March 28, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon :
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Today we pick up right where we left off last week on Easter here in John 20. When last we saw the disciples, Mary Magdalene had just burst in with the excited and exciting news, “I have seen the Lord!” Earlier that day, when Mary told these same disciples that the stone had been rolled away, Peter and John bolted out of their chairs and sprinted to the tomb. But near as we can tell, once Mary tells them the far better news that Jesus the Lord is once again up and about and quite undeniably alive, it looks as though no one moved.
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Why was an apparent grave robbery seemingly more intriguing to at least some of the disciples than an apparent resurrection from the grave? You would not guess it would be this way. If I told one of you that I just saw your long-lost child at the local mall, whether or not you initially believe me, my hunch is that it would not take too long before you’d hop in your car and buzz over there with only a casual relationship to the speed limit signs you’d pass.
Did the disciples simply not believe Mary? Did they, in typical male fashion, chalk up her story to the ranting of an hysterical woman? Was it finally too wild to believe? Is the reason they stayed put because they had rolled their eyes, winked at each other, and suppressed a smirk over what this woman had said to them? Or is something else going on?
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Did they believe Mary’s story just fine but were not at all sure where to start? Or did they think that maybe Jesus was, as a matter of fact, nowhere to be found? After all, the last thing Jesus said to Mary, and which Mary no doubt reported to the disciples, is that he was ascending to his Father. Did they conclude that this would happen that very day? Did they think he was already back in heaven (wherever that was) and so it would be fruitless to go hunting for Jesus? That seems a little unlikely. And even if they did hold out for that as one possibility, you’d think they still would have split up, maybe into teams of two, and done a systematic search in and around the city.
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
Did they disbelieve Mary? Did they believe her just fine but still were so stunned as to be paralyzed? Did they think Jesus was nowhere to be found even if they did send out a search party? Or is something else going on? It’s difficult to answer this question, but I think John gives us a major clue when he tells us that on the evening of that Easter day, the disciples were behind a locked door.
The door was locked.
The door was locked because they were afraid.
Afraid. They were afraid of the Jews, John said. But as Craig Barnes has said, that doesn’t seem a terribly credible fear. There was no evidence that anyone was planning to hunt down Jesus’ erstwhile followers. And anyway, earlier that same day, any lingering fears of arrest the disciples may have had didn’t prevent at least a couple of them from running straight toward Jesus’ tomb. If ever there were a location where they very well could have run into some Roman soldiers or Jewish leaders, the tomb was it. But still they went. Fear didn’t stop them when they thought a grave robbery had happened. So why did fear lock them up in a room when resurrection was in the air? Of whom or what were the disciples really afraid? Whom were really afraid of running into in case they went out?
Could it have been that they were afraid of running into . . . Jesus himself? Certainly at least Peter would have had reason to avert his eyes from the Lord in case he ran into him. The last time Peter had spoken to Jesus, his words had been full of confident bluster. But then some hours later a rooster crowed off in the distance, and Peter seriously considered following Judas down a path that had a noose at the end of it. But it wasn’t just Peter. The gospels tell us that Peter had said, “Never will I deny you! I will die with you first!” And after Peter had said that, we read that “all of the other disciples said the same.” But all of the other disciples had fled Gethsemane like frightened children.
John is honest throughout his gospel about how clueless the disciples often were. Earlier in this very chapter, in verse 9, John admits that they did not understand that Jesus had to be raised from the dead. But if they did not understand that Jesus was to be raised, it’s a cinch they also didn’t understand why he had to be raised, either. After all, they had abandoned their Lord in his most dire hour of need. And it’s not as though the end-result of that abandonment had been something minor like Jesus getting booked on a misdemeanor charge, fined $500, and sentenced to 90 days in the hoosegow. The penalty Jesus got was on the stiff side. They had watched the crucifixion from afar, and to a man they knew they were somehow complicit in what happened.
And so Mary says Jesus is alive, but what if he is bearing a grudge? Suppose his first order of post-resurrection business was settling some old scores? Have you ever said some really nasty things about someone behind his or her back, only to discover a short time later that so-and-so had gotten wind of what you had said? Are you real eager to run into that person again? Or, if you know as a fact that a certain person hates your guts, blames you for something bad that happened, and so henceforth refuses to be civil to you, do you go out of your way to make sure you sit near his or her table at Arnie’s some evening?
Why didn’t they go looking for him? Because they were just possibly afraid to find him. And so on that first Easter–a day John 20 makes clear began with weeping and lamenting–the day ends with locked doors and great fear.
