Monday, October 27, 2014

The Highest Calling - Living the Prayer

Preached on Sunday, October 26, 2014

Scripture Readings: Matthew 8:5-13; Ephesians 3:7-21

Crab Creek Wildlife Area: October 2014
A mother was listening as her little girl was telling her even littler brother about Sunday. “I can hardly wait to go to church tomorrow.”
The mother perked up at this at smiled and, then, not so much. The little girl followed up with her reason. “They’re having a potluck after.”
I’m sorry we don’t have a potluck supper today. But there is a feast laid out for us today. It’s the same feast as yesterday, and tomorrow, and forever. It’s a feast that never spoils or gets old. It’s a feast laid out for everyone, for all time and eternity.
It’s the feast of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is not about borders, and governments, and crowns. The kingdom is about God being in charge. The kingdom means the place where everyone is the person God created them to be. It’s where everyone functions according to specifications, as Commander Data, in “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” might say. The kingdom is where we are able to give and receive just as God created us to give and receive.
Paul writes about his calling to preach to the Gentiles. The Gentiles means everybody, and preaching means making sure that everybody gets the news right. It’s the news of the kingdom of God.
What Paul calls “the mystery” is the solution to the puzzle of the world as we know it. Paul says that the solution to the world as we know it is that the love of God, working in Jesus, has broken down the wall between outsiders and insiders. Everyone is invited to be an insider in the kingdom of God. We can’t find anyone in this world who isn’t invited to this feast: to this kingdom.
Earlier in the third chapter of his letter to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, Paul writes: “This mystery is that, through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:6) Eugene Peterson translates the same verse this way: “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.”
This is the feast. This is what Paul calls God’s “glorious riches.” We are welcome. We don’t know anyone who is a real outsider. We only know people who are invited to God’s love and strength.
We live in a horrible world where we want the horror to end. We live in a world that conspires against the truth and against those who stand for the truth. The whole the world is against us.
In spite of this, Paul told his friends that they couldn’t imagine or ask for a greater and more positive ability to face the world, as it is, than the ability that comes from the power of God’s love.
For the Christians in Ephesus, their leader, Paul, was in prison and his life was at stake. More than that: their own lives were at stake. It was normal for Christians to know that they were in danger all the time and that the whole world was against them. They were a tiny, tiny group that no one understood. Everyone seemed to delight in misunderstanding them, and misinterpreting them, and judging them accordingly.
Even worse than that, what stood against them was more than human. The rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms stood against them. We have just read this, and it is part of the ancient way of describing the universe. It is also a truth about the universe that we can translate into our own thought.
The universe is not just what we can see, and touch, and measure. There is an invisible reality that God has created and rules just as much as he rules this earth. Just as God rules (or overrules) this visible world and works against the evil around us (and the cross and the resurrection are the highest examples of God’s power at work in our history), there is a sort of sub-heaven that stands behind the evils of this world and the way the world so often works.
It a spiritual reality, but it is not the center of the heavens, where we meet the presence of God. There is a heavenly space between heaven and earth where angels and devils go on their appointed missions and fight each other and influence the human world, including us. Paul and his friends would know that there was an invisible evil behind the powers of this world, and that this invisible evil was determined to use the visible powers of this world to destroy them.
The truth is that you shouldn’t want to know too much about that war-torn invisible part of the universe. Paul tells you to look somewhere else. Paul tells you to look beyond what you fear, to look beyond what you suspect, and to look to Jesus. Look at the feast. Look at the treasure. Look at the love and the power of that love.
The Christians of that first generation looked at their friend and advisor, Paul, in prison, and they were afraid and depressed. How could they go on without Paul, and how could they survive in such a world?
