Thursday, September 8, 2016

“The New Jerusalem: A Vision of Hope” (Revelation Series #5) - September 4, 2016

Text: Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5

Does anybody here play computer games or video games?  Solitaire on your computer or Angry Birds on your ipad or Madden 2016 on your XBox?  Living on the wild side as I do, I regularly play a word game on my phone and I occasionally play sports or strategy-type games.  One of those games is Sim City.  (That’s SIM City, not SIN city, which would be a different game altogether.)

In Sim City, you are a city planner.  You map out your city and provide all of the infrastructure – roads and streets, bridges, power plants, a water plant, a landfill, and so forth.  You build fire stations and police stations to provide protection for your city; you build schools and libraries and hospitals.  You want to make your city livable so you build parks and other amenities.  You zone land for various uses and basically, you are in charge of all the important decisions regarding your city.

You pay for all of this from the city treasury and you set tax rates and collect taxes from your simulated citizens, or Sims.  And you get feedback from your Sims – they might think that taxes are too high (they’ll probably think that) or there is too much traffic or they want better schools. 

I was playing this game and had built a nice city.  The population was getting towards 200,000 and I had a 76% approval rating, which if you have paid any attention to political polls lately is completely unheard of.  I had just zoned a new subdivision on some prime real estate along a lake and prospects for continued growth and prosperity seemed good.

Then disaster struck.  A powerful earthquake devastated the city.  Fires broke out all over the place.  Much of the city was without power.  Fortunately, there was quite a bit of cash in the city coffers.  I bulldozed burnt out areas, repaired power lines and water lines, rebuilt streets, and did the best I could to restore order.  I nearly ran out of money, but I had the basic infrastructure back to some semblance of working order and I thought things were under control.

But of course the problems ran a lot deeper than I realized.  Thousands of people moved away, decreasing the tax base.    I had no choice but to raise taxes and cut back on services, which only made more people leave.  Angry citizens demanded a stadium to replace the one destroyed in the earthquake.  Crime was rising, there were power shortages, the streets were crumbling, the trash wasn’t being collected, and city employees were underpaid, but my Sims were demanding a stadium.  (It’s a pretty realistic game.)  People were leaving in droves, I still had the same infrastructure to support as when there were twice as many residents, and we were broke.  I was down to a 14% approval rating and angry mobs were demonstrating in the streets.

You know what I did?  I quit.  I didn’t see anything, short of a direct intervention by God, that would save my city.  There seemed to be no reason to go on, because there was no future.  In a word, it was hopeless.   

If there is anything that we need to live, it is hope.  And so often, hope is a commodity that is in short supply.  Let’s face it: life can be hard, and there are so many things that serve to diminish hope. 

John wrote the book of Revelation, more than 1900 years ago.  He was in exile, on the isle of Patmos.  Forced to live away from family and friends – those who had not been killed.  Christians were being persecuted throughout the Roman Empire.  In Rome, they had been fed to the lions and lit up as torches at night.  This is hopelessness.

It was in this kind of atmosphere that John wrote the Book of Revelation.  This is the last of a 5-part sermon series on Revelation.  (Please, hold your applause.)  If we didn’t already know it going in, we have discovered over these past weeks that Revelation is one of the most difficult books and probably the weirdest book in the Bible.  We have read about all kinds of weird images and characters: A wounded yet living lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, various horses and riders, a beast from the sea, a beast from the earth, four living creatures surrounding the throne, mouths with swords in them, cataclysmic battles and destruction and sheer terror.

And yet, a lot of people are very taken with Revelation, seeing it as kind of map that, if properly understood, describes in detail what will happen in the end times. 

Timothy Luke Johnson, is a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology – our theology class used a video series with him a few years ago.  Speaking of the Book of Revelation, Johnson says:
Few writings...have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation...Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation...its arcane symbols...have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.

If this book is so misunderstood, why is it so popular?  Well, for one thing, the world can be a scary place.  Revelation was written in a particularly scary time for Christians.  Many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because some refused to worship the emperor.  While some were persecuted, imprisoned or put to death, many chose to accommodate themselves to the prevailing culture to avoid social rejection and economic hardship.

In the midst of such problems, the letter of Revelation was sent to seven churches not to foretell the end of time and certainly not to give 21st century Americans a road map for the end of the world, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches of John’s time faced and about God’s presence with them.  John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the cultural practices of the empire around them.

We too live in a scary time, a time of fear and terror and violence and mistrust.  No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions.  No wonder folks are intrigued about the world coming to an end.  There is a bumper sticker that says, “God is coming and she is mad!”

John writes to Christians and churches living through a very scary time.  And he does not give them details on how the world will end, he gives them assurance that God is in control and that a better day is coming.

