Monday, November 30, 2009

God's Expectant People: Expect Birth Pains

1st Sunday Advent

Scripture Readings:
Malachi 3:1-5
Matthew 24:1-36

A father asked his little boy, way in advance of his birthday, what he wanted for his birthday present. The boy said he wanted a baby brother. And, lo and behold, his wish came true, when his birthday came around, he had a baby brother. As his next birthday came around, his father asked him again, “What would you like for your birthday?”
The little boy hesitated and told his father, “Dad, what I would really like is a pony, but I’m afraid that would be too much for Mom.” (Gene Sikkink; “Parables, Etc” May ’94)

“Birth pains” is one of the terms that Jesus and the apostles use to describe the experience of the waiting period that leads up to the return of Jesus and the completion of the kingdom of God. (Matthew 24:8; Romans 8:19-22; 1 Thessalonians 5:3) This was not a new way of talking. The Old Testament and many Jewish rabbis used the same idea of birth pains to describe the events leading up to the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ. (Isaiah 13:6-8) References to this have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well.

Some reading I did, once, suggested understanding the Advent tradition of expectancy for the birth of Jesus and expectancy for the return of Jesus by comparing it with the expectancy of pregnancy. This seems like a good idea; except for the fact that I don’t know anything about pregnancy, except by hearsay. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.

I think it is important to notice that the disciples asked Jesus for signs of the end of the age, signs of the coming of the kingdom of God; but Jesus, in his answer, referred to them as birth pains. Signs are for the eyes and for the head. “Well, look at that! That’s a sign!”

Birth pains are much more personal than signs are. In a day when people commonly lived in one-room houses, and when babies were born at home, birth pains were something that either happened directly to you, or happened right in front of you, in your very room. One way or another, birth pains required some kind of movement and action, or reaction and response, on your part. Birth pains make you do something.

Now the birth pains Jesus talks about are his answer to the two questions asked by the disciples: about when the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed; and about when would the end of the age come; the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.

The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. The kingdom has not come yet, except in our hearts and our fellowship. That span of time, from then till now, is the span of the birth pains, so far. The birth pains have lasted from then till today. How much longer they will last; Jesus tells us that no one knows. He is pretty clear about that.

The important thing, for us, is that this means that we are living in the time of the birth pains of the kingdom of God. The experiences that happen to us, the events that we hear about from our families and friends, or learn about from the television apparently have to do with something God cares about. They have to do with something that is important to us and we have to do something about them.

What are real birth pains; a mother’s birth pains? I have no idea. On the other hand, they are events in the mother’s body that produce the event of a child, hopefully as soon as possible, but not too soon, either. The pains serve the purpose of a good outcome. The Lord has designed the birth pains of the kingdom for the special purpose of preparing the world for a blessed event; to prepare the world for his coming.

It is clear, from what Jesus says, that these birth pains will affect the whole world. It is also clear that they will affect God’s people. Since they affect God’s people, too, they must be designed to prepare us for his coming to us, or for our coming to him.

It needs to be remembered that birth pains are things that hurt. Pains are painful. The birth pains that Jesus talks about are the events in this world that hurt us directly, or someone we know. Or they are agonizing events in the larger world that cause us sorrow, or worry, or fear, or anger, or confusion, or doubt.

Jesus tells us some of what sort of pains those will be, and he also tells us how to respond. “Don’t be alarmed (24:6). Stand firm to the end (24:13). Keep on loving (24:12). Share the good news (24:14). If the best way to stand firm is by running for your life; go ahead and do it (24:16). Don’t believe what everyone else seems to be believing (24:4). Don’t go where everyone else is going (24:26). Be careful about people who claim to be prophets (24:24).”

In Malachi, the prophet speaks to people who were waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. And he wrote way ahead of the time; four hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

Even then they were waiting; and things were not going well for them. Some things were good. They had been set free from exile in Babylon. They had returned to the Promised Land with great expectations and a lot of inspiration.

But, by the time of Malachi, their sense of expectation became disappointed. Life went on and nothing changed. They worked and worked, and never got ahead. Their family life was unhappy. Their worship felt empty. These were their birth pains.

Malachi says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” And he says, “But who can endure the day of his coming?” In other words, Malachi is saying that if they don’t respond the right way to the things that are going on around them, they will never be ready for the time when the Messiah will come.

