April 04, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Mark rings down the curtain on his Gospel before a single human being has as yet shared the news of the resurrection. That was sufficiently frustrating to some in church history that they tacked on a few more verses both to try to spice things up a bit and round the Gospel of Mark off a little better.
Luke gives us a memorable post-resurrection story on the Road to Emmaus that happened yet that first Easter day but then rather swiftly fast-forwards to an exceedingly brief account of the ascension 40 days later.
Matthew gives us just a handful of verses but you don’t really notice how little Matthew gives following the resurrection on account of his presenting the soaring words we now call “The Great Commission.” Still, that’s all Matthew has post-Easter.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the Synoptic Gospels are mighty thin on saying anything about Jesus once he showed up as a living presence again after Easter. I have always found that dearth of post-Easter narrative striking. Of course we ultimately have the Book of Acts to fill in a ton of blanks for us but still . . . the Gospels mostly end a little too soon in some ways.
Then again, the only thing that strikes me even more than the absence of post-Easter stories in the Synoptics is the presence of what John does include. After all, in terms of reporting words or events that took place after that first Easter Sunday, Matthew contains 5 verses, Mark contains 0 verses, and Luke contains 4 verses. John contains 33 verses, including one brief story that happened 1 week after the resurrection (“Doubting” Thomas’s encounter with Jesus) and then an entire chapter of something that happened at an unspecified post-Easter time (but that happened presumably some weeks later into the 40 days between Easter and Ascension).
John wins hands down in terms of the post-Easter Jesus. And yet look at what he gives us: Jesus tending a campfire on a beach!
Look, Jesus didn’t have to shake up the whole world and all its powers and authorities within the first 12-18 hours of his returning to life but all these weeks later the last place I’d expect to find the resurrected Lord of lords and King of kings hanging around is an isolated stretch of beach and the last thing I’d expect to find him doing in that remote place is frying fish and cooking biscuits.
Is this what life in this world looks like after Easter?! Is this how the resurrected Son of God behaves across 40 days while physically still on this earth?
You see, if we as preachers or if the members of the congregation as listeners to a sermon on John 21 isolate this text—make it one pearl on a long string of biblical narrative pearls nestled right next to the Sermon on the Mount, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and Elijah’s chariot of fire—then it becomes just another in a long series of nice, cozy Bible stories. But I suspect this story will never disclose its deepest meaning to us until or unless we allow its oddities to shine forth.
Hence we can ask: why are Jesus’ post-Easter words in some ways less startling than what came long before anyone thought to end his life by impaling him on a cross? Here we get no more parables, no more sermons (on a mount or anywhere else), no more walking on water or opening a blind person’s eyes. Instead across the first dozen or more verses of this story Jesus says just some very basic things:
“Come and have breakfast.”
Nothing earth-shattering there.
What is Jesus doing here? Why isn’t he in Rome lecturing the Caesar? Why isn’t he in Jerusalem telling old Herod and Pilate the truth of what had happened to him as a result of their execution orders? Why wasn’t Jesus anywhere else but that beach, maybe curing cancer, healing the blind, releasing some prisoners, making some crooked ways straight?
Even the spectacular catch of fish pales in comparison to stuff he had done before. Ever think of that? Consider: Earlier in John—as in all the gospels—Jesus took a couple of fish and a piece or two of bread and managed to do the eye-popping miracle of feeding 5,000 or so folks out of that meager fare. That was impressive!
But now in John 21 Jesus goes to the opposite extreme: he feeds 7 people from a catch of 153 fish. Not much of a miracle to that feeding!! Why were the miracles before Easter so much more interesting than the ones after?
It’s really no wonder that scholars have for centuries sought ways to spice up this little story by looking for symbolism and hidden meanings behind every little detail. Depending on whose commentary you read, everything may be freighted with secret meanings: the boat, the net, the water, and most tantalizingly of all for those on the hunt for secret meanings: the 153 fish. (My favorite on that one comes from no less than Augustine. According to Dale Bruner, Augustine thought this was a symbolic number arrived at my remembering that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 10+7=17 and if you add the integers from 1 to 17 (1+2+3+4 . . .) you arrive at precisely 153. So there you have it: 153 fish = a symbol of both Law and Gospel!)
