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

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Ahmed akacha on Pexels.com

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.  

Palm Sunday 2022

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

From triumph to disaster in a span of 6 days.  What happened and why?

We began with a simple enough phrase “ After telling a parable to the crowd at Jericho, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28)   The parable referred to is Luke’s version of the Parable of the Ten Talents.  We hear Matthew’s version in Proper 28A associated with Stewardship, but we never read Luke’s version which as an interesting twist to it.  I Luke’s version, like Matthew’s the Master leaves and puts three of his servants in charge of his money.  When he returns, he finds two invested wisely and received profits which they turn over to the master, in both the third who received the least to begin with claim out of fear of the Master’s wrath, they put it in a safe place rather than risk investing and are chastised for not using what they were given wisely.  Luke adds two twist to this story.  First, the master as left for the purpose of being crowned king, so upon returning he is not just master of the house, but head of the whole kingdom.  The slave who claimed to have put his coin in a save place and is returning exactly what he was given is found to have lied.  He had in fact increased his gains by as much as the one with the most to begin with, but was holding those gains back for himself.  In both readings of the parable the third slave is judged harshly for his behavior – Matthew has him cast into the outer darkness and Luke has him executed. 

What was Jesus saying and why does this impact the Holy Week Stories?

The master of the house is obviously God who when he returns does so as the Incarnate Christ Jesus who has been made ruler of heaven and earth. At least four times in the Old Testament it is prophesied that God will establish a king who has dominion over all nations (Psalm 2: 6-9, Isaiah 9:6-7, Daniel 2:44, Daniel 7: 13-14).  It is not clear who the good stewards are – obviously those who use the gifts God has given them to further God’s purpose, but the lazy or deceitful steward is a condemnation of the Temple in Jerusalem and those in power there.  Neither point will be missed.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem he tells his disciples to go ahead and procure a donkey colt and if questioned are  to say, “The Lord needs it.”  Other people frequently referred to Jesus as Lord, though he seldom used that term for himself.  It is a misleading term because it can apply to anyone above you on the social ladder all the way up to God. The people hearing “The Lord needs it” may well have thought it was being confiscated by a Roman official. Jesus may have been using the term in its highest meaning, the word substituted for the name of God given to Moses that is never spoken.   What is not misleading is Jesus’ purpose in obtaining the colt of a donkey.  Zechariah 9:9 declares, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  And in verse 14:3-4 states “Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle.  On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the East”  It is no wonder that when the people saw Jesus riding down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem they began crying Hosannah – “Save us”

The people are recognizing that Jesus is fulfilling scripture.  When Luke tells us they say, “Blessed is the king that comes in the name of the Lord” they are singing Psalm 118 and substituting the word “king who comes” for “one who comes.”  When they declare “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven” they are echoing the words the angels sang at Jesus’ birth according to Luke. (Luke 2: 14).  The waving of palm branches were a sign of triumph and the placing of their cloaks on the ground a sign of honor. 

On top of fulfilling prophecy and declaring himself king, that fact that he rides into town on the colt of a donkey is a bit of mockery of the Roman Triumph which was a lavish religious and political ceremony marking a victory by a Roman general, by Jesus’ time the only person allowed to lead a Triumph was Caesar himself. In that action, Jesus made himself not only a blasphemer in the eyes of the Temple leaders, but an insurrectionist in the eyes of Rome.

There is not time to relate everything that happened that week.  I hope you will participate in our Holy Week activites and hear more of the story, but just hitting the highlights …

We are told Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, just as a parent would weep over a self-destructive child.  He knew what would happen in the near future.  He knew the consequences of their behavior would be devastating and even his death and resurrection would not stop the escalating violence.

Luke places the cleansing of the temple at this point in the story.  Again, Jesus is fulfilling scripture. He quotes Isaiah saying “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7) and Jeremiah 7:11 says “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.”