As Craig Barnes has noted, that state of being all locked-up is emblematic of so much of our lives even to this day. Fear of this or that, anxiety over some aspect of life, makes us lock up the door of our hearts. All of us are familiar with locks. Every door of our houses has a lock. At our house the service door to the garage is locked and, on top of that, the door leading from the back room into the garage has yet another lock. We put sticks in the tracks of our sliding doors so as to make double-sure no one can outwit the door’s normal lock. Our front door may have a deadbolt lock and, on top of that, a chain. So every day, and certainly every evening, we click these locks and cinch up these chains and double-check that the lower level windows are also locked. We do this, we think, to keep the world out but we all know that sometimes it is also possible to lock ourselves in.
We have lots of ways to lock ourselves in. We refuse to go out because we’re too ashamed, too blue, or too afraid we will run into so-and-so and, frankly, we can’t stand the thought. Sometimes we stay away from even church for the same reason. I know as a fact that there are some people in this city, former members of this church or people who were never members, who won’t come here ever if they know I’m preaching. We get Caller I.D. on our phones so we can see, well before picking up the receiver, who is calling. And if it’s someone we don’t want to talk to or can’t bear talking to out of shame or fear or whatever, we just don’t answer. Again, we lock ourselves in just as often as we lock the world out.
Shame and fear are cousins. First cousins. If you are ashamed of something that is known already, you are afraid of being seen by people in whose eyes you will catch flickers of disapproval. If you are ashamed of something people do not yet know about, you are afraid that just by being out and about in public, someone will discover it, and it scares you half to death. For every last one of us, there are things we have done whose discovery we fear. For every last one of us, there are things that we simply are that we fear make us unworthy.
But there comes a point where eventually we discover that we have locked up so much in the closets of our hearts that, as it turns out, most of our very selves are in there. And when we reach that point, we live with fear indeed. Not the fear that this or that aspect of our lives will be discovered but that we ourselves, the totality of who we are, will be outted, and so our unworthiness will be on full display and we will not have a friend left in the world. And if you want to talk about a crippling fear, this is it: the fear of yourself.
If that first Easter began with the lamentable sadness of death’s reality in our world—as we noted from John 20 last week—then that same day ended with the lamentable sadness of shame. The disciples were ashamed of what they had done, they were ashamed of what their cowardice revealed about who they simply were as men. So they locked the door, telling themselves they were keeping the Jews out when really they were maybe keeping themselves locked in. But then Jesus did what he always does for anyone locked up in his own shame: he comes in anyway. He enters the room, he enters the heart, he breaks into the shame.
John records for us no reaction of the disciples, not initially at least. But he does make clear that Jesus leaves no quarter for fear because he no sooner pops in on them and he says, “Peace to you!” He says it immediately the way he always does. He says “Peace.” He says “Shalom.” He says it’s all right. He speaks a word that is the opposite of fear and so squelches shame, puts away and banishes any thoughts the disciples may have had about Jesus’ bearing a grudge. He was not out to settle any old scores but to create a whole new situation. In what some call John’s mini-Pentecost, Jesus breathes on them the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. And like that first breath of life that the Almighty Creator God breathed into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, so this was a life-giving breath that made all things new.
Jesus never says a word about their past actions, their betrayals and denials. He does not even overtly say, “Forget about it” or “I forgive you.” Instead he gives them a Spirit that tells them, in a way more compelling than words alone, that of course all is forgiven. He even sends them out into the world with a mission of forgiveness. Did you catch that, by the way? By telling them they now had a mission to announce the forgiveness of sins, Jesus was as much as telling them to unlock that door and get out of there. The cause of the Lord cannot go forward so long as any of his people insist on staying behind locked doors.
Peace. We think that having a sense of peace means a lack of conflict. But more than that, peace in the sense of “shalom” is that settled sense that everything is in plumb, everything is in its proper place as we are all together webbed into relationships that are mutually edifying and up-building. We no longer live with the fear that someone will open up our secret closet only to have our hidden lives come tumbling out in one utter, embarrassing, despicable mess. Instead we live with the sense that the things that were once in the closet have either been put away by the grace of Christ’s forgiveness or they have been put back into their proper place somewhere else in life.
Mostly, though, many of us would have to confess that we’re not quite there yet. We would not question that this is the goal toward which Easter is aiming us. We would not deny that among the items of good news that this holy day is all about, a restoration of shalom is a key such item. But when this sermon is done and Ken has played the last note on the organ, we will go home and still, in the quietness of those first few minutes of lying on bed in the dark, we still will be able to glance in the direction of that closeted part of our heart, still fretting that what is inside there is so bad that even Jesus can’t deal with it; still fretting that, therefore, we’d be finished if anyone else ever spied it, too.
