Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Don’t Look Away

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2022, Pentecost 4C

2 Kings 2:1-14; Luke 9:51-62

 Don’t Look Away

When last we left Elijah, the prophet had just been rebuked (mildly, to say the least) by the Lord for his pronounced myopia and “I alone am left” whine, not least by being ordered by God to go anoint his successor, a man named Elisha who at the time was apparently living with his parents tending their fields and livestock. Whether enthusiastically or not (after all, we don’t know if Elijah even knew Elisha at this point), Elijah at least obeyed that command by throwing his cloak at him, upon which Elisha left the farm and family (slaughtering twenty-four oxen on his way out and giving the meat as a feast for the locals) to follow Elijah. Elijah did have a couple more prophetic encounters left in him, including his dramatic condemnation of King Ahab over his theft of the vineyard of a neighbor and one more destructive conflict with Ahab’s successor, Ahaziah. By the time we get to today’s reading, though, Elijah’s time is up, and Elisha seems to know it.

Our narrator certainly knows it, and is almost blasé about it at the beginning of our reading. How often do you see a sentence that begins “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” and continues in blasé fashion about Elijah and Elisha’s journey? I suppose after all the over-the-top things that have happened in Elijah’s term on earth, one more crazy thing doesn’t seem like much, but we are talking about a man who is going to be gathered up by a chariot of fire and whisked away. That seems worth a little bit of excitement. At any rate, it seems like everybody, including Elisha, knows that something extraordinary is about to happen.

And if he didn’t know it, there were plenty of others along the way to clue him in on the subject. As they travel, they encounter companies of prophets, (more refutation of Elijah’s “I alone am left” ranting) and in each case members of those prophet groups take Elisha aside and say “you know he’s going away, don’t you?” and each time Elisha responds “yeah, yeah, I know, just hush” and determinedly plugs along with Elijah, even though Elijah keeps trying to put him off as well.

Remember, Elisha hasn’t really been the prophet yet. He has so far been functioning like an understudy, or perhaps like an Assistant Prophet of Yahwistic Theology still awaiting tenure. Even though God specifically commanded Elijah to go anoint Elisha as his successor, it’s not even clear that Elisha was a prophet at all before Elijah showed up and ordained him, so to speak. At the end of 1 Kings 19, when Elijah comes to anoint him, Elisha was plowing in the fields (his parents’ fields, evidently) with twelve yoke of oxen. And before following Elijah, Elisha wants to return home to say goodbye to mom and dad and to slaughter those oxen for a great feast. Doesn’t sound much like a prophet in the making, and his name doesn’t appear again in the Kings narrative until today’s reading, and yet here Elisha is, doggedly following his apparent prophetic mentor to the last. 

And this most likely wasn’t an easy life for which he was signing up. You might remember the gospel reading for today, in which Jesus warns those who say they want to follow him. “Nowhere to lay his head.” For that matter, no turning back – sounds like Jesus would have been less inclined to indulge Elisha’s wish to say goodbye to his parents and throw that going-away party. This is not a glamorous life. We have elevated these characters from the Bible to the status of heroes, but that wasn’t necessarily how they experienced life. It wasn’t easy, particularly when you had an angry king and queen hounding you as did Elijah. But, still, Elisha was there, following Elijah to the end.

So, let’s follow what he sees.

With some of those other prophets following at a distance, Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan River. Ii isn’t one of the Great Rivers of the World, but it’s not small. One doesn’t just wade across it, or swim across for that matter. Elisha watches as Elijah takes his mantle (the same one he had wrapped around his face on Horeb the mount of God, at the “sound of sheer silence”) and rolls it up to strike the water, and the water parts. No doubt Elisha and the others recall the Hebrew people crossing the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they finally approached their promised land after years in the wilderness. Elijah and Elisha cross, as the other prophets watch.

Finally Elijah gives up and asks Elisha what he wants. What do you say in such a situation? Many years before, the newly elevated king Solomon was asked this question by no less than God and had chosen to ask for wisdom. Here Elisha, asked by his prophetic mentor, chooses to ask for what he sees in Elijah, only more. Given what we’ve seen of Elijah this might seem a truly frightening prospect, but Elisha nonetheless sees in Elijah what he needs to step into his call. Except he doesn’t just ask for it, he asks for a “double portion,” language that recalls the share of an inheritance typically bequeathed to an eldest son. He asks for more, for beyond. What makes a “double portion”? Is it more power, more ability to do great feats, more discernment about God’s call to a prophet? We don’t get an explanation. Nonetheless Elijah allows that Elisha’s request will be granted, but only if Elisha sees Elijah is he is taken away. 

In other words, don’t look away at all. Don’t even blink. And certainly don’t look down at your cell phone. No pressure there, right?

And yet Elisha, determined as ever to fulfill this call he never expected, manages to keep his eyes on Elijah, until the fiery chariot and whirlwind sweep him away, finally fading from sight.

In a story like this one, with some utterly fantastic elements and a setting clearly unlike anything we will ever know, it can be difficult to relate. Chariots of Fire is a movie about Olympic runners, not something we actually expect to see in real life. But Elisha does show us something we need to see, something we can in fact learn from even in our own very different modern times. 

Elisha is wise enough to seek what his mentor had. It’s not that we need to think Elisha saw Elijah as perfect. We’ve seen the ways in which Elijah’s zeal sometimes outstripped his willingness to rely on God’s leading. And yet for all his excess, Elijah was still in touch with God, still a servant of Yahweh, and Elisha knew he needed that if he were to step into Elijah’s prophetic office. 

But even at the same time he asked for Elijah’s blessing, he knew that wasn’t enough. He needed more. Elijah’s world was already shifting away. Ahab was no longer on the scene, and even his successor Ahaziah’s reign was short-lived. Israel would be challenged by different enemies. Elijah’s way wasn’t going to be sufficient. Elisha’s prophetic ministry was going to be a different one than Elijah’s, and in his request he was wise enough to grasp that. 

We can learn from this. We, the modern church here in Gainesville and around the world, cannot cavalierly dispense with the foundation that our ancestors in the faith have built. It is not perfect. It is not foolproof. We as Christ’s church in God’s world have failed too many times in too many places in too many cases to think we’ve ever been perfect. We’ve endorsed too many evils in the name of our convenience or our status in society. We managed to read the Bible in such a way that we decided keeping slaves was o.k., for perhaps the most egregious example. That’s in our history. 

But still, flawed as those saints may have been, they are the ones who have built the foundation on which we stand, and we cannot dispense with that. Neither, however, can we be bound to it or limited to it. 

The church of the nineteenth century was not sufficient to witness to the world of the twentieth century, and neither would the twentieth-century church ever be the church that successfully witnesses to the world of the twenty-first century. Just try telling someone they ought to be in church. They’ll ask you “why?” point blank, as if you had suggested they should sprout horns. And if you don’t have a real, honest, authentic answer, you’ve lost them, probably for good. We don’t get to throw open the doors and just expect them to come. Doesn’t work.

We need more. We need things we’ve never understood before. Our challenges are different than those our fathers and mothers, or grandmothers and grandfathers, or any of the generations before us ever faced, and we need to be equipped and prepared to witness to unchanging truth in an ever-changing world. 

