April 22, 2019
The Easter 2C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 20:19-31 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 5:27-32 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 150 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Revelation 1:4-8 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 22 (Lord’s Day 7)
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 a local restaurant 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: Stan Mast
To my great surprise and delight, the RCL moves to the book of Acts on this Second Sunday of Eastertide and stays there until Pentecost. Clearly the intent is to follow the trajectory of Easter. What happened to the church and the world after Jesus rose from the dead? Did that single historical act have any longer and larger effect?
The Risen Christ had told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations—an audacious, almost laughable Commission, given how few of them there were and how poorly equipped they were. Beginning in Jerusalem they were to move to the ends of the earth. How on earth could that happen? The book of Acts was written precisely to answer that question. And our text for today is an absolutely crucial chapter in the story.
I am excited about the Lectionary moving to Acts because of the Easter text on which I wrote last week. Isaiah 65 gave us a magnificent, poetic take on Easter. That single act of Jesus Resurrection inaugurated the new heavens and the new earth. I noted that Isaiah 65:17,18 used the word created (bara in Hebrew, the word from Genesis 1), and I pointed out that the verb could be translated in the future or the imperfect. In other words, the new heavens and the new earth began with the Resurrection and will be completed in the future, but God is also creating that new world right now by a continual and increasing series of actions. Our text in Acts 5 and subsequent readings from Acts show us how God is creating that new world through the witness of the church.
The few verses on which we focus today may seem like a tiny morsel, until we read them in context. Then we see them as the crucial hinge in the early story of the church and the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Resurrection. At the beginning of Acts, the Risen Jesus had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until God gave them the gift of the Spirit. No matter how convinced they were about Jesus saving work and how committed they were to his mission to the world, they couldn’t begin to bear witness as he told them, until they had the Spirit in them. So, they waited and prayed.
Then Pentecost happened. They were instantly filled with the Spirit and they spontaneously began to bear witness, with stunning results. Three thousand were converted after one Spirit fueled sermon about Jesus death and resurrection. The first apostolic miracle was performed by Peter and John. The populace was amazed at what was happening. It was a heady time.
And then the trouble began. The Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of Judaism, some 70 priests and scholars) got wind of what was happening. They had Peter and John arrested and thrown in prison. They summoned Peter and John to explain what was going on with this miracle and their preaching. In the power the Spirit, Peter and John boldly witnessed about Jesus. And when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop speaking in Jesus name, Peter and John simply defied them.
More preaching and more miracles followed. As might be expected, the Sanhedrin arrested and imprisoned not only Peter and John, but also the rest of the apostles. They meant to stamp out this little band of brothers and stop this Jesus nonsense right now. When the authorities sent for the Twelve the next morning, the guards found the cells empty and learned that the Twelve were right back in the Temple courts preaching about Jesus. Enraged, the Sanhedrin hauled the apostles into court (though gently for fear of the awe-struck crowds).
That is where our text picks up the story. The atmosphere is charged with tension, even fear. The Sanhedrin have moved from annoyance to apprehension, “wondering what would come of this (5:24).” Clearly, they were dealing with something of a phenomenon here. These ordinary men were upsetting the whole city of Jerusalem with this Jesus talk. For their part, these apostles should have been afraid, too. After all, they were being threatened by the very men who had killed their Master. But, on the other hand, he had just been raised from the dead. Of that, they were fearless witnesses.
Here is the first serious opposition to the Gospel and the Kingdom it would build. The entire authority of the Jewish religion confronts the entire authority of the church, the 70 against the 12, the showdown at the Temple Court. Would the 70 be able to silence the 12? Would the progress of the Kingdom be stopped before it ever moved out of Jerusalem? Who would blink?
Summoning up all their authority the Sanhedrin speaks in thunderous tones. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.” Note that the high priest can’t bring himself to use the name of Jesus, or won’t allow himself to dignify the name of that damned (literally) criminal he had hung on the cross. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Of course, they were guilty. But to divert attention from their blood guilt, the high priest virtually accuses the Twelve of a hate crime. In preaching about this man’s death and our role in it, you are making us look bad in the eyes of your audiences. By preaching Jesus as the only Savior, you are denying our religion. You must stop, or else!
