Monday, October 31, 2011

The Hidden Reign of God and the Long Defeat

It has been a while since I posted, and I sincerely wish I had more time to post on the blog. I am afraid this semester has been a bit overwhelming, though, so I can't promise that posts will become more frequent until winter break rolls around. I do have some substantive posts in the works, which I hope to be able to work on in the next month, but we will just have to see. In the mean time, here is a sermon I preached yesterday at the church plant where I am blessed to be doing my field work. It is not my best work, stylistically speaking, but I am relatively happy with the content.
This sermon focuses on Revelation 5:1-11, and while there is a lot there, I chose to focus simply and directly on the message of the cross. It wasn't an 'evangelistic sermon,' but the more I think about preaching, and the more I try to live the Christian life, also the more convinced I become that it is vital to keep preaching the gospel to Christians. We never stop needing the word of the cross.

The book of Revelation is an amazingly popular book of the Bible. There are an amazing number of movies made based on the book of Revelation, or using images from the book of Revelation. Everybody knows that 666 is the number of the beast, or has heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, even outside the Christian church. Inside the Church, everybody has an opinion on how to interpret revelation, and the timeline for the end of the world.
There are some denominations where they spend a lot of time reading Revelation, so a lot of you are probably pretty familiar with the book if you are from one of those denominations. I, however, grew up an Anglican, and the truth is, Anglicans are kind of nervous about Revelation. We read it, but we don’t talk about it much. Which means, I can’t claim to really understand the book of Revelation. I’m even a little intimidated by it, as a preacher. It’s confusing, its filled with monsters that sound like something out of a Godzilla Movie, and it’s tempting to get bogged down in explaining what each head on each monster, or each jewel on God’s throne signifies. For example: Just who are these twenty four elders? What are the four living creatures with eyes “within and without,” and what does that even look like? Or what does any of this have to do with the Left Behind series, the Soviet Union or who ever it is we’ve decided is the Anti-Christ this week?
Now I have my own theories about the end times, and I could tell you about them, but I’m not going to do that. I think with Revelation, the best course is to begin with the big picture, with the obvious things that God is saying. So I am going to set aside all the detailed questions, and try to preach a very simple sermon on Revelation 5. So what is going on in this part of Revelation? In the first three chapters, John records a series of letters to series of letters to seven Churches, recording messages to them from the risen Christ, when he is caught up into heaven.
And it is there that he sees the vision of the Lamb who was slain. And this vision needs to be set in some context. John is called up into heaven, through an open door, and the scene that he meets in heaven is the throne of God, surrounded by all the host of heaven - most notably the twenty four elders with golden crowns, four living creatures with eyes all over, and uncountable Angels as well. There are a lot of interpretations of what these figures mean, but what I find most convincing is the view that the elders represent all the redeemed people of God, and the living creatures represent his rule over all of creation.
The image of God surrounded by these twenty four elders would have suggested the typical images of Caesar surrounded by kings, which is part of why this scene in God’s throne room is central to John’s vision. One of the overarching questions of the book of Revelation, maybe the overarching question, is who is really in charge? who reigns and is worthy of worship and honor? is it God or the forces of the world, like the dragon? The Beast? Or more concretely, Caesar and the Roman Empire?
We aren’t left in suspense. From the beginning the answer is clear: it is God who reigns, and God who rules over time and history and the whole world. It is God who sits enthroned, and who is worthy to receive honor and glory, because it is God who “Created all things and by his will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). That’s the context we need to have before we can understand chapter 5. God reigns, and God is in control. This isn’t a statement about what will be, but a statement about how things are already. God already reigns, and already governs all things, despite all contrary evidence.
And their is abundant contrary evidence. An honest assessment of the world demands that we admit: it doesn’t look like God is in control. And St. John seems to have been completely aware of this. When we come to chapter 5, St. John sees that God, seated on his throne, is holding a scroll. The first thing we see in chapter 5 is a desperate search of the entire universe for someone who can open this scroll. When St. John realizes there is no one, no human being, animal or angel, who can open this scroll he starts to weep. Which, frankly, seems like kind of an over reaction. Why is this scroll so important?
Well,The scroll is another symbol that is disputed, but again, its basic meaning is pretty clear. Most of the book of Revelation is about what happens as each seal on the scroll is opened, and God’s rule and God’s judgments are enacted in history. What St. John, understood, somehow, was that if there was no one to open this scroll, then God doesn’t really rule in the world after all.
He talks about this search of heaven and earth in one sentence, but I think it must have taken a good deal of time; he probably doesn’t tell us what he saw, because we all know basically what there was to see. If we go looking for signs of God’s reign in the world, our search will be mostly disappointing. In this world There’s violence, wars and rumors of wars, injustice and corruption. We’ve already mentioned Caesar, who would have been an obvious enemy of God in John’s time, but there are still world leaders who have divine pretensions, who feel entitled to treat other people like they own them.
