Sunday, May 21, 2017

“Victory In Jesus!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 19: 1-9
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 21, 2017, Easter Series, 6/7: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today’

Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, then German Chancellor Helmut KOHL SAID enthusiastically: “Marx is dead, Jesus lives.”  

That statement stirred quite a controversy.  While many people were glad that the communistic ideas of Karl Marx were dead, they were not so happy to hear that religious ideas of Jesus Christ were still very much alive.    For you see, the ideas and ideals of Jesus don’t seem to make any real difference or be desired in lives of most modern, western peoples.   I heard a European, in what is still named a “Christian” country, say that Christianity has had 2,000 years to try to build a better world but it hasn’t worked. Catholics have burn thousands of heretics. Hitler used Christian ideals as an excuse to kill millions.   More recently Bosnians used Christianity as an excuse to commit horrible crimes of racial cleansing.   That person concluded:  “Jesus is not helping us, he’s probably holding us back.  

There are many people who still think that religion in general, including Christianity in particular, is simply too dangerous.   “Look at what is being done in the name of religion in the world; especially in the name of Islam, they say.”  Their recommendation is that even we Christians should try to ‘get beyond’ Jesus. But how do we get ‘beyond Jesus’ when Jesus, in his faith and in his love, was, and still is, way ahead of all of us. 

Revelation 19, which has all kinds of powerful symbols, word pictures and images, reminds us that Jesus is not someone we can simply regulate into the past, because Jesus is also our future and destiny.    A favorite old gospel song, written in 1939 just before World War II, which became much beloved among Baptists during those difficult years, promised that we will have “Victory In Jesus”.  This coming, believed, and hoped-for ‘victory’ takes center stage in today text. 

“HALLELUJAH….SALVATION BELONGS TO OUR GOD” (19:1).
Many songs are scattered throughout the book of Revelation.   Some have calculated as many as 27 of them.  Chapter 19 depicts heaven breaking loose in musical praise, and is particularly marked by four Hallelujahs.   Handel’s’ Messiah called this the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.  These Hallelujahs mark the ending of this revelation, but also the beginning of a whole new world. The unanswered questions of the church’s sufferings, fears and prayers are finally given an answer with the arrival of a ‘rider on a white horse’ who is named ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’.   

With powerful images like these, John reveals to us the long-awaited ‘blessed hope’ of the ‘appearing’ and final ‘victory’ of Jesus Christ.   John enshrouds this ‘victory’ with mysterious and highly symbolic language because, as Jesus himself said, no one knows when, how, or even what this ‘appearing’ of Jesus Christ will look like.   What we can know is that a final, consummating, and complete victory is now being promised in his revelation of Jesus Christ.  

The first ‘hallelujah’ ascribes ‘salvation, glory, and power’ which ‘belongs to our God’.  It is no accident that the great multitude do not sing of ‘having salvation’ or ‘getting salvation.   This is important because salvation is never something we ‘possess’.  Salvation is something that possesses us.   Although some like to talk about ‘getting saved’ or needing ‘to get saved’  Salvation is not really something we ‘get’.  We can’t earn, achieve or get salvation and put it up like a trophy on a shelf.  God’s salvation is never fully complete nor realized until God completes it at consummation of everything.   As Scripture implies, only those who ‘endure to the end will be saved’ and we ‘work out’ God’s gift of Salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ right up until the end.  This means that salvation is a promise, as it is a process, but it is not something we can hold in our hands and say to ourselves ‘well done’.  This something only God can say because salvation is a gift that unfolds as we trust God who alone can save.

We should not see this as a problem, because Salvation is a promise with a future, which nothing else can offer.   I recall during my youth when other teenagers made decisions to become Christians, some of them would say something like,  “I became a Christian, but I still don’t feel different.”   That's a problem that is unique to many Baptists, and others, who have sometimes put a lot of emphasis on emotional, experiential, and personal salvation in a single moment that has to pass.  Unfortunately, many have been invited to ‘get saved’, but we have failed to invite them to ‘follow Jesus’ in continual discipleship, service, and the journey to God.  

It is important for us all to remember that those who follow Jesus are on a journey and life of faith, rather than looking for memories or having experiences of certain feelings.   In other words, you should have feelings and experiences of faith, but feelings follow faith, not the other way around.   Thus, faith in Jesus is neither a ‘magic trick’ nor is salvation something we ever get to own or ‘have’.  No, “salvation belongs to God’ from the very first day, until the very last.   If you stay with God, you have him and you know the salvation that belongs to him.   But when we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, the journey begins and must not end until we reach ‘the celestial city’ as John Bunyan described it in Pilgrim’s progress.  God is still working His salvation, and not our own versions of it, until the very last day. 

Because salvation belongs to our God, who at work in us, we should be encouraged.  The very next line, which says that God’s ‘judgments’ are ‘just and true (v. 2) is proven,  not in one moment of faith now past, but it is proven as God is believed, trusted, and lived by us, because we live toward hope in God, not away from it.   This salvation that belongs to God is a salvation that constantly moves us toward fulfillment and promise that is still coming, just like Jesus is coming.   A life, lived in hope, can’t be lived in any other way than forward, onward, toward a goal always in front or ahead of us.   Like that old proverbial saying, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” the Christian faith sings that it’s not over until salvation all is made complete in Jesus Christ.   Jesus is the goal, the destiny, and the hope of more to come, no matter what we must go through in life.  This salvation is not yet fully ours, and because we trust in him, and follow him into the the future, we can't lose it, because we don't have it, but we have him.  God saves us and has us; not the other way around.  Salvation belongs to him!  Hallelujah!

HALLELUJAH!...HE HAS AVENGED…THE BLOOD OF HIS SERVANTS (19:4)
Since salvation belongs to God, hope is promised, even in a fallen, dying, world full of sin, evil, corruption, death, and destruction. This hope causes Heaven to break out in song again, as the second and also the third Hallelujahs are sung.  They are singing again because the ‘great city’ of evil, nicknamed ‘Babylon’, has fallen (18:2), and finally goes ‘up’ in ‘smoke’ (19:3).   It is because the evil city is finally overcome, that heaven cries out: “Amen!  Hallelujah!  Now, God has fully answered and avenged all the suffering and sin caused by this city.  

To this hope of we also can say “Amen, Hallelujah!”, because we still hope, that as all the sins and evils of that world (18:4) were finally judged, the evils of our world will also, one day, someday, finally and fully, be condemned and crushed by God’s truth (18:6; 19:2).  As the great ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’ sings “His Truth Is Marching On!”   This is the ‘truth’ being celebrated in this second and third “Hallelujah!” now joined by “Amen” or “so be it!”