Elisha did indeed step into Elijah’s prophetic call. Yet his prophetic ministry would be quite different from Elijah’s. No rash challenges to a horde of Baal prophets, no running from Israel to Sinai. And mind you, his own prophetic career wasn’t free of fits of wrath; only a few verses after this story, Elisha curses a bunch of unruly boys basically for calling him “Baldy,” and a bear comes out of the woods and mauls them. And yet his work would see healings, health restored to barren and poisoned lands and wells, and even a powerful foreign general converted to the worship of Yahweh. Not bad. 

Can we as a church, both local and universal, rise to that challenge? Can we be a church that witnesses to the eternal in an age like none we’ve known before? Can we speak truth, bear witness, tell good news to a world or a country or a city that is dramatically different that the one in which we grew up? 

We would do well indeed to ask for a double portion of the Spirit. Just be careful what you ask for. 

For the audacity and the persistence of Elisha, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless indicated): #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord; #—, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons)

Sermon: The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 19, 2022, Pentecost 2C

Psalm 42; 1 Kings 19:1-16; Romans 11:1-6

The Prophet With John Wayne Syndrome

There is a type in American film, particularly but not exclusively found in the genre of the Western. The image is of the lone hero, trusted and revered six-shooter at his hip, who confronts the evil horde all on his own, winning the day in the name of truth or justice or whatever was seemingly under threat. Let’s be honest, many of those lone heroes were played by the likes of John Wayne, or maybe even more Clint Eastwood in later years: tough, taciturn, and unafraid of whatever level of violence was necessary to triumph. 

That type has of course spread out from the Western genre, and is found in cop shows or movies, superhero movies, and many other different kinds of action-adventure movies. Such characters also show up in various types of novels, comic books or graphic novels, and frankly a lot of different types of media consumed by an awful lot of readers or listeners or viewers. Just this weekend the animated feature film Lightyear, the one based on the character from the Toy Story movies, shows that lead character in exactly this light, determined that he is the only one who can “finish the mission” and make things right, and in the process tearing himself away from the community around him.

Though he lived innumerable centuries before anything Hollywood ever produced, the prophet Elijah seems sometimes to fall prey to the mindset of “going it alone.” He first shows up only back in Chapter 17, out of nowhere to announce to King Ahab that a drought would be upon the land for three years. In fact, even there it is not recorded that God spoke to Elijah until verse 2, after the prophet had made his announcement to the king. The drought does indeed come, and Elijah spends time in a remote place with a widow and her son, where a couple of miracles are involved. 

The events of today’s reading have their roots in the events of Chapter 18. Elijah took a simple command from God to announce the end of a drought and drew it out into an elaborate contest with the prophets of the false god Baal, culminating in the spectacular display of fire from heaven coming down and consuming all the waterlogged altars and soaked sacrifices. At the end of that episode Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal gathered up and slaughtered. Keep in mind here that the only command God has given Elijah in this account at all was to announce the end of the drought to Ahab; even the great contest was not commanded by God as much as this scripture reads, much less killing all those Baal prophets.

Afterwards, as the prophesied rain approached, Elijah (apparently now possessed by the super-speed of the modern superhero The Flash) ran ahead of King Ahab’s fully equipped chariot to the town of Jezreel, serving then as the seat of power in Israel.

And that’s where today’s reading kicks off, with Ahab whining to his wife Jezebel about what Elijah had done, and Jezebel issuing (via messenger) a not too veiled threat to Elijah: what you did to my Baal prophets, I’m gonna do to you.

And Elijah, the man who had been sustained in the wilderness by ravens, who had seen God miraculously extend meal and oil for weeks for the widow and her son, who had challenged the Baal prophets and won, who had slaughtered all those prophets in triumph, humiliated the king … now, Elijah was scared and ran.

You can see the account of Elijah’s flight, falling asleep in despair only to be awakened, fed, and sent on his way (not once, but twice); arriving at Horeb the mount of God (in Exodus, that mountain was called Sinai), and repeating what almost sounds like a rehearsed, pre-packaged answer to God:

I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

Elijah says this two times. He says it first when he comes to the cave on Horeb the mount of God, and again after the progression described in verses 11-12; a great wind, a strong earthquake, and a mighty fire. All of these would have been recognizable signs of the presence of God throughout Hebrew scriptue, dating back as far as the Exodus and Moses’s time with God on this same mountain on which Elijah now stands. These happenings would seem to be a clear set-up, a deliberate echo of the past presence of God in this place. But no, in this case God was in none of those; only in the “sound of sheer silence” did Elijah discern the presence of the Lord.

So somehow, the bombast and tumult of the mountaintop display, not completely unlike the bombast and tumult Elijah himself had initiated back at Mount Carmel, somehow doesn’t seem to get through to Elijah, for afterwards when he is asked a second time “what are you doing here, Elijah?” he responds the exact same way as before:

I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

He doesn’t get it. Elijah doesn’t get it, so God has to hit him over the head with it if Elijah is ever going to get over his severe case of John Wayne Syndrome.

First of all, we the reader know that Elijah has been fundamentally incorrect all along – and this is where that Lightyear movie tracks with Elijah pretty well. Back in the first verses of chapter 18 we read of Obadiah, a servant in Ahab’s court who despite the threats of the royal family had secreted away a hundred prophets loyal to the Lord, hiding them in caves to thwart Jezebel’s plans to kill them. That’s at least a hundred and one examples of how Elijah was wrong when he claimed that “he alone was left,” and Elijah knows this because Obadiah told him to his face in 18:13. God then, in 19:18 just outside our reading, points to seven thousand loyal Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, seven thousand faithful that God would preserve. Elijah had so obsessed on being the only one who could fix things that he had torn himself apart from any community at all.

But maybe the unkindest cut of all comes in verse 16. Not only was Elijah not the lone hero, but he wasn’t even irreplaceable. Another prophet would take his place, and it was Elijah’s job to go anoint him. If that’s not a direct slap in the face against Elijah’s pity party I don’t know what else it could be.

Now God still had work for Elijah to do, but God needed Elijah focused on God’s call to him, and not hung up on his self-obsessed and self-possessed despair or his need to be some kind of superhero or John Wayne or whatever. It’s not hard to extrapolate the lesson for us from such a story: this applies to us too.

It’s not uncommon for us to fall into that pit. Australian biblical scholar and pastor Howard Wallace points out that Elijah needs to be released from the zealousness and self-control that had ruled his previous service and learn that it was the word of the Lord, which sometimes did not speak in the wind or earthquake or fire, to which he needed to submit his prophetic witness. Sometimes it’s the silence that contains the word we await from the Spirit. 

Without that listening, we get crosswise with what God is calling us to do. We’re convinced it’s all up to “me”. No one else is going to step up, it’s all on our shoulders. Yes, it’s easy to slip into that particular quality of despair, but it can often be the worst place for a follower of Christ to end up, It can go either of two different ways, both disastrous and potentially destructive.

