcome attention of the state.  Of course, there is that little problem of allegiance to Jesus Christ.  How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?

John’s words are meant as both encouragement and expectation.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 4).  Okay, maybe there’s no problem there—not exactly, anyway.

Then we have this: “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5).  There’s plenty of stuff there to give someone pause.

How much of this is set in stone, so to speak?  Isn’t there a little wiggle room?  Jesus is called “the faithful witness,” so this really is a message from God.  He’s also called “the firstborn of the dead.”  No one, not even Domitian himself, can legitimately claim to have been resurrected.  Here’s the kicker: “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

It’s a common thing to hear it said, “Our church doesn’t get involved in politics.  We avoid political issues.”  I can go along that, if what we’re talking about is promoting one candidate over another.  But for the Christians in John’s time, “lord” and “god” and “savior” are not only spiritual terms, they’re also political terms.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political.  The good news of salvation is intrinsically political.

That’s not a bad thing.  “Politics” is a neutral term.  In fact, it used to be taught in every school!  What is “politics”?  What is “political”?  The way we structure our society—the way we shape our values in our social contract—that is political.  “Politics” becomes a dirty word when we act in bad faith, when we employ manipulation and deception in furthering our own narrow ends.

4 rvMany applaud the idea of a “private faith.”  But don’t you dare live that out in the world!

The choice between Christ and Caesar obviously didn’t begin with the church in the time of Domitian.  In John 18, there is Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus.  There’s a debate over whether or not Jesus is a king.  He says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36).

Pilate realizes Jesus isn’t scheming to have him overthrown.  Jesus continues, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate replies, “What is truth?” and then he walks out the door (vv. 37-38).  He’s really not interested in getting involved in this religious squabbling among the Jews.

Keep your faith to yourself; don’t bother me with it.

Of course, there is a problem with that if we follow the example of John the Revelator, who was exiled to “the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9).  He hasn’t kept his faith to himself.  The powers-that-be wanted him to go away.  He made his choice between Christ and Caesar.  For those who confuse the two, consider yourself as having received fair warning!

Bruce Metzger, in his book Breaking the Code, has his own cautionary note.  “Revelation…has a warning for believers down through the years.”  It speaks “of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator.”[5]

So again, what does it mean to say and to claim Christ as King?

Do we affirm the inherently political nature of the gospel, the good news, in a way that is holy and ennobling?  Do we take a cynical, unholy approach in a way in which we worship our own tribe?  Of course we will have disagreements, but are we mindful of the one we would serve as King?  Do we celebrate the peace of Christ, or do we celebrate the peace of empire—be it Roman or as empire exists today?  (A lot of questions, to be sure!)

Claiming Christ as King means loyalty to one who redefines the meaning of family: “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:49-50).

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When we are welcomed into the family of God—the one who is the Alpha and Omega—we receive a royal revelation that we belong to Christ the King.  That is an apocalypse to be celebrated.

 

[1] zondervanacademic.com/blog/how-read-revelation

[2] Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, English tr. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 37.

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[5] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 88.


tepid water, please

Tepid water, please.  That’s a request uttered on The Big Bang Theory.  For those who don’t know, the show is about four nerdy scientists who are socially challenged.  Eventually, one by one, they start dating women who teach them how to behave like semi-normal men.  Sheldon Cooper, who is played by Jim Parsons, is the most intelligent among them but the least functional in dealing with other human beings.  A couple of his friends put his profile on a dating site, and they pressure him into meeting his match at a coffee bar.

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It turns out to be Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik, who as a teenager starred in the 90s show Blossom.  She’s as socially dysfunctional as Sheldon, and she confesses her aversion to romantic involvement.  That actually piques his interest, so he offers to buy her a beverage, to which she replies, (guess what?) “tepid water, please.”

(By the way, later on, they do get romantically involved!)

Tepid.  That probably serves as an apt description of the church of Laodicea, the recipient of the seventh letter to the churches in the book of Revelation.  Verse 16 of chapter 3 is the one often considered to be the most colorful description of that church—or should I say the least colorful?  “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  That’s the message of Jesus Christ through his servant John.

But you might ask, “What are these seven letters to the churches in Revelation you speak of?”  That’s a good question.  It’s one I will try to answer.  In chapters 2 and 3, the letters are messages to churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and lastly, Laodicea.  All of these churches are in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey.  John, the author of Revelation, delivers words appropriate for every church’s situation.  They are the addressees of the book of Revelation.

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Each of the letters follows the same format; there are three parts.  First, it’s “These are the words of” followed by a description of the risen Christ.  Then it’s, “I know” followed by something about the church.  And finally, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

One more thing about the seven churches.  Only Sardis and Philadelphia receive no word of criticism.  All the rest are told there’s something against them.  With her request for tepid water, could it be Laodicea is the “Amy Farrah Fowler” of the seven churches?  (More about the water in a few moments.)

The first thing the Laodiceans are told is they’re hearing the “words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation” (v. 14).  “Amen” isn’t a sign you just finished the prayer!  It’s used to describe something as “true,” to say “so be it.”  This one is called “the origin [or the beginning] of God’s creation.”  Christ is the one through whom all things were made.

G. K. Beale says something about Christ being called “the faithful and true witness.” “With the image…in mind, the Laodicean Christians are indicted for being generally ineffective in their faith. Their innocuous witness is the specific focus.”[1]

3 rv“Their innocuous witness.”  Their witness, their testimony to the faith, the way they live their lives—it’s harmless; it’s inoffensive; it’s insipid; it’s lame.  Having said that, what would it mean for them to be harmful?  What would it mean for them to be offensive?  Are they supposed to get in people’s faces?  Are they supposed to make jerks of themselves?  If they threw a party, would anybody show up?

There’s something in the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books in the Apocrypha, that I like.  It’s what the unrighteous say about a faithful man.  “He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.  He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (2:13-15).

A faithful life, almost by definition, will be seen as offensive by those who are dead set against it.  It’s an unpleasant reminder that one does not have to choose a wayward path, a constant refusal, a constant saying “no” to the Holy Spirit.  There is a better way to be.  (“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”)

What about this business of being hot or cold?  “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot” (v. 15).  And as we saw earlier, their being lukewarm makes the Lord want to upchuck.  That might raise a question.  Could we see being hot as being aflame with the Spirit, being on fire for God?  If that’s so (and I’ve heard preachers put it in those terms), would being cold in the faith an acceptable option?  Why would the Lord want that?

