Friday, August 19, 2016

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Terror, and Hope” (Revelation Series #4) - August 21, 2016

Text: Revelation 6:1-8

Classes begin tomorrow at Iowa State, and later this week for the Ames and Gilbert school districts.  Around here, it has been joyful pandemonium as students have been moving in all week.  This morning we are glad to see students who are back as well as new students.  And other new faces.  Welcome, everybody!

So you show up for worship at this church in Ames and discover that they are deep into Revelation.  If I were attending a church for the first time, I have to be honest: that would probably scare me.

Just to be up front about it, we are not the kind of church that constantly goes on and on about end-time prophecy and when Jesus is going to return.  We actually might go a few years without mentioning the book of Revelation around here.  But John’s Apocalypse is a part of our Christian scriptures.  It is part of the Bible, and strange as it is, it is worth knowing what is in the book and perhaps reclaiming it as a scripture written for the church.  John wrote in a time of terror, a time of anxiety, a time of fear, a time of political uncertainty and social upheaval.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

One of the enduring images from Revelation is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  They elicit fear and terror.  They signal danger.  There are many folks who are not particularly familiar with the Bible or who don’t make a habit of reading Revelation who nevertheless know about the Four Horsemen.

The famed sportswriter Grantland Rice penned the most famous lead in sportswriting history.  It was published in the New York Tribune on October 18, 1924:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
They don’t write like that anymore, do they?  The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the nickname Rice gave its starting backfield, inspired fear and foreboding – the Four Horsemen brought impending doom as they ran roughshod over opponents.

A couple of weeks ago, as we read in Revelation chapter 5, the Lamb – Jesus Christ - was found worthy to open the scroll.  In our text today, as the first four seals of the scroll are opened, horses and riders are revealed.

First there is a White Horse.  A conquering horse.  The key is that the rider has a bow.  On the front of the bulletin cover, you will see an image of a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, from the 15th century.  The first horseman is farthest away, holding a bow.  The fiercest fighters of the day were archers on horseback, and the Parthians were especially known for their mounted archers.  The Parthians – an empire centered in what is now northeast Iran - repeatedly drove back and defeated the Roman army, putting an end to its eastward expansion.  They were a reminder of the limits of the security Rome could provide.  Those Christians who participated in emperor worship or in sacrifices offered to Roman gods were compromising their convictions for powers that were limited and could not be relied upon.

The second horseman is on a Red Horse.  This horseman takes away peace and brings violence.  If the conquering horseman represents danger from without, this horsemen represents danger from within.  In Durer’s woodcut, he is closer to the reader, indicating that the danger from within may be greater than the danger from outside forces.  He unleashes hostilities so that bloodshed comes to the populace.  Rome tried to cultivate an appreciation for the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.  This peace allowed for roads to be built and for food and commodities to be available.  But it came with a price.  Dissenting voices were silenced.  Many Christians suffered.  A lot of people accepted executions and widespread persecution as necessary to preserve the peace.  But such peace was not really peace, and the second rider warns that this peace will be taken away.

The third rider is on a black horse.  He carries scales and speaks of wheat and barley being sold for 10 or 20 times the usual amount.  It is a message of economic uncertainty, of famine and scarcity and inflation that come with war.  In Durer’s woodcut, this is the largest image, indicating that economic fears are perhaps the closest to us.  For a lot of people, this is what keeps them up at night.

And then the fourth rider is on a sickly, pale green horse.  This rider is Death.  This is where Johnny Cash ends his song.  Along with death is Hades.  If you look at the woodcut on the cover, Death is the nearest but the smallest horseman, and beside it is Hades.  You may not notice Hades at first.  It is in the very corner, a bizarre figure with a huge mouth – it appears that a king is in Hades’ open mouth.  Hades is pictured this way because the Old Testament personified Hades or Sheol – the place of the dead – as having a voracious appetite and opening its mouth wide to devour the powerful.  Death does its work through war, violence, famine, disease, plagues, and wild beasts. 

This is pretty brutal stuff.  Now, we need to remember that these are symbolic images.  The point is not that we are to be on the lookout for a rider on a White Horse with a bow galloping down Welch Avenue, and that when that happens we will know the end is near.  That wasn’t the point for John’s readers, either.  What these Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless truth.  There are always forces at work in our world that are threatening.  War, violence, crop failure, illness, economic distress – most people in most times and places have to at least deal with some of these.  Human institutions and material things will fail us, and in the end, we all have to face death.

Now, it is hard to know what to do with a passage such as this.  But given that what the Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless reality, we might redefine the Four Horsemen for today, perhaps for college students, like Grantland Rice did for college football way back when:

Outlined against a sun-filled August sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases.  Their real names are Organic Chemistry, Advanced Thermodynamics, Statistics, and Macroeconomics.
John paints a terrifying picture for his readers. And as we continue reading, it only gets worse.  Since we only have one more week in Revelation, I’ll try to briefly describe what happens up to the last chapter, which we will look at two weeks from today.

I read through the whole book of Revelation in one sitting.  I I would encourage you to give it a shot and then share your impression.  To me, chapters 6 through 20 read an extended hallucination, a bad acid trip - I have to be honest.  The images just keep getting weirder and more violent and more disconcerting.

