Pentecost 2022

I am fascinated by words and their impact on society.  So much so, that I have actually listened to two of Dr. John McWhorter’s lecture series on the history of language available through the Great Courses.  Dr. McWhorter does not explain the development of language the same way as the book of Genesis does, but his purposes are different.  The story in Genesis is probably a fable – a made up story that conveys one or more great truths where Dr. McWhorter is looking for factual data that might point to interesting insights about language and human behavior.  Both ways of telling the story are important.

Babylon was an ancient Akkadian city on the Euphrates River south of present-day Bagdad in Iraq.  It rose to great power under Hammurabi but it’s initial significance was short lived and for about a thousand years it was just a small country.  Then, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, in 612 BCE it defeated the Assyrians and once again became the most powerful country in the region.  (Babylonia, n.d.) Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BCE and forced its residents to relocate to Babylon in what became known as the Babylonian exile. This empire too was short lived being defeated by the Persians in 539 BCE.  I don’t know when in this history this story first appeared, but the story teller certainly remembered the sudden rise and fall of either ancient Babylon and/or Neo-Babylon and is giving a critique of the Babylonian Empire as well as giving us a story, much like Aesop’s tales, of why things are the way they are.  I can hear a child, hearing the story of creation and Adam and Eve then asking, “if we are all one family, why don’t we all speak the same language?”

From a linguistic perspective from Akkadian, we get the word babilu meaning “gate of god” . Translated to Hebrew Babel becomes the name of a tower and similarly balal , to confuse. The Hebrews loved plays on words. Translated to Greek Babel becomes Babylon (Tower of Babel, n.d.) the name of a city and an Empire and into English babble, meaning to speak nonsense. 

The moral of our tale: Those who seek their own glory will end up speaking nonsense.

So what does the Tower of Babel have to do with Pentecost? In Acts, God takes this story and reverses it, stands it on its head, redeems it.

Just before Jesus ascends into heaven he leaves his disciples with the orders to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 4) and we are told they did exactly as they were told; they were obedient.  Luke names the 11 remaining disciples, then says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14).  It appears that others joined them while they were waiting because verse 15 tells us that there were about 120 believers present when Peter suggests that they replace Judas Iscariot and they select Matthias by lots. Ten days pass while they wait in prayer, never leaving Jerusalem.

Fifty days after Passover is a Jewish holiday called Shavuot or Pentecost. It was a harvest festival and a time to bring the first fruits to the temple.  It is also associated with the giving of the Torah.  Like Passover – the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Pentecost is a time the city of Jerusalem would be full of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world who have come to celebrate the holy day at the Temple. This is the day God choses to send the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It begins with “the sound like the rush of a volent wind” (Acts 2: 2). Ruach in Hebrew could mean breath, or wind, or spirit.  This was the breath of God, the Spirit of God making itself known in no uncertain terms.  I don’t know how many of you have ever weathered out a hurricane, but the noise can be deafening and the force of the wind little can resist.  “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” This is an interesting image.  If you think of humans as being “adam” earth, you have all the primal elements, earth, wind and fire co-existing without anyone extinguishing the other.

At this time the believers begin to speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” (Acts 2:4)  In this instance, the speaking in tongues means that people who speak one language were understood by people who spoke a different language.  I have always believed that there was some kind of double miracle here, both a miracle of the tongue and a miracle of the ear.  Those who were open to hearing the gospel understood what was being said.  Those who were not open to hearing the gospel heard only the babbling of drunkards.  In this instance, for those whose hearts and minds were open to God’s message, the story of the Tower of Babel was reversed, but it took obedience to Jesus’ commands to wait for the Holy Spirit on the part of the disciples and openness to the message on the part of the hearers. 

Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”  (Acts 2: 15) What a way to start the day!

Peter continues by telling them they are witnessing the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, quoting that passage to them about the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh – male and female, young and old, rich and poor, free or slave. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21) . Peter continues talking about Jesus’s death and resurrection, about David and the promised Messiah, making his point that Jesus and the promised Messiah are one and the same.

We are told that the crowd was, “cut to the heart” by the things Peter told them and wanted to know how they should respond. Peter tells them “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven: and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Three thousand people came forward that day and gave their lives to Christ and were baptized.  This was not just a momentary emotional outpouring.  We are told that from that point forward, “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:47).  This was the beginning of what we know today as the church.   This is what we vow to continue in our Baptismal Covenant.

We have a choice each morning when we wake up.  Are we going to seek to build a tower to our own glory and find ourselves babbling at others? Or, are we going to wait for the Holy Spirit and respond by being in communion with other Christians ,not letting language or culture get in our way, studying God’s word, sharing both the fellowship of the Lord’s Table and our kitchen tables ( once upon a time this was the same thing), and living in community communicating with God and our neighbor?

7 Easter 2022

There is so much fear, grief, anger and frustration going on right now and I confess that I don’t have the answers to make it stop.  The last school shooting hit close to home for me.  I was born one town over and the Episcopal priest in Uvalde is a dear friend of mine.  Others of you have been touched more by different events, sometimes very personal events, and other times just the incessant nature of disturbing world news. 

This will be my last sermon on the Revelation of John. Some of you may be grateful they are over but hopefully some of you have found hope in John’s message and perhaps some clarification.  I do think his message is especially relevant now, though I caution you about connecting the events in this vision too closely with any specific events happening now.  Jesus said in Matthew 24:36 and reiterated in 25:13 that no one, not even the angels or himself knew when he would return and put an end to all the evil in this world, but he cautioned us to remain alert and be prepared.  

Before we begin chapter 15 I want you to think back about the story of the first Passover.  I mentioned a few weeks ago how important that story was to understanding Revelation.  It is especially important for this next section. 

Joseph had been second in command in Egypt, but over the years the relationship between the children of Israel and the Egyptians deteriorated and by the time Moses was born, Pharaoh was ordering the death of all male infants and requiring forced labor for everyone else.  The people cried to God who raised up Moses and then sent him to deliver them across the Red Sea into the wilderness and eventually Joshua took them across the Jordon to the promised land.  Ten plagues, each one a little worse than the previous preceded their release. I think we assume that because God is all knowing that he could bypass involving human choice in the process of history, but that is never how God works.  Pharoah could have let the people go at Moses’ first request and saved his people a lot of misery, but that is not how it played out.

John is telling his audience that the time is coming when God will hear their cries of anguish and will pour out his wrath on the evil doers who are oppressing them just like he did when he rescued their ancestors from Egypt.  Chapter 15 recounts the songs of praise to God that are being sung as seven angels prepare seven plagues to unleash on the earth.  In chapter 16, the bowls containing the plagues are poured out one by one: 1) painful boils that only affect those who had worshiped the beast, 2) the sea turns to blood, 3) rivers and springs turn to blood with an angel explaining that they had spilled the blood of the saints therefore they would have blood to drink 4) extreme heat from the sun 5) darkness and we are told the people still did not repent 6) the river Euphrates dries up removing a natural barrier and allowing the kings to go to war.  Psalm 78:34 says , “When he slew them, they would seek him…” in other words, when God withdrew his hand of protection and let the people suffer the consequences of their behavior, his people would wake-up, repent, turn to God and change their ways and thus the consequences.  John tells us this time, even that did not work.

