Advent, capitalism, Ferguson and hope

A sermon for Advent 1

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

We all know Advent is the time we get ready for the coming of Jesus the coming Christmas. But which one? Are we celebrating the Christmas 2000 years or so years ago? or are we preparing for the coming of Jesus  “… in those days…” Is Advent preparing to celebrate a momentous event of the past, or is Advent about preparing for a momentous event of the future?

Isaiah is looking forward, lamenting their behavior the prophet is expressing Israel’s desire for God to come down and show the divine face upon them. Psalm 80, expresses Israel’s full on panic attack, they know they’ve messed it up, and are pleading for God to come down and fix things. (Howell)

Our traditions also look to the past. Nativity scenes depict the glory of the first Christmas past. Even those of us who make the distinction between the 2nd chapter of Luke and the 2nd chapter of Matthew and have the Wise mean appear on Epiphany are looking to the past.

In Mark’s Gospel story Jesus is talking about the future, “after that suffering” “…when you see… you will know” “… you do not know when the master of the house will come …” Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians is also looking to the future as he tells them they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:7)

So some scripture looks to the past and some looks to the future. I recall many sermons about Advent which, much as the New Year, with its namesake the two faced Janus, looking to the past and future, look to both to the glorious birth of Jesus and to the glorious return of Jesus.

There is however, another view. Isaiah also says:

“… O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay,
and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:9)

Clearly Isaiah is talking about the present; well his present. There’s also a sense of the immediacy in Jesus’ “keep awake!” that implies a present possibility. In this week’s commentary Bruce Epperly writes [Advent] is a time of waiting, not just for Jesus’ birth, but for the transformation of our lives and the world.

His conclusion begins “Advent is about active waiting …” (Epperly) both speak to Advent being a season whose focus is, at least in part, today. Karoline Lewis goes so far as to suggest that we live Advent as though God’s presence is assumed, and that that reality therefore changes the meaning of our present. (Lewis) Timothy Warren believes Jesus’ “Be aware” implies being alert and cognizant of what is happening in our surroundings, (Warren) Mark Powell rejects ignoring Jesus’ future return since it cannot be known believing “we should think about it all the time!”  (Powell)

So ~ what would an Advent that emphasizes the present look like? I cannot imagine there would be any liturgical changes; purple would still be purple; blue would still be blue. I do not believe there would be any scriptural changes. I do believe there would be a shift in emphasis. And I mean shift, not change, because there are bits and pieces within our culture that exemplify a focus on God’s/Jesus’/and the Spirit’s continuing presence in our midst.

The first I’ll mention is David Brooks’ column The Ambition Explosion. Brooks is addressing contradictions of capitalism and culture.

He observes:

The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.

Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.

To survive, capitalism needs to be embedded in a moral culture that sits in tension with it, and provides a scale of values based on moral and not monetary grounds. (Emphasis mine) (Brooks)

Brook is correct. Much of economic debacle of the last ten years is grounded on actions that place profit above all other values. As Isaiah says: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

The final examples of using Advent to see God’s presence in our midst come from ~ Ferguson Missouri.

On Monday night as protesters gathered, a security fence is knocked over. Lt. Lohr stands between the police and protestors saying “Please don’t push the barricade down this isn’t going to help anything …” He and a protestor put the fence back up. Tuesday night, he meets protestors to talk about their presence on South Florissant. After their discussion Lt. Lohr agrees for them to use two lanes of the four lane street.

Late Wednesday night A Joshua Williams, a teenage protester whose face had been hidden behind a ski mask lowered his headgear, approaches [the] police commander and gives him a hug. Lohr says “Good to see you, man,” … “How’ve you been? How’s your mom doing? I saw her out here earlier.” Lt. Jerry Lohr, a commander of the St. Louis County Police was overseeing security at the Police Station. He never wears riot gear, even when he wades into a group of protesters to answer questions, resolve disputes or listen to a stream of insults. Protesters at the gates ask for him by name, so they can make complaints, about the use of tear gas or of officers being too aggressive in arresting a woman.