The plain fact is that we can ask the same questions; and, for us Paul has the same answer. God “is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
The truth was worse off in Paul’s day than it is in our day. The church was worse off in Paul’s day than it is in our day. The life of any church and the life of the whole church seemed to hang by a thread in Paul’s day. It isn’t any worse in our day.
What they needed and what we need was and is to be strengthened within. Paul didn’t know what the days or years ahead held for him and his friends, except that they would need to be filled with the strength and love of God. He knew he could pray for them as they prayed for him. He knew he could pray for them without fear, and that they could learn to pray without fear. He couldn’t know exactly what to pray for, except that God was able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.
He didn’t only tell his friends that God was able do more than they could imagine. God was even greater than that. Paul told them that God was able to do immeasurable more than he could imagine, and so he used the word “we”.
Paul said that he was praying for the inward strength of his Christian friends. He knew that his friends would listen to him, and understand, and pray that for each other, and for him.
The innards of our being include at least three things. Paul’s friends would have known what these three things were. Paul would have known what they would understand.
One form of inward strength that we need is “reason”. There is a form of self-defeating logic that is simply destructive, and Paul doesn’t mean that kind of power of reasoning.
He means that we need the power of thinking straight, and thinking straight in extraordinary circumstances: thinking straight in a pinch. Soldiers, law enforcers, firefighters, emergency responders of all kinds need the power to think straight in a pinch.
We need the sense of reason that brings resilience. When I was twelve, I broke my arm playing touch football in gym class. I remember what bone it was but I had to look up the name. It was my radius bone. It wasn’t broken all the way through. The doctor called it a “green stick fracture”. You can snap a fresh green branch of a healthy tree and if probably won’t snap all the way through.
Because I was a kid, my arm bone was resilient. It still hurt like the dickens. But I didn’t cry.
When we get older, our bones lose resiliency. We may no longer bounce when we hit the ground. For some, it also becomes harder to be resilient inwardly. Sometimes even children fail to be inwardly resilient. Good parents teach their children to be inwardly resilient, because they know it’s important. Resilience is one of the most important strengths in life.
Remember that Jesus tells us to become like little children. (Matthew 18:2-4) He meant something to do with humility. I would argue that humility is one source of resilience. Pride makes it hard to get up and come back when we fall and fail. Humility means that we don’t take ourselves or our fears or out failures so seriously that we can’t bounce back and come back.
There was an old Puritan writer who said that “The perseverance of the saints lies in ever new beginnings.” That is resilience. That is the power we need.
For us, inward reason means the reliance of seeing reality through the eyes of faith. It also means using our faith to understand and deal with reality. It means the ability to look and see, to listen and hear: to hear God, and the world where God has put us, and God’s calling to us in this world.
Let’s think straight in our pinches. Without a strong sense of reason we will look foolish because we will become fools. We won’t deserve to have others listen to us.
Another part of our inward strength needs to be in our conscience. There is an inward conversation about what is right and what is wrong, what is fitting and what is inappropriate, what is noble and what is ignoble, what is brave and what is not. When our consciences are strengthened inwardly, then our inner conversations go in God’s favor.
When we ignore our conscience we deafen ourselves to the voice of God and truth. In the effort to make things easy, by ignoring our conscience, we will make everything harder. And we will no longer stand for anything.
The other inward strength is the strength of the will; the strength to choose the right and hold to it. There is a poem by the English poet John Drinkwater that goes, in part, like this:
“Grant us the will to fashion as we feel,
Grant us the strength to labor as we know,
Grant us the purpose, ribbed and edged with steel,
To strike the blow.
Knowledge we ask not, knowledge Thou hast lent,
But, Lord, the will – there lies our deepest need,
Grant us the power to build, above the high intent,
The deed, the deed!”
(From “Prayer for the New Year”, by John Drinkwater)