Our scriptures today are from the last two chapters of Revelation.  The last two chapters of the Bible.  Now, you might imagine that after so much trial and tribulation, so much devastation on earth, it might end with leaving the problems of this world behind for life with God in heaven.  And throughout this book, there are images of worship in the heavenly court.  But that is not what happens.

John has a vision not of heaven, but a new and transformed earth.  A New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.  When our cities seem beyond hope – not just simulated ones but the real ones – and when our world seems so messed up that nothing but intervention from God will save us, that is exactly what happens:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away.

There are several notable things about the city.  Toward the end of chapter 21 we read that the gates are always open.  Protection from outside forces is not needed; the city is safe, and all are welcome.  There is no secret password.  All of the great jokes notwithstanding, St. Peter is not at the pearly gates quizzing people before they can get in.  There are no security guards, no bouncers, no border patrol.

The tree of life is found along the streets, by the river of life, and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.  All the nations.  There are no distinctions.  People are brought together in this city, is it s a place of healing, and it is for everyone.

Nothing in this city is unclean.  No one whose ways are evil will be here.  All will be united by a love for Christ and for one another.

There will be no need for the sun or the noon.  God’s presence is so illuminating that no other light is needed. 

And there will be no temple.  A place to meet God is not needed, because the divine presence permeates the city.  There will be no need for a priest, one to point to God, because God is there.

This holy city, the New Jerusalem, is described mostly in negative terms – in terms of what it is not.  No pain, no tears, no evil, no sun, no temple.  A vision of the new and unknown is most easily described by what it is not.  But what it is, John relates, is a place of welcome, a place of healing, a place of goodness, a place of peace.

Now some of you, those who are practical-minded, may be asking, “Well, OK… so what’s the point?”  Isn’t this just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-bye, religious gibberish that really has nothing to do with my life today?

I have to tell you, I’m one of the first to tire of irrelevant, pie-in-the-sky religion.  You might call this vision of John pie-in-the-sky if you want to, but there is a sense in which it is extremely timely and relevant and meaningful and practical. 

For John’s hearers, these were words of hope and comfort – exactly what they needed to hear.  Life was filled with pain.  Hope was in short supply.  This vision of peace and safety and welcome and healing, this vision of a city that was beautiful and good and free of the evil and the faithless and the corrupt was a word they needed to hear.

We cannot go on meeting practical needs and doing relevant things unless we know that what we are about ultimately matters and that what we are working toward will ultimately come to be.  As we work for peace and justice and goodness and righteousness and welcome and inclusion and brotherhood and sisterhood, we can be encouraged by knowing that this is where God is headed.  This vision tells us that it is not all up to us.  The problems in the world might leave us feeling helpless and hopeless, but there is a new day coming, a new world coming, a new city coming.

There may be a temptation to say, well, if God is going to break in and set everything right, then why do we bother?  What is the point in our working to make the world a better place if in the end God is going to break in and fix everything anyway?

Well, maybe we are instruments God is using to bring about this new world, even if we can’t see it.  It says that God will make all things new – not that God will make all new things.  There is a continuity to life and a continuity to relationships.

Further into chapter 21, John describes the city - the gates, the walls, the materials, and so forth.  And he says the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the names of the twelve apostles.

The twelve apostles.  Those very human, sometimes clueless disciples of Jesus.  They finally got it together, they led the church, imperfect as it was, imperfect as they were, and their names are on the wall of the city of the New Jerusalem.  Which says that what we do really does matter.  They had a part in building the city, and maybe we do too.  This vision is not one to make us give up because God is going to take care of everything anyway, it is a vision to give us hope and encourage us in working and serving, because what we do really does matter.  Every effort to make the world a better place, every work done for the common good, every act of kindness, every prayer that is said, every ditch that is dug, every expression of love matters.

I would add one more thing.  John’s Apocalypse ends with a very ecological vision that says something about the way we care for creation.  There are those who believe that the way we treat the earth does not matter in the end.  The world is ours to use and to benefit from as we see fit, but in the end the earth is not really our home, our true home is in another place.  You will hear this expressed subtly and sometimes not so subtly.

Just as this vision of John’s says that what we do really does matter, it also says that the earth really does matter.  And this has been true throughout the book.  Ever since chapter four, we have had recurring appearances by the four living creatures, who represent all of creation.  And in the end, the earth is not abandoned for a home in heaven but God come to us, on this earth, in the New Jerusalem.

If we list the worries and fears that we have, and if we get to talking about long-term and big-picture worries and fears, the way that we have abused and degraded God’s creation, the concerns about changes we have wrought on the atmosphere and resulting changes in climate may be at the top of the list.   John’s vison says that this earth matters, that our world is not just a layover on our flight to heaven, that caring for all of God’s creation should matter to us

Since it is now football season, I am allowed to quote Vince Lombardi, the great football coach.  He once said:

Good football coaches have in the back of their mind a picture of a perfectly executed offensive play, the perfectly run defensive formation.  Although the coach has never seen a group of players execute it perfectly, still the coach has in his mind a vision of what it would look like if everyone did it correctly.
This is the vision that John gives us.  A vision of the day when the kingdom of God will break through in all its fullness, a vision of a future we have with God when everything will be made right.

