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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Dating the Advent (or Not!)

This was published originally in the Green Lake Church Gazette, Apirl, 2013

In the summer of 1994 I spent a week preaching at a Midwestern campmeeting. Halfway through the week, a genial couple invited me to lunch. Food out of the way, we got down to the real reason for their invitation: they wanted to share with me the good news that Jesus would return before the end of the year.

A couple of years previously, they had moved out of the city and purchased an ostrich farm where they could protect their children from the chaos that would engulf America's cities as we entered the final months of earth's history. They were enjoying the quietness and serenity of country life and the extra time with their children. But the conversation did not focus on the benefits of country living. We talked about the good news that within a matter of months Jesus would be here! They showed me charts of jubilee cycles. I heard complicated mathematical calculations. But most of all I sensed their excitement that Jesus was coming . . . and soon!

My hosts were gracious and courteous. They didn't demand that I agree. But they just
had to share the good news with me. Jesus was coming. Without setting a precise day, they
were absolutely convinced by the signs and chronological charts that Jesus was coming before
the end of the year.

They won my heart. I liked them. I was drawn to their obvious sincerity and sweet Christian spirit. But there were a couple of problems with what they had to say. First, they were Adventists, and Adventists should know better. Our history teaches us the folly of focusing on even approximate schedules for the Second Coming. Second, they were ignoring the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25.

Adventist History

Date setting is our blood as a denomination. Our most famous date for the Second Coming was 1844.  Oops. Groups of Adventists have predicted the Second Coming 1847, 1851, 1964, 1994, 1998, and 2000. Most of us are coy about our date setting now. We are like Billy Graham, who was asked by reporter in the early nineteen sixties, “When will Jesus return?” Graham's reply some forty years ago, “We can't know the exact date, but I don't see how it can be more than five years from now.”

I’ve known people who actually lived out their belief that the end of time was very soon, people who decided not to pursue advanced education because time was too short for them to be able to complete their degree, people who married precipitously because they wanted to experience conjugal bliss before the possibility was snatched away by the second coming, people who failed to plan and save for retirement. In every case these Adventists lived to regret their decisions.

Once, I asked Marvin Moore, an Adventist expert on the end times, “What decision have you made in the last five years that was guided by your knowledge of end time events?” His reply, “None.” Moore has written books about end time events, but those books offer no help for his real life. They are pure theory.

If the dates we set are always wrong, if acting on the belief that time is short leads to regrettable decisions, if the experts on end time events can offer nothing helpful for our actual lives today, maybe it's time to take another look at the passage in the Bible that is most frequently cited in support of the idea that we can know the approximate time of the Advent.

Signs of the Times, Matthew 24 and 25

Adventist preoccupation with “signs of the end” is frequently based on a few verses in Matthew 24. This chapter and chapter 25 are an integrated literary unit. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus and the Twelve were leaving the temple in Jerusalem. The disciples called Jesus' attention to the exquisite artistry and massive solidity of the temple buildings. Jesus responded, "Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." The disciples were startled. How could God's temple be destroyed? Surely the destruction of the temple could be accomplished by nothing less than the end of the world.
A little later, when they were sitting on the Mount of Olives across the valley from Jerusalem, the disciples asked about Jesus' prediction. They had one concern: when is it going to happen? They wanted a chronology. Jesus began answering their question:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . . (Matthew 24:4-6).

Given the disciples' question and these opening words, I half expect the next sentence
to say something like: “These events prove my return is just around the corner. Sell your houses, cash in your stocks and bonds. Give everything you have for the work of spreading the gospel before it is too late!”

But what in fact did Jesus actually say?
. . . You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is not yet (Matthew 24:4-6).

When we see civilization in turmoil and the environment disturbed we long for the Second Coming. The worse things seem around us, the more intense our desire for Jesus to come and make everything right. Often, it's a short step from our desire for the return of Jesus to being seduced by theories purporting to predict the schedule of the end of the world. Jesus described chaos, then cautioned, the end is not yet.

In Matthew 24, after describing trouble and evil and stating that these are not proof of the end, Jesus launches into a series of seven parables. The first parables teach us how to think about time with respect to the Advent. In the final two parables a concern for end time events or schedules are shown to be essentially irrelevant in spiritual life.

