Monday, December 25, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Join Bethlehem's Battling Baby

Preached on Sunday, December 24, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 53:1-12; Revelation 12:1-17; Matthew 2:13-23

Riverside Community Church
Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
Thanks to Those Lovingly Decorated
Our Church for the Celebration of the Nativity
December 2017
Christmas can look and feel like a battle. The stores are battling to sell their stock. The customers are battling to buy their gifts. It happens. One year I was stuck buying some last-minute Christmas gifts, in the mall, on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t pretty.
There’s the battle to beautify our homes, but I’ve surrendered in that war. There’s the battle of the Tree. I found (late) that I had a broken tree so I found another by surprise and got it put up yesterday, but I’m not going to decorate it. I’m living with it, just as it is, for three days, then I’m flying home for a late Christmas with my family. Wednesday, I fly from Pasco to Seattle, change for a flight from Seattle to Portland, and then change for a flight from Portland to Sacramento. Then, the following Wednesday, I fly back to you. But I love Christmas.
Am I making it look bad? For some people it really is: for soldiers on a foreign front, for the homeless, for those in a home with unpayable bills and empty cupboards, for the grief stricken, for the lonely.
The first Christmas (whatever the date when it really happened) looked bad. There was a hundred-mile hike for a young, pregnant teenager and her husband. (The Bible doesn’t tell us, in so many words, whether she was lucky enough to have a donkey to ride. I think that Christmas artists must just like painting donkeys.
There was the pregnancy itself: how it happened was controversial, and (to some) unbelievable. There are people who always like to think the worst, and they’re not afraid to say what they think. You hear hints of this, later in the Gospel’s, there’s a time when Jesus is called Mary’s son without naming Joseph. In that time and place not naming the father was a kind of slur on Jesus’ parentage. (Mark 6:3)
There was the Roman, so-called emperor. (Some thought dictator: and he had certainly killed enough people to win his way into power, so that he deserved to be called a dictator, no matter how smart he was.) The Roman Caesar ordered a tax-revenue and military-occupation related census that forced the whole journey on Joseph and Mary, and thousands of others just like them.
There was the “puppet” king, named Herod. They called him the Great. Was he so great because he was willing to kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem in order to get rid of some peasant baby with a claim to be the King of the Jews? Herod was perfectly willing to kill anybody in order to hold onto a title that he had already killed for, just like Caesar. It all stank.
We don’t know for sure if the manger was in the stable of an inn, or in the animal quarters of a peasant house, where the one or two other rooms were filled with people. Peasant houses did have animal rooms. Probably, the way that world smelled, the animal room may not have smelled much worse. An article came out last week which had the title: “The Real, Stinky Nativity.”
The interesting connection between our world and that ancient, stinky world, is that those people, now, for whom Christmas is a mess, are the ones who have the most in common with the people of the very first Christmas.
Jesus was born to change the nature of our lives, to fight the battle that would save us from the power of sin and death, the battle that would give us life abundant, and life eternal. The climax of that battle (which began in Bethlehem) was the cross and the grave. Those were places that stank.
Jesus must also have been born to change the smell of this world and the smell of our lives within this world. The birth of Jesus was a heavenly miracle in which God, in all his glory and power, invaded a world that stinks. Our world stinks with war, with slaughter, with the slaughter of innocents and babies, with dictators killing for power, with suspicion and fear, with injustice and poverty, with disease and hunger.
The world is beautiful with the power and ingenuity of God, but it is a fallen world, and it’s fallenness stinks. Jesus was born to bring the beauty of God, the power of God, the righteousness of God, the compassion of God, the servanthood of God, and the love that comes from God,  into the stink of the world.
That was also a battle. That is still a battle.
Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph represent the presence of God giving meaning, and value, and blessing to those who live with the indignities and the struggles that stink. That, too, is a battle.
With the understanding that Joseph gets left out of the picture so often that he stands for so many invisible people who matter, lets look at a strange, strange picture in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. It’s the picture of the woman, and her baby, and a fiery, watery dragon.
It’s not a picture of something that happens during the trouble at the end of things.
The picture began long before that. The story of the picture began when a woman met a reptile in the Garden of Eden. The reptile was called a snake there, but he has many names.
The reptile won that battle in Eden, and his victory seemed to promise to ruin the lives of the woman and her man, and all future human beings who came after them. Then, God promised something better. God promised that a son of the woman would crush the reptile’s head, even though that reptile would injure the son. God’s brand of justice would be done, and that would bring about a new kind of world. Revelation will show us pictures of that new world: that new heaven and earth.
The Book of Revelation tells us that the birth of the son would defeat the dragon. And the son did exactly that.
But, the Book of Revelation, in this picture of the woman, the son, and the dragon, says that this battle will go on for quite a while, and it has. We’re living in this battle still.
Christmas carries the message that we must get involved in this battle. We are enlisted in a war where a baby has invaded the enemy’s territory. This baby has won the essential, turning-point battles that will lead to the end of the war, in which we and the baby will win.