Before the last plague is released an “unclean spirit” comes out of the mouth of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. John describes them as like 3 frogs. Frogs was one of the plagues of Egypt, but these froglike evil spirits hop all over the world performing signs and gathering the kings of the world at Mount Megiddo or Harmageddon for a great battle against Jesus and his followers.  It as become known in English as Armageddon.  Megiddo was a town in Israel that was captured several times by the Egyptians.  A couple of Israel’s kings died there. It has been abandoned since about 450 BC. It is a bit like some of the Civil War battlefields scattered around Virginia.  Even in its present silence, it screams of death.

When the last plague is poured out, the angel says, “It is done!” echoing the words of Christ on the cross. Violent earthquakes and giant hail tear up the earth with “Babylon” i.e. Rome being the primary recipient of God’s wrath.

In chapter 17 we are introduced to the “whore of Babylon”.  This is a polemic against the religious authorities in Jerusalem who collaborated with Rome and who used Rome to have Jesus crucified. If this seems like odd language for the Bible, read the prophet Hosea, who marries a prostitute as what we call a prophetic sign act to show the people how they are treating God.  John says that Babylon will despise the whore , “make her desolate and naked.”  This is exactly what happened. Israel’s love affair with Rome came to a violent end.   There were two Jewish revolts against Rome. The First Jewish Roman War from 66-73 saw the destruction of the temple which has never been rebuilt and two additional rebellions in 115-117 and 132-136 further destroyed the city and dispersed the people.  Under the Emperor Hadrian Judaism was banned.

In chapter 18 we see the fall of Babylon (Rome) itself.  This did not actually occur until 476 CE many years after this was written, but John anticipated God’s judgement on Rome and its ultimate fall.

Now we get another rider on a white horse.  This one’s name is Faithful and True, The Word of God and King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This rider is Jesus. Here is our knight in shining armor riding out to defeat all the forces of evil.  He throws the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire and he kills the rest of their army with a sword coming from his mouth – the truth.

An angel locks Satan up for 1000 years after which time he must be let out again.  During Satan’s imprisonment the martyrs, those who had died because of their faith in Christ are raised and rule with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the part that so many people today take literally. It also gets attached to Jesus’s  statement about one being taken and another left behind in Matt 24:40 which is probably talking about the uncertainty of life, thus the need to stay prepared for our own death. It doesn’t fit our earthly timeline. If this were the case, the “rapture” should have taken place about the time of the destruction of Rome, and the martyrs ruled with Christ for 1000 years. It is tempting to see Christendom as this 1000 year reign, though we know that the Church ruled in a very un-Christlike way much of the time. 

John says that Satan will once again “deceive the nations” and gather for battle against Jerusalem, “the beloved city” only this time fire from heaven destroys those who seek to destroy the faithful and Satan in cast into the Lake of Fire with his cronies, the beast and the false prophet. This is the final battle,  it is held on a cosmic level and I suspect it is more symbolic than actual. 

There is a final judgement of the dead  and then Death and Hades are also thrown into the Lake of Fire.

This is John’s vision of the triumph of good over evil by the Word of God, Christ the Lamb.

Here comes out happily ever after.

John sees a new heaven and new earth – this is not we die and go to heaven, but in the fullness of time, God restores all of creation to order, both the physical and spiritual realms, the way God intended it to be in the beginning.  We are told the sea is no more.  To John ‘s audience, the sea was dangerous; it was the source of chaos and terrible monsters.  That is no more.

No more is there a separation between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm.  We are told that “the home of God is among mortals (Rev 21: 3)  

Now one of the angels that had poured out a bowl of plagues offers to show John a different image. “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Rev 21:10) and he takes him to a mountain were he can look down and see the city of Jerusalem.  No longer occupied by Romans, no longer ravaged by war,  The city now has “a radiance like a rare jewel” (Rev 21: 11).  The names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the twelve gates and the name of the twelve disciples are inscribed on the twelve foundations of the city.  There was no temple in the city because God and Jesus are the temple.  The temple was always the place where God met humans, through the mediation of the high priest, but there is no need for a temple anymore because God is dwelling with all persons.   There is no sun or moon or stars because God is the light which shines through Jesus and illuminates everything.  John is drawing from many different books of the Old Testament bringing together all the positive phrases of what life is like when God’s will is done by everyone all the time.

John closes with an affirmation from Jesus that the words in this book are “trustworthy and true” (Rev 22: 6)  with blessings for those who avail themselves of Christ’s gift of the waters of life and curses on anyone who attempts to corrupt by addition or subtraction from the words of this book.  John is speaking of his writing, not the Bible as we know it.  That did not exist as a unified whole until a couple hundred years later. And finally with the affirmation that Jesus is returning soon.

This past Thursday was Ascension Day.  The reading from Acts on that day reiterates that we are not to concern ourselves with when God will restore the kingdom, but to wait for the Holy Spirit and then be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1::7-8) concerning the statement we make at the Eucharist – “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” So what do we do with John’s Revelation.  We don’t try to calculate when Jesus will return or who the anti-Christ is.  We pray for those who are undergoing persecution now.  We remain faithful even when things seem to be falling apart.  We find hope in the knowledge that God is ultimately in control and justice will prevail in the end.  We stay alert, guarding our souls against false prophets and apathy and we keep doing the next right thing, giving glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

6 Easter 2022

This is our fifth sermon on John’s Revelation and we have made it half way thorough the book, however, the second half moves quicker and I plan to finish next week, before Pentecost.  If you missed any of the previous sermons and want to hear them, they are available on my sermon blog.  We ended last week with what seemed like it should have been the end of the Revelation, but John now makes a second pass, so to speak, revealing additional information.

In the second part of John’s Revelation he begins by re-working a number of old pagan myths and putting a Christian twist to them. I don’t have time to tell each of the myths this morning, but for those who are interested, the story of Tiamat the great seven headed sea monster of Babylonian myths, the story of the winged goddess Isis from Egypt, and the story of the birth of Apollo from Greek mythology were stories John’s audience would have known and images John utilizes.

John sees portents, great signs that foretell something important in the sky.  The first is a woman described in mythological proportions who represents both the nation of Israel and the young church.  She is pregnant and in labor as the story opens.  There is a great seven headed dragon that John will tell us is Satan that is waiting to devour her child the minute she gives birth, but the child is magically snatched up to heaven where the dragon cannot reach him.  The child is clearly Christ because we are told that he is “a son, a male-child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”  This is a paraphrase of Psalm 2: 8-9 about the Messiah.  He is snatched up to heaven through his death, resurrection and ascension.  The woman on the other hand must flee into the wilderness where she is to be protected for 1260 days or 3.5 years.  This is all highly symbolic, drawing on images familiar to John audience is for the purpose of revealing a current truth.

Next comes a great battle in heaven between Michael, the angel named in the book of Daniel and Satan.  Satan is thrown out of heaven and he and his rebellious angels are cast down to earth.  Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. (Luke 10: 18).  Keep in mind that time is not relevant in heaven. Don’t expect things to happen chronologically. The dragon takes out his anger on the children of the woman described earlier, in other words, Satan is taking out his anger on those who continue in the true faith here on earth.  This is the great battle of good and evil on a cosmic level.  

Chapter 13 draws heavily on Daniel 7.  Daniel has a vision of 4 beasts a winged lion that morphs into a human, a tusked bear that devours everything, a 4 headed 4 winged leopard, and a ten horned beast with iron teeth and human eyes.  John merges these 4 beasts into 2 having one come from the sea like Leviathan and one from the earth like Behemoth, the monsters of the Old Testament.   These are not a whale and an elephant, they are frightening mythological creatures not large endangered species.  The dragon and the two beasts form a hierarchy of evil, the lesser directing people to worship the greater.