In this book we have the Seven Seals.  The Four Horsemen are revealed with the first Four Seals.  Then there are Seven Trumpets.  More devastation is unleashed.  There is a Woman with a Child and a Dragon who threatens the Child.  There is a first Beast, with 7 heads and ten horns, and a second Beast, in cahoots with the first, who forces everyone to worship the first beast and marks everyone with the mark of the beast, the number 666.  The number 7 is perfect, so 666 represents imperfection.  Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in a system where Hebrew letters have numeric value, the letters of the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.  Throughout history people have tried to identify a political opponent or the pope or some dangerous new idea as the Beast, but it is much more likely that the Beast is the Roman Emperor.

There are Seven Plagues and there are Seven Bowls of Wrath.  There is a Whore of Babylon, with Babylon again representing Rome.  There is wave after wave of judgment and bloodshed and terror.  

In the end, the army of the Beast assembles at a place called Armageddon and is defeated in a great battle by an army led by a rider on a White Horse.  The rider’s name is Faithful and True.  This is followed in chapter 20 by a thousand years in which Satan is bound and the martyrs of this time of terror will reign with Christ.

The part about the thousand years is not really a prominent part of the book of Revelation, but lots of people have taken those verses, added a few verses from 1 Thessalonians and from the book of Daniel and from Ezekiel and elsewhere and constructed an elaborate theology about when Christ will return and how it is all going to work.  There are those who argue that things will get progressively worse until Jesus returns and ushers in the thousand years – that is pre-millenialism.  You will sometimes find people who are gleeful at how terrible the world is – they can almost be giddy about it because it means Jesus is coming soon.  This is where all of that comes from.

Others believe that the world will get better and better, and there will be a thousand year golden age before Jesus returns.  Jesus returns after the millennium, so that is called post-millenialism.

My take on it is that like the other numbers in this book, the thousand years are not meant as a literal number.  They represent a large amount – a long time.  And then as I have said before, John was not writing so that people 2000 years later could come up with detailed schemes for Jesus’ return.  There is no mention in Revelation of an antichrist or a rapture or a tribulation or really even a well-defined return of Christ.  All of these ideas come from other places.

If you don’t believe the thousand years are literal, that is amillenialism.  Or John Anderson offered another choice: he said he was pan-millenial.  That means it will all pan out in the end - or it will all come out in the wash.

Well, after looking at the Four Horsemen, I have just skimmed the highlights of chapters 8-20, setting up the conclusion to Revelation in a couple of weeks. 

Most of the stuff we read in the Bible – most of the stuff we read, period – is linear.  Chronological.  And not just chronological, but just plain old logical.  This is not necessarily the case with Revelation.  The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls of wrath, all of the trials and tribulations outlined in the book – this is not a coherent, linear, step 1-2-3 description.  It is more of a spiraling vision.  In a sense, John says the same things several times using various images.  To try to treat this as a logical, step-by-step narrative is to miss the point.

Now, I know there is a question hanging over all of this – it is a question that maybe everybody is asking, me included.  The question is, “What is the point?”  Where is God in all this, and what in the world does this have to do with us today?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.  John was writing to a fairly beleaguered group of believers.  They were facing hostility and oppression, and in some cases had to make a difficult choice of going along to get along in the culture, or living counter-culturally as followers of Jesus Christ.  To say Yes to Christ could mean saying No to Caesar, and to do that, the stakes could be high.  John himself had paid the price; he was living in exile on the island of Patmos.  Back in chapter 2, John was told to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  There is no difficult symbolism there; John is flat-out saying that some to whom he is writing will give their lives for their faith.

Believe it or not, this wild, crazy, weird, violent, sometimes bizarre letter written to seven churches in what is now western Turkey was intended to give hope in a very difficult time.  It told them that the powers that oppressed them were limited powers.  True power belonged to God, and God would have the ultimate victory.  It gave them hope of life beyond the difficult future many of them faced.   

Sprinkled throughout this book, we again and again have that assurance.  And one of the best examples comes shortly after the Four Horsemen, in Chapter 7:

After 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…
Then one of the Elders 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.  For 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.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for 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.’
We all face trials in life – perhaps nothing approaching what John’s first readers faced, but then again, life can be hard – for all of us.  And I mean even harder than Advanced Thermodynamics.  We can all face painful situations.  The promise for us is that even through the most desperate of times, God is there, and that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Amen.

“Worthy Is the Lamb: The Power of Sacrificial Love” (Revelation Series #3) - August 7, 2016

Text: Revelation 5:1-14

Like many of you, Susan and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night.  This was not as easy as it should have been.  If any of you have Dish Network, you know what I’m talking about.  Dish and Tribune Media are in a prolonged dispute, and the bottom line is that if you have Dish, you can’t watch any Tribune-owned stations, including Channel 13 in Des Moines.  We basically haven’t watched NBC for a couple of months.  But for the Olympics, we got out the rabbit ears and tuned in.