Bruce Metzger in his book, Breaking the Code, suggests looking at it differently.[2]  He reminds us of the situation the Christians were in. 4 rv

Among them “were those who thought there might be a middle ground between worshiping God [that is, being hot] and worshiping the emperor [being cold] that in some way they could remain in the…church while at the same time obeying the emperor’s command to worship him.  On the contrary, in their loyalty to Christ they must be ‘hot’; those who were content to be ‘lukewarm’ might just as well go to the extreme of being completely ‘cold.’”

The book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century.  The emperor of Rome at the time was a fellow named Domitian.  He was a real piece of work.  He became so proud and dictatorial he demanded to be called “our lord and god.”  Of course, faithful Christians couldn’t agree to that.  That title was reserved for another.  They were considered to be unpatriotic, since that was part of the civic duty of a Roman citizen.  They were also considered to be subversives, enemies of the state, enemies of the people.  They became targets for persecution.

So viewed this way, it’s impossible to worship Christ and worship Caesar.  If you compromise on that, at the end of the day, you’re worshiping Caesar anyway.  Might as well be cold and give it your all!

Now, about the promise to return to tepid water.

The region around Laodicea was noted for its hot, cold, and lukewarm water.  Our friend G. K. says, “The hot waters of Hierapolis had a medicinal effect and the cold waters of Colossae were pure, drinkable, and had a life-giving effect.  However, there is evidence that Laodicea had access only to warm water, which was not very palatable and caused nausea.”[3]  The city of Laodicea was quite wealthy, and so was their water.  Their water was quite rich—rich in salt, that is.

Just like their water, the behavior of the Laodiceans makes the Lord sick to his stomach; he’s ready to vomit.

These folks are pretty clueless, because they claim, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  The Lord replies, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17).  It’s like the Emperor’s new clothes.  They’re strutting around, wanting people to “ooh” and “ahh” over their fine fashions—while the whole time, they’re as naked as a jaybird.

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But all is not lost.  With verse 18, we begin to see the way home.  The Laodiceans are counseled in how they can be truly rich and how they can be truly clothed.  And then there’s this.  Get some “salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

Here’s one more quote from Beale: “The picture of ‘eye salve’ for regaining sight emphasizes the Laodiceans’ lack of spiritual discernment, especially their ignorance of the lethal danger that their association with idolatry posed for their faith.”[4]

Spiritual discernment.  What an opening into the interior life of faith.  The application of salve for vision happens when the Spirit anoints our inner eyes.  The Laodicean church needs cataract surgery.  Their vision has become cloudy.  They have been blinded by their pursuit of idols.  They are in danger and don’t know it.  Idols have focused them on the wrong things.

We aren’t immune from that.  We have idols which beckon to us.  Anything setting itself up on the throne of our heart is an idol.  It happens more easily than we think.

Here’s just one example; there are many.  We can see ourselves or others as a personification of a negative.  We can define ourselves, say, by a disease or a condition.  “I am cancer.”  “I am poverty.”  We can define ourselves or others with labels.  When we label someone, we have to be careful not to think we know them.  If we trust a label and think that sums somebody up, we are trusting an idol.

My wife has been reminding me of something I once knew, and truth be told, still do.  Whatever we choose to live into is made manifest in our lives.  Here’s one very trivial example, just to make the point.

Several months ago, I was watching television.  It was a lovely, peaceful night.  For some reason, I began thinking about bats.  I was thinking about how we hadn’t seen one for a long time, and there certainly are bats in that building.  I started wondering if there was in fact a bat somewhere, ready to fly into the room.  It was almost like I was conjuring it.  And guess what?  It wasn’t but a few minutes before one of those critters appeared out of nowhere and started circling the room.

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I’m not saying my thoughts manifested a bat.  I’m not saying I created one, but there is a sense in what occupies our minds, what we put out into the world, does in fact come back to us.

I suppose this has been a roundabout way of describing how the lack of spiritual discernment leaves us open to deception by idols.

If verse 18 shows us the way home, the rest of the letter to the Laodiceans is a loving, powerful invitation.  Telling us he reproves those he loves, he immediately says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (v. 20).  Let’s sit around the table and enjoy each other’s company.

We’ll be singing the hymn, “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door.”  Once again, we will be drinking from the deep well of the African-American spiritual tradition—and that water is definitely not tepid!  “Somebody’s knocking at your door; / Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door. / Knocks like Jesus, Somebody’s knocking at your door; / O sinner, why don’t you answer?  Somebody’s knocking at your door.”

If we open the door, we will be conquerors, fit to sit on the throne Jesus prepares.  “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (v. 22).

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We request, “Tepid water, please.”  Jesus says, “Forget that.  I welcome you to the banquet.  Sit down and feast with me.”

 

[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 303.

[2] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 44-45.

[3] Beale, 303.

[4] Beale, 306.


a green spirit

“With so many things being said about who God is…  God of love, God of faith, God of the poor, God of the second chance, etc., I wonder…

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A document from 1991, thus, the Congressman and Senators from Tennessee at the time

“Is God green?  (That is, does he manifest ecological concern?)”

Those are part of my notes for a sermon I preached in September 1991, right before I went to Philadelphia to attend seminary.  I decorated the page with my signature drawing: a long-haired duck wearing a headband and a necklace with a Celtic cross.  (I was inspired by the comic book character Howard the Duck, who was trapped on Earth from another dimension.)

At the time, I was a member of an Assemblies of God congregation.  I didn’t hear questions like, “Is God green?” asked very often back then.  Actually, I wonder how many times that was asked in Presbyterian churches!  (Understand, I’m not thinking about the literal question, “Is God green”?!)

When you think about it, it’s a ridiculous question.  Does God care about the environment?  From start to finish, the scriptures testify to it.  In Genesis 1, from a creation in which every part is called “good,” to Revelation 22, the final revelation of a holy city in which nothing accursed will be found, a city in perfect harmony with all that is.

Last week was Ascension Sunday.  We remember the Lord Jesus Christ, “who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ep 4:10).  The ascension means that Christ is everywhere, filling all of creation.  (Ascension is one of my favorite days in the year!)

