Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Impotence of Thunderous Power

Sermon manuscript for the November 7, 2015, sermon at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Based on Revelation 12, 13, 14.

Revelation 12 begins with a vision of a glorious woman, clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a golden crown with twelve stars. She is pregnant—great with child. She is the epitome of goodness, sweetness, and promise.

After lingering on this scene for a few moments, the visionary camera pans right into the shadows, and there we see a great red dragon. The dragon is watching the woman, waiting for the birth of the baby.

For the dragon, the essence of life, the hunger that give meaning to his life, is headship, authority. The dragon dreams day and night of arranging the universe so that everything bows his direction.

The baby in the woman's womb is the prophesied king who will rule with a rod of iron. This boy will grow into a man who will whack the dragon on the head with an iron rod. The dragon figures it's now or never. If he doesn't eliminate this child at birth, the dragon's doom is sure. 

We who are watching the vision figure the same thing. Our eyes go back and forth nervously from the glorious woman to the slavering beast crouched in the shadows. Will the dragon get the son or will the son survive to wield the iron rod?

The woman gives birth. The dragon lunges. The child is snatched away. And the next minute we are breathing easy. The baby has been evacuated to heaven. Whew. That was a close call. But we know how this story will play out. The baby will grow to manhood. He is going to master the art of cracking dragon skulls with an iron rod. The next time these two meet, it will be doom for the dragon. Hallelujah.

I like the picture of the knight with the magic iron rod vanquishing this terrible dragon. 

A personal aside:  Right now, my wife and I are taking care of our daughter's cows. Once a week, we go open a new 1200 pound bale of silage for them. These cows have horns. The adult cows have a spread of about four feet. While I'm opening the bale—which takes a few minutes--the cows will crowd in on me and on each other. They fling those horns around, and if you happen to be in the way, too bad. I have to drive them back. My daughter has taught me that cows respect horns. So you have to convince the cows you have bigger horns than they have. So I carry a four foot tool handle with a sharp point on it. When the cows try to crowd in, I spread my arms wide like horns and bellow. At that point, my "horns" are bigger than theirs and they will usually, reluctantly back off. But it that's not enough, I take my "iron rod" to them. I jab them with my pointed handle. Cow hide is really thick. Sometimes I have to jab really hard. But by waving my "horns," making a lot of noise and vigorously wielding my "iron rod," I can manage. I can make even the young bull back off. It's actually kind of fun. They are like bulldozers or tanks and it gives me a real sense of power and manliness to boss them around. 
So, when I read about this child with his iron rod, I smile. I imagine the pleasure he will get bossing and ultimately destroying that ugly dragon.

The text in Revelation seems to confirm this perspective. After describing the Glorious Woman, the Slavering Dragon, and the child who has been evacuated to heaven, the child who is going to rule with an iron rod, the text tells us: There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. Michael wins. The dragon is driven out. The text further explains the dragon is the devil, Satan, the Great Deceiver, the Accuser of the Brethren. The child is Michael, the mighty prince.

This sounds promising. The child is taken to heaven. There is a war there and the child wins. The dragon loses and is expelled. It's good news that the devil lost the war in heaven, but bad news that he wasn't killed. We thought that when the Son and the Dragon met in battle, the Dragon would die. But not only is the dragon still alive, he is banished to earth. On no! This is seriously bad news.

Now what?

Chapter 13, picks up the earth story, but when we look to see what the dragon up to we don't see the dragon, we a weird, amalgamated beast. It is a hybrid of a leopard, a lion and a bear. It has seven heads and ten horns.

This creature is an evocation of imagery from the Old Testament. The prophet Daniel pictured the great empires of antiquity using animals—a lion, a leopard and a bear, and then a dreadful monster with ten horns. Revelation is telling us the dragon operates through ordinary human agencies, and more specifically through the legal, formal social structures of government. 

As we follow the vision, the amalgamated beast is followed by a two-horned monster who has the same character, the same hunger and drive, as the amalgamated beast. Their single objective is headship. They crave homage, respect, obeisance, obedience, deference. They demand that every human either kiss up or die. Bow or die. Honor our headship or we will eliminate you.

The great red dragon, the amalgamated beast, the two-horned monster all have one ambition: headship.

As you read through chapter 13, you get a sinking feeling. It appears that the drive for headship, for unchallenged authority is triumphant. It appears that every bit of opposition is eliminated. The two-horned beast wins. The amalgamated beast wins. The dragon wins. The woman loses. Her first born son was evacuated to heaven. Her earth-bound children are eradicated. Righteousness dies in the earth.

