Friday, July 12, 2013
A Thousand Years of Answers
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, July 13, 2013
Texts: Revelation 20, Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30
Robert Taylor grew up in South Africa in the days of apartheid. As a teenager, he got involved in anti-apartheid activism and fled the country to avoid compulsory military service under the apartheid regime. That early struggle for justice became a pattern for his life. He became a priest. From 1999 to 2008 he served as Dean of St. Marks Cathedral here is Seattle where he often made news with his bold, outspoken style.
Given Taylor's reputation as a bold, even brash, defender of the underdog and critic of established authorities who failed to meet his standards, I was keenly interested in one of his remarks in a radio interview I heard with him a few weeks ago.
Steve Scherr, the host of Weekday, was talking with Taylor about Nelson Mandella. They talked about the years Mandella spent in South African prisons—27 years, most of it in isolation from other prisoners.
At one point Sherr talked about the loss of opportunity. What might Mandella have been able to do for South Africa and the world if the evil apartheid government hadn't locked him away for almost three decades?
It was a good question. Over the last fifteen years Nelson Mandella has earned respect the world over for his wisdom, maturity, restraint. Surely his years in prison were an abject waste of human potential. Taylor himself had felt the evil wrath of the government that had incarcerated Mandella.
So what did Taylor say to Scherr's hypothetical question? What had the world lost because of those 27 years in prison.
Taylor agreed that that Mandella's imprisonment was the act of an evil, repressive regime. And yes, Mandellas accomplishments in his later years deserved all the praise and awards that he had been accorded. “But . . .” and here Taylor hesitated. These were not going to be easy words. . . “We have to keep in mind that when Mandella went to prison he was an angry revolutionary seduced into violence to overthrow the evil power of apartheid. If he had not gone to prison, who knows where his commitment to violence might have taken him. The Nelson Mandella who went to prison was not the same man who thirty years later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Somewhere in those prison years the violent warrior became a peacemaker. Maybe incarceration was the only path to the wisdom and greatness Mandella demonstrated in his later years.” [This is a construction from my memory, not an actual verbatim.]
It was a sweet story, for my tastes the very best kind of story: Human suffering is dignified by a noble, glorious outcome. It is a model of one of the grand central claims of Christianity: God is working in all things to accomplish goodness. Ultimate, final, triumphant goodness. Even in the darkest suffering, in the greatest tragedies, in the most bizarre catastrophes there is operating a benevolent intention that will finally show itself. God is in control. God makes no mistakes.
So, of course, Nelson Mandella's 27 years in jail was the necessary preparation for his later work as a peacemaker and statesman. God didn't leave him in jail one day longer than was necessary.
Some people find this perspective comforting and reassuring. They do not fret in the face of evil because they are confident it is a mere prelude to the triumphant of goodness.
Others find this kind of thinking offensive. It disconnects from reality. It turns religion into an opiate in the worst sense—an addictive numbing against real pain, a self-induced passivity and inaction. God is going to fix things. Everything is going just as it should. There is nothing for us to do but pray.
It seems to deny the reality of injustice. It trivializes human suffering. For some people the claim that everything is going to turn out all right, that God is doing exactly the best that can be done, provokes questioning more than confidence.
Let me put the question as starkly as I can:
Classic Christian theology and devotional writing declares that the highest spiritual development is complete, unquestioning trust in God. A Bible passage that epitomizes this view is found in Romans 9:20. In response to a logical question about the justice of God, Paul writes:
Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?
Questioning God is seen as impudence. Logically applying principles of justice and equity to the actions or inaction of God is declared to be crass arrogance.
Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?
Christian theologians from Augustine to Calvin and Luther endorse this perspective. It is seconded by devotional writers like Oswald Chambers and Thomas a Kempis. It is celebrated in our hymns. A real Christian doesn't question. A real Christian trusts.
But what if your spiritual life is characterized more by questioning than by confidence? What if you can't bring yourself to this kind of sweet, unruffled confidence that everything is going just as it's supposed to? Is there any place for you in the kingdom of heaven?
Curiously, the next to last item in the Adventist creed addresses just this question. This article of our creed offers hope and “a place” to questioners. It's the Adventist teaching regarding “The Millennium.” The millennium is a thousand year period mentioned in Revelation 20. Adventist interpretation of this passage goes like this:
At the end of time, Jesus will come back to earth and dramatically interrupt the normal flow of human history. This is the Second Coming. Jesus will gather all his people—those who are alive at the time and all who have died over the millennia—and take them back to heaven with him. All humans not taken to heaven at this point will be dead. Back in heaven the people Jesus has gathered will spend a thousand years judging. Please note, these people are not themselves on trial. They are not being judged. They are the judges. For a thousand years.
At the end of the thousand years Jesus and all these people will return to earth. The damned, who have been in their graves during all this time, are resurrected and launch an attack on the Holy City. The attack fails when God blasts the attackers with fire.
Then God remakes the earth as an environmental and human paradise. And everyone lives happily ever after.
Notice several implications of this story from Revelation.
First, humans are not on trial in this story. They are judges. They are asking questions and rendering verdicts. They are NOT merely paying obeisance to the King of Heaven. Their judgment matters.
Of course, the presumption running all through the Book of Revelation is that God is perfectly just. John has no questions about the goodness of God. He is confident that every disaster, every plague is completely, totally justified by the highest standards of justice. That is the sweet, settled conviction of the author. But instead of insisting that we simply accept this statement as the last word, the indisputable conclusion, John writes that in the next world, in the realm of heavenly judgment, humans will not be forever suppliants of the heavenly court. Before the human story wraps up, humans will be on the throne. In John's telling, the story cannot be finished until humans are placed in a position where their judgment matters.
