Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon for September 17



The reading Genesis 

21:1-3; 22:1-14

21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.  Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.

22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."  He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."  So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"  Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.  When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."  He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."

The message

We are now 7 weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This event, which divided the church and changed the religious, political and social world started on October 31st 1517 when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses or points.  This document was mostly a call to debate about the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church.  It also sharply questioned church authority and the way things were done for centuries. As we approach this historic event, I plan to include parts of Martin Luther’s writing in each week’s sermon.  As Luther found evidence of God’s promises fulfilled through Christ’s death and resurrection throughout scripture, we should be able to as well.       

This week, we start with the sacrifice of Isaac, one of the most difficult, uncomfortable and complicated moments in the Bible. This story is an event in the history of Israel that challenges our idea of God in serious ways.  God tests Abraham by instructing him to kill his son Isaac as an offering then waiting around to see if he does it. 

I wanted to talk about the characters involved in this story.  Isaac is the child of a promise.  The first time, God calls Abraham, God tells him he will be the father of a great nation.  As proof, Abraham is told his wife, Sarah, who is long past child bearing age, will give birth to a son, a true heir to Abraham’s name. Isaac is that child and grows knowing he is a miracle.  Isaac is a good son, obedient and faithful. He trusts his father and goes on this trip to Moriah. He thinks it’s strange that there is no ram or other animal to sacrifice but does not think much more of it. After all, God has spoken to Abraham many times before, he has gone to do things that seemed unusual but it’s always worked out.   

Abraham’s wife Sarah, has no idea what the true purpose of this trip is.  We are left to believe Abraham simply said “I heard from the Lord, Isaac and I have to travel a large distance to offer a sacrifice” to which Sarah replies “okay honey have a safe trip and gives him a hug”.  Again God has spoken to Abraham many times before, he has gone to do things that seemed unusual but it’s always worked out.   
Like Sarah and Isaac, the two young men who are helping with the trip, also have no idea that Abraham is going on this trip to kill his son as a requested sacrifice to the lord.  They are simply doing their jobs.  At some point, we assume the land changes and the donkey can no longer make the trip.  The 2 young men are given the task of watching the donkey and waiting for their boss to come back.  

No one realizes how close they really are to something awful, to a horrific event and to being under the care of a God who demands the sacrifice of children or whatever we hold most dear.    Abraham is the only one who knows the purpose of this trip.  He has heard the Lord call him several times before. Each time, answering here I am and receiving great news, promises or instructions to do a task. This time is different. Now the word from God is not you will be the father of a great nation, or you will have descendants as numerous as the stars, this time, its “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."

In the Old Testament, there are many examples of people arguing with God or protesting God’s instruction. There is Jonah who refuses to go to Nineveh and ends up in a whale’s belly, there is pleading for saving Sodom and Gormorrah.  In a few weeks, we will hear Moses tell God “I don’t talk well, I don’t want to go to confront Egypt and set your people free”.  Here, Abraham makes no complaint, he even gets up early to get a head start on this awful demand.  Abraham does love Isaac more than anything else, this child was not unexpected, he was impossible. Not having an heir was the biggest disappointment of Abraham’s life, one that made everything seem like a failure.  God gave him this son and now God was basically asking for him back. As they travel, Abraham carries this burden alone. I imagine this burden took its toll emotionally and physically on Abraham. I guess Isaac or the others stopped occasionally and asked Abraham “are you okay, you looked troubled or you look tired”.  Once they arrive close to the site, Abraham and Isaac go alone.  Now when Abraham tells the young men,  “Isaac and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” I cannot figure out if Abraham is lying, unable to even say what he is going to do, or he has just come to trust that God will not let this happen.       