That's what it sounds like as you read through chapter 13. Then you turn the page and chapter 14 tells us that, in fact, gadzillion people resisted the threats of the dragon, the beast, and the monster. Gadzillion saints have never even thought of bowing, of paying obeisance.

Literally, chapter 14 says 144,000 refused to bow. But as we learned in last week's sermon, in Revelation, 144,000 means a crowd so vast it cannot be counted. This crowd includes a full complement of people from every people group on earth, even apparently-extinct groups are included.

The dragon does not win. The amalgamated beast does not win. The two-horned monster does not win. The Son wins. God wins. Their people win.

But there is a serious twist in this story. It is one of the deepest spiritual truths in Revelation.

It turns out that the Son does not win by whacking the dragon with his iron rod. The Son does not win by wagging bigger horns than the amalgamated beast or the two-horned monster.

Back in Chapter 5, when the joy of heaven was silenced and the prophet dissolved into tears because no one was able, no one was powerful enough, to open the mysterious scroll, the prophet was consoled when one of the elders told him, “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah is able to open the scroll. He is mighty enough to solve the problem and restore music to heaven.”

But when John turns to see this “Lion,” astonishingly he sees a Lamb. And the lamb looked like it had been slaughtered.

Similarly here in Chapter 12. We first read that it is the Son wielding the messianic Iron Rod who will vanquish the dragon. We read that Michael, the Great and Mighty Prince, vanquished the dragon in heaven. But then when we listen to the song of the saints celebrating this victory, we learn that the victory came not from the Son's prowess with the iron rod, but through his self-sacrifice--through the blood of the Lamb.

The dragon, beast and monster are not defeated by an opposite will to power. They do not lose their claim to “headship” because someone stronger crushes them with irresistible power. They do not fall in the face of a "greater headship." The dragon, beast, and monster collapse because the Lamb successfully woos humanity. The Lamb wins our hearts and draws us into the light. The dragon, beast, and monster are left roaring futilely in the darkness. The Lamb wins by giving away authority. And the people of the Lamb demonstrate their participation in his kingdom by similarly giving away whatever authority flows through their hands.

In contrast to the repeated declarations by the dragon, beast and monster—bow or die—the Lamb says I will die that your might live. In contrast to the threats of the evil trinity, the holy trinity promises shared place on the throne. In perhaps the most astonishing picture in the book, God removes himself from the supreme place of headship in deference to the Lamb. Chapter Five pictures the Lamb at the center of the throne, the center of the beasts, the ring of elders, and the countless residents of heaven. At the end of the book, in chapter 22, God gives full authority to the saints. They are not merely pages and ministers in the heavenly court. They are themselves rulers. There is no headship pyramid. The lust for coercive authority and the need for coercive authority have disappeared. This is the fruit of the love and sacrifice of the Lamb.

The Lamb wins. Because God's greatest desire is for the Lamb to win, God wins. Because we are beloved by God and the Lamb and have been enthralled and wooed by their love and goodness, we win.

Father is the metaphor for God used most frequently in the Bible. Christian theology has appropriately elaborated and celebrated this metaphor. We have also been seduced by it. We who are fathers imagined God would solve the problem of evil with the hammers of authority and punishment. But according to Revelation 12-14, this is false.

In these chapters, the essence of sin is portrayed as the the lust for headship. Heaven's response is not a sterner, tougher version of authority and headship, but a renunciation of the headship principle. The Lamb triumphs by dying. It is the blood of the Lamb, not the Rod of the Son that ultimately vanquishes the dragon and his allies. 

Real life application

The Protestant reformers in the 1400s were correct to apply the imagery of the beast to the medieval papacy. It had an insatiable hunger for headship. It demanded that everyone bow.

Adventists are unwise to continue to focus on that historical moment as the only relevant application of this vision. We ourselves, now that we are an 18-million-member corporation, experience our own temptations to lust after headship. We want to be able to command. We want to demand obedience. We are at grave risk of creating an image to the beast.

We cannot save the church by wielding a rod of iron. We can only save the church by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beautiful Mother, Problematic Motherhood

She pushed the stroller into Aurora Commons, told us Dennis had told her we could help her. It was a situation full of irony. Dennis has been a vocal opponent of the ministry of the Commons. What prompted him to send this woman and her son to Aurora Commons? Maybe it was because she was attractive. “Undeserving” women—free loaders, welfare queens, moochers—are supposed to be unattractive, their undeserving status written in their ugly faces. So maybe Dennis figured this woman must be deserving because she was pretty. Maybe Dennis interacted with her long enough to be actually touched, maybe even haunted, by the pathos of her life. Her three year old son was autistic. Completely non-verbal. Active. Strong. Wild. And she was his sole support, his sole care-giver. And there was no one to care for her, to support her. How does a mother provide twenty-four/seven care for her son and earn the money needed to buy food, pay rent, put clothes on their backs and provide medical care? Maybe Dennis paid attention to this mother long enough to feel the weight of all this. Maybe the impossibilities of her life touched some soft spot in his heart. Whatever the reason, he pointed her our direction. She wheeled her son in among us looking for help.