I was thinking about war. I watched the recent movie “Dunkirk” and think it was a great movie. But the Battle of Dunkirk looked like defeat, at first.
Because of their defeat at Dunkirk, some of the British wanted to negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler. Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw it differently, and made it count as a victory, in a way that surprised his own people. In this surprising sense, the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British was a victory that help make the American entry into that war possible. That led to the bloody, costly victory of the Landing at Normandy, which enabled us to turn the German victories at the Battle of the Bulge into allied victories there.
It still wasn’t done. There were still more horrible battles to be fought until der Fuhrer shot himself in his bunker. Our own war with the dragon goes on like that.
The dragon shifts his strategy many times. Revelation shows us this. The dragon is going to raise up two beasts: one, from the sea, will be a beast of political power; the other, from the ground will be a botched imitation of the Lamb and this imitation Lamb will have the power of spiritual deceit and blindness.
No matter how far away the battle seems, the cultures of the world always try to mold, or scare, or trick, or deceive the people of the True Lamb who was slain. The dragon, gently or harshly, tries to loosen our grip on the True Lamb in heaven. If he succeeds, he thinks that the True Lamb might get disgusted and loosen his grip on us.
This struggle began with the Battle of Christmas, and we have been recruited to join this Battle. The Christmas Battle is the invasion begun by The Baby of Bethlehem. We are the invaders of a stinky world and we are called to take our stand against the hardships that make life stink for so many.
We are the invaders of a world disabled by sin.
So, we are the re-enablers of lives, and relationships, and hearts and minds, through the power of forgiveness and love.
What strange weapons these are! And what a strange strategy. It’s like the invasion of Troy by means of the Trojan Horse. But, in our war, the strategy that defeats the dragon is the Trojan Baby. Or you could call God’s strange tactics the mommy-and-baby strategy: the discipline of forgiveness and love.
The mommy is Eve, and Abraham’s wife Sarah, and the Lord’s wife Israel, and the Virgin Mary, and the Bride of Christ, the Church. The mommy is God’s people nurturing and strengthening each other, so that the Church becomes our mother. The mommy-and-baby strategy stretches the whole Church inside out; because it has taught us to care for the strays that wonder beyond us. Our hearts are tender for those outside because the greatest baby we know is the battling baby Jesus. The everlasting Son of God became a baby in order to conquer life itself, and temptation, and pride, and hypocrisy, and sin, and death.
But there are lots of other babies, just like us, in the Battle. The Dragon knows this and goes off, in the end, to fight them and us. These babies are the other offspring of the mommy, that the Book of Revelation tells us about.
Yes, they are us. No other weapon will do but the blood of the lamb and “the testimony of Jesus”. We tell the story of Jesus as he has taught us. We tell the story of Jesus in words and in our lives.
We live what Jesus taught. How can we give the testimony of Jesus without loving our enemies, or without being the Good Samaritan to all of those who have been injured by the stink that gets into the world, and into its people, and into us?
The Bethlehem Baby, and the babies who are us, fight with these strange weapons. Jesus did this and we follow him everywhere.
Isaiah told us what people would think of these strange weapons. People who use the conventional wisdom will never see that this is the strategy that will fight for the world as God designed it to be. It takes a very different kind of wisdom to shift the powers of our minds to see strategy that will change the world. “Surely, he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
That looks like no way to fight evil, or sin, or stink: for Jesus and us to bear it ourselves, to carry it for others. Actually, it is a bit like a mommy’s strategy. The Battle of Bethlehem was fought with mommy/baby strategy.
The baby who was growing up to carry the sin of the world would have a strange bit of identity to direct him in his purpose. When the boy Jesus was old enough to understand things, he knew the story that other babies had died in his place, they died for him. What would he grow up to do for others? We are the babies who follow him, and we know that he has died for us and that others have died for him. All of them have died for us too, so that we could know and follow the baby who was the Savior they had loved.
That is the miracle of Christmas. That is the calling of Christmas to each one of us. That is the power of Christmas, or the Jesus of Christmas, that can change us, and work through us for the washing, the disinfecting, the sweetening, and the healing of the world, and for the coming new heaven and the new earth that will be won by this baby.
People in times long past have understood this better than we do. I’m going to finish by reading a poem written by a Catholic priest, in the 1500’s, who was executed for his faith by the government of Reformation England. The poet’s name is Robert Southwell. His poem was later set to music by the British composer Benjamin Britten in “A Ceremony of Carols”, during World War II: “This Little Babe”. 

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His tiny breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior's steed.

His camp is builded in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His army makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels' trumps the charge now sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to His tents, the place of might.
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy Guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy!
(Written by Robert Southwell, c. 1561-1595) 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Creation 2.0

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 52; Revelation 21

We are reading about God making things new.
