Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hymn Lyrics, Easter, and the Revelation

As I planned Sunday's traditional service, I noticed some neat connections between common hymn lyrics and the themes from the Revelation for Eastertide 2010. Check out "Holy, Holy, Holy!", verse 2:

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

And, a Charles Wesley communion hymn I've never sung before, "O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread", verses 1-2 . . . but it doesn't quite fit for this Sunday. It includes the theme of "unsealing" as proclamation, just like the Revelation's vision of the seven unsealings of the scroll and the proclamation of the Lamb.

O Thou who this mysterious bread
didst in Emmanuel break,
return, herewith our souls to feed,
and to thy followers speak.

Unseal the volume of thy grace,
apply the gospel word;
open our eyes to see thy face,
our hearts to know the Lord.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Baptisms!




Sunday in the 11:15 service! Welcome!

The Glass Sea, Seven Bowls, and the Great Prostitute: The End of Life as We Know It (3)

04/25/2010 Easter 4
Rv 15 (sung), 16, 17:1-6 (message)
Exodus 15, selections (call to worship)
John 21, Peter & the epistemology of love (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p 72) (children)

Two weeks back, we introduced the Revelation and the opening vision of Jesus. We talked how to read it – immerse our imaginations, engage our senses, read aloud, receive in worship, decipher signs. It is a revelation "of Jesus Christ"; whatever else it is about, it is about Jesus first of all.

In the opening chapter we examined the revelation of Jesus – revealed among the churches, presented as our mediator and high priest, and described in a seven-fold nesting set of features bracketed by grace in both forgiveness and blessing.

Then, we skipped over some material and watched Jesus step up to the throne - pulpit, and unseal the scroll of the word, preaching to us one seal at a time about the place of evil in the world – bracketed by the white horse and rider (Jesus going forth to conquer evil) and by the prayers of the saints, which move heaven and shake earth.

Discussion on Wednesday, Circle of Friends!

Today, we take another jump forward to the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues, but we need to build a bit of background together first. Otherwise, we are simply overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic images of judgment and death and conclude simply that God is out to get us or, just as dangerous, that God is out to get our enemies. The judgment expressed here is not the wrath of a spiteful deity just waiting for people to mess up, or judgment that comes simply from failing to live a moral life.

This judgment is presented, first of all, as "good news". In 14:6-7, an angel flying in mid-heaven declares the "eternal gospel" (a word for "good news"): "Fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come". That, on its face, has nothing to do with love and grace and forgiveness . . . with all the things we associate with gospel.

Second, this judgment cycle is presented as the climax and finalization of God’s victory and the deliverance of God’s people. In the seals cycle, between seal 6 and 7, there is an interlude dealing with the endurance of the saints. The saints are "sealed" and, to answer the question raised in seal 6, they are the ones who can "stand" before evil as well as before God. In the trumpets cycle, between trumpet 6 and 7, there is an interlude dealing with the endurance of the saints. The saints are the ones who witness, even though they may risk rejection and death, because, at the last day, Jesus’ resurrection will be theirs. In the bowls cycle, there is NO interlude, no call for endurance . . . only a proclamation of final victory: "It is done!"

The language of the first five bowls, like the language of the first five trumpets, echoes the language of the ten plagues upon Egypt, the very plagues that end with Israel delivered through the Red Sea. Instead of the Red Sea, however, the sixth bowl, like the sixth trumpet, is the Euphrates River, upon which the city Babylon was built. Among the ancient accounts of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great of Persia is the story that Cyrus’ engineers redirected the flow of the river so that his men could enter the city on the dry riverbed, his army and cavalry taking the city by surprise in the midst of a festival. This is exactly what we are supposed to imagine with the sixth bowl. And, it is exactly what is described in greater detail in Revelation 18 – the sudden destruction and utter fall of Babylon the Great. In chapter 19, the "great multitude" (19:1, 7:9) breaks into song and "Hallelujah’s" for their deliverance, a song like that of Moses and Miriam after Israel has come through the Red Sea (Exodus 15).