Abraham and Isaac get to the site chosen by the Lord for the sacrifice.  Abraham goes through with it, he will obey God’s command, he will kill his own beloved son. At the last moment, God intervenes, an angel stops Abraham from doing what we cannot believe God asked him to do.   Isaac was never in true danger . We never get any glimpse of the emotional trial this was.  Abraham appears as a good solider, following orders. He offers a ram as a sacrifice and calls the place “the Lord will provide”.  In later verses more news comes for Abraham, its good again, he is told Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you,

 Instead of delving into why God has done this test, I prefer to celebrate that God never gives anyone this test again. There are lessons in this story we can see in the Reformation as well.  The demands of faith are not easy. A life of faith is not easy.  Martin Luther endured personal and spiritual struggles throughout his life, losing a child and facing what he considered attacks by demonic forces trying to pull him from God.  In his famous hymn a Mighty Fortress is our God tells us that even if we lose everything we value, our children, family, house, fame, possessions, we are still loved and protected by God.  Luther writes: If they take our house, goods, fame, child or spouse, wretch our life away, they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever.  I had sung this hymn a good 15 or 20 times before I noticed this line, a frightening vision that directs our trust always and only at God alone, to the place where Abraham was throughout this story.

As Luther develops his theology, he never forgets, centuries after the sacrifice (well non sacrifice) of Isaac, God will be in Abraham’s position, with God’s beloved Son Jesus on the cross and this time, there is no last second reprieve. At the crucifixion, the crowds, the disciples, even Jesus himself wonders will God stop it.  Once again, only God knows what is happening, that Jesus will rise again and destroy the power of sin and death once and for all.   Luther had little patience for people who thought or acted like God did rescue Jesus from death. Instead, there was the Theology of the Cross, the realization that God is present in our suffering, helping us endure. Faith is not a get out of suffering free card, it’s a little note where God promises you are loved, saved and cared for.  Prayer is not a magic way to get what you want, it’s a reminder that you are loved, saved and cared for by God.  

Finally, One of the main causes that led Luther to speak up about what was going on in the religious life of his time was the burdens people were carrying, their anxiety about being forgiven, their fear of eternal hell and concern about following all the rules that had accumulated in church over the years.  Luther speaks up because he realized that God does not want us to carry these burdens.  There will be the burdens of remaining faithful in the face of evil, tragedy and temptation. There will not be the burdens of wondering if you are forgiven or loved by God.        

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon for September 10



The reading

Genesis 1:1--2:4a

1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 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. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights -- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night -- and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." 29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

The message

A few weeks ago, on one of those very hot days, Jen and I went out to long beach.  We go there 2 or 3 times a Summer.  This time, we saw and heard something strange.  As we settled in our spot, we heard loud crashes.  Looking over I noticed a giant piece of heavy machinery with a claw on it.  A few beaches over they were creating a new jetty (those lines of rock that reach out into the ocean to protect beaches from waves and erosion).  I walked over and watched for a while as this machine and operator lifted large rocks and dropped them in the ocean.  It was loud and they had all sorts of barriers and guards around the site to protect people. (I know because I’d get yelled at whenever I tried to sneak past one of them to get a closer look). Even just moving that handful of stones was loud, dangerous and careful work. This small example of separating earth and water is a reminder that the world is bigger than we can understand.  

Over the past few days, we have watched flooding bring chaos to Houston, other parts of the US, and places around the world including Bangladesh, India and Nepal. We have watched an earthquake bring chaos to Mexico. We hear talk of storm surges and approaching Hurricanes with anxiety about the chaos they might bring. We hear reports of wind destroying parts of the Caribbean. Yesterday, I saw pictures of the damage in St Martin, what beautiful places I saw a few years ago look like now. We pray for the people of Florida as they deal with Hurricane Irma and we pray for all those affected by these events.  We can anticipate, track and follow these things but not much else. We have seen what wind and water can do and it is another reminder that the world is bigger than we can understand. 

Perhaps the biggest reminder we have about the scale of the world is the Sunday series we just finished on the book of Revelation. During August we spent 4 weeks with the Book of Revelation, which is, like Genesis 1, is a story of creation.  Revelation is packed with things we do not understand.  In John’s visions of great destructor ion, we come close to fully seeing chaos. From that comes the new creation, the holy city where God and Jesus sit in the middle of life.  The book of Revelation does not end with the chaos being held back.  In Revelation, the chaos is completely released and completely destroyed. We hear God’s declaration “let there be light” In Revelation, that sounds like “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light”.  We are left wondering if the horrific visions in Revelation are a glimpse of the forces, the violence and natural chaos that are always around us but are often restrained.    