Now, once you have watched TV with a DVR, it is really hard to go back to “regular” TV.  We are used to being able to pause when there is a phone call or some interruption.  And when you can’t quite catch what was said, it is nice to just rewind and listen again.  We thought we saw Harrison Barnes walking with Team USA, but couldn’t rewind to see if it was actually him.  (Fortunately, there was a good shot of Harrison a moment later.)

I bring this up not to gripe about Dish Network or to say “Woe is me, I have to watch over the air TV,” and I don’t share this to bring up our hometown Olympian.  Instead, I am thinking about the theatrical opening of the Olympic Games, which was a celebration of Brazil’s history and culture and musical heritage.  There were segments dealing with colonization and immigration and slavery and even global warming; there were all kinds of music, and you had Gisella Bundchen as the Girl from Impanema.  This was all accomplished through costumes and choreography and staging and a cool set and a really great projection system and wonderfully creative writing and directing.   Light and colors and images and shape and sound as well as human actors and dancers and musicians and performers all combined to tell the story of Brazil in a stylized and entertaining way.

I think that it can be helpful to think of the Book of Revelation as being something akin to the presentation at the Opening Ceremonies.  It is like a stage production, with characters and images and sight and sound.  It is stylized and visual and symbolic, and just to look at it, it is not always clear what is going on.  John is narrating the show, but he does not jump in and try to explain everything the way the Matt Lauer and Meredith Vierra did on NBC.  (And that may be a good thing). 

Our scripture today again is filled with colorful characters and strange images.  I talked to someone this week who had read this fifth chapter of Revelation, and their comment was, “That’s really weird.”  Well, I need to tell you: this is not the weird part.  This is the relatively normal, relatively mundane, fairly straightforward part.  When you get to the next chapter - that is where it really starts to get strange. 

If you can remember back a couple of weeks ago - I guess it was actually 3 Sundays ago now - we were in Revelation chapter 4.  It is a vision of worship in heaven.  There are four living creatures around the throne, representing all of creation, and 24 elders a bit farther from the throne.  In keeping with Hebrew sensibilities – the name of God is too holy to be spoken – John simply refers to the One on the throne.  And the logistics and choreography of it all is intended as a direct challenge to the worship of the emperor, who would hold court on a throne surrounded by advisors and subjects and favor-seekers who would offer applause and praise.

The vision John is given of heavenly worship is a reminder that the One we worship holds real power, true power, and is far greater than any power in this world.  Next to the God of all creation, Caesar and the power of empire are weak and puny.

From that scene – and again, thinking of Revelation as an extended stage production – from that scene, we continue to our scripture for today.  The One on the throne is holding a scroll that is sealed with seven seals.  An angel calls out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  Apparently, no one is worthy.  No one in heaven or on earth is able to open the scroll and read what is written.  At this, John begins to weep bitterly, but one of the 24 elders says, “Hey, take it easy there.  Don’t worry.  The Lion of Judah, the Root of David has conquered and can open the scroll.”

The Lion of Judah and the Root of David hark back to the Old Testament.  Judah is one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe from which the kings came, like King David.  The Lion of Judah is a reference to Christ.  Jesus is found worthy to open the seal.

John looks again at the throne and sees the four living creatures and the elders and there among them is a lamb.  The description is very strange.  The lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered.  Which makes no sense; if you have been slaughtered you are certainly not standing.  And the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes.  We have a stuffed animal lamb at home, but you wouldn’t want a stuffed animal looking like this.

We are told that the seven horns represent the seven spirits of God.  In the symbolism of numbers, seven is a perfect number.  The lamb is from God, of God, has God’s own spirit.  The seven eyes tells us that the lamb is all seeing.  From this point on, the Lamb will be the primary way that Christ is spoken of in Revelation.

Now, to expect a powerful lion but instead see a slain lamb is rather shocking.  And the vision seems pretty underwhelming.  This lamb is the great conqueror?

A number of years ago, the American Baptist Biennial was in Providence, Rhode Island.  We went to the biennial and took some vacation time after the convention – we went to Boston and Plymouth and Cape Cod.  At Plymouth, we went to see Plymouth Rock.  I mean, it’s what you do.  There is a park along the ocean, and a platform and a wall surrounding Plymouth Rock.  (They don’t want anybody chipping off a piece as a souvenir.)  You look down and see this rock, and it’s not that big.  Lots of people have bigger rocks sitting in their yards as decorative landscape stones.  The rock has 1620 chiseled into it – I assume that part wasn’t there when the Pilgrims landed.  I remember seeing this rock and thinking, “That’s it?  This is the famous Plymouth Rock?”  

Plymouth Rock is a tourist destination, and for many people it has a lot of meaning.  But it has meaning not because it is an impressive geological formation, but because of what it represents – the place where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World. 

Sometimes less can be more.  John sees this Lamb, and at first it might seem like a letdown.  This is no Lion.  This is no mighty figure.  But the Lamb has power because of what it represents.

The Lion of Judah evokes a strong and powerful ruler.  The kings of Israel were lions of Judah.  John is told that the lion is worthy, but what he sees is a lamb.  What’s up with that? 

In a sense, the Lion is the Lamb.  Or the Lion has become a lamb.  The Lion has conquered, but not in the way that people expect, because the conquering hero is a lamb that has been slain.

