"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Sermon on Revelation 7 for the Feast of All Saints (transferred) with baptism.

One of the things that I’ve often been asked is what is my favorite passage of Scripture. And often I’ve felt that choosing a favorite verse or chapter is like choosing a favorite child; after all, we’re supposed to love them all, right? But of course, we don’t love them all. There are passages we just don’t understand, would rather not have to preach or teach on, or find somehow distasteful. We’re fallen people, imperfect and limited, and so we fail to wrestle perfectly with the full implications of the Scripture. For a lot of Christians, the book of Revelation is one of those parts of the Bible that they’d rather not approach. It frightens us, it’s disturbing. The images are vivid but full of unknowns. It doesn’t help that the plot is so readily made into an apocalyptic horror movie and modern writers have abused the text to sell sensationalistic novels.
The truth is that over the years, I’ve come to realize that I don’t love every passage as I should and there are passages I love more than others, even though I ought to love them all. And one of my very favorite passages of Scripture is in Acts, where the officials at Thessalonica accuse the Christians of “turning the world upside down.”
For the record, my other favorite passage of Scripture is in Genesis in which Joseph tells his brothers that what they intended for evil against him, God has intended for good. You might wonder why I have chosen those two verses as my favorites; they’re certainly not the cuddly usual choices. But the reason I love those two passages is that the one, what man intends for evil, God redeems for good, is the summary of the entire Bible. Man intended evil in the garden, throughout the course of human history, and most supremely at the cross of Christ. And it is at that point of utter darkness, on Good Friday, that God turns the world upside down. The son of God who existed from eternity dies. The crucified and buried Christ raises himself from the grave. Time-bound and mortal man is given release into eternity. Christ was scarred to make us perfect, he became sin who knew no sin, so that we might be raised to life immortal. In other words, what man intended for evil, God redeemed for good, and thus the whole created order is turned upside down.
It is the upside-down-ness that is our lens for viewing the Book of Revelation. I know that a lot of American Christians shy away from Revelation. In almost every church I’ve served, there has been at least one brave soul who admits that they have not and do not plan to ever read that book! And I don’t think I’ve ever had someone answer the “favorite passage” question with: “Revelation! I just LOVE Revelation!” Especially not stuff like we find here in the first few chapters.
And most of us know the sixth chapter in the context of apocalyptic horror movies. Even without the movies, the Bible’s words are vivid, shocking. The whole company of heaven is gathered around to read the scroll, the last will and testament of one so great that none can be found worthy to break the seal. And then, one by one, the lamb, surrounded by the strange and mysterious and powerful company of heaven, begins to open the seals. The tension builds, as each seal is broken. Each seal brings forth an angel at the ready with power to harm, destroy. The armies are lined up, but not unleashed. War, death, famine. At the fifth seal the souls of those who have been martyred for daring to proclaim God’s truth cry out, how long? How long must evil reign? How long must the suffering go on? The faithful cry out, the sun takes on mourning clothes, the skies are rolled away and left naked of the stars.
This is what people think of when they think of Revelation. Terror. But it is the nature of our God, remember, that the world is turned upside down. The powers of destruction are held back by an angelic hand, as the sixth seal is broken. While the pressure of the narrative builds, while terror is added upon terror, the Lord interrupts the story. He musters his army, marks them for his service. No assurances are given of safety; for God’s people are about to face a great tribulation.
More and more the pressure builds. And just when we think the top is going to blow off the whole thing, St. John says he looked, and he sees something startling. In the middle of the darkness, he sees an image of those clothed in white robes. Amid the terror, he sees those who are at peace. The same God who musters his army is the one at whose throne they are permitted to worship, who wipes the tears from their eyes, who is their shade against the scorching heat of the sun. Famine is at the gates, but these will neither hunger or thirst. It is like a painting, dark and brooding, and in the middle is a stark contrasting point of light. Who are these?
These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.
Americans are afraid to read Revelation because we’re afraid of tribulation. We are afraid to suffer, to take risks, to die. We say we want to live for Jesus, but we don’t understand that the only faith worth living for is one which is also worth dying for. We are afraid to read Revelation because we cannot identify with these who come out of the great tribulation, because we ourselves are too timid to enter the tribulation at all.