Here, there is great agreement with science.  At the center of the big bang theory, the most adhered to scientific belief about the origins of the universe, is the observation that the universe was formed by a singular event that started to shape chaos.  There is a particular order to the world that makes life possible. One of the strongest arguments there is today for the existence of God, of a creator and sustainer in the world, looks at the way the universe is finely tuned for life.  We are always on the edge of chaos. If something like gravity or the strong nuclear force was just slightly different, life could not exist. If any one of the elements that make up our world were slightly heavier or lighter, life could not exist. If temperatures at all different stages of evolution were a little bit colder or warmer, life could not exist. If any of the 1000s and 1000s of laws, ratios and percentages that are constant in our universe were a tiny bit different, life could not exist.  

Today, we hear the story of God taking chaos, the formless void of darkness and creating life. Genesis 1 is a story. It is not science. It is not history. It is not journalism. It is not God’s diary where the Lord dutifully recorded creation.  It is better than all of those things.  This story of creation teaches us about God.  It reveals to us things we need to be told, things we cannot reason or experience with our senses.  We hear the story of God forming life from chaos, of God moving everything, from grains of sand and raindrops to mountains and oceans, of God separating light and dark, land and water, of God creating life from the stuff that was made.  This story teaches us that God is in control, often in ways we cannot comprehend or directly notice.  (The second creation story starting in Genesis 2:4 reveals to us that God is always present in the world, that God communicates with us and cares for us).   

Genesis 1 also teaches us that everything and everyone has a place and a purpose.  Humans are in relationship with creation but placed in a position of great power and authority. People are blessed are told be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  This is one of those times when I wish the bible (and modern translators) was more clear.  Those two words Subdue and dominion have led to something called Dominion Theology, basically God lets people do whatever you want to creation.  We have to look at the Hebrew words for subdue and dominion (I have talked about this before, but it’s not exactly the type of stuff that sticks in people’s minds). The Hebrew word Kabash means subdue or enslave but it is only used in military terms when referring to an enemy out to harm you.  It is only used means  the party being subdued is already hostile. To not subdue an attacking army would lead to death.  We must subdue creation in ways that lead to life and we must do it to the degree it restrains chaos.  The Hebrew word Radah means Dominion. It is also used in Psalm 72, a song written for the coronation of King Solomon.  Verse 8 declares: “May Solomon have dominion from sea to sea . . .” If you look at Pslam 72, verses 12-14 you see what that dominion, that radah, looks like: He delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.  When God uses the word dominion, it means a relationship as caretaker.   

Of course, since creation, people have done the opposite, using power to gain, to oppress, to take more than they need, to not care about future generations, people’s actions have brought the world to edge of destruction, to letting that chaos we fear so deeply in. Let’s try to do better.      

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sermon for September 3



The reading 

Revelation 21:1-6; 22:1-5
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The message

Today, we have our last of 4 weeks on the Book of Revelation.  The readings have been very selective, we skipped chapters 8 to 21, the parts of the Book that share John’s visions of the end times, the destruction of creation, the reign of demonic powers, tribulations and death.  Those are the parts of Revelation people know and struggle to understand.  They are the words and visions that makes movies captivate audiences, people of faith live in fear and religious cults thrive.  I am not not pretending they are not there, we are avoiding them because they are the parts of the Book that were never meant to be its focus or its message.  Instead, Revelation shows people practicing a new, distrusted Christian faith and living in persecution that God will be victorious over all forces of evil and God will make all things new.  (We will look at some of the nasty parts during our bible study after church)    

Our first 3 weeks, we looked at the symbolism, history and message of Revelation.  The book opens with letters of encouragement, celebration and criticism written to 7 different churches.  Revelation 4 is the first vision of the heavenly throne room.  Many parts of this vision are reported by prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah (a large amount of Revelation references Old Testament writings).  The vision of God’s throne room shows that God is all powerful and God is to be praised. In the throne room, there are 4 creatures covered in eyes, which represent all creation, singing constant praise to God. There are 24 elders that represent the community of faith and they too worship God. (24 to represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples)   Even the physical properties and layout of the throne room reflect God’s power and glory. 