We sing God’s glory throughout the Psalms.  We praise God in creation in hymns, like “Let All Things Now Living.”  Here’s something from verse 2:

“By law God enforces.  The stars in their courses, / The sun in its orbit obediently shine; / The hills and the mountains, The rivers and fountains, / The depths of the ocean proclaim God divine.”

And of course, there is the incarnation, the coming into flesh which is the meaning of Christmas.  God enters into humanity enfleshed in the body of Jesus.  We can also see a kind of incarnation at work roughly 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe came into existence, when God’s “good” creation got its start.

There are endless ways to imagine God’s care and love of creation.

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The most distant galaxies ever observed revealed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Unfortunately, we often fail in our call to be stewards of creation.  In my notes on that sermon, I lamented, “Human sin has affected the creation.”  That’s putting it mildly!  We seem to go out of our way to trash creation.  We pollute and pound and pummel the earth.  We poison land and sea and air and everything within them.  We do unimaginable violence to God’s creatures with whom we share this world.

Dystopian nightmares, resulting from our destruction—are they really so far away?  We must be insane.

We see in our text in Romans 8 how creation groans.  There clearly are other meanings besides our contribution to that.  The primary meaning speaks of liberation from death and decay, the promise of resurrection spreading to all things.  Still, we have more than our share in being the architects of that suffering.

I still remember, to my great shame, the poor little slug that had the misfortune of moving into my sight on a hot summer day.  Magnifying glass in hand, I tortured my little friend with the heat of the sun focused on its slimy body, knowing it couldn’t escape that tiny yellow dot bringing it incredible agony.  I could claim as mitigating circumstances that I was just a kid, but I still knew it was wrong.  Unfortunately, that’s not the only time I’ve played a role in making creation groan.  There’s my confession of sin.

(My confession of sin notwithstanding, I did promote a green message with my lunchbox which had on it the logo of the ecology flag!)

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However, as I just said, our misdeeds are not front and center of our scripture passage.  The apostle Paul speaks of the present suffering as giving way to something wonderful.  The groaning of creation is not simply suffering, but a groaning of labor pains.  Something is about to be born.  Something is slowly at work, beginning to take shape.

Why should this be a text for Pentecost?  What does it say about the Holy Spirit?

The gospel text in John presents the Spirit as coming to us to serve as our Advocate, our Helper.  The Spirit “will guide [us] into all the truth” (16:13).  The Spirit will speak words from the Father.

And of course, on the day of Pentecost itself, the Spirit descends like a mighty wind, filled with fury and flame.  The disciples are “filled with the Holy Spirit and [begin] to speak in other languages,” other tongues (Ac 2:4).  The Spirit prompts bold words of praise about the glories of God.

I remember hearing someone say the Holy Spirit is the silent member of the Trinity.  Those who have worshipped with Pentecostals or Charismatics would find that difficult to believe!

Having said that, the apostle Paul does indeed portray the Spirit as a silent power within creation, as a silent power within us.  He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (v. 26).  Words no longer do the job.  They lack intensity; they lack passion.

My sermon title speaks of “a green Spirit.”  Why green?  One answer is pretty obvious, since I’ve been talking about creation, the environment, our interaction with it.  The Spirit inhabits creation, going all the way back to when the Spirit was moving over the face of those primeval waters.

4 ro 8Green also speaks of growth.  This is intertwined with the movement from the slumber of winter to the rejuvenation of spring.  In our part of the world, things have been getting greener and greener.  (Along with the increasing pollen, which plays its role!)

An idea shot through our passage is that of hope, which the Holy Spirit produces.  Creation has been “subjected to futility,” it’s been held back, unable to achieve its true glory.  That might be true, but it’s been done in the hope, as said earlier, of being “set free from its bondage to decay” (vv. 20-21).

The late Lutheran pastor and professor Sheldon Tostengard commented on hope (or perhaps the lack thereof?).[1]  “Society’s hope for the future is by no means guaranteed these days…  [T]his age can truly be called an age of hopelessness…”  There’s a cheerful assessment!

Still, he draws solace from St. Paul.  “While our hope is patient, as patient as that of the seafarer who knows that in the morning the lights of home will appear on the horizon, our hope is by no means resigned.  Hope is infectious, a strange and deep optimism which takes all groaning and travail absolutely seriously, and yet rejoices.  Let it be said of us Christians in these times that we are known by our hope.”

What does Paul mean when he says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”?

Again, looking at this as a scripture for Pentecost, one writer says, “Our calling is to join the Spirit in caring for the creation and praying for faithfulness in a world that both serves and threatens creation with technology.”[2]  We need help in using our technology in creative, and not destructive, ways.

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We need help in not drowning in plastic!  It can take up to 50 years for a styrofoam cup to decompose in a landfill.  Plastic bottles can take up to 450 or 1000 years to biodegrade.  And plastic bags!  Besides the problems on land, when they get to water, they are a hazard to creatures who think they’re food.

I love the Fiji Water commercial which has a little girl doing a voiceover proclaiming, “Fiji Water is a gift from nature to us, to repay our gift of leaving it completely alone.”  Meanwhile, we’re hearing Pacific Islanders singing a song of praise and joy.[3]

As I say, we need the Spirit’s help, the one who leads us into all the truth.  We’re told, “The ranks of those who respond to the Spirit’s sighs are never overcrowded, but because it is God the Holy Spirit who silently, ceaselessly works, there is hope.”[4]

We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit does.  And “the Spirit intercedes for [us] according to the will of God” (v. 27).

May we be filled with a green Spirit.  May we be filled with a spirit that calls us to love and care for creation.  May we be filled with a spirit that grows within us and urges us to grow.  May we be filled with a spirit that inspires us with hope and enables us to spread that hope into the world, into our planet, into time and space itself.  May we be filled with a spirit that knows our infirmities and leads us to pray and to be.

May we be filled with a spirit plunging us into the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Sheldon Tostengard, “Light in August: Romans 8:18-39,” Word and World 7:3 (1987): 318.

[2] F. Dean Lueking, The Christian Century, 114:15 (7 May 1997): 447

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeF134YMoS0

[4] F. Dean Lueking, 447.


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


test the spirits

“Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”  That was the cry of the first Crusaders in the late 11th century.  What began with more or less noble intentions as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which, by the way, had been under Muslim control for several centuries), quickly descended into a military campaign.  Conquest, not coexistence, became the goal.