So, how does this apply to 1st century Asia Minor?  Local civil and religious authorities (the beast from the earth that looks like a lamb with two horns) were falling all over themselves trying to impress Rome, getting permission to build bigger and more impressive temples to the Roman Gods and encouraging the people to worship  the Roman gods, (the beast from the sea – the pseudo-dragon that also had seven heads and wore ten diadems.)  Rome claimed to have authority over all the earth, but John is saying that in reality the authority belongs to the dragon or Satan.  When Satan tempted Jesus he offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. John is saying those who worship at the Roman temples are in fact worshiping Satan who is a parody of the true ruler of the world, the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

Until recently, tattoos were associated with slavery.  Slaves in the ancient world were tattooed or pierced branding them as belonging to a particular person, during WWII the Nazi’s tattooed the people they put in concentration camps, tattoos were also used by some military groups, pirates, and street gangs for the same general purpose – you now belonged to the gang and it was hard to deny it.   The mark of the beast, 666 was symbolically saying that those who worshiped at the feet of Rome were marked as slaves to Rome whereas Christians are sealed at baptism with the sign of the cross and marked as Christ’s own forever.  There is a particular type of numerology called Gematria which assigns numbers to letters.  You can add up the number value of a word to get its number; “beast” is 666, so is Nero Caesar, (Witherington 2003) which may have been who John was speaking of when he said, “the number of the beast is the number of a person.” (Rev 13:18).  Nero had redirected blame for the disastrous burning of Rome off himself and on to Christians exacting cruel and public torture and executions upon them.

Then in Chapter 14, John describes the opposing army, the holy army.  This one is 144000 again 12 X 12 x 1000 celibate men who have received the mark of the lamb and the lamb’s father.  Ancient pagan fertility rituals which were supposed to ensure good crops generally involved some kind of temple prostitution. One of the reasons sexual purity is so important in the bible is that it was a sign of being in a right relationship with God.  In the context of marriage it was being obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Outside of marriage it was considered a form of idolatry and disobedience, a broken relationship with God. Both marriage and sexual misconduct are frequently used to describe the holy or broken relationship of God and a group of people.   This army of God had been obedient to God and kept themselves holy, just as God is holy. A commandment from Deuteronomy.  He states they sing a song that can only be learned from them, possibly a reference to false prophets and alternative Christian theologies such as Gnosticism which was prevalent at that time.  I frequently hear people stating that they have discovered that were many forms of Christianity in the first and second century as though they have just discovered a lost piece of art by one of the masters, but during the first and second century the faith was spread mostly by word of mouth.  People were wresting with questions that are not always explicit, even in the scriptures as we have them today, and coming up with their own answers, often outside the accepted norm of the church, and they wrote them down and shared them with others. The ancient Christian Fathers wrote volumes against heresies. Not unbelief, but distorted and harmful belief.  Embracing these unauthorized texts as authoritative is like trying to cheat on a test from someone who has the wrong answers. 

John is still following Daniel.  After Daniel describes his vision of the beasts, he describes the “Ancient One” on his throne and says, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Dan 7:13) God and the Messiah, or in Christian terms – the Father and the Son.

Next, three angels come bearing warnings.  The first says, “Fear God and give him glory” (Rev 14:6) and warns that the time of judgement has come and reminds the world that it is God the creator that deserves worship.  The second angel says, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 14: 8)  Babylon will be a code word for Rome throughout the rest of the book.  The angel is predicting the demise of Rome and accusing it of leading the world astray.  The third angel curses those who “worship the beast” (Rev 14:9) the idols of Rome, which included Caesar and describes the eternal torment they will endure.

John then gets very practical and states explicitly, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”  An angel responds affirming that those who “die in the Lord…will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

Finally chapter 14 ends with “the one like the Son of Man,” Christ, initiating the harvest.  Jesus often used the image of a harvest because it was something the people understood.  They knew when the time was right you went out and collected the fruit of the harvest and you then cleaned up the field so it could be planted the next year.  This is a symbolic image of the end of the current age and the final judgement when the sheep are separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares, or any of the many other biblical images that says the faithful are blessed and those who worshiped – not God – in this case Roman idols, reap the fruits of their evil deeds.

John’s audience were living in times of terrible hardship and persecution for being Christians in the middle of a world of opulence and excess for those who cooperated with Rome.  Judgement for them meant justice.

We don’t like to think about a final judgement.  Perhaps we worry we won’t measure up.  Perhaps we worry someone we love won’t measure up.  I believe in a merciful God.  I don’t know how God will work everything out in the end. I believe God’s mercy is greater than God’s wrath, but I trust God will ultimately defeat evil and bring about a new creation that we will hear more about later in John’s Revelation.  

5 Easter 2022

This is the fourth sermon in our series on the Revelation of John.  We ended last week at the end of chapter 8 with four of seven trumpets having been blown bringing about the destruction of 1/3 of the earth and sky after the last of seven seals were broken.

Chapter nine begins with the blowing of the fifth trumpet.  John sees a “star that had fallen from heaven to earth”. (Rev 9:1)  In Luke 10:17-19 Jesus tells the seventy that he sends out to minister in the surrounding towns that, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.  See I have given you authority to tread upon snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  John is describing this very image of Satan falling and unleashing locust (one of the plagues on Egypt) like scorpions who look like “horses equipped for battle” – the Roman cavalry.

With the next blow of the trumpet four angels of death “who are bound at the great river Euphrates “  are released. (Rev 9:14) The Euphrates was the natural border of northern Israel and a barrier to their enemies from the north. This barrier is now to be breached and the angels are released who kill 1/3 of the population of earth through troops of cavalry that number two hundred million and the horses are described as serpents – again a reference to Luke 10 which speaks to the faithful being protected against serpents. These serpents are an unimaginably large military force (Rome being the one present in John’s time) which God allows to do its worst in the hope that people will repent and turn back to God.  Unfortunately, it does not work.

Verse 20 says, “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk.  And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.” (Rev 9: 20-21)

There is a repeating pattern throughout scripture.  God created humans with free will so that they would love God by their own choice.  Instead we abused that free will, we turned to “not God” – pagan idols, political systems, money and sex and worshiped that instead. The result was pain and suffering for the innocent as well as the guilty.  Disaster (Noah’s flood, slavery in Egypt, defeat in battle – Jerusalem) often brought the people back to God for a short period of time and then we were off seeking “not God” again.  This time, even disaster does not turn the people back to God.

Just as we reach this great climax in our story, we get a break for station identification.   In chapter 10, John sees a heavenly being coming down from heaven, not plummeting like Satan did like a meteor hitting the earth, but gently descending in a cloud.  We realize from the words used to describe him, especially his voice like a lion roaring, that this is Christ.  He commands John to eat his small scroll – John must take into himself Christ’s words which like most prophesy is both sweet, filled with hope and bitter, filled with warnings of judgement.  John is then commanded to prophesy about “many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” 

Don’t expect Revelation to be chronologically linear. It is as if all these things are happening pretty much at once and John keeps circling back giving additional details and observing different aspects of the vision.