Malachi was right. When Jesus the Messiah came to his people, most of them were not ready for him. They were not prepared enough to recognize him when they saw him.

If you read Malachi, and Haggai, and Nehemiah, and Ezra (who lived toward the end of the Old Testament times), you will see that God’s people had become half-hearted. God’s people had become careless about the way they lived. They were careless and lackadaisical about living a life of worship. They were selfish, self-centered people; materialistic, possession centered people. They had no love, no joy, no real caring about what was right, or what was just.

They responded to their birth pains by just doing what they had got used to doing without thinking. They wanted a God who took away the birth pains by changing the world around them, and not by troubling them with a change in themselves.

The events in the world that worry us, or frighten us, or confuse us, or hurt us are designed to change us, but we decide how we change. Think about the list of birth pains: wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, etc. Let’s put them in other terms: conflict, insecurity, sickness, opposition. When these things happen to us, they hurt, and the hurt creates a choice: how to respond?

How we respond to these pains prepares us for the very goal of life on earth, and the whole purpose of history; to make us people who are prepared for true and everlasting fellowship with other people and with God himself.

It takes no birth pains to be a father, but more than one father has told me that the moment he held his first newborn child in his arms he had a deep desire to be a new person for that child’s sake. Birth pains are not things you count and talk about, but things that can change your heart.

But it is clear that some of the ways we respond do not make us prepared. Some of the ways we respond to pain and fear and stress make us less fit to be the people whom God designed us to be than we were when we first began.

Even when the birth pains happen far away from us and do not seem to affect us, how we respond is important. We have attitudes about the kind of world we live in, and those attitudes shape our personality and our character. It makes us helpful or unhelpful. Our response to the world around us refines us, and mellows us, and gives us a sense of calling. Or else it coarsens us, and embitters us, and invites us to serve ourselves.

Jesus tells us that the whole world has a rendezvous with him, and that history is preparing every human being for that meeting. Even the things that are a pain are a part of the changes that need to happen in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives to prepare them. Jesus tells us that the birth pains are a part of our preparation.

The sufferings and injustices that Jesus experienced in his condemnation and in his death on the cross were the birth pains he endured to give us a new birth. They were his birth pains to bring us to life in his Spirit. His birth pains give us power and mercy to grow and live a new life.

Even though the first Christmas happened two thousand years ago, every year, waiting for its anniversary, gives us new symptoms, and new birth pains, that push us toward a new kind of life where we become simpler, and humbler, and more faithful, and more ready to learn and grow. Or else they push us the other way. Every year it is a new push toward our being born, our being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

But this is not a threat. This is our hope. It is the work of Jesus who was born, and lived, and died, and rose for this very thing: to give us birth into a new life.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People and the Great Completion"

SERMON Dennis Evans 11-15-2009

“The Lamb’s Drama: His People and the Great Completion”
Scripture Readings: Revelation 21:1-14; 22-27 and Revelation 22:1-21
(Based on Revelation chapters 21-22)

In the very first line of the Book of Revelation, we are told what this book is about. It is about Jesus. It is “the revelation of Jesus”. That first title line says: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”

The emphasis in this sentence is often placed in the wrong place. People read Revelation as if the most important point of it was “what must soon take place”.

But the real emphasis should be put at the very start of the sentence: the revelation of Jesus. The book is all about showing who Jesus is, for the very purpose that we cannot understand anything that goes on without understand who Jesus is.

We cannot understand the past, the present, or the future of the world, or even of our own life, without seeing Jesus as he is. Seeing the real Jesus, and keeping close to the good news of Jesus, is the key to knowing what is really going on, knowing what really matters and what is really at stake.

Knowing Jesus is how we can tell the real from the unreal, the true from the false. Knowing Jesus is how we make our life journey in such a way as to be faithful to the end. It is the way to truly end well.

For instance, the gospels show us how easy it is to misunderstand who Jesus is, and what matters to him, and what is really going on. We can read this in the tenth chapter of Mark. Two of Jesus’ disciples had a request for him. They wanted Jesus to promise to let them sit on his right and on his left in his glory (which means when he became king). This means that they wanted to be Jesus’ secretary of state, and secretary of the treasury. Being on his right and on his left also meant that they would control who was able to get close to Jesus.