The inward strengthening of our will is how we live trusting the faithfulness and the love and the power of God. It means faith. And that is how we learn to be filled with the fullness of God in Christ. Trust, or faith, opens the door. People will only listen to us if we believe, and act like it.
This is a tall order. Paul says that this is not our doing. It is the doing of God coming to us in Jesus. It is even more than the result of God coming to us in Jesus. It is the result of God dwelling in us (living inside us), in Jesus: “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” (Ephesians 3:17-19a) Think of the knowledge that surpasses knowledge.
Where do we look at Christ and find this knowledge of his love? We find it in the manger, in the carpenter shop of Jesus, in the homelessness of Jesus on the road, in his suffering for the sins of the world on the cross. We find the knowledge of his love in the resurrection, and in the wounded Jesus who sits on the throne of heaven and earth.
These are the riches of his love, and we have them as a feast, and as a treasure. But we know that this is not just for us. We live in a world where this is for everyone, and we should know this.
Think about the mystery again. God’s mystery took what belonged to God’s people and made it belong to everyone else as well. Who is everyone else to you?
Israel (the people of Jesus) couldn’t deal with the treasure of Jesus because he insisted that he and his treasure were here for everyone, and everyone was just too different from them. They were obsessed with the differences between other people and them. Who is different from you? Who is not one of you? Can you bring the news to them?
Paul says that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us.”  Again think about this: that Paul says that the power is at work in us. It’s not in you as an individual. It’s not in me. It’s in us. Paul says that the power and the love are in the Church and in Christ.
We can see power and love when we look at Jesus. This is always true. But we see this best (we see what Jesus means by it) when we look at Jesus and his disciples. The church is Jesus and his disciples: Jesus and us. That is the treasure. That is the feast: Jesus and us. It’s more than we can ask or even imagine.
But the mystery is that it is not even about Jesus and us. There are no outsiders. Don’t let anyone imagine that we think that they are outsiders, because we know better. God’s word says better. It will someday mean a world of heaven and earth that will include everyone, with no one on the outside. How do we show that (how do we live that out) to the world now?