But here, with all these ‘crushing’ images of death and destruction by the hand of God, what are we ‘peace’ loving, hope-having, faith-believing Christians to make of all these vengeful images of destruction and judgment?  In the beginning of this Revelation, Jesus is the ‘slain-lamb’ (5:15) who ‘takes away the sin of the world’ and conquers the world with his ‘word’ of faith, hope and love.  But as Revelation unfolds, we learn of the ‘wrath of the lamb’ (6:16) who finally avenges (Rev 6:10, 18:20, 19:2) the blood of his saints (Rev 18:24), by killing all the wicked (19:21).   How do we explain this coming, judging, and triumphant, but also vengeful approach at the end?   And how do we reconcile this humble, loving, saving Christ of the gospels, finally appearing as the Son who comes as an ‘ironman’ to judge the world?  For, after the ‘rider on a white horse’ celebrates the lamb’s supper, he rides off to ‘strike the nations’ with a ‘rod of iron’ so that vultures are called forth to the ‘great banquet of God’ to ‘eat the flesh’ of kings and all people who dare oppose him, or his armies.  With this, the great enemies the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, while the rest are killed by his sword as vultures gorge themselves on their flesh. 

It's certainly not a pretty picture, but we must remember that John’s world was not a very pretty world.   Actually, John wants to say that in a world where sin, evil and and wickedness often have the upper hand; threatening the faithful and bringing harm to the innocent, Jesus is not only being revealed as a savior and redeemer, but also will also be revealed as the righteous ruler and the final judge.   While the images are harsh, even appearing cruel, they are meant as firm warnings to all who would dare think they can oppose God’s purpose and will.   The message here is not primarily that Jesus will come to destroy evil doers, but that the same Jesus of the Bible who came to save, will finally redeem the world from its own self-destructiveness and evil.  The judgement that is coming is just and fair, because the darkness of sin will be fully exposed and expunged as truth comes into the light of God’s new day.   The corrupt and corrupting Kingdoms of this world are put on notice; only God’s righteous kingdom endures.   Every other kingdom that opposes God’s truth will finally fall in ruin, be crumple like dust, and those who ruled them be carried off by vultures.   These kingdoms finally fall because only God’s kingdom is still coming.  It is a kingdom that endures because it only fully arrives when God’s King appears to rule as “king of kings, and lord of lords’.

We can certainly see the implications of a text like this in the very real world that was 1934 Europe.   As evils of Hitler and Nazism were on the rise, it was a group of Christian scholars, led by Karl Barth and other Christians leaders, stood up to warn the evil growing in the German ‘state’ and to challenge any German Christians who might aligned themselves that terrible “Babylon.”  Barth wrote: “Try the spirits whether they are of God! ….If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us!  But if you find that we are taking a stand on Scripture… let no fear or temptation keep you from…obedience to the Word of God… For he said, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”  Therefore "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barmen_Declaration).

As we all know,  neither Germany, nor most German Christians stood with Scripture, but wrongly choose to allow that terrible cancerous growth called ‘Nazism’ to grow, until judgement rained down upon Germany at the close of the second World War, in ways that can only be called ‘apocalyptic’ or the fulfillment of the Word and Will of God.   And this is exactly what John was saying about the evils of Rome, and pointing to the downfall of any Kingdom or any ‘nation’ that would dare oppose the ‘Word’ and truth of God.   As Revelation reminds us, and reminds our own rulers or leaders,  the rider on God’s horse, is called “Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war’ (v. 11) because He is the ‘Word of God’  (v.13) who rules with the ‘wrath of Almighty God’ (v.19).

HALLELUJAH, FOR THE LORD ALMIGHTY REIGNS (19:6).
At the heart of everything John is saying, with his vision of the coming, future ‘rider’ on the ‘white horse’ is that he is ‘called Faithful and True’ because  ‘Our Lord Almighty Reigns’.  This is that the most triumphant chorus in Revelation, as it is the most triumphant line repeated over and over in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”.   345 times in Scripture, just like over and over in Handel’s closing masterpiece, “The Messiah”, the promised coming and appearing of Jesus Christ will be the final proof of the biblical ‘truth’ that, in spite of how things appear, when we too may experience the evils of the world and the darkness that can come to us,  still the song of faith must keep singing, all the way to the end,  as the King James version, and Handel’s Messiah translate, that ‘The Lord omnipotent reigneth…forever and ever, and ever…Hallelujah!  Hallejuah!  Amen!   What Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sings, and what Revelation means, is that in all things, in life and in death, God rules supreme over both good and evil.  Only God is Almighty, and only God’s truth keeps marching on, forever and ever.

I did not grow up singing this song from Handel’s Messiah, although it was hidden away our old Broadman Hymnal.  I was only introduced to in High School, by my Chorus teacher, Mrs Linda Saylor, who taught it to us so we could sing in a Christmas concert at her church, The First Associate Reform Presbyterian Church in Statesville.   Even though I loved the music, memorized ever word of it, and was well prepared to sing the ‘bass’ line throughout,  I didn’t realize the full meaning and message of the song, until as we sang it, the entire congregation of that church stood up to sing it with us, as if it was their national anthem.  As cold chills went all over me, I realized then that this song was right at the heart of what it means to be Christian. 

We too join in this “Hallelujah Chorus” because we believe, entrust, and affirm--sometimes even against the powers of this world---that only God’s Word in Jesus Christ is ‘Faithful and True’!  Even while on earth, we sing with Heaven “The Lord Almighty, or omnipotent reigneth!” because to sing any other song, with either our lips or with our lives, is mere foolishness and folly.   As heaven already knows, and earth must know, only on the robe of God’s rider are written the name, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!”   


Any attempt to go against this truth, will, as they say, ‘eat your lunch’ or as the text says, invite the ‘vultures’ to lunch at your expense.   These words are harsh, but true.  It reminds me how once the director of the Crowe Family Funeral Home in Rutherfordton gave me his calling card, which said, “If the Crowe don’t get you, the Buzzard will!”  It was a very unusual, but also most forthright card, but made its point.    Will you acknowledge the Lord who rules the world, with his rule in your own heart and life?  You must, for there is no other alternative for having hope or ‘victory’ in this world, than in this one who rules over both this world, and in the world to come.  Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

“And She Gave Birth…!”

  A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 11: 19-12:10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Mother’s Day,  May 14 2017, Easter Series, 5/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today’

Mother’s Day always comes at a wonderful time of the year.   The weather is warming.  Spring is in full bloom.   April showers have given way to May flowers.  Summer’s at the door.   It’s the time of year even the most pessimistic might sing along with an English kindergartener:
I woke up this morning, got out of my bed, Looked in the mirror and I got myself dressed
With a stretch and a yawn and a scratch of my head.
‘Life is a wonderful thing’ I said,  ‘Life is a wonderful thing’........