The Hebrew prophets declared, "Forget the former things, I am about to do a new thing" (Isaiah 42:9, 43:18, 65:17). The message? You were delivered from Egypt, but you need a fresh deliverance today, from your Babylonian captivity. John’s churches need fresh deliverance not from Babylon but from the imperial oppression of Rome, the Babylon of their time, and the trumpets and seals promise and finalize that deliverance. What fresh deliverance do we need today? Freedom from fear? From hatreds and prejudice? From death and grief? From joblessness? From pollution? From lack of food?

The deliverance of God’s people was particularly about worship. In the ancient world, there was no concept separating religion and state. For John’s churches, the hand of Rome declared, "Caesar is Lord". To proclaim the most basic creed, "Jesus is Lord", was treason and, far too often among John’s circle, a capital offense. In Exodus 5, we are told that Moses approaches Pharoah asking not for full release from slavery but for the chance to hold a big camp meeting in the wilderness: "Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness" (Ex 5:1).

When Israel went into exile in Babylon, they struggled with worship. "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137). In this vision, Babylon – a symbol of John’s Rome, or "the kingdom of this world" (Rev 11:15) – is presented as a great prostitute. It is a sexual image used by the prophets to denounce the worship of idols (e.g., Ezekiel 16:25). And, like the prophets, the Prostitute is contrasted with an upcoming image (in Revelation chapter 19) of God’s people as the Bride.

Eugene Peterson describes the image: "For the [Prostitute], sex is in the service of commerce; with the Bride, sex is devoted to love. For the [Prostitute], sex is a contract; for the Bride, sex is a life commitment. For the [Prostitute], sex is a calculation; for the Bride, sex is an offering" (Reversed Thunder, 147). It is so easy to fall into the trap of worship as commerce – whether it is what we can get out of it, or what the church gets out of us (or our pockets). Worship is life. Worship is everything we are and have. Worship is love.

But lest we too easily simplify this word of judgment to our enemies, lest we too quickly polarize the world, a note of humility. "The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God" (1 Peter 4:17).

In the opening worship sequence, the people are gathered around the Glass Sea. The sea is heaven’s baptismal font. One of the realities of baptism is judgment upon the life of sin. Yes, baptism is about new birth, but it is also about cleansing. Yes, baptism is about life, but it is also about death. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). Anyone who has faced baptism honestly has no time to waste judging everyone else.

In the opening worship sequence, the overcomers sing the judgment "song of Moses and the song of the Lamb" (Revelation 15:3). It is word play with Deuteronomy 32, in which the people of Israel learn "the song of Moses and Joshua" (32:34). In the Greek Bible, the one used by most folks in John’s churches, the name "Joshua" is read "Jesus" (Peterson, 139). Indeed, Deuteronomy 32, "the song of Moses and Jesus", is a song of judgment. It is not, however, judgment upon the nations but upon God’s own people. When we sing the Revelation 15 "song of Moses and of the Lamb", we are submitting ourselves to the judgment of God, and doing so with trust in the God who loves us, in the God whose "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).

So, how do we find our way back to the "gospel of judgment"? It is nice to know that Jesus delivers his people, saves the victims. But we aren’t given much chance to savor the victory, to indulge in any triumphalism. We place ourselves willingly under judgment.
But here is where this "gospel" takes an unexpected turn. I’m ready to rejoice at the demise of MY foes; I’m ready to worship. I’m willing (but not that thrilled) to take a dose of humility. But, remember, this is a "revelation about Jesus".

From the seventh trumpet: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail" (11:19). And, the same theme taken up in the worship prior to the seven bowls: "After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened" (15:5).

The holiest place in the temple – where the ark was kept – was off limits to normal folks, accessed once a year through a heavy veil by the high priest, and only with smoke and incense to hide what was inside. When Jesus died, that veil was torn in two, top to bottom (Mark 15:38). In that action, in the ripping of the veil, which elsewhere the Scriptures proclaim as Jesus’ flesh (Hebrews 10:20), we have been granted access, safe passage into the presence of God.

"Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended" (Rev 15:1). This word for "ended" is the same root used by Jesus on the cross when he declared, "It is finished" (John 19:30).

