Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Benson, MN. Day of Pentecost, Year C
Texts: Ac 2.1-21; Rom 8.14-17; Jn 14.8-17, 25-27
In our Christian tradition, there are three High Holy Days. The first is Christmas, the celebration of God becoming flesh and coming to live among us. The second is Easter, the celebration of God’s love overcoming our stubbornness and death itself by Jesus’ coming back to be with us again. The third we observe today: Pentecost, the celebration of God’s Holy Spirit coming again and again to be with us for all time, the permanent, unalterable presence of God-with-us.
We read about this fantastic event at the beginning of the book of Acts. With the mighty rushing sound like a great wind and the blazing tongues like fire, the Spirit’s presence is announced and the disciples of Jesus become his apostles—people sent out to accomplish his mission. We might read this story with some longing, wishing that we might see the Spirit coming so clearly now, wishing to feel that roaring resonate in our chest and that heat on our necks, to feel that catch in the breath as the Spirit begins to use us to proclaim Christ’s gospel.
The Holy Spirit sometimes feels lacking around here. One time, a Baptist gentleman walked into a Lutheran church and sat down in the pew. During the sermon, the pastor said something he particularly liked, and he responded, “Amen!” As the pastor continued, the man again liked what he heard and raised his voice to tell the pastor to “Preach it, Brother!” When the pastor drove the point of the point of the sermon home, the man shouted, “Yes, Jesus!” Finally, an one of the ushers tip-toed up the aisle to where the gentleman was sitting and asked him, “What do you think you’re doing?” The man replied, “I’ve got the Holy Spirit,” to which the usher responded, “Not in here, you don’t!”
In our tradition, we don’t speak in tongues, we don’t prophesy, and we don’t heal by touch. It can sometimes feel like the Spirit is out to lunch in the Lutheran Church; but friends, I assure you, the Spirit is here. If you remember your Small Catechism, Luther writes in the response to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith… This is most certainly true.”
You see, we may not experience the flashy displays of faith that some Christians do in their churches, but the simple fact that we can trust in God’s promise at all is a miracle granted by the Holy Spirit. This story that we share each week, this narrative of God’s action in history, is so far-fetched and fantastic, and we have no reason to believe a word of it; but through the Holy Spirit, we find comfort, trust, and promise in these words.
Today on Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for her presence with us. It is most appropriate on this day that we invite our youth forward to affirm their faith in God through the rite of confirmation. On this day, so long ago, the Church was born in the sound of wind and the vision of flame, and today in this place the Church continues through the faith and the faithfulness of these young women and men.
In older times, it was customary for confirmands to be examined before the congregation, to be asked to prove their worthiness through memorization or public proclamation of faith. We did that because we felt that we needed to be sure that the Spirit was there, that confirmation was something to be worked for and earned.
The truth is that we can never be sure where the Spirit is. We can never work hard enough to affirm our faith, and we can certainly never earn it. We never could. On that Pentecost celebration so long ago when the disciples went out and spoke in so many languages, even then good, devout people could not be sure. They thought the disciples were crazy, drunk, high. “What are they on?” was the question people asked.
If nobody could be sure then, with the roaring sound and the dancing flames, we will never be sure now with subdued ceremony and shyly muttered responses. This is why it is important for us to observe this ritual of confirmation. It is not just for our young people, not just a one-time event where we pass the tests, say the words and receive the blessing. Confirmation is for all of us—pastors, farmers, lawyers, musicians, and all the rest—for all of us to constantly reaffirm and renew our faith throughout our entire lives. We never stop learning, and we never stop growing; and, thankfully, the Spirit never stops giving us the faith to cling against all hope to the promise of the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Today we celebrate a miracle—the miracle of faith. It is a miracle that is for all of us, a tiny, quiet miracle that comes often without much fanfare, but it is a miracle nonetheless. But even as we celebrate this miracle, we also fear it. Those first apostles knew just how unpredictable and contagious the Spirit could be. People began preaching who hadn’t known Jesus personally, who didn’t follow all the rules, who didn’t have the proper training. Among them was even one who had formerly made it his mission in life to stamp out the young Church, a Pharisee named Saul, who we know as the apostle Paul.