My heart is beating morning ‘til evening, I’ve got the breath of life inside.
My heart is dreaming I’ve got the feeling It’s so lovely when you know you’re alive!
‘Life’s a wonderful thing,’ I said.  “Life’s a wonderful thing.

Life is wonderful, but when you think about it, this lovely moment we call life is actually not a “thing” that we can have “for keeps”.  Life is a gift, but it's a gift with an unknown expiration date.  That's part of what makes life precious. 

THE AGONY OF … BIRTH     (v.2)
This dramatic, glorious event we call life is exemplified by this mysterious woman in John’s Revelation who is ‘clothed with the sun’’ but also crying out with ‘birth pangs’ in the ‘agony of giving birth’.   Those of you who have been in the ‘birthing room’ know something of what John is talking about.  Those who gave birth before modern hospitals, know even better what this means.  

There is a grand blessing and hope in giving birth, but there is also burden and risk.   In that very moment, when a mother gives life, she is at the greatest risk of dying.  Even in the modern world, childbirth is the sixth leading cause of death, even to young, healthy women.
 Life is joyously full of hope and purpose, but it can also be painful; and dangerous too. It’s terrifying, but thrilling!  As we celebrate Mother's Day, we pause to consider the risks and responsibilities our Mothers took upon themselves so that we might have this wonderful gift called life.

In the late 1950s into the early sixties, a young nurse and midwife named Jenny Lee, went to serve a mission located in the poorest part of east London.  She wrote a diary of her experiences which became a book, and most recently made into a BBC miniseries, Call The Midwives.  Nurse Jenny’s encounter with the conditions of the poor and their desperate desire to give life, even against all odds, surprised her.  At first, she felt repulsed by the deplorable conditions of these women and some of their questionable lifestyles.  Eventually, however, she comes to name them heroines.  She reached this conclusion as early as her first case, when she came to the home of a Spanish immigrant woman who already had 24 children.  The woman fell, and due to her concussion, went into premature labor. After helping her deliver the child, Jenny thought the baby to be stillborn, as was the norm in such situations.  As she was about to dispose of the remains, the child miraculously came to life.  The mother, still somewhat delirious from shock, showed great delight.  But when the nurse and the newly arrived doctor demanded that the premature child be taken to the hospital, the mother refused, saying in Spanish, “I am her hospital!”  Despite her weaken state, she fed the child every thirty minutes rather than have her child be given IVs.

In John’s Revelation this mother’s life-giving power is as much spiritual, as it is physical.  She represents motherhood, but she also represents those parents who have passed on their own spirituality from one generation to the next.  The image of a ‘woman clothed with the sun’ having the ‘moon under her feet’ also ‘crowned with seven stars’ is not any woman, and she is not only Jesus’ mother, Mary, but she represents all of Israel, men and women, who gave us the world the spiritual heritage which gave us Jesus.   

This great spiritual heritage, though dominated with the names of men, would have been impossible without its women.   Where would the church be without it’s women?  Women who not only care for children, but also care about giving children the spiritual resources they will need in life.  I recall a mother telling me that she wanted her child to grow up to be free to choose her own faith.  It sounded to me that she was trying to excuse herself from having done nothing to prepare her child for life.  Much better would it have been to have heard that mother say that she had passed on everything she believed to her child so that her child have some wisdom to choose with.  One might recall that Jesus didn't become Jesus without the sincere faith of a Jewish mother.  Aren't we thankful that sometimes, especially early on, our mothers insisted, and didn't always give us a choice?  It was their insistence that gives us a spiritual choice as a resource now.

THE DRAGON…MIGHT DEVOUR HER CHILD  (v. 4)
The insistence of a ‘godly mother’ to spiritually and physically protect her child becomes a necessity in a world where evil powers can figuratively and literally, ‘eat your child alive’.   That kind of threat is exactly what John’s drama portrays.  No sooner does this woman give birth, than an evil dragon is out to kill her child.   John is reminding us of what happened when King Herod tried to slay the baby Jesus, but this picture still reminds us just how vulnerable every child is in a world where ‘the devil’ continues to roam, as Scripture says, ‘seeking whom he may devour’. 

While this text did not intend to give specific instruction about Christian parenting, it does remind us, especially on this mother’s day, how dangerous this world is for children.   Had Jesus mother and father not protected their child, Jesus would have been murdered.  In our own time, parents need to take serious their spiritual responsibilities, because the same kind of evil that lurked the world then, still threatens our own children; physically, spiritually or emotionally. 

We’ve all heard some seniors say “I'm sure glad I'm not raising a child these days.” What they mean is that the threatening influences beyond the home seem increasingly negative.  It's not just the bad influences from peers, television, or movies, but it's also the ever-present possibility that some stranger might, in one click of a mouse, lure your child into a deadly situation.  The constant barrage of dangers through cell phones or other social media cause many parents to lose sleep at night.

Jennifer Sellers, a child-advocacy attorney from Alabama learned this the way no one should.  She and her 14-year-old daughter Sydney were close.  They did most everything together.  They got their hair done together.  They got their nails done together; they did Wal-Mart together.  But Sydney did have secrets she kept from her mom.   Those secrets led to the most tragic event on December 7, 2017.

When Jennifer opened her daughter’s bedroom door, she thought Sydney was playing a practical joke.  But it was no joke.  She found her teen daughter hanging from a belt in her bedroom.    Jennifer and her husband still struggle to understand why, especially since Sydney was active in church and had shown no signs of depression or trouble.

It was only after her death, that her family learned from friends that Sydney had been bullied at school.  And the funeral home found cuts on her body, indicating she had been cutting herself.  But worst of all, was the online conversation they discovered on Sydney’s smartphone.   She had been messaging someone who pretended to be a teenage boy talking about things to do to restrict oxygen to the brain as a part of sadistic, erotic-game. http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2015/October/Grieving-Mother-Warns-of-Online-Predators.

Jesus said, "If anyone causes one of these little ones-- …. to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck ….” (Matt. 18:6 NIV).  Strong language! But what good is it after the fact?   What can parents do, even as good parents, who have great children, when the “dragons” are no longer ‘out there’ in the world, but now are able to enter the privacy of the home, where children should be safe?  Jennifer admitted that she and her husband had become complacent.  Since Sydney made good grades at school, they didn’t check her phone.   But now, she goes around telling parents, if you paid for it, it’s ‘your phone’.  Check it out.  Know who your children are talking to.   Be forewarned!   The Revelation describes in the most graphic way, why is it so important that we don’t let down our guard about protecting our children.  He says: ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that IT might devour her child the moment he was born’ (Rev. 12:4).   Even before the child was born, IT was already there to ‘devour her child’.