I think I’m safe in saying that none of us have participated in a bloody crusade, at least not knowingly.  None of us have gotten it in our head that that was our mission from God.  Still, all of us have gotten it in our heads, at least on occasion (and frequently, more often than that), an idea that turned out to be ill-conceived.

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In the first letter of John there is a warning to his readers to beware of that.  “Beloved,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v. 1).  False prophets abound, but we need not believe a false prophet to get a crazy idea in our head—an idea we think is from God!

Let me give you an example.  This was about my proposed plans for life.

In my final semester at Middle Tennessee State University, I got the idea in my head that I should quit school and go to California.

My major was Political Science, but with my exploration of faith—Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Zen—I began to see myself as a seeker of truth, wandering the Earth.  Combining that with my great love of music, I decided that I should return to the land of my first memories of life, San Diego, and get a job in a record store.  I even went to the school library, looked through a San Diego telephone book (this was before the internet), and I found a store near the ocean.

So I made a phone call to my mom and told her what God was leading me to do!  She didn’t have very much to say.  She didn’t ask me, “What in the world are you thinking?”  She simply suggested that I go ahead and finish out the semester, since I was so close to graduating anyway, and then see what I thought.  If God really wanted me to make this major change in my life, waiting a few more weeks wouldn’t hurt.  That turned out to be some pretty good advice.

After a couple of days had gone by, it occurred to me God really did not want me to run off to San Diego!  Who would have thought it?

The author of 1 John says to “test the spirits.”  What are “the spirits”?  Are they supernatural beings?  Are they powers and forces in culture and society?  Are they emotional states of being?  Are they all of those and maybe something else?

The final day of this month, the 31st, is the feast day for St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a military officer in 16th century Spain.  As a young man, he was a wild one.  He was a gambler, and kept himself well-groomed, because he loved the ladies.  While fighting the French in the north of Spain, a cannon ball, passing between his legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin.  (If that cannon ball were a few inches higher, well, forget the ladies!)  Ignatius endured many painful months of recovery.

While bedridden, he requested some of his favorite reading, stories of knights and chivalry.  They weren’t available, so what were brought to him were stories of Christ and the saints.  He experienced his conversion while reading those books.  Ignatius decided to use the energy he formerly devoted to warfare to the cause of Christ.  He founded the order known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius wrote a book entitled, The Spiritual Exercises.  In it, he includes a section on “Discerning the Spirits.”  His use of the word “spirits” reflects a concept that today we might call “inclinations.”  One of his main ideas is the difference between what he calls “consolation” and “desolation.”

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It’s been noted that, for Ignatius, “consolation means love of God and our fellow human beings.  It is a genuine relationship that moves and fulfills.  It is faith, hope, and [love] and ‘every interior joy which calls and attracts one toward heavenly things.’”[1]  Desolation is the opposite.  It is “darkness of soul, confusion of spirit, attraction to what is base and worldly, restlessness caused by many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, hope, or love.”[2]

That note about “confusion of spirit” might describe me when I was pitching the idea to my mother about quitting school and taking off for California.

It is not a good idea to make a major decision while in a state of desolation.  It’s not a good idea to do that while in a state of crisis.  That state of crisis might include great anxiety, despair, or a very strong feeling of being rushed into something.  I’m not sure how aware she was of this, but with her word of caution, my mother was utilizing an Ignatian principle!

There are a number of ways to “discern” or “test the spirits.”  Is it the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit?  Kirsteen Kim provides some examples.[3]  The first one is what we see in our scripture text: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2).  That one’s really important; we’ll come back to it.

The second way she mentions is to ask, “Does it demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit?”  Thinking of Galatians 5, we ask things like: does it help us to be more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, better able to exercise self-control?  Does it help us to be more Christ-like?

Another way of testing the spirits would be the presence of charismatic gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues.  Still, in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul points out that these gifts must be exercised in a spirit of love.  There can be a temptation to say, “Look at me!  Aren’t I spiritual?”  Other gifts of the Holy Spirit may include empowerment to teach, to give, to exercise compassion (Ro 12:7-8).  In reality, there are numerous gifts of the Spirit.

The final thing Kim mentions is the Spirit leads us to be concerned about the downtrodden, however that appears.  The Spirit wants us to seek justice.  In Luke 4, the Spirit leads Jesus to announce “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and letting “the oppressed go free” (v. 18).

But what’s going on with that business regarding a spirit from God confessing Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?

At one level, it simply means that Jesus lived as a flesh and blood human being.  It means that Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, was embodied just like you and me.  He wasn’t just a spiritual being, without physical substance.

The thought that follows in verse 3 is that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3).  There’s an alternate reading that says “every spirit that does away with Jesus [or “dissolves Jesus”] is not from God.”

3 1 JnHere’s another meaning: if Jesus were not incarnate, in the flesh, our faith in Christ need not be in the flesh.  We would do away, or dissolve, Jesus.  It would be enough to go through life thinking or wishing something were so, but without doing anything in the body—without taking action in the real world.

Again, some words of wisdom from my mother apply.  At one time or another, I expressed my belief that praying for someone or some situation was enough.  It was now in the hands of Jesus.  But my mom asked what was I going to do about it.  That’s a good and often uncomfortable question.  I said, “I’ve prayed.  Isn’t God all powerful?”  Her response was that by now acting on it would “give my prayer wings.”

I realize there are times when things really are out of our control.  Sometimes there are forces at work we can’t help.  At those times, it really is in the hands of God.  But prayer is also about changing us; it’s also about changing our vision towards the world.

Notice how verse 3 ends.  A spirit that does not confess Jesus “is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.”  The spirit of the antichrist: a word which, by the way, does not appear in the book of Revelation.  What is this antichrist?

Here’s one answer.  It’s the spirit that says we need not live as though we belonged to Christ.  It’s enough to have the idea, but don’t dare put it into practice!  The spirit of antichrist says that faith should be a strictly private matter.  Just keep it to yourself.  Hide your light.

Johannes Baptist Metz has an interesting take on this.  “Satan wants the Incarnation to be an empty show, where God dresses up in human costume but doesn’t really commit totally to the role.  The devil wants to make the Incarnation a piece of mythology, a divine puppet show.”[4]  I like that.  A divine puppet show.  Again, it’s about not living our faith in the flesh.