Lohr told Times reporters

Allowing people to talk on a one-on-one level does a lot as far as building bridges, … They may not agree with what I’m doing, but now they at least know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize that I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform. “We have to bridge this gap, … It’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a long-term relationship, a long-term commitment, that both sides are going to have to make. (Fernandez and McDonald)

All social constructs like an economic system, such as capitalism, need to be rooted in moral grounds. So does the social construct of authority. I don’t know Lt. Lohr, but I believe his behavior is rooted in the moral ground that everyone, citizens, business people, police, frightened parents, angry protesters, and provocateurs   everyone, is a beloved of God and must be treated with the respect this truth evokes. Lohr’s behavior is exemplary of Jesus admonition to be aware because you do not know when he will return.

Finally I want to share with you part of Benjamin Watson’s Facebook post about Ferguson. Watson is a black NFL player, who decided to write about his very mixed thoughts on learning about the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I’ll not read it all, though I’ll provide a copy, it’s, by far, the best piece I’ve seen. Watson writes about:

anger, frustration, fear, embarrassment, sadness, sympathy, being offended, confused, introspective, hopeless …

and

[being] HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

[being] ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.” (Watson)

the Gospel  ~   gives mankind hope.

That’s the Advent focus.

Amen.


References

Brooks, David. “The Ambition Explosion.” New York Times 27 11 2014. web.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurois Lectionary. 30 11 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fernandez, Manny and Brent McDonald. “In Ferguson, Officer Defused Eruptions as.” New York Times 27 11 2014.

Howell, James. Commentary on Psalm 80:17,. 30 11 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Powell, Mark Allen. Commentary on Mark 13:2437. 30 11 2014.

Warren, Rev. Timothy G. Sermons that Work. 30 11 2014.

Watson, Benjamin. Facebook. n.d. 27 11 2014. <http://tinyurl.com/oo9szxv&gt;.

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The reign of Chris the King is not there, but here; not then but now.

A sermon for Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

If you children are old enough you might remember Fraggle Rock, one of Jim Henson’s many creations. My kids loved it. One of their favorites, and one of mine, is a short little book titled If I Were King of the Universe (Abelson) it tells the tale, of Junior Gorg, whose mom and dad are the Queen and King of the Universe. However, since they are the only Gorgs, Junior gets to all the chores; he polishes the armor, fetches the crowned jewels, stands guard, serves as jester, unless of course he is washing windows and sweeping floors. But is favorite chore is gardening, and chasing the Fraggles who steal the radishes.

Of course Junior dreams of being King, and how the Fraggles would work for him; how he’d eat breakfast in bed, or tickle his toes in the sun, and stay up late. But in the end, he realizes how much he likes doing his chores especially chasing Fraggles. So he’ll just keep on being Junior Gorg, “After all, being Prince of the Universe isn’t all that bad!”

I expect all of us dream of being King or Queen of the Universe, or some such auspicious status. To be honest if I woke up one morning and discovered I was King of the Universe I’d follow Junior’s advice, especially if today’s bible readings were a part of the coronation.

Ezekiel was written in the mid to late 500 BCE when Israel is living in captivity. (Ellingsen) At one level it reads like a divine rescue mission. (Epperly) On the other hand, Ezekiel lays bare the truth that “The disparity between the wealthy, poor, and middle class, destroys the nation, [and] undermines justice …” (Epperly) Margaret Odell points out that the biblical shepherd metaphor is always a political one. (Odell) She reminds us that the oldest recorded legal code Hammurabi’s and notes his belief that “he was appointed by the gods ‘to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail’” (Odell) Ezekiel reminds us God’s kingdom is different than kingdoms of our making. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner)

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ apocalyptic tale of separating sheep and goats includes an uncomfortable judging story. I’m always uncomfortable of judgment stories, I like to believe I’m among the blessed sheep; but am ever so aware of my own goat-ness.