Six years ago I preached on this passage in the wake of the horrific murders of forty-nine patrons in a nightclub in Orlando patronized primarily by gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer persons (and primary a Latino/Latina audience on that particular night). That event happened only a few days from the first anniversary of another infamous shooting, of nine members of an African-American congregation in Charleston. It is seemingly impossible to keep up with how many mass shootings have taken place since then, with the shootings in Buffalo supermarket and the murders of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas only the latest and loudest. In the face of such horrific evil, it’s not hard to slip into that despair that no one is faithful anymore, no one will stand up and do what needs to be done. 

Of course, on the flip side of that “I alone am left” mentality is the misguided, vengeful would-be hero who takes up weapons to commit the murders, because he believes blacks are inferior or gets offended by the sight of two men kissing. “I alone am left” is not just a despairing place; it can be a pathway to acts of unspeakable evil. Elijah has already shown himself capable of grotesque violence in the throes of this mindset, commanding the slaughter of all those Baal prophets back in verse 18. Only the silence of God’s speaking seems to finally get through, even if not completely. 

We can’t go there. We (and the plural is important, we)  must not fall into that noisy mindset (which has nothing of God in it) that the problems of the world are ours to fix by any means necessary. We also can’t be the one who is paralyzed by grief and despair, unable to take up the work of God’s kingdom. We need to engage sometimes in the holy act of shutting up and listening and waiting. 

Listen, not just to the earthquake or the whirlwind or the fire. Listen to the silence. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #410, God is Calling Through the Whisper; #169, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

Sermon: Wisdom and Trinity

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 12, 2022, Trinity C

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Wisdom and Trinity

It’s an almost stereotypical image, one found in comic strips or editorial cartoons or any number of other visual media. In it you see a lone sojourner, or maybe a pair, hiking or even climbing their way up a mountainside or cliff. When they get to the top, they find a lone figure, typically an elderly man, probably seated with legs crossed, appearing as a guru or sage of some sort prepared to dispense wisdom. [Here’s a recent comic that offers a different spin on that typical image.]

The scene is often used for comic effect, but it trades on something of a traditional image of a seeker of wisdom as being one who is cut off from society, engaged in solitary contemplation in that withdrawn setting. The writer of today’s reading from Proverbs would not necessarily agree with this image of withdrawal in search of wisdom.

Today’s reading is part of a more extended rhapsody (my word) on wisdom, briefly touched on in chapter 7 and then taking up most of chapters 8 and 9. It follows a discourse on a different character, one who would lead astray (in many different ways) the young student to which Proverbs is directed. In this rhapsody Wisdom is personified; most of chapters 8 and 9 are depicted as wisdom speaking to that young student. 

Let’s go ahead and make this clear: yes, Wisdom really is personified in this rhapsody as a woman. Take that, guys. In context, the character in the previous discourse who would lead the young student astray is also a woman, so the passage works as a clever literary device to present the two different paths set before the young student. Still, Wisdom (divine wisdom, clearly, as the rest of the discourse makes clear) is personified as female. Right out of the Bible, folks.

The opening four verses of the chapter set the character (sometimes called Woman Wisdom in the scholarly literature) forth, and our author’s depiction of Wisdom at work doesn’t quite square up with the mountaintop guru of comic-strip notoriety. Far from having to be sought out in some isolated place, Wisdom is out in the world, calling to anyone who would listen:

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; besides the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out…

This isn’t wisdom in hiding or in secret. She’s out there, calling out for all to hear. 

All fine and good,” you may say, while either being excited or offended to see something of the divine being portrayed as a woman. “All fine and good,” you may say, “but what does any of this have to do with Trinity Sunday? Why is this in the readings for today?” That’s where verses 22-31 come in.

That section opens with Wisdom’s declaration that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” It may surprise you to hear that this description was the subject of heated debate at no less than the Council of Nicaea, the first meeting of which took place way back in the year 325, and which was the initiator of that statement of faith we know as the Nicene Creed (we tend to say it in worship on Sundays when the Lord’s Supper happens). In their extensive and often testy debates over the nature of the Trinity, this passage, with its confusing Hebrew about being “created” or is it being “begotten” or “made” or “born” became a shorthand for discussing whether the second Person of the Trinity – the one we call God the Son, or Jesus – was “created” or “begotten” or “made” or “born” in John 1. Indeed, for some years, this character of Wisdom was sometimes discussed as a foreshadowing of the Son of God (notwithstanding Wisdom being personified as a woman here!) and of that Son’s being “in the beginning with God,” as John 1 says, or being one through whom “all things were made” as the Nicene Creed ends up saying.

If that’s how the second Person of the Trinity is involved here, the largest part of the reading names the first Person of the Trinity as the great Creator of all. Most of the text describes Wisdom’s bearing witness as God engages in the various acts of creation and even being God’s “delight, rejoicing before Him always” and also “delighting in the human race.” 

While the third Person of the Trinity is less directly invoked here, it has not escaped notice that the way Wisdom is described in this rhapsody looks and sounds a lot like the way the Holy Spirit gets described in various other corners of scripture. All that business about not being hidden off on some mountaintop but being out in the streets and at the gates of the city is awfully similar to the doings of the Spirit, after Pentecost in particular.

None of this should be taken as a “proof” of anything. Obviously this was written many, many years before the Nativity or Pentecost. What this quite exuberant passage does show us is that God’s people have been, literally for centuries, seeking ways to understand and comprehend how God moves in God’s world. We aren’t the first to struggle with it. The Council of Nicaea wasn’t the first to struggle with it. And no doubt even the writer of Proverbs wasn’t the first either. Outside of the more dramatic interventions revealed in scripture – say, the Exodus, or Pentecost, or the very life of Jesus – God’s people have been challenged by the work of putting together all that we have been shown and instructed in order, if not to have God completely figured out, at least not get God egregiously and harmfully wrong. 

In the end, perhaps such words as “wonder,” or even the “delight” that Wisdom herself invokes in today’s reading, might be at the last the last best place to end up in such pursuits. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians, we are still in that place where we see “in a mirror, dimly“; the time when we “will see face to face” is not yet here. May this age of contemplation be, rather than a source of dispute and anger over the nature of God, be a source of delight, perhaps with the help of good old Woman Wisdom.

For wisdom and her delight, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #—, We sing of God; #2, Come, Thou Almighty King

Sermon: The Spirit Poured Out

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 5, 2022, Pentecost C

Acts 2:1-21

The Spirit Poured Out

Here we are again, at one of those passages of scripture that we may not hear very often, but we do hear it at least once every year. It’s the kind of scripture reading that we recognize almost immediately upon hearing, but that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really know all that well.

We know the basic beats of the story:

  • All of Jesus’s followers, gathered in a room, waiting for…who knows?
  • The sound of a great wind, “divided tongues as of fire“, suddenly speaking languages they’d never learned or known before;
  • The great crowd, in Jerusalem but from everywhere (a detailed list follows, representing the entire known world) in a way reminiscent of that great multitude from every tribe and nation and language we heard in Revelation a few weeks ago; that crowd hearing all the commotion and wondering what was going on up there;
  • Some terminally clever oaf in the crowd cracking wise about their being drunk;
  • Peter responding that it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, and that nobody’s drunk, but here’s what’s happening; and then quoting some spooky stuff from the prophet Joel, launching into a sermon from there (that we only get part of in today’s reading).