Parable one. In Noah's day, people were eating, drinking and getting married. Life went on as usual right up until the very day of the flood. Then catastrophe overtook the world. In the same way, in the last days life will go on as usual. Nothing will seem to be out of the ordinary until suddenly Jesus appears in the clouds of heaven.

Parables two and three. Two men will be in the field, working . . . as usual. Two women will be grinding grain . . . their everyday routine. Nothing out of the ordinary . . . until one is taken and the other left.
We don't have to guess what these parables mean; Jesus Himself tells us.

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. . . You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Matthew 24:42-44).

Parable four. A servant left in charge of an estate in his master's absence imagines the master will be gone forever and begins to mistreat his fellow servants, only to be surprised by the Master's unexpectedly early return. The message: Don't imagine the day of accountability is off in the misty future. It will arrive sooner than you think.

Parable five, “The Ten Virgins.” In a 180 degree shift from the previous parable, the fools in this story are those who imagine time is short. The foolish virgins are foolish precisely in their certainty that the bridegroom will return real soon. Just like people who failed to pursue their education or to plan for retirement because they knew for sure Jesus was coming soon, so these virgins came to grief because of their utter confidence that their wait would be brief.

In each of these parables, Jesus presents the same message: If you imagine that you know God's schedule you will find yourself embarrassed. Actual time will inevitably, inescapably, unavoidably, ineluctably, necessarily (have I used enough adverbs yet?) be different from your expectation. Theories about the schedule of the end always mislead. Always.

Parable six, “The Investors.” A master calls in three servants, announces he is leaving for an extended period of time and entrusts to each of them some money to manage while he is gone. You might think this is going to be another parable about time. But time plays no role in this story. The master leaves. The master returns. Nothing is mentioned about whether he returned sooner or later than expected. Instead when the servants are audited by the master, the crucial factor turns out to be what they thought of the master's character. The two servants who trusted the master, made bold and successful investments. The servant who did not trust the master, buried his money and was harshly condemned.

Parable seven, “The Sheep and Goats.” On judgment day, humanity is divided into two groups. The blessed group is commended for showing compassion to Jesus. The cursed group is condemned for neglecting Jesus. Both groups protest they never saw Jesus at all. Jesus replies: What you did for the nobodies, you did for me. Ultimately theories about the schedule of end time events will prove irrelevant. Even theology, our high-flown theories about God, recedes as the most important question. This section of Matthew begins with the disciples asking about the calendar: when is the temple going to be destroyed? When is the end of the world? Jesus answers by steering their minds to questions of character: what do you know of the character of God? What character is revealed in your response to human need? Get the answers to these questions wrong and even the most accurate end time schedule will do you no good. Get the answers to these questions about character right, and time is of no concern.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Divine Fairy Tale

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, September 5, 2015. THIS IS A REVISED VERSION OF WHAT I POSTED ON LAST FRIDAY.

Texts:  Isaiah 11:1-9 and Revelation 1:1-6

I was visiting with a woman at the Green Bean Coffee Shop on Thursday morning over on Greenwood Avenue. We were engaged in a heavy conversation about theology and spiritual life. She had gone back to school later in life and was now wrestling with the huge questions that arise when you bring together traditional Christian dogma and the complicated understanding of humanity that we learn about in the social sciences. How did she put all this together? We discussed exceptional Bible passages and non-normal humans.

At some point in our deep conversation I became aware of what was going on behind me. It was story time. A number of young parents were present with little kids and someone was reading or telling a story. A fairy tale. Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

For an instant I wanted to listen, but they were behind me and there was a real, live person right in front of me. Within seconds that entire universe of people and story behind me ceased to exist and I was back with Jean.

But even though I didn't hear the story, I know how it goes. And you know how it goes. Right?

Once upon a time there was a girl named Goldilocks.

She went exploring. She found a house. Inside the house there was a table with three bowls of porridge.

One bowl was too . . . hot

And one was too . . . cold.

And one was . . . just right.

Is this a true story?

Yes, of course it is. No, not because bears live in houses and sleep in beds and eat porridge for breakfast. But often in life there is a “just right.” Not too hot, not too cold. Not too soft, not too hard. There is a happy medium, a golden mean. And that's the best place to live.

We tell the story of Goldilocks because it's entertaining, AND because it tells the truth.