Chapter 11 zooms in for a close up. John is given a measuring rod and told to “Come and measure the temple of God.” (Rev 11:1) The temple is the place where God resides. N T Wright, in Revelation for Everyone notes that John’s community would probably have seen that as the Christian community at that time.  He is measuring the inner courts, the place where God and humans are in close communion, but he is to skip the outer court where the “nations” were allowed.  John is told that this area will be “trampled” for forty-two months, 3 ½ years (half of the number 7 so not complete)  and that two witnesses will be given authority to prophesy for the same time period.  They are described much like Elijah and Moses as to their powers. And we are told when their time is completed, the beast will come up from the bottomless pit and kill them.  Their bodies will lie in the street of a city prophetically called Sodom and Egypt – two wicked cities in the Old Testament, but John is talking about the city of Rome.  He will make this clearer later on.  The people will celebrate because the prophets are dead and they will disrespect their corpses, but in 3 ½ days they will be resurrected and ascend into heaven.  Being a witness to Christ may cause you to experience suffering, abuse, perhaps even death, but we are still called to be faithful and to witness to “the nations”.  But even if the nations do their worst to us that is not the end.  This is the promise of resurrection to the faithful.

We are told at that moment there will be a great earthquake, ten thousand will die, but the remainder give glory to God.  It has been a long hard journey, but God is victorious in the end.

The seventh and final trumpet blows and the angel announces , “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”  (Rev 11: 15) We end chapter 11 with the twenty four elders praising God.  The nations (the enemy) has done their worst, but God has judged the nations and had rewarded the faithful.  God is seen to be in the temple in heaven, the ark of the covenant is visible (it disappeared during the Babylonian exile) and God’s presence is visible in thunder and lightning.

The end.  Well, no, John shares more aspects of his vision in later chapters, but we will stop here for today.  

Short summary so far.  John is speaking to a community who are suffering persecution because of their faith.  Some are holding fast while others are beginning to drift away.  John’s vision emphasizes God’s right to worship because he is the creator of all things and Jesus’ role in our salvation through his self-sacrifice.  He is both the Lion of Judah – a symbol of strength and the Lamb of God – as symbol of God’s redemption and mercy through sacrificial love.  It may appear to people that the  empires have the upper hand(Rome for John’s audience), but they are deceptive and are agents of Satan that God has allowed a free hand for the purpose of bringing about their own self destruction and drawing others back to God.  God will protect and reward those who remain faithful and God will win in the end.  It is already written in time.

4 Easter 2022

For those of you who might have missed the last couple of weeks, I have been preaching from the Revelation of John.  This will be the third sermon in this series.  We will be reading from the Revelation as our second reading throughout the Easter season, but we only get snippets of the book and I frequently get questions on this topic.

Last week we left John, in a vision, standing in the throne room of God.  God is on the throne holding a scroll that has been sealed with seven seals and while everyone was searching for someone worthy to open the seals it is announced that the Lion of Judah has conquered and is therefore worthy, but when he appears he shows up as a lamb that has been slain.  This Lion of Judah, the Messiah, is also the crucified and resurrected Jesus.

In Chapter 6, the Lamb begins opening the seals.  The first four release what have become known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The first one is riding a white horse.  He has a bow and a crown and came out “conquering and to conquer.” (Rev 6:2)  Many people claim this is Jesus, but that is not who John sees.  Remember Jesus opened the scroll.  This horseman is the Roman Empire.  Rome claimed the great Pax Romano – the peace of Rome.  Supposedly they conquered to bring peace and order, but John sees something very different. 

The second rider was on a bright red horse – symbolizing blood. It takes peace from the earth and causes everyone to kill one another.  The consequence of the empire is not the peace they claim, but non-stop war.

The third rider was on a black horse holding a pair of scales – inflation.  Wheat, the most needed commodity for everyone become very expensive so that the poor starve to death.  Oil and wine, luxuries of the wealthy are still available for those who had the money to buy them to begin with.

The fourth rider was on a pale green horse whose rider was named Death and he is followed by Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.  This is a bitter critique of empire.  It comes in riding on a white horse claiming to be the conquering hero, but the consequence is war, financial insecurity for the poor, followed by famine, disease, and death. 

The fifth seal reveal the souls of “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (Rev 6: 9).  They are sitting under the altar.  They have been given white robes and they cry out “how long?”  (Rev 6:10) It has been 30-60 years since Jesus’ Resurrection and promise of a new kingdom and these are those who died in the struggle.  They are told it will be a little longer and that others will be martyred as well.

The sixth seal reveals those in power beginning to experience the consequences of their actions.  The universe is actually falling apart. Earthquakes, the sun becomes black, the moon becomes blood red, the stars fall from the sky. The sky itself is rolled up like a scroll, mountains and islands disappear, and the wind knocks the fruit off the trees.  The powerful are no longer in charge and they are frightened of judgement day. Everyone runs to the caves to seek protection and shelter.

Chapter Seven is a pause in the opening of the seals as John looks around at the scene before him.  God calls a halt to the destruction so that those who have remained faithful can be identified and sealed as servants of God.  Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth to still the wind.  This should bring back visions of the first Passover when the children of Israel were sealed against the angel of death by the blood of the lamb that they sacrificed and put on the doorpost and lintel of their homes. Also in Ezekiel 9, Ezekiel has a vision where a man is told to mark all those who “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in [Jerusalem.]” (Ezek 9:4) so they should be spared in the time of judgement – the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon.   It should also remind us of how we seal people with a cross in chrism (oil) on their foreheads at baptism.

Now we have another number come up. The number twelve.  It too deals with completion, especially concerning God’s purpose.  There were twelve patriarchs who founded the twelve tribes of Israel.  There are twelve months in a year.  There are twelve signs of the zodiac, which as Christians we don’t put much stock in, but in the first century were everywhere.  There were twelve apostles and when Judas betrayed Jesus and killed himself, he was replaced to retain the number twelve.

John sees 144 thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel who have been sealed.  12 X 12 X 1000 X 12 again from the Old Covenant.  Not to be taken literally – it means those of the Old Covenant are fully included.  After that he sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  Under the new covenant it is not just Israel, but everyone from everywhere that is included.  All these people are robed in white – they have been cleansed of their sins, they are holding palm branches and crying in a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  This should bring visions of Jesus’ triumphal entry.  And they and all the living creatures “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.”  Paul says in Philippians 2:10, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”   John is witnessing in his vision the fulfillment of this prophecy which is thought to be an early hymn of the Christian church.

One of the elders turns to John and asks him who these people are.  It seems that the elder is checking to see if John knows because John tells him, you are the one who knows, and the elder precedes to explain that they are those who remained faithful “out of the great ordeal” (Rev 7: 14) and that they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Again this is symbolic – it is a profession of the purifying nature of Jesus’ sacrifice and confirmation that it is available for us.

The rest of this chapter is often read at funerals – they will worship God, they will not hunger or thirst or suffer from the heat of the sun,  the Lamb will be their shepherd – vision of Psalm 23 here, and “God will wipe away every tear” (Rev 7: 17) – this is a vision of the Beatitudes fulfilled for those who were faithful, even unto death.

Chapter 8 is the opening of the final seal.  We first get a great silence.  Remember Elijah found God in the silence.  We have seven angels with seven trumpets – more sevens.  And we see a liturgical scene of worship  – an altar, incense, saints in robes praying.   Then an angel takes the incense censor with fire from the altar and throws it upon the earth.  Remember when Isaiah has his vision of the throne room of God, he remembers that he is a man of unclean lips and an angel takes a coal from the altar and puts it to his lips to purify him.  The last seal begins the process of the purification of the earth by God.

Now we have the seven angels blowing their trumpets one by one and unleashing various plagues.  Remember that God sent plagues on Egypt prior to freeing the Israelites. The story of the first Passover should be ever present with us in the reading of Revelation.  During the blowing of the first four trumpets 1/3 of the earth, the seas, the rivers, and light is destroyed.