Jesus gave them this answer: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Those disciples had a very different idea from Jesus as to what was important, and so they really had no idea (at the time) of what Jesus was up to. They had no idea of the importance of what he was doing, or even what he was doing at all. They were completely unable to grasp that Jesus came to be a servant and a giver of grace through his life and his sacrifice on the cross.

Their question was about power, and success, and ownership. They even wanted to own Jesus. They wanted to control his policies, and control who got favors from Jesus.

For Jesus, who is God in the flesh, the real power and success is servanthood and grace. He came to give his life as a ransom. His life, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, were the price he paid to give us abundant life and true freedom.

This is grace. The word grace means gift. Grace means a freely given gift, a beautifully given gift, a merciful gift. Where there is grace there is thankfulness, and where there is grace there is hope.

True substantial love is grace-shaped. Love always takes the form of grace in all our relationships. The real success of life is the recognition of grace, the recognition of gracious gift-giving; not power, or success, or ownership, as this world defines it.

In a family, in a marriage, in a friendship you can’t have true love or happiness without grace: a grace-shaped love. A family, a marriage, a friendship can never revolve around the values of power, or success, or ownership.

You can’t effectively own your wife or your husband and have a truly beautiful marriage. Your spouse is a gift. You can’t try to own your children and ever succeed in making them happy. Your children are a gift, and they need to be raised knowing that they are a gift.

This is true of a community. It is clear that the people who try to own a community (or to own people’s opinions) only tear down their community. On the national level, our country’s founders designed a constitution for a government with a separation of powers and two houses of congress in the hopes that no one would ever succeed in owning the government and the country.

The original sin, in the Garden of Eden, was that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that they could be like gods; so that they could be in control. They thought that they could achieve a degree of ownership over themselves; to be in control of themselves and to have ownership of the world and they lived in.

This is the worship of the self. It is an imitation of the devil who only worships himself.

If their lives were a gift, if their relationship to each other was a gift, if the world they lived in was a gift, then they would have to acknowledge that the center of their lives was outside themselves.

If everything was a gift, then they would only be able to live with thankfulness, and with hope in God. And they would extend that thankfulness and hope to each other, and to the world God had given them. In this way the world would become a place where grace and gift giving were the rule, and one would live in that world by being a servant and by giving grace.

All of the conflict and violence in the Book of Revelation makes me uncomfortable. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. This is because we do not have a real hunger for a world of grace and gifts. Our real appetite is for a world of power, and success, and ownership.

We underestimate the cost to our souls of living in the world as it is. We underestimate the cost that is paid by others due to our own lack of allegiance to the rule of grace and servanthood.

This is why we don’t understand the conflict in the Book of Revelation. We don’t understand way the conflict is necessary or why the conflict must be pursued to the end. The conflict already exists. We see it in the news. We see it in others. We need to see it in ourselves.

The Book of Revelation is about the ending of that conflict. It is about the elimination of everything that is not grace, and gift. It is about the shutting out of everything that is alien to thankfulness and hope.

There is a curse uttered, just before the end of the book, against anyone who adds to or takes away from the words of Revelation. (Rev. 22:18-19) The reason for this curse (that seems rather awful) is that Revelation is about the grace of God mending the tragedies, and the injustices, and the conflicts of this world, and replacing it all with a grace-shaped love. To add to the message of Jesus is to add something besides grace. This cannot be allowed. To take from the message of Jesus is to take away something essential to grace. This cannot be allowed.

The book is “the revelation of Jesus”. It reveals who he is and what he is about. The whole point of the “mystery of God” (Rev. 10:7) is to create a new heavens and earth ruled by grace; nothing more and nothing less.

In that new heaven and earth we will be made whole, we will be brought to completion, but the role of the grace of God in Jesus Christ will never be outgrown or left behind. There is no true life outside the grace-shaped love of God. There is no true life without the recognition of giftedness, and thankfulness, and hope.

That new heaven and new earth represent the mending of all ills, the healing and setting right of all wrongs. The walls around the New Jerusalem represent the safety and security and permanence of that mending, and healing, and setting to rights.

The gates of the city are the entrance into all that mending, and healing, and setting to rights. The gates are always open and they are never shut. The only thing that can keep us out is our sin. The only thing that will let us in is grace. Grace is a freely offered gift. This means that the only thing that really keeps us out is the refusal of grace, the rejection of grace.