THE DRAGON WAS THROWN DOWN (v. 9)
This dramatic episode concludes with hope, not despair.  Beyond this struggle with evil on earth, John saw a ‘war in heaven’ where the dragon and his angels lose ‘their place in heaven’ (v.8).   This defeat reveals the dragon as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray…” (v.9b).   This revelation causes Heaven to break out in song:  “Now… have come the salvation the power and the kingdom of our God….!   Now…“The accuser has been thrown down (v.10).  With this good news, which is nothing less than the good news of the cross amplified by this cosmic drama,  though the devil still pursues the woman, she is now given ‘two wings of an eagle, so she might fly’ to safety. (v. 14).   The devil still rages and makes attacks, but even the earth helps the woman find ways of escape.

When I was a child, being raised by dedicated, Christians parents, I hardly knew the dangerous powers that were loose in the world.   It was the 60’s.   It was a dangerous, turbulent time in American life.   But as far as I knew, the world was a safe, wonderful place.  My parents’ love for each other, their love for me, and their love for God, revealed in Jesus Christ and through their love and faith, gave me strength, power and promise and made ways to escape, even when evil pursued me.   That’s how it is when you are a child.  You don’t realize what you are up against.  You also don’t realize just how much your parents are helping you, empowering you, and blessing you with all kinds of spiritual resources that enable, not just to survive, but to thrive in life. 

I know that many people today, need more than ideas, they need plans, proofs, examples and details of how the gospel of Jesus works, through a parent and for a child.  I can tell you how it worked for me.   I can tell you how my mother, and father, expected me to be in church.   I can also tell you how they didn’t send, but took me to church because their faith was real and true and they were committed.  I can also tell you how they lived what they believed, and I can tell you that it wasn’t just a life, but it was their mission; and I was a part of their mission to be faithful in living their lives.  Living like this doesn’t mean as much as it once did, and perhaps that’s part of the reason evil has so much power.  But to my parents, my Mother and my Father, they gave me ‘wings’ of escape that still empower me today.

Of course, as we all know, parents are perfect, and neither are children.  But when there is genuine faith being lived, love being shown, and hope being shared,  Satan loses his ‘place’ of power in Heaven, and his limits are made known on earth.  As a teen, I recall getting into a car with some friends, whom I didn’t realize had changed so much.  I hadn’t seen them in several years.  We were friends in early elementary school, and I was reunited with them in early high school.  We were hanging out together and they started drinking.  One of them was even going to drive home in that state.  I knew it was dangerous.  I wanted to drive, but I was only 15, without even a driver’s permit.  I prayed all the way to my friend’s home, where I was going to spend the night.   After I got home the next day, I was determined never to be caught in that kind of situation ever again.  What my parents had taught me, along with the grace of God, had given me a way of escape.   I spread my ‘wings’ and flew away, never to get into that kind of situation again.

On this mother’s day I want us all to be thankful for mothers who gave birth to us, putting themselves at great risk and taking on great responsibility.  I also want us to be thankful for the promise of a gospel that has been taught to us by our mothers and fathers that still empower us to stand against the wickedness and wiles of the devil.  I want us to be thankful that we have found a way to ‘escape’ some things that could have killed us, especially when we were young, and especially when we didn’t listen to our mothers.   Finally, I want us to see in this very dramatic vision that Satan’s power has been defeated at the cross, and that God wants us to be the kind of church that takes it’s calling seriously to help those who continue to be in battle with the evil one--- to help them ‘keep God’s commands’ and ‘hold fast to their testimony about Jesus.’  Will you pray with me and commit to do this?   Amen.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Blood of the Lamb!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 7: 9-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 7 2017, Easter Series, 4/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today

Country Music legend Hank Williams tragically died young at age 29 from heart failure caused by addiction to pain pills and alcohol.   Along with his terrible demons empowered by back problems, came angelic gifts of imagination.  One of his most prophetic, yet tragic songs he wrote was entitled, ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive!’   His first verse opened:
Now, you're lookin' at a man that's gettin' kinda mad
I had a lot a luck but it's all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.”

Hank Williams was right.  None of us, no matter how fortunate, or unfortunate, will get out of this world alive.  Like the biblical character Job, even if we do everything right, we will not be able to get through life without some kind of trouble. 

At the center of today’s Bible text we overhear an angel explaining to John the identity of a ‘great multitude dressed in white robes’ washed white “in the blood of the lamb!’  You can hardly be more graphic, but how can robes be washed white with lamb’s blood?  Perhaps it helps to begin by saying that no other single passage in the Bible is more descriptively written and expressively laced with Christian hope and gospel truth than the text before us.   But exactly because Revelation was written in an ancient form apocalyptic code,  such images have been often misunderstood and greatly abused.  As GK Chesterton put it:  ‘And though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.

When I was in college, one of my professors expressed his own disliked for the misuse of terms like ‘the 144000’, ‘the Great Tribulation’, and of course the heavily violent image of ‘the blood of the lamb.’   He told us that even the great reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, who wrote about most every other book of the Bible, did not even comment on Revelation.    However, what they dared not do, we can do, and must do.  We have historical and theological insights that can help us break the code to undercover the original meaning.  That will take us to heart of the gospel message as the revelation of Jesus Christ.  But again, you certainly can't understand what these images mean until you know what is behind them. 

A HORSE WENT OUT TO RIDE…
In the previous chapter, some very ugly horses had been summoned to ride.  We call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Many expect these horses to ride at the end of the world, but the truth is that they are always riding through our world and through our lives.  These horses ride to conquer though power, through bloodshed, through starvation, and through death.  This is how the world worked in ancient times, and sadly, the world still works this way.  When people or nations go after power and become blood thirsty, everyone who gets in their way, starves or bleeds.

In history, both ancient and modern, we know this scenario all too well.  Jesus himself said, ‘there will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet…’.   We know the tragic story of Syria and Aleppo and the Russians siding with the evils of Assad.  We know the constant threats of terror in Europe, and now, also the deeds that have caused mass death and pain on 911, and beyond, here in the States.   This is not to even mention the death toll of two world wars and the consequences still being felt, both in Germany, and around the world. 