Chapter 8 ends here and so shall we. What is the take away from this part of John’s vision? John is critiquing the Roman empire, he is offering hope to those who are being persecuted, who have watched their loved ones martyred and who may find themselves martyred in the near future.  He is using symbolism from the Old Testament, especially the first Passover which was very significant for these people, especially if they are Christians who were raised in the Jewish faith, to remind them of God’s faithfulness.

For us it is a reminder not to put our faith in the powers and principalities of this earth.  Their promises are illusions, but to trust God who has a plan and will ultimately set everything right.

3 Easter 2022

Today I want to begin by talking about the letter seven in Biblical texts.  In Hebrew the root of many words, especially verbs are made up of three consonants and not until the 6th century AD were vowel points added to aid in the reading of text.  The word “seven” in Hebrew has the exact same three consonant root as the word “complete.”  Seven becomes a symbol of completeness.  God creates the world and then rests on the Sabbath, the seventh day, because he has completed his task.  As mentioned last week, John is believed to have been a Palestinian Jew who would have known of this correlation between seven and completeness, so it is not surprising that seven shows up multiple times in the Revelation.

Last week we began our series on the Revelation of John by looking at the types of literature this piece represents: a circular letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic as well as looking at the message John presents to seven specific churches in Asia Minor, from Jesus.

Last week we saw that seven churches were specifically named.  It is highly possible that they were chosen to represent all of Christianity.  Their situations were diverse, but taken as a whole their situations were pretty generic which is why they are still relevant: loss of that first love of Christ, financial poverty but spiritual wealth, becoming a stumbling block to others by one’s lifestyle, tolerating unrepentant sin and becoming caught up in sinful behavior, becoming distracted, a call to evangelism, and lying to oneself about one’s spiritual health.

As we begin working through Revelation, look for other places where the number seven arises and I will try to point out what is being completed.

Beginning in chapter four, John starts his description of the vision.  “After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!” (Rev 4:1)  Think the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This is a door here on earth through which John is invited to enter into the realm of heaven – not far, far away but a spiritual dimension concurrent with John’s present reality.

What John describes is God’s throne room.  He is not the first person to see heaven as a throne room.  Isaiah gives a detailed description of his spiritual visit to God’s throne room. (Isaiah 6) and Ezekiel a more graphic and bit bizarre description (Ezekiel 1).   What John is trying to describe is the indescribable but he uses precious and semiprecious gems describing the one sitting on the throne as being like jasper and carnelian.  These stones are multi-colored, often reddish in general color. Ezekiel described God as appearing like bronze and fire. John describes a rainbow like an emerald, which to us seems very odd because emeralds are mostly one color, but he is talking about the radiance of the precious stone. The rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant or mercy made with Noah.  Ezekiel also described a radiance like a rainbow over God’s throne  Again, remember, they are trying to describe in earthly terms the other worldly they have experienced for which there is no adequate description.   Around the throne are twenty-four thrones occupied by twenty-four elders clad in white garments with golden crowns upon their heads.  There were twelve patriarchs of the old covenant and twelve apostles of the new covenant.  These leaders are now joined together around God’s throne. From the throne come flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, ancient descriptions of the manifestation of God’s presence.  There are seven torches which we are told represent the seven spirits of God, possibly an illusion to Isaiah 11 which in the Septuagint lists seven characteristics of the spirit of God which are said to rest on the branch that shall grow out from the stump of Jesse. This branch Christians recognize as Jesus.  The seven characteristics are wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord.  

Before the throne is a sea of glass, like crystal.  In this opening scene, the sea is perfectly calm.  In ancient Hebrew writings, the sea was the source of chaos.   In Genesis 1:2 God’s Spirit moved over the surface of the waters and God is described as creating the world, not ex nihilo, out of nothing, but with every word God speaks order is created out of chaos. This sea will show up again later.

John describes four living creatures that constantly give praise to God.   These four creatures resemble a lion – king of the jungle, and ox – the king of domesticated animals, one with a face like a man, and the fourth – like an eagle – king of the air.  They are covered with eyes – they see everything.  They also resemble the seraphim described by Isaiah in his description of God’s throne room with their six wings and their chant of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God… “ (Isaiah 6:3, Rev 4:8).  Ezekiel will describe four living creatures with each creature having a four faced head represented by the same man, lion, ox and eagle. These four creatures will show up in later artwork as symbols of the four gospel writers.  These images would not be lost on John’s early audience.  He is clearly describing the throne room of God that resembles descriptions by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.

The elders respond to the voice of the creatures by acknowledging the worthiness of the person on the throne because that person is the creator everything.  They “cast their crowns” before the throne symbolically acknowledging God’s sovereignty.

This may all seem really strange to us, but to John’s early audience it was as familiar to them as the Star Wars opening is to most of us.

At the beginning of chapter 5, John sees a scroll in the hand of the person sitting on the throne.  It is sealed with seven seals.  This scroll contains God’s plan for the future.  The seals indicate it is completely unknown and unalterable.  An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Rev 5:2) There appeared to be no one worthy to break the seals and open the scroll and John begins to weep. But, an elder tells him “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals.”  These symbols were well known to John’s audience – symbols of the Messiah, symbols which would speak of the strength of the Messiah as a Lion, the sign of the tribe of Judah or descendant of King David.  But just as the elder announces the coming of the Lion what John sees is a “Lamb standing as though it had been slain.”  This is an odd looking lamb with seven horns, all powerful, and seven eyes, all seeing and we are told they also represent the seven spirits of God which are in all the earth – so all those qualities described in Isaiah that were to be given to the branch of the root of Jesse, the Messiah are visible on this slain lamb.  None of this is to be taken literally, it is highly symbolic language that references Old Testament scriptures. References that people who knew their Old Testament, like persecuted Christians, especially ones of a Jewish background would immediately recognize, but would not be easily understood by the pagan Romans.  

So all this odd language boils down to John has passed into the spiritual realm.  He is gazing at God on God’s throne which is incredible, but defies true description.  God is being worshiped by heavenly creatures as well as the totality of those under the old and new covenants because God is the creator of everything, physical and spiritual. God has the future detailed on a sealed scroll and only one person is worthy of revealing that plan.  This person is the strong Messiah figure of the Old Testament, a descendant of King David, but more importantly he is also the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of the World.  That person is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah.

Next week we will see what happens when those seals are opened.

2 Easter 2022

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Between now and Pentecost, our second reading each Sunday will be from the Revelation of John.  I have received a few questions concerning this book, so I though it might be a good opportunity to offer a sermon series on this topic.

To begin with, I am going to ask you to forget the common understanding of this writing as found in such things as the Left Behind series.  Premillennial Dispensationalism is a modern theological interpretation of the end times (aka eschatology)  that was put forth by John Nelson Darby, an 19th century Anglo-Irish preacher and Bible translator and furthered by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield with his reference Bible that came out in 1909.

The Revelation functions as three different literary genre’s simultaneously.  First, it is a letter, what we call a circulatory letter.  It was intended to be read aloud, probably as part of the worship service, initially for the benefit of seven churches in seven specific cities in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea much like Paul’s Epistles.  One of the churches named is actually one that Paul wrote to himself.  Second, it is prophecy in the Old Testament understanding like the book of  Isaiah and Jeremiah. Prophets pointed out what was happening in the present and then warned of the consequences of what they saw, but also gave the people hope in the midst of disaster. Thirdly, it is apocalyptic. It deals with things at a cosmic level and talks about the ultimate reality in a very coded language like the book of Daniel.  How do we know this? The opening statement is that this is “the apocalypsis of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1  The word in Greek means to lay bare, to make a full disclosure, revealed truth, revelation.  It is only in English that the word has come to mean disaster, calamity, or total destruction.  In Rev 1:30 John, the author says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”  And finally, John devotes all of chapters 2 and 3 to specific issues at each of the seven churches for which this Apocalypse is written.  