Remember that grace and ownership are essentially opposed to each other. The original sin was the desire to be in control, to be the owner and worshipper of ourselves.

To wash your self in the blood of the lamb (Rev. 7:14 & 22:14) is like immersing yourself in a love that you cannot own and that is infinitely bigger than you are. There is nothing you can do with it but be thankful and full of hope; and to respond by serving and giving grace.

If there is anyone shut out of the new heaven and new earth, it is only those who will not love a life based on gifts. There have always been such people, and we need to take stock of ourselves, here, as well.

Jesus realized that those disciples who wanted to sit in the places of power beside him, and essentially own him and decide who would get access to him, were not yet in love with grace. But he knew they would be, when they saw his grace-shaped love on the cross. Then they would be washed in that blood, or in that love.

As a result, they would become grace givers and servants to others, in thankfulness and hope. This is the beginning of the great mending, and healing, and setting to rights. This is the change that we cannot produce in ourselves. Grace is what makes us complete. Grace is what the Lord wants to be in the very air that all creation breathes in the new heaven and the new earth.

The Book of Revelation is an invitation to completeness. The good news is that everything Jesus ever did he did to make you whole and complete. And this is not just an invitation to you. It is an invitation to everyone you know. It is an invitation to the whole world; the whole universe.

The Holy City, the New Jerusalem, is not a city, as we understand it. It is a community of grace. Cities are about power, and wealth, and greed, and pride, and materialism. Cities are places that enable you to avoid people and where humans control the environment. The New Jerusalem is the opposite of what cities are. The only landmarks inside the city are a river (which is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life), and the tree of life (which is the cross), and the throne which is the presence of God the Father and God the Son.

The gates are the twelve tribes of Israel, and the foundations are the twelve apostles. If we take to heart the Bible stories of the tribes of Israel, and the apostles of Jesus we must remember that they are honest stories. They give us the heritage of people who were doubters and sinners (just as we are) living in obscurity, people who were always looking out for themselves and competing with the others, just as we see in the disciples’ request for power.

They are not heroes, except for being examples of a grace that they could not own. And yet God honored them by making them the entrance ways and the foundations of his work of grace that makes us whole and complete.

It is the same with us. Eugene Peterson says this about the role of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of Jesus in the new world of grace: “Such being the case, there is nothing so evil in my unfaithfulness and nothing so obscure about my life that is not, even now, being fashioned into the foundation stones and entrance gates of heaven.” He says that, “everything in history is retrievable.” (“Reversed Thunder”, p. 177)

When the Lord says, “I am making everything new (21:5)”, he means that you and your life story are retrievable. Everything in your life story is a foundation and entry way for grace. In the new world of grace, when John tells us that, “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it (21:26)”, he means that “the mystery of God” has been at work in many ways in civilizations, and nations, and cultures, and towns, and families, and churches.

Though everything will be made new, the heart of all that was worth loving will be retrieved, and saved, and not be lost. And the thing that will make it most perfect and complete is that you will never claim to own it, but enjoy it as a pure and perfect gift: grace.

I want to share with you the closing lines of the last book of “The Chronicles of Narnia” in which the children of the book enter heaven. “The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (“The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis)

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Lamb's Drama: His People's Warfare and the Golden Years

Scripture Readings: Revelation 19:6-9; 19:11-20:6; Revelation 20:7-15

We must know that the Book of Revelation has a lot to teach us about our lives today, because it is the point of view of the Bible that we have been living in the last days ever since the birth, and life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have been living in the last days ever since the time of the apostles. The forces at work in our world today, are the same forces that were at work in those days. The same forces that will be at work in the final crisis, before the return of Jesus, are the very forces that are at work today; even if that future crisis is a long way off. (1 John 2:18)

Remember how we have seen that the Book of Revelation is not a complicated time-line. It doesn’t move in a straight line. It is an album of pictures, like a wedding album that shows the same events over, and over, and over, and over again from many different angles. If you are a guy who has ever been shown such a wedding album, you know what I mean.

And this fits in a surprising way, because the Book of Revelation really is about a wedding; just a very, very scary wedding. There are a lot of photos of the prenuptials of a very complicated wedding where it looks like they won’t be able to carry it off. Maybe it would be like being part of a lavish winter wedding, when suddenly an ice storm closes in, and it looks like nature is trying to kill you.