When we sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb, we discover that Jesus has absorbed all our judgment. He has delivered the oppressed AND saved the perpetrators. He is both victor and victim. In the language of one of the seven bowls, we are told that they got "what they deserved". The gospel of judgment is that Jesus gets what we deserve, that, in Jesus, the wrath of God finds it fulfillment and completion. In his flesh, the veil is torn; we are ushered into the holiest place; and God has accomplished for us eternal salvation.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Victorious Lamb, Evil, and the Prayers of All the Saints: The End of Life as We Know It (2)

04/18/2010 Bethany, Easter 3
Rv 5:1-5, 5:14, 6:1-17, 7:1-4, 7:9-14, 8:1-5 (message)
Psalm 110 (call to worship)
Romans 8:18-25, Paul & the epistemology of hope (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p 72) (children)

Last week, we introduced the Revelation and the opening vision of Jesus. We talked about what kind of book it is – which shapes how we read it. It is an "apocalypse" (an "uncovering" or "revelation") that invites immersion and imagination and the engagement of every one of our senses. It is a revelation "of Jesus Christ" – it is not about final judgment or the end of history but about Jesus. It is "sign language", designed to be "read aloud", and received in the context of worship.

We looked at the vision of Jesus in the opening chapter – revealed among the churches, presented as our mediator and high priest, and described in a seven-fold nesting set of features bracketed by grace in both forgiveness and blessing.

Today we are leaping over some material. In chapters 2 and 3, John receives seven letters for the seven churches in his care. In chapters 4 and 5 we have a glorious vision of worship – including the heavenly types of pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table; images that include the entirety of God’s people (the 24 elders, signifying both Israel’s 12 patriarchs and the church’s 12 apostles) and the entirety of creation (living creatures before the throne); songs and a great "amen" from the faithful; Jesus presented as "the Lamb that was slain"; and a scroll with seven seals.

"Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" Throughout Scripture, a scroll refers directly to the word of God, written to be read aloud and preached. No one is worthy to open the book, to open the Word, to proclaim it. But Jesus – the slaughtered Lamb – steps to the throne, the pulpit, takes the Word, and begins to preach. One by one, he opens the seals and discloses the message, a message that John’s churches needed to hear, a message that we need to hear just as clearly today. So, John’s vision, his apocalypse, his uncovering of worship in the heavens unfolds to the vision of the seven seals, to a vision of Jesus’ sermon to the church.

Like any good sermon, Jesus’ message has a clear focus and specific purpose. He speaks about evil, placing it in the larger context of the promise of God and the prayers of God’s people.

Remember the seven features describing Jesus in the first chapter? The first and last items in the list are of special importance, placing the whole description in the framework of the grace of God. What are the first and last seals? And, into what framework do they place the entire discussion of evil in the world?

First, "Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer" (Rv 6:1-2).

Last, "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake" (Rv 8:1-5).

The white horse shows up once more in the Revelation, in 19:11, with the exact same Greek phrase. And its rider, in 19, is "called Faithful and True". He rides to war and conquers all the enemies of God. He is, we learn in chapter 19, Jesus himself, victorious. We have trouble putting this image of Jesus together with the image of Jesus as the slaughtered Lamb. It goes against the grain of history, we see precious little evidence that the "meek inherit the earth". History, we are told by the skeptics, is written by the victors – and they aren’t the ones who are slaughtered. In biblical faith, the victorious Jesus and the slaughtered Lamb fit together because of resurrection. Jesus triumphs, through weakness. Jesus destroys death, by dying. Jesus remakes the world, by being rejected and killed. His path to victory is not anticipated or expected. But the promise of God stands firm, and the church has adopted as one of its signs the Lamb, slain and triumphing.

One of the favorite psalms of the early church (Peterson, 75; N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, ) was Psalm 110, which we shared together this morning. It is militant about the victory of God, and its language is echoed in the Revelation imagery of the white horse and its rider, particularly in chapter 19. Some lines from the psalm:
The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your foes.
The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
And this victory is accomplished by the weakness and death of the Lamb.

