Total Pageviews

Monday, May 27, 2013

Gospel of Invitation

Sunday, May 26, 2013

            Battles; archangels fighting satanic hordes; wrath poured out like bowls of wine that is blood that runs through the streets and floods the world; four horsemen bringing economic collapse, war, disease, and death; this is Revelation.
            No more weeping or loss or sorrow or grief; all pain is gone and replaced by joy and love and peace; a Heavenly city; free, limitless access to the river of the water of life; a welcome into the city, where we look God in the eye and receive His smile, and eat from the tree of life; this also is Revelation. 
            We have come to our final Sunday in this wonderful, awesome, ominous, joyous book.  If we overdo it with the adjectives they lose some punch.  The end is Revelation 22, the final chapter.  It closes not only this most unusual book, but the entire Bible.  It is the final word in what we call holy writing.  I wonder what the final word is.  I wonder … what am I to take from it?
            See, I am coming soon.  Three times -  verses 7, 12, and 20; Jesus says he is coming.  Cool.  But soon?  This was written in 96AD.  I don’t know about soon.  I know the Bible says a day and 1000 years are the same to God (2 Peter 3:8).  From God’s view, words like ‘soon,’ might be irrelevant.  From my view, well, I would not use the word ‘soon.’ 
            I am though convinced that Jesus lived, was God in the flesh, rose from death, and is coming again.  I believe every bit of that quite literally.  In these final verses in Revelation, Jesus is Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end.  Bible writers and anyone in antiquity would only write such things about God.  Hence, Jesus is God.  When he comes, and I believe He will, that will be good for all who put their trust in Him whether it is in my life time or later.
            These closing words assert his coming.  But what’s this in verse 15?  Heaven and Earth have joined.  The New Jerusalem is the holy city, the bride readied for Christ, the home of all who have ever put faith in him.  It comes.  We are invited.  But, verse 15 says, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”  At the heart of all this good news, evil outliers seem to lurk beyond the city walls.  What gives?  Why is ugliness and evil mentioned in proximity to all this good?  I don’t understand.
            I am reminded of the most favored of all Psalms, Psalm 23.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want for anything.  And the Psalm continues with the poet lying down in green pastures and being refreshed from clean waters and walking in paths of righteousness.  Ahh, this Psalm is a breath of fresh air. 
            And yet …
            I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …  .  Why is death in the middle of the most wonderful Psalm, Psalm 23?
            You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies …  .  Why are enemies in my favorite Psalm and why am I eating with them? 
A tension runs through scripture that is unavoidable from the very first word to the very last chapter.  When God created the heavens and the earth, Genesis 1:1, the earth was a formless void and the breath of God hovered over the waters.  Primordial chaos was under God’s control but it was there. 
            God brought Adam and Eve into being – autonomous, creatures with free will, created to choose relationship with God.  And they did choose to love God, except for the lapse when they chose to disobey and eat forbidden fruit.  In Eden there is sin, the God of perfect love has enemies even  in Psalm 23, and in the Heaven-talk that closes out Revelation, sorcerers, fornicators, and murderers have a presence. 
            Thus, the warning.  John has written Revelation so that the church, and by the evangelistic work of the church then the world would hear it.  This is not secret knowledge that only the initiated can access.  “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book,” says chapter 22, verse 10.  This is to be opened and read and heard and heeded.  It is salvation, God come to live with us, and it is Heaven-talk, but, with a warning.
            “To everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if [they] add to the words [here], God will” impose plagues on that person.  “If anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and the holy city.” 
            Why is the warning so crucial?  The promises written in Revelation have not yet come about.  We read it and anticipate Heaven, but we read in a time where the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers lurk not only outside the city.  Sometimes, in our time, they sneak into the church.  Sometimes the evil grabs a hold of us.  The warning evil doers that God sees.  God is Lord of the church and also of the world including the darkest places in the world. 
            That phrase “sorcerers, fornicators, murderers,” is a way  of referring to all who rebel against God and eat the forbidden fruit and sin in word, in thought, in deed, and in the heart.  We’re all, in one way or another, “sorcerers, fornicators, and murderers.”  This points to every one of us.  But we have been washed in the blood of Christ, freed from sin by his forgiveness.  We are admitted to the Holy City because we have put our trust in Jesus.  The warning sits in the midst of the God talk because we serve Jesus in world full of people who have not submitted to him.  As long as the end has not yet come, evil is here.  In Revelation, the author, John had to name that evil.  He had to remind his readers how vulnerable they were.  They might even become evil.
            The very end of Revelation is the very best news, but there is bad in the midst of the good.  The flipside is also true.  In the darkest places, good shines.  John was imprisoned because he followed Jesus.  Last week, we talked about an American man who right now is imprisoned in North Korea.  He is a Christian.  I have a friend who evangelizes in a country that is governed by Muslim extremists.  Her activities, sharing Jesus with those who do not know him as savior, could get her arrested or killed.
            Yes, in the process of talking about salvation in Revelation, John also mentions those outside the city, those who have not accepted what Jesus gives.  John gives mention to people who reject the Lord; the bad in the good.
            Revelation stands as a testimony of the good news of Jesus Christ proclaimed in the middle of a world gone bad because of sin.  Whatever evil rains down, we who follow Jesus understand it a little more than secular-minded people.  We have a sense of the root cause of suffering that atheists don’t have.  When someone, unprovoked shoots up a school or a crowded theater, at the core, the issue is sin.  When a husband beats his wife, the heart of the matter is sin.  War; famine; the plague of deaths that come about when people drink and drive or text and drive; sin is a condition that blankets humanity with pain. 