If having the hope of life beyond the grave is part of what Easter is all about, then having peace already in the here and now is another vital part of Easter. You have to die in order to enter the new life of resurrection that Jesus made possible. What do you have to do to enter the peace Jesus made possible and that he proffered to his disciples that first Easter evening? Maybe this also requires a death, a denial of self and a taking up of the cross so as to remind yourself that you are being quite simply too self-important if you really believe that Jesus can’t handle the real you. Who do you think you are if you conclude that you need to keep your heart locked up against even Jesus?
One of the more famous images of Scripture comes from that line in Revelation when Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Ordinarily when someone knocks at a locked door at your house, you know that it’s up to you to get up and unlock the door and open it. The good news of Easter is that even if you are too afraid to do that, too ashamed or too paralyzed by this or that feature of your own life, the lock won’t stop Jesus. He will appear right in the middle of your locked-up heart and before you even have the chance to say or do a blessed thing, he will say “Peace to you!” When he does, all I can plead is that you will take him seriously. He will show you the holes in his hands and the slit in his side, not so much to prove to you that he really is Jesus. He shows you those sacred signs as proof that when he grants peace to your heart, it’s the genuine article and the real deal. Given what he went through to secure that shalom for you, all you can say in response is what Thomas said a week later, “My Lord and my God!”
Why didn’t they go looking for him?
It’s hard to know but in the end neither does it matter. Jesus always comes looking for us, starting in those locked-up places of our hearts. Sisters and brothers, peace to you. There is no better a parting word for Easter than that.
It’s all right. You are all right.
Peace. Shalom. Amen.
Author: Doug Bratt
Most 21st century North Americans enjoy nearly unprecedented religious freedom. So it’s rather easy to forget the high price some Christians have paid and still pay for their faith. However, it’s also easy to forget that confrontations between the Christian faith and the political establishment flared up even during the history of the early church.
After telling the rather dark story of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke turns the lights back up in Acts 5:12ff. In it he again shows his readers the life-giving power of the gospel at work. He also, however, highlights confrontations that arise from the deepening jealousy and antagonism of the Jewish religious establishment toward the risen Jesus’ apostles.
The growing tide of signs and wonders is sweeping aside most peoples’ fears. The growing swell of new converts is also brushing aside most obstacles to the proclamation of the gospel. Certainly some people still keep their distance from the apostles. They don’t fear them, but are in awe of them.
However, swarms of miserable, helpless, sick and troubled people buzz all around the apostles. After all, while God’s powerful presence alarms some people, it also appeals to others. While some people are frightened away, God draws others to faith. Luke 9 describes a woman whom God heals when she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ cloak. Now God displays similar power when verse 15 text reports that God uses Peter’s shadow to heal people.
So just as Jesus ministered to needy people, God also ministers to them through Peter. We hear in Acts 5’s healing stories echoes of the healing of the crippled man and official response in Acts 3. That act of compassion and healing has now, however, been repeated a hundred times over.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the Jewish religious establishment reappears with renewed determination to end this “Jesus” nonsense. After all, Peter and John ignored their earlier prohibition and threats. The last time they did so, the council let them have their say. After Peter’s boldness silenced the religious leaders, they released the apostles.
This time, however, the council takes no such chances. Verse 18 says it arrests not only Peter and John but also “the apostles” immediately. However, something about the gospel’s power renders even prisons ineffective. With the comic speed of an old “Keystone Cops” routine, verse 19 reports an angel frees the apostles. By daybreak, Peter and John are again disobeying the Jewish religious authorities in order to obey God’s angel who told them to speak the word of new life.
Then follows an even more comic shuttling back and forth from council to jail and back to council. Officers discover that the apostles whom they were supposed to transport from jail to court are, in fact, free and busy at the temple, teaching. So the same fearful, plotting officials who conspired with the Romans to send Jesus to his death conspire to silence Jesus’ disciples.
Again, however, they must take into account the growing movement of people who faithfully respond to what the authorities have tried to silence. So the religious authorities don’t use force on Peter and John when they arrest them.
When they question Peter and John, these apparently most powerful people reveal their basic powerlessness.
They had condemned and eliminated Jesus. The authorities had warned the apostles not to preach in his name and imprisoned them. However, in verse 28 the authorities must admit that the apostles have successfully filled Jerusalem with their teaching anyway. They also accuse Peter and John of being determined to make them guilty of Jesus’ murder.
As he did earlier, Peter counters the authorities’ charges by saying, in verse 29, “We must obey God rather than men!” After all, God calls God’s people to be conscientious citizens who typically submit to human authorities. However, sometimes those leaders misuse their God-given authority by commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands. Then, as for people like Peter and Martin Luther King Jr., it’s Christians’ God-given duty to disobey the human authority in order to obey God’s.