Summoning up all their authority the Twelve speak boldly. When the authorities had ordered silence the first time (4:18), Peter and John had been a bit more deferential. “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” Now, this second demand for silence is met with a bolder statement. “We must obey God rather than men!”
Those words have been used over the years to justify all sorts of civil disobedience, but we must be careful not to misapply Scripture. These words do not give everyone carte blanche to pursue their cause in the face of authority, just because they believe God is on their side. The context here must guide us. The Twelve were simply defending their right/obligation to preach the Gospel. Jesus had told them to go and preach the Gospel. They must obey him rather than those who were offended by that Gospel.
The Twelve are very definite about what constitutes the Gospel. It has to do with what God has done in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Yes, those discrete historical acts have much wider Kingdom implications, and we should preach the Kingdom. After all, Jesus did. But we must never forget that the work of God in Christ must be the center of our Gospel preaching. The kingdom will not come, except by God’s actions in Christ and our preaching about those actions. At this critical juncture in the progress of the Kingdom of God on earth, the first preachers were very careful to summarize the Gospel in just a few words.
“The God of our fathers (note how they connect this new word to the old faith) raised Jesus from the dead….” From the beginning, a real resurrection has been at the very heart of the Gospel. And God did it, your God, our God, the God of our fathers, Yahweh. God raised Jesus. That matters more than anything, because, as Paul famously said in I Corinthians 15, if he didn’t rise, then none of the rest is true and we are still in our sins and we are misrepresenting God himself.
So, the Gospel starts with the resurrection, which was necessitated by a crucifixion—“whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Note that the Twelve don’t simply talk about Jesus’ death; they focus on the means of his death—on a tree. Of course, that’s because the Old Testament said that death-by-hanging-on-a-tree was an accursed death. The one so killed was considered accursed by God. That was the point for the Jewish leaders; he deserved to be cursed because he claimed to be the Son of God and the King of the Jews. He was guilty of both blasphemy and treason and deserved to be cursed by Temple and Rome. That is also the point of the Gospel, but in a very different way. Jesus was accursed, but not for his own sin. For ours.
But the Gospel doesn’t end there. It also proclaims that the Risen Jesus has been “exalted by God (note again that God is the Actor in the story of the Gospel) to his own right hand as Prince and Savior….” The story of Jesus doesn’t end on earth at around 33 AD. It goes on and on, because the very earthly Jesus, the crucified Jesus, the risen Jesus, is now in heaven in the place of ultimate authority, ruling all things and saving the world. There is the Gospel in three acts—crucifixion, resurrection, ascension/session. Anything else is not the Gospel. Anything else will not propel the Kingdom to the ends of the earth and every square inch of creation.
Oh, yes, there is one more element of the Gospel, namely, what this Jesus wants to do now. Well, say his witnesses, God did all those things to and through Jesus “that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” There is so much to unpack in those few words. How we understand them will impact how the gospel will be preached and taught for the next 2000 years.
As we saw last week in Isaiah 65, God will create a whole new world through the work of Christ; everything will be made new. But all the change begins in the human heart and between God and sinners. Before anything else can change, there must be repentance and forgiveness of sins. That doesn’t mean the Gospel is unconcerned with social justice, acts of compassion, deeds of mercy, the reordering of human society along the lines of the Kingdom of God. It means that none of those things can happen until repentance and forgiveness of sins take place.