            That is why I thank God for missionaries.  I thank God for people who come to church, who pray, and who try to do the right thing.  I thank God for people who love.  I thank God for those attempting in countless creative ways to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The light of the Kingdom of God shines even in the midst of the darkness enveloping a fallen world. 
            Bad mentioned in the description of the good word; and, a good witness of the Kingdom of God in the middle of the bad produced by sin that has filled the world.  This is Revelation.  So what is the final word?
            “See, I am coming soon.”
            “The Sprit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’  Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’  Let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
            “Amen.  Come Lord Jesus;” the meaning of “Maranatha.” 
            The final word is invitation.  To be Christian is to be inviting and to invite.  I had not thought about this before.  An exercise I do quite often is to try to finish the following sentence.  “Essentially, the Gospel is …” and I finish that thought.
            The Gospel is forgiveness.  The Gospel is love.  The Gospel is life.  The Gospel is welcome.  These are each true and much could be said about each word.  The last one, ‘the Gospel is welcome’ has become an important focus for us, a community of Jesus-followers in a pass-through kind of place.  Some people live in Chapel Hill 20 or 40 years, but many others, visiting students or researchers come for just a few years.  Some are just here for a semester.  Our church wants to be a church for those who are only in town for a while.
            Of course we are a home and a family for people who spend their entire lives in Chapel Hill.  All the hospital visits and pot luck suppers and small group meetings create context for us to share life together.  And a unique element of our character as a community is the way we have developed as a safe place for people to come, come as they are, meet Jesus here, walk away transformed by his love.  For this reason, we have given much thought to the idea of the Gospel as welcome.
            Now, having spent time in Revelation and especially looking at the final chapter we know that to welcome, we have to add the Gospel of Invitation.  This word jumps out at us.  “Come!”  It is repeated over and over.  Jesus, come, the world is bad and we need you.  World, come, step out of the evil of your own sins. Come, step out of your pain and be washed in the blood of Christ.  Receive his forgiveness and come, step into new life. 
            Living out the gospel as welcome, we joyfully receive all who come to us.  It is a ministry of readiness and it requires preparation and prayer.  We intentionally do all sorts of things from stationing greeters at the front door, to repeatedly re-emphasizing how important it is for everyone to open their hearts on Sunday mornings, to structuring our worship in such a way that we hope will be easy for new comers to join.  We work at being ready to welcome all who come.
            The Gospel as invitation demands that we go out and seek the world, the lost, our neighbors, strangers.  And it does not have to begin with “I invite you to church.  I invite you to receive Jesus.”  Your work of invitation might begin there.
            Or, it might begin with, “I invite you over to my house for tea and good conversation.”  That step may need to be repeated 100 times over the years, before the time is right to invite the neighbor to a conversation about faith.”  We pray toward that faith invitation.  It matters.  In all relationships, even with people in the church, we look for when it is time to invite one another to go deeper with Jesus.    And we intentionally live in a spirit of invitation.
            This is new to me.  I have read and reread Revelation, over and over.  I have swallowed this word, “Come.”  Nourished by God’s invitation to me, I have invited the Lord to come.  Maranatha.  Come Lord Jesus.
            Only this week, in reading again and listening again, have I come to realize how crucial invitation.  It must be en essential aspect of a disciple’s character. 

            Ever eager to debate, Bible scholars wrangle over the last word, verse 21.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”  Sounds like a simple benediction.  But in some ancient manuscripts, the phrase is “The Grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.”  And it is does not include the word “saints.”  Which is the better understanding?  I don’t think the conclusive answer comes from grammar, but from the church’s practice.
            The earliest Jesus followers learned directly from him that crippled people who are considered cursed by God because of their ailments are actually welcomed.  People like shepherds whose profession actually renders them unclean are invited to follow Jesus.  Even non-Jews can be with Jesus.  In other words, theological and missional practice show how Revelation is to end. 
            “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” – all people everywhere.  People will only know if they are told the gospel.  They will only listen to the telling of the gospel if they want to and they will only want to if they are invited.  

            Wow.  God, thank you for showing me how to live in relation to others and thank you for showing me this in the pages of Revelation.  Father God, you ended with this.  I will try to live it out in my life.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lasting Faith

Pray for Kenneth Bae.  It is urgent.  Each day that passes, marks another day that this 44-year-old man is separated from his children and family.  He also goes by his Korean name, Pae Jun Ho.  Whether Bae or Ho, God knows who you mean.  Pray for this man, a Christian whose heart breaks for orphans.
            Bae is a U.S. citizen from the state of Washington, but has been living in China serving with the highly acclaimed and thoroughly reputable organization Youth With a Mission, YWAM.  YWAM wants to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost in the world.  Bae is ethnically Korean.  He takes people from China on tours into North Korea. 
            On November 12, 2012, in the country legally, Bae was arrested and has been in a N. Korean prison since.  It has been 188 days, and counting.  Our brother in Christ who values evangelism and salvation as we do is now imprisoned for carrying out the Great Commission.  He has received the longest sentence ever imposed on a U.S. citizen in North Korea: 15 years.
            Revelation 14:12 says, “Here is a call for endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”  Indeed.  Jesus sends us out with the good news that He is offering salvation from sin and death to all people.  Bae, sent out by Jesus, is now in prison in a dark place.  Imagine being separated from your family for 188 days; for 15 years.   Pray for him.