God tells Isaiah about a new Israel and a new Jerusalem. He says they will finally be safe, in the end, because no one who is uncircumcised or unclean will enter.
Christmas lights: Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
December 2017
The uncircumcised and unclean are really the same thing, so all the nations except Israel are shut out. But, in the end, God tells Isaiah that many nations (which really means all nations) will have something done to them that will change them completely.
 They will be sprinkled by the Servant (the Messiah, the Christ). And, so, they will all be clean. They will become citizens of the kingdom of the Messiah. But the kingdom of the Messiah is Israel.
This means that Israel will be new indeed; new in a way it has never dreamed of. Israel and Jerusalem will be everyone. The unclean will be gone.
The same is true in the Book of Revelation. The gates and foundations are labeled with the names of the tribes of Israel and the apostles of the Church. All of the nations will come to the New Jerusalem to give their praise and glory to God; their praise and glory to the Lamb. The New Jerusalem will be home for everyone. And the gates will always be open. There will be no cover of darkness for evil and enemies to enter and destroy. But the truth is that all evil and all enemies will be gone. They’ve been put out of the new creation forever. They have disappeared into the Lake of Fire.
When we have a solid feel for what Israel and Jerusalem have been, through the centuries, and what they are now, we can only say: “Well! That will be different! That will be something new!”
The same has begun to be true for us. Some glad day, it will be completely true for us; true for everyone who truly wants it. But it has begun to be true now. We have been given the first installments of something totally different, something totally new.
Have you ever been made new before? Have you ever felt that your life had become completely different than it was before?
If we must be spiritually correct, we would say that we became new and different people when we wholeheartedly opened ourselves to God in Christ. One of my most favorite sentences in the Bible was written by Paul, in his letter to the Galatians. It’s his description of being completely new and different. Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
I have another favorite line by Paul. It comes from his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We, as Christians, honestly, don’t always look to others as if we were completely new and different. We can look like we think we’re members of some sort of exclusive club or lodge. Even Christians forget that being a member is not a matter of having your name on a roll, or in a record book. Being a member is not about being on the list of past or present officers.
Being a member of the Church is about being in Christ: a part of Christ. It’s about being a member of his body, as opposed to being dismembered. A member is someone who is an organ, or a ligament, or a muscle, or a finger, or a mustache in the Body of Jesus, the Body of Christ. The head of this body is Jesus, although we might serve as one of his many, many eyes, or tongues, or ears, or mustaches.
What would it be like, as a member of the church, to be a nose in the body of Christ? It would have to be much more than being able to say that the potluck was ready to eat. What would it be like to be a completely new and different nose than you are right now?
Have you ever become a completely new and different person?
There was a guy in my first church who became a new Christian. He was talking a lot about this. I thought it must have happened before I had arrived, because I was a really new arrival. But, when I said this to him, he grinned and tapped his finger on my chest. He gave me the credit. That was such an honor.
Ralph was a lumbermill worker, and he had been most of his life. If I recall correctly, his youngest son was still in high school. Some of Ralph’s older kids had given him and Virginia grandkids. So, he had lived long enough to have formed a very definite pattern of personality and abilities.
Before he was found by Jesus, Ralph had been a harsh, critical, and judgmental man, even within his home and family; or especially there. He had also been functionally illiterate.
Now the obvious miracle was that he could suddenly read, and he soon loved to read. His favorite reading was the Bible, and he absorbed it like a sponge. He also began, at once, the new habit of reading the newspaper every day.
There was once a famous theologian who said that a good Christian was one who held a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That could be true.
Ralph also began reading books like “The Works of Flavius Josephus”. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish army officer at the time that the people of Israel rose up in rebellion against their Roman overlords, in the middle of the sixties, and up to 70 A.D., or so. He wrote a first century history of the Jewish people down to the time right after Jesus: the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In fact, Josephus mentions Jesus in his history, briefly. Josephus is not easy reading.
So, that was brand new. That was different. That was Ralph and Jesus.
But there was something just as good and even better for those who knew Ralph, and even better for his wife and family. Ralph became a loving, gentle man. He became patient, and compassionate, and generous. His wife would talk to me, personally, about the wonderful change in Ralph.
 The change was so impressive and persuasive that Ralph’s eighty-five-year-old father-in-law (Bob) became a disciple of Jesus after a lifetime of scorning religion in general and Christians in particular. Of course, he had never scorned his own wife Nellie, or his daughter Virginia. For years Bob, like Ralph, had tolerated their faith. Now they embrace that faith. So, Bob’s wife, Nellie, and Ralph’s wife, Virginia, were having a good time with this.
But how can someone, who doesn’t know this peculiar brand of newness and differentness, understand, by looking at us (when we don’t look all that new and different) understand what we hope and pray that they will understand?
We long for them to understand what they can become with Jesus. Is there something that anyone can understand about being a new person (a different person) than you were before? What has changed you into a new and different person? What, in life, has changed your life?