Like you I’ve helped to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and visited a prisoner or two. I’m also keenly aware of the times I could not, and the times I did not, help the divine image bearer right in front of me. But Kingdom life is not a balance the scales kind of thing. It’s James Liggett’s observation that sets me on edge. He notes that the goats do not know when they failed to help the Jesus in front of them, and we know that. What’s startling is that he points out that the sheep, the righteous ones invited into the Kingdom, did not know when they had helped the Jesus in front of them. (Liggett) They were just as oblivious to the presence of God, in the least of these, as those who walked on by. Like Ezekiel, Matthew also invites us to recognize the Kingdom of God is different. Moreover, we are also invited to take a peek, because of the Kingdom of God is, in part, already here. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner)

Truth be known, Matthew is doing more than inviting us to take a peek, he, as Jesus does, is inviting us to participate in Kingdom life right here, right now. Karoline Lewis writes “I absolutely … believe that God needs us for the kingdom to be more that it could be without us.”  (Lewis) In short, we are invited to make a difference, not only in helping those who are in need or oppressed but in eliminating the roots causes of injustice and unrighteous disparity. (Lewis) We won’t easily admit it, but there is such an opportunity blistering across the news media today.

If Jesus were to have told this parable today he would likely include a line that’s something like:

I was an illegal immigrant and you welcomed me;

and I was an illegal immigrant and you scorned, or took advantage of, or rebuked me.

But then again Jesus has already said it. Throughout Old Testament Law, beginning with the Tenth Commandment (Ex 20:10) the law applied to everyone in the household including the gēr or the alien, the foreigner.  (Strong’s) In so much that Ezekiel reminds us that the shepherd is all about politics; and that the oldest legal code we have is established for the welfare of the people and for justice to prevail; and that by Jesus’ parable when we welcome the stranger, the alien, we welcome Jesus; the answer to our immigration problem is a political one that provides biblical justice for all, and prevents the powerful from exploiting the vulnerable.

I invite you to join me in my daily prayer discipline and pray, by name, for all our elected officials.

A closing observation or two. It’s important to remember that though we’ve our part to play in the Kingdom’s presence, we cannot speed up nor impede its arrival. Secondly, judgment is not so much about punishment, as it is about bringing into the light the reality that’s already present; the one Paul tells the Ephesians about, the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know Jesus, as hungry, or thirsty, as naked, ill, in prison, or  ~  as an alien in a strange land.

Junior Gorg got it half right, being King of the Universe is best left to the one so designated from first light. The other half, however; is that we can, by the power of the spirit of wisdom and revelation, bring divine justice to all, and glean a bit more of life in the Reign of Christ our King.


References

Abelson, Danny. If I Were King of the Universe. New York: Henry Holt Co., 1984.

Carey, Greg. “Working Preacher.” 23 11 2014. Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46.

Ellingsen, Mark. Christ the King (Proper 29), Cycle A. 23 11 2014. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 11 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fever, Kyle. Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23. 23 11 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Jaconson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 2 11 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 23 11 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Liggett, Rev. James. Sermons that Work. 23 11 2014.

Odell, Margaret. Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 23 11 2014.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

A risk to believe, a risk to act, a risk to be a steward.

A sermon for Proper 28

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Today is the last of the semi continuous readings from the Old Testament until next year’s season after Pentecost. The story continues with the Books of Judges, which is the story of Israel following God as they swore to do, even after Joshua told them they couldn’t. The short version of the story is that Joshua was right. Judges is cyclical set of stories:

  • Israel quits following the promises they made and does what is evil in God’s eyes.
  • The Bible says “God sells them to …” whichever King is available.
  • When the oppression grows too much, Israel cries out, and God raises up a Judge,or military leader, who frees them from oppression.
  • All goes well until the Judge dies and Israel falls back into her wandering ways.

Over time things get worse and worse. Israel’s behavior is worse. The consequences are harsher and harsher. Their reformed behavior, after being rescued, is less and less in line with the covenant both Moses and Joshua establish for Israel. By the end of the book, it is clear the Judges system is a failure. The next step in the Old Testament story is the establishment of Kings.