            And listen to God’s word.  Mr. Bae would understand the Christian who wrote Revelation, John of Ephesus.  John was imprisoned for refusing to bow to the Roman emperor.  He was sentenced for life to the prison compound on Patmos Island.  John could empathize with Kenneth Bae.  His word to all who suffer for Jesus is “endure.”
            While John passed the time of his internment he met with the risen Christ and was taken to Heaven in a vision.  He writes, “I saw another angel flying in midheaven” (14:6a).  I don’t know exactly what John means by ‘midheaven.’  He does not elaborate.  Rather he emphasizes the angel’s activity. 
            The angel carried an “eternal gospel,” which was to be preached to “those who live on earth – to every nation and tribe and language and people” (14:6b-d).  Because of Christians like Kenneth Bae, that gospel is preached in places like North Korea.  North Korea has been described by Christians who have escaped as being openly hostile to God and to faith.  These believers acknowledge there are some Christians in the country.  However, the large Churches in the bigger cities are facades.
            These buildings are actually controlled by the government and are in place to give the impression to the world that North Korea is a place of religious freedom.  In actuality though, these buildings are occupied by people who actively oppose Christian faith.  This information comes from a report of Max Fisher of the Washington Post.  He interviewed a defector who reported on the conditions in Pyongyang and other cities in that country.[i] 
            Thank God that Kenneth Bae is carrying the word of God to people in a place where there is a terrible cost for committing one’s life to Christ.  Will an American diplomat travel there and negotiate his freedom?  Will he serve out 15 years?  After a decade and a half, will he even be freed then?
            Last week, I mentioned Christians in Syria.  They made up 10-15% of the population before the violence began.  Now, the numbers dwindle as they flee to Lebanon.  God bless those who stay and maintain a church in that war-torn land.  They know the Assad regime is immoral, abusive and must fall.  However, they fear it will be replaced by the rule of Muslim extremists who have no tolerance for the presence of Jesus worshipers. 
            How can the eternal gospel Revelation says is to be proclaimed make it into these places of war and persecution?  We might find comfort reading that it is an angel carrying this gospel not men and women.  But Jesus gave the command to his disciples, and the first ones to “go and tell” the Jesus story were the women who followed him.  Before the angel of Revelation does his work of worldwide gospel proclamation, the church is to go and tell, and to do so in all places, even hard places.
            These extreme examples make for good stories, but if we leave it there, then the good stories end up being really bad preaching.  Why?  Because it is so easy to leave it there.  I am completely serious in telling the church to pray for Kenneth Bae and for the crumbling Christian presence in Syria.  We could add to our prayer list Nigeria.  Always on the brink of war, Muslim-Christian tensions are boiling over right now.  When we answer the call to prayer, it changes us and makes a difference for good in the world.
            However, it is so easy to leave it.  We hear a word a church and the truth might compel us … a little bit.  So we pray and wipe our hands and our brows and say, “Well, I prayed!”  Is there more?  Both the angel and the church are to be about some very specific activities as they pray.  Does this mean I think we are all to go sit in prison with Kenneth Bae?  Maybe. 
Maybe God is calling someone here to that ministry.  We want to open ourselves to do whatever God sets out for us and by “whatever,” we truly mean we will answer God’s call without thought to how difficult it seems.  I met a doctoer early in 2012 who is an American citizen and is ethnically.  She is, by now, in North Korea, there to teach in a medical school.  Also, she will secretly work with Christians to encourage them and grow the church.  She knows full well she could have 15 years of hard labor.  Yet she goes with Heavenly joy in her heart. 
Maybe one of us is to join her and Mr. Bae.   Or one here might be called to Syria or Nigeria or other hard places.  We are all called and God’s church is called to every nation.  In our nation there won’t be arrests and imprisonments.  There is not the threat that the government will soon be dominated by a hate-filled religion that has no conscience or hesitation in killing believers.  What threatens our witness?
Many things in American culture erode, water down, suppress, and relativize the Christian’s message that Jesus is Lord.  It all boils down to compromise.  We aren’t going to suffer bodily harm for our testimony, but our culture tells us to mute the Gospel and only allow it to speak in its proper place – in church buildings on Sunday morning; before meals and bed; and in a word of thanks for secular successes.   Oscar winners and athletes who win the championship are allowed to emphatically thank God.  In those moments of triumph unrelated to anything we see in scripture we see the victors declaring “God has a plan.” 
Yes, a major component of God’s plan was for you to win the title and for the seven Christians on the other team to lose.
Our separation-of-church-and-state nation celebrates our announcement that Jesus is Lord as long as we make that announcement conform to the values that reign currently: tolerance; freedom; excess; affluence; and, our infatuation with all things young, all things thin, and all things cool.  If Jesus fits in with all that, then He can be Lord in the hearts of American Christians.  If he does not, then Christians need to bend a little and compromise their statement of faith or at least minimize it so that it does not offend anyone else.
This “eternal gospel” is defined in Revelation 14:7.  “Fear God and give him glory … and worship him.”  Fear God does not mean fear Him like we would fear a bully or fear an intruder or fear an impending storm.  This is not fear of heights or fear of snakes.  Fear God means to hold God in such reverence, to afford God such authority, and to recognize God’s absolute holiness that we see that sin nauseates God.  We know our lives are under God’s watch.  Every instance of rebellion is seen by God, so we fear God’s judgment and we also fear hurting God’s heart.  Both are true.  Appropriate God-fear leads us to see God as the exalted one whom we cannot approach casually.  We exist to serve Him.