Here’s a question.  What do we make of verse 6?  “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

If we take the time to test the spirits, if we take the time—with God’s help—to listen to the Holy Spirit, then we can develop the capacity to know the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Even so, we are not infallible; we make mistakes.  And we should be ready, we should allow ourselves, to be surprised.  We should allow ourselves to be surprised by what, and who, we once would have rejected out of hand.  Returning to my original image, we can go on our own crusade, but without love, we’re just being self-righteous.

So, what is love?  That has been asked by many people.  That includes Haddaway, in his 1990s dance song, “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me),” a song that inspired a popular skit on Saturday Night Live.

Is love just a dreamy, sentimental state?

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once quoted, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  [People] will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last too long but is soon over, with [everyone] looking and applauding as though on the stage.”[5]

4 1 Jn
“The devil wants to make the Incarnation a divine puppet show." —Johannes Baptist Metz

(Maybe even a stage with a puppet show?)

Love can be a harsh and dreadful thing.  It can be painful, because it takes time.  It isn’t just one and done.  And as our friend Dorothy suggests, love can mean taking actions and making decisions for the sake of Christ which might not be popular with others.

So, as our scripture ends, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” that involves testing the spirits.  “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Imagine that.  Loving our neighbor, loving each other and giving ourselves to each other means loving God, giving ourselves to God.

How can we act as though Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?  Is there something you have tested and know is from the Holy Spirit?  What are we waiting for?  The love of God does the heavy lifting.  That’s when we can truly say, “Deus vult!”  “God wills it!”

 

[1] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 56.

[2] in Susan Rakoczy, “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 139 (March 2011): 96.

[3] Kirsteen Kim, “How Will We Know When the Holy Spirit Comes?” Evangelical Review of Theology 33:1 (January 2009): 95.

[4] Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit, Inclusive Language Version (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

[5] Rakoczy, 107.


a road through the waters

I want to begin with a conclusion.  It’s the narration by director Robert Redford at the end of the movie, A River Runs Through It.  It tells the story of the early 20th century Montana Presbyterian minister / fly-fisherman played by Tom Skerritt.  And it’s a story about his sons, played by Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer, who inherit their father’s love of fly-fishing.  It’s Craig Sheffer’s character, Norman Maclean, who is speaking in the twilight years of his life, after so many family and friends have died, including his beloved wife, Jessie.

He says, “Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.  Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t.  But when I am alone in the half light of the canyon all existence seems to fade to a being with my soul, and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, and a four count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise.

1

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.”

The whole movie is worth watching, just for that final scene.  It’s that final assertion—that confession—that Norman is “haunted by waters” which captivates me.  I must admit: I still haven’t figured out what that means, but it’s the mystery that draws me in.

And “mystery” seems to be a good word for today, with baptism being a sacrament.  That word, “sacrament,” comes from the Latin sacramentum, which translates the Greek μυστηριον (mystērion), “mystery.”  Be they the waters of the sea or the waters of baptism, there is more than a bit of mystery to them.  Who knows what goes on in those watery depths?

Speaking of being “haunted by waters,” what is a “mystery” to me is the, in my opinion, unfortunate bickering that sometimes goes on about the mode of baptism—that is, immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.  Those who are familiar with the NFL know that when a referee’s call is challenged, the instant replay must show conclusive evidence for the call to be reversed.

Well, when it comes to baptism, the scriptures just don’t have that conclusive evidence!  Several images are used for it.  We tend to ignore the fact that baptism is a gift from God.

As we turn to our psalm reading, notice that it doesn’t provide the stuff of lullabies.  We hear no soothing melodies as we drift off into blissful slumber.  No, in the 29th Psalm, we’re assaulted by the full fury of nature’s wrath, a raging storm.  Verse 3 roars, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.”

So besides being plunged into the tempest, the verse also speaks of “the voice of the Lord,” which the psalmist compares to lightning.  This voice does works of power:  it “breaks the cedars of Lebanon,” “flashes forth flames of fire,” and “strips the forest bare” (vv. 5, 7, 9).  Seven times the psalmist sings about the mighty deeds of the voice.  For those reasons, one description of Psalm 29 is “the Psalm of Seven Thunders.”[1]

2

Having said all that, why does this psalm appear as a text for today, for the Baptism of the Lord?  It’s not like anybody’s getting baptized—unless, of course, you figure somebody had to be getting drenched by the storm we just heard about!  We can find a clue in St. Matthew’s gospel.  Just as in our psalm, we hear the voice of God—in this case, calling Jesus “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).

Jesus receives a name, the Beloved, at his baptism.  Once upon a time, the naming of children was a ceremony that occurred at baptism.  The “christening” of a child reflected that connection with Jesus Christ.  These days, the naming of a child isn’t usually associated with that kind of ritual.

Today, as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, I want us to consider something.  I don’t suppose the voice of God was heard by anyone at our baptism, but we nonetheless have received a name from God.  Revelation 2:17 tells us, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.  To everyone who conquers…I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”  There’s a promise that the name known only to God will be revealed—but it’s a confidential matter.

How appropriate that is!  In the vast sweep of history, the names of the overwhelming majority of the Lord’s servants are unknown.  They didn’t “make a name” for themselves, at least not a name that following generations remember.  And that’s true for us.  Maybe there are plenty of people who know our name today, but in times to come, only a tiny minority of us will be remembered by the world—at least, in the way we often think about it.

Through baptism—through following Jesus into the water and into a new name—we are set apart.  Retired UCC pastor Jack Good has said that baptism “sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person—one owned by God.  Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.  The unbaptized also belong to God, but they have had no public opportunity to announce and celebrate that fact.”[2]

Following Jesus into baptism and living by the vows made at baptism means we want to hear the voice of God.  Rev. Good goes on, “Multiple forces will attempt to redefine the child after she leaves the baptismal font.  Commercial messages will attempt to convince her that she is owned by a great economic machine whose purpose is to make her a voracious consumer…  Government will attempt in myriad ways to establish its ultimate claim on our [offspring].”  It will convince the church to yield “its young men and women to Caesar to become cannon fodder in whatever adventures or misadventures Caesar contrives.”[3]

Reaffirming our baptismal covenant is one key way of reminding ourselves to whom we belong.  By yielding ourselves to Jesus Christ, we let the voice at the waters of baptism have the final say over the other voices we hear.  We say “no” to the voices that would fill us with anxiety—voices that say we can’t, we’ll fail, and to be honest, we shouldn’t even try.  Believe me; I have heard those voices myself!  But having faith in God helps us to recognize that those voices are telling lies.