I have another favorite fairy tale: Cinderella. When I read the story—especially when the book I'm reading has just the right art work—I immediately hate the wicked mother and the evil sisters. I ache with the desperateness of Cinderella's plight. How can she ever escape? Then she goes to the ball and my hope leaps to life. This is going to work out all right after all. Goodness is alive in the world. But alas. She leaves the ball. She returns to her drudgery and torment. My heart sinks. Then I see the handsome prince searching. He has the shoe. Breathlessly, I read the words and turn the pages of the book, as eager as my kids are to have the prince bring the slipper and put it on Cinderella's foot. Finally, he's there. He's at the house. But, of course, the wicked mother makes a final effort to Cinderella from escaping. But her efforts fail.

The prince and Cinderella are married and live happily ever after.

Is this story true?

Yes, of course it is. It is true that faithfulness and diligence are supposed to produce sweet results. It's true that we dream of the triumph of right and goodness. And it is true that goodness will finally triumph. God has written that hope in our very bones and rewritten it in the promises of the Bible.

Today's sermon is the first in a series on the Book of Revelation. I call Revelation, “The Divine Fairy Tale.” Why do I call it a fairy tale?

First, it is true in the way that the best fairy tales are true. The Book is full of mayhem and heartbreak, Rampant evil and soul-stretching longing for justice. Then when you can hardly take any more, when the weight of darkness and evil has become insuperable, “happily ever after” happens. This world ends and a new world—paradise—takes its place.

Like a good fairy tale, Revelation does not teach us new information, it celebrates what we already know from reading the rest of the Bible: God wins. The Devil can rage. People can fail. But God wins. The darkness is vanquished by the light.

Let's go back to the Goldilocks story for a minute. we dream of the triumph of right and goodness. She went into the bears house and found three bowls on the table.

What is in the bowls? Porridge. What is porridge? Oatmeal? Cornmeal mush? Cream of Wheat? Rice? Hominy grits? Did it have raisins or blueberries in it? Brown sugar or honey? These questions would be fruitful only if you were the writer (or the story teller ad libbing to add color to the tale). Imagine the writer told us not only whether it was rice or corn or wheat and whether it was seasoned with sugar or honey, blueberries or raisins and how much salt was added. All that information would add color to the story. It would help us prolong the pleasurable experience of telling the story to our kids. But none of that information add even the slightest bit of insight into the meaning of the story.

It's something like that with Revelation. When people try to do conventional exegesis—that is Bible interpretation—on the book of Revelation, they often get lost in the fantastical details of the imagery. Just this past week one of my friends who is also a “friend” on Facebook was speculating about the wildfires in eastern Washington and elsewhere in the West. Maybe they are precursors of the “First Trumpet” of Revelation:

The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. One-third of the earth was set on fire, one-third of the trees were burned, and all the green grass was burned. (Revelation 8:7 NLT accessed through Blue Letter

Over the decades that I have followed such things people have suggested all sorts of interpretations of the fantastical imagery of Revelation. It's impossible to keep up with all the various scenarios people have worked out. They come and go. No specific interpretation stands the test of time.

Trying to tie the symbols of Revelation to specific items in the news is like asking whether the porridge was oatmeal or cornmeal, whether it was seasoned with blueberries or raisins. It leads ultimately to silliness.

The important facts lie on the surface. If you get sucked into trying to figure out some specific historical correlate to the locusts with stingers in their tails or an army of 144,000 celibate Jewish men you are likely to end up neutering or distorting the spiritual message of the book.

Revelation is a Grand Fairy Tale because it, 1) tells the truth we know deep in our souls and from major themes of the Bible. 2) its truths lie on the surface.

Revelation is true because it tells the truth about the human condition—the world is full of chaos and sometimes evil appears completely ascendant. And it is true because it speaks the same truth as the rest of the Bible: God will win. Love will win. Righteousness will have the last word.

If you want to “get” Revelation, forget going verse by verse or even chapter by chapter. Instead read the whole book in a single sitting. Even better get a nicely done audio version and listen to the book, the whole thing, uninterrupted. You will come away with the vital truth the book was written to reveal and you will avoid the rabbit trails and gopher holes that most “detailed exegesis” takes you down.

A few further elements that prompted my calling Revelation, “The Divine Fairy Tale.”

Revelation is a story of royalty. Fairy tales are not usually stories of peasants and poor folk except when it turns out that the people who appeared to be commoners were really nobility or when paupers become princes or chambermaids becomes queens. So in Revelation. The nobodies, those with no earthly status or power end up on the throne. There is a beautiful maiden, a scary dragon, a knight on a white horse. You read about secret words and mysterious numbers. And comes the grand climax: And they lived happily ever after.