Who will try to conquer next?  Will it be Russia, China, or some other unknown, unseen, or unexpected rouge power who threatens with a nuclear warhead?  Now that the ‘cat’s out the bag’, the horse out of the stable, or the ‘bomb’ has been dropped, most anything could happen; even the most unthinkable.  We often don’t want to think about that.  But strangely, these apocalyptic images of power, death, and tribulation are often sounded more by the press, the elite, and the educated, than are taken seriously by people in the pew.  Who wants to contemplate all the deadly powers that are always riding in our world?  Who wants to see the destruction that constantly threatens? Who can live in peace with such threats always over and sometimes, ‘on’ our heads?   You do realize, don't you, that ours is the first generation to create a clock that calculates how much time we might have left until doomsday?  You might think a bunch of religious fanatics invented such a clock, but it rather a group of concerned scientists, 14 of whom were Nobel Laureates. Would you dare look to see what time it is?  Last time I checked it was 3 minutes to midnight—midnight being doomsday!

The truth it's that it's always close to the end for someone, somewhere?  We all know this is our continual, constant, precarious reality, but who wants to consider it?   You don't think about it much, until a relative dies, or some tragic event comes to a friend or gets close to you.  I have to think about the end a lot, due to the nature of my job. Every time I must conduct a funeral, or pray with someone facing illness or surgery, my mine races to the reality of life and death we all face, but often deny. 

Still, it hits me harder, as it does you, when the unexpected or a great injustice happens to me.  And if being or doing good doesn't stop the unfair or the unwanted from happening, why be good anyway?  Since there are no guarantees in this life, what does it matter how we live, what we do, or what we believe?  That is where many are when it comes to contemplating our impending end. ‘Eat, Drink and be Merry, for tomorrow we die!  And as the popular song oin the 1970’s asked, which some are still asking, ‘Is this all there is?’ 

As I was writing these words, a terrorist bomb exploded in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo.   Today Coptic Christians are a very small minority in Egypt, but their presence in Egypt is much older than Islam?  Most Islamic neighbors, now the majority in Egypt, still make room for this historic, small group of Christians, allowing them to work as Cairo’s garbage collectors (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38280627). Strangely, there was a time when Christianity was the most celebrated faith among Egyptians, especially around Alexandria.   However, all that has changed, and now, there are some extreme voices that even want all Christianity gone everywhere—not only wiped off of the face of the Egypt, but off the face of the whole earth.  

Still, while some are trying to destroy Christianity with bombs and terrors, others unwittingly threaten the future of Christianity in even more effective ways, here at home.  Even some who call themselves Christians do this by not showing up in worship, by not caring about their own Christian community of faith, and by the continual neglect to live and teach and pass on the faith they claim to have.   In ways that are obvious and unobvious, the horses of the apocalypse continue to ride.   Death continues to threaten us, both physically and spiritually.

SALVATION BELONGS TO OUR GOD
Interestingly, however, the intent of the Revelation of Jesus Christ is not to show us how dominate and destructive the horses are as they ride, but to remind us that even the forces of death and destruction let loose in the world, are only allowed by the one sitting on the throne.   The point is that the risk of human life enables power-seekers, struggle, warfare, death and destruction, but even these great negative forces will never again have the ultimate, upper hand.   As Revelation has been revealing from the opening of the vision, it is only the lamb who ‘holds the keys of death and hell’ (1:18).  It is the lamb ‘who has been slain, but is still standing at the center of the throne’ (5:6), and because only the lamb ‘opens the seals’  (6:1),  we are now being told to imagine how even ‘death’ and destruction have themselves become servants of God’s will and purpose.

In Revelation, even the message of gloom and doom is being transformed into a song of praise.   This becomes clearer as even this picture of apocalyptic doom, is now suspended by a vision of ‘those who were sealed’ who are of the ‘144,000 from all the tribes of Israel’ (7:4).   To this great number is added an even greater ‘multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’.  All these together, the countable and the uncountable, are now ‘standing before the throne and in front of the lamb’ (7:9).    All these Together they ‘cried out in a loud voice’  louder than the sounds of gloom and doom, saying:  “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (7:10).    They sing ‘praise…forever and ever to God for  his ‘glory…wisdom…honor…power and strength’ (7:12) because celebrate as those who ‘have come out of the great tribulation….’ (7:14). 

But of course, the ‘victory’ they celebrate around the throne of God in heaven, was never obvious to them while on earth.   The riding of the horses of death and destruction are very obvious, but the sealing and victory of God’s people isn’t.  On earth we see nothing but death and destruction, and the riding of powers of conquest and corruption; but it is only in a vision of heaven can we see those ‘who have come out of the great tribulation’ with ‘white robes’ and celebrating a victory that was not won by themselves.   This is why their song of praise is that ‘Salvation belongs to our God’.  Salvation is never fully ours while we live in this world.  It is a song can be sung now, but this salvation belongs only to God, and will ever be fully realized here.  This is why John, now suffering tribulation too (1:9), needs this Revelation of Jesus Christ.  We also need the ‘revelation’ because we are still going ‘through’ it, and our victory is not yet fully ours.

Perhaps you are going, have gone, or will go through some ‘great tribulation’ too.   Of course, the ‘great tribulation’ John meant was a direct persecution of Christians.   Before the book of Revelation was written, around 64 AD, the roman Emperor Nero order attacks on Christians because he wanted to blame someone for the problems he was having.  Perhaps you’ve heard the old phrase, “Nero fiddled, while Rome burned!”   That was about the time when Christians were thrown to Lions and hung up on light posts to burn like torches.  It was terrible.  Later, around 95 AD, another Emperor named Domitian, who was well-known for being paranoid (most Emperors were murdered to end their reign).  This threat of new persecutions, which perhaps never occurred on any large scale, was the occasion for John’s vision.

Such threats of ‘great tribulation’ are years removed from us, but as people who live with great risk, we also must live with the constant threat of suffering unexpectedly, unwantedly, and often unjustly.   We don’t have to go through ‘The Great Tribulation’ at the end,  but we can experience ‘great’ tribulation of our own.    This is why we need to constantly remind ourselves that in a world where we often have very little control, ‘salvation belongs to our God’.    The picture of the protective sealing of God’s people (7: 1-3), followed by songs of heavenly praise around God’s throne (7:9ff) are powerful images to remind us that in life and in death; God is our only true hope.   In a world where the horses of death and destruction continually ride, we need to be constantly reminded of our hope.  

Right after World War II, a sixth grade class in Greenville, SC, welcomed a new kid to their class.  He was blonde kid from Poland.  The teacher explained that things were bad in Poland so he came to live in Greenville.  One kid joked it must be really bad in Poland to have to come to Greenville.  

Not long after the new kid came, the others noticed food missing in class.  First it was an apple or two.  Then, some sandwiches, and other items from their lunch boxes went missing.  One day a girl in class saw the blond Polish boy take two cookies.  She reported it to the teacher.  The teacher invited the boy out of the room and into the hallway.  She told him, “You don't live in Poland anymore.  You now live in a new location in America.  We have plenty of food in America. When you get hungry all you have to do is ask me.  Do you understand?”  The boy shook his head as if he understood.  He never stole food again.

