Thursday, April 28, 2016
Well, that just got weird. Hearing these bizarre and fantastic visions it is hard to imagine them as real, and yet it seems equally as hard for some of us to try to understand them in any other way. Repeatedly throughout Western history these visions have influenced literature and art as we have attempted to wrestle with these powerful images. Yet we truly do not know if these writings were coded messages, or an actual dream, or even the result of some medicinal herb, mushroom or flower!
And even though Martin Luther only agreed to include John’s Revelation in the Bible as a tool to critique the Roman Catholic Church – and John Calvin didn’t even include it in his commentaries – the church has kept these writings in the canon of scripture for centuries.
So, I maintain the position that the Revelation of John at Patmos was an expression of faith in Jesus as God’s self-revelation. And, I want to remind you what we’ve been focusing on over the last few weeks.
First is the idea that our end – our purpose, our reason for being – is discovered through Jesus. What I mean is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we receive an example for living, and we see the power of God demonstrated in ways that can transform our lives and give us hope. That hope assures us that loving God, even giving our lives in service to God, is something worth doing. And then last week we went a little deeper into the idea that our salvation from sin is assured through the blood of Jesus – not because God needs a sacrifice, but because God wanted us to know how far God would go to demonstrate God’s love. In the sacrificial love of Jesus, God chose not to destroy us for our rejection of God, but instead to show us how large – and yet how personal – God’s embrace can be.
So with that in mind we turn to today’s readings. And I want to get some of the issues and questions out of the way. So, in this particular vision we have some things that are fairly obvious metaphors. A monster rises from the sea. The sea is generally understood as chaos, the part of creation that God left as a veritable toxic waste dump with terrible creatures. In fact, later visions of a new heaven and earth exclude the sea altogether.
The beast had all kinds of animal parts representing various earthly powers and divine attributes, and the mix of creature parts probably held some influence from Babylonian mythology. It had several heads and horns and crowns that represented earthly kingdoms, particularly Roman Emperors. One of them was wounded, but (unlike the lamb who is slain) it was not dead or risen from the dead. And all the people were amazed by its power and they worshiped it.
Now the beast came from a dragon, which is described in ch 12 as Satan, and it seems that we are being told that “resistance is futile”. If you’re going to be taken captive, so be it. You can fight it, but you’ll die. This conflict is itself an invitation for people of faith to be willing to endure suffering and conflict.
As we skip down a bit to ch 14, we find those that have the name of God and of the lamb written on their foreheads are being set aside. It’s a little troubling that part of their credentials is the fact that they are men who have never been sexually intimate with a woman, but they actually represent the purity of God’s choices as seen in us. They also look a lot like those that would be preparing for battle by abstaining from certain pleasures and steeling their will for the fight.
Now, before we go any further, I’d like to suggest that we consider the perspective of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch theologian and philosopher who is said to have had some influence on Martin Luther. He has been quoted saying, “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”
I would say that expecting John’s visions to come true would be an example of living in a dream world. I would say that recognizing the theme in this text of oppressive systems of government – and other social systems – and naming the systems of oppression that we face today is an example of facing reality. But I would also say that God is calling us to step up and challenge those powers – knowing that it will cost us – so that those who are limited by others can become truly free!
While I think this is something that we must find ways to do on our own, I believe we must continue to seek new ways to demonstrate the liberating presence of God as a congregation. There is no end to the metaphors I could make for our common strength. We can talk about the combined power of candles in the dark, or the way that plants and animals demonstrate strength in numbers, but in John’s vision he heard music, and it was a song that only those who bore the name of God could sing!
And we have a unique voice. We believe in a God of grace and mercy that chooses us regardless of our worth or merit. We believe in a God that is present in suffering and whose will is for all to be saved from the limitations of human sinfulness. While we struggle with the idea that some might not be saved, we leave that up to God to handle. And we focus on responding to God’s love the best that we can. We don’t believe that we are more correct than any other branch or congregation of believers, but we believe that we working to become more faithful every day than we were the day before.
And more than that we know, deep in our bones, that God is at work in our relationships and in our connections with others who follow Christ. This is the song that we must sing! And even as we learn it and share it and belt it out with all of our hearts, we must continue to write it with God. And as we write it, we must continue to call one another “beloved” as we “get through this thing called life.” Because it is only by recognizing others as God’s beloved that we can see their needs as our needs.