Christians appropriately challenge abortion by affirming that life is a divine gift. Surely this view of life as a gift from heaven calls us to happily participate in funding life-long support for mothers who take on the incredibly daunting calling of caring for autistic sons.

It's easy and sweet to imagine a mother and an affectionate, responsive three-year old. It's a far more complicated picture to watch a mother dealing with a son with severe autism. The least we can do is provide the assistance that money can buy. We can happily pay the taxes necessary to provide a reliable, life-long home for broken children and their beautiful mothers.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When Every Creature Sings

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, October 10, 2015

At the beginning of the second vision in the Book of Revelation we hear the trumpet voice again, the same voice that summoned the prophet John at the beginning of his first vision. Penetrating. Commanding.
"Come up here, and I will show you what must happen after this."

Instantly, John was whisked away from earth to heaven. He saw a throne and someone sitting on it, a dazzling, radiant personage.

Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones. On those thrones John sees twenty-four people seated—elders, John calls them. I imagine them as old men with long white beards. They were dressed in white and wore gold crowns.

As the camera holds the scene for a few seconds, we see flashes of lighting. We feel the ground shake under our feet with thunder. Nebraska thunder, not Seattle thunder. The kind of thunder that shakes the house, the kind of thunder that when it happens if you're with someone else you both look at each other with wide eyes and go, “Whoa!”

You might imagine the grand throne—God's throne—in the center of the circle of thrones and the twenty-four thrones of the elders are some kind of Van de Graaff generator with massive arcs of electricity sparking here and there.

Out in front of the throne we see seven blazing torches which John tells us are the seven Spirits of God. The fiery light of those torches plays across a vast, shiny pavement. A sea of glass reflecting the lightning arcs and the Grand Central Throne and the twenty-four surrounding thrones and the flaming torches.

Everything is brilliance and illumination. It's like 11 a.m. on the snow field below Camp Muir under a cloudless sky after several inches of fresh snow.

But then our eyes are drawn to movement in the space between the twenty-four thrones and the Grand Central Throne.

The thrones we understand. We know thrones. The elders we understand. We've seen old men with long white beards before—in movies if not in real life. The being on the Grand Central Throne is beyond words, beyond comprehension. But we expect that of God. But our powers of description are severely challenged by what we see in that inner circle between the twenty-four thrones and the Grand Central Throne.

Four creatures, as some translations put it. Or four living beings. It's obvious they are alive, but what to call them? I like the old King James language—beasts. They are four beasts, improbable beasts. The first thought that comes to me is the bar scene in one of the Star Wars movies. Luke meets a cowboy. The two of them are “normal.” But the other critters? They stretch the imagination beyond its natural limits.

It's the same here in Revelation. One of these improbable beasts makes us think of a lion. Another suggests an ox, another an eagle and one is almost human. But each of them has six wings. And they are all covered all over with eyes.

John writes that all day long and all night long they are caught up in an ecstasy of praise.

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty--the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come."

This used to bother me a lot. I imagined the sound track of heaven being Gregorian chant or a Palestrina mass, the music cool, cerebral, and after awhile monotonous and boring. Was heaven really a place with only subdued, carefully channeled emotion? Where no one shouted Hallelujah, but only sang carefully modulated alleluias?

I heard the “Holy, holy, holy” as a drone. Like a bagpipe drone note without any of the fire and flights of the other pipes.

I think I missed the picture. Remember the setting of this worship. Remember the flashing arcs of lightning, heaven's own electric show. Remember the ground shaking thunder. Remember the blazing, brilliant light.

The reason these four improbable beasts seize our attention is the intensity and fire of their worship. Their music is not a drone, not the restrained and elegant tones of Medieval chant. Their holy, holy, holy is the leaping, dancing ecstasy of a rave. They are enthralled with the being on the Grand Central Throne. The charm and glory of God is so intense, so immediately present to them, they cannot help themselves. They have no interest in restraining themselves. They are blissfully lost in heavenly ecstasy.