The Book of Revelation is about the thing it calls the wedding of the Lamb and his bride. The Lamb is Jesus, and the bride is us (along with all Christians, from all times and places).

The grand finale of the Book of Revelation is the wedding feast, the wedding supper. We all know that this is the best part of the wedding, except for the honey moon, because all that planning, all that struggle, all that stress, all that battle against the forces of chaos, are behind us, and now (looking back) everything was all perfect.

The Book of Revelation has a lot to teach us about our lives, because it has a lot to do with teaching us about salvation. Salvation is what it means to have Jesus take you over to God’s side. It means living a life rooted in the peace and nurture of God. It means living a life in which our nature has been essentially changed in its direction, from living for ourselves to living in harmony with God, and with others, and finding our true self.

It means having a new life because our old life has been overcome by the love and the forgiveness of God poured out in Christ who lived, and died, and rose as an offering for us. Because we have been overcome by the love of God in Christ we see ourselves, we see others, we see our world, and we see our task in the world, with new eyes and a new heart.

The Book of Revelation teaches us two things about this new life (this journey we call salvation). It tells us that salvation is a war and that salvation is a feast. It is a war with (not against) Jesus; and it is a feast with Jesus.

We see a picture of Jesus going off to war. Jesus is the rider who “is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war….his name is the Word of God.” (Rev. 19:11-13)

When we are joined to Jesus, we have joined a war; his war. There is one scene of that war, earlier in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 12:7-9), that pictures a battle in heaven between the Archangel Michael and the Dragon who is Satan. This is only one picture of the war of Jesus against our sins, and death, and the Devil That battle shows what he did for us on the cross. The picture of Jesus and his army riding forth on white horses is part of that same war as it still goes on to this day.

Because Jesus died to share his goodness with us, we see the first rider dressed in red and ourselves, riding beside him, dressed in white. His red is his blood. Our white is his righteousness given to us.

In a sense our riding with Jesus is also our riding against ourselves. Because we still cherish our temptations, and our own injustices against others, and our own deceits. We cherish our own hypocrisies and selfishness. When we fight alongside Jesus we fight to finish the conquest of our own lives. But we also fight for Jesus against the evils of this world. We fight to win others, and to win the world, and to overcome the world.

We must do this because God’s love helps us see just how much is really wrong with the world. So much in the world is broken, and so many people are broken by this world.

There is an odd thing we need to notice about this war. Just how does Jesus fight in this war? John mentions the sword in Jesus’ mouth; and he gives Jesus the name “Word of God”. Jesus often fought with his mouth and his word.

Paul, the apostle, fought the same kind of war. He often tells us that his words are his weapon of choice. Paul says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

In the gospels, Jesus often used the sword of his mouth. Once, in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus met a man possessed by and demon, and the weapon Jesus used to do something about this was the powerful sword in his mouth. With this sword Jesus did not kill the man, but set him free. (Mark 1:21-28) When Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, and met the man possessed with a legion of demons (an army of demons), Jesus went to war against them with the sword in his mouth. He defeated them and he saved the man. (Mark 5:1-20) When Jesus was being arrested, and Peter tried to resist, and used his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus shouted, “No more of this,” and he touched the wounded man’s ear and healed it. (Luke 22:51)

If we thought that we were really going to war with Jesus, how would be use the sword in our mouth? And how would we make our lives correspond to this?
The world we live in is not a neutral place. If God is a God of salvation, we must fight to win this world. We are at war. But it is a completely different kind of war than we might expect. There is no brutality in Jesus’ war. We fight in a life giving war.*

The early Christians thought that this picture of Jesus dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and with the rest of us dressed in white, was a picture of the strange war of sharing the good news of the cross and the love of God with the all nations, and with every person. They thought this at the very time when the world was trying to kill them. And they went out against that world with nothing but the sword of a message of the love of God.

John tells us that this sword in the mouth of Jesus will one day speak something that will put an end to the resistance and evil of this world. We cannot foresee what that will be, or how it will work. Whatever he says will be so strong and so counter to the world, as we know it, that this world, as we know it, will cease to be. It will be a grand, “No more of this!”