Yet the apostles aren’t just reacting to the authorities’ orders to stop preaching about Jesus. They also remember how those leaders crucified Jesus. While God three days later raised Jesus from the dead, “you,” says Peter in verse 30, had him “killed by hanging him on a tree.”
Of course, Peter is engaging in a bit of historical revisionism. No Jew had the authority to crucify anyone (John 18:31). Only Israel’s Roman occupiers had the authority and power to “hang” anyone “on a tree.” It’s the Roman governor Pilate who authorizes his soldiers to first torture then put Jesus to death (John 19:16). He gives the religious leaders the power to convince him to have Jesus crucified.
Since we sometimes practice historical revisionism, we may think Peter playing fast and loose with the historical facts isn’t a big deal. But it is a huge and tragic deal. After all, Christians have used things like Peter’s accusations to justify all sorts of unjustifiable behavior and attitudes, all the way from anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. We’ve also held an entire race responsible for the jealous actions of a few religious leaders. So while Jewish religious authorities jailed some of Jesus’ followers for a time after his resurrection, nearly ever since then, some of those who claimed to act in Jesus’ name have been jailing and persecuting Jews.
That’s why it seems wise not just to address Peter’s historical fudging, but also to emphasize the second part of his message to the religious leaders. It stresses God’s exaltation of the risen Jesus to the heavenly realm. God, insists Peter, raised the Jesus whom so many deliberately humiliated to God’s right hand and gave him royal authority over the whole world.
In Acts 5 Peter also emphasizes the repentance and forgiveness God graciously offers to God’s Israelite sons and daughters. It’s a remarkably gracious turn. With one breath Peter emphasizes Israel’s leaders role in Jesus’ crucifixion. But with the very next he emphasizes to perhaps some of those same leaders God’s gift of life and forgiveness. Peter offers those who share culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion forgiveness for that role.
Yet ironically Peter’s speech about God’s offer of life touches a raw nerve in the Jewish religious authorities’ hearts. Verse 33 reports that “When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.” However, before we’re too quick to condemn all of those Jewish religious authorities for that reaction, we should note whom God uses to rescue the apostles. Verse 34 says that a rabbi named Gamaliel intervenes to save Peter and John from almost certain death, just like Frederick later intervened to rescue Martin Luther.
As a result, the apostles leave with their lives, but not without suffering. After all, the flogging that they receive according to verse 40, in fact, killed many other prisoners. However, in the upside-down values system of the apostles, this doesn’t frustrate them. For verse 41 reports that their terrible torture produced “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” Peter and John saw their torture as a validation of their cause, because it echoed the suffering of their Leader, Jesus Christ. Their now-exalted Prince and Savior now lead the ones who followed Jesus through his trials through their trials.
This text is appropriate during the season of Easter because it explicitly includes a description of God raising Jesus from the dead (30). However, it also displays the power of the resurrection to raise God’s adopted sons and daughters to new life. In it, after all, Jesus’ formerly timid disciples boldly proclaim the gospel before what may be some of the people who conspired with the Romans to crucify Jesus.
(Note: I am grateful to William H. Willimon in the Interpretation series commentary on Acts for many ideas here. Acts: John Knox Press, 1988, pp. 52-58.)
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons)
Numerous websites describe the modern clash between those who follow Jesus and those in authority. They include International Christian Concern (http://www.persecution.org). Acts 5’s preachers and teachers may want to peruse it or a similar website in preparation for presenting thoughts on the passage.
Recently, the ICC website described how Chinese authorities denied lawyers of an arrested house pastor a meeting with their client. It also described how Sudanese intelligence officials have arrested three indigenous pastors in the past six months, leveled church buildings and attacked congregants. And ICC’s website noted that while Nepal’s new constitution declared it a secular state, it contains a section that declares religious conversions illegal.
Author: Stan Mast
Well, Easter is over. The long build up of Lent is a distant memory. The blast of the trumpets, the glad songs of the thronging worshipers, and the scent of the lilies have all faded away. Easter is over. Sigh! Not so fast, says the Revised Common Lectionary. Let’s keep our focus on Easter for a while. Indeed, for seven Sundays in a row the Lectionary helps us focus on the impact of Easter. Christ arose. So what? What should we do now?
Our reading from the Psalms on this second Sunday of the Easter season says that the first thing we must do post-Easter is to praise, to “Praise the Lord,” to “hallelu yah” in the Hebrew. We translate that opening word of Psalm 150, “Hallelujah.” Every Christmas and many Easters in my last church, the choir invited the entire congregation to join them in singing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” It always sent chills up my spine and filled my eyes with tears as 200 voices filled the sanctuary with Handel’s triumphant celebration of Christ’s victory. My favorite part of that piece is that moment at the end, where the choir pauses and a holy silence fills the sanctuary. Then one more time with full organ, the choir with all their might and main fairly shouts, “Hal-le-lu-jah!!!!”