Their worship is contagious. When they launch into one of their holy, holy, holies, the elders, the old men with long white beards sitting sedately on their thrones catch the spirit. They leap from their thrones and throw themselves on their faces on the floor.

They pull their crowns from their heads and lay them on the floor in front on them. Their version of the Holy, Holy, Holy song goes like this:

"You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased."

This is a grand climax. This is what heaven is all about—a place of eternal ecstasy and jubilation, a concert hall of eternal bliss and happiness.

But while the elders are still on their faces, while the four improbable beings are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the visionary camera zooms in on the personage on the Grand Central Throne. We don't see God's face. In fact, in this scene we don't see God at all. We see a a scroll, a book of secrets. God is holding a scroll in his hand. All we see is the scroll. It is sealed with seven mysterious seals.

As we are puzzling over the scroll—it's shape, it's color, the curious seals, its significance—we hear a foreboding voice. “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” We glance away from the book to see who's talking. It is an angel, but not just any angel, not an ordinary angel. The ancient text calls this being a “strong angel.”

Who is worthy? The camera pans around. Through the lens of the visionary camera, we are looking for someone who is worthy. The camera catches the improbable beasts. We study them. It's hard to know where to look because they have eyes everywhere. Where is their face? Surely, one of them will be worthy to open the book. They are, after all, the very inner circle of heaven. They live immediately next to the throne of God. But even though the eyes make it confusing to know just where to look to “look them in the eye,” their body language is clear. They are themselves turning about. Their bodies say they, too, are looking for the “someone worthy.” Who is worthy? Who?

Next we study the elders. The camera moves from face to face, each of the elders in turn. Surely one of these august ancient elders will be worthy to open the book. But they, too, are looking around, at each other, at the improbable beasts, at the vast throng of creatures in the background of the vision. Unlike the improbable beasts, the elders are people. We know how to read people. Looking at their faces, the tension grows. We can see it in their faces.

A terrifying silence envelopes the place. Heaven comes to a stand still. The flashes of lightning and the shaking thunder stop. All the praising and alleluias go silent. The bowing and prostrating stop. No one is doing anything but looking, waiting.

Waiting. That's got to be the hardest thing in the world to do. Wait. Especially when the wait is indefinite, indeterminate. Wait—for how long? No one knows. Wait—for what? No one is exactly sure of that either.

Who is worthy? The Strong Angel's voice booms again like a gigantic cosmic gong. Boom. . . . Who is worthy. Pause. Boom. . . . Who is worthy? The prophet dissolves in tears.

Heaven is not a happy place.

This is perhaps the most important truth revealed in Revelation. Heaven is not a happy place. Not all the time. Not now. Maybe yesterday. Maybe tomorrow. But not today. Not here at this point in the vision. The tension in the heavenly court is so sharp, the prophet breaks into sobs.

What happened to the ecstasy at the beginning of the vision?

The praising and alleluias, the holy, holy, holies that open the vision are rooted in the magnificence of creation. Note the words of the elders' song:

"You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased."

They have seen Mt. Rainier on a golden October day above maples turning colors in the woods on the Enumclaw plateau. They have stood on the west shore of Lake Union and seen a huge autumn moon rise above St. Marks. They have watched a two year old smile with delight and seen the entire universe justified in the happiness on that face and the happiness created in their heart by seeing that face. These elders have witnessed the enchanting glory of creation and praise God for its beauty.

That is true and right.

But only part of reality.

There is the scroll, the story. And the story raises questions that are so sharp, so cutting and urgent, that heaven itself goes silent staring them in the face.

The story—the history of humanity—has moments of wonder and triumph. And moments of horror and injustice. The story in the book includes tales of children drowning in the Rio Grande and in the Mediterranean, their parents driven by such misery at home that risking death is better than staying put.

The story includes war and famine, sex trafficking and mental illness. The story details failed relationships, husbands and wives who betray each other, mothers and daughters estranged. In the scroll in God's hand there are accounts of dishonesty and cruelty, disappointment and failure.

Who is worthy to open the scroll? Who is worthy to even look at the stories written in its pages?

All of heaven knows that eternal happiness is impossible until those stories are set right. But who could possibly do it? Who is worthy?

Finally, one of the elders comes up next to the prophet and whispers in his ear. “Don't cry. Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David's throne—he has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals."

The tension eases—at least in the prophet's body. He is able to re-enter the vision. He can keep watching. He looks to see this Lion the elder has told him about. To his astonishment, when he finally locates the Lion, it's not a Lion at all. It looks like a lamb that had been slaughtered and been resurrected.