Let’s live out this prayer. If no one is outside, then the prayer of Paul (to be strengthened within and to know the love of Christ) is for everyone. We pray this prayer and we live it out sincerely, for everyone: for everyone in our families, for everyone in our community, and for everyone in the whole world.

Monday, October 20, 2014

God Bless You, Friends

Benburb Presbyterian Church, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
Photo by Phyllis Tibbs, 2008

God bless you, friends.
We welcome you,
And greet you in the Lord’s name.
Our Father’s house belongs to you.
You are the reason Jesus came.
So may the Spirit gladden you
And guide you with his holy Flame.
We pray to share our lives with you,
For you and we are loved the same.

Dennis Evans, c. 1993

The Highest Calling - No Outsiders

Preached on Sunday, October 19, 2014

Scripture reading: Ephesians 2:11-22

Crab Creek Wildlife Area: October 2014
A forest ranger needed to talk to a property owner about a boundary issue. The owner’s property had a fence and the gate was locked. The ranger climbed through the fence and walked up the dirt road through the woods. Over and over he saw the signs: “No trespassing”, “Enter at your own risk”, “Beware of dog”, “Keep out: this means you”.
Once he got to the house the ranger was surprised to find out that the land owner was very friendly and helpful. They talked about all kinds of things. When it was time to leave, the owner looked sad and said, “Come over any time. I don’t get many visitors up here!”
Fences, and locked gates, and unfriendly signs: these can be found all over the place. But most of them are invisible. They may take the form of old wounds, and misunderstandings, and the angers. Some of them come from the way we measure people or think we ought to measure them. Fences may have been built because of the way others have measured us, and judged us.
Paul, in the portion of his letter that we read today, writes about a wall that Jesus takes down. The picture of this wall comes from a real wall that divided the Temple in Jerusalem.
This was a fence of stone (with gates and unfriendly signs) that was built in the huge outer courtyard of the Temple. The courtyard was called the Court of the Gentiles, or the Court of the Nations. The actual Temple was inside another enclosed courtyard that was inside the Courtyard of the Gentiles; like a box within a box within a box. Anyone could enter the Court of the Gentiles, because Gentiles meant nations, and that meant everyone.
Only the nation of the people of Israel could go further in. There was a stone fence in the inner part of this courtyard and there were signs, all along the fence, that said that whoever didn’t belong to the nation of Israel, who was caught inside the wall, would be responsible for his own death.
You see, the Temple was holy, and God’s people were holy and, if you weren’t one of them, then you were unholy. Only the people of Israel could come through the wall and get inside (at least further inside). You could call the people who were able to get inside “insiders”. You could call the people who were kept on the outside “outsiders”.
The Jews saw themselves as insiders. Everyone else was an outsider. They weren’t the only ones to see things this way. The Romans and the Greeks each had their own way of seeing themselves as being the ultimate insider people. In a small town, the “old timers” can be the insiders and the “new comers” are the outsiders, until the new comers outnumber the old timers.
When I was in seminary, in Iowa, in the nineteen-seventies, Iowa was a place where being in church was an insider thing. Political candidates were known to suddenly appear in church with their families, on the Sunday before Election Day, and they would come in just before worship began, when everyone else would have already arrived. They would walk down the aisle with their family and sit in the front so that they would be seen in church. Now, wouldn’t that make you proud to be a Christian, and an insider?
It’s nice to be an insider, and it doesn’t feel good to be an outsider. I am a geek, and an introvert, and a klutz. When you’re a kid, all those things make you an outsider. In some ways, those three things tend to go together. They contribute to each other.
So I was an insider in the geek-introvert-klutz club. Actually, there was no such club: no membership list, no budget, and no program. But we all knew who we were, and we hung out in the science room.
Sometimes we looked down our noses at the outsiders who played on the teams or waved their pompoms. Our science teacher, Mr. Williams would tell us that the school ought to take the money from football and spend it on science.
Probably none of our efforts helped us. All of our efforts to create an inside where we could be the true insiders and the rest would be the outsiders never helped us. It never made us better people.