Our hymn after the renewal of the baptismal covenant is “Out of Deep, Unordered Water.”  Listen to the second stanza: “Water on the human forehead, birthmark of the love of God, / Is the sign of death and rising; through the seas there runs a road. / There is water in the river bringing life to tree and plant. / Let creation praise its giver: there is water in the font.”

That line about creation praising its giver because there’s water in the font is certainly in the spirit of our psalm.  It’s a celebration that one of the most basic, and the most important, substance in all the earth—water—is used for such a noble and sacred purpose.

But I suppose it’s the line, “through the seas there runs a road,” that brings me back to where I began—back to the mystery of being “haunted by waters,” in which “a river runs through it.”  Friends, this journey we take through the waters, of heeding the voice that gives us a divine name, is about far more than we can think or imagine.

3

This is a case in which words fail.  We can speak of various meanings of baptism, various modes of baptism, but they fall silent before the simple majesty of the water itself.  We come through the water changed, reborn, a new creation.

If we truly embrace our rebirth, our being a new creation, then we will find ourselves being washed clean of our own agendas.  (Clearly, this doesn’t happen all at once!)

I put to myself the question, “How willing am I to be washed clean of my own agendas?”  How willing am I to experience, even a little bit, of traveling the road that runs through the seas, a road through the waters?  As I just said, this doesn’t happen all at once.  And it doesn’t happen once and for all.

During the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, that’s exactly what we do: we “reaffirm.”  We remind ourselves of what it means.  That’s why we are asked “once again to reject sin, to profess [our] faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we were baptized.”

The reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant isn’t something to do because it fits nicely on the liturgical calendar.  It is intended to bring us back to that moment when, in the waters of baptism, we state—as a community, not merely as individuals—that we joyfully accept the covenant with God in Jesus Christ.

There’s a funny thing about what that hymn says about the water of baptism.  It “is the sign of death and rising; through the seas there runs a road. / There is water in the river bringing life to tree and plant.”  That isn’t stagnant water; it’s water in motion, water that is flowing.  It’s not the breeding ground of mosquitoes!

In the Bible, flowing water is often called living water.  It’s moving; it’s animated.  It isn’t dead; it is water of resurrection.  How fitting that is when we think of our liturgy for the funeral service, or as our Book of Common Worship puts it, “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  There are a number of prayers that can be used.  One I really like to use includes this: “Especially we thank you for your servant [fill in the name], whose baptism is now complete in death.”  It’s such a powerful statement.  It expresses the sure hope of the covenant with the one who is always faithful.

We go full circle.  In baptism, we are buried with Christ and emerge as that new creation mentioned earlier.  And as a new creation, like that flowing water, we are called to move beyond our own stagnation, our own tired ways, our own prejudice and bigotry, in whatever form they appear.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

As we go with the flow of the baptismal waters, as we travel that road through the waters, we join with the psalmist in joyful song:

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.  May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!” (vv. 10-11).

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 233.

[2] Jack Good, “Naming names,” Christian Century 120:26 (27 Dec 03):  19.

[3] Good, 19.


from false life into true

Some people see the epilogue of Revelation, the final words of the Bible itself, as a grab bag of stuff that gets tossed in as an afterthought.  But there is a method to the author John’s madness.  He brings together images that he used earlier in the book, such as “Alpha and Omega” (v. 13, 1:8), the washing of robes (v. 14, 7:14), the morning star (v. 16, 2:28), among many others.

Something about our passage that I find interesting is what the lectionary compilers left out.  This often happens with the “problematic” verses.  When I see stuff that gets deleted, I just have to include it.  Verses 18 and 19, in which John cautions about messing around with the words in his book, are skipped over.

But before that, there’s verse 15, which is the flip side to the blessing which has just been pronounced on “those who wash their robes” (v. 14).  These are the ones granted access to the tree of life and entry to the city.  That is God’s new city, the new Jerusalem.

Here’s the sentence that gets the ax: “Outside [that is, outside the city gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  Saving the rest of the verse for later, it’s that last part—everyone who loves and practices falsehood—that jumps out at me.  The New Jerusalem Bible reads “everyone of false speech and false life.”  False speech and false life.

image from jayfnelson.files.wordpress.com

Let me tell a story I think might go along with that.

In November 1987, I was a student at Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida.  (It’s an Assemblies of God school; it’s now Southeastern University.)  Anyway, on most Friday nights, a group of us would go to Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa—at the time, it wasn’t exactly the most upscale part of town.  What we students did was street evangelism.

The night after Thanksgiving was my very first time going with the group to Tampa.  I doubt that I’d been on the street for more than five minutes when I encountered a man, maybe in his fifties, dressed in shabby clothes.  I walked right up to him and said, “Jesus loves you.”  Just like that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  We were Pentecostal students; I suppose we expected to see some dramatic changes every time we went there.  But with my very first person on my very first night, I did see something.

Upon hearing the name “Jesus,” the man started crying.  And as he sobbed, he poured out his heart.  He said that he’d once been a rich man; he’d had a job as a manager in some corporation.  Due to various things, in particular a drinking problem, he just frittered it all away.  But worse than losing his career, worse than losing all his money, was the fact that he had lost his family.  He told me that he wasn’t even sure where they were.  And he wondered if he could ever be forgiven—if he could ever be pardoned for living a false life, so to speak.

With an almost knee-jerk reaction, I said, “Jesus does forgive you.”  There, that ought to do it!  That ought to take care of him!  But for some reason, it didn’t.  My magic words failed to produce the intended effect!  I expected him to say, “Thank you” or “Get lost” or something like that.  But he said something very different.

“Do you forgive me?”  He was directing the question to me!  Somewhat taken aback, I was determined to provide what I considered to be a theologically correct response.  “Jesus forgives you.”

“No, no, no,” he groaned through his tears.  “Do you forgive me?”  To my anonymous friend, in that deserted parking lot on the evening after millions of Americans had gobbled turkey in the comfort of their homes, my talk of Jesus was an abstraction.  He needed a flesh-and-blood word.  So I said, “I forgive you.”  And with that, he turned and shuffled away into the night.