The Lamb was standing at the very center. The “personage on the Grand Central Throne” has somehow been replaced by the Lamb who now is more central in heaven than God—which of course is not possible, but since this is a dream, it's okay. The Lamb is standing at the very center, at the center of the circle formed by the twenty-four elders. Inside the inner circle formed by the four improbable beasts. At the very center of the Grand Throne itself.

The Lamb is also an improbable beast. He has seven horns and seven eyes, which again the prophet identifies as the seven spirits of God which range the whole earth.

The Lamb steps forward and takes the scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. Once the book is in the possession of the Lamb, heaven breaks loose again.

The lightning flashes and thunder rolls again.
The four improbable beasts and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. They hold harps and golden bowls. The harps are for praise. The bowls represent the hunger of God's people—their petitions, their pleas to God to act in justice and bring about the triumph of righteousness.

The song changes. Instead of praise for the glory of God as creator. They sing the praises of the Lamb who will set right the stories of history. They sing of Lamb and his engagement with humanity.

"You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on the earth."

The vision morphs, as only happens in dreams, and the twenty-four elders and four improbable beasts morph into a choir of billions and zillions—every creature throughout the entire cosmos is gathered around the throne in heaven, around the Lamb who is standing at the center of the throne in heaven.

The choir sings:

"Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered--to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing."
"Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever."

And the four improbable beasts living beings declare, "Amen!"
And the twenty-four elders throw themselves again on their faces and worship the Lamb.

I am tempted to “explain” this vision. But will resist the temptation. I simply invite us to kindle our faith that the Lamb will finally open the book. The Lamb will fix the world and the universe. And we will join with every other creature in shouting Hallelujah.

May it be so. Soon.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Why Is Jesus Mad?

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, October 3, 2015

I am still haunted today by a mental picture from decades ago. I was reading an article by a photographer about how he got into full-time photography. He liked taking pictures of birds. He finally screwed up his courage and sent a collection of his best pictures to National Geographic. To his astonishment, in response, an editor at the magazine invited him to come to the National Geographic office and told him to bring his photographic equipment. Flattered, he showed up at the man's office and spread out his equipment on the desk. He was proud of his camera and lenses. The editor looked over the equipment for a minute or two then swept his arm across his desk sweeping the camera body and lenses into the garbage can at the side of his desk.

The photographer stood there stunned, astonished, mortified.

Then the editor said, “We want your pictures in our magazine, but you cannot give us the quality we need with this equipment.” The editor then outfitted the photographer with seriously good equipment. The photographer who had been a doctor taking pictures as a hobby became a photographer, taking pictures for a living.

I still wince when I recall that mental picture of the editor's arm sweeping camera and lenses off his desk. It seemed so rude, so rash, so outrageous.

I have somewhat the same reaction when I read the words of today's scripture reading.

"I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!

“You make me sick. You are nauseating!”

These are not attractive words.

This is the last in a collection of seven messages to seven churches. In most of the other messages Jesus began with words of affirmation. “I know your works, your patience and endurance. You have remained true in spite of fierce opposition. You have resisted heresy and immorality. You have obeyed my word.”

Sure, like a good coach, Jesus went on to point out areas for improvement. Jesus urged the churches to repent—to reorient themselves, to point their lives again toward glorious, high ideals. But Jesus prefaced his scolding and directions for improvement with words of encouragement.

But this time, boom. Jesus tells John, write to the people in Laodicea, “I know everything you do and it makes me sick.”

What do we do with this?

I think the best way to interpret this expression of disgust by Jesus is to imagine him as an editor at National Geographic. We fancy ourselves to be photographers. We have just shown him our best pics. Then he asks to see our camera and we show him our I-phone 6.

“What? You want me to think of you as a photographer and you're taking pictures with that????? Get out of here. Go get a real camera. Learn to use it. Master a real camera and the capabilities of lightroom then come back and see me.”

You start to protest. “But take a look at my pictures. Can you give me some feedback on composition and lighting?”

He practically snarls at you. “Don't ask me to show respect for your work until you do. Get the equipment you think your photos deserve, then we'll talk.” And he stalks off.

I guess there are couple of natural responses to this kind of reaction from a skilled photo editor.

You could figure there's no point in trying and go home angry at the editor for dissing your phone and apparently ignoring your pictures. Or you could think, “Hey, he wouldn't have told me to go buy an expensive camera if he didn't think my pictures were worth it.”

Since these words in Revelation were spoken by Jesus and we have a pretty good idea what Jesus is like, it is entirely reasonable to interpret these words in light of the character of Jesus.

