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?

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