In Chapter 5, we see God, seated in the throne, holding a sealed scroll containing God’s plan of judgment and salvation. The peace of heaven is interrupted when an angel calls out “who can open the scroll”, who can start, direct and fulfill this plan.   The answer is that Jesus can. He appears as a lamb that has been slaughtered (but is alive) with 7 horns (showing all power) and 7 eyes (showing God’s total presence in the world).   He can do this because he has already defeated sin and death.  With his death and resurrection Jesus has brought the forgiveness of sins to all people and taken away the power of death.  The events that happen when the seals on the scroll are opened (the horrific chapters we skipped over) is sort of clean up, finishing work already done when Jesus rose from the dead.

Last week, in Chapter 6 and 7, we had the only glimpse of Revelation’s destruction shared in this series.  Jesus opens the first 6 seals. Each one unleashes a new terror on the creation God loves.  Each one escalates in a sort of unstoppable progression towards the complete destruction of creation. There is a break between opening the 6th and 7th seal. This offers us a much needed reminder that God is life, forgiveness and love.  As the visions escalate and approach the 7th seal, the visions change and our attention to pointed towards great promises, good news of God’s protection of the faithful and ultimately salvation.  Where we expect to hear visions of complete destruction, we hear, They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." As the horror starts, we are shown that the world does not end with total destruction, it ends with a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"    

After this pause in destruction, chapters 8 to 21, describe John’s vision of the end times.  The 7th seal releases a series of angels with trumpets and bowls.  Each one blows a horn  or pours out a bowl and initiates a horror (things like the sun falling from the sky and burning up a third of the earth).  The symbolism of each vision shows us that God will defeat the forces of evil, sin, death, inequality and empire. One releases Satan who is allowed to reign over the earth for 1000 years (that time has the the most horrific, brutal and destructive events in Revelation.) In Chapter 20, the 1000 year reign of Satan ends.  Now Satan and the forces of evil are imprisoned for 1000 years, put away so they cannot deceive or cause harm.  After this, Christ reigns for 1000 years, along with the martyrs and those who did not worship the beast during the trials.  When that time ends, Satan is released and there is a final battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil.  This ends with God’s victory.  Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire and there is the second death (the final condemning of the unfaithful). 

Today, it is done.  God’s victory is total and complete. As the battle between good and evil is over, as the book of Revelation ends, we come back to those promises seen in the throne room and that vision between the 6th and 7th seal.  Everything ends with God’s new creation.  We will end our series with looking at that new creation.  (next week, our readings begin again with Genesis 1, we will see the first creation). There is a new relationship with God.  At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God with us.  If that thought that was great, wait till you hear what happens now. God and Jesus are sitting in the middle of the street.  “the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them”.  This is not temporary or conditional, this is a new covenant.  At the heart of the Old Testament is God’s singular promise: I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.  Now, at the end, the promise is plural, They will be his peoples and God will be with them.  

So what is life like in this new creation, a place where death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, where there will be no more hunger or thirst, no more floods. I personally see the visions of war in chapters 8 to 20 as a reminder that these things do not leave easily, they are deeply rooted in our consciousness and our world. They do not pack up quietly and go gently.  Again, it is total victory. There is no fear of those things coming back, no memory of what used to be.
I had a very hard time thinking of what to say about life in this place.  One of my friends told me about a sermon he heard on this reading, so I am going to copy that.  The pastor talked about this as a place where there were no keys.  I am trusting and see Elmhurst and Woodside as generally safe communities but this is my standard set of keys for the church. (I show about 20 keys I regularly carry).  In God’s new creation, they are not necessary.       

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon for August 27



The reading

Revelation 6:1-8; 7:9-17   

6:1 Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.  When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, "Come!" And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.  When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, "Come!" I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand,  and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!"  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, "Come!"  I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."