We won’t see that perfect city in this life.  But we can go on living and serving with hope, because we know what the future holds.  Amen.

“Getting Paid to Go to Church” - August 28, 2016

Texts: Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12:4-14
(Worship Under The Trees service)

There was an interesting news item a few years ago out of Shreveport, Louisiana.  Bishop Fred Caldwell is pastor of the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation with a membership of about 5000.  The church had about six active white members.

In Caldwell’s eyes, Shreveport is one of those Southern cities where the Civil Rights movement never quite took hold and the power structure was never forced to change.  “Shreveport is one of the last strongholds of the Confederacy,” he said.  “Racial prejudice here runs deep.”

He also said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.  He certainly isn’t the first to make that observation –Martin Luther King may have been the one to popularize that phrase - but it is true, and not only in Shreveport but in America generally.

All of this had weighed on Caldwell’s mind for a long time, and finally he had an idea – an idea, he says, that came from God.  To bring more diversity to his church, he offered to pay white people to attend services: five dollars for Sunday mornings, and $10 for Thursday night services.  (He reasoned that people were busier on weeknights and so he ought to pay a little extra for the Thursday services.)

Of course, there was reaction.  Some people were shocked.  Some members were afraid that it might bring in the wrong kind of people who were coming for the wrong reasons.  But then, Caldwell said, one could make the case that Jesus majored in the wrong kind of people.  Others said it was wrong to pay people to come to church when there were poor people who could use the money.  Caldwell responded that Judas said the same thing to Jesus, and he wondered if the people asking that were giving their money to the poor.  Some expected that longtime members would have a problem with paying newcomers to come to church -- but a number of members in fact offered to help pay people to come.

Well, it is an interesting concept, the kind of thing that most of us instantly have an opinion about.  But I think the bigger issue is what this pastor was hoping to accomplish.  He certainly raised the issue of segregation.  More white people – not a lot, but more – have attended his church since, and most didn’t want the $5.  His offer made it clear that they really were welcome.  And his offer made the news, raising the issue for a lot of folks - not to mention giving his church a lot of free publicity, more than you could buy with a few $5 bills.

It is no secret, and it is not surprising, that people like to go to church with folks who are like them.  And so churches tend to be made up largely of one socioeconomic group, or ethnic group, or racial group, or tilt toward a certain age.  Many churches will target a particular niche—maybe the 20-30 age group, or seekers, or the classical music crowd.  There are cowboy churches in Texas.  There are new churches in places like Arizona and Florida, in areas with lots of retirees, intentionally formed as churches for senior adults. 

The appeal of a particular church to particular grouping of people isn’t all bad.  And it can’t be avoided; it’s just the way the world works.  It’s hard to be all things to all people.  It’s hard to do both country music and Bach at the same time.  There is a certain sense in which members of any group, whether it be a church or Rotary or Little League or the crowd at the Monster Truck Rally, will be at least somewhat alike.

Several years ago, church growth experts were talking about what they called the “homogeneous unit principle.”  Congregations that grew, they said, were made up of a fairly homogeneous group, and attracted those same kinds of people.  They went a step further by proposing this as a strategy—kind of the opposite of Bishop Caldwell’s strategy. Churches should aim for folks who were just like they were. 
They proposed it because, they said, it worked. 

The question is, in the church, should it be that way?  If we only want people just like us, can it really be called the church of Jesus Christ?

To me, there are a lot of reasons why it is good for a church to have a broad mix of people.  There are practical reasons.  We live in a diverse community, and so it only makes sense that we reflect our community.  If we are serious about ministering where we are, we need to be diverse.

And then, there is a power and excitement that comes with a widely varied group.  There is something energizing about a church with all kinds of people, where everyone is not just like me.  There is something energizing about new ideas, fresh perspectives, and having a little variety in our life together as a church family.

There are practical reasons for wanting diversity.  But to me, the practical arguments are far outweighed by the theological argument for diversity.  If we are claiming to follow Jesus, we might want to look at Jesus’ first followers.

The 12 disciples were a motley bunch.  There were hard-working fishermen.  There was also Matthew, a tax collector – hated by most of the population as a Roman lackey – and Simon the Zealot, a member of a political party dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome.  Folks from opposite ends of the political spectrum were in Jesus’ inner circle – it is like he had Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz both on his team, and it is hard to see them hitting it off all that well.  There were also women who were prominent among Jesus’ followers, which was absolutely scandalous in that day.  In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ primary financial supporters were a small group of women.