No, no, no. Attempts to complexify this story end up ruining the story. We are so desperate to imbue the resurrected Jesus with cosmic meaning that we do not remain content to let him show up in so ordinary a circumstance and performing so common a set of tasks. But when we think about it—and when we ponder how to preach this story 2 Sundays after Easter in the Year C Lectionary cycle—we probably need to see Jesus in exactly the everyday set of circumstances that John depicts.
Because isn’t that where we need to encounter the Savior, too? We don’t need only a stained-glass Jesus who is other-worldly and who speaks words only meant for the holiest and most obviously sacred of events and occasions. We need a Jesus in the kitchen, “amid the pots and pans” as Theresa of Avila put it. We need a Jesus on the beach and at the office, in the car with us and while shopping at the mall. We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys, who sees us in those ordinary circumstances, and who speaks into those times and places, too.
So go ahead and heap lots of layered meanings and Dan Brown-like hidden symbols onto John 21 if you like. But I’m quite content with the Jesus on the beach, tending a fire, sizzling some perch, and saying to his friends, “Have some breakfast.”
By the way: Some may read the first part of this sermon starter and so will want to assert that if that little breakfast on the beach seemed a little on the trite side as post-Easter narratives go, at least things get more serious once the restoration of Peter takes place.
And true enough, Jesus’ extending his forgiving grace to the disciple who had so fiercely denied Jesus so as to save his own skin is a vital part of this story. But I’d argue that it, too, is part of the larger commonplace nature of this narrative—even Peter’s restoration emerges not from an incredibly spectacular context but, as it were, around the breakfast table.
I suppose those are the kinds of everyday settings where some of our best Gospel work of being gracious and forgiving need to happen, too.
Scholars assure us there’s nothing there. Twice Jesus asks Peter “Do you agape me?” and twice Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I phile you.” Finally on Round 3 Jesus picks up Peter’s word of choice to inquire “Peter, do you phile me?” and we’re told that Peter was sad because on the third time Jesus asked “Do you phile me” but nevertheless Peter does reply a third time, affirming that yes, he does have phile for Jesus. Semantic fields of meaning, lexical studies of various kinds, and historical inquiries into other writings at the time goad scholars into telling us that agape and phile were sufficiently close to being synonyms at the time that we cannot make too much out of the alternation in this conversation. And anyway, who knows what the original Aramaic of the conversation was. Maybe. But I still think John was too careful of a writer to not know full well the words he was wielding in his report of this conversation. The import of this exchange does not change a lot whether you make a big deal out of those words or not. But if Peter’s phile was his own admission that he was loving Jesus as best he could—even if it did not rise to the sacrificial and hyper-confident level of a word like agape—how comforting to see Jesus accept Peter as he is, warts and foibles and feet-of-clay and all, but still love him and forgive him and restore him.
The ordinary nature of this scene reminds you of so many other scenes in the Bible and of so many other times when people bumped into God in the least likely of places. Jacob is in a bad place and has to use a stone for a pillow but wakes up to discover that he had bedded down in Bethel, the very “house of God.” Moses is tending his sheep on a mountainside when a bush bursts into flame and the next thing he knew, he was standing barefoot in the presence of the great “I Am.” The spies dispatched by Joshua to scout out Jericho duck into a brothel and though they didn’t exactly go there looking for God, they end up hearing an inspired sermon delivered to them by no less likely a candidate to preach a sermon than the establishment’s chief madam, Rahab. The travelers on that first Easter Sunday left Jerusalem quite literally “to get away from it all” and to escape the sadness they had come to associate with the big city. They end up at Emmaus only to discover Jesus after all.
And in John 21, the disciples are on a beach. Even having seen the resurrected Jesus twice already, they seem at loose ends. They seem bored and restless, uncertain what to do. They go fishing for lack of a better idea and only after they get skunked despite an entire night of trolling the waters for their prey do they suddenly find Jesus.
On the beach.
Of all places.