Only by seeing their needs as our needs can we worship something other than power, because we love power! We love power because it makes us feel safe, and that’s not a bad thing. Seeking safety is a primal instinct that God gave us to help us survive. And no matter how we insulate ourselves, the wolf is always at the door. But the question John’s vision is asking us today is this, in our desire to become safe have we become the wolf?
For we do love and crave power. We love the power of our nation. We love the power of personal freedoms. We love feeling like we are the ones to determine our own destinies, because we do it so well.
That is, we do it well until we realize that we have become credit poor, over-extended, and unable to pay our bills. We do it well until the Dr. tells us that without certain changes we won’t have any more choices to make. We do it well until we realize that our choices have become centered around a bottle or a video game or our financial security or any center of value other than our God. We do such a great job determining our own destinies until the needs of a child change our concept of what we need, or our hearts are broken by need or loss or compassion for someone that we can’t find a way to help. We do such a great job until we realize that it’s not our job to determine our own destinies.
Whether you believe in fate or destiny or absolute freedom, there are more things out of our control than there are under our control. There is yet chaos in our world. There are greater evils and personal rebellions against God. Evil and malice and selfishness are real – and they have power in this world – but theirs is a limited power. And we have been set aside and called to fight against powers like these that oppress and limit others. But ours is not a conventional war. Our weapons include endurance, and obedience to God, and demonstrations of God’s love.
For our job is not to determine and secure our own bright, happy, perfect future. Our job is to anticipate the world that God is creating. Our job is to remember the things that are permanent and unlimited – faith, hope, and love. And in the end, we will do more than “get through life.” We will be taken away, swept up in what God is doing –even here, even now – and all to the glory of God! Amen.
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
We are now on our third week in a sermon series on the lectionary readings from the Book of Revelation. We began with the idea that Jesus is God’s self revelation, and this book is a particular expression of hope for a particular people who believe in Jesus as the One who revealed the heart of God. Because the language of this book is symbolic it can offer us a word of hope for our time as well. So, people of God, listen to what the Spirit is teaching us today through this reading from Revelation7:9-17.
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "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. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for 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.”These readings bring many questions to our minds. For starters, whenever a passage begins with “after this” it makes me think, “After what?” But before answering that, I think it’s important to restate the context of the reading that we have received today. I don’t necessarily mean delving into the history of the church under Roman oppression or the impact of the Maccabean rebellion on Christians. I mean the fact that we are dealing with a dream scape.
Although all of us dream, not all of us remember our dreams. Some of us have vivid dreams with developed story lines. Some of us have recurring dreams when we have things that we are trying to work out emotionally or just in our life patterns. When I was 11 I had a dream that my parents gave me a whip, a revolver, and a really cool hat so that I could defend our family against an invading hoard of Yeti’s that attacked in the night. I’ve never quite figured that one out, but it may have had something to do with my parent’s divorce and the release of the first Indiana Jones movie.
The point is that dreams, whatever else they may be, are the result of our brains using symbolic logic to work out the real life experiences of our waking lives. Symbols are crucial to our expressions of identity and communication. Be it tattoos, computer icons, or even simple instructions on our appliances, symbols communicate larger ideas. Even letters on a page are just symbolic marks that we interpret culturally to mean something that we agree on.
Symbols are used to create music, to orient our position on a map, and to create formulas to design buildings that scrape the sky and rockets that launch any number of harmful and helpful things into space. It has been said that it is through symbols that humankind has always worked to communicate thoughts that language alone cannot completely convey. In fact, Paul Tillich once said that our “ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”
So, there you have it. We must remember that this revelation of John, a Jewish follower of Jesus who wrote around a generation after the resurrection, must not be taken literally or used as a road map for God’s cosmic comeuppance for the world. Instead, John is asking us to dream a dream of salvation and hope. Now that said, our reading today began with “after this,” because it follows what we have read and discussed the last two weeks – plus a little more.
The first point to remember is that Jesus Christ is God’s self-revelation. The second is that the sacrificial love of Jesus and the providence of God’s grace make it clear to us that God is worthy to be worshiped, and Jesus is worthy to communicate God’s love. In terms of the unearthly vision of John, Jesus is given the authority to read the scroll that has been written and sealed by God. And each time Jesus breaks a seal something terrible happens. With the first four seals, horsemen are released that symbolize domination, conflict, inequality, and death. These are certainly not new concepts, and yet to have them released seems to say that God is not only OK with them, but they do God’s bidding.
