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Sunday, May 28, 2017

“I Saw a New Heaven…!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 21: 1-6
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 28, 2017, Easter Series, 7/7: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today’

When David Jensen moved his family to Texas, they inherited a cat named Whitney.  The previous owners told them she was a stray that just showed up on the porch one day.  And she stayed there.   She stayed there when the previous owners moved out.  She stayed there when the new owners moved in.   Whitney came with the house, so that when they arrived at this house, their family increased by one.  

“We are not necessarily cat people,” Jensen writes.  That changed with Whitney.  Everyone came to love this cat.   Eventually, Whitney moved from the outside to inside.   She charmed everyone with her meows, cuddles and purrs.  They allowed her to sleep at the foot of their beds and she greeted everyone each morning.  Whitney was a ‘happy cat’ who made the whole family happy.  

They did not know how old Whitney was, but after several years, it then became very clear Whitney was in her old age.  The last few months of her life were not her best, but she still loved to be held and petted.   After Whitney died, the Jenson family needed to hold an impromptu memorial service, with each member of the family sharing a word, a prayer, and of course, shedding tears.   It was after all this that his young daughter named Grace asked: “Dad, Is Whitney in heaven?”  (From Living in Hope, David H. Jensen, WJK Press, 2010, p. 50).

John also tries to answer the unanswerable when he says: “I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth….”  John’s grand vision includes a ‘great city’ coming which has ‘the throne of God and the lamb’ at its center (22:3).   John is not telling us everything the future looks like, but John is telling us what it looks like to have a future in God.   He says loud and clear:  A brand new world is coming!    While there will be similarities to the old world; like a river, stones, streets, with a city (maybe also with cats), everything will be renewed and refreshed.  It is the kind of vision that is supposed to help us live without fear, saying with John:“Even so, Come Lord Jesus” (22: 20).  

The most important word in John’s vision is new.   God himself says: ‘Behold, I make all things new!...  Look closely God’s promise is not that He will make all new things, but this vision says: God will make all things new (Eugene Boring).    John does not envision new different things (Gk. neos), but John envisions renewed, transformed same sorts of new (Gk. kainos) things.   Just like Paul said we will also be ‘changed’ (1 Cor. 15), this ‘new’ redeems what already is. 

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to this hope of redemption as the ‘the regeneration’ (KJV) or renewal (NIV) that comes when ‘the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory’ (Matt. 19:28; 29).   In other words, God is not going to simply trash, throw away, or dispose of this world, but the Christian hope is that God promises to remake this world into a renewed and refreshed creation (Isa 65:17).  John’s vision reflects Jesus promise of ‘renewal’ and they both go straight back to Isaiah’s original vision which interestingly includes cats, but changed cats, saying: “the lion will eat straw like the ox, and the child will play near the cobra’s den….  (Isa. 11:7-8).  These are not altogether ‘new’ animals and reptiles, like some high-tech robot imagined in  science fiction, but this is the promise of ‘renewed’ creatures, losing their destructiveness, the curse of sin, and even becoming vegetarians (v. 7).   (You didn’t see that coming, did you?)   Revelation promises a re-genesis, with the world being transformed into a new creation, just as we are called to be a ‘new creature in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17) by the ‘rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5).  Paul says that this is a transformation God will bring ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ by transforming, not trashing, this world that belongs to him. 

Understanding that God makes all things new, not all new things helps us not misunderstand 2 Peter, where we read of the coming ‘the day of the Lord’ when ‘the heavens shall pass away…the elements will melt…the earth will be…burned up (2 Pet. 3: 10-12).   My mother, in telling me about the rainbow, told me how God ‘destroyed’ the world with a flood the first time and how the rainbow in the sky promised God would never do that again.  “But the next time,” she warned, “God will destroy the world with ‘fire’.   It was a rather strange way to explain the rainbow, but it did keep my attention.  

Peter’s words about ‘fire’ and ‘destruction’ are obviously tempered by his assurance that ‘the long suffering of our Lord is salvation’ (3:15) because ‘God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance’ (2:9).   Most importantly, in his first letter, Peter has already spoken of being ‘tried’ (KJV) or ‘refined’ (CEB) by ‘fire’ (1 Pet. 1:7), perhaps recalling how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came through the fire without as much as ‘a hair on their head singed’ (Dan. 3:26) just like Noah and his family, and the earth too, came through the flood, and were not destroyed (2 Pet. 2:5).  In a similar way, Scripture pictures God as a ‘consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:39), causing some to be ‘saved’ by ‘fire’ (1 Cor. 3: 13-15) because good works, both God’s and ours, will make it through the refining, renewing fire.