That’s what we have in Psalm 150, the final Hallelujah. We’ve heard it many times throughout the Psalter, particularly at the end of each of the previous four books of the Psalms (41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, and 106:48). Now as the fifth book of the Psalter comes to an end, there are 5 Hallel Psalms including Psalm 150. Here the liturgical cry we’ve heard so often becomes a Psalm itself. Indeed, the Hallelu is heard 10 times in this Psalm. It’s hard to believe that number isn’t intentional. Ten is a number of completion and fullness; think of the Ten Commandments. Or is this a memory device for God’s children, corresponding to our ten little fingers? It feels as though the Psalm was specifically designed to end the Psalter. After all the poetic and powerful explorations of the Israel’s experience with their covenant God in the previous 149 Psalms, the only fitting conclusion is “Hallelujah.”
No wonder the Lectionary chose Psalm 150 for this second Sunday of the Easter season. What better response could we make to the climactic work of Yahweh for our salvation? The question is, how can we turn this one word into a sermon? It would make good worship sense to take this word as the theme of an entire service and spend the time just singing. But how can we preach a whole sermon on one word? That’s a pretty thin vein to mine.
Let’s dig deeper and see what we can find. The first nugget we discover is the fact that those 10 hallelu’s are all in the imperative. Some scholars claim the Psalm 150 gives us no motivations for praise (but see verse 2, on which I’ll comment later). No reasons are offered for this insistent call to praise the Lord. That’s because all the reasons have been given in Psalms 1-149. Instead of motivation, the Psalmist simply summons, commands, orders God’s people to give God all the praise. As the popular praise song puts it, there are “ten thousand reasons” to give God the praise. Now, just do it. It’s time to stop talking, stop thinking, stop complaining, stop weeping, stop praying, and just praise the Lord.
That can sound abrupt and cold, but not if we have deeply explored all the dimensions of our experience with God as the rest of the Psalter does. Then, out of the depths we should simply give God all the praise. It is our duty. And it is our privilege and our blessing. How very different the book of Psalms would have been if it had ended with a moaning and depressing lament. The book is filled with lament, and for that we should thank God. But we should also thank God that lament isn’t the only or the last word in the life of faith. There will finally be praise. Psalm 150 calls us to anticipate that last word in our worship, even in our lament.
So Psalm 150 commands us to praise without giving us a reason (say some), but it does give us some helpful directions. It begins and ends with this liturgical call to praise, and in between it moves in stages from the place we should offer our praise (verse 1) to the themes of our praise (verse 2) to the orchestra that will accompany our praise (verses 3-5) to the choir that will voice our praise (verse 6).
Or we can read these verses in a slightly different way. They tell us who is to be praised. It is the Lord, the supreme sovereign whose sanctuary in Jerusalem is an earthly copy of the great sanctuary that is far above the vault of the heavens. We are to praise him in that earthly sanctuary, but we must always be aware that he is not confined to that place or these people. He is high and lifted up, and he is praised by the heavenly hosts as well.
Second, verse 2 tells us why God should be praised. Here we encounter a bit of scholarly debate. The prepositions before “acts of power” and “his surpassing greatness” are open to different interpretations. The NIV has chosen “for,” suggesting that we praise God because of the mighty things he has done for his people, such as creating everything out of nothing and bringing life out of death and victory out of defeat. Those mighty acts are the clearest indication we have of his surpassing greatness. As Calvin said again and again, we know God through his works. Other scholars, however, translate those prepositions as “according to,” suggesting that we should praise God in a way that takes into account his greatness. His greatness should be the measure of our praise. Perhaps this is splitting hairs. God in his greatness deserves our praise.
Third, verses 3-5 show us how Yahweh should be praised, that is, with everything we have available. These verses call for the entire orchestra to lead in praise—strings, winds, and percussion. And all that orchestral music should move our bodies to give praise. While up-tight senior citizens of the Northern European tribes (like me) might struggle with this particular dimension of praise, the Psalmist calls us to dance our praise. The music of praise should move us not only in our souls, but also in our bodies.
What form our dancing takes will undoubtedly vary from person to person, but the chief point in these verses is that our praise must take the form of music. We can speak our praise. We can enact our praise. We can “offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is our spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) But finally, God would be praised with our music, because nothing expresses the heart or moves the heart quite like music. “When in our music God is glorified….”