And the final seal is a powerful image for prayer. Do you ever wonder if your prayers are heard? There is silence in heaven for half an hour, just so God can focus on our prayer. Do you struggle with how to pray correctly, purely? Our prayers are mixed with incense from the altar, they are purified by the angel, and then offered up before God. We don’t have to get it right in our prayers; we can trust God to do that. Do you doubt that prayer makes a difference in the detail of daily life, that prayer is effective in any area of life other than the "spiritual"? That incense censer, filled with prayers, is tossed over the walls of heaven to land with immense force on earth. "On earth . . . as it is in heaven." You probably won’t find it in the newspaper headlines, but prayers moves not just heaven but earth.

The churches under John’s care needed signs of Jesus’ victory and assurance that their prayers were heard. John himself, we are told by church tradition, was boiled in oil before being exiled to Patmos where he receives this Revelation from Jesus. Timothy, who worked on Paul’s apostolic team and led the Ephesus church, was beaten to death with clubs. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a student of John, was whipped, made to hold fire in his hands, tormented with flames and hot pinchers, and fed to wild beasts (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, edited by Marie Gentert King, pp 15-16). Slaughter was everywhere: "Most [Christian] families in the late first century would have friends and relatives among those . . . martyrs" (Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 103). No matter the evil you face, no matter the battle or struggle, Jesus’ sermon tells us that he is victorious – the promise of God is sure – and that we are heard in heaven and that our words shake the earth – the prayers of the saints are powerful.

Remember the prayer shawl ministry? It is a powerful and visible way to do exactly what the Lamb’s preaching and John’s vision do – put evil in the context of the victory of the Lamb and the prayers of God’s saints. Wrap yourself in that!

In between seal 1 and 7, we have 5 seals that detail and summarize all the evil in the world. They are the adversaries of the Lamb, and they are why the Lamb goes to war, why he rides to conquer.
Seal 2, the red horse and rider, bearing a sword and bringing war to the earth
Seal 3, the black horse and rider, bearing scales and bringing famine
Seal 4, the pale green horse, ridden by Death and Hades, bringing deadly disease
Seal 5, a selective evil on a particular group of people: the souls of the martyrs under the altar, a description of religious persecution. Like all who face evil, they cry out, "How long?" And they, like we who hear Jesus’ sermon of the seals, are given the assurance that their prayers are heard and that Jesus rides to conquer.
Seal 6, a broad-spectrum evil on the entire earth: natural disasters of all kinds

Some comments on the three horsemen who serve as Jesus’ adversaries in this vision. First, war. This vision makes very clear that war is evil. We paint over that far too easily with language of patriotism, freedom, democracy. The church has struggled with this. How do we account for the needs of nation-states, for defense if not for conquest? Biblical theologians have developed ways to determine whether or not war may be "justified". But that conversation does not take place without acknowledging first that war is evil.

Second, famine. Notice that the rider bears scales, used in the ancient world to measure out the weight of precious metal used to buy goods. And the voice cries out, "A quart of wheat for a day’s wage . . . but do not damage the olive oil and wine!" This is the feature of all famine: A working person cannot afford to eat, but there is still plenty of luxury available for the rich. Today we continue to pursue a higher standard of living, but for what? A household has nice TVs and cable, and many other things that are truly unnecessary, but can’t put food on the table. And, those of us who manage to have both cable TV and food on the table? The more luxury we have, the more our souls may be impoverished. We don’t have time for real pleasure because we’re stuck in traffic, working ungodly hours, or sitting in front of a flickering screen.

Third, disease. Remember that Jesus’ ministry was characterized by healing, that he calls his church to pray for healing, and that resurrection is the final healing of the body.

These three horsemen also correlate to the evil in the world summarized in the first letter of John:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world (1 John 2:15-16).

Take them in reverse order and they match up with the three horseman adversaries of the rider on the white horse: "Pride of life", the affection for status and power, at the expense of others, is what is behind war on the national level. Every time we try to one-up another, we are not serving the victorious Lamb but the rider on the red horse. "Lust of the eyes", desire to have what we don’t have, more stuff, more money, corresponds with that pursuit of a "higher standard of living" and the imbalanced scales of the rider on the black horse (Peterson, 78). And, "lust of the flesh", physical desire out of control, while often associated with sex is certainly not limited to that particular appetite. Physical desire out of control is at the root of so much preventable disease. In James, we are told that "when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when full grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15).

