Saturday, April 27, 2013

Thirsty for Consolation

Revelation 21:1-6
5th Sunday of Easter (C)
April 28, 2013
William G. Carter

 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 as their God; 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.”

            "Some passages, like this one, should be read and left alone." That's advice from Charles Rice, who taught preaching at a Methodist seminary for many years. "Just read the words. Put them in the air. Let the words do their work."

            It's true that some texts need no commentary. Either the time is right, and we are ready to hear the words. Or the text has enough voltage to create its own current. My friend Charles says, "Just read Revelation 21 and leave it alone."

            Generally that is good advice. But I'm a preacher. And I have 19 more minutes yet to go. What can I say about a passage should be left alone?

            Particularly a text like this one. If the 23rd Psalm is the favorite passage that most lay people want read at their funerals, the first six verses of Revelation 21 are among the favorite verses for ministers. When I planned my funeral a number of years ago, I made sure that this text will be read when I die. If possible, I want a sermon to be preached on this passage. It's one of my favorites, and for a number of reasons.

            The chief reason, drawing on the final line of the text, is that I am thirsty for its promises. I am tired of death and mourning and tears. I am weary of never seeing God face to face. The old creation can be painful, so give us a new one!

Years ago, I was assigned to preach a sermon on this text by the Alumni/ae Association at Princeton Seminary. Actually it went something like this – I slipped down the hall to go to the men’s room and they needed someone to preside at a memorial service. So I got the assignment, to preach as the names were read of a hundred-twenty-five seminary graduates who had died that year.

            I didn’t know most of those people. But as soon as I read the Revelation text, peace and hope passed into the room. We heard the promises God had for them and for us: "a new heaven, a new earth, a new city coming down, every tear will be wiped away, death will be no more, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more." I can't explain those words. Any attempt to reduce them or manage them would be in vain. They are simply too big for us to comprehend. But I can tell you that they are true.

            What I'm getting at is this: the words we hear this morning point to a realm beyond the harsh suffering of this life. In short, they point to something we call "heaven."

            And when I say that word "heaven," I need to say very clearly that I'm talking about something that's way over my head. We can tell stories about golden harps. We can paint pictures of other-worldly beings with wings. We can even tell jokes about the three guys who met St. Peter at the gate. But the fact of the matter is, when we talk about heaven, do we have any idea what we're talking about?

            Most of us would agree that whatever heaven actually is, it's vastly different from anything we know. I recall the advice given by a Scottish cleric to a group of young preachers. "When you speak of heaven," he said, "let your smile widen, your eyes sparkle, your countenance shine. But when you speak of hell, well, your every-day face will do."

            It's difficult to say what heaven is like, other than it's nothing like anything around here. As one of Garrison Keillor's friends once asked on a radio joke show, "Do you know why New Yorkers are so depressed? It's because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey." We want something different. We pray that heaven will - somehow - be different.

            A lot of people think of heaven as a place of eternal rest. They're so busy in this life, they want to relax in the next life. "Rest in peace." In fact, that picture has so dominated our thinking that it's raised some questions.

            My good friend Guy Griffith spent some time with a task force that wrote a church catechism that our confirmation class is now working through. A catechism is a question-and-answer document to be used in teaching Christian faith.

            The catechism is a solid piece of work, but Guy says when it was first written, there was one question that strikes people as being out of place. It's question 88. "Won't heaven be a boring place?" The answer, of course, begins with the word "No." The answer begins, “No, heaven is our true home, a world of love…” But I think it's telling that such a question would even be asked, much less printed.

            What do we expect?  Eugene Peterson writes, "Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go to Florida - they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical heaven is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of hard city life. It is the invasion of the city by the (Holy) City. We enter heaven not by escaping what we don't like, but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us.”[1]

            According to the writer of Revelation 21, heaven is a holy city that comes down here. God makes a home within our midst. We are not snatched away into the clouds; rather, the Mystery beyond the clouds comes down and draws near to us. As Peterson continues, "There is not so much as a hint of escapism in St. John's heaven. This is not a long (eternal) weekend away from the responsibilities of employment and citizenship, but the intensification and healing of them. Heaven is formed out of dirty streets and murderous alleys . . . a city, but now a holy city."[2]

            Perhaps you heard about the church that wanted to clean its stained glass windows. They had a glorious window of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. Everything sparkled and gleamed, and they hadn't realized that the glass was so covered with dirt and soot. As they wiped away the grime, something astonishing happened. They could see the buildings of their own community through this window. Because of that, some of those church people couldn't look at their own community quite the same way again. They started a soup kitchen, because in the final city of God, every person will be fed. They started a tutoring program after school, because in the New Jerusalem, every child will have the full knowledge of the children of God. They began to see their city through the lens of God's eternal city.