Sometimes those familiar phrases, though, can get a little bit dull from repetition, so familiar that we don’t really hear them. We might just slip into the thought, “oh, yeah, the Pentecost story” and go on autopilot, not really hearing.

For example: what does it suggest when Peter, following Joel 2:28-32 pretty directly, quotes God as saying “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh“? Does that strike up any particular image in your mind? Or has it become so familiar that it doesn’t really strike up anything? 

Sometimes when I find myself in this rut I turn to the Cotton Patch Gospel, the work of biblical scholar Clarence Jordan, who not only translated much of the New Testament but created a version set in the Georgia of his day, namely the late 1950s. Jerusalem became Atlanta, the baby Jesus was born in Gainesville (Georgia, not here!), and so forth. Being born and raised in Georgia, this naturally got my attention. Jordan’s colorful and evocative language can be at times illuminating. It’s not a substitute for a more straightforward translation, but it can be an interesting supplement at times.

And for this passage, Clarence Jordan offers “I will share my spirit with all mankind.” OK, there’s the dated language “mankind,” as if women weren’t included, but the main verb is “share.” It’s an effective enough verb, to be sure, and it’s definitely accurate enough in this context, but for those who respond to imagery and vividness of language, it perhaps doesn’t offer as much help. 

Another, much more recent reading of the scriptures in a different cultural context is First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, published only last year. This work, produced by a council of Native religious leaders and teachers and scholars, sought to perform a task not unlike Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, but not exactly the same; the setting is not changed, but the names of places and persons are given in a Native idiom and the style of the account is rendered as much as possible in the style of a storyteller in the oral tradition of the many nations and tribes of North America. 

In this reading, after the “sound of a great windstorm” and “flames of fire” have come and the crowd is hearing in their many languages, Peter’s reading of Joel is rendered as “‘In the last days,’ says Creator, ‘I will rain down my Spirit upon all human beings…’.”

Now there’s something. 

The thing about something being poured out is that if you’re not directly under whatever is being poured from, you might well miss it. Rain, on the other hand, is not so easy to escape. If you’re outside when it starts to rain, you get wet. There’s no sidestepping the rain or jump out of the way of it. You get wet. 

Maybe this helps drive home the fact of the Spirit being poured out on everyone. No one is left out. Everyone gets wet. 

This doesn’t go down well for a lot of people. It’s been true in every age and it’s most definitely true now; too much of the church wants this pouring out of the Spirit to be for just us, or maybe more specifically not them. We’re the “special” ones, they insist; we’re God’s chosen, God’s favorites. Not those people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t flatter us or cozy up to us or make us feel important. Not them. The Spirit doesn’t pour down on them. That’s how an awful lot of people want it to be.

But when we think of the Spirit raining down? As the old verse from Matthew says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. It doesn’t miss anybody. There’s no getting left out, there’s no Great Replacement anything, there’s no “for me but not for thee,” none of that. The Spirit rains down on everyone, whether we like it or not. Everybody gets wet.

Does everybody respond to the Spirit the same way? No, they don’t. Think again about the rain; your first impulse is to seek shelter, yes? Or perhaps pull out an umbrella? For some people, the Spirit is a disruption, maybe even a threat. You never know what’s going to happen when the Holy Spirit gets loose. Life might get uncomfortable. We might be led places we’re not comfortable going. Best get out of the rain before you get wet. 

But no, this is one rainstorm from which we don’t need to take shelter. The Holy Spirit, raining down on all humanity? In the dried-up wilderness that is increasingly the world in which we live, that raining down is nothing less than life itself. The church, big or small, local or global, dare not try to shelter against this rain, not if we want to live up to the label “Christian,” or (even better) terms like “Christlike,” or “follower of Christ.” 

One more thing: the Holy Spirit didn’t go away after Pentecost. It keeps raining all through the book of Acts. Even more, that same Spirit is still raining down on all human beings. The Holy Spirit – third person of the Trinity, remember; in other words, God – continues to rain down upon humanity, seeking to wash us and renew us and fill us with what we need to do Christlike things in a decidedly non-Christlike world.

This is one rain from which you don’t want to seek shelter or pop up an umbrella.

It’s time to let it rain. 

It’s time to get wet.

For the raining down of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, On Pentecost They Gathered; #—, We trust in God, the loving Holy Spirit; #292, As the Wind Song


Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, the Complete Collection. Macon: Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2012.

First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. 

Sermon: Last Words

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 29, 2022, Easter 7C

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Last Words

At last, the end of the book. Not just of Revelation, but of our whole canonical corpus of scripture.

For those of you familiar with scholarly or professional writing, there are a few traits of this conclusion that will be familiar. There is definitely some recapitulation going on, especially in verses 13 and 14. First we hear again the “Alpha and Omega” reference that first appeared way back in chapter 1. In this case, though, there is a different “I” speaking this phrase. Back in 1:8, the speaker was “the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” However, here in chapter 22, at some point we’ve switched speakers (John isn’t always great at keeping track of who is saying what), but by verse 16 it has been made clear that it is Jesus pronouncing these final words. While this may be an interesting rhetorical device, to bring back the same identification in a different “character,” for those of us with a functional understanding of the Trinity, it should not be particularly bothersome.

Verse 14 brings the other noteworthy recapitulation, in this case referring back to chapter 7. You might remember that the reading from three weeks ago came from an interlude in the narrative about the breaking of the seven seals on a scroll, the breaking of which unleashed particular plagues or terrors upon the unrepentant world. 

After the breaking of the sixth seal, John detours in his vision to a scene yet to come, his own “skipping to the end of the book” sequence in which we are introduced in 7:9 to “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who we are told later are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Numerous biblical scholars and commentators remind us that this image is John’s coded way of referring to who have kept the faith in their times of persecution, continuing to bear witness to God and against the empire that persecutes them. Some of you might remember this image from an old gospel hymn:

Are you washed in the blood,

in the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

While the image is rather grotesque especially when divorced from its scriptural context, it does serve here to remind us that, for all of the dragons and monsters and plagues and terrors that populate this book, this call keep faith and keep bearing witness is the whole point of this vision and this book. All of this fantastic vison of the new Jerusalem coming down in glory and the springs of living water and the tree of life, from these last two chapters? Guess who is invited into the gates of that city?

While the organizers of the Revised Common Lectionary would prefer that we didn’t, understanding this passage most completely requires that we acknowledge and deal with the verses that got skipped in this reading. While the seeming threats of verses 18-19 sound rough, such language is frankly commonplace in literature of this type; in an age with no such thing as copyright protection altering such a text wouldn’t have been uncommon, and had the book been intercepted by, say, someone allied with the imperial power structure who understood John’s codes and metaphors, altering the book into an empire-supporting treatise wouldn’t have been difficult. Such warnings as in these two verses were so common as to be virtually boilerplate, ugly as they might seem.