I could say much more about that, and you may choose to do so, but I will note just two more things about verse 31b. First, repentance and forgiveness are “given” by Jesus. We do not earn forgiveness by repentance. Repentance is as much a gift as forgiveness. Both are part of the salvation won by Christ. We must repent, but to do so, we must rely on Jesus to give us a changed heart and mind. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Second, Jesus wants to give those gifts to “Israel.” That is an important note, given how subsequent history has used verse 30b as justification to persecute the Jewish people for killing Christ. Such persecution is contrary to the Gospel, not only because Jesus death was the work of only a few Jews, particularly the leaders, but also, and more importantly, because Jesus wants us to forgive them. He himself said, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” Here the Apostles summarize the Gospel by saying that the purpose of Jesus saving work was “to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” Not only to Israel, of course, as later developments in Acts will show, but certainly to Israel first (cf. Romans 9-11).
In this moment of high drama, with the future of the church and the Kingdom and the new heavens and earth on the line, the Apostles do what Jesus commanded them to do—be witnesses for him. This Gospel is not something they made up to perpetuate the myth of Jesus. They are risking their lives because of what they heard and saw and touched. God did these things through Christ, and “we are witnesses of these things.” On such witnessing the church and the kingdom and the world lives, or dies.
Thank God it didn’t just depend on these human witnesses. They were just as frail and frightened as we are, until the Spirit came, to be a co-witness; “and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” He is why the Kingdom is finally irresistible. Nothing can stop it—not the Sanhedrin, not Saul, not Rome, not communism, not post-modern secularism, not “the Prince of Darkness grim.” God has done these things we have seen and heard in Christ. And God the Spirit in us is the light and power we need to keep witnessing. The rest of Acts tells the story of the Acts of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit.
I’m sure you can see that the church today is at a similar critical juncture, a hinge of history. Opposition to the Gospel is growing apace. Daring to say that God has acted to save the world through the death and resurrection of one Jewish man is viewed as the height of intolerance, if not a hate crime. Claiming that Jesus is in charge of everything brings hoots of derision in a world filled with suffering and evil. Calling people to repentance and offering forgiveness is labelled moral and spiritual arrogance. Threats to the church tempt the church to change the terms of the Gospel, so that it is less about what God has done in Christ and more about what we need to do in the name of Christ. What will we do in this showdown in the court of human opinion? May God fill us with his Spirit, so that we dare to obey Jesus rather than humanity and continue to preach the ancient Gospel. On that, the church, the kingdom, and the world depend.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Whether it’s a Broadway play like Les Miserables or a classic movie like The Sound of Music, most people enjoy a good musical. But have you ever wondered what it is about such productions that appeals to us? After all, musicals are decidedly unlike real life. In The Sound of Music people burst into song constantly–during dinner, while delivering telegrams. That’s just how it goes in musicals–people sing at the oddest moments. But if you were standing in line at McDonald’s and a woman suddenly started crooning a ballad to her children, you’d take a step back. Or if you were on an airplane flying to Pittsburgh and the man behind you suddenly started to sing, Frank Sinatra-like, “Come Fly with Me,” you would no doubt panic at being seated so close to a weirdo!
Life is definitely not like a musical! In our society singing is a relatively rare event, restricted largely to church. If you’ve ever been at a funeral attended by mostly non-churchgoing folks, then you know how dismal the singing can be. The simple fact is that outside church people just don’t get much practice in group singing anymore.
Nevertheless, there is something deep down inside most folks that wants to sing. This is what fuels the phenomenon of Karaoke (that and a deep-seated, though not always accurate, belief many people have that they are also good singers!). How often haven’t you glanced in your rearview mirror while waiting for a red light only to see the person behind you singing along with the radio with great gusto! At outdoor concerts there are usually lots of folks singing along with the performer up on the stage. Indeed, when I attended a Paul McCartney concert a couple of years ago, the most moving moment for a Beatles fan like me was near the end when Paul—and the other 10,000 of us—all sang “Hey, Jude” together. Every person there fancied he or she was personally singing a duet with Paul! (Well, at least I did. And I do sing well. Really.)