As long as human are standing on the floor of the heavenly court their hosannas are qualified by their inferior position. Perhaps they are merely kissing up to the Powerful One. Perhaps their praise of God is a sycophant's strategy. Say nice things to the boss.
What happens when they are in position to make real decisions? What happens when they have the authority to make independent judgments? How will God fare then?
In five different passages in the book of Revelation, John places God's people on the throne. (Revelation 2:26-28; 3:21; 5:10; 20:4-6; 22:5). God puts people in a position of power. He gives them a platform from which to pronounce significant verdicts. In the eyes of God, human opinion, human judgment matters. The highest development of human spirituality is not a mindless submission to whatever God says. Rather it is a mindful deliberation and analysis.
I am reminded of the words of Genesis 18:25. Abraham is celebrated as the Father of the Faithful. Note his words to God:
Surely you wouldn't do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn't do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?"
Abraham assumes God is moral, but that assumption does not keep Abraham silent. Rather it fuels his challenge to God. Since you are moral, you must act in way that is moral. Since you are moral, I cannot keep quiet when I hear you propose some action that appears immoral. And God welcomed Abraham's challenge. God did not regard it was rude. Rather it was evidence of the highest level of respect.
The Adventist doctrine of the millennium offers encouragement to all the Abrahams among us. If you find yourself restlessly asking questions about God's justice, you are in good company. There is a place for you in God's kingdom. You have company in the person of Abraham, way back at the beginning of the story of faith. And God through the Bible has described a special place for you in the grand consummation. John in Revelation and Jesus in the gospels declare that thoughtful, questioning people committed to justice will be placed on thrones in heaven as God is working to bring about the final triumph of justice.
This story emphatically honors human reasoning. It honors our capacity to render meaningful judgment. The way I interpret this, God cannot get on with his plans for eternity until all our questions have been answered. Our questions about justice are not irrelevant.
I do not mean to imply that questioning God is superior to confidence in God. Questioning that merely leaves us paralyzed with angst is not noble. It is not an elevated human state.
A long time ago when I was a young preacher back in New York City, I was attending a ministers conference. At supper one evening, I was expounding on some problem in the church. I vehemently protested some action or policy of the corporate church. I spouted my proposed solutions. I finally wound down a bit and returned to eating. The pastor sitting next to me, Israel Gonzalez, had been rather silent. So I asked him what he thought.
“Well, John.” he said. “I know there are problems in the church. There are injustices. Church leaders sometimes give Jesus a bad name. But that's God's problem. I devote myself to doing what I can to serve people close around me and trust God will take care of those people and those problems. ”
I was annoyed that this pastor would be so politically uninterested. How would the church ever improve if everyone followed his example? There would be no pressure for change. On the other hand, watching this guy's face, it was abundantly clear that he really was at peace. He was not riddled with angst. I knew he was a beloved and respected pastor. He brought peace and tranquility into every room he entered. He carried light and his light brightened every place he went.
If we were to call his confidence in God an opiate, it would have to be in the sweetest sense. His faith brought ease and relief to hurting people. People tied in knots with anxiety and fear, in his presence were set at ease. His confidence that God was working, that God would be successful, that every injustice would be righted, every loss balanced by ineffable glory, gave him almost magical power to bless others. No, he would not be your candidate to lead a revolution. He would not be fixing the church system. He would not reform the denomination's outdated policies or broken traditions. But Pastor Gonzalez did real good for real people. His faith worked. For himself and for others.
It would be silly to attempt to argue that intellectual was in any sense superior to this kind of rich, active faith.
Still questioning intellectuals have an important role to play in the kingdom of heaven. They are an important feature of the story of Revelation. They are vital to our present performance of the work God has assigned his church.
The fact that Revelation gives judging, questioning, analyzing people 1000 years on the stage of heaven, clearly implies that our questions are not trivial. Even in the light of heaven, in the light of the immediate presence of God, figuring out our deepest questions about justice and forgiveness, vengeance and pardon will not be a routine, matter-of-fact process. Even in that glorious setting, our deepest questions will still be deep. Complexities will still be complex. Our minds will still be challenged.
It is our claim as Christians that it will turn out right. We are anticipating a good answer. But we do not trivialize the quest for understanding.
There is a practical application of this vision of God's people on thrones in heaven: It is those who have asked questions of justice who have been most effective in changing the world. It was people—Christians and non-Christians—who overturned apartheid because it was unjust. In both South Africa and the United States, the Christian church has often been on the wrong side of the struggle for racial justice. Individuals have had to stand with Abraham's courage and say to the church powers: Will not the church of God do right?
Usually the church has been much slower than God to acknowledge the merit of the question. So we must keep asking, keep pushing. Understanding that God has destined us for the throne should give us courage and determination in our present day pursuit of higher, nobler ideals.
I challenge you young people: What are you doing to prepare yourself for sitting on thrones? Are you working for justice in your schools and among your friends? Those of you immersed in the corporate world: What are you doing in light of your destiny as judges on the thrones of heaven? You who are in academia?
Parents, do you remember that your children are going to take the throne? That future ought to shape the reading and entertainment we supply to our children. It should affect our discipline. (Do we really think that spanking future judges is going to heighten their moral sensibility? The answer is no, it won't.)
A thousand years. That's how much respect God shows to the questions of justice. We will get our chance to ask. Let's remember, too, that we are part of the story that will be investigated. Let's make our lives count for justice and goodness.