Fear is a condition that leads us to the second command in the eternal gospel – glory.  Give God glory.  This happens in our worship.  It also comes about in our living.  When we relate to other humans in love, God is glorified.  When we get the most out of our abilities, God is glorified.  Relationships and work are to be done with God constantly in mind.  We are ever seeking God as we go about life, submitting ourselves to Him and conforming to His ways.  We live to lift God up.
Worship is an activity and it is a posture.  We have talked about worship in recent weeks.  We know it happens in worship services and also in private moments. 
These commands of the eternal Gospel which apply to all people – fear God, exalt God, worship God – contradict our culture’s unwritten rules.  In our culture, we are to fear peer disapproval.  If our peers don’t like how we’re living, we must change.  We exalt ourselves.  And we worship things that make us feel good and do it right now.
To abandon fear of God, glory of God, and worship of God, for fear of peer disapproval, glory of self, and worship of immediate gratification is compromise.  Revelation calls this fornication (14:8) and drunkenness.  Verse 9 says, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads … will also drink the wine of God’ wrath” (14:9-1).
God has no place for us reducing our faith and making it fit.  Faith in Jesus and the life lived in his name ignites fire within.  We fear nothing but God and face the world determined to tell about Jesus, knowing He will bring healing, joy, and life.  This is no time for wishy-washy faith.  In Revelation 3:16, Jesus declares he will spit out of his mouth those with lukewarm faith.  We are either with Jesus all the way or not at all.  In our times, where we live, the Bible calls us to live out our witness for Jesus as if doing so would get us killed.  That is the commitment the Lord expects.  God wants all of us – every bit of each one of us.  We won’t be persecuted for testifying that Jesus is Lord.  But we must be as committed as if that were to happen. 
Anything less disgusts the Lord to the point that God is unhappy.  God’s love never fails so our strongest alliance is with him.  The world around us, the world demanding we compromise, will have no influence.  Rather we stand firm. 
Revelation 14:13, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (14:13).  Whether a believer is fighting false doctrine like many 2nd century Christians, a believer sees his life on the line like John on Patmos and Kenneth Bae in Korea, or a believer is tempted to relegate her faith like the affluent 21st century American Christian, we are called to stand and endure.
Robert Wall points out two implications for the disciple who demonstrates this lasting faith.  First, we will sacrifice.  Some sacrifice social standing or friendships or popularity or even jobs.  Others even sacrifice their freedom or their lives.  An enduring faith is not recognizable in easy times, but rather when it is severely tested.  If we with stick Jesus and don’t yield, we will be tested.
Second, there is good news for the enduring disciple.  “Blessed are those who die in the Lord.”  This could even be translated “Happy are those who die in the Lord.”  Paradoxical?  Ask Kenneth Bae.
After months in prison, he was permitted some phone calls.  His sister said he sounded calm and not discouraged.  Did he know he would be locked up for trying to help North Korean orphans and for doing it in Jesus’ name?  I am sure he was not surprised.  Calm and not discouraged. 
I knew friends in seminary whose wives left them because they did not want to go into ministry.  Calm and not discouraged. 
High school and young adult believers grow to the point that they as Christ followers have to decide.  Will I continue in the party life of my friends knowing that God is not pleased?  Or, will I cease the me-first, party hard, ignore-the-rules life and begin living for Jesus even if doing so means some of my friends will ditch me?  They opt for the Jesus way.  Calm and not discouraged. 
Where in your life is the decision point?  Fear God, glorify him, and worship him, no matter the cost.  Pray like life depends on it because it does for Kenneth Bae and for Christians in North Korea, Syria, Nigeria, and other places.  And in your own walk, develop lasting faith.  Don’t wilt under the hot lights of temptation.  Stand strong in Jesus’ name.  Tell the world about him.  Some will mock you.  Others will hear Jesus through you and turn to Him because of your witness.

[i] Arthur Bright, Christian Science Moniter online, May 10, 2013 -

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Joining of Heaven and Earth

The Joining Together of Heaven and Earth (Revelation 21:9-11)
Sunday, May 12, 2013
            As I thought about ways for us to hear and understand Revelation 21-22 and to do so in a way that might build us up as we follow Christ and represent him in the world, the idea of reversal stuck out in my mind.  Specifically, I appreciated the way several Bible scholars developed the theme of reversal relating to Genesis 11 and Revelation 21:2, 9-10. 
            As I reread Revelation these verses, 2 and 9-1o, pay very close to the direction of the movement.  Who is initiating things?  Who is the giver and who is the receiver?
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
            Hold in your mind these verses.  If you have your Bible, keep Revelation 21 marked. 
            Now, look at Genesis 11:1-9:
            ‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’  They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

            In both the Genesis and Revelation accounts, we’re paying special attention to who initiates the actions.  We’re watching to see the direction and the motivation.
            In Genesis, the people have stopped migrating and settled down in the plains of Shinar where the begin work on a tower that will reach to the Heavens.  They plan to build a city.  “Come, they say, let us build for ourselves a city … so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v.4).
            Building is a good thing.  We were created to be creative.  Made in the image of God, the ultimate creator, we are made to make things.  However, God had a method and the new city the people were growing at Shinar was directly the opposite of God’s instructions.