In the Book of Revelation, the new universe, the new heaven and earth, the new future life of all believing human beings who will ever live, can be described and pictured in the same, common ways that our current lives are changed.
It isn’t so much a matter of having a new life merely because you have a new house. It isn’t the kind of new life that comes with a new job.
A real-life change might come with the birth of a child. Such a thing changes a woman into a mother, which (I’m told) is a complete difference.
I’ve known men who told me that the first step they took toward Jesus was completely unconscious and completely unintentional. It was simply the fact that they held a child of their own flesh and blood in their arms.
The experience told them that they needed to become something they had never been before. It opened them to change on an almost miraculous level or depth.
This is the change in life described to us when we learn that the new universe and the new way to be human is to truly be born again. In the world to come, we will become, like never before, the direct children of God. “The one who conquers will inherit these things. I will be his God and he will be my son (my daughter)” (Revelation 21:7)
I’m also told that marriage changes your life. I also suspect that, if it doesn’t make you a new person, you will not be about what marriage is for.
The future world, and the future you, will be “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) The Christian hope is that the future world, and the future you, will be like a wedding that won’t stop. There will be enough joy, and giving, and love, and passion for that wedding to go on and on in that timeless world.
A member of one of my churches, whom I’ve known for decades, passed away recently, and I was suddenly reminded of the terrible auto accident she had been in with a friend, years ago. The friend had died. Linda was about seventy years old when she was injured. She was in the hospital for weeks. She was in physical therapy for months.
Linda, and her husband Bob, had been living in the grand, old, brick, family farmhouse that Bob’s father had built. They had been living independently, and graciously, and generously, and hospitably, and deeply spiritually for many years.
Linda’s good friend had died, and Linda almost died. She, herself, when she was in the greatest danger, had an encounter with Jesus beyond this world. Afterwards, in her humility, she said little about that experience, but the whole thing touched her deeply.
For months no one knew what progress she would make, if any, in the end. After months, she was well enough to return home and live, very much, the way she had before, at least for a while.
She was a saint before. That never changed. But she saw her physical presence in this world very differently. And she saw all her relationships much more preciously than ever.
After my dad had heart surgery (a triple by-pass), he wasn’t in the hospital very long, but he changed. This happened shortly after he retired, so he was in his later sixties. Suddenly he would tell us grown up kids (I was in my early forties) that he loved us. He would say (out of the blue), “Son, I love you.” I had never heard him say this before. I’m sure he never, in my life, told me that he loved me until that time. It was so strange. I never got used to it. My dad had become very different and new.
I understand that recoveries like these can make you a new person. Recoveries can make you a truly different person than you were before. I believe this.
The Christian hope, the future world, the future you, will be a recovery like that. John tells us that: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
We have lived in a world that has borne a long illness, with its long history of death, and mourning and crying, and pain. Whether we have heard, and believed, the promise of recovery, or not, we have known no other world than the one in which we have been living, under the influence of this long sickness, and all our lives have shared this sickness in common. We may have begun the gift of recovery in our own lives, but we know no other world.
But now, our lives have seen some of the future change. When the fullness of time has come, the change will be perfect. We and the new world will be well. A medieval nun had a little song that went: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)
Sometimes life changes when someone comes to live with you. When my Polish Grandmother (my Baci, or Babcia) retired, she didn’t come to live with us. She went to live with her son (my mother’s brother, Uncle Eddie, and his family). I know this changed my cousins’ lives.
But Baci would come and spend her summers with us. I was about thirteen or fourteen, when this began.
I changed because I became Polish. My Baci would teach me to talk with her in Polish, and to help her cook Polish food. I learned to make pierogi. I thought that, when I got older, I might do some college work in Poland. Maybe I would get some experience that would qualify me for working with the State Department.
Of course, God had other plans for me that I was already seriously resisting. When Baci, or some of my other older Polish relatives, would come and visit us, they would talk with me and tell me that I thought like a Polak. I had changed.
This was quite a compliment. No one can receive a finer compliment than to be called a Polak. It’s a Polish word that means a Polish person. What could be greater than that?
Change comes, and it makes all the difference in the world, when someone comes to live with you. John tells us that: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” (Revelation 21:3) Surely everyone here knows something about this, even now.
The newness described all through the Book of Revelation is a special kind of newness. There are two words for newness, in the Biblical Greek.
There is an ordinary, standard newness called “neos”, which is like getting a new computer, or a new car.
Then there is a radical newness called “kainos”, which means a whole new order of change, as if change, itself, will change into something else.
New heavens and earth don’t mean that heaven and earth will be replaced. Becoming a new creation doesn’t mean that we will have the secret of eternal youth, or an intelligence boost, or an altered memory.
What you will be, and whatever this world will be, will become something we can’t even imagine now. What we want will change. What we enjoy will change. What we’re able to do will change. What we see, and hear, and take into ourselves will change. What others are for us, and what we are for others, will change.