Next, those who were martyred for their faith are released and they cry out for justice. Then the destruction of earthly powers and the scattering of the leaders of nations is announced, and finally a certain number of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are given their own seal so that they can be included in the kingdom of God.
That’s where we come into the story today. And as problematic as it is to think that a God of mercy and grace is going to use a counter to limit those in the tribes of Israel or even allow – much less use – domination, conflict, inequality, and death – it is yet encouraging to think of this multitude from every nation praising God!
These are the ones who have “survived the great ordeal” and who have “washed their robes in the blood of Jesus.” So, first off, we don’t really know what the great ordeal is or was. It could have been particular acts of aggression by Rome. The idea of some great calamity before God’s final reign echoes through the Bible from the book of Daniel and into the Gospels. It is certainly possible that something like this could happen, but this may simply be a spiritual version of the idea that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
You’ve seen that in your life, I’m sure. The slippery slope is where and how you see God in the midst of it. God does not wait around to say, “I told you so.” God is instead waiting around for you to say, “God is good.” as we open our hearts to the one who helps us get through every trial.
Now, this washed in the blood thing has always troubled me, but that’s probably because it makes no sense whatsoever. Blood stains worse than anything! But perhaps that’s the point. The blood of Jesus is something that marks us. It claims us more than we claim it. Just as goodness and mercy will pursue us with the clarity and sincerity of a hungry falcon on a cloudy day, God’s desire is to include us through the sacrificial love of Christ.
OK, so I get the metaphor that when we turn to Christ and see his suffering and realize that it is for us we become united with God. But that still begs the question, who needs the blood? Does God require blood to be able to forgive? This idea of substitutional atonement – Jesus taking our place to pay off God – really limits God, and I’ve always found it troubling.
Recently I’ve come to realize that – even though we think of blood sacrifices as an ancient practice – the idea that God needs (or needed) blood still effects our worldview. In fact, the idea that God needed, or wanted, or even accepted the blood of Jesus for us is a set up for a belief system that only understands justice as retribution or payback. I can tell you from experiences of working with children that pay back is a pretty juvenile concept. We may use it as adults, but it starts pretty early – and it comes from a world view that is pretty self-centered. Look no further than the current political debates to see expressions of faith that are stuck on an eye for an eye world view or expecting that only greater violence can keep us safe from lesser violence.
I say all of this because I don’t believe that God needed the blood, but I do believe that we did. Just in the book of Acts there are four different references to “this Jesus, who you killed.” And over and over the writings of Paul tell us that God raised this Jesus from the dead to demonstrate the authority of God over sin and death.
So, here’s a new thought. What if God sent Jesus knowing that he would die? OK, maybe that’s not new. What if God knew that Jesus would die because he knew that humanity could not tolerate a message of love and equality and justice that is tempered with mercy? Still not entirely new. What if God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that any who believe in him will have eternal life? Nope, still nothing new here. OK, what if the real atonement for sin is not found in the rejection of Jesus on the cross, but in God’s refusal to punish humanity for what was done to Jesus on the cross? What if, in the crucifixion, God made it abundantly clear how far God was willing to go to love us? And in raising Jesus from the dead, God made it abundantly clear that anger and wrath were just traits that we wanted God to express. But God’s choice is grace and mercy.
In the end, the dream we are asked to dream is not much different than that of the David in the 23rd Psalm. Even as we expect and anticipate trials and suffering, God is yet calling us to become a greater and more inclusive community. And when I think about that table that God is setting, “in the presence of my enemies” I can’t help but remember the words of a good friend from years ago.
She said, “I can guarantee you that when I get to that heavenly banquet there will be someone across the table that I was certain would not be there, and that person will be thinking the exact same about me! And all that will be left to say is please pass the bread.”
I do not know how or when that table will be set, but I know that we are called to work toward the vision of the kingdom that was given to John. And this vision includes the shelter of those who are vulnerable, the feeding of those who hunger, and the welcome of those that have been strangers. We can do that. We can be that. And to God be the glory for it. Amen.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
As we move from Easter to Pentecost – the celebration of the unleashing of God’s Holy Spirit into the world through the church – we are working our way through the book of the Revelation of John. Last week we talked about this book as a particular description of the way in which God has revealed, and continues to reveal, God’s self through the person, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
And so, we have some natural questions that go along with these readings. Who was John, and what in the world was he talking about might be some good places to start. Most scholars believe that John was a Jewish follower of Jesus who wrote about God’s self-revelation about 60 years or so after the ministry of Jesus.