Verse 15 is the harder one to stomach. It is worth remembering that, like 21:27 and 22:3, this verse serves as something of a reassurance to John’s readers and hearers; those who persecute you will not be able to get to you there. Still, though, the language isn’t good, especially referring to people as “dogs.” For one thing, that term was a common derogatory slur against Jews in much literature over the course of many centuries, and John does himself no good resorting to it here. Second, John here goes needlessly beyond the language of those earlier warning verses, which concentrated on the purveyors of falsehood who helped bring down official oppression on John’s readers and hearers. In this brief between words from Jesus, John goes a bit off-the-beam in his own human frustration. That happens; even the most divinely inspired scribe is still a human being, subject to all of the frailties caught up in that description.

At the same time, though, such digression also reminds us of our own inability and frankly unworthiness to make such judgments – “don’t do what John did.” . As much as we can take some comfort in that image of garments being washed and its reminder of faithful witness, it’s not a pass for us to judge who is and isn’t being sufficiently faithful in their witness. The Lord God and the Lamb are the ones who know the names in that Book of Life, not us, and we’d best remember that.

What we are charged with is that business of bearing faithful witness. To borrow an old expression attributed to various old saints at different times, we are charged to keep proclaiming the gospel, even using words at times when necessary. That leaves us charged to examine just how we, as a people of God and one part of the body of Christ, are bearing witness. 

There are ways in which we do well. In cooperation with others in our town we provide aid to populations in need here, through meals or other provision. We’re a welcoming church. We provide, through the art studios in the next building over, a place for the community to gather and find a respite from the world’s garbage; this past Friday evening was such an example. For a church our size, we don’t do badly at all. 

Is there more that we could do, though? In an age where a young white man feels entitled to go into a supermarket in Buffalo patronized mostly by black shoppers and shoot them dead for the “crime” of being black, are we bearing witness against such rank racism as an abomination against God? In the wake of a major scandal of sexual abuse and dehumanization in one of the largest church denominations in this country, are we bearing witness to the God-given worth and dignity of women and children set upon by predators in positions of power? 

And how would we, as a small congregation, do that? These are questions we are called to consider as this book comes to a close. We do, frankly, bear good witness, if rather quiet witness in some ways. What else can we do? How can we bear witness against the various empires that put forth various idols and false prophets to distract us and claim our attention and allegiance? What role do we play? 

Our work here is not done, not by a long shot. Headlines remind us daily that this world is not recognizing the kingdom of God’s reign on earth. And yet that’s the kingdom we’re called to serve. Otherwise, forget that new Jerusalem. 

So, now that we’ve skipped to the end of the book and seen the good stuff that awaits those who keep faith, how do we go forward? 

For the end of the book, and the questions it leads us to ask, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #630, Fairest Lord Jesus; #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

Sermon: They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 22, 2022, Easter 6C

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5

They Need No Light of Lamp or Sun

The problem with the whole “skip to the end of the book” idea about reading and hearing from the book of Revelation in this season is that inevitably things happen out there that drag us back to the dark places of this world, the things that drove us to look for that good ending in the first place. 

The news of mass shootings last Saturday and Sunday – one in Buffalo, NY, and the second in Laguna Hills, CA – gashed through the headlines and consciences of readers and watchers like a blast of cold air on a hot day, a wake-up call that has had to be sounded too many times for too many years now. As more news emerged about each attack, it became clear that both of them were acts of hatred: the Buffalo shooter, was an all-too-familiar figure, a white man killing blacks out of racial hatred; the California shooter, while fewer details are clear yet, was apparently of Chinese background and apparentlyacted out of hatred against Taiwan in attacking the members of a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church housed in the facility of a larger PC(USA) church in Laguna Hills. 

If we ever needed a reminder that we have not drawn all that near to the Holy City of John’s vision in these final chapters of Revelation, there’s one for you.

While the reading for today continues in describing this new Jerusalem, much of the more detailed stuff is omitted from the lectionary selection – detail about the measurements of the city and the specific precious stones that parts of the city were made of. These had meaning to John and his immediate readers, but are less significant for our modern understanding of this passage, frankly. 

The arresting detail is introduced in 21:22, one which provides the thematic backbone of the whole reading. In surveying this Holy City coming down from on high, the vision-receiver John sees no temple. 

In that age gods lived in temples. No matter what religion or cult you spoke of, one could point to some kind of temple, whether a place in nature or a human-built edifice, gods lived in temples. Even among the people of Israel the capital-T Temple in Jerusalem had come to be regarded as the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, God Most High, even if God’s own self sometimes protested against this in their history. That particular interpretation of the Temple suffered a tremendous blow in the year 70 after the Roman destruction of that Temple. To borrow from Psalm 42, “where is your God now?” 

Instead of any building, John reports, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” To borrow a phrase from Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, “God’s promise is not place; it’s presence.” The point of this new Jerusalem is not a building to which we go and perform all our religious rituals; the point is living directly, without mediation or obstruction, in the presence of God. 

The next verse amplifies this one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The direct presence of God, it seems, is without darkness; the light of God pervades everywhere, in every place in this new Jerusalem.

Chapter 22 introduces more features of this city, one of which helps fill in references earlier in the book such as 7:17 or 21:6; we now see the “river of the water of life,” the same river that provided the inspiration for the last hymn we’ll sing today. The tree of life, with its multiplicity of fruit and leaves “for the healing of the nations,” is also there. At the absolute minimum these do remind us that just because we’re in the Holy City and not the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean that creation has no place in it. They also remind us of the harmony of humanity and creation that was meant to be, before human fallenness and corruption spoiled that harmony, and creation with it. 

Amidst all these scenes of splendor there are a couple of cautionary notes sounded. Back in 21:27 we are instructed of this city that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood…“. Then, in 22:3, we see that “nothing accursed will be found there any more…“. This is the kind of passage that some preachers might be tempted to use as a pivot to a lengthy discourse on Hell or something like that, but here in this reading we are told nothing of what becomes of “anyone who practices abomination or falsehood“; we simply learn that such cannot enter the Holy City.

This probably sounds like warning enough, but in fact to John’s readers this also serves as reassurance. Remember, we are speaking of John’s audience as people who live under the increasing threat of oppression, either from Rome directly or from their own neighbors seeking to prove their allegiance to Rome. Either way, this word comes as reassurance that the oppression and persecution looming now will not be able to enter the new Jerusalem. One can safely interpret that those of later times and even our own time who faced such trials can take the same comfort from this vision. One might also suppose that those who practice such persecution or oppression (those who seek to bind and punish others based on their own religious beliefs, for example) would be among those who cannot enter the Holy City. What is unclean, what is accursed or abomination or falsehood, simply cannot exist in the direct, unmediated presence of God.

What we read here in the remainder of this passage recapitulates some of the greatest glories of John’s vision so far. God’s servants see God’s face and worship God, with nothing in the way, with no temple to hold in God’s glory. Night is no more; “they need no light of lamp or sun,” as John describes with great poetic flourish. “The Lord God will be their light,” John tells us. 

So is the glorious hope awaiting us, the ones who endure and (as we were reminded in chapter 7) keep bearing faithful witness, not dissuaded or distracted by the pressures or the lures of the empires around us vying for our worship. 