We, and the whole world, will be so surprisingly new. And yet we will be ourselves. What we are now will be recognizable in what we will be. What we are now will have played its part, in the love of God in Christ. What we are now will have played its part in the person that God has planned us to be, all along.
How will this new change become ours? How will this future hope, this future world (this future heaven and earth), become ours? Two things go together in this, in a way we don’t ordinarily notice.
The language of the Book of Revelation is Greek, but the thinking in it is Hebrew. In Hebrew thought you can put things together that seem different, side by side, and they really are part of the same, single thing. The different things share one meaning in common.
So, John hears about the Lion of Judah and he looks and sees a Lamb that was slain. These are two different things that are the same thing. John hears about the Bride, and he looks and sees the New Jerusalem City. And all that we are told about what’s in the city is that there is a throne, with God and the Lamb sitting on it, and fruit trees, and a river, as if it were a garden: maybe even the garden of Eden, all over again, but safe and complete. These all seem like different things, but they’re the same thing.
John hears about two things that don’t sound like the same thing. He hears that the thirsty will receive the water of life: which means that they will live in the New Jerusalem. He hears that the ones who conquer, or overcome, “will inherit all of this”: which means that they will live in the New Jerusalem.
John is telling us that the one who thirsts and the one who conquers are the same. You conquer by thirsting. You thirst by conquering.
It’s the same thing. You want something so bad, or (better yet) you want something so good, that your desire and your commitment become your deepest need, and your deepest need grows to become your greatest strength.
You want just one thing, and you don’t settle for anything else. You don’t settle for anything less. You become true, as in true-blue, to your need, and to your strength, which is God.
This need and this strength begin with what Isaiah tells us comes from being sprinkled by the Servant, the Messiah, the Christ. John tells us that this need and this strength come from being washed in the blood of the Lamb. This comes from the love and grace of God, in our Savior Jesus Christ.
John tells us to thirst and to conquer. Isaiah tells us to wake up, and get up, and sing out, and to come out, and to chill out (don’t rush, don’t worry). Read more about this in Isaiah chapter fifty-two.
But, a little bit later (in chapter fifty-three), Isaiah says that the servant who is the Messiah, will change us, because he has carried our sorrows and our sins. Carrying us gives him the ability to do something he calls sprinkling us. The sprinkling power, coming from suffering, will be able to make us all into new people. The sprinkling that comes from his suffering is intended to enable all who desire it to enter into the new future creation of God.
The servant Jesus was born in Bethlehem to carry, on himself, our sufferings and our sins, on the cross. Doing this, he has made newness and difference possible.
John tells us that it is the Son of God, the Word of God, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain for us on the cross, who is responsible for making the great thirst and the great overcoming possible.

If we do hold onto that overcoming thirst, as if our life depended on it, that newness, and that difference will become our abundant life. It will become our everlasting life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Food/Fight

Preached on Sunday, December 10, 2017
Scripture readings: Isaiah 46; Revelation 19:1-16
Walking along Crab Creek; Mattawa/Desert Aire, WA
November, 2017
Here’s a completely inappropriate joke for you: A newly wed couple just got home from their honey-moon, and the bride wanted to make their first home-cooked meal into a truly romantic, sensual experience. So, she thought it would be nice to do some fancy cooking with wine. After her first five glasses, she couldn’t even remember why she was in the kitchen.
Here’s another thing that I don’t know anything about. I imagine that most meals of a couple, before the wedding, are meals of exploration, and courtship, and longing, and promises. The meals of the wedding and the honey-moon are meals of celebration.
After that, meals are made from sharing, and giving, and serving. Perhaps those meals are where their strongest love will find itself.
Now we’ve read about a romantic meal in the Book of Revelation. It’s the wedding supper of the Lamb Jesus and his bride (which includes us with all of God’s people, from all times and places). Only, we don’t ever see the wedding or the supper take place: at least not maybe until very the end of the story, in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two.
In that case, the wedding supper is made from the fruit of the Tree of Life and the water of the River of Life, in the new heavens and the new earth. The Book of Revelation works like this.
I’ll give you a lot stranger way of reading about the wedding feast than the new creation. We could see the ingredients of the wedding supper when we look at the beginning of the battle that we’ve read about. The half dozen ancient Christians whose commentaries I have been consulting, this past week, tell me that the wedding feast must be the body and blood of Jesus.
Over the course of a year, the Church sees the first appearance of the body and blood of Jesus in his birth. The baby Jesus wasn’t bleeding; although he must have bled after his circumcision eight days after his birth.
Anyway, through most of his infancy, he wasn’t bleeding, but he had a real body with a heart pumping his blood, just like you and me. The Baby of Bethlehem is his flesh and blood given for us, saving whatever is young in us, saving all our beginnings. The Baby Jesus is part of the wedding feast.