His writing style reflects the tradition of prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel, but it may have been a fairly common style for his day. He wrote primarily to Roman Christians that were being hunted for sport and abused terribly. This book is in the style of writings that told of a personal encounter with God and with heavenly beings.
Last week we talked about the importance of understanding God as the source of our beginning and the purpose that drives us forward. God is the alpha and the omega. God is the ground of all being, and all that we do must be rooted in God’s love for it to last.
So, leading up to today’s passage, John has had an encounter with an older and more stern sounding Jesus, who tells him to write down some things to share with the seven churches of Asia Minor. Then John has a metaphysical experience where he sees the door to heaven opened and is “caught up in the spirit”.
Now, John is careful to hedge his bets here, because he begins to describe God and the heavenly host as being “like” certain things. He knows that mortals are simply not supposed to be able to exist in the presence of God. He knows that part of being “holy” is being indescribably unique and different from all that we know and understand.
And so, he can’t really tell us who or what God is. Instead he describes what God and the heavenly host are “like”. Not only that but he was also describing things in a way that would have made sense for the readers of his time.
So, there he is – John, in the throne room of God – and God is holding a scroll with seven seals. There are these four fantastic creatures that are similar to the ones described by Ezekiel when the heavens opened for him. There are Elders and a host of angels, and one of the angels issues a challenge to ask who is worthy to open the scroll. And when it seems that hope is lost, a lamb “standing as if it were slaughtered” steps forward.
This is the part where the dreamscape is a little hard to follow. But the lamb is Jesus, and the heavens rejoice because of his worthiness to read the scroll of God. It’s really important that this happens first. Worthiness is established, for the rest of the story, through sacrificial love. More than that, it is established as the act of God. What happens next is really described as a hymn of praise. The deepest and purest response to God’s grace is made as a song. Think of it. These characters represent every order of being that has the ability to intentionally respond to or express God’s grace. And their music is like a tuning fork for all the earth. Every creature – even in the depths of the sea – gives praise to God.
For God is worthy to be praised. We say that, or at least read it, often in church, but have you ever really thought about it? Why is God worthy of praise? That may sound like a no-brainer. We praise God because God is God, right? But why do you praise God? Why do I? Do we truly praise God at all, or are we just using the words to make us feel good about the “crazy” in the world? That is the tension we find in our Psalm today. Oh, how good it is to know that God loves us and restores us when we need it! Oh, how easy it is to forget that God is the source of all blessing when we feel so well established that we think that are untouchable. Oh, how hard it can be to make sense of this loving and just God when we suffer, when we see suffering, and when it seems like those who help only themselves are the only ones with any help at all.
And then Psalmist cries out, “How can I praise you from the pit? Isn’t this really to your advantage to help me out here, God?” And while it seems pretty tacky to say to God, “Look you’re the one who is faithful. How does my destruction tell about your faithfulness?” it is still important for us to remember that God is the one who turns our sadness into joy. God is the one who gives us a reason to hope. And the promise and the invitation of the Revelation of John is that we get to join our voices in the chorus of praise. When we realize that there is a love more powerful than death, our hearts and minds become tuned to the same song that all of creation has sung from the beginning of time. The breeze in the trees, the songs of whales and the howls of wolves sing the very same song that you and I do when we remember that God is worth our praise.
God is worth our praise because God does not hold out God’s love like a merit badge or a grade to earn or a bonus that you may or may not get. God is worth our praise because God sees the value in each of us and calls us beloved. When we realize that nothing we can do could ever earn God’s favor and God’s love, then everything becomes a response to God’s favor and God’s love. And everything that isn’t part of that song gets drowned out.
Here’s what that song looks like. A friend of mine told me last week that he got laid off two days after finding out that his wife is pregnant with their third child. We talked about some of his options – they all involved moving – and he said, “You know, when I moved down here it was on a hope and a promise of better money. I’ve been asking God if this was the place for me to stay, and I guess the answer is no. What really matters is that we’ve been going to church since we came here. God wasn’t really a part of our life before. If that’s what we were supposed to get from coming here, that’s really more important than any job I could have.”