Amidst the darkness and abomination around us, amidst the falsehood glorified in everything from our politics to our leisure to, frankly, our practice of Christianity in far too many cases these days, we are called to bear witness. That’s what gets into the Lamb’s book of life that comes up in 21:27. It is not about going out and conquering anything; it isn’t about being warriors or conquerors or any of that stuff; again, it is about bearing witness. And we have hope for what awaits us when we do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #403, Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty; #375, Shall We Gather at the River

Sermon: The Holy City and the Missing Sea

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 15, 2022, Easter 5C

Revelation 21:1-6

The Holy City and the Missing Sea

While our short visit in the book of Revelation has not included much of the strangest material in the book (the stuff that would take more time to unpack than a sermon allows), know that it’s there; seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls, all bringing about hardship on the earth; various beasts or dragons rising up out of the sea, with highly symbolic numbers of heads and horns; and ultimately the vanquishing of those various beasts and their allies. By the time we get to chapter 21 and today’s reading, it’s all over but the shouting – in this case, shouting of praises and glorification. We really are at “the end of the book,” where we see that all does get made right at the last despite all the horror that came before. 

Even so, those basic rules about reading Revelation apply – nothing is straightforward, everything is in code. That said, there are some interesting aspects of this part of John’s vision that are potentially illuminating for us modern readers, once we sort through John’s colorful metaphors.

One of these is right there in the first verse, something that must seem very strange to those of us who live in a state mostly surrounded by water. “A new heaven and a new earth,” sure, particularly if as he continues “the first heaven and earth had passed away“; but what is this business about how “the sea was no more“??? What’s that about?

There are a lot of different potential levels to this description. The history of the people of Israel had included a lot of enemies who came from over the sea. In current times and all across the Mediterranean, the sea was largely the domain of – you guessed it – the Roman Empire, and much of the trade in goods and precious rarities – and yes, slaves – happened across the sea. In short, it was the scene of a lot of bad things besides the ordinary ship-wrecking storms that any traveler faced. Perhaps on account of these perils, John’s vision of all those beasts and dragons tends to indicate that they come from the sea. The sea was, in this vision, a place of turbulence and threat.

God isn’t playing out some vague animus against oceans here; to speak of the sea being “no more” becomes a coded message that those things that threaten the faithful are gone. No more Roman Empire. No more slave-trading. No more oppressors coming out of or across the sea. Those things that threaten are removed from the world. 

This aspect of the vision is amplified in verse 4. When the loud voice from the throne of verse 3 declares that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” it reinforces the release and rescue suggested in the passing of the first heaven and earth and, yes, the absence of the sea. “Mourning and crying and pain will be no more” because the things that cause mourning and crying and pain will be no more. 

To be sure, the missing sea is not the highlight of this vision; for John and for those reading or hearing, it’s all about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.

The rest of chapter 21, after our reading is completed, is devoted to a description of this city as seen in John’s vision. It’s full of precious gems and stones as building materials, and streets of pure gold that were also translucent like glass. Next week’s reading will pick up in verse 22, so we’ll save that part for then. But even right here in verse 2, there are two highly significant aspects of this Holy City that we should not miss. 

One such thing that seems to be overlooked often is that this new Jerusalem comes down in all its glory. Notice that in this passage there isn’t anything about anybody “going up.” Much as verse 4 amplified verse 1, so verse 3 fills in the implications of verse 2: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…” 

Note several things here: the use of the plural “peoples,” which fits nicely with that multitude of every tribe and language of last week’s reading from chapter 7; the echo of the tabernacle that moved with the Hebrew people on their exodus from Egypt; the use of the word “dwell,” with was often used of that tabernacle as the “dwelling place of God” and indicates that the one dwelling – God, in this case – is there to stay. 

God comes down to dwell with God’s people. This is, as this vision has it, the shape of eternity. 

Now let’s not overlook that other aspect of verse 2; what comes down, this home of God among mortals, is in fact a Holy City. And even this has implications that we might not expect.

There is sometimes a tendency to think of “paradise,” or whatever term one uses for the blessed kind of eternity, as some kind of restored Eden, some manner of bucolic garden setting. Even on a more earthly level, think of how often someone’s “dream vacation” somehow involves “getting away” not just from the mundane life of work and home, but also “getting away” from, frankly, other people. Then we end up all disappointed when where we’ve chosen for this “dream vacation” turns out to be even more crowded than back home. There’s a part of us that wants to get away from other people sometimes. 

That’s not what happens in a holy city. The implication of living in a city is that, inevitably, others are unavoidable. Unless you’re going to hole yourself up in your house or apartment and never ever ever leave at all, you’re going to encounter other people. It can sound pretty awful for an extreme introvert, to be sure, but city life inevitably involves negotiating some way to live with one another. 

Even at the last, life in Christ, under God’s reign and supported by the Spirit and all those other ways we describe it, is in community. Remember that Jesus didn’t walk the earth alone; the community of disciples (twelve and otherwise) were his constant companions. Even in eternity we don’t live in isolation. God’s dwelling place with mortals and all the peoples is going to be, well, crowded in the way a city can be. Paradise is not a personal retreat away from everybody else. The children of God will remain a plural entity for all eternity. Even here at the end of scripture, the principal pronouns are “us” and “we,” and frankly, we’d better get used to it. 

God comes down to dwell with us.

God comes down to dwell with us.

God comes down to dwell with us

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #—, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; #517, Here, O Our Lord, We See You; #—, See the New Jerusalem

Personally I’m still fond of the sea…

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Sermon: Shepherd and Lamb

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 8, 2022, Easter 4C

Revelation 7:9-17

Shepherd and Lamb

A couple of weeks ago, in starting this series of texts selected from the book of Revelation, I suggested that in doing so we were skipping ahead to “the end of the book,” so to speak, to make sure all comes out alright in the end. It seems that John, the elder credited with writing this apocalyptic visionary text, had the same idea in mind; today’s reading represents John doing something similar with his account, “skipping ahead” to this scene of joy and redemption in the midst of a dark passage in his apocalyptic vision.

Chapter 6 contains an account of the breaking open of seven seals on a scroll, which released upon the world what some call “apocalyptic devastation.” To give some sample of what happens as a result, the breaking of the first four of those seals on the scroll is the source of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” motif one hears about incessantly in some renderings of the End Times. Read from the perspective of those who suffer oppression in the world, those seven seals come across as the powerful and oppressive rulers of the world finally getting their “just desserts,” facing the consequences of their oppression of the world at long last. After the sixth such release, which sets the kings and rulers of the earth running and hiding, that account is interrupted by the vision of chapter 7, in which we are taken back (or forward, technically) to visions of heavenly praise and glorification, one of which begins in verse 9.

The vision unfolds here of a “great multitude no one could count.” John specifically points out that this great multitude is not limited to one kind or race or nation; “all tribes and peoples and languages” are represented in this number. They stand robed in which and carrying palm branches (the echo of Palm Sunday is probably not a coincidence), and shout aloud “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The Lamb in question first appears in chapter 5; in a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, that Lamb is first introduced as “the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the shoot growing from David’s stock” who is worthy to break those seals on the scroll. If that sounds like a reference to Jesus, especially that talk about the tribe of Judah and David’s line, you’re catching on. However, even though he is proclaimed as a Lion, the one who appears is this Lamb. This isn’t the last bit of identity-shifting we’ll see in regard to this Lamb. 