            Genesis 9, right after the flood, God tells Noah’s family to be fruitful and multiply and increase in number on the earth (v. 1a, 7).  The instructions given immediately after Noah comes out of the ark permanently re-establish humans God’s special creation who may rule over the earth and eat animals for food and exist in a relationship with God.  God sets it up all the while knowing humans will continue to sin (Gen. 8:21).  At the end of the Noah saga, we see that his descendants have indeed “spread out over the earth” (10:32).
            However, the next move, the gathering and building at Shinar, shows a group of people who were in direct opposition to God.  He said, spread out.  They said, let us build ‘otherwise, we will be scattered.’  The direction of the action was upward.  Humanity wanted to become God, or like God, through human achievement.  We think this is all new because we live in the computer age.  Genesis 1-11 is the recounting of stories told orally for centuries before they we written.  This comes from prehistoric times.  Even then, they thought they could achieve the things God wanted to give.  They would blatantly disobey God if need be.  The absolutely would not live in faithful dependence.  Nothing has changed from the very dawn of civilization until now.
            The initiative was on the human side, rejecting the plan of God.  The action was done by humans reaching up when God said the spread out.  The motivation was to be self-sufficient and independent of God instead of living in faith and living in relationship with God. 
            Atheism – the notion that there is no god – is a worldview that permeates every thought in someone’s life.  There is no innocent concluding that God does not exist and thus I will strive to be a good person.  People do that.   I am friends with a lot of people who take this approach in life.  It does not work for two reasons.  One God does exist. 
            There is a lot of evidence, but the best is the resurrection.  Historians who specialize in studies of Israel from 30BC-100AD have to deal with the invention of the church.  Some of these scholars are committed naturalists who have determined that the dead do not rise.  But even those most insistent that Jesus did not rise still, assessing the available data, acknowledge with certainty that the very first Christians believed to the point of death that the resurrection happened.  If they believed this, then why? 
Why believe something that was completely unexpected and completely without precedent?  What could cause so many to give their lives to a movement that was so thoroughly different from their own previous worldview?  Historians have scrambled to explain this phenomenon, often just ignoring Occam’s Razor and taking the most obvious route.  The church was born because the Resurrection of Jesus really did happen.  Any other explanation for the rise of Christianity requires the historian to throw out probability and to make ridiculous statements about mass hallucinations that sustained to the point that people accepted the cross rather than reject Jesus. 
The resurrection happened.  Who but God could do that?  If God then, is real and has called the world to himself through Jesus, his own appearing in human form, then any worldview that denies God is not just opting for indifference.  God is God and thus has claim on us.  To reject that claim is to be in rebellion. 
For that reason, a second reason that atheism fails as a worldview is that it is a worldview in direct opposition to God.  The builders of the tower of Babel thought they could achieve the things only God can do.  They failed because God exists and to act as if God does not exist is to be against Him.  There is no sideline in this.  God is real.  God chose to come to the world through Israel and then through Israel God came in person, in Jesus.  Either one is a Christ-follower, or one is alienated from God and destined for frustration.
How does Revelation 21 show God’s undoing of the tower of Babel rebellion.  In Revelation 21, God is the actor.  John is in Heaven because God has summoned him.  John had gone to prison because he had been trying to obey God by spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire.  He try to reach up to Heaven.  He reached out to the world in Jesus’ name.  He only went to Heaven when God initiated that action. 
He’s experiencing things that exceed our sensory abilities.  Words like “up” and “down” may or may not accurately describe the spatial considerations of Heaven and Earth when seen from God’s perspective.  But those are the words John had and his descriptions do help us understand our own standing and what is appropriate and good for humans in relating to God. 
Unlike the humans rejecting God and acting on their own initiative, John and his friends in the early church lived at God’s initiative.  He was in prison and then in a vision he went to Heaven by God’s power.  He does not see humans going “up to Heaven,” as we so often see.  Look again at Revelations 21:2 and 10.  The holy city came down. 
The New Jerusalem was the bride of Christ.  We won’t spend significant time deeply exploring all the imagery John used to depict the holy city in these last two chapters of the Bible.   Worthwhile as that would be, it requires a whole additional talk. 
Know this.  John intends his readers – us – to see our future, our eternity.  We will be together with all who have followed Jesus in a place where there is no grief.  No fear.  No injury.  No death.  The city’s gates are always open.  God is present bodily.  I love my relationship with God the Spirit, but I long for the closeness of the Father and the Son.  And that is what we are promised.  As sure as Jesus rose from the grave and Christianity is the way to God – he did and it is – the promises of Revelation 21-22 will come to fruition.
It is a city and a garden.  It is worship and vocation.  It is joy and it is unending.
Recall that the people who built Babel incited their rebellion against God for two reasons.  They aspired to exalt themselves and they feared isolation.  “Let us build or else we will be scattered.”  Their efforts resulted in them being brought low and forcefully scattered. 
Now Revelation 21:  “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
All that has been scattered is gathered in Jesus’ city and all people are one people in His name.  The kings of the nations come, forgetting their own glory and giving all glory to the Lord.  And we are there too. 
Until the day comes when we are called there, we live here.  We catch a glimpse of the gathering of that holy city whenever we let God be God.  We let God determine who’s in and who’s out. We do our best to love everyone as much as Jesus loves them.  And we go out in His name.  Spreading out, we see Him over and over in the people we meet in the world.  And we carry the good news of His salvation to those who have not heard.  We’ll be finally gathered when God decides it is time to bring Heaven to Earth. 