What the Revelation wants us to know is that those people who have finally received the fullness of God’s salvation are in a very different location.  It is not only a location where people in white robes constantly sing thanksgiving to God, but these are those who now find themselves in a very different place where there is unending hope; no more suffering, no more hurt, and no hunger or thirst; no more pain.   After their ‘great tribulation’, they have reach that place where God has wiped away there tears (&:14) and given them eternal shelter (7:15).  This is a gift of ‘salvation’ that only God can give (7:10).

MADE THEM WHITE IN THE BLOOD
But can we still believe, along with those that great multitude in heaven, that ‘salvation belongs to our God…and to them lamb’ (7:10)?   It’s certainly not easy, is it?  We don’t know how well they --- those suffering Christians---- were able to ‘sing’ this song in the midst of their own suffering, hurt and tribulation.  Perhaps exactly because it is always hard to sing such praise and hope that this Revelation of heaven was given. 

Near the end of last year, right after that ISIS inspired, Tunisian Terrorists, drove that 18-Wheeler into that crowed Christmas Market in Berlin, and over a dozen were killed and dozens more were injured, the city was terrorized, but the whole nation was filled with angst and fear.  The tragedy took place right in front of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church.   That church was bombed during World-War II and left in ruins.  But a chapel has been built onto those ruins where people will remember, can still enter to worship, and will hopefully still pray for peace. 

Only a day or so after the terrible event, which took place less than a week before Christmas, the Lutheran Bishop held a prayer service in the chapel, entitling his message, “How Can We Still Celebrate Christmas?”  In this message, he addressed the fears, the hurt, and all the anxiety everyone felt in Berlin, and in all of Germany.  He also spoke of how hard it would be get into the Christmas Spirit, as the normal human response would be to answer hate with hate.  He spoke of how all this hate had been inspired by an ‘Inman’ there who was preaching nothing but hate to young Islamic men.   Then he said, if we responded to this hate and closemindedness, with more hate, and more closemindedness, we will not heal.  No, the only hopeful answer is justice, openness, along with more democracy, and more freedom.  His answer was, instead of preaching hate, to ‘inspire’ hope that is rooted in God’s love (https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article160482948/Wie-soll-es-denn-jetzt-ueberhaupt-noch-Weihnachten-werden.html).

Certainly, inspiring hope rather than hate is not easy.   That is exactly why we have this most powerful, even violent, image of people who have suffered and died, washing their robes ‘white’ in the ‘the blood of the lamb’.   This image of ‘hope’ not only comes at great cost, but it also comes unexpectedly, yet is still true.  That is what John wants to convey to them, and to us.  When Christ suffered, and when we too suffer with Christ, we can hope for the most surprising, unexpected outcome.

Here, we must remember that the suffering of Jesus was a very big problem for the disciples and the early church.  As Jesus predicted, just before his death:  “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered' (Matt. 26:31 NRS).  Even after his resurrection, some were still struggling with what it all meant (Luke 24: 17-25).   This sent some of the disciples to searching the Scriptures for answers.  What they did not anticipate before, is that behind the suffering of God’s servant, and their Messiah, was the very saving plan of God.   They confirmed with the prophet Isaiah, that ‘by his stripes we are healed’ (Isa. 53:5) and that it ‘was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain’ making his life ‘an offering for sin’ (53:10).  

Of course, this was, and is still not an easy thing to grasp.   How does God work his salvation through the suffering, pain, and hurt of Jesus on the Cross, and also through the hurt, pain, and suffering God’s servants still experience in life, even when we do what is right?   How does God save us, wash us clean, through the ‘blood’ that has been spilt, or is still being spilt by those who serve God in this life?

While I, nor you, nor anyone can ever fully explain the mystery of how God saves and washes us clean through ‘the blood of the lamb’, or how there is a strange ‘power’ in the blood, as the church sings, what we can know is how this all ties into hope.   Whatever is behind this ‘shedding of blood’ (Hebrews 9:22) and the ‘washing with blood’ (Rev. 7:14), the final conclusion of the New Testament---the only conclusion that makes any sense---is what Paul concluded: …”But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:6-9 NRS). 


This picture of a great multitude, having their robes washed white in ‘the blood of the lamb’ only makes sense when you look at the final, saving picture of God’s eternal, unending love.   Only when you know how God’s love raised Jesus, and only when you also believe that God’s love will also raise us up, only then, can faith, life, or suffering finally make sense.  Hope is only realized through love.   Right here, in this very hopeful, John’s Revelation still points us to the heavenly picture where all suffering is answered and pain is finished.   As a Jewish philosopher once realized for himself,  all faith, and all hope is given birth in love:  “Only Love believes in Resurrection!” Amen (http://ludwig.squarespace.com/wittrs-blog/2009/11/27/wittgensteins-thoughts-in-1937-about-god-the-resurrection-of.html).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Worthy Is the Lamb!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 5: 1-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 30th, 2017, Easter Series, 3/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today

“Dad, we should have turned back there!”   We were driving toward the beach.  I had hardly begun school and could hardly read.  But I could read maps.  I was fascinated by them, as far back as I remember.   Perhaps it was because I was adopted and needed as sense of control or place.  Who knows?  All I know is that I’ve always been able to read maps well.  During my missionary journeys in Europe, German locals used to tell me that I knew their roads better than they did.  They lived there, but I had studied the maps.

Back to my story.  My Dad was on the wrong road, but he wouldn’t listen to me.  He thought I was too small to know where we were going.  I tried to make him understand.  It didn't work.  I didn’t know what else to say.   I knew we were going to be lost, so I started crying.  “Dad, you don’t believe me!” When I started crying he didn’t seem to pay much attention, but my mother did.  “Charlie,  you need to listen to him”. That was a mother’s love and Dad knew he had to listen to mom.   He turned the car around and headed in the direction I suggested.   Now, we were on the right road.  We would actually get to the beach.   As far as I remember, my Dad never admitted he was wrong.  Mama did it for him.   I laugh when I remember.

Where are we?   Of course, we are at church.  You could also call out the postal address, or you could locate us with geographical coordinates, either with a map or with GPS.  This is one way of locating ourselves, but there are others ways.  We could locate ourselves, culturally, by saying we Americans.  Or we could locate ourselves chronologically, saying this is, April, 30th, 2017, or maybe even more historically, saying that we are living in the early years of the 21st century.  There is almost no limit to how we can describe ourselves---by time, family, culture, or even by faith, as either Baptists or as Christians.  All these descriptions we use help us define and identify ourselves and our time and place in the world.

