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)

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