Fourth, verse 6 tells who is to praise God. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” It’s not just Israel; it’s all the nations. It’s not just humans; it’s all of creation. It’s not just earth’s inhabitants; it’s the hosts of heaven. It is God who has given breath to all creatures (Gen. 1 and Psalm 104), and the highest use of our breath is to praise the God who gave it. Under the influence of sin, many of God’s creatures do not praise the living God, but one day “every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:11) Psalm 150 calls all of God’s people to anticipate that great eschatological moment by joining their breath together and singing the great Hallelujah in the sanctuary.
Apparently there is more here than we might have seen at first. And consider this thought from James Luther Mays. Looking at the entire Psalter, he observes an important pattern. “The book that began with a commendation of the Torah of the Lord as the way of life ends here with an invitation to praise the Lord as the use of life.” Psalm 1 “asserts in a decisive way that life under Torah is the pre-condition of all the Psalms. Psalm 150 states the outcome of such a life under Torah.” Torah-keeping does arrive at obedience, yet obedience is not the goal of Torah-keeping. “Finally, such a life arrives at unencumbered praise. As Israel (and the world) is obedient to Torah, it becomes free to praise, which is its proper vocation, destiny and purpose. In this light, the expectation of the Old Testament is not finally obedience, but adoration.”
We can put this in a particularly Christian way by citing the beginning of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That, of course, is an echo of Paul’s long doxological introduction to Ephesians, where he says that all of our spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms have been given to us in Christ “to/for the praise of his glorious grace.” (That phrase occurs 3 times in 1:3-14) The Psalter end with a stunning call to praise, and history will end with such praise, and the new creation will be full of this praise, because that praise has been God’s ultimate goal from the beginning. The praise to which Psalm 150 calls us is the reason for our existence. When we praise God this way, we fulfill our destiny and become all that God means us to be.
But until we attain our highest calling, there are many low down moments in life when it seems almost impossible to praise God. This Psalm is simple, but our performance of it is not. The rest of the Psalms know that; indeed, they give us voice for those times of lament and anger and doubt that stifle our praise. Walter Brueggeman has given us a schema with which to interpret the entire Psalter—orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. There are Psalms that express the fundamental orientation of God’s people—faith, obedience, Torah, God’s promises and mighty acts. But there are also Psalms that capture those times in life when we get disoriented, because God seems to have forsaken us, obedience doesn’t seem to work, the promises seem unfulfilled, and we wonder if it’s all true. But there are also Psalms of re-orientation, where things come back together and we have a new, more mature, more nuanced, more stable view of God and the life of obedient faith.
Reading the Psalter in the light of such an understanding will help us read and obey Psalm 150 in a more mature and balanced way. Against the backdrop of lament and suffering and sin, Psalm 150 is a call to a deep faith that can praise the Lord in every circumstance. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection, we can believe that God makes all things for work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. That perspective will keep us from turning Psalm 150 into the kind of chirpy “praise the Lord” song that fill the airwaves of popular radio. This is not Pharell Williams’, “The Happy Song,” or Bobby McFerrins’, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This is a full choir, full organ, full voice, full sanctuary, full hearted “Hallelujah Chorus.”
I’ll end with a moving quote from Brent A. Strawn. Referring to John Calvin’s oft repeated, “the world is the theater of God’s glory,” Strawn writes: “The world is therefore both the theater of God’s glory—that is, where God’s glory is manifested—and that which gives God glory. The actors have one major part, one major line, even though it is refracted and told in millions of ways. That line closes Psalm 150 even as it closes the entire Psalter. It echoes across time and space, down the ages and throughout the far reaches of the universe. It is simply this: ‘Praise the Lord!’”
A colleague of mine just returned from a trip to the Holy Land. She told of visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and seeing Muslim women standing (or sitting) guard around the Dome of the Rock. Whenever Jewish women would approach in order to antagonize (?) these Muslim women, the Muslims would shout as loudly as they could, “Allahu Akbar,” “God is greater” or “God is (the) greatest.” It was as though they were staking claim to the whole sacred place with their traditional confession of faith. This place does not belong to you. It belongs to Allah.
That story made me wonder if there is some of that territorial business going on is Psalm 150. Is the Psalmist staking claim to Jerusalem and the Promised Land? Or is the Psalmist simply praising the God who is already the supreme sovereign over not only a little piece of real estate, but also the entire cosmos. “Praise the Lord” is not a hostile challenge; it is an invitation to “everything that has breath” to join the choir.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Sunday after Easter (sometimes even called “Low Sunday”) can feel a bit anti-climactic. In 2016 April 3 is also the start of Spring Break for many schools in the United States and so attendance may be notably down in many North American congregations, especially compared to the prior Sunday when Easter no doubt had the pews and seats filled right up. Maybe that is part of the reason why the Lectionary decided to choose as its Epistle text for this day something on the trajectory of the apocalyptic—maybe Revelation can liven things up! Revelation 1 lets us take a few giant steps back from the ordinary frame of our daily lives as we witness the opening of “The Apocalypse of John.”