It is hard to know for sure when Revelation was written.  There is evidence to suggest that it was prior to the destruction of the temple and perhaps during Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 AD.  There is other evidence to suggest that is was written after Nero’s death and possibly during the persecutions by Domitian in the late 80’s early 90’s.  We know it was written for Christians living in Asia Minor, what we now call Turkey, during a time of persecution.

John, the author of the Revelation, is believed to be a Palestinian Jew based upon his Greek grammar who has had an on-going prophetic relationship, perhaps as an itinerant preacher in the area, with the seven churches he names.  Tradition attributes all of the John writings to the apostle, but scholars suggest that is unlikely.  This John is on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” and he considers himself “your brother who share with you in Jesus, the persecution and the kingdom” (Rev 1:9). It is probable that he has been exiled there for being a Christian.

He opens his letter with the somewhat traditional greetings (it is the only New Testament work that makes the opening greeting from Jesus, himself) and then two prophetic oracles. “Look! He is coming in the clouds… (Rev 1: 7) which alludes to the book of Daniel and announces the second coming of Christ and “I am the Alpha and Omega…” (Rev 1:8)   which declares the sovereignty of God.  Then he begins to tell us about his vision.

John states, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind ma a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, To Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” (Rev 1: 10-11)

This morning I would like to look at the message to each of these seven churches and see if there is anything in the messages to them that would have meaning for us.

Ephesus was a large and important city both to Rome and to the early Christians.  They are commended for their “works, your toil and your patient endurance” (Rev 2: 2) They have exposed false prophets. They are “enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my (Jesus) name” (Rev 2: 3) But they have “abandoned the love they had at first.” (Rev 2: 4) They are warned that if they continue Jesus will “remove your lampstand from its place.”  Their light will go out.  Have we lost the passion we knew when we first recognized Jesus as the Christ?  Are we in danger of our light going out?

Smyrna was an important religious center for Rome.  This church is told “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.” (Rev 2:9) Jesus knows their spiritual wealth despite their material poverty.  To them he says “do not fear what you are about to suffer.”  Jesus knows that some of them will be put in prison and some of them will die for their faith, but he reminds them “whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:11)  We are fortunate.  Most of us have never and will probably never face that kind of persecution.  For that we should be grateful and acknowledge our blessing.

Pergamum was another large city where there was a temple to Zeus.  Jesus tells them he knows where they are living (right next to a pagan temple) and yet they remained faithful.  Tradition says that James was beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem, but John, speaking for Jesus talks of a “faithful one, who was killed among you” during the days of Herod Antipas.  Was he referring to James or another? Not sure but they have seen serious persecution. Jesus, though John also warns the people of this church that some are putting a stumbling block before others by eating food sacrificed to idols and being sexually immoral.  They are warned that Jesus will come and judge them by the words of his mouth, but that those who persevere in doing what is right will get manna (bread of heaven) and a white stone with a new name.  This is a promise of care and protection if you follow in the right path.

Thyatira was a town between Pergamum and Ephesus.  Jesus says, “I know you works – your love, faith, service and patience endurance.  I know your last works are greater than the first.” (Rev 2:19) they are not like Ephesus which has grown weary and lost that first love.  But – “your tolerate that woman Jezebel” (Rev 2:20) Jezebel was a wicked queen of ancient Israel who was guilty of deception and murder for monetary gain.  John, speaking for Jesus claims there is a woman in this church that is claiming to be a prophetess, but is luring people into sin – idolatry and sexual misconduct.  Further, she has been called to repentance, but refuses to do so.  Do we have sins that we refuse to confront? What impact might they be having on the people around us?  Jesus says to those who ignore this woman and refuse to be corrupted, Jesus promised “the morning star.” In other words, he gives himself.

Sardis was an ancient city.  Jesus, through John says, “you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev 3: 1)  Jesus tells them to wake up or they will be asleep and lying in dirty clothes (unprepared) when he returns.  Have we fallen asleep?  Have we become lax in our care of our spirits and would Jesus find them dirty when he returns.

Philadelphia –  the name of the city means brotherly love.  Jesus says, “I know your works.  Look, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut. I know you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.”  Here is a small, powerless group of people that Jesus has just told that they will be given enormous power for the purpose of building God’s kingdom.  Their promise if they continue is that their name will be written on a pillar of the temple in the new Jerusalem.  Everyone throughout eternity will know who they are.  Do we ever feel powerless?  If so, remember who has our back and is supporting us.

Finally, Laodicea – Jesus says, “I know your works; you are neither cold or hot…I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:15) Jesus says they describe themselves as rich, prosperous, in need of nothing, but Jesus sees them as “wretched pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev: 3 17). Jesus tells them to buy from him gold refined by fire and white robes to hide their nakedness, and salve for their eyes. Jesus is offering them healing if they will only seek him.  It is here in this passage that we get, “ I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  Have we become blind to our own condition.  Have we forgotten how to show hospitality to Christ and to accept the healing he offers us.

These are important reminders.  These were written to real Christian churches where Paul the apostle walked and the early church thrived.  Christianity however faded there and now there are very few Christians left in the area. What lessons can we learn from John’s Revelation to these seven churches?

Easter 2022

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For most of Jerusalem, Sunday arrived like every other Sunday.  The sun came up, the merchants went to their stores and began bringing out their baked goods and fresh fruit, fish and fowl, woven goods and exotic spices.  The sounds and smells of the shops mingled with the clattering of the hooves of Roman horses and the clank of Roman swords as soldiers patrolled the streets of the holy city.   In an upper room, a group of Galileans awoke from their troubled sleep, uncertain of what the day would bring. 

The women got up first.  They had work to do and they wanted to get it done early.  Their friend and teacher Jesus had been executed just before the Sabbath and had been hurriedly placed in the tomb without the proper anointing.  The rules of the Sabbath prevented them from taking care of it during the day on Saturday, and it was too dangerous to go to the tombs at night.  But now, just as the pink glow of the sun broke over the horizon, they had a job to do.

As they walked they talked among themselves.  Hopefully the Roman soldiers who were guarding Jesus’ tomb would allow them to go in to take care of him.  Perhaps they could even convince a couple of them to roll back the large stone disc that sealed the tomb and kept animals from disturbing the dead. 

As the women got near the tomb they suddenly realized that the soldiers had fled and the tomb stood wide open.  Where was Jesus?  Why did someone open the tomb?  What had they done with his body?  His death had been hard enough, but now were they even going to be denied giving him a proper burial?

According to Mark, at this time, the women entered the tomb.  It is not a very big place.  It is a hole, perhaps four feet high, dug out of the side of the hill. There is a narrow walk way where 2-3 people can stand and on either side ledges have been created by not digging out the rock all the way to the ground.  Here, on one of these two ledges Jesus had been lain, but as they enter the tomb they see a young man dressed in white sitting on the ledge on the right.  

It seems the normal response upon seeing a heavenly being is alarm and the first words out of their mouth is always “Do not be afraid.”  The messenger tells them to go find Peter and the others and tell them that Jesus is going to Galilee and will meet them there.  Mark tells us that the women were so frightened that they fled and told no one what they had seen.