When human beings conquer, they do so by inflicting death and suffering on opponents.  Roman armies had extended the borders of the empire through such conquest, capturing and subjugating people of many tribes, languages, and nations.  Captives most often became slaves, living at the lowest rung of society.  They were not even considered citizens.

Minus the slavery - at least minus the formal slavery - this is still the way it works, and we are unfortunately reminded of that nearly every day.  You conquer and you rule through force, with a powerful army and the coercive power of the state.  And if you don’t have an army, and don’t lead a nation, you can still go about this strategy of conquering through threat and domination and terror.

The Lamb, however, operates in an entirely different way.  The Lamb conquers through sacrifice, through faithfully enduring suffering, and the result of his victory is that those of every tribe, language and nation are not enslaved but made free.  They are brought into a new relationship with God and with one another.

The Lamb conquers not with the sword, not with military might, not with coercive force – but through the power of love – the power of self-giving, sacrificial love.

When John wrote to the seven churches, there was a battle going on.  His readers had to choose whether to worship and serve the Lamb – who conquered through the power of sacrificial love and brings life – or the beast, who shows up in a few chapters and who rules through the coercive power of death.

In the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the countries entered alphabetically in Portuguese, the language of the host nation.  I am thankful that they did.  The United States is Estados Unidos in Portuguese, so they entered with the E’s.  I was long asleep by the time the U’s rolled around.  Somehow I especially noticed the second country to enter – South Africa.  The South African team entered the stadium, and they were full of joy and excitement, some of them practically dancing their way into the stadium, like many of the teams.  What stood out to me was what a mix of humanity they were.  Black athletes from various tribal groups, white athletes of both Dutch and British descent, and I’m sure more, athletes of Indian ancestry and athletes of mixed racial heritage.

I remembered that it wasn’t that long ago that South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its policy of apartheid, which separated the races and kept the white minority in power.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress, which fought against apartheid.  Mandela was arrested in the early 1960’s and sentenced to life in prison.  What he did in prison was amazing.  Despite facing what were often humiliating conditions, he chose to treat the guards with respect, with kindness.  He would ask about their families.  He genuinely cared about them.  While he had every right to be angry and bitter, he appeared to be at peace, even in hellish conditions.  The guards came to love and respect Mandela.  

Finally, he was released from prison in 1990.  The first free elections were held in 1994, and Mandela was elected president of South Africa.  But he did not use his office to exact revenge.  He knew that the only way forward as a nation would be as a united people.  He was gracious to the outgoing President F.W. deKlerk, who became vice-president.  He established a Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of the country’s past but offered amnesty to all who would testify, allowing the country both to heal and to move forward.

He famously cheered for the hated all-white South African Rugby team, the Springboks.  Rugby itself was a symbol of racial division.  The Springboks were a symbol of white identity but for blacks, the team was a symbol of apartheid, a symbol of oppression.  Mandela received a great deal of criticism for his support of the team and was seen by many as selling out.  But he got to know the team and led them to serve as peace ambassadors to both white and black communities.  When the Springboks unexpectedly won the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg, he wore a jersey with the name of the team captain on the back and personally awarded the trophy.  The thing was, the whole country was behind the team before that last game was played, and this played a big part in easing racial tensions and bringing national unity. 

Mandela’s personal bodyguard force was half black members of the African National Congress and half white officers from the South African police force.  His chief bodyguard was a white man who had thought of Mandela as a terrorist but came to love and respect him as the father of a new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela nearly did the impossible in bringing the nation together, and he did this despite constant threats both from racist whites and from blacks who felt he was too accommodating to the white minority.

Mandela is a case study in the power of sacrificial love over the power of coercive force and violence.  In the early 1990’s, civil war was a very real possibility.  And no one could have blamed Mandela for giving those who had propped up an evil and inhumane system what they deserved.  But revenge and payback would have destroyed the country.  Instead, Mandela chose forgiveness and love and personal sacrifice.  And that wonderfully diverse, joyful, enthusiastic South African Olympic team walked in to that stadium on Friday night because Nelson Mandela chose the path of love.

The Lamb conquered through love, through sacrifice.  Through laying down his life for others.  And because of this, heaven and earth join together in worship.  The elders offer bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints – of those on earth.  Worship on earth and worship in heaven are linked together.  And the scene reaches its highest point as John’s gaze goes beyond the four creatures and the 24 elders to see millions and millions of angels surrounding the throne, singing “Worthy is the Lamb.”

It is a song that we can join is singing when we worship together, offering praise to God and praise to the Lamb.  But it is also a song that we join in singing when we ourselves reject the power of coercive force, the power of violence and death, and embrace the power of sacrificial love.  It is a song we sing when we choose to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  Amen.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

“Holy, Holy, Holy: Worship as Countercultural Activity” (Revelation Series #2) - July 17, 2016

Text: Revelation 4:1-11

We had a fantastic week of Music Camp.  We had 42 campers from at least 15 different schools from Ames and all around the area – Boone, Roland-Story, Nevada, Gilbert, Marshalltown, Des Moines and more, not to mention campers and counselors from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Indiana.  We had great guest musicians including the Parkinson’s Disease singing group that Elizabeth works with.  It was wonderful to see the campers interact with members of the group.  The campers not only sang along with them but asked some very good questions.  Other activities included painting a piano that will become a public piano that will go on either Main Street or Welch Avenue here in Campustown.  We had our usual fabulous Campers Talent Show, and then some of you were able to come to the closing program on Friday where our campers presented the musical they learned through the week – we heard some of the music from that musical a few minutes ago.