The truth is that, whatever the people who played sports and waved pompoms thought about us, it didn’t really do them any good either. Only they were too popular to notice.
In a way, the insider and outsider game is God’s creation. He gave his people laws to teach them about the wall between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean.
He gave his people a design for a place of worship that had an inside so holy that it was called “the holy of holies”. Only one person could go inside the holy of holies, and that could be done on only one day out of the whole year, and only with the blood of a sacrifice made for sin.
The real purpose of this wall of holiness was not that God liked the wall. The purpose of the wall was to teach human beings that we all love the thought of winning the insider-outsider game, and we love it too much.
In the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve, we all ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil so that we could be in charge of our own lives, and set our own standards. We did this to get some space from God. In a way we tried to make ourselves the insiders and God the outsider.
This was the first sin and it became the part of human nature that leads to every other sin. Another name for this sin is pride.
When we got caught in the garden, we tried to blame each other for what we had done. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the snake. They were willing to make someone else the outsider in order to stay an insider.
Bullying, abuse, dysfunction in families and in marriage, wars, prejudice, tyranny, injustice, and so much more comes from this. The instinct to be the insiders has made outsiders of us all. God’s laws were designed to teach us who we are and what we are, as outsiders, so that God could safely bring us to the real inside again.
The inside of God is love, and true love destroys walls. God called the first members of his people (Abraham and Sarah) to be a blessing to all the nations. (Genesis 12:2-3) Using Abraham and Sarah, God designed a special inside and outside for the purpose of bringing a world of outsiders together, and bringing them to the true inside of his love and power. The wall between the inside and outside was planned to be temporary, all along. The wall between the holy and the unholy, the insiders and the outsiders, was to be a great example of planned obsolescence.
The sin of putting God outside was answered by God himself. God left the comfortable inside of heaven in order to join us on the outside. He judged our love of the game by letting us make him even more of an outsider: letting us kill him on the cross, as the victim of our sins.
But God created a new level of the game. God changed the cross from the place of the ultimate outsider, into the gate of the ultimate return inside. So God, in Jesus, bore our sins. Through the cross, sin is no longer a wall that shuts us outside the love and the power of God.
Then he went outside of life, into death, so that there would be no place outside his love and power. When Jesus rose from the dead he broke the power of death to take us outside of true life with him.
A long time ago, when I was home from college, I remember riding my bike out to the river. It wasn’t far; only about a mile east of our home. I was upset about the problems that my geeky introversion was creating for me. Although I didn’t see any easy solution (and I still don’t), a thought, in the form of a prayer, came to me. I spoke it to God as his word to me, “Lord, I am a wall, but you are a door.”
Paul wrote about Jesus being the way that God changes the insider-outsider game. God came in Jesus to break down the wall between God’s people and everyone else.
The real wall is no longer there. The funny thing is that this leaves us standing around on different sides of where the wall used to be. The wall is down, if there is any gap between us and them, it is only the wall in our mind. We are the only wall that is left.
We are called to act out a life where the wall is down and we can go to our brothers and sisters who don’t know Jesus yet, or not very well. Instead of calling people non-Christians or un-Christian, maybe we should think of calling them pre-Christians.
The point is that the best way we can show the community, and the world around us, who Jesus is, and what he has done, and what it is like to live with him, is to walk across the empty space where a wall used to be. We show who Jesus is by simply going and living on the outside with those who are there, because that is what Jesus did.
The world isn’t waiting for us to do this, because they don’t know what has happened and they may not even think that they care. But we called to care, and we are called to go to them.
There are no more outsiders in God’s scheme of things. You don’t know any outsiders. Everyone still lives in a world where the outsider game is going on, but the wall is down and we can go to them.