Our text today in the book of Revelation is a kind of spiritual road map; a kind of religious GPS.   It is, however, not a map that enables us to see everything that is specifically going to happen in our own future.  In short, John is saying that if you know who Jesus is, you don't really have to know anything else.  The  ‘revelation’ was never intended to be a revelation of all the specifics of the future, John’s or ours.  It is rather, as it defines itself,‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:1)..  This ‘Revelation’ is intended to put us all on God’s map so we can locate ourselves in the future which belongs only to God.

HOPE SEEN THROUGH TEARS
The “Revelation of Jesus Christ” starts to unfold as a ‘vision’ in chapter 4 and 5.  It begins as John sees a ‘door standing open in heaven’ (4:1) and then hears a trumpet-like voice calling him to ‘come up here’ to be shown ‘what must soon take place after this’.   What ‘after this’ does John mean?   Here, we need to remember that John was exiled on an island and left to die. He was ‘suffering’ there ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (1:2,9).   John, like any of us in  ‘life and death’ situation, is trying to locate himself on God’s map. He wonders about what will happen next.  He hopes that the troubles he, and all the people of God are going through,  will somehow fit into the grand scheme of God’s eternal purpose.

His answer begins while he is “in the Spirit” and John sees  ‘a throne in heaven’ (4:2) with sights very similar to what the great Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel saw.  In the powerful right hand the  one sitting on the (heavenly) throne, John sees a sealed scrollHe hopes this very mysterious scroll might be opened.  Perhaps it will contain the answer John seeks.  But his hopes, along with ours, are immediately crushed when no one, not on earth, nor even in heaven, and not even the one on the throne, can break the seal to open the scroll.  

Having to face the unanswerable, the unknowable, and perhaps, even the unthinkable, John begins to weep.  In his book, Seeing Through Our Tears,  one of my Counseling professors, Dan Bagby wrote that Tears are one of the most expressive ways we (humans) communicate. We cry, he's says, for many different reasons.  From the moment we are born, our limited vocabulary requires tears to express ourselves.   Did you hear what he said?  Our tears express our human limits.  Tears, Bagby concludes, often reveal what we cannot put into words…  Tears have been the language of the soul…”  Tears are often mysterious and surprising, but they are never meaningless.  Tears point to the deepest feelings and greatest longings of our inner selves.  They ‘clothe our hearts’ with (or without words).   We always need to value what tears tell us.  As an old gospel song warmly put it, “Tears are a language God understands”.

What we should stop and  ‘understand’ from John’s tears is what we all feel when we also have to face the unanswerable questions of life.   If you haven't been there, you will get there.  Life has a way of finally bringing us all to our knees.  Even the strongest, smartest, and most proud among us, will have to finally and fully bow to circumstances, to powers, and we must all ultimately give in and give up to pressures and realities beyond our control.  We will all face asking what happens ‘after this’?  At some time, tears will be our only language too.

Most specifically, John ‘wept and wept because no one in heaven or on earth was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside’ (v.3).  Again, you must remember that John means that the ‘one seated on the throne’, who is constantly praised as ‘worthy’ and ‘Lord and God’  as creator of all things (4:11) is also not found to be ‘worthy’ to open this scroll.   This is the very contradiction of life and faith that John feels and sees.   It is the same kind of contradiction we all feel when we face the unthinkable and the unanswerable in our lives.

I have been there, with many people, in the worst moments of their lives.  I was with my Sunday school teacher as his pastor when his kidneys failed and he died.  He was the one who as a child influenced me with both fun and faith.  There were no words I could say except to share his fears and tears.  I was also with a family right after their daughter most unexpectedly committed suicide.  I was also there in in spirit, and later in flesh, with a friend whose husband drowned in a freak boating accident.  I also comforted her after her daughter was murdered.  We even took her young child into our home for a few months.  

I have been there in many, too many, unthinkable situations, including my own, and I have had to face the unanswerable along with everyone else.   It's a hard place to be.  Many Christians, even some pastors have a hard time being there too. Not long ago I was in a meeting with some other pastors.  A pastor’s spouse was facing cancer treatments and the one who offered a prayer for her stumbled for words and then said he believed in a God who would heal her.  While I understood what we all wanted to happen, he couldn't dare have said that he and we also believed in a God who might not answer our prayer.  That’s the contradiction of faith, isn't it?  We are not called to trust in the one on the throne because of what he has done, but we are also called upon to trust in the one on the throne when he he doesn't do what we want in the way we want it.  This is the unanswerable, the unthinkable, that brings us to tears too.

HOPE THROUGH THE TRAGIC
Still, even as he is brought to tears, John still receives hope, even though he doesn't get the answer he wants, when he wants it.   This hope comes to him from ‘one of the elders’ who tells him not to weep but to look to ‘see’ the a “lion” who can open the scroll.  But strangely, indeed very strangely, when John looks to see this lion, he sees a lamb.  And it is not just any lamb, but it is a ‘lamb, looking as if he had been slain’ who is now ‘standing in the center of the throne’.   Only this ‘slain lamb’ proves ‘worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.

We all know ‘who’ John is looking at.  This is God’s lamb, the lamb ‘slain before the foundation of the world’ who is beheld as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’  This lamb is none other than Jesus Christ, who was crucified, buried, and was also raised from the dead.  For as we also see, this lamb, though slain, is still ‘standing in the center of the throne.’  He is no ordinary lamb, but he is God’s resurrected lamb.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves.  Before we come to the triumphant truth, we need reflect upon this first, hard, and very tragic truth---the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.  How does this very tragic and ugly cross become our hope; even when all else fails and also before that?   Paul himself said that he had nothing better to proclaim than ‘Christ and him crucified.’   How does he come to suggest that the only hope we really have in the unthinkable, unanswerable, and unknowable and very tragic nature of all our lives has broken through to us in the message of the cross and in this most tragic hero we call ‘the Christ’?

As we must be reminded, in John’s Revelation, it is only this slain lamb who opens the scroll.  It is only slain lamb who points us to the redemption from our sin and from the  sin of the whole world.  What both Paul and John see, is what the entire New Testament sees.  The  redemption we all hope for can only come through this suffering and through the most tragic, not by going around it. 

To make this plain, you nor I will ever be saved by having fun, being entertained, with sheer excitement, nor through the memories we can make in life.  We will only be saved by following this suffering Christ .  Only by our own participation in the redemptive suffering Christ will we find salvation.   “By his stripes we are healed” the great prophet Isaiah said.  This is why Paul is determined to preach nothing but ‘Christ and him crucified’.   The cross is Paul’s primary message because, as strange as it still sounds,  its God’s redemptive answer.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom…, God chose the weak,…the lowly,…the despised things---and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are.’ 