What we hear this morning is only the introduction to the story of Deborah as Judge. The rest of chapter 4 completes the story, including Barak’s leading Israel to victory over Jabin’s much more powerful, chariot lead army and Jael, the Kenite, who kills Sisera, Jabin’s commander, with warm milk and a tent stake. It is a gruesome story. It’s also unusual, in that neither Deborah, Barak, nor Jael are a judge as all the others are; though collectively they are. It’s unusual that not one, but two women, one of whom is not of Israel, play a prominent role in saving Israel from oppression. And it’s a bit unique, in how it parallels the Exodus story of God leading Israel out of the oppression of slavery by throwing Pharaoh’s army of chariots into confusion. (McCann 6351)

I’ve two take-aways from this story:

  1. It’s amazing what we can do when we work together.
  2. The patience and commitment of God; this is the fourth cycle of Judges, and despite Israel’s deplorable behavior God continues to honor the covenant. (Hoezee)

There is a third piece; when you look at Judges as a whole, the status of women represents the overall health of Israel’s society. (Jaconson, Lewis and Skinner) From here on the treatment of women declines greatly, as does the health of Israel’s social mores.

One more bit. Charles Hoffacker writes:

“The Parable of the Talents” is not really about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. (Hoffacker)

The difference between the first two servants and the third is that one and two reciprocate the trust  their master puts in them and therefore can risk putting the talents given into their stewardship to work. The third does not trust the master, and is therefore not able to risk the talent given into his stewardship. Deborah and Barak exhibit trust in God’s call and are able to risk taking on Jabin’s far superior iron chariot based army. It’s possible Jael, the Kenite, exhibits the same trust; remember the Kenites are Moses’ father in law’s tribe and know something of Israel’s God. Jael risks trusting God and is a major player in freeing Israel from oppression.

One last thing before I finish;  I expect you noticed I referred to the servants in Matthew’s parable as stewards. I hope you did, because these two bible stories together reveal a little discussed dimension of stewardship, risk. Throughout the bible it is a risk to believe in God. There is always some other god’s people round about who will dismiss you or seek to do you some sort of harm for your belief in God. Throughout the bible God asks people to act;  Abram is asked to leave the home of his ancestors, Moses is asked to take on Pharaoh, Joshua is asked to lead the invasion of Canaan, Deborah and Barak are asked to take on Jabin, David is asked to be King in Saul’s stead, Mary is asked to be the mother of God incarnate, and Joseph is asked to ignore social custom and be the human father to Jesus. All of them accept, all of them risk themselves by acting. Making a stewardship commitment is far more than making a promise to give so many dollars to this or that church. To be a steward  is to risk believing in the living creator God, incarnate to us in Jesus, and continually present to us as the Spirit. To be a steward is to risk acting from the moral imperatives that arise from that belief. To be a steward is to risk being a part of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To be a steward, to commit time, talent and treasure to continuing Christ’s ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, is a life defining risk. So, make your commitment prayerfully, discerning God’s call. But more importantly, make your commitment trusting that God has destined you for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, so no matter our state we live with him.  (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)  Amen.


References

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Judges 4:1-7. 16 11 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Hoffacker, Rev. Charles. Sermons that Work. 16 11 2014.

Jaconson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 16 11 2014. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx&gt;.

McCann, J Clinton. Judges A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor. Vol. 7. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002.

Olson, Dennis. New Interpreter’s Bible – The Book of Judges Introduction, Commentary and Reflection. Vol. 2. Abingdon Press, n.d. 12 vols. CD.

Remember and Choose

A sermon for Proper 27

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14- 25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

We are back to our semi continuous reading of the Old Testament this morning. Two weeks ago we heard Moses’ farewell address to Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. He did not go with them. Joshua, his appointed successor, of sorts, is to be Israel’s Prime Minister, as God leads them into the Promised Land. This morning we hear from the end of Joshua’s farewell address, which is actually a covenant renewal. This final chapter opens with a gathering of all the tribes. Joshua gives a brief review of Israel’s history up till then, although we hear it only through Abraham’s call. This review sets the stage for the choice to come. (Koeing)

The choice Israel has to make is which god to follow. Will they follow the God of the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who freed them from slavery, led them through the wilderness and in capturing the Promised Land? Or, will they, as they have been want to do over the years, follow other, local gods? It’s an unusual scene in that Joshua seems to stand apart from Israel, challenging them, which is not his customary role as first among. (Coote 11462) Perhaps because this task is different. Here he demands they choose. Then he declares his choice:

“… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Well success is at hand. All of Israel proclaims they will follow “the Lord for he is our God.” But then Joshua, in rather sarcastic voice, tells them they cannot. He knows they have all sorts of tokens and idols of the gods of the recently conquered lands. He has witnessed their wandering eyes. He knows their tendency to rebel. (Hoezee) And so he names it. But the people fervently reply “NO! ~ we will serve the Lord!” Twice more the people declare they will serve the God of their ancestors. And we come to the close; with Joshua’s command to them to put away their foreign gods, after which he makes a covenant with the people, including statutes and ordinances. (More laws.)

It would be easy to get offended by Joshua’s biting sarcastic “You cannot serve God!” It is tempting to think Joshua doesn’t believe: his people will, or can, put away their illicit mementoes; that Israel will not, cannot follow and serve God.

But I don’t think that’s how he feels. Joshua’s challenge forces the choice into public awareness, he names the easy pluralism or laissez faire relativism Israel so often tends to. He names the truth, they must choose, the God of their ancestors, or the gods of the lands, they cannot have both.  (Epperly)

In many ways Joshua’s fare well mirrors Moses. Both remind Israel what God has done for them, and then presents them with the opportunity to choose to follow God. It is not the last time remember then choose is a structural theme of biblical writings.

The appointed Psalm for this morning is the first seven verses of Psalm 78. Psalm 78 is 72 verse marathon reviewing the history of God and Israel through to the establishment of David’s Kingly line. It is written over against the division of the Kingdom in the 9th century BCE by Rehoboam and Jeroboam, (Harrelson)

Solomon’s sons. The verses that stand out for me are:

… things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. …

…  that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children,

so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; (NSRV)

They are a succinct refrain:

remember and choose,
remember and follow,
remember and serve.

They are also a succinct definition of stewardship: that we are stewards of Christ’s ministry to proclaim that God’s Kingdom is right here, right now. It reminds us to teach the children, not just ours but “theirs” even the unborn.

Tuesday St. Stephen’s mailed a letter with a commitment form to everyone for whom we have an address. If you did not get one let me know, I have copies. The asking is for a commitment of time, talent and treasure. I know that you know that this is the stewardship time of year, and churches ask members to tell them what they plan to give next year. There is a focus on money. Our vestry is responsible for putting a budget together to guide our spending for the year to come, and to plan for the years ahead. So, knowing your intention to give back to God, through St. Stephen’s, is important. However, the contribution of time and talent toward participating in our stewardship of Christ ministry is more important. Commitment of time and talent represent your remembrance and your commitment to put away our foreign gods and to follow and serve God. Without the commitment to follow and serve God, our financial contributions, as significant as they are, are out of context.

My challenge to all of us is: over the next two weeks take time to prayerfully remember, to listen for the divine voice, to discern your commitment to tithe, returning 10% to God, or your plan to get there, and to discern how you are called to remember, share or teach the promise in the story of God and Jesus, so we and generations to come will know and live by God’s love for all.


References

Coote, Robert B. New Interpreter’s bible. Vol. Volume 2 Joshua. Nashville: Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Creach, Jerome F. D. Interpretation. Vol. Joshua. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurois Lectionary. 9 11 2014. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25. 9 11 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Koeing, Sara. Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25. 9 11 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

The Uncountable

A sermon for All Saints

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

Our name honors St. Stephen the Church’s first martyr. He is among the many Saints we honor throughout our church year. They are so honored because they represent to us some special attribute that reflects Jesus’ presence in our lives, or because they are an example of how we are stewards of Jesus’ ministry to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I am certain they are among the 144,000 the Left Behind series would include among the raptured. However, they are not the saints today’s readings, specifically the reading from Revelation, point us towards.

