Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
My favorite theologian Karl Barth was known for saying, “Preachers ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” At least, that’s what people like to say that he said. When, in fact, what he actually said was, “Read your Bibles and read your newspapers, but interpret newspapers from your Bibles.”
Things happen in the world and the church responds by casting the light of the gospel on the events of the world. To gather in this place in this way week after week as if everything that happens out there doesn’t affect what we do here is a denial of reality. But, as Christians, we know that what we do here actually shapes how we behave out there.
And yet, the work of the church is risky business. It is risky business because violence has a way of making a mockery of words.
We say, “Never again,” and then it happens again.
We say, “This is not who we are,” even though it usually is exactly who we are.
We say, “The time has come for change,” but things often stay the same.
What then can we, or for that matter I, say in a time riddled with violence?
What does it say about us, as a people, that our moral leaders are not those who stand in pulpits, or even those who sit in a pew, but those who host late night talk shows and moderate debates on cable news networks?
Have we, the church, not something to say?
“See, I am coming soon” says the Lord, “I am the A and the Z, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
This Bible, the strange new world it opens up for us, gives life and life abundant when we have scripturally shaped imaginations and live accordingly in a world that scripture produces.
Week after week, year after year, we sit before the throne of the Lord and we read God’s words. The Bible is stained with the cost of God’s love. Though we have it here on the table without blemish, currently turned to the final page, it is very much a living witness to the confounding reality of God. We read these words over and over and over again because our lives depend on them.
I don’t know about you, but for me, this week, I needed desperately to cling to the promises of God in this book. This book that points to the living God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. I needed hope because things feel so very hopeless.
On Monday morning, sitting with my family at the table with our breakfast, my 6 year old son casually asked, “Dad, what were your lockdown drills like in school?”
And I said, “Buddy, we didn’t have lock down drills when I was in school.”
It’s not as if the world of my youth was better or safer than the world today, but something has changed. And not for the better.
The next day 19 children didn’t come home from school in Texas, and neither did 2 teachers.
Blessed are those who weep with those who weep and who mourn with those who mourn. Jesus says, “I am the root and the descent of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the church say, “Come.”
Why do we beckon for the Lord?
Because we need all the help we can get.
All is not as it should be.
Jesus is the A and the Z, and every letter in between. As the divine Word of God Jesus is present in our letters and our words and our speech. Jesus speaks when we no longer know what to say.
On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Anderson and I took chairs from our children’s Sunday school classrooms, and we placed them on the front lawn, just on the other side of those doors. We did so as a witness to the 19 children whose chairs are now empty at school, and to the 2 adults who no longer teach.
When I came back into the sanctuary, I looked over my shoulder at those empty chairs and I burst into tears. And I prayed for Jesus to come.
Come Lord Jesus, rend open our hardened hearts. Come Lord Jesus and guide us in the way of justice and truth. Come Lord Jesus and rectify our wrongs.
And yet, just as I, and even we, pray for Jesus to come, the Lord calls for us to gather at the altar. It’s why churches regardless of denominational affiliation or theological posturing have altars in their sanctuaries – it is a place of holiness where we can kneel before the Lord.
God beckons us to the altar so that we might be altered. We are invited not because we are good, or virtuous, or even right. We are brought before the throne of the Lord because we are not as we should be, and God has a habit of making something of our nothing.
Judgment comes first for the household of God, Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist as a shining star for the rest of the world to follow, we don’t scoff at the world in all of its trespasses. Instead, we exist to confess the condition of our condition, we gather to the the truth.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That’s our prayer before we receive communion. It it the recognition of who we are and why we so desperately need to put something holy into us that we might become who God is calling us to be. Because if that work is up to us alone, then it will never ever happen.
Confession is often used as another way to say repentance. Before we come to the altar, before we come to the throne, we confess or repent of our wrongs. But repentance is not simply feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty about what we’ve done or left undone.
Guilt and shame don’t produce change.
In fact, more often than not, guilt and shame usually lead to more guilt and more shame.
Change comes when we discover, oddly enough, that the God we expected to clobber us with guilt instead clobbers us with grace. God does not need to destroy us in order to deliver us. God’s love really is so powerful and so strange that it is the difference that makes all the difference.
Put another way: when we come to grips with the confounding nature of God’s love for people even like us, we can’t help but live differently.
Therefore, we don’t fall to our knees in order to get God to do something. We fall to our knees because God has already done the something we need.
Karl Barth once said that only Christians are sinners. That is: only those who know how much they are loved can ever understand how much they have betrayed that love.
In other words: it is only in the light of grace that we can become strong enough to admit that we can be wrong, and then try to take steps in a direction of discipleship.
Contrary to how it might feel, or even be said in church, God is not done with us. That’s why the psalmist can cry out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” The psalmist knows that our hearts are indeed, unclean. We need something done to us. And that something has a name: Jesus.
There’s this story from Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, about his experience in a Nazi death camp, and I can’t get it out of my head:
“One evening, when we were already resting not he floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister cloud glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey hud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
When we do this, when we gather for worship, and meet at the altar, and sing these songs, and pray these prayers, its like the beauty of the sunset reflecting in the puddles of a hopeless gray death camp. God’s grace is a thing of immense and overwhelming beauty shining on a world of sin and pain and loss.
But what we do and what we experience here does not merely console us or offer us a brief reprieve from the world with the beauty of God’s grace. It also awakens within us a holy impatience, as Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, a faithful sense of outrage, and awareness of how beautiful the world could be, but is not.
At least, not yet.
Grace isn’t expensive, nor is it cheap, grace is free. But discipleship comes with a cost. Following the Lord means considering how God in Christ knew the deep pain and brokenness of life, that we creatures are cruel and disappointing, that things don’t often work out quite the way we want them to. And yet our God does not stand aloof from human suffering while offering trite platitudes about the beyond. Instead, God comes to us, right down in the muck and mire of life, and says “Follow me.”
Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.
This is the end of the strange new world of the Bible. These are literally the end of words. All that needs to be said is said and scripture concludes with a call for the Lord to come!
Come Lord Jesus, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee!
Come Lord Jesus! Show us how beautiful the world could be if we were only willing to take steps into your kingdom rather than the kingdoms of our own making.
Come Lord Jesus! Fill us with the grace of holy impatience because something needs to change! Amen.