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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.


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