In this war, we ride alongside Jesus. In such a world, in such a war, this is the only safe place to be. We ride beside Jesus; he in his red, and we in our white; he in grace and mercy, and we needing grace and mercy. Whether in these days, or in the final days, this is the only way to stay mounted and go forth.

I must bring in one other part of the picture album that has some very strange pictures that say one more thing about this war. I must do this because so much attention gets paid to this part of the album. There is a part of the album called “The Millennium.” Millennium means a thousand. John describes a period of a thousand years (although that number may only be symbolic of a long, long time; maybe longer).

We have read that, when the next to the last great battle is fought, Satan will be bound for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2). We also read that God’s people (all who belong to Christ the Lamb) will reign and rule with Christ for that same thousand years.

Members of all nations (Jews and non-Jewish people) who belong to Christ will “live”, John says. (Rev. 20:4) This “living” means that those who belong to Christ will be touched by the resurrection, before anyone else is.

For those who believe, who are alive at the return of Christ, this living will be the thing we call the rapture. (Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) It will be like being resurrected without dying. It means being changed into an immortal life, into a spiritual life.

This tired, old world will work differently because it will become the kingdom of God. Those who survive the great crisis and destruction of the last days, and the fall of the world powers as we know it, will have Jesus and us living among them for a long, long time.

It will be a time of abundance. The Old Testament speaks of a time when: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and al little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

This old earth will be like a paradise, and Jesus will rule, and we will help him. The next strange thing is that (as wonderful as this must be) we are told that when Satan is set free, after that long, long golden age, “he will deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth”. (Rev. 20:8) People from all over the world will rebel against Jesus. The nations will try to come against Christ and against his people. Then they will be stopped, and then the whole universe will be unmade, and a new creation will come into existence.

Here is what I think about this. First of all, God loves this world. Nature itself plays a part in our salvation and in waking us up to our need for God. God will honor this world that served him so well with the gift of a golden age. God will give this world a well deserved rest. It would be like a wealthy philanthropist finding an elderly couple who had worked hard all their lives and had nothing to show for it, and giving them a fortune to live on and a condo in Hawaii, out of sheer grace.

The second reason for the millennium (as I see it) is that God will use it to answer his objectors who claim that they would believe if only they could see the evidence of a visible management style; that is, if only they could see what he was doing, and see him doing it. And so he will he will do that, and yet they will not necessarily believe.

We can see this problem in ourselves. It is so easy for us to place the blame for our condition outside ourselves. We claim that if our nurture were better, and if the conditions of our life were better, we would be much better people. We try so hard, at any cost, to ignore and avoid our honest inner need for grace and rebirth. We try so hard to deny that our sin truly comes from ourselves.

The millennium will tell the story of ages and ages of God gently and lovingly wooing the human world. It will show ages of fervent courtship by an abounding and reigning Christ who will not convert anyone by force and gives us every chance, and so he will be left with a world of unconverted people....well maybe not that bad.
At least, it will be a world of people who are not too different from us. The only difference will be that (with all the visible and tangible care they will receive) they will have no opportunity to really express what is in their heart of hearts. They will represent something called “a cloistered virtue”; a goodness that is good only because they never had the chance to do what they really wanted.

It will be as true in those future days, as it is true today; we must be born again. We must be born from above.

The spiritual warfare, during the millennium, will be the war for thankfulness; thankfulness for living in a world where people are wooed day after day, and year after year, by the loving courtship of God. But that is the truth of the world even now.

The other side of salvation is the feast. Salvation means going to war alongside of Christ. Salvation means feasting with Christ; with Christ as your host. We will talk more about this next time.

The Lord’s Supper is a meal of the return of Jesus. We do it to proclaim his death until he comes. We do it remembering that the one we are expecting to come again is the one who has died for our sins on the cross, and who did this because God so loved this world. (John 3:16) He gave us this meal because he knew that there is nothing we need so much in this world as to be welcomed, and fed, and nourished by him.

*For the section in italics, I owe a particular debt to Eugene Peterson in his book “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination” p. 164f. The focus of this sermon on salvation as war and feast also come from the same book, Chapter 11 “The Final Word on Salvation”.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People and the Mystery of the Floozy"

Scripture Readings: Revelation 17:1-10a; Revelation 19:1-10
(The sermon is actually based on all of Revelation 17:1-19:10)

The idea of mystery is very important in the New Testament, and in the Book of Revelation. Earlier in Revelation we hear about “the mystery of God” (Rev. 10:11), and here we read about something called “Mystery Babylon”. (Rev. 17:5)

For us, in the modern world, a mystery is a kind of puzzle. We read mystery novels, which we call “who done its”, and we try to figure out the puzzle of the story before the writer reveals it.