Jesus came so he could give us the command to “go”. One day, Jesus will say to us, “Come!” In the meantime, if we will trust him, his most important word to us is, “Go!”

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Highest Calling - A Little Bit of Heaven

Preached on Sunday, October 12, 2014

Scripture readings: Ephesians 1:3-14; John 14:15-21

A family was driving cross country and it was after dark when they stopped in a small town for the night. They needed to find someplace to eat and after almost giving up they spotted a cafĂ© with a sign that read “Open 24 Hours”.
Miscellaneous Photos: September 2014
Just as they got to the door, the lights went out and the owner came out, and locked up. The husband protested, “Hey, your sign says you’re open twenty-four hours.” And the owner said, “Yes, we are, but not all in a row.”
In our reading from Ephesians, Paul describes a heavenly experience which is meant to affect our lives, in the here and now, twenty-four hours a day. “Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3)
In the next chapter, Paul repeats the idea. The Lord has somehow raised us up in Christ and made us “sit with him in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 2:6)
There is something involved here that goes along with the simple fact of being a Christian. To me, it plays into the idea that we are to be “in the world but not of the world.” Yet sitting in the heavenly places makes us much more than that.
Sometimes how we think and live should be guided by the thought that “our citizenship is in heaven”. (Philippians 3:20) But the way we sit in the heavenly places in Christ involves much for that that. What I would like us to think about here is something more like a dual citizenship.
My brother-in-law has dual citizenship between the United States and Canada. He has a love for both countries, and he served in our armed forces in the Vietnam War. He fought for the United States in Vietnam. So he has earned the right to be proud of his dual citizenship. He didn’t use it as a means of escape.
To be seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus is not about escape. It’s how we serve. It’s how we are able to bear our love for our citizenship in the world, when that citizenship becomes hard, and frustrating, and fearful, and depressing. It’s where our renewal comes from. Heaven is the center of love; the capital and headquarters of love: of Christ who died for us.
This dual citizenship is how we love the world for which Christ died. It’s how we stay in touch with that love.
It’s how we “live for the praise of his glory.” It’s how imperfect and egocentric people like us can grow to become like Jesus. It is the only way that we can know a God who can be praised: a God who makes us like Jesus because he is Jesus.
Whether we describe it as sitting in heaven, or having one foot in heaven, is how we know what no one can imagine. It’s what we mean when we say we are never alone. It’s like saying that we are always sharing a room with God. It’s like being able to look into his eyes, and to see him look into ours; and know that he knows exactly what he is looking at and that he knows exactly what to do with what he sees.
There are people who think of God as imaginary, or nothing to be known but a word or a name. There are people who think that God is a thought; or that God is an idea. God came down from heaven into our world and into our flesh and blood, in Christ, in order to look us in the eyes and be the God who is known. To have one foot in heaven means seeing that God is more than anything we can imagine, seeing that he is not idea, seeing that he is real, and has a character and a personality with which we can always relate and interact. God is not an idea. God is personal.
We see him by faith, but why should anyone think that faith is blind, even though we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7)? Seeing God by faith means trusting what God has enabled us to see. There are so many ways you can’t see anyone unless you are willing to trust them.
Having one foot in heaven and the other foot on earth is never like straddling a fence, because God intends to get rid of all fences. God’s plan is to bring all of creation together: “All things in heaven and earth”.
God wants to give us the job of bringing heaven and earth, and all things, together for the joy of God, and for our joy, and for the joy of others. God wants us to bring people together.
We have a lot of stray groups around us that are not together. There are the golfers and the boaters. There are the Anglos and the Hispanics. There are the Republicans and the Democrats. God wants us to bring people together because we love Jesus more than we love our differences.
In our own families there are people who don’t want to be together. Because church should be one huge family, there are people who don’t want to be together in any church either.
In my quarrelsome little church, in my home town, there was still some way that Jesus seemed to bring together people who shouldn’t have wanted to be together. There was the elderly couple who came to church in their separate Mercedes, and there were the people who had junk cars in their front yard. I had never heard of Presbyterians being middle class, and when first I heard someone say it, and understood what it meant, I felt offended. I thought we were supposed to include everyone.
To bring all things together God gives us gifts that come from seeing him look us in the eye. His Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see what God wants to mend, and pull together, and renew. He communicates himself so that his church can be what he wants it to be: “His body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:23) He wants the church to be full of Jesus: the fullness of him who fills all in all.
And so what do we need to be? We need to be reconcilers, bringers of peace, encouragers, and strengtheners. But it’s hard, and it often goes completely unappreciated and even resented. The only way we can do it is because God makes it possible for us, in Christ, to be seated in the heavenly places while we are on this earth.
The heavenly places are no cocoon for the fainthearted. And if it was for the fainthearted, it would only be because it was the place where we could be made strong-hearted with the heart of Jesus who is ready to receive everyone and bring all things together.
There is “a plan for the fullness of time to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things of earth.” (Ephesians 1:10) The fullness of time means God’s time. God sees the whole picture. There is a phrase from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “I make known the end from the beginning.” (Isaiah 46:10)
God has a plan, and you and I are a part of it.
Look around. Everyone here is a part of that plan for the fullness of time. There are so many people outside this room who don’t know they are part of it. They don’t know that they are supposed to be brought into a plan that means bringing all things together, instead of being obsessed with how everything is falling apart and how late it seems.
There may be no time to do what you and I want, but there is something that God wants you and me to do. There is time for that. It is a plan for the fullness of time.
It’s a plan to unite all things in him (in Christ). All things: that includes an awful lot of things; and people most of all.
Being “in Christ” means being in a pretty big place, with lots and lots of room. Christians mostly make their churches too small: not in their building plans but in their plans to love and serve Jesus in the world.
In the first church I served, after I was ordained, I was still a young adult and I tried to find and gather stray young adults in that little town. One of my elders worried about this. She said, “What if they want to have a dance? We can’t let them dance in the church.” I said, “Well, I don’t know if we’ll dance. I’m not a very good dancer. I suppose that if we really want to dance, we can just go somewhere else to do it.” Then this elder said, “But then how well we know what they’re up to?”
The church building actually had room to dance in, on the small chance that we would want to dance. It had a nice sized “Fellowship Room” for meals and parties. The real problem was that there was something else (beside the size of our building) that made our church too small.
If we know what it means to be in Christ, we will know how big he is. And others will see, through us, how big Jesus is. They will see how big Jesus is because we will look big in the best way possible. They will see that we have plenty of room for them to be at home. In Christ we stride heaven and earth.