So let's begin.

This letter is from John to the seven churches in the province of Asia. Grace and peace to you from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come; from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne; and from Jesus Christ. He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world. All glory to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by shedding his blood for us. 6 He has made us a Kingdom of priests (or as the KJV puts it: He has made us Kings and Priests) for God his Father. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 1:4-6 NLT)

Grace and peace from God. John should have put the words, “spoiler alert,” before this phrase. There will be all sorts of drama through this book. There will be agonizing suspense. But already, right here at the beginning John tells us where he is going. He tells us the controlling will which stands behind the story: Grace and peace. God's kindly regard for humanity. God's intention to finally accomplish the dream first pictured in the Garden of Eden: a blessed state of well-being and tranquility. Don't fret over much as you follow the twists of plot. This is where it is headed: Grace and peace.

Grace and peace from God the Father
Grace and peace from Jesus Christ who loved us so much he would rather die than live without us.
Grace and peace from the Holy Spirit—from the Sevenfold Spirit or (KJV) the Seven Spirits.

Another note right here at the beginning. John announces that God has made us a kingdom of priests or kings and priests. As I mentioned earlier, fairy tales feature ordinary people only when in the course of the story we discover they are actually quite extraordinary. Commoners in fairy tales become nobility or royalty. John doesn't even make us wait to find this out. The heroes in this story may appear to be ordinary commoners, but they are, in fact, royalty. Royal priests. Holy kings.

Five times in the Book of Revelation John pictures the people of God ON the throne with God. Not on their faces before the throne, not quaking in fear as the one on the throne gazes at them with piercing eyes. Five times, John describes the people of God sitting on the throne with God. They reign with God. They judge with God. God is with them and they are with God.

Hallelujah! This is the grand climax of the story. This is the shape of the “happily ever after” of this divine fairy tale.

If you find yourself arguing about the precise characteristics of the monsters in Revelation 12 and 13, remember the monsters are just porridge. If someone tries to get you to subscribe to their particular historical or endtime application of the trumpets, again, remember it's porridge. Don't get lost in arcane arguments about details of the story. Instead let your heart be lifted and strengthened by the best fairy tale ever told. The story that is so bright with hope and promise that all the other “happily ever afters” are mere candles lost in the dazzling luminance of the sun.

And best of all, this fairy tale, this happily ever, this eloquent prophecy is true.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Charge

The Charge

For the ordination service of Ron Sidney at Kirkland Adventist Church
Sabbath, August 29, 2015

When our Master moved from the obscurity of his faithful service in the carpenter shop toward public ministry, God sent him first to the Baptizer. There at the Jordan River, Jesus the Sinless One dramatically declared his union with the people of God. By accepting baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus joined with his sinful people with reservation or qualification. He declared himself to be one of us.

Among Adventist clergy, ordination makes a similar statement. We who are ordained ask you to join the likes of us—men with checkered histories, men who are a mishmash of greatness and pedestrian weaknesses. We invite you to become one of “the brethren.”

(Side note to the congregation: And I pray and am working toward the day when this clergy fellowship includes sisters as well as brothers.)

When you accept ordination, like Jesus at his baptism, you, too, are making a public declaration of your place in this people of God. You are joining people like us—people whose intentions are greater than our accomplishments, people who sometimes descend into smallness, people who sometimes confuse our desires with the will of God. You are joining us in all that makes up our identity. You are especially joining us in our hope and mission.

As an ordained minister, you will carry within you and on you the people of God. And just as God announced at Jordan, “You are my beloved son.” So God says to you today in recognition of your willingness to join with us in service, “You are my beloved son. With you I am very pleased.”

My first charge to you this afternoon is this: Keep these words with you. Your Father in heaven is very pleased with you. He is pleased you have yielded to his call. He is pleased you are his servant. God has great plans for you, but first, before plans and achievements and success is this word from the Father's heart: You are my beloved son. I am very pleased with you.

Keep these words always in your heart, so that they may keep you.