“Your laid back, casual approach to your religion is disgusting. It makes me sick.” Why? “Because I can see your potential. You could set the world on fire. You could be dazzling the world with a glorious demonstration of holiness and wisdom, of compassion and generosity. You could demonstrate the natural beauty of a life configured by the disciplines of holiness. You are wasting the gifts resident in you. In fact, you're wasting the air your breathing. You can do better. I know you can. I know you will.”

“You think you're rich, well-dressed and clear-sighted. You're poor, badly dressed, and blind. But it doesn't have to be so. Buy from me gold and cool clothes and ointment to treat your blindness. Then you will, indeed, be a demonstration of the kind of life that the whole world will admire and covet.”

Notice, these people were doing nothing wrong. Jesus doesn't accuse them of heresy or idolatry or immorality. They are simply boring. Lazy. Lacking ambition. But Jesus knows it doesn't have to be that way. Jesus sees their potential.

The next sentences of Jesus highlight the emotional content of his message. “I only scold people I love.” I don't waste my words on people I don't care about. I don't trash the cameras of people who do not have an eye for photography. You have the capacity to see and create beauty. I'm mad because you're wasting incredible potential.

Let's fix it. Okay?

“Look, I'm standing at the door and knocking. I want into your life.”

Some people imagine the Book of Revelation as the story of monsters and the wicked witch and grasshoppers with stingers and conflagrations sweeping the earth. But those things are mere backdrops to the story of the triumph of God and God's people.

When Jesus gets ticked off at his people, when they make him so frustrated he exclaims, “You make me sick to my stomach!” he is still dreaming of sharing dinner with them. He is dreaming of intimate friendship with them.

Then Jesus says, “To the one who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne even as I overcame and am sitting on my Father's throne.”

Just as I did it, so you will do it. And just as I have been exalted to the right of God in heaven so you will be exalted to the right hand of God in heaven. That is how much potential you have. That is what I am training you for.

The intensity of Jesus disgust at the mediocrity of Laodicean people is a measure of their potential and his confidence that he can coach them to the highest imaginable greatness—sharing the reign of God through all eternity.

Jesus stands and knocks.

If you have opened the door, know that you have made Jesus happy. He takes great delight in your company. If you are wishing for a spiritual life that grips your heart and stirs your life, know that is available. If Jesus is sweeping away your present complacency, know that he does so because he sees your gifts and he is prepared to coach you to spiritual greatness.

When we grant Jesus access to our inner beings, we are preparing for our role as heavenly sovereigns. We are preparing for our grand destiny—sharing the throne with God.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Revisioning Prophecy

An article for the Green Lake Church Gazette for October, 2015.

The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States occasioned a flurry of Adventist commentary. Some saw the visit as evidence of the looming end of time. A representative example of this thinking was published on the web site, Advendicate. This article gave particular attention to the pope's statement about climate change. Since President Obama and other world leaders also think climate change is a serious issue this is supposed to prove the pope is now wielding increased global power. The article also quoted a number of statements by the pope advocating Sunday-keeping. These were cited as evidence that the United States is moving toward the enactment of a National Sunday Law. The article can be readily summarized in these sentences:

Prophecy is being fulfilled. Pope Francis represents the first beast of Revelation 13:1, whereas President Obama represents the second beast (13:11). Revelation 13:11-17 informs us that in the closing moments of time, the second beast (USA) will promote the first beast (the Papacy), and finally enforce its “mark.”

Other Adventist commentary has discussed the mass mailing of 170,000 copies of The Great Controversy by Ellen White to addresses in the Philadelphia area. Some argued Adventists should similarly blanket every city in the United States with the book. Others express embarrassment because the book is very blunt in its telling of the documented abuses by the Catholic Church in the past and its assertion that the Catholic Church will again act as a persecuting power. Many of these Adventists who are embarrassed by the book nevertheless believe Last Day Events will play out just as the book describes—a union of Protestants and the papacy will foist a National Sunday Law on America that will ultimately impose the death penalty on anyone who opposes this Sunday law. But they think we should keep this belief secret.

I largely ignored the hubbub until a student asked me about a sermon preached at Andrews University detailing “The Pope's Agenda for America.” The sermon talked about the “leopard beast” of Revelation. What did I think? Here is my response to all the commotion:

Adventist concern about the pope flows from the End Time Scenario found in chapters 35-39 of The Great Controversy which I mentioned above. The scenario outlined in The Great Controversy is in turn rooted in the interpretation of Revelation 12-13 worked out by the Reformers, especially Martin Luther. Most Adventists believe that questioning any detail of the prophecy in The Great Controversy is tantamount to rejecting the prophetic gift of Ellen White.