Paul’s astounding words are everything John now sees in his heavenly vision too, but they are still not easy words to understand or to appropriate into our lives.   Understanding the cross wasn’t easy for Paul, for John, and it still isn't easy for us either.   A lot of Christians come to church every Sunday all their lives, even trust Jesus as their savior, but the truth of the cross still evades them.    The rest never stop learning about or living this way of the cross. 

For it is one thing to believe in the Christ of the cross, but it is quite another thing to ‘take up your cross’ and to ‘follow’ this ‘crucified  one’ as as your own way, your own truth and your own life. But isn’t this exactly what the cross ‘at the center of the throne’ means? Only ‘the slain lamb’ can take away the ‘sin’ of he world’ which begins with the greatest ‘sin’ that must be removed from all of us.  This universal ‘sin’ is  the ‘pride’ of the most  ‘self-centered life’ we don’t want to give up.   But only by fully surrendering to God and his perfect will, will we find the most hopeful answer that only comes when we follow this Christ of the cross.

Now of course, there are many ways to try to express the meaning the cross and how it is the ‘power’ that ‘saves’.   Neither the story of the crucifixion, nor the letters of Paul, and not even these very strange images from the Revelation, could ever exhaust nor fully explain the mystery of the saving power of the cross.   We continue to find new allusions to the cross in movies, in novels, books, music, and in the events of everyday life, which can be just as powerful as Scripture.  These facts, and even some fictions informed by facts, can’t replace the biblical story, but the story of the saving cross continues to pop up in both the facts and fictions of life.  In fact, cross is the only fact that will constantly prove to be true to in this life until that coming day when ‘all things are made new’.

All of you have heard that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is as strange as the truth.  Today, in Denmark, there is a set of very popular, fictional novels are being written about a detective who is a very ‘tragic’ but gifted sort of fellow.  He is grumpy.  He is rude.  He is a loser.  His wife has left him.  No one at the office likes him.  In fact, his boss gave him one last chance to redeem himself by making a whole new department where he can work almost completely alone.  This department is called “Department Q” where the detective is supposed to write up all the ‘cold’ unsolved cases, and then turn them in as ‘lost causes’.  Strangely, however, it is exactly by giving himself to these ‘lost causes’ that he finally begins to find his redemption in life.   By giving himself to crimes no one else cares about, and then reaching out to people who have been almost forgotten, this detective comes to finds himself.

One of the most moving scenes comes in a novel about a man who is falsely using religion as a way to trap and to kill innocent children.  This man seeks to injure other children similar to how he was injured as a child.   On the way to solving this crime, the very agnostic detective finds himself at a funeral service in a church.  He hears the gospel of hope, perhaps for the first time, he really hears it.  His face is filled with tears.  It’s as if he comes to realize that there is no other hope than the hope the true gospel gives.  Though the detective has not yet found the way to faith---that would spoil the story---he has at least for now, discovered the real need for faith in this very tragic world.

Whatever the cross of Jesus means, it means that we only find hope and redemption by walking straight into the good, important, ‘lost causes’ of life, not by walking away from them.   You, nor I will be able to avoid the tragic, the hurts, or the pains of life, so why not walk straight into them by faith, with the sure hope that by giving ourselves to doing, being, and seeking the good for and with others, we can come to find purpose, even in the midst of pain and hurt.   In other words,  we will never find lasting hope, nor find the redemptive way by seeking our own comfort.   We don’t find the hope we need by avoiding the nursing homes, the hospitals, the prisons, the lonely, or by doing our own thing.  No, we only find redemption by working to redeem those who are among ‘the least of these’.  Just like we can’t find happiness by actually trying to find it, we only find the joy and purpose of life as a by product of doing the right, good, and necessary things of life as acts of redemptive love.

I don’t mean to sound too overly philosophical, but the cross of Jesus, if it teaches us anything about life, is that right where it looks like Jesus was involved in a lost, cause, which was trying to redeem unredeemable Israel, that Jesus proved once and for all, that he was ‘a righteous man’ and  ‘Son of God’.   When we also follow Him by giving and sacrificing, even suffering for what is right, good and loving, we also prove ourselves as God’s children.  If the slain lamb at the center of the throne means anything,  it means that redemption is found in this God who calls us to join with Jesus in this ‘lost cause’ that can’t be lost.   The ‘lost cause’ of the cross can't be lost because you are being redeemed through that cross.  As Paul says, ‘to us who are being saved, (the cross, through Christ) is the power of God.’

HOPE THAT IS TRIUMPHANT
nThis lamb of God is a lion exactly because he was slain for being ‘faithful and true.’   This slain lamb not only still stands before God’s throne, because God raised him from the dead, but this slain lamb is finally praised as worthy ‘to take the scroll’, ‘to open its seals’ because ‘with his blood’ he ‘purchased people from every tribe, language, people, and nation.”  He alone is able to ‘make’ us  ‘to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God’ (5:10) and finally rule on earth.

 Now, as John finishes this opening to his vision, he takes us to the end where everything is going.   Only the faithful, slain, lamb is worthy, who can take us, and this world to where we all want to go---toward hope for a future full of ‘power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!’   None of us are there yet, but the lamb leads the way, if we want to have hope.  As one preacher put it, this what it looks like when the lamb wins, once and for all.  Life doesn't look like that now.  Earth is not yet as it is in heaven.   But for now, as the example in heaven, the lamb is the only one who wins.

There was once a small little Quaker Church in England that was located next door to a large business firm known simply as ‘Lewis’.   When “Lewis” decided it was time to enlarge, it wrote a letter to the small little church that was in its way, setting on the land in needed to expand.  In the very nice letter written to the church, an very fair offer was made to purchase the church and the land.   The said that with the money the church could relocate and find build a very nice new place to worship, because the firm needed their land.  The signature at the bottom of the letter said it all.  It was simply signed, “Lewis”.

Not long afterward, the firm known as Lewis got a return from the little Quaker Church. The letter told Lewis that it appreciated the very fair offer, but it reminded Lewis that the little church had been on that land for generations, long before Lewis was ever established.  It told Lewis to name the price, and the little Quaker church stands ready to buy out Lewis and all its holdings.   The letter was signed with one single name, Cadbury.


If you don’t know what Cadbury means in England the name Cadbury is equivalent to the name Hershey.  All the wealth of Lewis was nothing compared the wealth uncovered in that little Quaker church, where one with an even bigger shadow was cast, where all the Cadbury’s who had buried for generations,  and where one of them who was still very much alive in his faith.  So, pointing toward the power, wealth and wisdom, of where this Revelation of Jesus  is going, and toward where you are going to, I ask you; what are you investing in? Amen.