As we look toward our future as the Church, we may be frightened by how different it looks than the Church of our youth. We may hear different words proclaimed, see different rules followed, experience different ways of doing things. Old traditions sometimes die and new ones are sometimes born. Even Scripture is read and interpreted in a new light. There are many Pauls among us presenting new insights on scripture that disagree with our time-honored traditions.
We never know if it is the work of the Holy Spirit or of people trying and failing to pass on what they have heard and seen and felt. We will never know. All we can do is lean on the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, and rely on God’s Holy Spirit to continue to help us believe, to discern, and to walk together in faith.
My apologies for going silent for a few weeks. I have finally posted all the entries that have been missing since the second Sunday of Easter. During the month of April, I was preaching a sermon series on Revelation based on the Revised Common Lectionary texts provided for worship each week. I have had a lot of fun doing that, as Revelation is a beautiful book, full of promise and hope. In spite of my joy at preaching on Revelation, I have not been particularly happy with the sermons it produced, particularly the endings. I suppose this has contributed to my tardiness in posting. I feel as though I let poor Eutychus down. However, I also realize that I am my own worst critic, and hope that you all will find some value in these where I have looked past it.
I think that for Lutherans and our Roman Catholic and Mainstream Protestant counterparts to preach on Revelation is important. Our culture has heard a great deal of preaching on Revelation, but mostly from our brothers in the Evangelical tradition, who tend to interpret the book literally. While I do not know any more about the end of time than anyone else, I do believe that we do not do the book justice to read it only literally; there is far more in it than simply a script of what “will happen” someday. Not only that, I tend to agree with Barbara Rossing and Craig Koester, Lutheran Revelation scholars, who claim that dispensationalist theology can actually be harmful to faith relations, the earth, and our understanding of the Bible.
I suggest if you read these sermons, you start at the beginning for a summary of how Lutherans read and understand the Revelation of John.
May the peace of Christ be with you and may the Holy Spirit preach to you in, through, and in spite of my words.
Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Benson, MN. Easter 6C.
Texts: Rev 21.10, 22-22.5; Jn 14.23-29
What do you think of when you think of “home?” I have spent much of my life in the last 12 years thinking about home. In 2001, I graduated high school and prepared to go to college. Those three months of summer were the most homesick I had ever been, and I hadn’t even left yet! I had always grown up in the same town with the same friends and went to church with the same people. Now, I was going to leave my parents’ house for the first time, I would be living in a strange town in a different state and be surrounded by people I didn’t know. For those three months I was excited, but also anxious, scared, and alone.
Turns out, I loved college, and thanks to school, church and campus ministry, I had a tight group of friends and a community of support in no time. I learned to navigate the challenges and opportunities of my new setting with hope and excitement. I was very much “at home.” Not too long after moving out, I remember going back to Great Falls for a holiday break and lying in bed thinking how that house no longer felt like mine; it belonged to my parents but not to me. I knew that Great Falls was still my home and always would be, but it wasn’t the home I needed it to be any longer.
I moved from college to seminary, and while in seminary I moved from campus to my chaplaincy and back and from campus to my internship and back. In college, at least, I had been in the same town for 5 years, but now I was moving every 9 months or so. I began to long for a place to call “home” more than ever, a place where I could land, a place to put down roots and build relationships that wouldn’t have to be cut in a year’s time, a place where I could rest.
When Stephanie and I met, and when we began to talk about marriage, I slowly began to think of her as home. More than a place or a community, home began to become more about familiarity and security and comfort, and those were things that I found with her. After we married, we moved from seminary to her internship, and then from her internship to here in Minnesota; now together we have been trying to figure out where “home,” and what it means.
I tell you all this to help underscore the importance of Jesus’ words: “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” I know many people, perhaps many of you all, who have never left “home,” or if they have, they’ve come back. “Home” for these people has never been in question: it is a real place; a solid, unchanging fact; as concrete as a house or a town or a farmstead. That consistency and tangibility is what I have missed, and that is also what Jesus is talking about today. “We will come to them and make our home with them.”
We often talk about our “heavenly home,” or about “going home to be with Jesus.” As it turns out, scripture actually tells us the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible tells us that rather than us going to be with God, God comes to be with us, here in this world. This place, with all its troubles and triumphs, all its majesty and mystery—this place is God’s home.
We—human beings—are God’s people; we are God’s home. God has spent all of history longing and working to be among us. In Jesus Christ, God took on flesh and became truly human—not the appearance of a human or God in a person-costume, but a real, live, human being. Jesus Christ lived and moved and was at home with us, a human being like us; created from the dust of the earth.