When we hear the words a “false life,” the poor fellow I met in Tampa may come to mind.  Or we may imagine those who haven’t wound up on the street:  say, employers who abuse their employees and the environment.  Perhaps “false speech and false life” conjures up images of slick-talking salesmen, corrupt politicians, or that romantic interest of your youth who gave you hope—and then said, “I just want to be friends”!

Our friend John gives us examples of what he’s talking about.  In verse 15, he starts off with “dogs.”  Jews sometimes described Gentiles that way.  That may or may not be the way John is using it.  In any event, calling someone a dog is hardly a compliment.

The next word on the list, “sorcerers,” would seem to be a concern to those who don’t like Harry Potter!  The word in the Greek, φαρμακοι (pharmakoi), sheds a little more light.  Pharmakoi is the origin of our word “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.”  So John’s reference to “sorcerers” is also a reference to “drugs.”  There’s always been a link between drugs and sorcery.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for taking drugs, but I think I’m safe in saying that Americans are probably the most overmedicated people in the world.  Still, that kind of dependency contributes to the “falsity” that our scripture points to.

And then next on the list is “fornicators,” coming from the Greek word πορνοι (pornoi), which is the source of our word “pornography.”  We dehumanize each other in plenty of ways, and this is definitely one way it happens.

And then, with “murderers and idolaters,” we can think of the folks who physically do that.  Or, going a bit deeper, we can examine the presence of murder and idolatry within ourselves.  In John’s first letter, these are his final words:  “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Hint:  he isn’t talking about images of stone!  Idolatry is very much a part of the human condition.

In reality, we’re in danger of holding on to some, or all, of the qualities in verse 15.  There’s the intolerance and bigotry shown by the use of the word “dogs.”  Like sorcerers, we often try to manipulate God and others, with or without drugs.  We can be controlled by lusts of the body, motivated by grudges, and love the creation more than the Creator.

We all have the qualities that I’ve mentioned within us.  We might try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist.  We begin to live a false life; a life which may seem healthy on the outside, but is sick on the inside.  We all need forgiveness, and we need to forgive each other.

In what’s sometimes called a “preview” of Pentecost, or the “first” Pentecost, Jesus gives power to his disciples.  In John 20, he breathes on them, and then says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (vv. 22-23).”  Maybe that’s what I was doing that night in Tampa!

By forgiving each other, we welcome the power of Christ.  We act on the words of that familiar prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  (Or substitute words to fit other versions.)  Some might say, “I’m not in debt to anybody here.”  To which, I would say:  sorry, but yes you are!  In Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that we owe each other love (vv. 8-10).

We’ve taken a look at what a false life could mean for us as individual persons.  How could a false life apply to a congregation?

There are a number of ways to approach this, but here’s an example.  My wife Banu and I attended a week-long retreat on interim pastor training.  We watched a video of the late Edwin Friedman.  He was talking about overcoming barriers to effective leadership, both clergy and lay leadership.

One of his comments was on the fallacy of expertise, which is an overemphasis on information and technique.  We can become paralyzed by incessantly gathering information before we take any meaningful action.

Friedman spoke of another barrier to effective leadership:  what he calls the fallacy of empathy, the ability to feel what others do.  Clearly, empathy itself is a good quality.  The problem comes when there’s an overemphasis on how people feel.  The hard truth is that not everyone is going to be happy with you, even if you’re doing your very best.  (Often it turns out, especially if you’re doing your very best!)

One way this is seen is when the most dependent members, the ones who have the least amount of self-regulation—the least amount of self-control—are the ones who are setting the agenda.  He made an interesting comment: organisms that lack self-regulation don’t learn from experience.  They don’t learn from their mistakes, their patterns of behavior, if they are constantly being enabled.

image from angermentor.com

Friedman had an observation about American society.  A key thing that is lacking, he said, is maturity.  And sadly, maturity is a quality often lacking in the church.  When we violate proper boundaries, we display a lack of maturity.  When we intrude on someone’s personal space, we display a lack of maturity.

Developing maturity is what we allow God to do in us through spiritual formation.

Prayer is a vital component of spiritual formation.  But guess what?  We are being spiritually formed all of the time.  It doesn’t just happen through what are often thought of as “spiritual” practices: like prayer, scripture reading, peacefully meditating.

We are also spiritually formed in the very “real world” activities in how we treat each other and how we work through issues.  Board meetings, committee meetings, are perfect places for spiritual formation.  We are spiritually formed in how we deal with conflict, which inevitably arises.

Conflict, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad.  We can deal with it in good and healthy ways—or in bad and destructive ways.

Hear verse 17: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

God gives us the gift of love that helps us deal with false speech and false life.  Of course, by its very nature, love cannot be compelled.  It must be both freely offered and freely received.

So here’s a question: what do we do with that love?  Do we let it remain abstract, the way I was with the man on the street in Tampa?  Do we find ways to make it flesh-and-blood, praying for strength and courage, even in those board meetings, and beyond that, even when it seems like everything is lost?

That is what motivates John and his sisters and brothers with their faithful, hopeful, and joyful cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Come, lead us from false life into true.


city from above

One of my favorite actors is Al Pacino.  In recent years, his movies haven’t been so great, but he has a pretty impressive body of work, starting of course with The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2.  Pacino is one of those actors with a really distinctive voice.

I like it when he uses that voice to deliver speeches and/or rants.  In Scent of a Woman, he plays a Lieutenant Colonel who defends Chris O’Donnell at a disciplinary hearing at his school.  (“If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place!”)  In Any Given Sunday, he’s a football coach giving his inspirational pregame talk.  (“On this team we fight for that inch!”)

But one of my favorite Pacino speeches is the one he delivers in City HallIn this movie, he’s a New York City mayor with John Cusack as his deputy mayor.  A young black boy has been killed in the crossfire between a police officer and a member of the mob who received probation under suspicious circumstances.  Racial tensions involving the NYPD are about to boil over.  That’s the backdrop when Pacino shows up for the funeral at the little boy’s church.

He’s invited to the pulpit, and he immediately addresses the elephant in the room.  He admits he was warned not to attend.  Don’t stand behind that coffin.  “But I must stand here,” he says to the congregation, “because I have not given you what you should have.  Until we can walk abroad and recreate ourselves; until we can stroll along the streets like boulevards; congregate in parks free from fear, our families mingling, our children laughing, our hearts joined—until that day we have no city.”