Music touches us on a level that ordinary speech does not reach. Music can soothe, comfort, enliven, and lift our hearts. Why is it, for instance, that at a funeral we can recite something like the Apostles’ Creed without batting an eye and yet fall apart when it’s time to sing “By the Sea of Crystal”? Why is it that sometimes you can hear the merest snatch of a certain tune and suddenly tears leap to your eyes as you are transported back to a time when your children were young or when you and your spouse got engaged?
Or, in terms of a worship service, why is it that when a teenager wants to rebel, singing is often the first thing he or she refuses to do? Few postures of defiance bother me more than when I spy someone, young or old, who stands in the midst of the congregation, arms folded across his chest, lips clamped tightly shut while everyone around him is singing praises to God. Perhaps such people don’t sing because they refuse to let themselves become as caught up in worship as music inevitably forces a person to be.
Because as Psalm 150 makes clear, music is a defining force in Christian worship. Psalm 150 is perhaps the Bible’s single grandest statement of praise. It is also the grand finalé to the Book of Psalms. Like that final cascading shower of fireworks and rapid-fire booms, bangs, bursts, and blooms on the Fourth of July so also Psalm 150’s grand finalé stuns you with its swift succession of images and staccato flurry of praise commands.
But you must read this psalm the right way to appreciate how much wallop it packs. In the original Hebrew the phrase hallelu yah is in the imperative mood. Literally translated it means “Praise Yahweh.” But you are supposed to read those words while also picturing a finger wagging in your face or maybe thumping you in the chest. This represents the psalmist “getting in your face.” Here the poetic bard is going nose-to-nose with the reader, getting so close you can smell the garlic on his breath as he shouts, “You there! Yes, you! Grab an instrument, open your mouth, and get going! Praise Yahweh! I mean it! Move! Sing! Dance! Show some respect!”
This is the praise imperative.
This is the psalmist as army drill sergeant, barking to the world his order to worship. Actually, the structure of Psalm 150 at first keeps you in suspense as to just who is being addressed. From verses 1-5 we receive a rapid-fire string of eleven imperative commands. But only in verse 6, at the end, are we told who is being commanded. And guess what? It’s everybody! It’s everything that has breath, which includes not only every person on the planet but also hippos and red-eyed vireos.
Because if you’ve got breath in your lungs, you have received the gift of life from God himself. If you breathe, you show by that very action that you’ve come from the workshop of a Master Craftsman–the one who snorted oxygen into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning and who has now done the same for you. According to Psalm 150 the first thing you should do with that breath is exhale it back to God in praise!
But today, as when this psalm was first penned, this universal call to praise the God of Israel is a scandal and offense to most folks. People don’t like to be told what to do, particularly in the area of religion. Religion is a private matter. It’s nobody else’s business. You believe what you want to believe and I’ll do the same. What’s true for you does not need to be true for me. So let’s just leave one another alone on the subject.
There is an inherent scandal in Psalm 150’s strident calls to praise Yahweh. This is not going to be well-received by everyone who has breath. Yet if we believe in this God, if we perceive the power and greatness and grandeur of which Psalm 150 speaks, and if we believe that this very God is the beginning and end of all creatures, then we must find ways to obey and so issue this praise imperative ourselves. What Psalm 150 enjoins us to do is to sing and worship and praise God in such a unified and joyful way as to attract others. When we properly follow the praise imperative ourselves, we become a window to God–one through which others will indeed see God.
Because as Psalm 150 makes clear, worship is not about us, it’s about God. It’s about the God who gave us the very breath we use to praise him in the first place. It’s about the God whose grandeur exceeds our finest musical efforts to bring it to speech. It’s about the God who created not only the variety of instruments listed in this psalm but who created the whole warp and woof of this creation’s diversity. Indeed, just two psalms earlier, in Psalm 148, the psalmist made clear that God is just as surely praised by the crashing of waves on the shore as he is by a human larynx singing a hymn; God is as pleased by the breath exhaled in a liquid run of notes from the Wood Thrush’s little lungs as he is by the glorious sounds exhaling from a pipe organ’s massive bellows.