Between the sixth seal, the last of the comprehensive list of evils, and the seventh, the prayers of the saints, the vision makes an unexpected turn. The people on earth, faced with evil on the rise, call out, "Who can stand?" (Rv 6.17). And Jesus give us the answer, not in the unsealing of the scroll but in the sealing of God’s people. God’s people – described alternately as the 144,000 of Israel and the "great multitude . . . from every nation" – they are sealed and they stand not only against evil but they stand "before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rv 7.9). And, if there is no one worthy to unseal the scroll but the Lamb, then there is no one who can unseal the saints and separate us from the love of God.

In each of the seven letters to the seven churches, in Revelation 2-3, there is a promise "to the one who overcomes" (or, conquers). I read it and am thrilled with visions of tough perseverance and painful endurance. But that’s not really the point, it’s just the way I am wired. The point is to answer the questions posed in chapter 6, the questions asked in the context of great evil: "How long will it be?" The answer? Until Christ conquers and we join him in that victory, and the final enemy to be destroyed is death. And, secondly, "Who can stand?" The answer? God’s sealed people stand firm both against evil and before the throne. Our prayers are heard in heaven, and our prayers shake the earth. And all that is promised to the overcomers is ours. All that is promised to the overcomers is yours.

Note on sources for this series: Outside of the Scriptures, the texts by Eugene Peterson on the Revelation and by N. T. Wright on theology of resurrection, heaven, and last things have been particularly useful in my study.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Revelation of the Resurrected Jesus: The End of Life as We Know It

Revelation 1:1-20 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. 4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea." 12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. 17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

04/11/2010 Bethany, 2nd Sunday of Easter
Revelation 1 (message)
Psalm 150 (call to worship)
John 20:19-29, epistemology of faith (children)

Over the past month I’ve been preparing for this Sunday and this series of messages from the Revelation, with a focus on understanding the Revelation as the Revelation of the Resurrected Jesus – the End of Life as We Know It. I’ve read through the book of Revelation, taking notes. I’ve read theology and commentary. I’ve gone back to look at a number of the Greek expressions. The more I study, the more I get into this portion of Holy Scripture, the more I am blown away – but I don’t even know what hit me.

I am amazed by the little linguistic details, so easy to overlook, that John uses to allude to an entire section of the Old Testament so that we are reading Ezekiel or Zechariah or Exodus all over again through the lens of the Revelation vision.

I am moved by the grace of God. I expected to be assaulted by visions of destruction – the four horseman of the apocalypse, the battle of Armageddon, the dragon and the beasts, and (my personal favorite) the torture scorpions. They’re all in there, right where they were the last time I read the book, but it is grace that is capturing me.

I am awed by God’s saving power. John uses metaphor and poetry the way a musician uses a theme – with variation after variation so that you hear one echo after another. And, his variations are tied to the theme of salvation in history – Israel delivered from slavery in Egypt, Israel delivered from captivity in Babylon, the entire human race offered deliverance in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming climax of our salvation – and not only our salvation but the salvation of the entire cosmos. Variations on a theme: By Eugene Peterson’s count, in the 404 verses of the Revelation there are 518 references to earlier Scripture, without making a single direct quote (Peterson, 23).

What kind of book is the Revelation? How are we to read it?
Too often, it is read as an almanac of the end, a guide to interpret current events. Too often, it is read as a crossword puzzle (Peterson, 18) with clues, a problem to solve. But, if you look at an almanac, if you look at a crossword, they look nothing like the Revelation. It’s a shame when we read it that way.

So, what is it?
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.

1. "The Revelation" – Greek apokalupsis "uncovering". "Uncovering" a soup pot on the stove (use soup pot as visual), there’s black beans and bacon and ... "What’s that smell? Can I taste it? Is there cumin in that?" It is not a puzzle to solve but a mystery uncovered in which we immerse ourselves, all our senses. (See Eugene Peterson, 1988, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 19.)
Or, we could imagine a work of art unveiled by the artist at an exhibition. The cloth is pulled away and – we don’t know what we are looking at. The colors are so unexpected, the brush strokes so different, the proportions not quite right. Maybe it’s not "my thing", but my imagination is stirred, I want to look deeper into the painting – as if depth exists in a two-dimensional object – I begin to imagine. That’s apokalupsis.