Jesus went straight from his baptism to the sternest imaginable graduate school—the desert of temptation. After graduating from there, he headed into Galilee and began his public ministry. Everywhere Jesus went people were dazzled and charmed. Here's Matthew's prose description of these early days of Jesus' ministry:

Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 24 News about him spread as far as Syria, and people soon began bringing to him all who were sick. And whatever their sickness or disease, or if they were demon possessed or epileptic or paralyzed--he healed them all. Matthew 4:23-25.

Matthew invoked the poetic words of the ancient prophet:

In the land of Zebulun and of Naphtali,
the land beside the sea, beyond the Jordan River,
in Galilee home of the Gentiles,
in that place live,
the people sitting darkness saw a great light.
On those huddled in the land of death's dark shadow,
the light has dawned.
Matthew 4:15-17

This was the ministry of Jesus. It is our ministry, your ministry. May your words, your work, your life always be light for the people God commits into your care.

Which brings me to my second charge: Cultivate the light. Spend time every day gazing at the glorious face of God. Become radiant through basking in God's radiance.

You will encounter darkness. It is the nature of life in this world.

There will be mornings when the night before included getting home from a late meeting at 11:00, then caring for your sick wife until midnight, then being roused from bed at 3 a.m. to clean the vomit up from the shag carpet in the hall way outside your bathroom because your five-year-old wasn't able to make it to the bathroom before the explosion happened. There will be mornings when you don't take time for prayer and contemplation of the divine loveliness.

It may happen that heaviness in your own soul will be so great that you go for days or weeks or maybe even months without communion with God. You will carry the weight of your people. The trouble of the world will haunt you, sometimes even threaten to crush you.

My charge to you is this: go back to the light. Every morning seek God's face. And when you realize it has been awhile, don't waste time scolding yourself, just return. Go back. Sit in God's presence and bask in his smile, rehearse his promise: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”

Spend time in the smile of God. Hear his reassurance, you are his beloved son. Saturate your soul in the light of heaven, then return to your calling to an agent of light. Shine the light on those who sit darkness.

In Matthew 13, said to his inner circle, the twelve disciples:

Every scribe who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Matthew 13:52

In your study and contemplation, be sure to mine the rich heritage of Christian theology stretching back across two thousand years. Devote attention to the distinctive treasures of theology and spiritual practice God has brought to light here among Seventh-day Adventists.

Teach your people the glorious vision of the character of God. Teach them, show them, that divine love is the very first word of creation theology and that when God has finished his work and evil and pain have vanished, the same word of divine love will be the last word, the greatest word. Let nothing obscure this most important—and even most distinctive treasure of Adventist theology.

Paint a vivid picture of God's law as the essential, natural principles of life throughout the universe. Give your people confidence that God requires nothing of humans that is not already integral to the divine character and expressed in divine action. Help them understand the necessity and sweetness of ordering their lives after the divine pattern.

Teach your people to keep Sabbath and enjoy it. Lead them in tasting divine grace and favor in the Lord's Supper. Teach them to pray and study and serve.

Be a good scribe. Work with the ancient treasures and make them understandable and attractive. Discover new gifts, new truths, and new ways of voicing our faith.

Preach hope. Jesus is coming again—Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Redeemer, Jesus the One who would rather die than live without us. Assure your people we have not been abandoned. Jesus will return. Goodness and love will triumph. And we with them.

One final picture I would leave with you.

When it was time for Jesus to finish his work, when he wished to make a grand, final, emphatic declaration to the people of God in Jerusalem, he sent his disciples to go and find a donkey. Jesus mounted the donkey and rode into the Holy City surrounded by hosannas and hallelujahs.

It was Jesus the crowds sang. It was the donkey who carried him.

It is still the same. The disciples today—needed another donkey to join us in carrying the Christ in triumphant procession toward the Holy City. We looked around and found you. Today, in this ordination service we are consecrating you, a mere donkey, to the weighty and glorious task of bearing Christ.

Our people accord us great honor. They trust us to hear their stories and teach their children. They invite us to pray with them in their darkest places and to rejoice with them in the happiest times. The respect and confidence of our people is one of the most precious experiences in ministry.

When things go well and you are surrounded by the appreciation and affirmation of your people, when your heart is full of your awareness of the divine call, remember the parade is about the rider and not the donkey.

And if dark times come and you question whether there is any value, any importance, in your calling, remember that Jesus cannot ride without a donkey. He needs you. There is some piece of God's work that only you can do. March on.

Be faithful to the one who has called you.

Carry the Christ and his message.