It was a wonderful week, but it was a very busy and very full week, and with a funeral and various and sundry near-emergencies and other matters popping up, time was at a premium.  Last week we started a series from the Book of Revelation, but when I looked at our text today, from Revelation chapter 4, I admit that it did cross my mind that maybe we could just make it a one week series on of Revelation and call it good, and go on to something else this morning.  But that would be the easy way out.

As I read our passage for today, dramatic and rather strange as it may be, one thing in particular stood out.  We get a lot of our hymns and worship music and other worship material from the Book of Revelation, and a good deal of it comes from this chapter.

“Holy, Holy, Holy.”  It was hymn number 1 in the hymnal I grew up on, and it was sung a lot.  There was a time when it had to be among the top 2 or 3 most commonly sung hymns in America.  There is a reason it was number 1 in that hymnal we had at my home church.  The words come largely from Revelation 4.  “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”  And “All the saints adore thee – casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea.”  If that part about casting down crowns along the glassy sea ever struck you as odd, well, this is where it comes from.  The imagery is straight from our reading today.

Chapter 4 of Revelation is a vision of worship that goes on in heaven.  And it is interesting the way it begins.  Last week, we had an introduction of sorts to the book of Revelation and to John’s letters to the seven churches.  We looked particularly at his letter to Ephesus, a church that had lost its passion, had lost the love it once had.  John continues with letters to six other churches, in one way or another calling for faithfulness from these churches, whether it is Smyrna - encouraged to be faithful in the face of persecution and even martyrdom; Thyatira, which tolerated a false prophet; to Sardis, which seemed to be more dead than alive; to Philadelphia, a church with little power but great faith; and to Laodicea, which was neither hot nor cold but lukewarm – it made God want to spit them out.  Pretty striking imagery.  And toward the end of the letter to Laodicea there are those frequently quoted words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.”  That is used as an evangelistic kind of verse.  We just need to open the door for Christ.

But while the Laodiceans are told that Christ is knocking and asked to open the door, just a few verses later, in chapter 4, we don’t have to open the door; a door to heaven has been flung wide open.  John sees through this open door to heaven and we can see with him a scene of heavenly worship.

How is John to convey this vision?  The limits of human language make it impossible to convey the infinite realities that John is privileged to see, so he uses earthly analogies with the understanding that the glory that he sees far surpasses the earthly symbols that he uses.

Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger wrote about the symbolic meaning of this passage.  In accordance with Jewish sensibilities, John avoids descriptive detail of God and in fact does not even mention the name of God – God’s name is too holy to be mentioned casually - but John speaks of One seated on the throne who appeared like jasper and carmelian, surrounded by a rainbow that looked like an emerald.  John perhaps has in mind a translucent form of jasper that was clear as crystal and when polished sparkles and flashes.  This is John’s way of describing what other writers refer to as the holiness and glory of God.  Carmelian is a semi-precious dark red stone; when you hold it in your hand it can appear that a fire is smoldering within the stone.  This may refer to God’s burning judgment against sin.

The rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood – a reference to God’s mercy.  And of course John knows that a rainbow is made of all the colors of the spectrum, but says that it is like emerald – green - like a meadow, like a forest, a soothing color.  Altogether, John may be saying that after being exposed to the brilliance of God’s holiness and the heat of God’s wrath against sin, he was comforted by the overarching reality of God’s love and mercy.  And then, around the throne is lightning and thunder and flaming torches.  The power of God is obvious. 

The point of all this, says Metzger, is that John is using poetic language to describe the nature of God in a way that is altogether in keeping with what we read of God elsewhere in the scriptures – a God of glory and holiness, a God of power and majesty who stands in judgment of sin and is yet merciful toward humanity.  (Breaking the Code, 48-50).

Around the throne are four living creatures – one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a human being, and one like an eagle.  These might represent what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in creation.  Or, this might represent wild animals, domestic animals, human beings, and birds – together, all of creation, and it is notable that the human does not have preeminence over the others.

Later, the Church was to associate these creatures with the four gospels – the man with Matthew, the lion with Mark, the ox with Luke, and the eagle with John.  These were fanciful designations, but they are commonly seen in sacred art.

Then moving outward, as the scene unfolds, there are 24 elders surrounding the throne.  It is unclear what or whom the elders represent; some suggest the 12 tribes of Israel along with the 12 apostles.  Maybe more important that who they are is what they are doing.  They take off their crowns and cast them into the crystal sea in front of the throne.  There is no mistaking the fact that glory belongs to the one seated on the throne, not to the elders themselves.  The scene in its entirety is one of adoration and worship.  The four creatures sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”  And then the elders continue with, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you have created all things.”