But apparently they did eventually tell Peter and John.  In the Gospel of John we are told that they tell Peter and John someone has taken Jesus’ body and they do not know where he has been moved.   Peter and John run to the tomb with the women following behind.  John, being the younger gets there first and just peaks into the tomb where he sees the burial clothes lying on the ledge.  Peter is bolder and steps into the tomb and sees not only that the linen cloths that covered his body are lying on the ledge, but the wrapping that had been around Jesus’ head is rolled up and laid to one side. 

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he instructed his family and friends to unbind him and set him free.  Perhaps the angels unwound the wrapping from Jesus’ head, or perhaps Jesus just walked out of them like he walked through the close door where the apostles were gathered a few days later.

It didn’t hit Peter and John right away what had happened.  We are told they turned around and went back home, leaving Mary Magdalene there crying in the garden.   Mary goes in for another peek.  Perhaps she just couldn’t believe that he was gone.  Perhaps if she looked just one more time he would be there.  This time there were two angels sitting inside the tomb.  They ask her why she is crying. Who is she looking for? She begs them, “Please, They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”   She hears someone walk up behind her.  She turns and a man asks her the same question.  Why are you crying?  Who are you looking for?  Thinking the man to be the gardener she pleads with him, “Please tell me where you have taken him, I will take him away.”  They are poor.  Jesus was poor, but he had been laid in a tomb prepared for a wealthy man.  Perhaps she thought it had been a mistake and they had moved him.  She would see that he was properly cared for. Then the man speaks her name, “Mary.”

It is amazing how distinctive a voice can be.  Mary did not recognize Jesus as he stood in front of her.  I don’t know what was different about him, but his voice had not changed.  Immediately she calls out “Teacher” and starts to hug him.  He tells her not to hold on to him as he has not yet ascended to his Father, but to go and tell the disciples that he is ascending to his Father,  her Father, his God, her God.

This time Mary goes to the disciples and has Good News.  I have seen the Lord.  He is alive!

It is interesting that Jesus appears first to Mary rather than to Peter and John.  Women were not allowed to testify in court in first century Roman provinces.  They were considered foolish and prone to fantasy.   If the Evangelists intended to make up stories to support their case that Jesus had risen from the dead, the last thing they would do would be to have Jesus appear to a woman first.  The improbability of it is a testimony to its accuracy.

The only proof I can offer to you that the Resurrection is real is the testimony of the lives it changed.  In the first days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples behaved like fugitives, laying low.  Fifty days later, Peter is preaching in Jerusalem to an audience of several thousand people.   The apostle Paul was going door to door, much like the Nazis did in Germany persecuting the Jews, Paul was arresting anyone found to be Christian and hauling them before the magistrates. After a blinding experience on the road to Damascus he saw the light and became the loudest voice for Jesus from Jerusalem to Rome.  James, the brother of Jesus had believed he had gone mad and tried to drag him back to Nazareth while Jesus was on the road preaching, soon after the Resurrection became the leader of the church in Jerusalem.   

Others throughout history have had life changing experiences some before and some after becoming Christians.  The Roman Emperor Constantine opened the door for the open acceptance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire after believing that Christ had come to him in a dream.   Martin Luther experience Christ in a thunderstorm.  John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed.  Many of you have experienced healings, gifts of joy in the midst of tribulation, and other manifestation of the love of God through Christ.  If you have experienced the Good News of the Resurrection share your experiences with others. 

If you, like Mary believe you are sitting in the garden and God is painfully absent from your life, take time to listen.  Listen, listen for the voice of your Lord as he calls your name, speaking words of comfort and then let the world know that Jesus is alive.

Alleluia! He is risen!

Good Friday 2022

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I don’t need to try to explain to you what hard times, fear and death are like. We are in the middle of them at the moment.  It is tangible, you can almost smell it.  We have been fortunate.  For most of us here, the danger and the death is out there.  Close, lurking, but not in our own homes.  On this Friday, almost 2000 years ago, there were a great many people experiencing the same fears.  The enemy was different, but the fear was the same. Perhaps today we are in a better place to appreciate the actions of Jesus’ disciples than we have been in the past.

When we left our story last night, Jesus was having dinner with his closest companions.  It is Passover, an important religious feast that they have gathered to celebrate together.  One of them has walked out.  It may have seemed odd, but to all but one, probably not threatening.  Only Jesus knew why he left. Jesus has washed their feet, proclaiming them servants of the Lord and commissioning them to be slaves to the servants of the Lord.  He has taken the Passover Seder, which they celebrate in the same way every year, and he has altered the meaning of some of the familiar actions, calling the wine his blood, the pierced and stripped unleavened bread his body, and proclaiming a new commandment and a new covenant.

While the disciples are still trying to process all that Jesus has been saying he decides to go to the Garden of Gethsemane and pray. They are tired.  Their stomachs are full.  They have drunk several cups of wine.  It is time to settle down on the couch and watch a ball game or a movie or just take a nap.  We have all been there.  The party is coming to a close and as much as we enjoyed it, we just need a little me time, and Jesus is asking us to watch and to pray with him.

They go, but while the spirit is willing, the flesh is week and they keep falling asleep. Jesus keeps waking them up.  He needs their companionship tonight more than ever, but they are out of reach, mentally if not physically.  We understand what it means to need someone and know they are close but just out of reach.  You can see their faces on your phone or computer.  You can hear their voices, but it is not enough.

Suddenly everything changes.  Judas arrives with Roman soldiers and the temple authorities. The adrenaline kicks in.  They are no longer sleepy.  They are confused, they are frightened.  Peter grabs his sword and slashes out at the closest thing to him.  The ear of a slave.  Hardly a life saving action.  Jesus bends down, picks up the ear, and restores it to the man.  The disciples watch as Jesus is taken into custody and marched off.  They should be doing something to help him, but some are frozen where they stand, some have already run in fear, hiding in the shadows. 

Peter and John summon up enough courage to follow a safe distance behind.  John has connections and gets them inside the gate where they separate and try to look nonchalant. The evening is cold and Peter trys to join a group around a fire to keep warm, but they keep asking him if he was a friend of Jesus.  Frightened, Peter keeps insisting he doesn’t even know him.  The sun is just beginning to peak out at the horizon and the rooster crows twice to welcome the morning and Peter sobs.  Jesus knew Peter better than he knew himself.  Under all that bravado, he is just as scared and frightened as the others and three times he denied his Lord, just as Jesus had said he would.

While a great number of people seem to want to be rid of Jesus, no one wants the responsibility for doing it.  Jesus is moved from place to place – before the Sanhedrin, before the Roman prefect, before Herod, back to Pontius Pilate.  At each stop he is beaten, spit on, ridiculed and accused of crimes he did not commit.  No one can find him guilty, yet the torment continues.  Finally, wanting to be done with this mess and wishing the crowds to dissipate before a riot breaks out, (Pilate fears the people he governs more than this man before him), Pilate consents to have this man Jesus crucified.

It is now about the time the lambs are being slaughtered in the temple for the Passover.  Jesus is being slaughtered just outside the city gates.  Not a quick and relatively painless death, but the slowest and cruelest death Rome can devise, saved for rogue slaves and traitors.  