The specific predictions in the book assume that Protestant churches will have irresistible influence in American political life and that those churches will partner with the Roman Catholic Church in persuading the American government to enact a National Sunday Law. Ellen White believed all these events would happen within her life time. (She died in 1915.) Given the steady decline in church attendance and church influence in American life and the passage of a hundred years of American history that Ellen White did not envision, some Adventist theologians are questioning whether the scenario mapped out in The Great Controversy will ever happen. Perhaps, the enduring relevance of the prophecies in these chapters will come from the principles of spiritual life and theology elucidated through the narrative. These principles are relevant in every historical setting, in every political environment, in every religious conflict. These principles continue to offer godly wisdom even as the world described by Ellen White morphs beyond recognition.

Curiously, one of the Bible prophets, Ezekiel, also wrote a detailed End Time Scenario. Just like Ellen White in The Great Controversy, Ezekiel names the enemies of God's people, talks about the work of the Holy Spirit to purify God's people, and outlines the stratagems of the wicked. The grand climax of his prophecy is an overwhelming, supernatural intervention by God. God blasts the armies of the wicked and establishes his people in safety and righteousness forever. The final chapters of Ezekiel provide dizzying detail of the architecture of the new temple—storage rooms and worship areas. The prophet details the clothing and scheduling of the priests. He writes about the specific liturgical practices. There is even a description of land distribution for the priests and the tribes.
But none of it never happened.

What are we to do with this? The New Testament, especially the book of Revelation, reinterprets the vision of Ezekiel. In the book of Revelation, Ezekiel's earthly Jerusalem constructed of stone in Palestine becomes the New Jerusalem which will descend from heaven. The chief enemy of God's people in Ezekiel—a local figure, “Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal”--becomes in Revelation “Gog and Magog, the nations in the four corners of the earth.” Ezekiel writes about a river that flows from the stone temple in the earthly Jerusalem. In Revelation, the river that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Ezekiel writes about a fusion of the Nation of Judah and the Ten Lost Tribes which had become extinct as distinct people groups two hundred years before Ezekiel's day. In Revelation this fusion is echoed in the vision of the 144,000–12,000 from every tribe (including the Lost Tribes)--which then morphs into the international multitude so immense it cannot be counted. Every detail of Ezekiel's vision is reinterpreted. No detail is fulfilled in a literal, historical sense. It turns out that it is the spiritual heart of the vision that matters.

The truth in Ezekiel that the New Testament reaffirms is the rich promise that God will finally turn the world. He will supernaturally give us new hearts that are reliably pure and holy. He will vanquish the enemies of God's people. He will save all his people—including the lost Ten Tribes, that is the people who are utterly invisible to any human system of accounting. God will visit the Valley of Dry Bones and recreate a living people. The “take away” message of Ezekiel is God wins. Righteousness wins. God carries his people to victory. The details of Gog, the architecture of the temple, the assignments of the priests and the liturgical practices of the temple prove to be unnecessary for the accomplishment of God's purposes. And so, we let them go.

Similarly with The Great Controversy. There are eternal principles in chapters 35-39. Note these quotations:

God never forces the will or the conscience; but Satan's constant resort--to gain control of those whom he cannot otherwise seduce--is compulsion by cruelty. Through fear or force he endeavors to rule the conscience and to secure homage to himself. GC 591

A religion of externals is attractive to the unrenewed heart. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic worship has a seductive, bewitching power, by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of heaven. GC 567 (To state the obvious: “pomp and ceremony” are not copyrighted by the Roman Catholic Church. They are not even copyrighted by religion.)

It is Satan's constant effort to misrepresent the character of God, the nature of sin, and the real issues at stake in the great controversy. His sophistry lessens the obligation of the divine law and gives men license to sin. At the same time he causes them to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love. The cruelty inherent in his own character is attributed to the Creator; it is embodied in systems of religion and expressed in modes of worship. GC 569

These quotations articulate principles that are relevant in every era and in every political situation. To evaluate the continued applicability of Ellen White's prophecy, it's helpful to understand her historical setting. The doctrine of papal infallibility was voted at the First Vatican Council while she was at work on the book. America was in turmoil over the mass immigration to the U. S. of people from Ireland and Italy and other Catholic countries. Protestants were afraid that through these immigrants the Catholic Church would acquire in America the kind of political clout it had exercised for centuries in Europe. Given the power of Protestant churches in America and the potential power of the Catholic Church, Ellen White's caution about the dangers of a union of churches was entirely reasonable. If the Protestant churches had united with the papacy in support of an agenda for the nation, the agenda would have passed. At the time she was writing, there was legislation being pushed in Congress for a National Sunday Law. If the end had come at that time, Ellen White's scenario would have played out.