Jesus is God in the flesh, as a real human being. Jesus took our body upon himself in his infancy, and his childhood, and his life as a young man and workman, and his life as a wandering teacher and compassionate healer, and his life as a crucified and bloody mess, dying for our sins, and dying to defeat sin, and death, and the devil.
This is the foundation of the Book of Revelation. It’s a book that takes what God has done in Christ, and reveals God’s promise of the shape of things to come.
In the picture language of the Book of Revelation, ancient Christians identified the rider of the white horse as Jesus. And those ancient Christians believed something that may seem very strange to modern people: that the white horse was picture language for Jesus’ pure and sinless body crucified for our salvation, and it simply says that the robe he wore was full of his own blood shed for us.
This teaches us something that will never stop being true: that our marriage to Jesus is made and fed from his body and blood, and it will never be any different. Jesus is our food.
We might have many meals where we are exploring, and courting, and longing, and making promises, and celebrating with Jesus. Jesus, for his part, knows us very well and has, in some mysterious way, already chosen us. He feeds us with his own sharing, and giving, and serving; as if we have already been married to him for a long, long time.
For his part, all our meals with Jesus come from his sharing, and giving, and serving. Jesus said it long ago: “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) 
Jesus came with this in mind, so that we could see that God, in the flesh and blood of Jesus, carries out his great mission. The mission of God is what the prophet Isaiah heard him say so long ago. “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)
Our life with God, our life with Jesus, is like the course of many meals that carry us every day, no matter what. Our life is like all of God’s people being present together (including you and me) sharing one table with Jesus. Our lives are sustained and carried all the way because of all these meals which are the body and blood of Jesus; the body and blood of God.
When you eat every day with someone who feeds you from their own heart, from their own giving, and sharing, and serving, you must be changed. How can you avoid (though some people do avoid it); how can you avoid being changed and becoming a new person?
Life together includes much more than that, but this much is true. And the fact that most of you have grown up (and were helped to grow up), meal after meal, at such a table. And most of you have watched others grow up, and you have helped them to grow up, as you have served them at your family table. And this must change you.
I think that the Tree of Life must be the cross and the fruit of the tree must be the body of Jesus. The River of Life must be the running wounds of the blood on the cross. These are our daily bread, just as much as our normal breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
This must change you. This is what the grace of God in Christ is, and why it is so strong.
The vision of the Tree of Life and the River of Life is something that we have not read together, yet. But they tell us that there is no other way to live. This is how the Lord will sustain us, and carry us forever. This is how we will change and grow forever.
This is the Kingdom of God, now, and more and more, forever. We have this now. We wait for more to come, and it will come. This is a lesson of Advent, which means coming; and waiting for what is coming.
It’s as necessary as food and eating and drinking. It’s as necessary as sharing a table with others, like you and me. It’s urgent, and it is also the most important reality we can know.
We must live in a world where God comes.
God saved humanity by making our personhood, and our flesh and blood, his own. God saves the world by visiting it and walking on it the way we do. God saves history itself, and the history of our lives, by visiting it, and living in it, as we do.
In Jesus, God is our meal together. And our meal is also our leader in battle. You hear the blessing of our invitation to the wedding supper, and the very next thing you see is a battle forming.
Well you don’t hear a description of any of the actual fighting, but you see Jesus and his people together: his people in white robes that are bright, shining white because they are washed in his blood. But Jesus is robed in his own red blood; maybe because it takes his blood to make us shine. So, Jesus goes with us to war, dripping red.
We are in a war, right now. This war has been going on ever since the cross, ever since Jesus died on the cross and defeated sin, and death, and the devil in the resurrection.
Jesus is the Word of God. And the Word of God is also the sword in Jesus’ mouth, and the Word of God is the testimony of Jesus, and the message of the good news, and the gospel of Jesus, and this is the weapon that won the war and will keep on winning this war until Jesus comes again.
The Word, which is Jesus, the Word that is our king, the Word that is the message of the cross, is essential for our life. The Word that is Jesus and the sword in his mouth are the only weapon that can win our war and our struggle with this fallen world that won’t let up on us.
We have so many battles that could ruin us, and embitter us, and make us hollow, and empty, and false, and make us spoilers and vandals of other people’s lives.
We need Jesus fighting in our hearts and minds, and in our bodies. We need the power of his Word, his sword, which is our food and also the meal we share with those who strengthen us and give us growth. We need Jesus fighting for us and feeding us every day.
Jesus has made all of us the same, in this way. In Jesus, every day of our lives can be a battle that we don’t see, but Jesus wins, and we win with him. In Jesus, every day of our lives can be a meal shared with him and with each other that gives us fullness, and strength, and growth, now and forever.

This is the Kingdom of Jesus today. This is the future that we are waiting for. It is a promise that he makes to us, and Jesus is called “Faithful” and “True”. His kingdom will come.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Advent Kingdom - Prophecies for the Journey Home

Preached on Sunday, December 3, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 44:6-23; Revelation 14:13-15:4

A seminary student was taking a class on the Book of Revelation. He had a paper to write on the judgement. He was wrestling with all the images of monsters, and dragons, and plagues, and fires.