It is a scene of endless heavenly worship described poetically.  This is only one vision of heaven, and it is a broad and sweeping vision, a magnificent vision, but I have to admit that in the end, it is not all that appealing to me as an activity.  Not that I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t get me wrong, but singing the same thing over and over for all eternity doesn’t do that much for me.  I mean, we switch our offering response every couple of months, and we only sing that just once a week.  And a lot of songs just don’t have legs – don’t have staying power.  “Pass It On” was cool when I was in high school; now it’s kind of a cliché.  Our black hymnal, which was actually published as a supplement to the Methodist hymnal, containing newer music, is already dated as far as new music goes.  They have already published another supplement with a good bit of even more recent music.  And for a lot of churches, having any kind of hymnal is a relic of a bygone era.  It’s like doing the Macarena – it had its time and now it’s gone.

I am not trying to be irreverent here; the point is that latching on to a vision of heaven from Revelation and taking it literally as the future that awaits us in not that helpful and not what this vision was intended to do in the first place.  This is not a sneak preview of coming attractions.  For John and for those to whom he wrote, particularly those seven churches, this is a vision of the reality of the universe, a reality greater than what they might see playing out in their communities and within the Roman Empire.  In as grand and glorious a way as human language might describe, the vision that John sets before us says that ultimate power on earth and throughout the cosmos belongs to God, the Creator of all that is, and that God alone is worthy of our worship.

Now, what 21st century readers such as ourselves might not realize is that the vision that is described here held up an unmistakable contrast to the power of Rome. 

Craig Koester described the situation in the Roman Empire at the time that John wrote:

Public appearances of the emperor often featured him sitting on a throne and accompanied by a crowd of friends, advisors, and attendants.  When the emperor traveled, communities would send representatives, sometimes dressed in white, to greet him and present him with golden crowns to show their recognition of his sovereignty.  Those who approached the throne would prostrate themselves, sometimes even bowing before the throne when the emperor was absent.

Toward the end of the first century, the emperor Domitian apparently demanded that people address him as “Lord and God,” but such blatant compulsion seemed to be the exception.  Emperors preferred to cultivate the impression that people sang their praises because their virtues were universally recognized and made them worthy of such honors.  (Revelation and the End of All Things, 75.)
Koester went on to say that admirers of the emperor could keep up a thunder of applause day and night, and did so not so much out of coercion but in the hope of winning favors from the emperor and advancing their social position.

John gives his readers a vision of the heavenly throne room that makes such worship of the emperor seem feeble and pathetic by comparison.  The power of Caesar was no match for the ultimate power and authority of God.

Knowing this, we understand that this vision of the heavenly court is meant not as a preview of the afterlife but as a vision to give hope and meaning in the here and now.   We live in a world in which there are sources of power that can look pretty overwhelming – political power, corporate power, military might.  We see the power of unbridled wealth, the power of the privileged and well-connected to dominate the poor and marginalized.  We see time and again the power of even very small groups to terrorize large numbers of people.  We see the power of fear used as a tool to control people.  And in many ways, we see how the hardships and setbacks and frailties of life can bring us all to our knees.

All of this would have been painfully familiar to John’s readers.  And so this soaring vision of the heavenly throne room, where real power, ultimate power, belongs not to Caesar but to God served as a vision of hope and strength for believers.

In a sense, this is what worship is about.  In worship, we remember who we are and who God is.  We remember our place in the world and we remember and celebrate the power and love and grace and mercy of God, which is stronger than any power in this world.  When you think of it in this way, worship can be a countercultural activity.  The purpose of worship is simply to offer praise to God, but it is nevertheless something that profoundly affects our lives right here and now.

Many of us were here on Friday for Russ Watson’s memorial service.  Russ had been a faithful and much-appreciated member of our choir, and the choir sang at the service.  We sang “River in Judea,” a beautiful anthem and a choir favorite, and the music just soared.  Afterwards, many people commented on how much they appreciated the music, and one family member said, “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”  Now, the choir is not going to win a Grammy for it; it was far from perfect from a technical and musical standpoint, even if it was pretty good.  But those comments say something about the power of worship and the way that praise offered to God – praise offered by the four living creatures, praise offered by the 24 elders, or praise that we offer - not only expresses our love and commitment to our Creator, but can make a difference in our lives, right now.

A few minutes ago we sang along with the four living creatures, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”  We are going to continue now in worship as we sing along with the elders, “Thou art worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things.”  The hymn is “Thou Art Worthy."


Thursday, July 14, 2016

“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Revelation series #1) - July 10, 2016

Text: Revelation 1:1-8, 1:9-2:7

This past year our scriptures for worship have come from the Narrative Lectionary, which began after Labor Day and ended with Pentecost, in the middle of May.  Summer seemed like a good time to maybe do a couple of sermon series and look at books of the Bible that may not get so much attention, or at least that we don’t read much and don’t get preached on that often.

Well, we began back in September with Genesis, the first book of the Bible, so it only seems fair that we should end this church year with Revelation, the last book of the Bible.  And if we want to look at a part of the Bible that we maybe are not that familiar with – or maybe more to the point, a part of the Bible that we downright avoid, then Revelation certainly fits the bill.