But the end did not come. The nation changed. Churches changed. Atheism has become a far greater challenge to our faith than any conceivable challenge from other Christian groups. In today's America, if the leaders of Protestant churches issued a proclamation, would it make any difference? If the pope issued an encyclical, would Americans obey?

There are contemporary threats to the integrity and authenticity of Christianity. But the pope and the errors of Catholic theology are hardly leading candidates for the greatest threats to faith. It's time for us to let go of the details of Ellen White's prophecy and give attention instead to the principles—a true understanding of the character of God, a radical commitment to religious liberty, a deep recognition of the seductive potential of pomp and ceremony, status and stardom. These principles are relevant always.

The final sentence of Ezekiel is this: “And the name of the city from then on will be: The Lord is there.” The final sentence of The Great Controversy is, “From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”

In both cases, the grand final vision transcends every imaginable outcome that could be reached through natural historical process. You can't get there from here—except by a magnificent singularity, a grand divine interruption. The ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy is possible only through the direct, miraculous creative work of God. And he will do it. It is this conviction that turns up in every vision and in every reinterpretation of the vision. What the American Congress votes or the pope says is not ultimately determinative of the course of history or the fulfillment of God's dream.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Castle or Cathedral?

If we imagine religion as a castle we build against the schemes of the evil one, we will make the walls thicker and higher and the windows and doors smaller until we live in an impregnable darkness. On the other hand, if we imagine religion as a cathedral we build for welcoming and exhibiting the glory of God, we will use stone only where necessary for the support and frame of the windows. Our spiritual home will be suffused with ineffable light.

I am reminded of the first model of religion--castle or fortress against evil or evil ones or the Evil One--when I listen to my friends who are into conspiracy theories. Doom is always just around the corner. Threats are everywhere. Beware of deception. Even when they are happy people otherwise, their religion seems to feed their darkness. For them the Devil is the successful one. God is the beleaguered, outfoxed one.

I dissent from that view. I think we would do better to imagine the role of religion as celebrating, refracting and reflecting the heavenly glory. Our lives are full of light. The world is also suffused with light. God wins.

I recognize the presence of evil. There are terrible things going on in the world. Thus it has always been. I am not making light of the horrific suffering being endured right now by millions of people. Still, even thought evil does show itself in the world, our job as a church is to turn our attention away from the darkness of evil and revel in the light.

The more we do this, the more effective we will be in fulfilling our divine calling to be lights of the world.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Laying on of Hands

No More a Stranger or a Guest, But Like a Child at Home
--Isaac Watts

When I arrived at Aurora Commons, Cory was already there. Standing in the kitchen, tending something on the stove. He would be hard to miss, six feet five and wide through the shoulders. Just standing there, he was a presence.

I watched him as he walked around. He walked with a limp, his right foot dragging slightly. Never once was I able to make eye contact. He didn't look angry, but his face was tough, uninviting and unresponsive. He minded his own business and expected you to stay out of it. At least that's how I read it.

He spent a fair amount of time in the back hall, right by the back door, talking on his cell phone. Later, maybe an hour later, I realized there was a woman on the couch in the back hall. A woman I recognized. Annette was a regular. She was out it, struggling to lift her feet when I came by with the push broom. At first I took it for tiredness and sleepiness, then it dawned on me. She was high. On something.

It took a little longer for me to realize she and Cory were together, a couple. “What are we going to do, Cory?” I heard her ask in a little girl voice. “Where are we going to go?” He grunted something in reply. I never understood anything he said. I realized his standing in the back hall to talk on his phone was to be near her.

Later, as I was coming back to get the mop, I heard her ask again, “Where are we going to go?” There was a tired worry in her voice. She didn't have the strength to do more than ask. But neither could help asking.

This time Cory didn't say anything. He continued his conversation into the phone in his right hand. He put his left hand on her head. As I watched his big hand descend I could see the gentleness in it. And in that moment as his hand gently held her head, Annette relaxed. I could see her body let go of some of the worry. Everything was going to be all right. Cory was her man. Cory was going to take care of it.

It was beautiful. I've played the scene over in my mind repeatedly. I hear her plaintive question. I see her struggling to be awake above the fog of the drugs. And I see that hand, that great big hand, settle affectionately on her head and soothe and quiet her.

Beautiful. It was very good.