2. This is a revelation "of Jesus Christ", both in the sense of being from Jesus, what he gives to John the Seer, and in the sense of being about Jesus. The book is not about the end of history, it is about the End of History – the one toward whom all of history bends and finds its fulfillment. The book is not about the final judgment, it is about the Final Judgment – executed, quite literally, upon Jesus Christ at the cross. Yes, it includes a lot of "eschatology", that is, stuff about the "end" breaking into our space and time. But it is, first of all, about Jesus, it is "testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ."

3. This is "made known" by Jesus. The Greek root for "made known" here in the first verse of Revelation 1 is shmai,nw, "signify" "sign". A better English translation is "signified" (Christopher C. Rowland, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol xii, Revelation, p 560). An eight-sided street sign with a red field signifies "stop". That same red color in a signal light signifies stop. That same red color in a light on the back of the car in front of you signifies stop. Signs, even signs as straightforward as traffic signs and signals, come in many forms. John deals with signs that are more layered, usually with layers of meaning from the Old Testament now re-purposed for the churches under his care.

4. This is to be "read aloud". Reading aloud is a great first step to opening our imaginations. We had a wedding here yesterday. At the rehearsal, we read the vows aloud. I don’t want any surprises on the wedding day. Even though the couples have already read them in advance, there is something different about reading them aloud. It’s no longer "for better, for worse" but "for BETTER, for WORSE" and we engage our imagination, thinking about what that could indeed look like. John has something for every one our senses (see Peterson, chapter 2) – taste, touch, smell, and especially sight and sound. In fact, in this first chapter, in a wonderful mix of sense and metaphor, the literal expression is "I turned to see the voice" (1:12).

5. This revelation is received by John in the context of worship: "I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day" (1:10). Worship is the great context for revelation, for hearing God speak. Worship is communion with heaven. In our Holy Communion liturgy, we declare, "With your people on earth and the whole company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn ..."
John’s opening includes the common "Grace and Peace" line, but this time with a Trinitarian blessing. First, the "Father", the "one who is and who was and who is to come". It is a reference to Moses at the burning bush, learning God’s name as "I AM", a Hebrew phrase that could just as easily be translated "I WAS" and "I WILL BE" (see Rowland). But the amazing thing for me is the order in which the tenses are listed. I would list it, "the one who was and who is and who is to come" but John lists in first place "the one who is". In God, past and future are folded into the present moment. The eternal perspective is always present tense. This way of naming God gives us some insight into the Revelation, and into that discipline of theology known as "eschatology". It is not about stretching out time and sequencing events. It is, rather, about God’s past saving work and God’s future promised salvation invading, occupying, taking hold in our present.

The Trinitarian blessing continues, contrary to the typical order, with the Spirit: "the seven spirits who are before his throne". It’s a peculiar connection, through Revelation 5:6, to a vision of Zechariah that also included lamps and a lampstand.

The blessing concludes with Jesus Christ, "faithful witness, firstborn of the dead [a reference to resurrection], and ruler of the kings of the earth".

In the second half of the chapter, when John turns to see the voice, he has a vision of Jesus himself, in glory. First the context, then the clothing, then the seven-fold nesting description (use measuring cups as visual).
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, pp 38-39 and entire chapter 3.

Context: Lampstands – Jesus is revealed among the churches
unity/diversity
mission (to reveal Jesus) – to be lampstands (not lights), (Oecumenius, 2005, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, nt xii, p 11)
reconciliation – do not abandon the church

Clothing – that of the high priest – intercede for us before God and for God before us – a mediator