Of course, say the word “apocalypse” to the average man or woman on the street and you will conjure up in his or her imagination pictures of catastrophic happenings. With the success of TV shows like The Walking Dead of late, the Zombie Apocalypse will perhaps come to mind. The future may be very grim. And even The Book of Revelation has sometimes been turned into a kind of secret code by which to predict the future, and especially a version of the future that is “apocalyptic” in the popular sense of that term.
That’s generally the wrong way to approach the Bible’s final book but that is not to say this book does not tell us about the ultimate future of the universe. It most certainly does! But it is less interested in telling us WHAT the future holds in precise detail than in telling us instead WHO holds the future. The tone for the entire book is set in the opening eight verses. Although there is no denying the prediction about Jesus’ future return on clouds of glory, a good deal of the rest of these verses have more to do with how we should think and feel right now. And this makes it a wonderful text for the Sunday after Easter.
For John, and for us, the word “apocalypse” is not a word to conjure up the catastrophic, the unthinkable, the dreaded, or the terrible. “Apocalypse” is the very first Greek word of this book: “Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” The Greek apokalupsis means “unveiling” or “revealing.” This is the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is the revelation in the sense of the realization, the seeing and understanding of who Jesus really is and what that means not just for the future but for right now, too. God’s purpose in showing these things to John is to unveil, to lift whatever shroud may be covering over God’s Son, Jesus, so that we may see him clearly and perceive him accurately.
The first part of that comes in verse 4 when John identifies the God who sends this revelation as “the one who is, who was, and who is to come.” For Jewish-Christian readers that triple identification would immediately connect to the God of Israel known as Yahweh. A little later on, in verse 8, the Lord God further cinches this identity by claiming to be Alpha and Omega, the Almighty one who, once again, is, was, and is to come. Our God in Christ spans history. He has never been off-duty, never been an absentee landlord, never nodded off and so missed something significant that was happening in this universe. That is what our faith tells us. But this is indeed our faith talking precisely because a quick scan over the landscape of history will reveal any number of events that most certainly do not look like the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a universe that God is ruling.
In fact, Revelation 1 is itself a good example of this. Seen from the right angle, the words that John penned here stand as shining examples of what we could term the gutsy nature of faith. Because in verses 4-5, when offering this opening benediction on the seven churches to whom he was writing, John identifies Jesus as, among other things, “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” It took real pluck for John to write that, much less really to believe it. After all, if his Jesus was the ruler of the kings of the earth, then that would include the Roman Caesar. But if John’s Jesus was the Caesar’s Caesar, then why was John sitting on some desolate and isolated rock called Patmos, banished and exiled at the decree of the Caesar–why was John suffering at the hands of a man who believed that the Lordship of Jesus was one of history’s biggest lies and also the single most ridiculous thing that had been declared anywhere in a very long time?
The Caesar was, by his own decree, Deus et Dominus, God and Lord, of the world. When the Caesar spoke, the world listened. When the Caesar said, “Jump,” the world asked “How high?” And so if the Caesar got annoyed by some gospel-preaching itinerant named John, then with a stroke of the Caesar’s quill that man was gone, out of there, disappeared. And so the full might of Caesar’s strong arm had picked John up and hurled him out across the Mediterranean Sea. With a thud, John landed on his back on the rock of Patmos, that ancient version of Alcatraz. It about knocked the wind out of him, but no sooner does John manage to draw air back into his lungs, and with his first exhalation he still had the guts to say, “Jesus is Lord!”
John declared that Jesus is Lord in ways the Caesar or any king anywhere could scarcely imagine, much less change. It was the early church’s simplest, yet most profound of creeds. Jesus Is Lord! Impossibly, that small band of former fishermen, erstwhile tax collectors, woebegone Jewish peasants, and former prostitutes ran around the Mediterranean Basin declaring this scandalous message. Pious Jews heard the message “Jesus Is Lord” and they gasped at the heresy of it. Loyal Romans heard it and they were angered by the treason of it. If Jesus is Lord, then Jesus was the same as Yahweh, but how could that be? That’s heresy! If Jesus is Lord, then the Caesar was demoted a notch in the grander scheme of things, but how could that be? That’s treason! All over the then-known world, jaws dropped clear to the ground at the idea that some simple Jewish carpenter’s son from some hick, redneck town in the backwaters of Galilee had become so cosmically significant as to trump all claims or titles to the contrary.