Luke has Jesus answering many questions and making several prophesies.  In Luke 21:5-6 he foretells the destruction of the Temple, in verses 20-24 he foretells the destruction of Jerusalem.  He also quotes Daniel talking about “The son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 20:27 & Dan 7:13)

Luke places Jesus last supper with his disciples at the Passover seder. Jesus uses the signs and symbols of the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by God through Moses and gives them new meaning.  He will be the Passover lamb, the innocent sacrifice whose blood will save all mankind from death and slavery to sin.  He will institute the sacrament that we know as Holy Eucharist as the ongoing remembrance of his passion and resurrection.

Three old testament passages inform us about the meaning of Jesus betrayal and death.  First Number chapter 9 describes the ongoing keeping of the Passover in the year to come.  It was so important that even ritual uncleanness (such as recently burying someone)  would not prevent someone from participating in the ritual and failure to participate was to cut one off from their people, this was a defining act.  Included in this passage is that no bones shall be broken.

Isaiah 53 describes the suffering servant including the passage “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases: yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions…  

Psalm 22, which we will hear read on Maundy Thursday seems to describe crucifixion, though there is nothing to suggest it was done it the time it was written. Jesus will quote this psalm from the cross which begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus made use of our expectations as found in the scriptures to prove to us that sin and death were not the end.  He endured the worst we could do to him to show how much he, God Incarnate, loved us and was willing to sacrifice for us so we could believe.  There have been many people who have tried to explain this mystery.  For me, Paul said it best, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5: 19)

5 Lent 2022

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

The Gospel of John speaks of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and we all assume it is John the apostle.  Popular literary works and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar would have us believe that Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ most devoted disciple, and she certainly was faithful in her devotion, but for me, I have always thought the stories of Mary of Bethany were the greatest witness of love and devotion between Jesus and another human being.

Let’s begin with the town of Bethany.  Bethany was a small village just on the other side of the Mount of Olives about two miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus appears to know two families in Bethany Lazarus and his two sisters Mary & Martha and Simon the Leper and he chooses to stay in Bethany, rather than Jerusalem when he is in town. This is purely supposition on my part, but because of the stories told about these two families, I have often wondered if Simon and Lazarus were the same person.  It is not unusual for people in the Bible to be called by two different names.

There are three stories weaving in and out of these two families and another Simon that are incredibly similar and different authors put them to different uses, but the love of the woman and the reaction to her by Jesus are consistent.

Early in Luke we have the story of Jesus visiting the house of Simon the Pharisee.  Jesus is at table with Simon which was probably a low table where he leaned on cushions with his feet extended behind him.  An unknown woman “from the city” who “was a sinner”, probably a prostitute arrives with an alabaster jar of ointment.  “She stood behind him at his feet weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.  Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:38) Luke uses this story to introduce the parable about two debtors – the one who owed the most was the most grateful.  He tells the woman “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7: 48)

In Chapter 10 Luke tells us the story of Jesus visiting Mary, Martha and Lazarus in their home.  This story is sandwiched between the sending our of the seventy disciples followed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan introduced by the Summary of the Law on one side and the teaching of the Lord’s prayer and a parable about perseverance in Prayer on the other.  The point of the story seems to be balancing good works with prayer and devotion.  In this story we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach.  This was inappropriate for women in this culture and her sister Martha fusses at Jesus for not sending her away to go help with dinner preparation.  Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen wisely, it is Martha that is “worried and distracted by many things.”  Jesus reminds her, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10 41-42)

All three of the synoptic gospels have Jesus giving the summary of the law, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 29-31; similar to Matt 22: 37-39 and Luke 10:27)  We are quick to pick up “love your neighbor as yourself, but Jesus tells us that is the second of the great commandments.  The first is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Mary understood this.

Luke has Jesus tell the parable of a rich man and a poor beggar covered in sores who both die.  The beggar is named Lazarus. I have often wondered if Jesus had his friend Lazarus in mind when he tells this parable.  Lazarus who had nothing and was despised in life dies and “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”  The rich man who finds himself in torment begs Lazarus for help but it is too late.