Nailed to the cross Jesus begins to repeat Psalm 22 which we read last night. “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.” Perhaps there are days when you understand that lament, but Jesus did not just think of himself, even at this dark hour.  John and his mother Mary have found their way to the foot of the cross.  Jesus gives them to one another and asks them to love and look after each other, just as they had loved him.  To one of the thieves hanging beside him, he offers hope and reconciliation.  To all the people who put his there: his friends who denied and abandoned him, the Jewish and Roman authorities who refused to see who he was and were afraid of him, the people in the crowd who got caught up in peer pressure and loved their own reputation more than him – to all of these, Jesus forgave them.

Today, liturgically, we leave Jesus hanging on the cross until shortly before sundown, but as awful and as painful as it is, for the moment we need to embrace death, acknowledge the fear, fear of getting caught up in the destruction, fear of what an unknown future will look like, mourn the loss of one we love, of the life we love.

Maundy Thursday 2022

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I’ve never lived in a war zone.  I have lived through category 5 hurricanes.

We watched with anxious anticipation as we gathered our most precious belongings, our medications, our computers and phones, our pets.  My congregations united to ensure that no one got left behind when we had to evacuate. Those who live alone, those who are sick, or those without transportation gathered in the homes of others so that at a moment’s notice we could pack the car and know that there is no turning back and may be nothing to return to tomorrow. I can only imagine based on my limited experience what it must be like to leave nearly everything behind and I weep for the thousands of refugees that are torn from their homes in fear.   I was fortunate.  I got to return and though we had to deal with damage to our church property, my home escaped with minimal damage.

This is a close approximation of what the first Passover must have felt like for Moses and the Hebrews living in Egypt just prior to the Exodus.  There were probably some who declared they planned to take their chances and stick it out.  There were probably some who were terrified beyond being able to function.  There were others who did what Moses told them to do and trusted that God would take care of them no matter what happened.

God, acting through Moses had already sent 9 plagues to Egypt.  The Egyptians were not particularly happy with these upstart slaves who claimed responsibility for a series of natural disasters that had wreaked havoc in Egypt.  Now Moses has predicted that just as the Pharaoh had ordered the death of the Hebrew sons, Pharaoh was about to get a taste of his own medicine as the first born in every Egyptian household, man and beast were about to die.  Staying was not an option for the Hebrews, but timing was critical.  They had to wait for God’s time and listen to Moses’ commands or they would get caught up in the death and destruction. 

God through Moses emphasized that this was not just a rescue effort, but a new beginning.  The Hebrews were told that from now on, they were to count this month as the beginning of their new year.  They were given very specific instructions concerning the final meal that they would eat in Egypt.  It was to be something that they never forgot.  Not just in their life time, but for all the generations to come.  Each family was to pick out a spotless lamb on the 10th day of the month.  They were to invite enough people to their homes for this meal that there were no left overs.  .  On the 14th day of the month, everyone in the community was to gather at twilight.  Sundown, not sunup, is still the beginning of the new day in the Jewish culture.  The lambs were slaughtered and the blood of the lamb was placed on the lintel and doorpost to mark the home as a refuge, a safe haven where death is not welcome.  No one celebrates Passover by themselves; it is a community event. No one is to be left homeless on this night.  The lambs were roasted whole. The people eat that night with their shoes on and their walking sticks in their hands.  They are commanded to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The unleavened bread and bitter herbs were symbols of both slavery and freedom, a reminder to us today of our slavery to sin and our redemption.  The unleavened bread was the bread of the poor.  It also indicted haste; it did not have to rise, and it was without yeast, as symbol of the power of sin in the Old Testament. At the Passover, even to this day, bitter herbs are dipped in salt water and charoset, a sweet apple dish is eaten. Sauces for dipping were a luxury of the rich, the free.  The bitter herb represents the bitterness of slavery, the salt water the tears of the oppressed. The sweet apples reflect both the mortar of the bricks they made in slavery and the sweetness of their redemption. 

Tonight, Maundy Thursday, we remember and in a sense participate in the last supper that Jesus ate with his disciples prior to his crucifixion.  It is important to remember that the gospel accounts of this night are intended to convey theological insights, much more than historical insights.  The gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, and Matthew and Luke which appear to draw heavily on Mark depict Jesus’ last supper as occurring on the first night of Passover at the Seder meal.  Their intent is to explain the meaning of the rite of Holy Eucharist as an expansion of the ideas already set forth in the Passover Seder and just as the Passover Seder is an annual reminder of God’s redemption of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, the Eucharist is our weekly reminder of God’s redemption of all believers out of the bondage of slavery to sin and eternal death.  As Jesus breaks the unleavened bread and shares it with his disciples, he associates himself physically with the symbol of God’s provision.  Just as he breaks the bread, he too will be broken in order that everyone at the table may be fed.  Just as God provided life giving manna in the wilderness, so too will everyone who partakes of the bread of the Eucharist be fed with eternal food.  The cup of wine, which was probably the third cup of the Seder called the cup of Redemption, Jesus claims to be the sign of a new covenant sealed with his own blood, a covenant of Redemption which we sign when we share in the cup.  A covenant is similar to an oath of allegiance to a king. The king agrees to protect and provide for his subjects and the subjects promise to be loyal to the king.  Jesus, the king, enters into an eternal covenant with those at the table with him that night and at all the Eucharist that are celebrated in remembrance of that night.

John’s purpose in his gospel is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke and so he tells the story from a slightly different perspective.  Throughout John’s Gospel, his primary purpose is to reveal the character of God through Jesus, the Incarnation of God.   John set’s Jesus’ last meal as the night before Passover begins because he wants to make clear that Jesus is associating his own death with the redeeming blood of the Passover lambs.  John suggests that Jesus is crucified the same day the lambs are sacrificed.  So, Jesus’ last meal in John’s gospel does not contain the elements of the Seder, but focuses on standard hospitality.  In a hot dusty country where almost everyone walks everywhere in sandals, the polite thing for any polite host will offer to have the feet of his dinner guest washed before dinner.  Typically the lowest servant in the home got this job.  When you have a room full of equals, nobody’s feet gets washed unless you wash them yourself.   Jesus demonstrates who God is by taking on the job of the servant and washing the feet of his disciples.  God leads, not from a position of power and authority, but from a position of service.  Peter is embarrassed for Jesus and by Jesus when Jesus offers to wash his feet, but Jesus tells Peter that unless he allows him to get this close and personal and to wash the dirt off of his feet, he cannot be one of the disciples.  Peter suddenly wants Jesus to give him a full bath.  Jesus reminds him he has already bathed, an allusion to baptism and the repentance we receive at that time.  We do not need to keep going back and repenting of the sins which we have already confessed and been forgiven. We just need to ask Jesus to wash off any new dirt that collects on our feet. 

Jesus then tells them that he has done this as an example to them.  If Jesus’ job is to wash feet, then we too are called to get down on our knees and wash each other’s feet.  I wish we were doing this literally tonight, it is an incredible symbol when the group participates together. We are called to support each other in our walk in Christ, helping each other by forgiving one another’s sins even if it means humbling ourselves and getting up close and personal.  Even it means we let others see our imperfections or we are called into an intimate relationship we have been able to avoid just sitting in a pew.

We may have survived the pandemic, and seem far away from war or natural disasters but there is one enemy we cannot avoid.  It is called death.  We never know when it will strike.  We are called to be ready, symbolically to eat our meals with our shoes on and our staff in our hand.  We are called to live in community and look out for those who are most vulnerable.  We are called to stand inside the doorway, behind the lintel and door post marked with the blood of the lamb, Christ’s blood, and then when death does pass our way, we are prepared to journey to the Promised Land.