7-fold nesting description
GRACE: White head and hair, forgiveness
"white as snow", a prophetic expression for forgiveness
RELATIONSHIP: Eyes flaming, penetrating/purifying
as "flaming coal", Isaiah 6, purification
KINGDOM: Feet of bronze, firm and lasting kingdom
contrast with Daniel 2, kingdoms of the world with feet of clay/iron mix
The CENTER: Voice, many waters
the phrase, when used metaphorically in the Bible, refers to multitude, especially of the nations, a Pentecost of many voices in many languages declaring the glory of God
KINGDOM: Right hand, rules the cosmos
the "seven stars" as the 7 known planets (called "wandering stars"), understood astrologically to influence and rule history and life ... but Jesus rules the stars, the planets are in his "right hand", where you put a tool
RELATIONSHIP: Mouth with two-edged sword, penetrating/conquering
GRACE: Face shining like the sun, blessing
Priestly blessing: The LORD bless and keep you, make his face shine upon you ... God beaming upon us with love

John falls on his face as though dead – overwhelmed in worship

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Conflicted Prophet

I am reading in Jeremiah and am amazed at how "conflicted" he is. He is proclaiming the sin and destruction of Judah, the southern kingdom, but he doesn't want to see it happen. He is witnessing the last days of the nation, but hates to see it happen. He prays that God will deliver anyway, and God tells him, "Do not pray for the welfare of this people" (Jeremiah 14:11). Folks from his own hometown want him dead - all because he is proclaiming a message they don't want to hear, a message he doesn't want to give. No wonder he struggles with depression and writes another book called "Lamentations"! Despite all of this, he calls the LORD, over and over, "the HOPE of Israel"! One of his prayers (Jeremiah 14:7-9) . . .

Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O LORD, for your name's sake;
our apostasies indeed are many,
and we have sinned against you.
O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!

Easter Pics in the York Dispatch

A photographer from the York Dispatch, John Pavoncello, took some photos of our SonRise service and three are available in their on-line gallery (select the April 4 gallery). We also made the front cover of the Monday evening edition!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Resurrection

From N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope:

Saying "he's been raised from the dead" if he wasn't is simply inexplicable historically. I am reminded of John Updike's trenchant poem:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
. . .
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Idle Tale - Easter 2010

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Idle Tale \Lk 24 11
Luke 24:1-12 (message)
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 (call to worship)
Isaiah 65:17-25
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
 
The Resurrection Bunny . . . a joke.
 
Today, I want to focus on one line in Luke’s gospel account: "But these words seemed to them an idle tale". The women come back from the tomb having seen two men in gleaming clothes and they report, "He has risen!" "But these words seemed to them an idle tale." This phrase, our focus, is a negative statement. We’ll follow the negative path and see what it reveals to us, positively, about resurrection, specifically about Jesus’ resurrection.

First of all, negatively, we discover something about how women were viewed in the first century. Women were considered unreliable witnesses, not trustworthy. Did the male disciples respond out of the gender roles of their culture? Quite possibly. Most women today have had the experience of being ignored by a man, only to have that man listen to another man who said the exact same thing the woman said. So maybe we aren’t that enlightened after all, though I would maintain that the first century cultural context predisposed people to distrust women’s witness way more than we do today.

Interestingly, by the time the church began to standardize its story telling of resurrection, the women began to disappear from the retelling. Though from a cynical standpoint, we might wonder about the dominant role and voice of men in the early church, from a practical standpoint, mentioning the women’s witness would be even less valuable than having Dale Earnhardt Junior endorse soccer apparel. But in every one of the four gospel accounts, women are the first witnesses, the first apostles.

This dynamic – the historical development of the story and the way the story is told – tells us something remarkable about the gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection. It tells us, positively, that this story and those of the other three gospel accounts, had to be of very early origin, not made up years later. They show no signs of editing to fit the culture. In addition, they show no signs of commentary either theological or Scriptural. The stories are presented raw – because they capture the unexpected and powerful nature of what happened: Christ is Risen!

So, first of all, negatively, women’s witness was not trusted. And, positively, we have one more piece of historical evidence that the gospel accounts are of very early origin and that they exist as they do because they describe something truly extraordinary.

Second, negatively, we realize that none of the disciples expected that Jesus would rise from the dead. Back to the historical objections that are raised, some folks say that the disciples wanted Jesus to live so much that they saw visions, saw ghosts, whatever . . . and concluded that Jesus was risen. But that makes no sense in the story: They did not expect Jesus to rise and, they considered the very idea to be nonsense.