Another friend who checks in from time to time is trying to find out how to manage life as a single dad. He said, “Sometimes I feel like I have to fail at five things just to succeed at one.” We agreed that there was no getting around that feeling, and that sometimes just having another soul to call brother or sister because of our faith in God can make all the difference.
You know what else looks and sounds like the song of praise to God? Last Monday I sat in on the Downtown Development Authority’s Task Force for Homelessness. There was a wide variety of people representing businesses, social services, and residents. I was there as a representative of our Downtown Faith Alliance. While we didn’t get very far on specific solutions – and there were those that simply wanted to treat the issue like a problem to be solved – many creative ideas and much important information was shared about the issues faced by those who are without housing.
We talked about issues related to mental health screening and care, addiction issues, and public sanitation. Even now there is a person working with the DDA through Catholic Services of Acadiana who is walking the streets and getting to know those without homes personally, by name. Even now there are conversations with our Sheriff’s department about a facility that can temporarily house those that might normally be arrested for vagrancy and other crimes that are aimed at sweeping those without housing off the streets.
That is a part of the song that glorifies God. That is part of the song that glorifies Jesus, the lamb who was slain, who is worthy of our praise and our attention, who calls us to sing with the Psalmist and the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, because no matter how far down in the pit you may have fallen God is yet with you. So let us let our mourning turn to dancing! Let us sing with all of our might so that it might be echoed in all of creation, and even the heavenly creatures will say, “Amen!”
Next week we’ll continue in the Book of Revelation chapter 7. If you have time to read those first 7 chapters this week, that might help you. Please feel free to contact me if something comes up in your reading that you want to discuss. Other sources with helpful information include Revelations by Elaine Pagels, Brian Blunt's Can I Get a Witness, and Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse by Adela Yarbro Collins.
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
Today is the day that the church breathes a collective sigh after the rigor of Lent and the hospitality of Easter. The lilies are still with us, but they beg to be taken by anyone who will have them. The extra family members that took up the spaces of those members visiting their own families in other congregations have returned to their homes. Hopefully some who came for the pageantry of Easter might have returned to see if the Spirit of God they experienced is more than an idle tale.
And we who follow Christ must ask ourselves if anything has changed since Easter. That question is the essential struggle of the Book of the Revelation of John. The resurrection was not in question – not for those who followed Jesus and called him the messiah. The divinity of Jesus was not a particular concern, either. For John’s generation of followers of the way of Jesus, particularly those who were Jewish or who were considered “God-fearing” people, the essential question was more like “so what?” than “is it real?”
When I say, “So what?” I mean, “So, what does that mean, and how does it impact my life?” As I said before, it’s important to understand that this book was written to interpret the events of a particular time and place. I realize that may be a little different from what you have heard in the past, and I admit that I had some fear approaching this text for that very reason.
My first experience with the Book of the Revelation of John was in a High School Sunday School class. I was going through a tough time with my parent’s divorce, and we had a very caring adult that decided that it would be to our benefit to explore some of these weird passages together so that they would not be so scary. It was a nice idea.
Unfortunately the perspective of the study was that the Revelation of John was a series of visions that ultimately told about our potential destruction and included ideas like our social security numbers marking us as condemned. There was something about a super computer nicknamed “the beast” and a warning against tattoos. It wasn’t very comforting. Nor, I have come to understand, was it particularly Reformed in its theology.
So, regardless of what you have read in any novels about the Rapture, I thought it would be good to start this series of readings from the Revelation of John with a little bit about what we do – and don’t – believe about this book of the Bible.
First off, it is important to remember that we, as Presbyterians, hold it to be true that we can and will disagree at times in our understanding of scripture. Yet as a body we share certain beliefs about the Bible as God’s word, and we understand that God’s Holy Spirit adds to our understanding when we share our agreements and disagreements about God’s will for our lives. That’s not a disclaimer. That is a central part of who we are and what we believe, and we believe that the Bible – the whole Bible – is God’s word for us. And we believe that it is authoritative for salvation and sufficient for understanding who we are, who God is, and what God’s will for our lives might be.
So, that means that the Revelation of John has to be understood as a part of the whole message of love and redemption that is the Bible. Now, let’s start with the stuff that we don’t believe and get that out of the way. Some say that the Revelation of John indicates that there are certain eras of time, and that Jesus was kind of like a center piece. That’s the idea of dispensationalism – the idea that God has set certain time periods with certain events and will eventually clear the board once history has fully unfolded.