It happens again and again in the Bible. And it happens to us more often than not, too, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Author: Doug Bratt
The Lord is willing to do almost whatever it takes to get people’s attention. So we save both God and ourselves a lot of time and energy if we just pay attention to the Lord right away.
C.S. Lewis was among the most famous Christian authors of the twentieth century. He, however, initially paid virtually no attention to the Lord. Lewis was, in fact, a virulent opponent of Christianity until God graciously got his attention in 1931. He later called his conversion the result of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
Saul too “earnestly desired not to meet” the risen Jesus. He grew up in the city of Tarsus, which means that he grew up surrounded by Gentiles. Saul eventually became one of the Pharisees who believed that Israel needed more than anything to return to a strict observance of her religious laws and traditions. After finishing his schooling, he took a job with the religious authorities. Saul’s basic job was to ensure that nothing changed within Judaism. And in his day, the greatest threat to the status quo was a group that called itself “The Way.”
This offers Acts 9’s preachers and teachers opportunities to reflect on and explore with their hearers religious change. Why do we find insights on the Scriptures that differ from our own so hard to even explore? Is there any danger in simply assuming we can’t be wrong in our interpretations of the Scriptures?
After all, Saul interpreted what we call the Old Testament very literally. That interpretation left no room for Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah whom God had raised him from the dead. That Jesus’ followers claimed he was the Way to God for both Jews and Gentiles. Since thousands of good Jews had already begun following this Jesus, Saul was determined to stop that change by stopping the movement.
So when Saul hears that the Jesus movement has spread into Damascus, he heads for that great city. He’s so afraid of how Jewish followers of Jesus may change his faith that he rides there to hunt them down. Stephen had reminded the mob that called for his death that their ancestors had also persecuted God’s prophets. Now Saul’s murderous work puts him squarely into that company of Jesus’ persecutors. Stephen called his enemies “murderers.” Saul now “breathes out murderous threats against” Christians.
However, Stephen had prayed that God would not hold Saul’s approval of his murder against him. Now God shows Saul just how far God is willing to go to answer “yes!” to that prayer.
After all, en route to Damascus, on the way, which is where change always seems to happen, the risen Christ gets Saul’s attention. God knocks Saul off his high horse.
Into Saul’s obsession with saving the Jewish faith from change, the ascended Christ interjects the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” So the One whom Saul assumes is a dead religious fraud speaks to him by name.
Saul answers not with the reason for his persecution, but with a question about the heavenly speaker’s identity. Jesus, in turn, answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” So as it turns out, Saul isn’t just persecuting Jesus’ followers. He’s also persecuting Jesus himself. That suggests there’s far more to this Jesus than Saul ever imagined. The One whom the Roman soldiers had executed is now alive.
Conversion stories are often about people who come to recognize their sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness. Yet Saul’s conversion clearly isn’t his idea. He doesn’t figure out that he’s a sinner who needs God’s forgiveness. Saul doesn’t recognize that he’s made himself God’s enemy by persecuting those he assumes are God’s enemies. Saul’s conversion is strictly God’s idea that comes at God’s initiative. God shows him more about God than he’d ever imagined.
One biblical scholar notes that our understanding of God determines both our faith and life. So if our view of God changes, so does everything else. Inversely, if we want to change, we may need to let God change our view of God. After all, because God created us in God’s image, those who have a flawed view of God have a flawed view of ourselves. So until our understanding of God changes, you and I can’t really change.
Yet God never changes us just to make us different. God always transforms us so that we can participate more fully in God’s work. However, just as was the case with Philip, unbelieving Saul isn’t the only one whom God wants to change. God has left the one who was persecuting God’s only Son as helpless as a baby. Saul’s travelling companions must hold his hand like they’d clasp that of a toddler and lead him into town. There Saul spends three days in the dark, perhaps alone, unable to either eat or drink. He becomes, in other words, like the kind of young child whom Jesus insists alone is prepared for entrance into God’s kingdom.
In the meantime a man named Ananias has his own encounter with the ascended Lord. He’s one of Jesus’ new followers who may be hiding in his home from the very Saul whose attention God has just gotten by knocking him off his horse. When the Lord gets Ananias’ attention by calling his name, he literally responds not by, like Saul, asking whom he’s talking to, but with the biblical “Here I am.” God then tells him to get up and go to the house where Saul is staying, lay hands on him and heal him.