Or, for us, a mystery is something that we simply do not, or cannot, understand. We may even think that it is something that we are not supposed to understand.

Mystery, in the Bible, is different. Maybe the mystery novels are not far off, if you keep in mind that there is something going on in their story that is the real thing.

Almost no one inside the mystery story knows what is really going on. Outside the story, in the world of you and the author, the author knows what is really going on, and is challenging you to figure it out before he plays his hand.

Inside the world of the mystery novel there is an illusion (or a confusion) going on, but there is part of the plot that holds everything together. The mystery is the core of the story. It is concealed, and it is your job to figure it out.

In the Bible, however, the author of the story is God, and God knows what is really going on. The characters in this big story of his (which is the history of heaven and earth, and the story of our lives in this world) are not fiction. We are really alive, and we are created to be God’s children who share in their Father’s story. In fact, he has created us to help him write the story.

Our problem with this is that we are estranged children, or runaways, or born rebels, and we don’t see very well into the mind of our Father, and we have no idea, sometimes, what is going on, and we often live our lives at cross purposes to the story as God would tell it. This, or something much worse, is what it is like to be members of the human race; sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. This is sin.

God’s great story, the history of heaven and earth and the story of our lives in this world, is a mystery; or it contains a mystery within its plot. The mystery of this story is the real thing that is really going on. God wants us to see the mystery and to know it to the core, so that we can play our true role within it, and participate with God in the telling of the story.

The mystery of God, the real story of heaven and earth, is that when humans beings cut themselves off from fellowship with God and from the source of life itself, God responded in a completely surprising way. God actually became human, and cut himself off from life itself, on the cross, in order to give us a new life. On the cross, the old creation that went astray in us dies, and we become a new creation in Christ.

This is the real mystery of life. This is the real story that is going on in this world today. Everything that happens around us is aimed at making this mystery known to us, so that we can take our rightful place in the story as God intended it to be. The gospel means good news, and the good news is this mystery of what God really cares about, and what God is really doing in Christ.

The mystery of God is not a puzzle, or a secret, but a wonderful discovery of the things that really matter. Forgive me for singing this song from 1936 that expresses this feeling of discovery.
“Ah! Sweet mystery of life at last I've found thee.
Ah! I know at last the secret of it all;
All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning,
The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall!” (From “Rose-Marie” 1936)

When you know the mystery of it all, you see what many people do not see. In fact you see something that human life seems dead set on not seeing. There is a system in this world that makes us dead set against seeing the real thing, or letting anyone else see it for themselves.

There seems to be a way to this world that keeps us superficial, that makes us competitors with others instead of caregivers for others, that judges the worth of others and of ourselves by appearances, and style, and possessions, and power, and cleverness; by drawing lines between people and being an insider, by the ability to get one’s own way, and by the ability to stand in other people’s way. The way this world operates seems to reward those who live according to these values.

This is the world system that that opposes itself to God; that strives, in everything, to be independent from God, and to worship the self. There is something spiritually devilish in this. There is something very human, in the worst sense, in this. It works its way into human customs, and culture, and economics, and business, and law, and government, and schools, and religion.

This world system shows itself in many ways. We can call it the shopping mall of life: a life full of the distractions of stuff. An old name for it was Vanity Fair. We can call it the rat race. We can call it being realistic, and looking out for number one. John tells us that we can call it “Mystery Babylon”.

The mystery of God is the story of what God is really up to. Mystery Babylon is the story of a conspiracy that is trying to prevent what God is really up to. It is devilish; of the devil. It is human, in the sense of the story of Adam and Eve wanting to set up shop for themselves; without the Divine interference. This is a strong force in our lives and the world we live in.

As part of the story of the conspiracy, there is the beast with all its horns, and heads, and crowns. This is just a multiplication of images to show the strength of that force.

Horns are an animal’s weapons. They are strength. Crowns are authority; another kind of strength. The heads are both hills and kings. The horns are also kings. Hills are a strong defence and protection. The best place to build a castle is on a hill.