It was due soon. He spent one whole weekend on it, and Sunday night he phoned home. His dad answered, and asked his son how things were going.
Driving and walking around Priest Rapids Lake,
Columbia River, With Friend,
November 2017
The son confessed, “Dad, I’m having an awful time with the wrath of God.” There was a pause on the other side, and his dad said: “Don’t we all?”
Over the Sundays of Advent, we are going to take a look at the Old Testament Book of Isaiah and the New Testament Book of Revelation. They are both books that we call prophecy. They both have horrific descriptions of wrath and judgement. They both have wonderful descriptions of love and hope.
Prophecy has two main elements. We call the most obvious element “foretelling”. Foretelling is about time and the future. Its message is that God has a plan, and that God’s side will win. This is very important for our faith and hope.
The other element of prophecy is even more important for our life with God. We can call that element “forth-telling”. In forth-telling, God speaks forth his mind about the issues of the world, and his concerns about his people, and how they are to go on living by faith, hope, and love in such a world as this. What about their need to change and grow? What grace, and power, and faith do they need from God?
Some people compare the Bible to a map. It’s true that the Bible is a kind of map of history of the world under the rule of God; past, present, and future. That’s foretelling. That’s the future.
But the Bible is also a map of our pilgrimage in life with God. It’s a map showing how we left home, and how God takes us home again. That’s forth-telling: What do we need to give to God? What do we need to receive from God?
The map of our pilgrimage also shows how this journey will test us in order to change our hearts, and minds, and souls by the way we live with God, and by the way we live with others in this world. It guides us how to shape our lives by faith, and hope, and love. The map shows us the crossroads where we must decide how to live and how to commit ourselves.
Both of the passages we’ve read from Isaiah and Revelation present us with a crucial test of where our hearts are truly focused. Each test requires a commitment, in a world that tries to squeeze us into its mold: a commitment to stand out, and in some ways a commitment to stand apart, in our priorities, and in the whole direction of our lives.
Paul addresses this in Romans. He writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove (or test) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
When we are faithful, when we meet the test, when we take the good road, when we overcome; then we test and prove and show that God is right. We show that God’s way of love and compassion are right. We show that God’s design for our relationships with him, and with others, and with the world is the design that achieves God’s greatest goals for us. God’s design makes us what he created us, and saved us, to be, through the cross.
This is designed to show how beautiful the goodness and love of God are. This glorifies God.
There is fear in this. But Biblical fear is made of wonder, and out of tender and courageous love. The song of those who overcome says this: “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?” (Revelation 15:4)
Isaiah also has a song that creation will sing about us when we overcome this world: “Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.” (Isaiah 44:23) This applies to all God’s people: to you, and me, and everyone who hears and follows.
It’s a question of what we will value, what we will hold onto, what we will choose, and what we will pass on to others. It’s the question of a choice between faithfulness and idolatry.
Idolatry may lead us to think of statues and paintings that are worshiped as sources of spiritual and divine power: statues and pictures of beings, or such, that have names and stories told about them. Their names and the stories told about what they could control, and about what they could do for you, in order to give you what you wanted.
Idols were not usually considered to be actual gods. Idols are only representations of gods; but you can (so they claim) make the representation into a real connection. The claim is that you can make that connection work for you. Whatever power these images connected with claimed to be the power that were in charge of things you needed for success.
The ocean for a successful voyage, the soil and the rain and the seeds to successfully grow good harvests. These were all so-called gods. Gold had its god. The sun had its god. The cupboards in your house had a god. And so did your doors: the door god guarded who might come in or not. It’s why a groom carries his bride over the threshold.
If you worked these connections properly, then you were in charge. You became responsible for seeing to the success of your family, your community, your tribe and nation. When you served your idols well, you were serving your own interests and benefits. That was what we call the pagan world.
The strange thing is that, even in America today, we have a religion that teaches you to serve your own interests and benefits, and not care so much about others, or about the world around us. The church might not teach this, but the world of business does, and certainly the world of politics does. People of power, people of success set this example, even if they don’t say it in words.
The Bible shows us that God’s own people make God into an idol by making him smaller than he is. In the Old Testament, this often involved making a picture or a statue of God (for instance, in the shape of a studly calf) and saying that this is what God is about.
God’s people, in the Old Testament, usually only turned away from God by making him smaller and so making room for their own interests and benefits. The Temple in Jerusalem was the house of the God of Israel, but often, when the people and the kings were not faithful, they made all kinds of extra rooms, around the main building, that had other gods in them.
Sometimes it was worse than that, but God’s people excused themselves by saying: “We’re still giving God the sacrifices he listed for us in his law.”
They did this, but they didn’t give God their whole heart. They thought that if they offered what the law required that they simply had a bigger crowd of spiritual powers at their back. Just like them, we want our success to come from many different directions, and techniques, and disciplines.