In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos records his vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to exist on earth, a place where humans and God and the Lamb will dwell together forever and ever. John spends a lot of ink describing this wonderful city, with its gold-paved streets and gem-encrusted walls and the 12 gates made of pearl, but the greatest thing is what we read today.
Unlike in all other great cities, there is no temple. People don’t need to go to a special place to see God, because God lives there! The gates are always open, and there is no need for locks or security cameras or homeless shelters or police because everything in the city is holy, including the people. John writes that “no one who practices abomination or falsehood” will enter it. While none of us are worthy to enter, through the Lamb, God has made us worthy to make our home in God’s city and walk beside our creator.
In this city is the river of the water of life, and the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, and leaves for the healing of the nations. Everything about this city witnesses to God’s desire to be among God’s people, to heal us and love us and wipe away all our tears and wash away all our faults. This city that John describes is a painting, a melody, a scent which helps us to see and hear and taste and smell and know that God’s home is with us.
We need this image because so often in life, we wonder where God is. Life is much better at pointing out how God is absent rather than how God is present The places where we hope to find God—our churches, our friendships, even our families—are so often the very places that we find the most pain and anger and division. If God is with us, how can the world be so cruel? If Jesus is risen, then where is he? We live in a world that can be so hostile towards us and towards God; so where is our home?
In some way, all of us are always searching for a place called “home.” For some of us, that search is more literal, for others it is more figurative: we search for people who understand us, for a community that accepts us, for a job that fulfills us, for a lifestyle that satisfies us. Many of us, especially devoted Christians, search for a God who loves us in a way that we can really feel, really experience in a way that is more real than reading promises from an old book.
For those of us who search, Jesus speaks today. “Those who love me keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them… and the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will… remind you of all that I have said to you.” When it is so hard to feel connected to God, when God and home feel so distant and empty, the Holy Spirit comes to us and reminds us of Jesus’ word; a word of promise, a word of command, a word of hope.
In the ‘keeping’ of Jesus’ word—in remembering and treasuring and sharing what he has given us—he has promised to be present for us. When God feels distant, Jesus promises us that, through the Holy Spirit, he and the Father come to us through worship and prayer, through sharing the Eucharist, and through loving one another.
Life is difficult, and home can sometimes be a hard, hard place to find. Sometimes I feel I’m still looking. For those of us who continue to search, God’s promise is that there will come a time when our hope will be fulfilled and God will live among us as our God, and we will all be God’s peoples. We trust in the powerful love of God to overcome injustice and conflict and sin and even death and bring all peoples into God’s holy city.
But in the mean time, while we wait for that vision of the New Jerusalem, we have an Advocate who comes to us and helps us to keep Jesus’ word and treasure it, and in that keeping, we have a little taste of what it is to be at home with God. Today, we share a meal—simple bread and wine—and hope for a day when we will sit around a great table with all of creation to feast with God and with the Lamb. Though that hope is not yet realized, though we may not feel yet at “home,” this meal reminds us that where we are, God is, and that while we may not be at “home” with God, God is most certainly at home with us.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Easter 4C. “Shepherd Sunday”
Texts: Ps 23; Rev 7.9-17; Jn 10.22-30
During the season of Easter at Shepherd of the Hills, I am preaching a series on the epistle texts from Revelation.
This week, we read headlines of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the industrial explosion in Texas, and earthquakes in Iran and China.
Well, it’s been another one of those weeks, hasn’t it; one of those tragic and fearful moments when the world breaks in and reminds us just how vulnerable we are? Earlier this week, bombs exploded in Boston amid huge crowds gathered to watch the marathon. There weren’t as many deaths as some other acts of terror or mass killings we have seen, nevertheless we have been shaken as we remember that life is fragile and that there are people who wish to take it from us if they can. This week there was also an explosion in Texas and earthquakes in Iran and China, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds more.
All in all, it is an appropriate week to celebrate “Shepherd Sunday.” We have been reminded in these past few days that, though our leaders and lawmakers and police may be able to respond to situations like these with efficient and decisive action, they simply cannot prevent us from ever coming to any harm. It is good for us to remember that we have a shepherd who cares for us.