The message
  
We are at the start of the challenging chapters of the book of revelation (which make up most of the book). We have the first visions of the horsemen of the apolypase, beings who will bring great destruction. In the early chapters, we saw the first vision of God’s throne room, a heavenly court built and centered around worship, praise and God.   Last week that throne room, with the countless angels, people and creatures, celebrated that Jesus, the lamb who was slaughtered but is alive, was worthy of opening the seals on the scroll containing God’s plan of Judgment and Salvation. This week, we wonder why they were so happy.  With the opening of each seal, peace is taken away, death and destruction are sent to the world, evil forces are given limited, temporary power over God’s creation.  There are 7 seals. The first 4 are seals of destruction. The last 3 are seals of Judgment.  (our reading only has the opening of the first 4). 

The first 4 seals release horsemen who have their nasty work to do. Each one brings death and destruction. In order, there is conquest, violence, economic insecurity, and death. The horsemen portray threats that are real. Few people, religious or not, would doubt these things could happen.  They were real for the original audience.  The first horseman brings defeat in war.  People knew their communities could be invaded and their armies defeated, events that would lead to slavery, exile, genocide or other horrors. The second horseman brings violence. At the time, there was an unstable peace we call the Pax Romana, where the Roman Empire was so powerful, no one would fight or resist them. That peace was fragile and no one really knew what the consequences of its collapse would be. The third horseman, the only one who speaks,  brings extreme economic inequality.  His words A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine indicate an extreme rise in the costs of basic food supplies (wheat and barley) that sustained the poor, while the price of luxury goods like wine and olive oil, remain the same.  A condition like this would be generated by a drought or famine (grapes and olives where deeply rooted crops that were not as affected by environmental crisis).  The 4th horseman brings death we can do nothing to prevent or stop.   

These visions are real possibilities today as well.  People might doubt parts of the Bible, not think Jesus did miracles or dismiss the good news of God’s salvation as wishful thinking but it would be hard to find anyone who doubts these visions could happen.  Most nations are afraid of losing a conflict, anxious about what war could do to their way of life, loved ones and community, the loss of everything we value. We do not have the Pax Romana but we have a decades old idea of mutually assured destruction, a fragile peace based on the reality that a significant attack by one world power against another will result in the complete destruction of both (and most of their neighbors too).  To imagine the economic inequality and undeserved death brought by the 3rd and 4th horseman, you just need to look at the news, they seem to be happen all the time.  As horrible as these things are to read about in the Book of Revelation, we are close to making them happen (and we don’t even need those horsemen to help, we can destroy life, kill others and create inequality all by ourselves).      

Perhaps that is why people are so obsessed with the visions of destruction in Revelation. It’s a multi billion dollar industry, creating movies, shows and one of the best-selling book series of all time (a collection of delusional and creepy beliefs called the left behind series, books I throw out when I see them in church libraries). We can point to events that appear to be happening.  There are churches and pastors who convince their congregations they will be relaxing on clouds drinking lemonade and watching God destroy all their enemies, like a big budget blockbuster movie.  There are people building bunkers, stashing supplies and hoarding weapons to get ready for this time.  There are people who don’t care about the environment because we will not need it much longer.  We need to not let people do that stuff in Jesus name. We can easily lose sight of the fact that revelation is not about the end of the world, it is about God’s new creation and victory over evil.  The visions of destruction stop between the 6th and 7th seal. (the 7th seal releases a group of 7 angels with trumpets, as each one blows the trumpet, things like stars falling out of the sky, mountains of fire and great plagues kill huge numbers of people).   

The break between seal 6 and 7 is a much needed reminder that God is life, forgiveness and love.  As the visions escalate and approach the 7th seal, we would expect complete destruction, an unstoppable progression.  Instead, the visions stop and our attention to pointed towards great promises, God’s protection of the faithful and ultimately salvation.  Where we expect to hear visions of complete destruction, we hear, They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."     
The world does not end with total destruction, it ends with a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"   

We need to try as hard at that vision of every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, as we do trying to make "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!"  happen. 

We need to try as hard at creating a world where They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd  as we do to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another;    We need to be obsessed with the time when people have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb not with the ordeal  

We need to be singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.", not sit quietly afraid of our loving God. We need to be looking forward to the time when God will wipe away every tear from their eyes not the moment when our creating God brings destruction.  Those days of death and evil will come and go, God’s promises will remain forever.