Pacino talks about Pericles of Athens as the model of a mayor and about a mythic “palace that was a city.”  As he continues, the people are getting worked up, with shouts of “Amen!”

At the end of the sermon (and it probably qualifies as such), he declares, “We’ll rebuild on the soul of this little warrior.  We will pick up his standard and RAISE it high!  Carry it forward until THIS CITY—YOUR CITY—OUR CITY—HIS CITY—IS A PALACE AGAIN!  IS A PALACE AGAIN!  I am with you, little James.  I am you.”

image from www.zastavki.com

A city that is a palace.  Does it ever occur to us that a city can be a palace?  Does it ever occur to us that a city can be that majestic, it can be that glorious?  No doubt, there are cities that we love, and cities in which we’ve fallen in love.  Most of us can think of cities with awesome and beautiful landmarks.  (Maybe you’re thinking of one or two right now.)  But a palace?  Something that lofty?

We hear the familiar words of the song dedicated to America.  “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years / Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears!”  (I suppose we’re not there quite yet!)

Usually when we hear words like “heavenly vistas,” we think of the glory of God’s creation:  majestic views from mountaintops, meadows of flowers waving in the wind, gently falling snow.  But in the book of Revelation, among the many visions of St. John, we have the celestial city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven.  That’s the heavenly vista we’re given.

I guess that says something about humans as co-creators with God.  When we yield our works to God, something wondrous and life-affirming happens.

We humans build cities, even if they aren’t made of alabaster.  The image of the city of God is a little more impressive.  Some top-of-the-line architects and contractors have been told to go wild.  No corners have been cut putting this place together.  And look at the materials:  sapphire, emerald, onyx, topaz, amethyst.  The gates are made of pearl; the streets are made of gold.

Still, I don’t want to go on examining the physical properties of this heavenly city, or any other city.  I think I have a better question.  What is the definition of “city”?  What does it mean?  What does it signify for us?  Can we understand it as metaphor?

Chapter 21 begins with a new heaven and a new earth; the old order is gone.  The city from above is coming down to earth.  That’s important.  The city comes down to us; it’s not the work of our hands that goes up.  God is coming to dwell with the people.  God is taking up residence among us.  In Jesus the human being, God took up residence among us.  Nothing is ever the same again.

Clearly, with the way the city is built, with gemstones being used as we would concrete and asphalt, stone and mortar, there’s a picture of lavishly overwhelming, even wasteful, abundance.  It’s a picture of a palace that is a city.

And on that note of Al Pacino’s vision of a city in that great scene from the movie, hear what he says.  He speaks of walking abroad, strolling along, and congregating in parks without fear.  He speaks of families mingling, children laughing, and hearts being joined.  But what happens when those qualities go missing?  What’s the result when those wonderful things are absent?  “Until that day we have no city.”  Where fear reigns, no true city exists.

Love and living
Thomas Merton, one of the twentieth century’s spiritual giants, in Love and Living, offers his thoughts on what a city can truly mean.[1]

“A city is something you do with space.  The first cities of the North American continent were centers for celebration.  These were the early Mayan cities of Guatemala and…Mexico…  They did not have armies.  They did not have kings.  They did not conquer anyone…  The city was built by the people, not for a king, not for a clique of generals, but for themselves; it was their place of celebration.”

This wasn’t a land ruled by fear.  That didn’t come until the Aztecs appeared on the stage, with their human sacrifice and building of empire.

Merton continues, “Those early cities knew what to do with space.  And what they did with space made human life joyous, real, fully credible.  The Bible tells us that in the end it will be like that again, in a city of pure celebration.”[2]  What does that celebration look like?

Notice how chapter 21 ends.  There’s no need for a temple, no need for sun or moon.  The glory of God is its light.  Verse 25 says, “Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.”  There is no fear of enemies in this city.  The gates are always left wide open; there’s no need to bar the doors!

“People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (vv. 26-27).  The reign of terror is over.  No more criminal behavior.  No more of the thousand little ways in which we demean each other.  No more of the powers-that-be imposing their might.

About all of that nasty business, Merton says, “They with their gold have turned our lives into rubble.  But we with love will set our lives on fire and turn the rubble back into gold.  This time the gold will have real worth.  It will not be just crap that came out of the earth.  It will be the infinite value of human identity flaming up in a heart that is confident in loving.”[3]

It might seem like all of this is relegated to the future, that it doesn’t speak to us right now.  Many see the entire book of Revelation that way.  It’s all about the future, of things to come.  A more helpful way is to see it like the gospel itself.  The good news is that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17).  It’s already here, but not yet in its fullness.  It’s right here, in the grasp of our hands.  We can almost taste it.

And speaking of taste, chapter 22 says something about the river of the water of life.  On either side of it are “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month” (v. 2).  Now that’s some fertile soil—twelve harvests every year!  That’s what the tree of life provides.  In Genesis 3, the tree of life is declared off limits.  Adam and Eve, hit the road.  But no more of that; the tree is made available to all.

Its leaves provide healing.  The word in Greek is θεραπείαν (therapeian), where we get our word “therapy.”

When God takes up residence among us, nourishment and medicine—things that promote health—are provided without measure and in many different ways.  (By the way, God is the perfect urban planner.  This city has plenty of green space!)

Can we see the city from above filling our space, right here, right now?  Can it be something other than a vision of some nebulous time in the future?  Can we see it as a place of serving God and the Lamb, serving Christ and not Caesar?  Can we see it as abundance of food and healing for all nations, for all people?

The Bible says the citizens of that city “will see [God’s] face, [God’s] name will be on their foreheads” (v. 4).  If we already have a vision of that city, then God’s name is being written on our foreheads.  We are being marked as God’s own.  What does that mean for how we live in this place and in this time?

A palace that was a city, now becomes a palace like none other, governed by the Lamb upon the throne.  The Lamb, meek and mild, is now the ascended one, filling all things, filling the cosmos.

Those blessed ones, for whom the Lord God is their light, and for us who serve the Lamb, it is proclaimed, “They will reign forever and ever.”  That is the assurance for those who serve the Lamb.  That is the promise for those who live in the palace come down to earth, in which there is always room for one more.

[1] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, ed. Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 4, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 5.4.8

[3] Merton, 5.5.6