One scholar compares that mission to that of a Jewish rabbi making a house call on Adolf Hitler in 1930’s Germany. Ananias assumes he already knows everything he needs to know about “this man” Saul. So he basically tells God, “You can’t be serious!” Yet God doesn’t argue with Ananias. God just repeats God’s assignment: “Go!”
That’s, after all, always God’s basic commission to God’s church, perhaps especially when it’s fearfully hiding behind various locked doors: “Get up and go to those who scare you. Get up and go to your enemies. Get up and fearlessly go as a disciple to work, or school or wherever your routine usually takes you.”
Acts reports that Ananias gets up and goes to his former persecutor. There he lays his hands on the one whom he’d just referred to as “this man” but now calls, “Brother Saul.” That’s when Saul’s healing begins and he can see clearly. And when Saul can finally see again, who’s the first person he probably sees? It’s precisely the kind of person to whom he’d devoted his life to exterminating. Now, however, Ananias is not an enemy, but a Christian brother.
God continues God’s transformation of Saul as he’s baptized and receives food, perhaps even the Lord’s Supper. Prepared in that way by the Lord, he promptly begins to “carry” Jesus’ name “before the Jewish people” of Damascus. In their synagogues Paul insists that the Jesus whom he’d been persecuting is actually the Son of God. He may even admit that he was wrong in coming there to persecute Jesus’ followers and invite Jews to turn with him to Jesus and believe in him. That’s, after all, the kind of work the risen Jesus sends his disciples to do.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons)
Charles Colson, who’d been known as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man, was implicated in the 1974 Watergate scandal. After serving seven months in prison for his role in the scandal, he was released in early 1975. Two years earlier, he publicly proclaimed that he had “accepted Jesus Christ.” He describes that conversion in his book, Born Again.
Perhaps Saul and Colson’s stories parallel each other in at least two ways. First, prison and its attending humiliation rendered Colson child-like in some ways. In prison, he depended on guards to provide him with nearly everything. Perhaps God even used that dependence to deepen Colson’s sense of dependence on the Lord.
Second, God brought a man named Tom Philips, the president of the Raytheon Company, alongside Colson to help and encourage him. It was Philips who first shared his testimony of his Christian faith with Colson. It was also Philips who walked alongside Colson as the Holy Spirit deepened his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Author: Stan Mast
In this Easter season, the lectionary readings call the church to explore and live into and celebrate the impact of Easter. With its imagery of death and resurrection, Psalm 30 is a perfect post-Easter Psalm. Its purpose is to keep the memory of our deliverance from death alive by voicing the deliverance again and adding our profound thanksgiving for it. It is, as one scholar put it, a prayer that is wholly praise, but the praise comes out of answered prayer.
From beginning to end, Psalm 30 is a many splendored thing, filled with some of the best lines in the Bible. The fact that it has three introductory notes in the superscription suggests that it can be used in a wide variety of settings. It is simply “a Psalm, a song.” It was intended “for the dedication of the house (a better translation than temple).” And it is “of David.”
Some scholars insist that we can’t take the “of David” literally, but others see a close connection between this Psalm and David’s experience in I Chronicles 21:1-22:6. In a burst of regal hubris, David ordered a census of his army. “Let’s see just how great I am.” God was very displeased with David. After all, the Lord, not the army, was the true source of David’s prosperity and security. So God visited his wrath upon Israel for David’s sin. The results were deadly, because the angel of the Lord moved through Israel as he had once moved through Egypt. There was death everywhere. David repented and God relented and there was life again. That’s when David began to prepare for the construction of the temple, even though he knew that his son, Solomon, would be the actual builder. Perhaps those experiences of sin and judgment, of death and new beginnings, and of preparation for the building of the temple are behind the superscription, “For the dedication of the house. Of David.”