This changes how we live. This changes how we are the church together. This changes what we can be and do for the sake of the world outside our walls. Having just a little bit of the real stuff of heaven can do a whole lot.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Christians - People in Trouble Together

Preached on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014

Scripture reading: Revelation 7:9-17; John 16:29-33

Wanapum Dam, Columbia River, Near Desert Aire WA:
September 2014
Some new army recruits were in basic training. They were on maneuvers, and they were eating out in the field, and they were complaining about the food. There was dirt in the food. An officer passed by, and he heard the men complaining. He yelled, “Men, did you enlist to fight for your country, or to complain about the food?” One of the enlisted men spoke up, “Sir! I enlisted to fight for my country Sir! Not to eat it, Sir!”
There are a lot of armies in the Book of Revelation: the armies of the enemy and the armies of God. We have a picture of the army of God in the verses we have just read. The soldiers in this army are people from everywhere.
That means there are people in that picture from Iran, and England, and Africa, and Mexico, and China, and India, and Vantage, and Mattawa, and Desert Aire, Washington. More people belong in that picture than any human being can count. But God can count them, because we all fit into his hand.
John’s picture of this army, a picture that the Lord showed him, is a picture that comes from the end of time. It comes from the time of the most brutal and catastrophic struggle between the Lord and the powers of darkness. We don’t know for sure when that time will be. It may not be very far off. To the Christians who live in those future, final years, those times will be called “The Great Tribulation” (or the great trouble): terrible things happening everywhere, and there will be no escape.
Something like this has to happen because, if God is love, and if God is Holy, then the contest between good and evil has to come to a head. It has to be sorted out and settled, so that it can be stopped.
The powers of evil have to come out of hiding and take off their disguises in order to end the masquerade. They have to show themselves for what they truly are. They have to come out into the open and fight as themselves so that the whole meaning of the struggle and God’s victory will be clear.
Well, this picture is taken at the end of that struggle, but I believe that the picture is looking back from the future; back through time, so that whether you are far or near to that future time, you should still be in that picture. People you know should be in that picture.
There are certain times that bring all of God’s people together. The church as the body of Christ and the army of the Lamb all stand together and all kneel together in certain pictures of the work of God. All of us are kneeling at the manger in Bethlehem. Any of us who have ever met Jesus are kneeling at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb.
This isn’t just an idea. We are in Christ. How can we not be anywhere that Jesus has been? How can we not be in the picture?
When this picture in the Book of Revelation was first written, most all of the world’s Christians were living in or near the Roman Empire. In that single year almost all Christians were living through a Great Tribulation. In the nineties of the first century, the leaders of the Christian congregations were either dead or they were waiting in prison to be killed, or they were running or hiding for their lives, or they were being held in isolation like John, with an unknown future. Common Christians were being burned, or beheaded, or fed to the lions by order of the emperor Domitian.
Those Christians might have asked John (if only they could), “John, are we in that picture of victory? Are we in the winning army that comes out of the great tribulation?” I don’t think that John would have said, “No, I’m sorry, that struggle belongs to others far in the future. You are not in that picture.”
I believe that scripture teaches that the tribulation is a much bigger event than a lot of people think. On the night before his crucifixion Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
At least once in our life, and surely more than once, we will have our own Calvary. We will have our own cross; our own great tribulation. All will seem lost; and life, and the world we live in, will nearly destroy us.
This world killed Jesus, and he rose from the dead. All Christians live in Jesus, and we will all have a partnership in his troubles, and we will all come out of the great tribulation.
Sometimes tribulations, or troubles, bring people together. Other times they isolate us. Some illnesses, like cancer, are great isolators between even the best of people. People are afraid of cancer and won’t go near it. People are afraid of hospitals and nursing homes. They will neglect the people inside. They will say, “I want to remember them as they used to be.” I tell them that the greatest gift you can ever give to them is to go and be with them, even if you think they won’t recognize you, even if they are in pain and it feels as though they are struggling in order to see you, at least for a little while.
When my dad fell off the roof and hit his head and died it was a complete shock and we didn’t know what to do. The funeral director got my dad’s body from the ambulance and froze it, waiting for our scattered family to travel and make decisions about the arrangements for dealing with the body. It took me a few days to get there.
My dad hated funerals and so there was no public viewing. But there was no private viewing either. Nobody was going to see the body. No one wanted to remember him that way. I went by myself and I asked to see my dad’s body: most of all because I didn’t want my dad to be a person who went unvisited in his death.
In Christ, none of us go unvisited, because we are in Christ and Christ comes to us. But in Christ we are called to be Christ to each other. Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
There is “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-14) If we are in Jesus, we must try to visit each other in our tribulations. If we are in Jesus and if we are not going through a great tribulation then we want to visit those who are. If they are in Jesus they will try to visit us.
Only, we can’t. We can’t visit the multitude that no one can count. There are just too many of them. Many of them live in another time or another century. Or they live in the future. A lot of them live too far away from us: in other countries or on other continents. And we might not be able to speak their language, or they might not be able to speak ours.
We need to know that we live in a world full of God’s people, who are going through the common troubles of this world. Much more than that, we live in a world that is full of God’s people who are going through the special troubles that come only from being faithful to Jesus. We must at least live in a way that shows that we know that those people’s lives belong to us and that we belong to them.