John tells us that while Jesus was away in Galilee, his friend Lazarus became fatally ill. John remembers Mary as the one who anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair, but that story is to come later.  Mary and her sister Martha send for Jesus, but Jesus delays his return and Lazarus dies. While it must have seemed cruel to Mary and Martha, Jesus had a purpose for delaying his return. When Jesus finally arrives Martha runs out to meet him and confronts him about his tardiness. She gets the honor of being the one to whom Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Mary has stayed behind and apparently Jesus asks for her.  Martha returns and tells Mary that Jesus is looking for her. She goes to him, falls at his feet weeping and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary does not get a theological explanation of resurrection.  Instead, Jesus weeps with her.  This is one of only two times we are told that Jesus wept. The crowd interprets it as Jesus’ love of Lazarus.  I think he wept in sorrow at the pain that Mary is experiencing.

Jesus will “resurrect” Lazarus and in the process cross the line with the authorities one too many times.  We are told that “many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees.” (John 11: 45-46) This caused great fear among many of the religious leaders who were concerned that it would bring unwanted attention from Rome upon them and destroy what the freedoms they enjoyed.  Caiaphas, the high priest declared, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11; 50)

Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as going to Bethany immediately after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Matthew has him stay in the house of the leper named Simon and visited by an unknown woman who anoints Jesus’ head, the true sign of Messiahship because the word means anointed one.  John tells us he was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus just prior to his triumphal entry and describes the scene we read today. Martha is serving dinner, true to form.  Lazarus is at the table with him and probably the twelve.  Mary comes in with a pound of pure nard.

Nard is an essential oil that comes from a plant grown in the Himalayas.  It was an expensive import and was used for everything from flavoring wine to perfuming the dead.  Jesus’ closest companions have still not realized that Jesus is not going to overthrow the Roman Empire and wrestle the throne of David away from Herod.  Mary seems to understand exactly what is about to happen, though God could be working prophetically through her without her complete comprehension.    

Mary choses to be generous with the one she loves dearly.  She lavishes a year’s wage on a spa moment to show her love and devotion to Jesus. She is also acting as a prophet predicting his death and perhaps foreshadowing Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples. She perfumes his feet and then wipes them with her hair.  I have found no reasonable explanation for using her hair instead of a towel, so again this is speculation but I might have done that if I wanted to retain the scent of that precious moment as long as possible.  Perhaps it was one more way Mary could cling to the one she loved by having his scent clinging to her.

Money has a way of revealing people’s hearts and we get a look into the heart of Judas in this story.  Jesus called the sinful to him, and Judas was apparently a thief to whom Jesus entrusted the purse of the group. He was also a hypocrite. The word comes from play acting and Judas could act the part of someone who cared about the poor, but he really cared about Judas.  He criticized Mary for her extravagance and suggested that they should have sold the perfume to have money for the poor. Money for his pocket in fact.  Jesus tells Judas to “Leave her alone.” Mary had bought it so that she would have it when the day came that Jesus would have to be buried.  Did Mary get to go to see his empty tomb?  I don’t know. Mary of Magdala is named and Mary mother of James or Joses, one gospel says, “the other Mary” another says “other women.”

Luke tells us that Jesus went to Bethany when it was time for his Ascension.  I like to think Mary of Bethany was able to be there.

There is a final statement in today’s less that needs to be addressed.  Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8).  Jesus is not telling us helping the poor is beyond us or that we don’t need to concern ourselves about them.  He is quoting from Deuteronomy “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open you hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deut. 15:10-11) This statement is made in the middle of Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year.  There are a great number of admonitions in both the Old and New Testaments concerning care of the poor.  This opportunity will be ongoing and should be addressed, but Jesus, God’s incarnate presence among us, was but a moment in time, a time to be cherished.

Loving our neighbor is good and something that we should be ever mindful of, but it should flow from our love and devotion to Christ otherwise it can become something we do for our own benefit.