Bishop Mark Hanson recorded a short message this week in which he says, “Even if you are behind locked doors, the promise is Christ is with you. Just as Christ was with his disciples that first Easter evening when they were behind locked doors, Christ comes and says to you, ‘Peace be with you.’” As I listened to Bishop Hanson’s loving and concerned words for the people of Boston and our nation, I found myself thinking: So what? If I were locked in a house, afraid that at there could be a murderer in my neighborhood, or maybe even my own backyard, how would Jesus coming and saying “peace be with you” make anything better?
I can’t help but think that this is perhaps where many of John’s readers found themselves. With executions and beatings, discrimination and fear, it can’t have been easy to be a Christian in Rome in those days. To those disciples, a far-off blessing of “peace be with you” wasn’t going to keep them safe from the Caesar’s soldiers. In the harsh reality of suffering and fear, our trust in “God’s plan” and “God’s justice” can sometimes falter.
Our reading from Revelation today follows some disturbing and frightful imagery. Prior to John’s vision of the multitude, he has just described the Lamb opening the first six seals of the great scroll from God’s hand. As each seal is broken, a new horror is unleashed. The first four seals bring forth what we have come to call “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” each one tormenting the people of the earth in different way.
The first horseman rides a white horse and carries a bow; he represents the threats outside of Rome, the enemies of the Empire. The next rider, on a red horse carrying a sword, represents the threats inside the Empire; he takes away peace and order so that society falls apart and people begin killing one another. The third horseman rides a black horse and carries scales and announces famine and poverty. Finally, the fourth horseman, called Death, rides a pale green horse and kills with famine, disease, and wild beasts.
At the fifth seal, the souls of those killed for the word of God cried out for justice, and were told to wait. When the sixth seal is opened, creation itself begins to fall apart with a great earthquake and the stars falling from the skies.
Some read these signs as God’s judgement on an evil and corrupt world, a punishment for our sin and injustice. However, this is not what they are; instead, each of these signs systematically shakes our confidence in the world. The first rider destroys our hope in our leaders to protect us from outside threats; the second destroys our hope in our society to protect us from one another; the third destroys our hope in our prosperity to protect us from want; the fourth destroys our hope in our own health and personal safety.
These “four horsemen” symbolize the loss of all the order of civilization. They remind us that nothing is certain: empires topple, leaders are corrupted, prosperity withers. Even when everything is going well, we are still at danger from random acts of violence or natural disasters. The message of the horsemen is that we cannot ultimately trust any earthly system to keep us safe from death and suffering. This is a lesson we have learned firsthand in the bombing and earthquakes of this week, as well as at Sandy Hook Elementary and the World Trade Center.
So where is the justice? Where is the safety? As the fifth seal is opened, we cry out with the souls of the dead in Christ, “how long, O Lord, will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” We desperately want to believe that there is a divine plan, a reason for all that happens. We want to believe that God is in control and will enact justice for those killed by terrorists, abused by spouses, and victimized by criminals. Sadly, life as we know it does not bear this out. So we cry to God, “How long?” The response these souls receive is to wait a while longer. In the mean time, they are given white robes, a sign of victory and celebration, a reminder that God does care about them and is mindful of their plight.
The destruction following the sixth seal reminds us that even creation itself is impermanent. The earth shakes and the stars fall. The comforts of civilization and technology have failed, the idea of cosmic justice has failed, and now the created order fails. Everyone, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free alike, hide and cry out “who can stand?”
That is when John sees the multitude robed in white. Perhaps among them are the same souls who cried out for justice earlier. They are the answer to the question “who can stand?” These are the beloved of God, sealed with God’s name. The elder says that they have been through the great ordeal; they have not been spared from it, but now their suffering is over and God will protect them, care for them, and keep them safe in a way that no earthly institution, no Empire, not even creation itself could ever do.
These words are a reminder to us that though everything else in the world fail us, though safety and health desert us, though we be killed or maimed or persecuted, we are now and always will be the beloved of God. John’s vision reminds us, as Bishop Hanson says in his message, that “there are no God-forsaken places, and there are no God-forgotten people.” Yes, we will go through the great ordeal; yes, we will experience suffering and torment and even death. This does not mean that God has forgotten us. Though we may be lacking for comfort or safety or care now, we are reminded that God is still with us.