John’s exile was proof of the Caesar’s clout. And yet John said it didn’t prove a blessed thing. Faith showed him the real structure of the universe, and Jesus was on top of that hidden but holy organizational chart. In the light of that apocalypse, that faith-granted revelation, all else in life is relativized.
John believed this on faith, but his faith was so strong that he also could foresee a day when knowing about Jesus would be a matter not of having the eyes of your heart opened by grace but simply a matter of opening your eyes, period. John claims there will be a day when faith will become obsolete because everyone, even those who signed Jesus’ death decree and hammered nails into his hands and feet, even they will see Jesus coming on the clouds of glory. If our Christian faith is true, then at some point it will be clearly true for everyone. If the claim that “Jesus is Lord” is anything other than a pious wish or a faith-filled fantasy, then it represents reality and reality will, ultimately, be tough for anyone to deny. They say that only the past is inevitable. The future is wide open. The future is what you make of it. The future is unknowable by virtue of its not yet existing.
John would heartily disagree. Perhaps we can allow a certain amount of randomness and chance to play a role in future events. And perhaps we can properly hedge that claim by saying that it is God himself who designed the universe to include a degree of chance such that God can also intervene at any given point to shape things according to his will. Even so, we cannot and must not, if we are to be Christian, claim that the future is not known to God. At least one thing most assuredly is known by God, and that is the coming again of the Christ. God does not claim that he is simply the one who was and who is. He climaxes his self-identity by adding that he is most certainly also “the one who is to come.”
Right now we live by faith, not by sight. Right now, however convicted we are in our hearts as to the gospel’s truth and the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot prove such things according to the rigorous standards of logic. We cannot empirically demonstrate any part of our faith in ways that would satisfy the methodology of science. Again, however, if what we believe in our hearts is right, then the day will come when the reality of Jesus will surpass the need for logic or scientific proof. The day will come when we will no more need to prove the truth of Christ than we today would need to prove that there is earth under our feet and a sky above our heads. Everyone will just see it.
But what are we supposed to do with this claim, this belief? Does this mean that we can go around wagging a bony finger in the faces of unbelievers even as we yell, “Just you wait! You’ll see! He’ll be back, and when he comes back you’ll get your comeuppance, boy oh boy, you sure will!” Does this mean we have the right to be a bit smug, quietly brushing skeptics aside because we just know that the day will come when we’ll get to see them, mouths agape, wailing at how wrong they were?
Obviously that kind of attitude cuts so directly against the grain of Christian compassion that we cannot entertain for a moment any such lip-smacking desires for our own vindication. Instead, perhaps our belief in Jesus’ return can have a different effect on two related fronts: the urgency of our witnessing and the peace with which we face the future. If we have this kind of certainty that all will one day see Jesus, then we should be interested in reducing the number of people who will regard that final apocalypse of Jesus as an apocalypse in the popular sense of that word.
When Jesus’ apocalypse at history’s end happens, we want this to be a joyful unveiling, a happy revelation for as many people as possible. So if we are certain that history really will pan out this way, then we should be less interested in seeing ourselves vindicated and more interested in helping others join Jesus’ victory. It’s not our vindication but Jesus’ victory that matters. If we can be as convinced as John was as to the reality of Jesus’ second coming, then we are not going to sit around passively and wait but we will actively tell others that primal message, “Jesus is Lord!”
The Book of Revelation is filled with strange, wonderful, and ultimately hopeful things. But if somehow, by some accident of history, we had lost this entire manuscript except for just these first eight verses, Revelation would still be worth reading. For even just this much of this book reveals to us a most wonderful apocalyptic truth: the God in Christ who was and who is remains now and ever shall be also the one who is to come.
When it comes to wondering what the future holds—and particularly whether or not it holds something dreadful and “apocalyptic” in the worst sense, a lot of people seem rather resigned, somewhat fatalistic about it all. As writer Daniel Wojcik noted in his book The End of the World As We Know It, you can detect the fatalism people carry around in their hearts just by listening to certain popular catch phrases. People will refer to this or that event in their lives (be it something good or something bad) and they’ll say things like, “It was fated that we meet this way. This was your destiny. It was meant to be. It was in the cards.” Or, when someone dies, people may characterize this by saying, “I guess his number was up. It was just his time. It was his fate.”
When facing the uncertainties of the future, many people will say that since there is nothing we can do about it anyway, the best we can do is grit our teeth, press forward, and hope for the best. And if the worst happens and some apocalypse comes, then that’s just the way it has to be. It’s all rather random anyway and so, in the meanwhile, we’ll live life while we have it and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, many people are perhaps not aware of the fatalism that colors their perceptions of the present and the future. It reminds me of the man who once declared, “I am not a fatalist! And even if I were, what could I do about it!?”