In Revelation, there is a major idol that is called many things: the beast, the multiple beasts, Babylon the Great, the Great Harlot. They’re all a part of the same thing. They all serve the dragon. They all serve the devil. Like every idol, they want worship, and they want to be our god.
They are very tricky. They pretend to be at our service. They promise to serve our interests. They promise that we will receive the benefits.
We see this in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t ask for worship, but he asked for attention, he asked for Eve and Adam to trust him, to have faith in him. He promised them that he could lead them to success. He promised that success would come to them if they moved into God’s territory, in order to be like God. What would make them most like God was knowledge: knowledge of good and evil: and that really meant the knowledge and understanding of everything under the sun.
By being attracted to knowledge, they followed their new idol, and they also made God’s claim upon them smaller in their hearts.
They chose to forget that they were made by God. They belonged to God. God provided them with everything they needed, and with the knowledge of the world around them which they needed if they were going to join God in taking care of the world. God’s design was for them to be God’s partners, and that is why God made them in his image. This was love. But, they didn’t seek the love they needed to be partners. They sought the knowledge they needed for independence.
God made them in his image, so that they had something in common, and they could be in relationship with God himself. They experienced the love of God, and they were discovering how to love God and each other. This was so important because they were learning that God is love.
But they were tempted, by their self-interests and self-benefits, to make God smaller. They made God into the image of knowledge instead of the everlasting fountain of all love.
The place we have read from Revelation is an odd place between the Beast of the number 666, and the Great Harlot, which are both the power of Babylon.
Babylon is the world we know so well. It’s the world that worships the power of self-serving.
In Revelation it’s a system that rules the world. It rules business, and trade, and food, and clothing, and money, and property, and survival. This power has always been at work. It was at work long ago in the tower of Babel. It is at work now. It is the cause of most of the news.
This power has had its ups and downs. It will certainly get worse.
Isaiah gives us the secret of overcoming this tribulation in the world. The Lord says: “You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one…. All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless…. Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:8,9,21,22)
When the Lord talks to the people of Israel about idols, he tells us why he hates idols. He doesn’t hate them because they are beings other than him who have names, and personalities and interests. The Lord hates idols because they are nothing. They are a lie. (Isaiah 44:20)
God’s reasoning is that when you worship what’s false, you make yourself false. If you serve interests that won’t make you what you are created and redeemed to be, then you won’t be anything.
God is life. If you focus somewhere else, you go outside of life, at least you go outside as far as you can. I’ve known people who ruined themselves by devoting themselves to things outside the love of God. I hated that. You do too, and so does God.
When you harvest wheat, you can separate it from everything else and it still has life in itself. A grain of wheat contains a new life ready to grow and thrive. The grains of wheat have a future because, at least, you can plant them for another harvest.
When you harvest grapes in a world without refrigeration, they really aren’t good for anything unless you crush them. Winepresses became symbols of judgment because grapes were only good for stomping on. And then it has no power to come to life again.
Don’t try pressing this too far!
So, Revelation has a wheat harvest and a grape harvest, but they’re really the same harvest. They are like the harvest of the wheat and the weeds that Jesus tells a story about. (Matthew 13:24-30) The wheat has life and the power to overcome. The grapes have no more power or life within them.
The Book of Revelation is very interested in forth-telling, or telling forth, the way to make the journey home. It’s by remembering who God is; not making God smaller than he is; not by scattering the life in you by attaching yourself to things and to power, and influence, and success. These are empty things and they will empty your heart and your soul.
The Beast and Babylon are always around. Even now, in order to overcome, we have to remember who God is, and what that Beast and Babylon are (idols which will only grow bigger, and bigger, and more threatening, and more persuasive).
Sometimes we may suffer because we don’t choose what the world chooses. In some times and places, God’s people have had to give their lives in order to stay free for God and overcome the world.
John tells forth our need, however small or hard it seems. He says: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” (Revelation 14:12)
If the choice is very hard, the voice of God says this: “Write! Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes, says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Revelation 14:13,14)
In the Bible, rest is the ability to put yourself in God’s hands and enjoy everything.
Your deeds following you means that what you do, in faithfulness, lasts forever, and what you do may even become part of your eternal purpose as God created you to be, in love. The service you give will be gifts that keep on giving.
This is life, and this is you, when you remember, and choose, and endure.
We use the season of Advent to remember what it means to be ready for the coming of God in his Son Jesus. Jesus came long ago in Bethlehem and he truly changed the world by changing those who received him. His birth, his life, his word, his sacrifice on the cross, and his rising from the dead changed people so that they could make the choices they needed to make to be prepared for life with God, life in God’s kingdom.

If you will, it shapes us into the spirit of Christmas. It also shapes us for heaven, and for the coming return of Jesus, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and we will fit that new creation. We will fit it and thrive forever, because it will be a new creation made for those who have overcome and found the way to life, through Jesus.