The difference between a fire that ‘burns up’ in destruction and judgment (3:7) and a fire that purifies for the ‘salvation of our souls’ (1 Pet. 1:9) is our ‘choice.’   I think this was the point my mother was trying to get into me, as Peter says: ‘You have purified yourselves by obeying the truth ….” (1 Pet. 1:22f).  Certainly, for the world God called ‘good’, and for God’s people, God’s ‘consuming fire’ means the destruction of the worlds’ corruption, which brings about the reconstruction of God’s new heavens and earth.   We too must allow God’s ‘baptizing’ ‘redeeming’, refining, Spirit-fire (Matt 3:11) to burn within our hearts (Luk. 24:32) so we will inherit the world to come.  Only those who persist in ‘unbelieving’ will find ‘their place’ in the ‘lake that burns with fire…that is, ‘the second death’.    This means, God’s fire is intended to make us new, not destroy us.  The difference in how the fire burns is our choice. 

David May says that when he and his wife were once traveling the English countryside, that he was having breakfast with some young travelers, when a young European girl commented how she like to learn English by watching American movies.   She had just seen a ‘typical’ American movie.   When Dr. May asked her what made the movie ‘typically American’, she answered that “Americans like to wrap up all their movies with nice happy endings.  

But Americans are not the only ones who like happy endings.   John’s Revelation wraps up the Bible with a happy ending too, but it’s not exactly put together by popular opinion.   Perhaps the most surprising part of John’s ending vision is that John doesn’t picture everyone ‘going to heaven’ but instead,  John sees ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, like a bride dressed beautifully for her husband’ (v. 2, CEB).  Of course, John is not denying that our we go to ‘heaven’ when die, but John envisions even bigger things in store God’s people, for both our souls and even our bodies too.  

Now, of course, I realize that ‘going to heaven’ is where most popular Christian culture tend to put our ‘focus’ on the ‘life to come’.   And of course, we should have hope of being reunited with our loved ones, who are among ‘the dead in Christ’, whom Christ will ‘bring with him’ when he returns.   But John also wants us to see something even bigger, assuring us that there is much more to God’s future for us than becoming angels floating on clouds all day.    In fact, I have an interesting little book in my study with the very catchy title that is closer to what John sees, entitled: “Heaven: It’s Not the End of the World.”   For what God is going to do when he ‘he makes all things new’ is greater than most of us have taken time to imagine.   For example:

NEW JERUSALEM:  First, what comes down to earth from God is the NEW JERUSALEM, far exceeding the original one.   Unfortunately, this heavenly vision hasn’t reached many of those Israelis and Palestinians who are still fighting for a piece of ‘old Jerusalem’ real estate.   The new world that God is building is based on God’s future, not the past, and this future ‘comes down’ to be established by God alone.   What if those still fighting over earthly real-estate, could only come to understand that matters most is people, not land.

THE DWELLING OF GOD:  Secondly, “Jerusalem” comes down from heaven because finally and fully God ‘comes down’ live among his people.   Again, this is not a picture of people going to be with God, but it’s a picture of God coming to dwell in his people—and to be their God (v. 3).   This is the final answer to the grand dream of the Old Testament Prophets that ‘earth will be filled with the glory of God’ (Isa. 6:3).  John’s says that this ‘dream’ will become real in God’s renewed world.   Recall that even king David—a man after God’s own heart—was not allowed to build God a house.   In the same way, the New Testament says God doesn’t ‘live in temples built by human hands’ (Acts 17:24) but that our ‘bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit’ so that we should ‘honor God with our bodies’ (1 Cor. 6:19-20).   Here, John envisions God’s continual, abiding presence at the center of this ‘new’ creation.

THERE WAS NO MORE SEA:  Finally,  when God perfectly dwell’s in, and among us in this new world, what isn’t there is almost as important as what is: ‘no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, and not more crying or pain.’  This happens not because God is there to wipe the tears away’ and also because ‘the old order of things has passed away’ (21:4).   What is harder for us to imagine is how this can be a ‘new earth’ where there is also ‘no more sea’ (21:1).   I like the sea, don’t you?  I like the sea a lot more than I like cats. 

But in the ancient Jewish and early Christian world, it was the Romans who controlled the sea with their great ‘ships’.  Those Romans most often sailed those seas to other lands, where they landed their armies and invaded other nations and killed many peoples.   Imagine how many peoples would watch the sea and worried with fear for the next ships bearing armies that came to kill, destroy, and conquer, making them all slaves to this dominate foreign power.  In this way, even the wonderful ‘sea’ could become a ‘curse’ and a threat.