Today’s saints are so many they cannot be counted. They are also remarkably inclusive including people from every: nation tribe, people, and language. If John were writing today, that list would include gender and sexual orientation or any other way we’ve dreamed up to divide humanity. What they have in common is that they come through the great ordeal, and that Jesus died for them. Christopher Rowland writes:

The great multitude includes many who never “named the name” of Jesus but who lived lives that continued in the way of the Lamb. (Rowland 68,563)

I meet a couple of Rowland’s saints several years ago in San Francisco. At the time I was Arkansas’ coordinator for Living Stones. Two other team members and I decided to go to the Warf for our evening off. The trip down, in a cab, was no problem. After our evening out we decide to take the BART back, my colleagues had never ridden a sub-way before. I was certain it would not be problem, after all we had gotten all the way from Little Rock to San Francisco, and found our conference center, neatly tucked away as it was. Surely we can get from the Warf back to our conference center.

Well ~ it turns out we can buy a year’s pass, a month’s pass, any round trip you can imagine; but, we can’t figure out how to buy a one way ticket to get us two stations up the line. Suddenly, a grey- white haired lady, wearing a dingy raincoat pops up asking what we need; she takes our money feeds it into the machine effortlessly pushes all the right buttons and hands us our tickets. Leaving her with appropriate change, we thank our saintly knight in shining armor I mean our saintly dame in dingy overcoat and head off. We were very aware and very thankful, we have encountered a saint. It is not our last encounter.

Somehow we manage to get off at the wrong station, so much for counting to ‘2.’ We quickly discover the error, and seek help at the ticket Kiosk. The attendant listens to our tale of woe, and informs us, that we were pretty much out of luck. As we despondently turn away he calls out “Wait!” then he scraps up three tickets that will get us the one station we need to go. After we get off at the proper station, we call the cabbie who’d taken to the Warf, only to be informed he can’t pick us up in the station, something about exclusive contracts. We try the posted cab companies, but no one answers the phone, may be because the station is closed. We call our cabbie back, tell him our tale of woe and he agrees to call us when he gets around the corner, then we can come and hail him from the street.

A street lady, a kiosk attendant, and a cabbie all of them saints. I’ve no idea their religious convictions, if they have any at all; I do know we experienced caring for others that mirrors God’s care for everyone, indeed for all creation.

If everyone is a saint, then what is the 144 thousand about? In the ancient world, numbers had meaning beyond counting. The number twelve and its multiples, pointed to unity, completeness and Divine election. (Orr) So if twelve is divinely intended complete unity, then twelve thousand is absolute divinely intended complete unity and 144 thousand, 12, the tribes of Israel, times 12,000 is perfect divinely intended complete unity. How complete? How perfect? So completely perfect as to be beyond counting, meaning everyone is included.

The Left Behind books and movies give us the impression The Revelation to John is a prediction for the future. The notion of rapture; however, is a nineteenth century idea of John Nelson Darby’s teaching from 1 Thessalonians. (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa) That being so, who and when is John’s vision about? For many years scholars taught Revelation was a vision of comfort, hope and encouragement, (Sermon Brain Wave) to Christian being persecuted by Roman Emperors. (Harrelson) Recently research has revealed there were no persecutions at the time Revelation was written. There were occasional local harassments that may have led to some martyrs. (Harrelson) Walter Harrelson writes Revelation was written:

… primarily, to address complacent church members who saw no great contrast between their Christian commitment and the surrounding culture, to make them aware of the critical situation in which they lived and the threat they faced. (Harrelson)

In short, your Christian Commitment your baptism calls you to live life by different standards.

Sometimes we are reminded of those standards by memorable lives like Stephen etc. Sometimes we are reminded of those standards by a street lady, a kiosk attendant, or a cabbie. Sometimes we are reminded by those we loved but see no more.

In the past year, we have grieved the deaths of, neighbors, friends, parents, siblings, and children. In ways writ large and small each of them has shown us how to live life by that Christian standard, that is all to elusive; perhaps not all time; perhaps only every now and again. But still, we remember them today because they have passed through the great ordeal, better known as life, and by Jesus’ gift of grace live forever in God’s presence. Their presence in that multitude of perfect divinely intended complete unity is the source of comfort, hope and encouragement for all of us, no matter the ordeal we face, or the capriciousness of life. For by them we know we are the blessed children of God.

References

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jaconson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 10 2014.

Orr, James, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. WORDsearch, 2004.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Rowland, Christopher C. New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. The Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.