            His timing is perfect and our lives are blessed when we do things his way.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Sign of God's Victory

            In the film Good Will Hunting, Chuckie Sullivan works construction in Boston with his best friend, Will Hunting.  While it is fine work for Chuckie, he wants more for his friend Will.  They’ve grown up as tough, street kids who get in a lot of fights and drink a lot of beer.  Chuckie knows his buddy Will has an unbelievable brain that is going unused laying bricks.  It is good work; but Chuckie sees what Will could become.
He tells Will that his dream is to one day show up at Will’s door so they can go to the construction job.  Only when he knocks, Will is gone.  On that day, Chuckie will know his friend actually applied his supreme intellect to something great and got himself out of the rough life they live.  Chuckie might be sad at his friend’s departure but he is sadder still to see this great mind wasted.
            Knocking on the door and having it not answered for Chuckie is a sign that things have gone well. 
            In your life, what is the sign?  Three letters after your name?  PhD.  Is it when your child stops asking for help?  You quietly cry because your baby is growing, but inside you know your prayers are answered because your baby is growing up.
What is the sign that what you’ve hoped for and waited for has come? The first day on the job you dreamed about?  The last day on the job after a 45-year career?
What is the sign – that when you see it, you know – the sign that shows resolution has come, everything will be ok, and yours is a happy ending?
John, a Christian in 96 AD from the city Ephesus, John has been exiled for faith in Christ.  Sent to live out his days in bondage, he was taken into Heaven in a vision.  From the discouragement prison brings, John has journeyed with God to the heights of revelation beyond the stars, and in his writing we join the journey.
We bring along all the stuff that makes us who we are.  Wounded?  We have been.  Disappointed by life, by faith, by people, by God?  Oh yes.  Good times?  We have those too, and all those nondescript days in between.
We weave together our stories and John’s so that what John sees, speaks to us.  Jesus the Lion of the Tribe of Judah roars out our triumphs.  Jesus the sacrificed Lamb purchases life for us. 
What sign on the final pages of your novel shows that it will be a comedy that ends with joyous, victorious laughter – the happiness that comes when we know things are going to be alright?  In Revelation 21, John looks and sees a new heaven and a new earth.   
Seeing what John sees, we know something good is in store for those on the side of Christ and he invites all to his side.  We come by acknowledging our desperate need for the forgiveness and salvation he offers.  We admit we are fallen, broken people and we repent, turning away from all our mistakes and sins.  With gratitude we receive what Jesus gives and submit our lives to his Lordship.  And in this way, we are on His side. 
Revelation is chalk full of signs.  John sees one with the arrival of the new heaven and earth and it confirms the ending he hoped for.  It is what is not there.  “The sea was no more.”  There is a new heaven and new earth, but no sea.
Imagine being locked behind bars.  Year after year, your life is confined to a 9 x 10 cell.  The thought oppresses me especially when 18-year-olds are committed to life for their involvement in serious crimes.  Whatever these kids might have become in their lives, now they are prison residents.  Imprisoned, people fail to flourish.  We cannot be who God created us to be when imprisoned. 
John wasn’t bound by bars, but by water.  As beautiful as the shore can be when we vacation at the beach, the island was a 24/7 reminder to John that his freedom was gone.  In Heaven he saw, there was no sea.
Are you imprisoned, not by bars or oceans, but something else?  A limited vision?  You’ve always been told you’ll amount to nothing and the message has sunk in.  Is that you?  Is depression your jailor?  You have all kinds of potential and opportunity but are completely unable to see it because something chemical in your brain or something discouraging in your circumstances locks you in and won’t allow you to flourish.  What robs you of freedom to be God’s child?
Look, John says, in the Kingdom, the sea is no more; our chains are gone and we are free to flourish and be who God has created us to be. 
I am sure John remembered Genesis.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” 
Those waters rear their chaotic heads over and over. 
Evil fills the earth.  God brings a flood to wipe our the evil – talk about a sea! 
Humans try to build a city but it is out of control and it is called Babel.  God disrupts this human arrogance and scatters it. 
Humans try other cities, Sodom, Gomorrah.   In this cesspools of sex without limits, the vilest scent of depravity nauseates the nostrils.  God burns it.  Without God, we swim in chaos.  We were created for good work and for order, but the sea shows ultimate disorder – the failure of civilization.
John sees that there is no sea.  God creates and when we soil the beauty with the foulness of greed and gluttony and idolatry, then God in God’s mercy re-creates until finally, with this new heaven and new earth, chaos is rooted out for good.  The failure of civilization fades to black as we look to the city on the hill built by God and realize there are many rooms and he has prepared a place for us – each one of us.
John has already shared that malicious intentions rise from the sea.  Flipping back to the end of Revelation 12 and into 13, “Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the sea shore.  And I saw a beast rising out of the sea” (12:18-13:1a).  We don’t have to guess at the dragon’s identity.  John has told us this one is the serpent that deceived Eve, the Satan that tempted Jesus, and the devil that has tormented his church.  The beast, who might be associated with antichrist although the book of Revelation never uses that term, must be the Roman Emperor in John’s view. 
The antichrist/beast role is reprised throughout history.  Hitler played it as well as anyone, but there have been others.  Joseph Kony of Uganda is an antichrist.  So too are Americans Fred Pheps and Terry Jones who carry the title pastor but peddle hatred, something antithetical to the way of love Jesus demonstrated and requires of his followers.  The sea of chaos is where evil comes from and evil leads to a failure of trust. 