After the praise of the great multitude, the host of heavenly beings introduced earlier in the book let loose their exclamation in song, echoing the praises heard in chapter 5, touched upon briefly two weeks ago. The elder who has been serving as John’s guide through this vision engages John with almost a taunting question, asking John what he very well knows John does not know; when John wisely demurs, the elder launches into the description that makes up the rest of the chapter. 

At this point we need to remind ourselves of two things about Revelation; one is that, as with the epistles of Paul and others that make up much of the New Testament, we are reading somebody else’s mail. The second is that, due to the circumstances of exile in which John writes, it’s a coded message. Remembering this is how we begin to make sense of this passage, especially verse 14. 

The “great ordeal” of verse 14 does not need to be tied to any specific event; the persecution John and others are now facing, and which John is sure is coming for those to whom he writes, is a clear enough reference here. The reference in this case can be expanded for those who face persecution for their faith in all ages. Revelation scholar Brian Blount (1) points out that the Greek of verse 14 is structured in such a way that each clause about this multitude is not narrating a sequence of events but offering clarification of one event. He offers as a modern phrasing “These are the ones who went through the great tribulation, which is to say, they washed their robes; that is, they made them dazzling in the blood of the Lamb.” 

And what was it that those of this multitude did? What do these phrases mean? The very thing that John was encouraging his readers to do in the seven letters of chapters 2-3; they bore witness, not just in word but especially in deed. They did not accommodate to Roman lordship or pay religious homage to the emperor. They did not seek to cling to the economic or social or political benefits of imperial power. Their allegiance, their worship, lay only with God and with the Lamb. For that, they suffered great trial but continued to bear witness, remaining loyal to God and to the Lamb despite whatever Empire or Commerce or even Social Harmony demanded of them. There were sacrifices, even martyrdom, that happened because of that witness, yes; but John’s message from this vision is not “be martyrs”; it is “bear witness, whatever happens.”

It is for this faithfulness of witness that the great multitude is called to stand in the presence of God without end, worshiping both day and night, and protected in the presence of God. It is this faithfulness of witness that means no more hunger or thirst or scorching of the sun or any such trouble. 

Here comes that other identity shift, in verse 17;

…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This is the promise for those who keep on bearing faithful witness, whatever happens. 

Even Psalm 23, with all of its “the Lord is my shepherd,” doesn’t contemplate a shepherd who is also a Lamb. Psalm 23 has become an almost universal text of comfort and reassurance, but it seems that Revelation’s Lamb as shepherd/shepherd as Lamb image is harder for folks to bear. 

Quite a few self-proclaimed Christians, over the centuries and very emphatically today, don’t seem willing to be led by one so humble as a Lamb. They prefer the trappings of empire, the power of unchallenged rule. They lay claim to the governing apparatus of their time – monarchies or parliaments – and our time – legislatures and courts – to enforce their will upon others, stripping away the essential human dignity of every person – every child of God – to enforce dogmas without scriptural foundation and strictures of their own fancying. Far from being the ones who go through the great trial, they become the persecutors; in banning or restricting the work of others based on their own religious dogma, for example, they engage in religious oppression. 

John would be aghast at such behavior, and to say that this is not behavior that puts one at the throne of God and of the Lamb, worshiping continuously day and night in God’s protective presence and led by the Lamb who shepherds them. If anything, that kind of oppressiveness seems a good way to wind up on the business end of those six seals that were released back in chapter 6.

There are those who continue to bear witness. The news came this week of a PC(USA) missionary in the Philippines, Rev. Cathy Chang, who was “red-tagged” by the regime in power there. In the Philippines, “red-tagging” is a form of blacklisting, reserved for those who are deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. Rev. Chang’s “crime” was apparently to meet with a person who was seeking office there in a political party deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. A “red-tagged” person can be arrested without charge and gunned down for “resisting arrest” whether they actually resist or not. Some have been gunned down in the street without any pretense of arrest, with no legal repercussions against those who commit the murder. Some have been forced to leave the country. Rev. Chang was scheduled to be part of General Assembly in Louisville this summer; if she does return to the US to participate, she will almost certainly not be permitted to return to her work in the Philippines. 

There are those who continue to bear witness, whatever happens. Let us seek to be among them, and not among the oppressors.

For those who bear witness, whatever happens, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #327, From All That Dwell Below the Skies; #274, You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd; #295, Go to the World!

(1) See Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 149ff. Actually just check out the whole commentary.

Sermon: Every Eye Will See

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 24, 2022, Easter 2C

Revelation 1:4-8 (5:11-14)

Every Eye Will See

When I was younger and reading a book in which the plot was going less than wonderfully, I was the type who occasionally would skip ahead to the end of the book, just to make sure things were going to turn out all right and I wasn’t setting myself up for some huge crushing sorrow or disappointment.

If you do that with the Bible, you end up in the book called Revelation. 

This book has acquired over the years a reputation as a deeply strange book, and that reputation is not unwarranted. However, it has also become the object of manipulation for a particular class of preacher or wannabe leader who sees the interior sections of the book, with those dark monsters and major battles and whatnot, as a prime opportunity for currying fear among Christians and ginning up unneeded warrior mentalities and hostility towards, frankly, anyone who could possibly be portrayed as an “enemy.” On the other hand, preachers not of such a mind tend to avoid the book altogether, with the possible exception of one or two passages deemed suitable for funerals.

This is a shame, because actually Revelation is exactly what one is looking for when one “skips to the end of the book,” as in my youthful reading habits. There may be monsters, but there is also, and most importantly, a God who reigns above it all, and to put it mildly, wins in the end. God will not be overthrown; if we take nothing else from Revelation, take that much.

Our reading from chapter 1 is more or less the author’s greeting to his readers or hearers, not completely unlike the openings of all those letters Paul write. This author John (who may or may not be the one who wrote the gospel of that name; scholarly research increasingly suggests he was not) is in a different situation than Paul, though, sent off to exile on a remote island called Patmos and under tight scrutiny in terms of what his letters might containing. Writing around thirty years after Paul’s death, John writes in an age where the church wasn’t quite yet under full-fledged persecution from Rome, but the pressures were increasing, and one who might get “ratted out” by others under Roman rule might suffer John’s fate, or worse. The full-fledged suppression wasn’t quite there, but it was close. 

As a result John writes this missive in metaphor, creating all those monsters and such as a thin veil for the principal villain of the story: the Roman Empire itself. Wrapped around those scenes, though, are episodes of ecstatic praise of God and of the Lamb, the clear reference to Christ, and scenes of the final coming of the Holy City at the book’s climax. Today’s introductory note sets the scene for all that is to be portrayed and introduces two most significant statements about God and God’s doing that are meant to provide the reader with something to hold close while working through the thornier parts of the book.