But in God’s new world, there would be ‘no more sea’ for such invaders to sail on.  The lesson here is not geographical, but it is political and spiritual.   In God’s new world the ‘saints’ will rule and the powers will be benevolent, loving, and life-giving, not destructive, invasive, and murderous.   “No more sea” was the promise of the end of a cruel, unrelenting evil power that brought nothing but harm and hurt to God’s people. 

We can imagine our ‘hope’ for the future in many, many ways, because this future is God’s future that is still coming in ways we can still hardly imagine, except by faith.    John goes on imagine more about ‘the holy city’ (Rev. 21: 10ff), seeing it setting on a high on a mountain in the shape of a great cube (4 square).  This city is envisioned to have high walls with gates that are always open, built upon the foundations of prophets and apostle.  It is a city shinning with everything precious with a perfect garden and a crystal river so that nothing ‘impure will ever enter’ (21: 26) because God’s glory resides among who’s names are written in the ‘lamb’s book of life’.   As this ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’ arrives at its final destination on a high mountain, this is not the‘end’ of the world, but this is a whole new beginning.  

The day before Martin Luther King Jr was murdered in Memphis, he made one of the most important speeches in American history.  He too spoke of a mountain top, saying,  “I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…  And I don’t mind….I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land… I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.   I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.”

Of course, we all have differing ways to imagine God’s glory to come—on earth as it is in heaven.   Most of our ways of imagining heaven are very personal, connected to missing our loved ones, and hoping to be reunited with them.   This is part of the Bible’s picture of heaven too, especially when Paul promises that Christ will come when ‘the dead in Christ will rise first’ and also where Martha tells Jesus that she has hope that she will meet her brother again ‘in the resurrection’.  

 But what I find it most interesting in Revelation, is that the images concluding this vision are strikingly void of personal, private hopes—like our hope for loved ones, or like a child’s hope for her pet.   It is not be because these hopes are unimportant, but because John’s vision includes everything—declaring that all creation will be redeemed, not just humans or animals.    God will make ‘all things made new’  and not ‘all new things’.   And the one who makes this promise names himself “Alpha and the Omega”,  ‘the beginning and the end,’ ---the A and the Z of all reality.   This God who will ‘make all things new’ invites all those who are ‘thirsty’ for this kind of hope to drink ‘freely’ (KJV) from the ‘spring of the water of life’ (v.6) already flowing through his Son, Jesus Christ.   Jesus is the one who said he has ‘living water’ (Jn. 4:10ff).   

Have you ever been thirsty? I mean really thirsty? Some of you may remember a cowboy song by a group called the Sons of the Pioneers that went like this:  “All day I faced/ The barren waste/ Without the taste of water/ Cool water/ Poor Dan and I/ With throats burned dry/ And so I cry for water/ Cool, clear water/”   The Sons of the Pioneers sang with that famous cowboy star and his equally famous wife, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.   Their theme of “Cool Water” was very close to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of The Ancient Mariner.”  After he slew the albatross, the mariner was stuck aboard a ship lost in a cruel ocean with no hint of a breeze “a painted ship on a painted ocean.” Little food, no drink.  And then the plaintive plea, “Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

In 1996, Joey Mora was standing on an aircraft carrier patrolling the Iranian Sea when he fell overboard. His absence was unnoticed for 36 hours.  A search and rescue mission began, but was given up after another 24 hours. After all, no one could survive in the sea without a lifejacket for 60 hours. His parents were notified that he was “missing and presumed dead.”  About 72 hours after he had fallen into the water, four Pakistani fishermen found Joey Mora. He was treading water in his sleep, clinging to a makeshift floatation device made from his trousers. He was delirious. His tongue was dry and cracked and his throat parched. About two years later, Mora spoke with Stone Philips on NBC Dateline and told his incredible story. He said it was God who kept him struggling to survive. But the one thought that took over his body and pounded in his brain was “Water!”  In the middle of a sea and dying of thirst.

We do not need to perish with thirst for hope.  ‘The healing’ waters (22:2) are already flowing from God’s throne now.   You can drink from this hope, now.   And you can drink ‘free of charge  (NET), as God’s ‘free gift’ (NIV), now.    If you are ‘thirsty’ for this kind of ‘hope,’ and the kind of redeemed, new world, only God can create, you can drink from that hope, right now.    AMEN!

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. 

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!

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. (

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).

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 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.

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’.

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. 

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 ( 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.

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).

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 (

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 (