Revelation is a weird book, a bizarre book.  I looked in my files and I have only preached a handful of sermons from Revelation.  There are those people who just love Revelation and those preachers who can’t get enough of it – but not me.  A lot of this book can leave us bewildered, shaking our heads, or maybe squeamish at all the blood and violence. 

You’ve got beasts with ten horns and seven heads and ten diadems on their horns. There are bowls of wrath.  You’ve got seven angels with seven plagues, the number six-six-six of the beast, five months of torture, four horsemen, 3 foul spirits, 200 miles of blood, one whore of Babylon, and contrary to popular thought, zero mention of a rapture.

Now, we typically avoid those strange and gory passages because we don’t want to dwell on how the world is going to end in chaos and fire and death and destruction.  We really don’t want to hear a confusing narration of the annihilation of the world.

Well, guess what: we don’t have to.  This book contains strange and disturbing imagery, to be sure, but the purpose of Revelation and the theme of Revelation is not what a lot of people think. 

When I was in grade school, in the 1970’s, I remember how popular Hal Lindsey’s book was – The Late Great Planet Earth.  Some of the youth at our church were reading it.  I owned a copy but I didn’t actually read that much of it (unfortunately that’s a tradition I have carried on to this day).  Using Revelation as a roadmap, Lindsey explained how the end of the world was near, and with startling precision (not necessarily accuracy, but startling precision) he identified the various creatures in the book of Revelation with current movements and events.  For example, he identified the ten-horned beast of the sea from Revelation 13 as the European Common Market.  At the time it had ten members - one for each horn of the beast.  Clearly, this was the start of one world government in which everyone would be forced to bow down before the Beast.

Well, there were a couple of problems with that interpretation - probably more than a couple.  There was only a brief period when the Common Market had 10 members.  Today’s European Union has 28 countries (I guess it is 27 now with Brexit).  Ten horns seems like a poor symbol for it.  I might mention that Lindsey wrote a sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  I don’t think it sold as many copies as his first book.    

This all seemed so random and arbitrary.  If the number 10 signifies the Beast, I could argue for the designated hitter rule in the American League as a much more likely candidate.  We all know that baseball is meant to be played with 9 players, but the American League sees fit to add a tenth player – the designated hitter.  This might be a sign that the end is near.  Could the designated hitter be the tenth horn on the beast?  I’m just asking.

I’m being facetious, but throughout history people have tried to identify a current figure or movement as the Beast or the Anti-Christ (a word that doesn’t appear in Revelation, by the way), or who have taken current events as a sign that the end was near.

Interpretations of Revelation have been key to numerous groups in history.  There was William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return in 1844.  When Christ did not return, it was called the Great Disappointment, and the Seventh-Day Adventists arose out of Miller’s followers.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded by Charles Taze Russell (no relation) base their theology on their unique interpretation of Revelation, including the idea that 144,000 people will make it to heaven.  There were 19th century postmillenialists who thought the world would get better and better until Christ returned, until that belief was finally crushed by World War I.  There are premillenialists who published the Scofield Bible and charts outlining dispensations in history and when the rapture would happen.  And you probably remember David Koresh and the tragedy of the Branch Davidians in Waco.  What happened was a result of Koresh’s interpretation of Revelation.

You may or not be familiar with very much of this, but here’s the thing; to believe that Revelation was written to predict what would happen 2000 years after John wrote the book is to render it meaningless to the people to whom he actually wrote.

Do we really believe that John, exiled on the island of Patmos, writing to the early Christian churches, wrote a letter warning them about the European Common Market in the 20th century?  Or that John was writing so that the churches of Asia could figure out what date Christ would return, two millennia into the future?

Now I’ve mostly been talking about what Revelation is not.  In the way of introduction, just a few more things.  First, this is a good time to think about the nature of prophecy.  We sometimes think of prophets as predicting the future – one commentator said that we like to think of a prophet as a spiritual meteorologist - but that is not really the prophet’s role.  A prophet is one who tells the truth about the way things are so that the future might change.  A prophet is more of a forth-teller than a foreteller.

Second, it is important to understand something about the type of literature Revelation represents, because it is different from most of the Bible.  This book is apocalyptic.  We hear the word apocalypse and we think of death, destruction and the end of the world, but the Greek word apocalypse is “revelation” in English.  It means a revealing, an unveiling, pulling back the curtains so we can see. 

Apocalyptic literature is written in times of persecution and oppression in order to give hope.  And you can’t just come right out and say things.  You can’t write that the Roman Empire is evil and of Satan – that might get a person in a heap of trouble.  So instead you talk about Babylon and you talk about beasts.  Insiders understand the imagery, but to outsiders it may all sound strange.

James Blevins, one of my old New Testament professors, wrote a book called Revelation as Drama.  He makes a fairly convincing argument that the book was intended as a play, a drama.  You might imagine it being presented on stage.  It’s not just straight reporting.  Somewhat similarly, pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson comments, “If John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible, which, in fact, is why it is so often uncomprehended.”