It is certain that Psalm 30 came to be applied to Israel’s exile. Was it sung at the dedication of the second Temple, after a presumably dead Israel was restored to life and favor with God? Perhaps. We know for sure that in Jewish liturgical practice, it was chanted at the Hanukkah feast that celebrates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus after the desecration of that temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. Indeed, the word “dedication” in the superscription is the Hebrew word hanukkah.
And what Christian can read Psalm 30 and not think of Jesus? We can we easily read this Psalm as a description of Jesus experience on Good Friday and Easter with all these references to “death/the pit/the grave” and to being “lifted/brought up/spared.” And that reference to the temple resonates with Jesus’ words in John 2:19. After he cleansed the temple, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jewish leaders, of course, didn’t understand this saying. Indeed, they used it later as an accusation at his trial before the Sanhedrin. His disciples understood that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” only after “he was raised from the dead.” It is probably far too speculative to imagine Jesus singing this song of resurrection as he exited the grave. But it surely would have been suitable for that resurrection/rededication of the “temple of God,” where we now meet God in person.
Further, who can miss the applicability of this Psalm to our individual lives? The description of the trouble in the text seems to be almost intentionally general. We’re not told what the depths were, who the enemies were, what illness was healed, etc. It’s almost as though Psalm 30 was written in generic language so that any and all of God’s people could relate to the experience of having their lives radically changed by God.
That is the theme of the Psalm—change effected by the Sovereign Yahweh. That theme is repeated again and again through a pattern of alternation and reversal that is woven through the entire Psalm: “I called… you healed; “anger… favor,” “weeping…rejoicing,” “wailing… dancing,” divine displeasure… divine pleasure (verse 5), divine pleasure… divine displeasure (verse 7), silence of the grave (verse 9)… “my heart will not be silent (verse 12).” With these lovely literary turns of phrase, the Psalmist captures the changing shape of our lives. Through all the changes of life, God is the sovereign Lord who alone can save. Note how God is the mover in all of those radical turns in life. Again and again our God gives us a new lease on life through a gracious experience of resurrection. (See the reading from the Gospels and the Epistles for biblical examples—Peter in John 21 and Paul in Acts 9.)
Not only does the Psalmist burst forth in praise and commit himself to continue that praise all the days of his life, but he also calls on all the saints to join him in this song of thanksgiving. Indeed, it is possible to read the “I’s” of the Psalm as an expression of corporate identity. The “I” is Israel, the church, all the people of God. For the miracle of resurrection, all of God’s people must join in praise. This is something we can’t do alone. What God has done in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own resurrection is too big, too important to celebrate alone. So “sing to the Lord, you saints of his….”
As I said above, this Psalm contains some of the best lines in the Scripture. A careful exploration of them will help us appreciate the miracle of resurrection/salvation, so that we may give more profound thanks. Take verse 5, for example, which talks about God’s anger. “For his anger lasts only for a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Many Christians today don’t want to hear anything about God’s anger, but the Psalmist echoes the rest of Scripture in unabashedly saying that our sin makes God angry. That is not the only or final reality, but it is a reality. Thankfully, God’s anger lasts only a moment, but that’s not how life feels all the time. When we know that we have sinned and God is angry, it can seem as though the sun will never shine again. But what we feel is not reality, not the greatest reality. In fact, weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Again, verses 6-7 can help us explore the sin that can sink us into the depths of despair, from which God can raise us to the heights of praise. The Psalmist’s sin was the quintessential sin of our age—pride, hubris, expressed as complete self-reliance. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” In David’s case, it was the size of his army that made him feel completely secure, rather than the size and love of his God. For us, it might be the size of our portfolio, the security of our job, the strength of our connections, or the number of our achievements. Anticipating the bloviating of our politicians, David took credit for the prosperity of his life and nation. But God showed him that it is God who raises up and God who brings low. That’s the point of verse 7; the sovereignty of God controls the ups and downs of life. Now, we can make bad use of that truth, but it is a truth that must be preached in our self-sufficient age. Pride goes before the fall. And only God can raise up the fallen, even from the grave.