Which brings me back to my original question: So what? What about this vision brings relief to people suffering real fear and pain right now? We Christians too often use this hope of future justice and future comfort to justify our present inaction. Right now there are people hurting who need the care and love of God. Because we have this hope in the future, we have been freed from our fear of suffering or persecution or death to live our lives in service to the poor and hurting ones so that they may know God’s real, present, living love as we have.
Not everybody has had a vision like John’s, and so he wrote this letter to be a message of hope. Our letter to the world is our lives, and the world needs the hope and good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. Though there are no horsemen, no stars falling from the sky, this week the earth has been shaken, both figuratively and literally, for hundreds of people. We have been called to deliver the living love of the living Christ to people who have seen death.
We remember this week that the Lord is our shepherd. This doesn’t mean we will not suffer, but it does mean that when we do suffer, God is not oblivious. It means that God saves us so that we might save others. Because God is our shepherd, we remember that there nothing—not death, not danger, not pain, not explosions or earthquakes—can snatch us out of God’s hand. Whatever may happen to us, we are safe in the care of our Shepherd. In the face of the fears and the sorrows of this week, let us join together and defiantly sing our hymn: My Life Flows On in Endless Song.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Easter 3C.
Text: Rev 5.1-14
During the season of Easter at Shepherd of the Hills, I am preaching a series on the epistle texts from Revelation.
We pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We all know that not none of us are able to follow God’s will all the time, but I think we’d all agree that we would like to see a world in which God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven. We imagine such a world to be free of pain and fear. There would be no war, no crime, no poverty; people would look out for one another but wouldn’t gossip or stick their noses where they didn’t belong. We’d still have arguments, but we’d be able to settle them and let them rest, rather than carrying them around with us for years or decades or lifetimes.
Our wish to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven is as old as humanity. The Bible is the story of God making promises and leading people to try to accomplish that will on earth; but it is also the story of people who refuse to listen, who fall away, who make mistakes. As long as there have been people, God has been working to accomplish God’s will on earth as in heaven, and this is how far we’ve gotten. Some days it feels like a hopeless cause.
And so, when John in his vision saw God on the throne of heaven, worshiped by the angels and the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, and saw God holding a scroll with seven seals—a divine decree announcing and ordering the will of God for earth as well as heaven, his heart leapt. Finally! After so much time and hardship and failure, God’s will was about to be done.
But there was a setback. No one was found either in heaven or on earth or even among the dead who was worthy to break the seals. For a moment it seemed to John that God’s will would never be done, that humankind would languish under warfare and oppression and corruption forever.
This is the story of scripture: try as we might to accomplish God’s will and live by God’s Word, we cannot. We try and fail and make a mess of things. No creature, no human that has ever lived or will ever live, not even the angels of heaven are worthy to open the scroll and reveal God’s divine will to the world, because there is none in all of creation who is perfect like God. And so John wept.
Unlike those who prospered under the Roman Empire, John and his fellow Christians were persecuted. Even the ones who were wealthy and safe saw first-hand the oppression and the injustice that the Empire created, and so they, too, longed for God’s will to come to pass.
When all hope seems lost, one of the elders turns to John and says, “Do not weep! There is one who is worthy—the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He has conquered, he is worthy to open the scroll.” This is good news, not just because the scroll will be opened, but because the one who opens it must also enforce it. The one who opens the scroll must have the ability to bring God’s will about on earth as it is in heaven, must be able to subdue all the governments and powers and forces on earth that work against God’s will.
For John and his congregations, this meant going up against Rome. What does it mean for us? What are the powers in our world that stand in the way of God’s will? There are certainly governments and laws that resist the will of God, but more than that, our economy is built on greed and selfishness, our political system built on naive hopes and unfulfilled promises, our whole way of life built on exploitation and looking out for ourselves first. Whoever would open the scroll must be powerful indeed to overcome all of that.
When John heard that the Lion of the tribe of Judah had conquered and would open the seal, he imagined somebody who was powerful enough to defeat the Empire with all it’s invincible armies and vast wealth. We might imagine one who is able to conquer the nations of the earth and bring the will of every human heart into subjection. This is how we think about power: like a lion. Nobody messes with a lion except a bigger lion, and this is the biggest Lion of all. Lions have the power to rule through violence and force; lions destroy those who oppose them.