We’re not alone in the cosmic chorus to the Creator. And even as it would be foolish for the soprano section of a choir to disdain the altos, so any given group of Christians would be wrong to look down on the worship of other believers, even if the music or the style were radically different from what one person may be accustomed to. But where Psalm 150-style worship really happens, where God truly is given the glory by people in love with his grace and stunned by his grandeur, then that is something for which all believers must be grateful!
Nobody likes to get ordered around. A finger thumping you in the chest is always a tad off-putting. But given what is at stake in Psalm 150, we can be glad not only to receive the praise imperative but to have regular opportunity to obey it, and most certainly our praise continues this week after Easter, after the grandest victory of God ever!
As referenced above . . . and note in the video below: nobody had to issue a single imperative to get this mass of folks to join in on the song. They wanted to. Music is like that. This must happen in the church too and spreading out from there to the whole world!
Author: Doug Bratt
With this week’s Epistolary lesson the RCL takes another step back into the muddy waters that are the book of Revelation. In fact, on this second Sunday of Easter, the RCL returns us to the Revelation 1:4-8 we just visited on the last Sunday of Year B. On this Sunday, then, we take a kind of second/first step on Year C’s five-week journey through Revelation.
It’s an appropriate step and stop on the RCL’s (some argue too) quick tour of the letter. After all, Revelation 1:4-8 answers some very basic questions about the entire letter. Verse 1 answers the question of why John wrote it: to show God’s “servants what must soon take place.”
It’s a “revelation” (1) the seven churches to which the apostle addresses it desperately need to hear. While Revelation’s precise dating is a bit murky, its context seems clearer. The Roman Empire is doing what it can to limit or even eliminate the Christian Church and its influence.
After all, while Rome’s Caesar expected citizens of the Empire to worship and affirm that he was their “lord,” Christians, of course, couldn’t do that. They worshiped Jesus as Lord. Since the Caesar and his Rome assumed that was treason, they vigorously persecuted the early Church.
In the face of that sometimes-bloody persecution, John reveals what “must soon take place” (1). Revelation 1’s preachers and teachers will want to emphasize that its “soon” can mean a variety of things. Our text’s God isn’t necessarily talking chronologically. God is talking about the soon of now, of currently, of the present. God is talking about what’s happening in John and his readers’ world even as the apostle writes.
Revelation’s God is revealing to John how the gospel affects human life and history, including how that life and history responds to that good news that is the gospel. There are a lot of powerful forces at work in not only John and his first readers’ world, but also in our own.
In that sense “what soon must take place” may even refer to Revelation’s mysterious images of human power and authority. John wants to help his beleaguered readers differentiate among those powers so that they may know just “who’s in charge here.”
However, we’re not sure just who this “John” (4a) is. The early Church assumed that he was Jesus’ disciple who was Zebedee’s son. Later scholarship, however, challenged that authorship. Yet our proclamations of Revelation don’t want to get bogged down in that controversy. Its preachers and teachers may want to simply note that Revelation’s John is a Christian prophet or teacher whom the Romans have exiled to the island of Patmos for proclaiming the gospel.
This John writes the book of Revelation “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (4b), in what most people now call modern-day Turkey. Some scholars suggest John was the pastor of at least some of those churches. “To the seven churches” reminders readers that while Christians sometimes treat Revelation as some kind of mysterious code, it’s, first of all, a letter. John writes it to not just to the seven churches of chapters 2-3, but also to all the churches in order to tell them what God has revealed to him.
John’s letter to the churches is full of imagery that “reveals” or “unveils.” But those who proclaim Revelation will want to state the obvious: its imagery was clearer to its first readers than citizens of the 21st century. In that way, its imagery looks a little to us like things like rotary phones look to people born after the year 2000.
Even this week’s relatively brief lesson gives us a glimpse of some of Revelation’s mysterious imagery. In verse 4c, after all, John greets the churches on behalf of “the seven spirits before” God’s throne. Even the NIV’s text note that suggests it may also mean “the sevenfold Spirit” doesn’t do much to clarify that reference.