Reformed theology doesn’t deny that God could do that, but it doesn’t see a need for it either. All that happens will happen in God’s good time. The same can be said about millennialism – the idea that there will be a 1,000 year reign of Christendom before God hands over the keys of the earthly jalopy to the wicked. Again, God is sovereign over all things. Jesus announced the presence of God’s kingdom, and the idea that God would step away from the wheel does not track with a God of justice and grace and mercy. And so, millennialism does not seem consistent with scripture or necessary for God’s will as we understand it.
And last, but not least, we do not believe that the Revelation of John is a combination of visions that act as a code to unlock knowledge about some future disaster. The Revelation of John is a particular vision about the power of God who was present even in suffering of those that Rome persecuted for following the way of Jesus.
So, what else do we believe about this vision of John of Patmos? We believe that this book was an encoded message offering hope, interpreting current events, and anticipating the judgment of those who are opposed to the will of God. We believe that John used imagery in a way that is consistent with the Prophets of the Old Testament, and that his intent was to demonstrate what is real and true by exaggerating things that were seen and heard.
Now, I know that some may here that and say, “Really? It’s all hyperbole and metaphor? All symbol and no substance? What about the clouds? Didn’t he promise that in Luke’s Gospel?”
Not only that, but isn’t there a part of us that longs for the coming of Jesus? Our culture has fantasized about his return for centuries. From Michelangelo’s frescos to modern day pop songs asking for angels to come and fix things or at least give us some reason to hope, you can see that we long for something more than the mess of this life. Even as we revel in the beauty and freedom of our land we struggle with crumbling educational systems and profiteering in everything from medical care to incarcerations. We are fighting wars without end and there are those that would kill us for our faith. Even so, there are also those like Asad Shah, a Muslim shop keeper in Scotland who was shot by another Muslim for wishing Christians a happy Easter.
Meanwhile – even as we become a nation of greater equality – we have senators passing laws that limit the freedoms those in the LGBT community. Racism continues to haunt our culture like a specter, and we have lost all sense of decorum in our political theater.
Somehow, I think we need to know that God has not changed. We need to know that God has not given up, even when we have. We need to hear the revelation of John that tells us that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God is forever both beginning and end. God is the same God who told Moses “I shall be as I shall be.”
This means that God is not just some cosmic power struggling with other cosmic powers. God is the ground of all being. God is. God is the raison d’être. God is the source when we “get a little envie” to do something new. (That’s my favorite new cajun phrase that I recently learned.)
And Jesus is the One who is the faithful witness. He is the One who conquered death. He is the One with the ultimate authority who moves us toward the completion of God’s will. And it is our job to make it clear to everyone that Jesus’ return is as obvious as the clouds in the sky. His return is seen in our confession of sin. His return is demonstrated in our care for the unloved and the unlovable.
It’s not up to us to worry about whether or not (and where) Jesus will ride in on a cloud. It is enough for us to know that God is with us, no matter what is troubling us. It is enough to know that our end, our result, and the goal that we press toward are all found in our faith in God’s love for us. And all that we do must flow from our response to God’s amazing love.
It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard. Amen.
NEXT WEEK: We will continue working our way through the Revelation of John. If you are interested in a companion study, I am currently reading “Revelations” by Elaine Pagels, and I highly recommend it.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” he said. “He is not here. He is risen.” Out of all of the liturgically correct responses we hold dear in the church, I have to say that “He is risen indeed!” is one of my favorites. The resurrection of Jesus is so very basic and fundamental to our proclamation about God, and yet for many it seems to be an “idle tale.”
It seems that the more we know about scientific processes and discoveries, the greater claim we want to make on our ability to understand the mysteries of the universe. The unknown is simply the “not known yet.” Scientific curiosity is certainly a good thing, but it can at times become a sticking point for those who do not believe what they cannot observe. Likewise, the more we know about the human body and disease and metabolic processes, the more impossible it seems that the resurrection of Jesus could have ever occurred.
Of course, this point has been argued from the very beginning – well before the development of the scientific method. One of the earliest conflicts for followers of Jesus was about his humanity versus his divinity. How could it be otherwise when even Peter tells the centurion, Cornelius, that Jesus only appeared to certain witnesses? Wouldn’t you think that God would have wanted more people to have seen this miracle?