Yet when John looks to see this Lion, in the midst of the elders before the throne stands not a Lion, but a Lamb, the meekest and most vulnerable of creatures. On top of that, it is a Lamb that appears to have been slaughtered; it still has a gaping wound weeps blood. How is this insignificant creature to conquer the forces of the world and eradicate evil? How is a Lamb to enforce God’s will?
The Lamb, of course, is Christ, the one who was slaughtered, the one being in all of creation who actually accomplished God’s will. He did it not by force, not through military power or political victory, but through love—love even to the point of self-sacrifice. In a world where we see power as something that must be exerted and enforced, God’s message to us is that power lies not in bending the world our will, but in refusing to be bent by the weight of the world.
In our own time, we might see the Lamb as the Church. Our Church is wounded and bleeding, it’s life slowly draining away as more and more people leave or fall away. Our first instinct is to force people, either through mandate or guilt, to come back; we try to obligate them to come by shaming them or withholding ministry. When that doesn’t work, our second instinct is to lure people back by offering what we think they want, whether it be new music or fancy programs or free food.
In our panic to save the Church, we sometimes end up abandoning the gospel to fill our pews. This is why none of us are worthy to open the scroll and declare God’s will to the world; yet it is through us—through the Church—that God chooses to bring about God’s will.
In the early days, the Church didn’t grow because of the music people sang or the sermons they preached. It didn’t grow because of the witness of the martyrs or the sense of obligation people had or how worship fit into their schedules. The Church grew because of the love Christians had for one another.
In a plague, when everybody else fled to the country, Christians were the ones who stayed and put themselves at risk to care for the sick and dying. Instead of abusing or ignoring slaves and the lower class like the rest of society, Christians welcomed and cared for these people, even ate with them, and gave of their own possessions to make sure they had food and warmth.
This is how, in spite of terrible persecution, the Church grew in those first centuries after Christ; it was not overcome by force and violence because it conquered with love—the love of Jesus, the Lamb.
Violence begets violence and leads to death; love, on the other hand, begets love and brings life. The Lamb has conquered because instead of seeking to save his own life, he gave his life in service to a greater cause: the will of God. There is no power on earth or in heaven which can overcome this kind of love that God has. When we are frightened or panicked by the death of the Church, we must respond not with fear or force, but with love, because this love—God’s love—is more powerful than death, even the death of the Church.
In John’s vision, the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll, to proclaim and bring about God’s will on earth as in heaven. Because the Lamb is worthy, all the elders and living creatures, myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands, praise him with one voice, and all the creatures in heaven and on earth and under the sea and in it join in the refrain: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Because of the Lamb, God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven. The work is not yet complete, but by the death and resurrection of Christ, it has begun, and the Church has been charged with continuing it, in the name of the Lamb. Our job, our vocation, our holy calling, is to proclaim the Lamb who was slain to a world seeking a lion, and to show the world in our lives the love that God has shown us. We will fail, because we are not worthy, but Christ is, and by his blood he has ransomed us and made us to be a God’s kingdom and priests serving our God forever and ever.
Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Swift Falls, MN. Easter 2C.
Text: Rev 1.4-8
During the season of Easter at Shepherd of the Hills, I am preaching a series on the epistle texts from Revelation.
Revelation is a book that often scares us non-Evangelical types. It’s full of bizarre, psychedelic images that we don’t quite know what to do with. The people who talk about Revelation most are the folks we hear preaching on TV or the radio about the End Times, Armageddon. The late Harold Camping was one of the most recent Revelation preachers we heard; he predicted the end of the world in 2011—twice. We all know how that turned out. Because of Camping and people like him, we tend to regard the book of Revelation with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Yet, Revelation is also the beautifully poetic and vibrantly imaginative book that gives us images like “Alpha and Omega” and “host arrayed in white.” We derive some beautiful portions of our liturgy from its pages: “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free…;” “Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever and ever…;” “The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign…”
As we celebrate the 50 days of Easter, the folks who wrote the lectionary have given us the opportunity to read from the pages of the book of Revelation. This might seem strange to us, but Revelation is an Easter book if ever there was one. Easter is a paradox: God’s anointed was killed, and by his death conquered death. Revelation’s vivid images and plot help us to make sense of this paradox and of the God’s promises to life for us as we await their fulfillment.
Revelation is a book written to a community of believers in the early church sometime between 70 and 95 AD, which makes it the same age or a little older than the Gospel of Matthew. It was written for a people who were beset by tragedy, by hardship, and by uncertainty. These are disciples of Christ who could very much identify with those disciples huddled in a locked room for fear of the authorities.