John uses that imagery and more to reveal to his readers Jesus Christ (1). N.T. Wright (Revelation for Everyone, Westminster John Knox, 2011) has written about that revelation, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving imagery. John would agree with the second of these, but would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside.”
So who is this Jesus whom God graciously reveals to John? On this second Sunday in Easter, those who proclaim this passage will want to emphasize that he is, as verse 5 professes, “the firstborn from the dead.” Jesus is, we might say, the resurrection’s eldest child. After all, the Jesus whom Jewish religious leaders convinced the Romans to crucify didn’t stay dead. God raised him from death to life on the first Easter that we celebrated only last Sunday.
But, of course, while Jesus was the first person to rise from the dead and stay alive, he won’t be the last. Jesus is merely the “firstborn,” the eldest in a long familial line of people whom God promises to physically raise from the dead at the end of measured time. He is, in other words, the first member of our adopted family to rise from the dead. But he won’t be our last.
John adds, however, that Jesus is also “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (4b, 8). So Jesus is not, like those who read this Starter, limited to the mid-20th century to the early 21st century. Jesus somehow stretches out over time.
So it’s not just that the Son of God always was or that he was at the beginning of measured time. It’s not even just that Jesus is here and now, by his Spirit. It’s also that Jesus will come again and, in fact, always be. Verse 8 echoes that message: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
This everlasting Jesus is, John adds in verse 5b, “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These were, to Caesar and his minions, fighting words. After all, Rome’s ruler and his cohorts assumed that he, as a son of god, was in charge. The Caesar convinced his Roman subjects that he was the “ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Rome’s Caesar and his minions wanted to make sure that those who watched them strut and parade around had little doubt to whom “glory and power” (6b) belonged. Rome alone was glorious and powerful. Those who doubted that had simply to look at the Jesus and others whom Rome crucified in order to remind everyone just whom it assumed was in charge.
In the face of that, and the political and military evidence that seemed to back up that claim, John insists that Jesus is both the only natural Son of God and ruler over even Caesar. It’s no wonder the Romans banished John (and his preaching and teaching) to the end of their earth the way they had tried to crucify Jesus.
In verse 7 the exiled preacher goes on to promise that everlasting King Jesus “is coming with the clouds.” We generally link this promise to the prospect of Jesus’ return at the end of measured time to judge the living and the dead, as well as usher in the new earth and heaven.
Yet at least some scholars hear in this “coming” an allusion to Daniel’s prophecy of “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14). If that’s true, John may be saying that the “one like a son of man,” Jesus, has already come and, in fact, comes every day. John 3:13-14, after all, insists that Jesus is that Son of Man in and through whom God has worked, is working and will continue to work to accomplish God’s plans and purposes.
Those plans and purposes include, as my colleague Stan Mast notes in an earlier sermon starter on this text (November 16, 2015), the gifts of “grace and peace to” (4b) to Revelation’s beleaguered readers. That message of grace, in fact, virtually bookends John’s letter to the churches. After all, his “signature” on it is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with God’s people. Amen” (22:21). So to the exiled John who writes to beleaguered Christians, it seems to be all about grace from start to finish.
Mast’s Sermon Starter on this text quotes some famous first words. He points out that the country song, “Famous First Words” lists some first words you might hear first in a bar: “Hey, where have you been all my life? Haven’t we met somewhere before? Don’t I know you?”
Mast also quotes some literary first words. Consider C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s, “His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’, “It was the best of times and worst of times.”
That got me to thinking about famous last words. Harriet Tubman’s “Swing low, sweet chariot.” Benjamin Franklin’s, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Groucho Marx’s, “This is no way to live!” And Elvis Presley’s “I’m going to the bathroom to read.”
But how often do famous first last words echo famous first words? Among Revelation’s first words is “grace” (1:4). Among its last words is also “grace” (22:21). There’s a beginning and end to which you and I can give our lives.