And yet it is precisely because of our desire for proof that the experience of the resurrected Jesus was entrusted to only a few. It is precisely because of our desire to control the narrative that God revealed God’s self in a way that can’t really be added to or taken away from. Either Jesus was raised from the dead or he was not. This is a fairly central belief that we have to reconcile if we are to follow Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus, if we take it seriously, is a game changer. It is the action that completes the promise made by Isaiah that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. This vision that Isaiah cast was certainly a message of hope for Israelites returning from captivity. He made promises of land and prosperity, but all of that is just fall out from the larger promise. For God did not just promise renewal or restoration. God promised to make all things new.
And Peter was certainly thinking of this when he said that all the prophets were testifying to the resurrection of Jesus. Every promise God ever made led to the cross. Every hope and every fear that we have shared– as God’s creation – is answered by the two bedazzled men at the tomb who said, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”
It is important that we understand that the resurrection of Jesus is not simply metaphorical. The reason that a physical resurrection is central to our proclamation of God is because a symbolic death and a symbolic resurrection only lead to the possibility that things might work out OK for you if you believe that they will.
But when we say that he is risen indeed, we are affirming that God is God. We are saying that God has authority over life and death, and that through God’s action of the physical resurrection of Jesus we can have hope. We have hope not only in life, but even in death.
Sadly I am reminded of a post on an acquaintances’ social media page from a few days ago. He said, “Last night my friend’s daughter died. Please pray for my friend and his wife. God did not cause her death. God did not "need another angel.” God did not take her. God is a God of life and joy, not death and sorrow. God did welcome that beautiful girl into our true home. And God has been with that family and will continue to be with them. He is strengthening them, and comforting them (He is the only one who can comfort them). Because of Easter we know that that precious little girl is in fact alive and with God, but I cannot imagine the heartache for those parents who are left on this Earth. Please pray for them to see God and to lean on God to get through this unimaginably painful time.”
That’s what this day is all about. It’s not about bunnies and eggs. It’s about the resurrection, and the hope it brings in all things. When we proclaim that he is risen, we do not intend to rationalize or make sense of it. When we proclaim that he is risen, we do not say it because it is good theology and sound doctrine. When we proclaim that he is risen, we say it because that is what we have experienced, and because it is what our faith teaches us to expect.
Life is full of tragedies, large and small. In our disappointments and losses, we need to know that there is something more to life. And when we hear the story of the resurrection of Jesus, we remember. Like the women at the tomb it quickens something within us. It puts things in perspective and gives us a reason to tell others, “This thing you are facing is not the end!”
And if we, like Peter, find ourselves racing to the tomb expecting to see Jesus, then we will simply be amazed and bewildered. Of course the story does not stop there. Jesus later appears to Peter and the other disciples, but today we are challenged with just those words, “He is risen.”
Affirming the resurrection of Jesus means affirming the death of Christ – the one anointed by God to demonstrate God’s active presence in the world. Affirming the death of Christ means affirming the problem of sin and self-centeredness that has never truly gone away. And affirming the resurrection of Jesus means affirming the power of God to break through even our own self-centeredness.
It means that our hope is not limited to our ability to make it through our current struggles, for our hope is grounded in the expectation that we will experience our own resurrection in this life and in the life to come. Our tombs of addiction, fear, affluence without compassion, racism, sexism, and homophobia cannot hold us when we hear that he is risen and we remember that this is what Jesus came to do.
Jesus came to demonstrate the power of God over sin and death. Jesus came to call our attention to the fact that God’s kingdom is at hand. And in his life he taught and healed gave us an example to follow. In his death he challenged the powers that attempt to control and condemn. And in his resurrection he continues to offer us hope and new life every day, even as we await eternal reunion with him and with those we love.
And so, on this day we proclaim that he is risen! And we claim all of the opportunity and responsibility that comes with it. We claim the hope that builds us up and saves us from our own limitations. We claim the freedom from the sins and attitudes that keep us from recognizing the humanity of others. We claim the responsibility of running to others that may need to hear that Christ is risen. And we even claim the responsibility to demonstrate the Kingdom of God through our compassion, our willingness to become limited, and our trust in God to hold us close in this life and in the life to come!
And in this hope we will approach God’s table today – knowing that the work of Christ to bring us into a common union with God and one another was finished on the cross, knowing that our proclamation has only just begun. For we believe, and we proclaim, “He is risen indeed!”