To these confused and scared Christians, John of Patmos wrote a letter full of triumphant and hopeful imagery, a reminder that the living Christ was with them, that though they were suffering now, Christ was indeed coming and would right all wrongs. Revelation is, above all, a book of hope and encouragement to those living as the kingdom of God.
We today are in a much different place from those early Christians. They lived in the Roman Empire, a vast collection of diverse peoples bound together by an efficient and ruthless government. The Empire ruled by the might of its armies, crushing all who opposed it. The Emperor, the Caesar, ruled absolutely, and was worshiped as a god. He was the embodiment of the Empire, and none dared oppose his will. He was the most powerful man on earth.
Unlike those first Christians, we do not live under an absolute dictatorship, and though we may sometimes like to think so, we are not persecuted for our faith. However, even though we are not the intended audience of this letter, that does not mean it does not still speak to us of God. In the vivid and poetic language of John’s letter are captured timeless truths of God’s kingdom that are still relevant for us, and so this book has stayed with us, a part of our Bible.
The proper title of Revelation is “the Apocalypse of John.” “Apocalypse” does not mean the end of the world; actually, it means the revealing of something hidden: hence, ‘revelation.’ The story of this book is not a prediction of some distant future, but a vision of our world as it is now, and how God has always been active in it. This is not some strange vision of tomorrow, but a truth about today, a description of the kingdom of God and the promise of God’s presence with us now. Though the images it contains are sometimes frightening, they are intended to be hopeful and encouraging.
Revelation is written metaphorically; the apocalypse genre was a well-known type of writing then. Just like when we go to see a romantic comedy and we know that the boy will almost get the girl, then lose her, then they wind up together at the end, readers of apocalypse in those ancient times knew that they would read wild and surreal descriptions of fantastic things, but they also knew not to understand them literally!
Though John may have had specific meanings in mind when he wrote the book, the beauty of the imagery in Revelation is the myriad of different interpretations it can have. We each read and interpret the book differently, and that is what helps us see God’s truths contained in it. With this in mind, we begin our Easter journey through the Apocalypse of John.
This opening from Revelation that we read today introduces us to what John is trying to tell us. This is a book about Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. He is the main character of this book. Decades after his resurrection, people struggled with what it meant to them that this Jesus was alive, and how his resurrection changed their lives. In that sense, we are much like them. John writes this letter to them; to the seven churches in Asia Minor: to Ephesus and Smyrna, to Pergamum and Thyatira, to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.
These people felt Christ’s absence much more than his presence. They ached for one who would deliver them from the persecution of the Empire and the grinding oppression of the economic inequality that kept it running. To them John relates a vision of Jesus, alive, listening to the cries of God’s people. John reminds them that this is the Jesus who loves us, who has already freed us from our sins, and who has consecrated us as priests to proclaim his gospel to the world.
More than that, John’s message is deeply political. Caesar is not the ultimate power, he reminds them: God is. Caesar may be the emperor, but Christ is the ruler of all the kings of the earth. John calls God “Almighty,” asserting that God is more powerful even that Caesar. Whatever Caesar and his armies may threaten or do to us, we are not beyond God’s power to save and to bring justice. The rest of John’s letter will make this clear.
This introduction we read today is a promise. On that first Easter morning, Christ fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, the promise that though the Son of Man must suffer and die, and he would then rise from the dead. Now John reminds us of God’s promise that the Messiah will return. “Look! He is coming with the clouds! And every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” Even the Empire and the mighty Caesar will see him and will wail when he comes.
We may not be oppressed and persecuted, but we still find ourselves in the grip of forces beyond our control. Especially in these days, we have learned to fear the uncertainty of the economy, the zeal of religious extremists whose hate finds strength in the perversion of sacred scripture, and the decline of our beloved Church. In spite of our relatively safe and sheltered lives, we are surrounded by reminders that we are at the mercy of the world around us.
To us in these days, John’s message rings as clear as it did to the churches in Asia: God is the Almighty ruler of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end of our faith, the first and last word. He is the one who is, the one who was, and the one who is coming. We may feel his absence painfully now, but just as surely as he is the firstborn of the dead, he is coming here, to be with us and no force on earth can withhold him from us, for he is the Almighty.