All this simply tells a story of power. It tells the mystery of something that can’t be beaten, a battle that you cannot win. It tells the story that resistance is futile. In this sense mystery Babylon is the story of a great big lie.

John is astonished at the woman on the beast. The whole world is astonished. The angel tells John not to be astonished the way everyone else is, because he is going to tell John the real mystery; the real story of what is going on.

The real story is that the great system that cannot be beaten, that cannot be defeated, will be defeated and destroyed. Babylon the Great harlot is temporary. Those who know the mystery, who know what is really going on, will not be fooled by appearances.

Babylon the Great is robed in purple and scarlet, and covered with gold, and jewels, and pearls. She is dressed like a queen, she thinks she is a queen, and everyone agrees with her. To those who want power, she gives power. To those who want success and wealth, she gives it to them. She rewards the quick and easy. She rewards the flashy. She loves popularity. And everyone wants a piece of her. Everyone wants to be in on her game. Her game seems to be the only game; or the only winning game
If you don’t play her game she breaks you; or tries to. And those who follow the Lamb (Jesus) will not play her game. They will not call foul fair. They know the mystery and they cannot be fooled, no matter how dangerous their resistance is to themselves. No one else will understand this because they are glad to be dazzled.

In the world, as it is, there are many ways to play around her game and succeed. In the last days, it will be much harder to play around her. It will seem to be absolutely impossible. John tells us that she is strong enough to drink from a cup that is full of the blood of the saints; full of the blood of those who play against her. (17:6) In chapter seventeen, verse nine, John tells us that facing the great harlotry of the world “calls for a mind with wisdom”.

Babylon has been around for a long time. It has had many names: Egypt, Rome, maybe London, maybe New York, and maybe other future names that we do not foresee. Facing the world that tries to substitute itself for God, and playing around it, calls for wisdom; in the final days it will take a lot of wisdom indeed, and patient endurance.

Babylon is the god of this world. She is glamour and success, and everyone thinks she is beautiful, and everybody wants her. But John sees that she is drunk and dirty.

The woman is a harlot. The beast is full of blasphemy. In the Bible, harlotry is ultimately spiritual. Harlotry is a relationship outside of our relationship with God. Blasphemy is claiming that something is God when it is not. Harlotyr and blasphemy are two sides of the same coin. Blasphemy and harlotry make everything in our lives something to use, or something to serve us. The world system worships “self”.

This is what is really going on. Everyone loves it because it offers a chance to be in charge, and have life be all about us. That is the ultimate harlotry and blasphemy; the mystery Babylon.

The mystery of God is a story that contains another mystery; the mystery of the Bride of the Lamb. The story of the Bride of the Lamb is the story about us, the church. It is the story of our marriage to God.

Our families, our friends, our home, our work, our gifts or talents, our rest, our ability to play and to have fun are really all things that exist inside God. They do not exist to serve us, but they exist to bless us. They exist for us to give ourselves and share ourselves through them. They exist for us to express our love, and joy, and thankfulness through them.

All the mysteries of the Bible end in Hallelujah, which means, “Praise the Lord!”
There is a lot to keep us from singing, “Praise the Lord”. We live in a world system that tries with all its might to keep us from seeing the reality of God. We have grown up in that system, and it looks a lot like our real home. And it also looks doomed.

It is doomed. Babylon was shaken to pieces in chapter sixteen (16:17-21). In chapter seventeen Babylon will be done in by the very powers that make it possible.

We would feel better, maybe, if we could know more about this. The Bible does not help us here. When you read the story it is amazing how very few details are actually given about the end of Babylon, except to tell us who will miss her and why.

I think the details are not important. What is important is a life that receives the gift of joy from God. Babylon gives us songs to sing about ourselves and what we have. The mystery of God will set us free from having to sing about ourselves. The whole world was created to sing about the faithful love of God, and so are we. This song is called “hallelujah”.

Hallelujah is a song that is sung by people who are looking at the Lord and enjoying his gifts, and not gloating over the defeat of others. It is a song sung by creatures to their creator, and children to their father.

When we sing Hallelujah, we give thanks for God bringing us through everything that frightened us and angered us. It sets us free from hatred and scorn. We forget everything that is not love.

And here it brings us back to the real story of the mystery of God who really does set us free from the spirit of Babylon and makes us a new creation in Christ.