But Jesus says, blessed are the persecuted. Again, the world is turned upside down. Blessed are the persecuted. Not only in the sky by and by, but blessed here and now are the persecuted. I think we, in the comfort of our American churches, can easily turn a blind eye to the reality of persecution in the world. We don’t want to see it for the same reason we’re afraid to read the book of Revelation, we are afraid that these things could happen to us. We like to think that persecution no longer happens in the world, but persecution is not limited in time or geography. But in all times and all places, blessed are those who are persecuted for the love of Jesus. In the prison, Paul and Silas were singing hymns. Even today in China and Iraq, Christians are imprisoned and the hope which they have is reflected in the singing of hymns. And by this hope, despite the high cost in their countries, many prison guards have become Christians. In the face of imminent death, Stephen announced that he saw angels. For God did not abandon him to suffer death alone. In North Korea, Christians are placed in prison camps, never allowed to look at anything other than the ground. Their backs are permanently stooped over. And in North Korea, Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, and many other places, even today, Christians face death for our faith but never alone.
Following Jesus means persecution, for we follow him to the cross. It was by his cross that the world was turned upside down. Jesus who existed from before eternity, the immortal one, died on that cross. The world was turned upside down. Jesus a man, in frail flesh, crucified and buried, retained the power and the authority to raise himself from the grave. The world was turned upside down on Easter Sunday. Christians are to turn the world upside down because Jesus turned the world around. From death to life eternal, from fallen and frail to whole and perfected. Jesus turned the world upside down, changed the very fabric of the universe. And it should come as no surprise that he rightly demands no less than our very lives in response. If we withhold ourselves from him, there is no hope for us. But if we are his, there is no need to fear what the world calls fearful. Our world is upside down, even persecution becomes a means of his blessing and there is no such thing as hopelessness.
Today, we will welcome into the household of God a new child of God. Small and helpless, we want to believe that nothing will ever harm her, that her days will be long and pleasant. It may even be offensive to you that we would talk about persecution at such a time as this. But we welcome her, not only into our little congregation, but into the whole family of God. Our people will become her people. Her family will now go back through the generations to a people who stood bravely in persecution, remained faithful in times of plenty. She will carry the legacy of those who lived imperfect lives devoted to a perfect savior. And while no one can promise that she will never face adversity and even persecution, the promises of God have never been broken; that she will be filled with hope, her world turned upside down.
For those of you, therefore, who remain afraid of the words of Revelation, this is my advice. Know that this God of ours has turned the world upside down. The powers of destruction that are promised to be unleashed are unleashed on all the evils of our world. What harms you, causes you agony, grief, fear, these things will be destroyed in the last days. Even death itself will be trampled down. The process isn’t pretty, but he does not leave you hopeless even in the murky midst of your troubles and the depth of your tribulations.
I find it helpful, if you are taking on reading these things for the first time, to begin at the end. To know how the story comes out. I think this is what God wants for us, to know that his promise is full of hope and beauty. Read the end first, and then read the rest with the knowledge that it marks the destruction of all that is wrong and evil, all persecution and plague, and that even if you stand in the very midst of the chaos, you do not stand alone.
And, in the words of Revelation after all that is wrong with this world has been destroyed, “the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb through the middle of the street of the city. Also on either side of the river the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month, and its leaves were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads, and night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”
Today we baptize a new sister, whose true destiny is indeed to reign with Christ forever and ever.

1 comment:

  1. We're in the RCL and All Saints C is Daniel, Ephesians, and Luke. I really miss the BCP pattern, with the readings from Ecclesiasticus and the Revelation. Though the first chapter of Ephesians is about as good as it gets, so I shouldn't complain . . . .

    B

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