John and we with him cannot trust the world.  Students in a classroom – elementary school, high school, or college are shot up.  Unmanned drones destroy villages including hundreds of innocents and then we claim success because we think we got a terrorist.  How can a dead child be considered necessary collateral damage?  Guantanamo Bay.  This is evil and evil makes it impossible to trust the world.  It emanates from the sea that binds us in madness and crushes civilization and human flourishing.  The depths of the black waters bring this all to mind. 
But John looked and the sea is no more.  In the previous chapter, Revelation 20, he saw the dragon cast into a lake of fire.  Jesus has claimed final victory, a victory he secured by hanging on a cross and then walking out of a tomb. 
One more reason we can know that the removal of the sea is the sign that all is well comes from the Gospels.  The disciples, experienced boatmen, were overwhelmed by a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  If these fishermen could not survive, no one could.  And they knew death was coming to claim them.  Then they see Jesus, walking across the angry waters that fill them terror.  They see Jesus commanding the waters and the waters obey immediately.  They see one more powerful than the waters they fear.
The sea with its yawning mouth that swallows great ships whole tells us definitively we will fail to last.  Death is certain.  God created us for life with Him and he never dies.  However, the Fall of Adam and Eve, repeated by every human who sins when given chance makes death inevitable.  The sea is constant reminder of our failure to last. 
            With the arrival of the New Heaven and New Earth, there is a new reminder.  Could this be so good, so right?  There is no sea.  There is no failure to flourish; no failure of civilization.  Evil has been defeated, so we need not worry about a failure of trust.  This victory of God means we won’t fail to last.  We live forever.  This is eternal joy. 
            Have you ever experienced misty eyes at the end of a wonderful movie?  Are there songs so beautiful and attached to moments so imprinted on your heart that they bring tears?
Twice I lost my breath, literally.  The first time was the first time I climbed to a mountain top and saw the view.  The second time my breath left me and my heart stopped was the moment my bride walked toward me down the aisle.  I have cried tears of joy and tears of love over my children and over stories that stir the soul.  John tells us that in Heaven, God will be present.  He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
            I don’t think this rules out weeping that comes from the depths of a grateful, transformed heart.  This is what John hears from the throne in Heaven.  “The home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples (meaning peoples from all nations are his); God himself will … wipe every tear; … death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  No more loss.  No more evil that breaks us.  No more sea. 
            We live directionally, our lives guided by the sign John shared.  We strive for order, obeying the Biblical command to make something of this world.  We live as people of integrity because Jesus is the truth and we want our lives to point people to him.  We work in the power of Holy Spirit to promote human flourishing.  And we live with the knowledge that we will last because Jesus has defeated death. 
            I want to offer a sign of God’s new community.  This sign will be a reminder to the eyes, the ears, the body, and the heart.  The sign is open arms that need another and together form a holy embrace.
Whenever, wherever we see open arms and hear the gospel, we know we in with a group that points heavenward.  You bring a friend to church.  Someone is brokenhearted and a Christian friend showers him with love so that he’s not alone in his time of loss and discouragement.  The church visits orphans, builds benches, cleans the community, and makes improvements to the home of a financially impoverished but spiritually rich older person.  Someone desperately needs $40 more so the rent can be paid and the church gives the $40.  All of it done with Open arms. 
            This is the sign that God is at work and that this family will be at home in God’s Heaven.  We are already His.  The Kingdom activities which will happen in Heaven happen now, among us.  Grace is given, smiles are abundant, and love unending.  Open arms.  The sign that the sea is no more, God has won, and we are with Him.
            Open arms.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Gay NBA Player - The Conversation

            This is a follow up to my post from yesterday.  I watched a larger clip of the conversation in which the ESPN NBA writer Chris Broussard declared himself to be a Christian.  In his statement he said he could not see how someone could live in open rebellion to God’s decrees regarding sexuality and still claim to be a Christian.  He cited many forms of sexual sin – adultery, fornication, and homosexuality.  His point was if a person is doing any activity in one of those categories and is in that activity as a life style and seeking legitimation of that life style, then that person is living in unrepentant sin and thus cannot be a Christian.  That is Broussard’s point.
            I felt he articulated it well, but while I agree with much of his statement, I come up short of his final declaration.  In the context in which he wrote, I will not state who is and who is not a Christian.  I define a Christian as one who follows Jesus.  I know people who are trying to follow Jesus as Lord in their lives and are openly gay.  I personally believe that creates an unresolvable tension but I think there are many unresolvable tensions.  The most American of these is living with disproportionate wealth, but that’s another topic for another day.
            In the ESPN dialogue, the other conversation partner with Broussard is a LZ Granderson.  He is also a sportswriter and he is openly gay.  The ESPN host moderating between Granderson and Broussard brings up the issue of athletes who have trouble with the whole concept of homosexuality.  Granderson takes that question as an opening for conversation about the way we in society discuss homosexuality.  Up to this point, the conversation has been about how being openly gay will affect Jason Collins as a basketball player.  Broussard had done what he has always done and talked about the NBA scene from a basketball perspective.  But in responding to the host’s question, Granderson, appropriately, I think, takes the discussion in the direction of societal conversation (“the conversation”).
            To his credit, Granderson does not lash out at the tweets of athletes who simply cannot understand the entire notion of homosexuality.  He invites divergent viewpoints.  He shares that he and Broussard have discussed the issue many times.  They are long-time friends and have multiple times had “the uncomfortable conversation.”  Granderson’s point is that the conversation needs to be had.