Even the natural world seems to be out of control. Think of all the people killed by disease, or those killed, randomly to all appearances, by natural disasters just this past year or so. The Tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, tornadoes and devastating heat in the Midwest.
Just to make it a little worse, it’s not as if being a Christian makes life much easier. And we all know that persecution continues to be a reality for Christians around the world. All of us at Trinity go to school with a number of student from Africa, who could tell you first hand about being persecuted for their faith.
Even if we don’t experience outright persecution, we all face pressure to turn away from Christ, and we can find plenty of other things to worship. We could worship the State; we could worship America, or some ideology, or we can just worship our appetites, and most of the media attempts to get us to do. When the last election happened, there were a lot of people who seemed to be worshiping one of the candidates. Or if we’re the pious sort, we could do something really dangerous like worshipping the Church, or even the liturgy.
But speaking for myself, and maybe for others as well, what I think I struggle with more than anything, isn’t any of these things. All of them are external. What really worries me is that Even when I look at myself, it is not always clear that God is in control. Our hearts are “deceitful... and desperately sick” as Jeremiah says, and even when we desire to do good we do evil, even after we come to faith in Christ. We all have the experience that St. Paul describes when he says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19). When St. John went searching for someone who could open the scroll, and bring God’s rule in the world, he found no one. Not even the holiest of Saints, who could do it. So, whether we look at the world outside, or at the depths of our own hearts, God does not seem to rule.
Like St. John, If we look for God’s reign, we wont find it anywhere, unless we look to the cross. We only understand God’s rule and judgment when we realize that that they are exercised in the Lamb that was slain.
When the scroll in God’s hand is opened, both divine judgement and salvation are accomplished. In all the world, there is only one person who can open the scroll and exercise that divine authority: The Lion of Judah, who has conquered, and when we actually see the Lion of Judah, he is not what we expect - not a mighty conqueror, but a lamb, and a slaughtered lamb at that.
And it is precisely because of his sacrifice, his death, that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God is qualified to open the scroll and to rule. Echoing their hymn to God seated on the throne the elders and the living creatures praise the lamb and say “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God” (5:4).
God’s ultimate act of authority in the world isn’t a show of force, as we might expect and hope, but instead it appears as a show of weakness. Because in the Cross, God actually judges all the evil that there is in the world. The judgement is that when the one really righteous person, when God himself comes into the world, our response as human beings was to kill him. St. John in his gospel says “This is the judgment: the Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light...” (John 3:19). God has judged all of us in the cross of Christ. He has done more than that, though. He’s taken the judgment on himself. It was Jesus who bore the brunt of our punishment and our sin. And through faith, we have been let in the secret though, and we know that the cross leads to the Resurrection. The Lamb has been slain, but he has also been raised. God has judged Jesus, but he has also vindicated him, by raising him from the dead. And if we know that we have been Judged in Jesus, we also know that we have been vindicated and forgiven in him. “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom 8:6).
What does this mean for God’s people in the world then? First, it means that God really is in control, despite all the evidence, because God has already overcome sin and death in the cross. God does reign in the world, but he reigns from the cross. His reign is mostly hidden because that is the nature of the cross. God’s reign isn’t by force, but but by grace.
Secondly, it means that we have victory with God in Christ, but following our Lord, our victory is generally hidden. One of my favorite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, once said “I am a Christian... so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains... some samples or glimpses of final victory.” This isn’t pessimism, but simply recognizing that most of our experience in this life is the experience of the cross, and that doesn’t mean that we are failing or that God has abandoned us. It may mean just the opposite, that we are being given the chance to witness to God’s victory in the Cross, and that God is very near to us.
And this is true even when we look at the state of our own souls. In fact, the closer we come to Christ, the more we will become aware of how inadequate we are, how little God seems to rule in our hearts and in our lives when we examine ourselves. The most sanctified people probably think the least of themselves, but then again, they also spend the least amount of time thinking of themselves. Because God calls us to repentance, which means to turn away from ourselves, and turn our eyes towards the cross. That’s precisely what our sanctification consists of; it’s not so much a matter of trying to sin a little less each day, or of trying to make ourselves a little better, but of constant repentance, turning away from ourselves and towards Christ.
even if we practice spiritual disciplines like fasting, or rules of prayer, they aren’t useful primarily because they make us better people, but because they make us realize how much we need God. They make us look away from ourselves and towards what Christ has done on the cross, and that is how we come to love God more. We don’t love God in the abstract, by just thinking about how good he is; we love the God who sent his only Son to die for you and for me. When we believe that, when we know it with all our hearts, our lives can’t help but be transformed.
Because when we look towards Christ, we see that God truly does reign, that he truly is worthy of glory and honor and praise. And like the Elders in John’s vision, we can only fall down in worship, offering our crowns back to the one who gave them to us in the first place.
In the Name of the + Father...