The first point to be gathered from this greeting is what might called the immutable eternity of God. It’s so significant to John that he cites it twice in this brief greeting, and he does so in a way that delivers a clear shot across the bow of those worldly rulers with pretentions of divine power.

A common attribution to the power of Rome or of its emperor or of the deities to whom its power was attributed was to speak of “the one who was and who is and who will be.” You can see how John’s statement is similar in verses 4 and 8, but the differences are highly significant.

First, John forwards the immediate presence and preeminence of God now. By bumping up the “who is” statement to the front of the attribution John makes clear the importance of the immanence – the presence with power – of God. God is not relegated to mighty deeds of the past, nor is God confined to an unformed hoped-for future glory. God is, and that’s most important of all. God is present now, and God is as much in charge now as God was in that glorious past (which, like in most cases, wasn’t always particularly glorious) and as much in charge now as God will be in that final triumph. John is urging his readers to grasp this now and hold on to it for the rest of the story.

The other difference is also significant. You might note that John’s final clincher in this attribution is not simply the traditional “will be,” but God is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” God does not merely exist; God acts, and specifically God will come to the people of God, a coming that is described most vividly in verse 7. God isn’t static, and God isn’t finished with this world yet.

Verse 7 also makes another of the key points of this introductory note: this coming of God won’t be quiet. You might remember that after the resurrection of Jesus, the number of those who saw the resurrected Jesus was pretty slight; the disciples and followers of Jesus, mostly. There is that quote from one of Paul’s letter to Corinth that Jesus appeared to five hundred people after his raising, but even that is a fairly small number against the population of the time.

Not so in this future coming. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him…. Even those who put Jesus to death – a first reference to the Roman Empire already – will see the one who they killed returning in glory and power. No secretive stuff here: the whole world will behold. Whether they behold in joy or behold in fear, you might say, is up to them. We’ll get a lot more of this glorious return at the end of the book. 

One more statement worth noting is the now-famous “I am the Alpha and Omega” attribution. Even those for whom the Greek alphabet is, well, all Greek to them have mostly picked up enough to know that those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is the beginning of all things, and God is the end of all things – the One to which all is directed and will come at the last. That is fitting for “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

A little summarizing now, to make up for the fact that I won’t be in this pulpit next week: what follows this introductory section is a set of mini-letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, a region that is now part of western Turkey. The letters are exhortatory in nature and sometimes rather pungent, as John has something rather harsh to say to most of them about their conduct and faithfulness in the increasingly perilous time in which they live. If a preacher gets brave, teaching through those seven letters becomes a stiff and provocative challenge, both to the church and to the preacher. Perhaps at a future time, we’ll see.

After the seven letters comes the heavy visionary part of the book. John’s apocalyptic vision doesn’t dive directly into the monsters and battles, though, The first stop in John’s vision is nothing less than the throne room of God, and scenes of tremendous praise and glorification of God upon the throne. Next week’s reading, which would have been from 5:11-14, gives a flavor of that praise, in words glorious and ecstatic enough to catch the attention of one Charles Jennens, the librettist who created the text for the wildly famous oratorio Messiah by George Friederic Handel; these verses contribute the words for the final chorus of that work, fittingly enough.

The darker stuff begins in chapter 7, and we will touch briefly on that in two weeks. But for now the part on to is what is being made clear from the very beginning: we are here to worship “the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come,” the first and the last, the beginning and the end; the one whom “every eye will see,” and the Jesus who is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of earth.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ is Risen Today; #360, Christ is Coming! #260, Alleluia! Sing to Jesus

Sermon: An Idle Tale

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 17, 2022, Easter Sunday C

Luke 24:1-12

An Idle Tale

As we arrive here at the climax of Luke’s account of the earthly life of Jesus, let us just for a moment return to the opposite end of his life, to the night of his birth. The story as told in this same gospel is intensely familiar; Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no room in the inn, the infant Jesus laid in a feed trough among the animals. Then remember to whom, outside of Mary and Joseph, the news of this birth is first announced. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” You remember, right?

We might not remember that shepherds were, by the standards of society, not the most reliable witnesses. They were necessary, yes – somebody had to watch those sheep. You might even say they were “essential workers,” but you didn’t want to invite one to your home or have one speak up for you in court. “Bottom of the latter” was the typical view of shepherds. For all that, shepherds were the first ones – the only ones, as far as Luke tells us – to receive the announcement of the angels. They went to Bethlehem and saw child and parents, and they returned, presumably to their fields. We don’t know that they ever told anyone else. Given the low status and credibility of shepherds in that culture, any such announcement they might have tried to make would probably have been dismissed as an idle tale.

Of course Jesus grew up, came down to be baptized and then returned to Galilee, something like backwater country compared to Jerusalem. Some of his closest followers were fisherman – again, another group not highly ranked in society. Another follower – one of the twelve – was a tax collector, outright loathed in that society. He didn’t get all bothered when an unknown woman – a “sinner” according to 7:37 – interrupted a gathering to anoint his feet. Much of his time was consumed in being grilled or tested by some religious authority or another. Women composed a significant part of his inner circle, which was another blow to credibility in the eyes of some.

And now, here at the climax, the big surprise ending, the plot twist, the first ones to receive the news of Jesus were some of those women; Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James among them. The heavenly messengers make their announcement, the women (unlike, say, in Mark’s gospel) eventually “get it,” and they return to the rest of the body of followers to tell this good news. 

And the disciples? Well, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Peter, perhaps still recovering from his denial of Jesus just days before, at least has the decency to go check out the tomb, where he found things just as the women had described. Then he … went home. 

The story does continue from here; we get next the account of Jesus catching up with two followers on the road to Emmaus – not two of the big names, but disciples nonetheless. After the two had returned and told their story, Jesus finally shows himself to the fuller contingent of his followers. 

Finally, it wasn’t an idle tale anymore.

The good news, the greatest news of all, was dismissed by Jesus’s main disciples at least partly because it didn’t come from the right people. Neither the heavenly messengers nor Jesus made their appearance before Peter or James or John, largely the “big three” of the disciples. A few women and a couple of “lesser” disciples. Not the important folk.

Not the pastors of the big-steeple churches, or the pastors of the megachurches, or the political party leaders or the big-money folk. The risen Jesus, just like the Jesus of his earthly ministry, chose to reveal himself and show his power to folks who that society would have considered fringe-dwellers, unimportant, easily ignored or overlooked. 

When we decide that some of the folks around us can be dismissed or overlooked, disregarded or forgotten, we put ourselves at risk of missing out on the greatest news of all. We risk missing out on the doings of the risen Lord. We miss seeing the resurrected Christ because that Christ keeps gravitating to those same marginalized or forgotten people. 

It’s on us to listen to those who bear witness to the resurrected Christ. That’s uncomfortable. We might find ourselves among those who frankly make us nervous or who don’t seem like “our kind of people.” They might even seem like “the least of these,” to borrow from Matthew 25. But that is where the risen Jesus shows up over and over again, and that’s where the good news is, just like on that first Easter day. We’d best listen to the margins.

For witness from the margins, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: #248, Christ is Risen! Shout Hosanna!, #233, The Day of Resurrection, #239, Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing; #245, Christ the Lord is Risen Today