There is a story of a man from Korea who came, all by himself, to my home town many years ago. He came because, one evening, the prayer meeting he attended in Korea prayed for the United States, and he felt God calling him to come here, all by himself, to do the work of Jesus among us Americans.
He lived, for a while, in my home town, because God led him there. He came because Christians everywhere are called to care for each other and help each other. No matter how far away we are, we belong to each other.
I’m getting old and I have scraps of old stories about my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and I try to think and to live accordingly.
There are so many stories like the one about the fourteen year old Christian boy in Pakistan who was one of those typical Christians there; the poorest of the poor, unable to read or write, but he was arrested for writing. They said he wrote anti-Muslim slogans on the walls of the town, even though he couldn’t write. And so, under Islamic law in Pakistan he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. I don’t know what ever became of him, but he was one of the soldiers of Jesus who will come out of the great tribulation.
The late Chuck Colson was a Nixon Watergate convict who became a Christian in prison. He founded “Prison Fellowship Ministries” and he wrote lots of stuff. In one of his magazine articles he wrote this about the dangers of being a Christian convert in prison. (Jubilee, Summer, ’97, p. 7 ff) He said: “Many make that walk through hostile territory.”
He wrote about a prisoner named Ben, in a maximum-security prison in Georgia. Ben’s fellow inmates started “testing him” when they learned he was a Christian. One day, outside the shower, a guy slugged him and busted his lip. The correctional officers asked what he would do next time, and Ben told them that he would never fight back. He believed in the Bible’s teaching to “turn the other cheek”. So, to protect him, the officers put Ben in solitary confinement for more than two years.
Ben used the time to complete several Bible correspondence study courses, and he got a stack of certificates to prove it. Ben was a soldier in that army of Jesus that comes out of the great tribulation.
There was a homeless teenager in Mexico City, named Jessica. She shared an abandoned house with lots of younger kids. She said, “We lived like animals. Garbage was everywhere, and we didn’t have a bathroom. We had no dignity. We didn’t even live like human beings.” Some of her best friends were killed. Jessica thought about suicide.
But a ministry to street children gave her a Bible, and started sharing the gospel with her. Then Jessica began to lead the younger kids in the house, and changed the way they lived.
Even after that she would find herself asking, “If God loves me, why do I wear these shoes? Why do we live in this kind of poverty?” Yet she also told her interviewers that she believed it was because of God’s love, not the lack of it, that she was there. “These children need me. They need love. And I need them.” Jessica was a soldier in Jesus’ army that comes out of the great tribulation.
I don’t know how many Christians really care about some first Sunday in October that we call “World Communion Sunday”. I suppose that, for some Christians, every Sunday is “World Communion Sunday”. It means that all Christians, all around the world, are in the same boat in the army of Jesus. There was an old comedy movie entitled “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1960). We are all on that ship. The church, as the army of Jesus, can be a very wacky ship.
We are all partners: all Christians in all times and places. Partners have a mutual investment in each other. Partners depend on each other in some way: in Christ we depend on each other absolutely. We have this day for remembering this. We come to the Lord’s Table together. We receive Christ together in the bread and the cup.
For a long time now, most Christians in the world have known that they were playing for high stakes and that they have to be faithful, even though they are living in the great tribulation. We are all struggling in a world conflict between the forces of good and evil. We are part of the army of Jesus, the army of the Lamb, locked in combat around the world.
Those of us who are in this room, near the Columbia River, in southern Grant County, happen to serve on the part of the lines where the bullets are not whizzing by, and the bombs are not falling, and the police are not coming to round us all up. But we are not as secure as we think. And we have the responsibility to fulfill a mission in this place.
The spirit of our world and the spirit of our times are against us. When Jesus talked about overcoming the world, it was right after he had predicted to the disciples that they would all run away and leave him alone. But Jesus said that he is never alone.
When Jesus tells them that the Father is with him, he is telling us that he is never without the resources he needs in order to overcome. This means that, through Jesus we are never without the resources that we need in order to overcome.  Jesus tells us that when his disciples (including us) think all is lost, it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be.
Serving where the enemies are overwhelming is debilitating to say the least. But Christians have faced such odds before. Many of our brothers and sisters, around the world, are facing bigger, and much more dangerous, and much more frightening enemies than ours.
We need to see that our own mission, in this time and this place, is just as important as the mission of the army in John’s Book of Revelation. It is the very same mission. All of God’s people, in this place, are called to rally around this mission. We don’t dare to step outside of the picture.
When the struggle is over, this army will have a special uniform: white robes and palm branches. This is picture language for joy and accomplishment. That is what we will have.
The white robes stand for victory and purity. The palm branches stand for victory and celebration. Waving a palm branch was the same as waving a flag.
The victory chant of that army tells us that we will celebrate in heaven the very same great things we celebrate now. We will celebrate the Lord. “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Do you know this? We know just a little bit about wonderful things: an infinite love that has died for us on the cross. We know that our best victories are not our own. They come from God.
We know that we are not an army of heroes, but we are an uncountable family, bigger than an army. And we have been rescued by someone we know who can rescue others.

We are a family where wonders do happen, because the Lord feeds us, and refreshes us, and gives us life; just as he does at this table with Christians around the world. Do we really know this and do we live accordingly?