Verses 8-10 might also be fruitful ground to cultivate sermonically. Here we have a humble sinner crying to the Lord for mercy. There’s a point to preach. We don’t deserve resurrection; when it comes, it is sheer mercy. But more interesting is the way the Psalmist reasons with God as he pleads for mercy. Almost like Abraham bargaining for Sodom or Moses pleading for Israel after the Golden Calf, David asks God what good it will do God to destroy him. “After all, if I’m dead, who will praise you? Will the dust?”
Of course, behind this kind of reasoning is a less than New Testament understanding of life after death. Revelation had not progressed that far yet. Apparently David believed that when he died, that was it. It remained for Jesus to declare, “I am the resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me shall live, even though he dies. And who lives and believes in me shall never die.” At this moment in the history of redemption and revelation, David’s best argument for mercy was that his continued existence would mean continued thanksgiving to God. His death would result in silence.
Strange as that reasoning may be, it does point us ahead to the end of the Psalm in verses 11-12 where the resurrected one commits himself to give thanks forever. God “has turned my wailing into dancing, [and] removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.” Having received his life back, David will spend the rest of his life giving thanks. There’s a simple, but profound truth in David’s commitment. Thanksgiving is the necessary response to God’s deliverance. To fail to give thanks after the miracle of resurrection is to make life unbalanced and distorted and diminished. After Jesus healed those ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks. With astonishment and sadness, Jesus asked, “Where are the others?” Indeed. Reality has been forever changed by the Resurrection of Jesus and our attendant mini-resurrections. How can we not respond with a lifetime of thanks?
Just when we thought Rocky Balboa had shuffled off this mortal coil, he’s back in a new movie called, “Creed.” In my less than sanctified state, I loved those bloody tributes to the underdog who rose up from apparent defeat to vanquish the invincible foe. It was thrilling to see Rocky dancing in victory on the stairway. There is something to admire in those who will not quit.
But those movies, and hundreds like them, are an expression of a kind of American can-do attitude that might make genuine salvation almost impossible to grasp. When our success, security, prosperity, and salvation are seen as the result of our own efforts, we are danger of a great fall. Indeed, sometimes it takes a fall to make us see the truth. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” It’s not about us; it’s about the God who raises up the fallen, and replaces weeping with rejoicing, sackcloth with clothes of joy
Author: Scott Hoezee
Lucy pushes past the woolen and fur coats only to discover that the wardrobe’s back has disappeared and suddenly snow is crunching beneath her feet. Alice falls through the looking glass and lands in an enchanted realm where rabbits talk and mad hatters hold funny tea parties. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his entire bedroom transformed into a jungle world that brought him to that place where the wild things are and where Max was king.
Over and again in literature, on television, and at the movies, the notion of parallel worlds has long intrigued us. What if, just beyond the veil of what our ordinary sight can perceive, what if there is another whole world waiting to be discovered? The possibility of parallel universes has long been a staple in science fiction. Something funny happens to the USS Enterprise and suddenly Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on a different Starship Enterprise in a parallel world where everything looks familiar and yet where everything is the opposite from their usual world.
That’s the stuff of science fiction, but in the real world of science you can likewise hear a lot of talk about the specter of alternative realities, parallel universes, other dimensions in the space-time continuum to which we don’t have access. Maybe black holes are the portals to these different dimensions. Maybe cosmic string theory holds the clues to such things. Some atheistic scientists who find it difficult to explain the emergence of life in this universe (but who most assuredly do not want to give any room to the possibility of a Creator God being behind it all) claim that maybe right this very moment there are millions of alternative, parallel universes in existence. After all, if there are enough universes out there, even random statistics could suggest that somewhere in the midst of all those realities one would hit it lucky and lead to human life, and we are in the one universe that hit it right.
Of course, writer Greg Easterbrook once pointed out the irony in such theories. Because it is odd that the same scientists who belittle the “blind faith” of Christians somehow manage to spin out theories of whole universes for which there is not one shred of evidence. Tell the average scientist you believe in angels, and he will roll his eyes. “If you can’t see it, you shouldn’t believe in it,” she may claim. But then this same person may turn right around and deliver a one-hour scholarly lecture that suggests the existence of whole universes that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard. Talk about blind faith!