And then, finally, the writer and purpose of the book.  The writer was traditionally thought of as John the apostle, but many scholars are unsure.  There are other Johns in the Bible, and this writer is not necessarily any of them, but John of Revelation is clearly a known and beloved leader in the church.  John is writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, in what is modern day western Turkey, and he is writing to give hope and encourage these churches to keep the faith and persevere in a turbulent and chaotic time.

Now to be real honest, a turbulent and chaotic time sounds familiar.  In our nation and in our world, it feels like a turbulent and chaotic time.  Just this week, a black man was killed by police in Baton Rouge.  Another black man was shot and killed by police after being pulled over for a broken taillight in in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.  This was just a few blocks from Luther Seminary, on Larpenteur Avenue – I drove past the exact spot last month when I went to Luther for a preaching workshop.  It’s a nice area.  These were only the most recent in a series of police shootings of mostly black men captured on video.

And then on Thursday came the terrible story out of Dallas that as a crowd was protesting these shootings, and doing so peacefully, a sniper opened fire, killing five police officers and wounding several others.  The shooter said that he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers.  There were later reports of gunfire aimed at police officers in other states.  Meanwhile there are continuing protests in many cities and, and just last night 50 protesters were arrested in St. Paul, with reports of violence toward police. 

All of this has exposed our continuing struggle with America’s original sin of racism and how fractured our society really is and how far we have yet to go.  I have heard a number of public statements that have added to the problem rather than helping.

You look around at the goings-on in the world today and it can almost break your heart.  I am getting really tired, really weary, of one terrible tragedy, one horrific incident after another.  For the last month or more, it seems that as I prepare that week’s sermon, there has been another shooting or bombing.  Orlando, then Istanbul, then Dakha, then Baghdad, then all the events of this week.  We live in a turbulent and chaotic time.

And maybe, that makes Revelation a book worth reading and worth considering right now, because it was written to people living in the midst of a fractured and violent world.

With this uber-long introduction, we come (finally) to today’s reading.  It begins by saying that this is a revelation that God gave to John, and John is writing the book as a letter to the seven churches of Asia.  At the outset we are told that the focus of the book is not so much the future and certainly not destruction, but God.  The One who is and was and is to come.  Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the one who loves us and set us free from our sins – to him be glory and dominion forever.  God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Serving this God, John is writing from the island of Patmos, as he says, “because I had had written God’s word and borne my testimony to Jesus.”  For this, he had apparently been exiled to this remote island.  John has a frightening vision that turns out to be of Christ himself, with a message that he was to write letters to the seven churches of Asia.  These churches were getting comfortable, getting complacent.  They were adapting to the false reality of the Roman Empire, a society based on domination and power, rather than living a countercultural lifestyle as followers of Jesus.  Peeling back the curtain, John saw where this could lead, and he proclaims his vision to these churches. 

In our reading today we have the letter to the church in Ephesus.  We know of Ephesus because of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I know that some of you have visited Ephesus, in present-day Turkey.  The letter to this church is a largely positive report: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance… You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.  I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.”

So far. So good.  But the letter continues: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  The Revised English Bible continues with, “Think from what a height you have fallen.” 

Here is a church that did a lot of things right.  They had endurance, they had patience, they had faith, they had not been let astray by false prophets.  But they weren’t really feeling the love.  They had lost the passion.  They were going through the motions.

Well, it happens.  The job that we found exciting and engaging has become tedious and boring.  A hobby that used to get us excited has been put up on the shelf.  A relationship that once meant a lot to us has cooled.  A cause that got us animated and engaged somehow doesn’t mean as much anymore.  It can happen to organizations.  It can happen to churches.  The vision, the animating purpose that was so strong at the beginning, becomes a distant memory.  Instead of love and service and compassion and reaching others, the purpose of the organization, even churches, becomes staying in business, preserving the institution.

We had a karaoke night at church many years ago.  It was awesome.  Aiddy’s mom made Laotian noodles and eggrolls.  We had a guy with a karaoke machine here, and people of all ages took part.  A group who were in high school in the 70’s sang American Pie.  Michael and Marian sang a Beatles song.  Zoe, who was maybe 9, channeled Bonnie Raitt.  Bob and Jenna McCarley, who both grew up along the Red River, sang Red River Valley.  And I recall that John Anderson sang that Righteous Brothers classic, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”  Now it’s gone, gone, gone, woooaaoohhh-oh.

That song pretty well describes the message to the church in Ephesus: ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.” 

If a letter were written to the angel of the church of Ames, I wonder what it would say.  It’s worth considering.  The questions raised by the letter to Ephesus are question like: are we about love for God and love for others, or is it something else?  Have we lost sight of our purpose?  Are we just going through the motions?  Has the passion that we once felt cooled? 

My beliefs and theology and spirituality have changed a lot since I first started following Jesus.  There are ways of following Christ and ways of being church that no longer appeal to me as they once did.  That’s OK.  And in fact, I would call that growth.  That isn’t what this is referring to.  The question for Ephesus, and maybe for us, has to do with love.  Are we so busy with life – and are we maybe so focused on the difficulties of living in a turbulent and chaotic world - that we forget about love?  That we forget about the God who is love?  In a divided and fractured world, we cannot afford anything less.  Amen.