            Broussard picks up on this and agrees that he and Granderson have had this conversation and continue in their friendship.  They have been on basketball teams together.  They accept each other’s different points of view.  Broussard actually uses the word “tolerate,” but he uses in a context that implies he and Granderson are friends who have covered this ground thoroughly and have done so in off-camera, unfiltered settings.
            The congenial dialogue however becomes a bit pointed and it makes me wonder exactly what Granderson and Broussard have said directly to one another in unguarded moments.  I think the sticking point that sharpens Granderson’s tone is Broussard’s definite contrast between the homosexual lifestyle and Christianity.  Incidentally, I would guess it is anachronistic to say ‘the homosexual lifestyle.'  When talking about the LGBT community, we are talking about millions of people so there are many lifestyles.  But in his remarks, Broussard definitely sets up two poles – gay and Christian.
            Granderson takes exception to this because he self-defines as a Christian and very clearly says, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior."  He expresses extreme frustration saying that on one hand “you,” and here there is double meaning as "you" refers to both Broussard and to enforcers of marriage laws that define marriage as man and woman, call sex outside of marriage a sin.  Then on the other hand, “you” won’t let “us” (and he identifies the LGBT community) get married. Granderson’s finishing flourish is that he doesn’t need Chris Broussard or anyone else to tell him he is a Christian.  This turn to more confrontational rhetoric comes when Granderson invites the conversation and the host points out that the player who has come out, Jason Collins, calls himself a Christian.
            Thus we have three self-identified Christians, Granderson, Broussard, and Collins.  Two, Granderson and Collins, are openly gay.  The third, Broussard, says, you cannot live a gay lifestyle and be a Christian.  Is he right?  Or is Granderson right in calling this an “unfair” position imposed on persons who are gay and Christian?  On this point, I recommend the reader check out Christopher Yuan’s book “Out of a Far Country.”  I have blogged on this book and you can read my comments here
            Yuan, himself gay, concludes there are two options.  Heterosexual marriage and celibacy.  He refers to these options as holy sexuality.  I know LZ Granderson would be upset and cry unfair as this conclusion.  So too would a lot of my gay friends and I can understand why.  Many of my friends who are heterosexual would also call this ridiculously unfair.  But is it?
            Where I live in North Carolina, there are three fairly prominent Baptist Churches that will gladly perform same-sex weddings.  Of course North Carolina as a state does not recognize same-sex unions as marriages.  But I think same-sex couples can get legal paperwork that states they are in a civil union.  And there are other states where they can go and get a marriage license.  At one point, as the temperature rose in the Granderson-Broussard dialogue, a frustrated Granderson said, “You say I can’t get married then you call sex outside of marriage a sin.  Well a brother’s gotta do what a brother’s gotta do.”  Of course the implication is that sex is a necessity and it will happen no matter what.
            That is a mistaken stance for a Christian.  I was celibate until I turned 32 (when I got married).  I was extremely frustrated in my 20’s.  I wanted to say “a brother’s gotta do what a brother’s gotta do.”  But I waited and many times I did not know if my wait was going to end in marriage or not.  For me it did.  And I can hear the retort.  “But Rob, as a heterosexual, you always had the potential for marriage.  You were waiting, not accepting celibacy as a lifestyle.”  I grant that response.  It is a reasonable response to make.  My rejoinder is this.  There are many heterosexual marriages where the sex part of it is either wholly unsatisfying or absent altogether.  Healthy spirituality must take precedence over fulfilling sexuality for the person who wants to follow Jesus.
            Granderson’s phrase “a brother’s gotta do what a brother’s gotta do,” has no bearing for a Christian.  I appreciate his sense of unfairness.  However, he and all Christians must submit every region of life to the Lordship of Jesus.  I do know of Christians who believe this can be done while affirming monogamous, committed homosexual marriages.  When I was in Arlington, VA, I was in a small group of men (we met in DC weekly) who prayed together regularly.  Every member except me affirmed homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle choice if the relationship is for life and is nurturing and beautiful and full of love.  Now in Chapel Hill, I have a friend who is a pastor whom I greatly respect.  She makes the same argument.  My DC friends and my NC friend both make their case from scripture.  I think their reasoning is Biblically weak, but it is Biblical reasoning.
            Granderson needs to revisit his own presentation if he wants to assert the compatibility of Christianity and homosexuality.  While I do not think the two – Christian life and gay life – are necessarily opposite poles, I don’t see them as natural compliments either.  To call Jesus “Lord” is to submit to him in everything.  Listening to Granderson describe his faith, it sounds like it is something he desires rather than something that is true.  It sounds more like Jesus is his than he is Jesus’. 
            I want to be kind about this.  Granderson is a sports columnist, not a trained theologian.  And his comments came in the fluid medium of a live conversation.  My thoughts here are written at my leisure, with the benefit of editing.  Granderson would doubtless be more polished in his articulation if he were writing a piece entitled “the gay Christian.”  Even so, he would need to base his case on something other than his own desires or what is fair.  At some point the advocate of Christianity that allows for gay marriage must make that case from the Bible.  I have not seen that case made with any weight anywhere.
            In conclusion, I reiterate that Christians are called to love.  We must go overboard in extending grace the way Jesus did.  This is true of all Christians, gay and straight.  What matters most is not who one can marry or my right to assert a particular theology. For the one who calls Jesus “Lord,” what matters most is his will which we discern through ardent study of scripture, the teaching of the church, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Everything we do is to be done in obedience to God.  For this conversation to proceed, the outcome cannot be dictated in advance, and all the participants who call themselves Christians must move ahead in submission to God and in a spirit of love.