Jesus did not shy away from relating to Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews.  He hung out with people who were not exactly the upstanding citizens of the day, and because of that accused of being a “glutton and a winebibber.”  (Which might raise the question, “When was the last time you heard someone called a “winebibber”?)  To be just real honest, Jesus didn’t seem to care a bit about anything like a “homogeneous unit principle.”

When we look at the early church, the diversity among believers broadened to include both Jews and Gentiles.  Paul worked with churches made up of all kinds of folks – rich, poor, of different races and different religious backgrounds and different nationalities and different occupations.  It got messy – at times it was extremely messy - but in the middle of all the messiness, there was Christ, and there was hope, and there was a witness to the world of love and care and peace.
As Paul puts it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”   The culture took note of the church because of the love members had for one another, and because the church cared for the poor and needy around them, whomever they were.

Welcomefest was Wednesday night at ISU, and we gave away around 400 plastic cups with info about our church as well as some pens and some Hershey’s kisses to students.  It is always fun and very interesting to see all the students at Welcomefest.  One guy came up and I handed him a cup and we talked a bit and then he asked me, “Is this a white church?”

I was a little bit taken aback.  The two of us working at our table happened to be white, so obviously we had white members, but he was asking if this was a white church.  I had never thought of that as our identity.  The student who asked was a black guy, and I’m not sure, but I supposed that what he was really asking was whether he would be welcome and feel comfortable here.

I said that we weren’t all white and we had some racial diversity and we would like to have more, but yeah, the majority of members were white.  He didn’t stick around to talk, and I have to say that I really didn’t feel good about my answer.

If I were asked that question again, I would say, no, we are not a white church.  We are not a white church or a black church or an Asian church.  We are a people church.  And it doesn’t really belong to us, anyway.  It’s God’s church, not ours, and all God’s children are welcome here. 

When we gather as a group of diverse individuals and together become a family, when together we become the church, we are reflecting what God’s kingdom is like. 

In the Church, we need all kinds of people.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians uses the analogy of the body: we need each part working well in order to function and be healthy.  Ninety-nine percent of your body can be working just fine, but if your back goes out, or your kidneys stop cooperating, or you’ve got a toothache, or an eye decides to take the day off, you can be in real trouble.  We need all of the parts working together.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts in the Body of Christ.  I’m thankful for all the gifts that are offered by members of this community.

I’m thankful for musicians who lead us in worship with their instruments and voices. 

I’m thankful for Sunday School teachers who care for children and who lead adults and who help us as we study the scriptures and apply our faith in our daily lives.

I’m thankful for people who quietly work behind the scenes, baking cookies and visiting people who are sick and working in the nursery and giving people rides and bringing flowers for the sanctuary and maintaining the library and painting stripes in the parking lot.

I’m thankful for those with artistic gifts and those with organizational skills and those who are mechanically inclined and those who can operate a miter saw or paintbrush or pipe wrench.

I’m thankful for all of the great cooks.  In a few minutes, I’ll be even more thankful!

I’m thankful for those who with their faithful presence lift the spirit of others.  I’m thankful for the laughers and the smilers and the gigglers and the huggers.  I’m thankful for those who persevere even when life is difficult.  And I’m thankful for those who help others to persevere.

I’m thankful for those who are people of deep prayer.  I’m thankful for long-time members, for those who offer experience and wisdom.  I’m thankful for newcomers who bring new ideas and fresh energy.  I’m thankful for students who bring excitement and ask questions, and jump right in sharing their gifts.  And I’m thankful for children who teach us so much about trust and joy.  I’m thankful for those who come from faraway places and from other countries, bringing their unique gifts and perspectives.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts I am too obtuse even to recognize but which nevertheless bless me.

We need all of these gifts.  We need each person, with all of our differences.  Maybe we need each other because of our differences.

God, for some reason, chooses to work through us.  We are the Body of Christ.  And we need the gifts of every person.

Bishop Caldwell paid people $5 to go to church.  It may not be in cash, but we also get a payoff – we all must get something out of coming to church - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  What is the payoff for us?

Today that question may be easier to answer.  There is going to be a good meal.  We are outside, it’s fun, it’s different.  You don’t have to get dressed up. 

But week in, week out – what is the payoff?  For me, the payoff is this.  We come from different places; we have different hopes and dreams, different gifts, different experiences.  Even our ideas about faith and our theological understandings may be different.  And all of this – all of this - is good.  All of this is wonderful.

Because while we are all different, we come together to become a family—a family where we are welcomed and we are accepted.  We become part of a community where we can be stretched and challenged and grow, and where we are nurtured and loved and cared for, and where under God’s grace we are discovering together what it is to follow Jesus - and in the process, what it is truly be ourselves. 

That is the payoff.  And friends, that is worth far more than $5.  Amen.

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.