In the ancient world, there was no Ghost Hunter TV show, but there was familiarity with a variety of spiritual connections beyond death, particularly for those who are recently bereaved. But there was no expectation of resurrection. Once you were dead, you were dead. The body didn’t come back. The Jews were the only people who believed in resurrection, and not even all Jews did. And, for those who looked forward to resurrection, it was something that would happen in the last days, at the climax and destiny of history, to God’s righteous ones, all at once. No one, in their wildest imagination, thought that resurrection would happen to one person before it happened to everyone else. It just doesn’t happen. No wonder "these words seemed to them an idle tale."

But Christ is risen! Positively speaking, if it is not an idle tale, if the disciples are so resistant to believing this, if it falls so far outside their craziest dreams, then it must be a game changer. It is that last minute steal and three point play to turn a one-point lead into an insurmountable four-point lead with 5 seconds to play. It’s game over, for death. It’s game over, for a world dominated by decay. It’s game over, for injustice. It’s game over, for futility.

From time to time, someone will ask for my considered opinion as a pastor: "Are these the end times?" My answer is, "Christ is Risen!" We’ve been living in the end times for 2000 years! On the cross, Jesus cries out, "It is finished". The Greek root, "telos", in the gospel account is a root for "end", "fulfill", "last". Jesus, at his death, has finished his portion of the work not just of our salvation but of the redemption of this entire world. We may be familiar with some of the implications for "kingdom come", but Jesus taught us to pray "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Christ is Risen! And, his kingdom has broken decisively into the kingdoms of this world, like the Normandy beachhead, and victory is now assured. So, what are some of the implications for here and now? For life on earth?

Let’s take two other Scriptures that we have before us this Easter. One is the prophet Isaiah declaring the word of the LORD, "I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17-25). It sounds remarkably like a quote from the Revelation, which will be the focus for our message series through Eastertide. But it is also what Jesus decisively accomplished in his death and resurrection – the inbreaking, the creation of a new world in the middle of the old one. And, we have the words of the apostle Paul, "As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:19-26).

So, one implication is for the creation: In a world in which we worry over species extinction, argue about global warming, and watch movies with asteroids and aliens destroying the planet . . . In such a world, God is already at work making a new earth and a new heavens. In that world, death has been destroyed, peace is in control, and our labor is not in vain. And, while the last enemy to be destroyed is death, we can live in this new world even now, in certain hope of Jesus’ victory. Christ is Risen! Therefore, Jesus – not death, not injustice – is Lord of this world.
Another implication is for the human future. Philosophers and science fiction writers alike imagine the post-human, the impact of cybernetics, of machines that are smarter, stronger, and better than their creators. But no one can hold a torch to the biblical idea of the resurrection body, a body that theologian N. T. Wright refers to as "trans-physical" (Surprised by Hope, pp 43-44).

And, another implication, referred to by both Isaiah and Paul, is for our life at work. We all know what it is like to spend a day making three steps forward and two steps back, or two forward and three back. We know what futility feels like. But Isaiah declares, "They shall not labor in vain". And Paul writes, at the end of his extended reflection on resurrection, "Your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:57). Imagine that in your work as tax accountant, salesman, nurse, mechanic, manager, executive, clerk. No matter how frustrating, no matter how futile . . . your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Secondly, on the negative side, no one among the disciples expected Jesus to be resurrected. Why? It just didn’t happen, unless it happened at the end of history. So, the fact that Christ is Risen is a game-changer, for history itself, for the creation, for the human race, even for our work day.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to explore these themes through the book of the Revelation, a book that focuses on the revealing of Christ the Resurrected One.

[Source: Particularly on the historical development of the gospel accounts of resurrection, on the ancient world’s view of death/spirits/resurrection, see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New Members

A bit delayed (sorry), but from Feb 28 in both services. In the 9:00 service, Wendy (with daughter Emily) and Teresa joined. In the 11:15 service, Anna Mae, Gregg, and Marsha, shown with two of their three partner/sponsors, Donna and Carolyn. Not pictured: Crist. More folks are planning to join on April 11.