But the fact remains: whether it is Lucy tumbling into Narnia, Captain Kirk slipping into a mirror-opposite starship, or Max sailing off to where the wild things are, we remain curious about the idea of parallel dimensions and worlds. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed, and so now enter the apostle John. On a lonely island called Patmos one day, banished from the civilized world because of all his Jesus-talk, John suddenly slipped through a cosmic crack and fell into a whole new world every bit as strange and foreign as anything Alice saw in Wonderland and yet undeniably real as well.
One of the mistakes people often make about the Book of Revelation is thinking that this whole chronicle of what John saw and heard is about the future only. The Greek title of this book is Apocalypse, which also has a futuristic ring to it in popular speech. The “apocalypse” is about the end of all things somewhere down the road. When the apocalypse happens, it will be the end of the story, but until then, the story goes on and so the apocalypse is at least a little ways off yet. It is later, not now.
But the meaning of that original Greek word has to do with revealing something right now. It’s like that old TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. What is behind Door #1? What is inside the box that Carol Merrill is even now carrying down the aisle? You don’t know until someone reveals it to you. The door has to be opened, the box cover must be removed. That also counts as an apocalypse, as is someone whispering into your ear, “Psst, you’ve got a smudge of dirt on your nose” or “Pssst, your slip is showing, dear.”
The first three chapters of Revelation contain pointed messages for the churches that were in existence in John’s day. Those messages were every bit as relevant then as the announcements I made at the beginning of this service this very morning. There is no missing the contemporary nature of those first chapters, and yet somehow in our minds we shift gears once we get to chapter 4 and beyond. Suddenly we let our thinking about these words switch from something as up-to-date as the headline in today’s newspaper to something that extends deep into the mists of some indeterminate future time. But John himself doesn’t make any such break in reporting what he saw. It all flows together.
So do the people of God, world-wide and history-long. We are all one Church, one people, one holy gathering of God’s elect. We mostly think of “the church” as “my church,” the church on the corner. Maybe we get a bit broader in our thinking and ponder “my denomination.” But Revelation 5 wants you to think far more grandly and broadly. Certainly the vision John reports must have been inspiring to him. There he was, all alone on that remote island. For all he knew, he was the last Christian alive. Maybe the same Roman authorities who had already managed to murder Paul and Peter, James, Andrew, Stephen, and the other apostles had succeeded in wiping out everyone else, too. But then the Holy Spirit of God did the profoundly kind thing of pulling back the curtain so that John could peer into another dimension to reality, a parallel universe that we neither see ordinarily nor, alas, ponder very often, and yet it is every bit as real as the tile beneath your feet or the wood of the pew in front of you in this sanctuary this very moment.
John saw the communion of the saints, the one holy catholic and universal church that is never alone, is never without powerful forces guarding it. John saw the prayers of the saints as precious incense filling up golden bowls, reminding him and now all of us that no prayer is ever lost, no prayer is ever forgotten, no prayer is ever anything less than the most precious commodity in the cosmos, fully worthy of the opulent golden bowls that hold the prayers. But above all, John saw the Savior who is both Lion and Lamb, both that powerful Pantocrator we thought about some weeks ago and the humble creature who bears all over himself the marks of having been killed. In the deep magic of all reality, somehow the death of this being created a whole new reality that just is the one church of Christ, the communion of the saints, the ones now known as the kingdom of God who serve this God forever.
That is the vital fact we dare not forget. Because if that is what created us as a communion of saints, as a single and holy church, then that is also our charter. Since we owe our very existence as a community to that Lamb that was slain, we know that humble service and loving sacrifice need to be the hallmarks of us, too.
But in this harsh and brutal world, that can be difficult to remember. It doesn’t seem to make sense that the mild way of service and the meekness of sacrifice could accomplish anything. Ours is a world where might makes right, where it’s survival of the fittest, where nice guys finish last. The forces arrayed against the truth seem to be so powerful and so numerous. In this country we have in times past found it easy (maybe too easy) to presume that public policy and Christian doctrine would go hand in hand. But there are any number of issues of late that seem to go the other way. Popular opinion, and sometimes also the law of the land, are at variance with a few things we think the Bible teaches. Truth is, that has been the experience of most Christians throughout history, but we’re not accustomed to feeling like a minority voice and it frustrates us a little but maybe also frightens us a little.
Like John languishing on Patmos, we worry that we are outnumbered and outshouted. We fret that maybe ours could be a voice lost in the larger din of this noisy world. Those are the kinds of feelings that can lead to desperation, and desperation has a way of leading to violence, to unduly harsh rhetoric, to un-Christian acts of intimidation. But maybe it is precisely at a moment like that when we, too, need to have the curtain pulled back for us to give us a glimpse of what John saw. We are not alone. Our cause is not lost because, when you get right down to it, we cannot lose because the Lamb has already won!
Our faith shows us that what was revealed to John was not some future, hoped-for reality that may or may not come into existence somewhere down along the line. What John saw was real then and it is just as real right now, this very day as well. As the Catechism claims, we share in Christ and all his treasures and gifts and we do so in this present moment. The Holy Spirit is eager to pull back the curtain to show us yet again this fantastic vision of all those angels, of all those golden bowls filled with our prayers, of all those saints in glory. But the Spirit shows us this not to foster pie-in-the-sky optimism for the future but to shore us up to witness and work and serve today.
There is no cause for desperation, panic, or the kinds of clutching and clawing actions that can too easily result from the fear that we are on the losing side of history. Instead we have the calm confidence and the joyful repose that comes from having seen that the universe’s sovereign received all the power and honor and glory there is, and he did it by being the servant of all. For all the rest of us who are now called to be fellow servants in the communion of the saints, this provides more than a little encouragement to stick with our Lord’s program and with his way of running that program as well.
Revelation 5 ends with a most stirring image. We are told that in the end, it is not enough to have ten thousand times ten thousand angels singing out our Lord’s praises. The real capper comes when every last creature in the world, including those in the deepest oceans, likewise rise up to sing the doxology. You expect God’s holy angels to sing a song to Jesus the Christ, but perhaps nothing so vividly shows the scope of our God’s victory than the fact that eagles and dolphins, jaguars and hummingbirds, sandhill cranes and elephants will also give the Lamb honor and glory and praise forever and ever.
Have even these creatures gotten a glimpse of what is behind history’s curtain? If they have not yet, they will. That’s why they will sing. But by the Spirit of God, we have glimpsed this sacred apocalypse. We’ve seen it. We believe it. The only question that remains in the communion of the saints is whether or not this is making us sing with joyful confidence. Can you see it? Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! And with those four living creatures that John saw, all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Neal Plantinga once preached a sermon with the curious title “The Wrath of the Lamb.” We don’t usually expect lambs to roar any more than we could anticipate being frightened by a puppy or getting beat up by a baby who had just been baptized in a church service. Lambs, puppies, and babies inspire us to coo, to make exclamations of “Awww, how cute, how adorable, how cuddly!” Yet John gives us a Lamb that has been to hell and back, and if those scars are not enough to take us aback, there is also a fire burning now in that Lamb’s eyes–a fire that lets you know that an all-powerful Lion is in there, too.
And in fact, were you to read on into Revelation 6 and 7 as those seven seals of the scroll are undone, you would discover that just about every one of those seals unleashes terrible (and terrifying) forces of darkness, destruction, death, and judgment. It is not a pretty picture. But then, this world itself seldom presents what anyone would call a pretty picture. That’s why everything that is wrong with this world–its warfare and terrorism, its injustices and inequities, its love affair with murder and violence, its racism and discrimination of all kinds–all of it is going to be dealt with by the very Lamb of God who himself became a victim of this planet’s ugliness.
Just that is the key, however: the Lamb now receives accolades beyond the telling of it. Apparently you could not possibly exaggerate the honors due to Jesus. So we are told that all power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise get drawn toward Jesus like iron filings to a powerful magnet. But the reason is his bloody death, his awful sacrifice. Jesus rose to the top by sinking first to the bottom. For all the resplendent glory of Revelation 5, despite all the wonderful songs and choruses that have been composed based on these words, there can be no missing the prevalence of all that talk about death, about being slain, about being killed, and about the spilling of blood.