            What do we expect of heaven? Words fail us. When the writer of this book talks about heaven, his language is poetic, not sequential. Every sentence is clipped. But he points to the promise that God is coming to be with God's people.

            According to the story line of Revelation, "the funeral is over and a wedding is in progress."[3] Ever since chapter 6, we have heard a rhythm of woes, plagues, calamities, and disasters, countered at every turn by triumphant saints and songs of praise. The old world is fading, gasping and moaning all the way. By chapter 21, all of that will be over, and a new creation is on the way. The bridal feast between God and the church is announced. The new heaven is born, a new earth is given, a new city comes down. The pictures clash with one another, to be sure, and we stretch for words which describe it.

            But the one thing we know is that there will no longer be any distance between God and God's people. No longer will we have to say "God is here" when God is nowhere in sight. No longer will we live by whispered assurances. Remember that curtain which was ripped apart when Jesus died? The day is coming when the whole thing will be taken down, and what we have caught in glimpses shall be seen face to face.

            If God can come that close, every tear will be wiped away. Every sorrow will be satisfied. This side of the Jordan River, it is impossible for us to know how. But thanks to what we've seen God do in raising Jesus from the dead, it is possible for us to know Who. What has been done for Jesus shall ultimately be done for us.
            I met a retired man who reminisced of taking the famous theologian Paul Tillich to the airport one time. Tillich had just finished giving a brilliant but somewhat obtuse lecture to a group of ministers on the topic of eternal life. The airport was two hours away, and Jim thought he could spend the time talking to Dr. Tillich and figuring out what he had just heard.

            They started out for the airport and conversation didn't go very well. Jim kept asking questions that made less sense to his guest than the lecture had to him. Finally Dr. Tillich looked at him in considerable dismay. In a thick German accent he said, "Look, all it means is that God is going to win.”[4]

            That's the one thing we know for certain. God is going to win. We cannot know how, but we can trust Who. The city that crucified Jesus shall become the New Jerusalem. All that God has promised us in whispers shall be shouted from the rooftops. All that God has given in glimpses shall be seen in complete splendor. Indeed, "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."

            Heaven is still a matter that remains above our heads. But we can speak of what we know, in the full assurance that it is promised in Jesus, our Lord, and shall be completed in the power of God. So let me close with some words from St. Augustine:

Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security . . . We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend.

God's praises are sung both there and here,
but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security;
here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever;
here they are sung in hope, there in hope's fulfillment;
here, they are sung by wayfarers, there by those living in their own country.

So then . . . let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure,
but in order to lighten our labors.
You should sing as wayfarers do - sing, but continue your journey . . .
Sing then, but keep going.[5]

            And God said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) 174.
[2] ibid, 174.
[3] Rudolph W. Raber, "Expository Article: Revelation 21:1-8," Interpretation: 296-301.
[4] "God is Going to Win," James E. Andrews, The Protestant Hour, PRTV, Atlanta, 12 June 1977.
[5] As quoted in Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 368.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Well-Populated Heaven

Revelation 7:9-17
Easter 4
April 21, 2013
William G. Carter

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!’ 

In these days after Easter, we are working through some of the visions in the book of Revelation. What strikes me today is how big they are. Nothing small happens in the final book of the Bible. A scroll is opened and the whole universe is given a purpose and destiny. The door to heaven opens and all creatures are singing praises to God. All creatures, not merely a few. Jesus returns on a cloud and every eye shall see him. This is not a personal insight, but a universal vision. The book of Revelation is no small unveiling. This is not the small prediction of a fortune cookie or the personal advice of a horoscope. Everything is revealed.

            So the prophet John reports on the people who stand before God’s throne in heaven. It’s so impressive how many souls there are. John says, “It was a great multitude. There are so many people that it is impossible to count them all.” That is what he sees. I don’t know how you deal with crowds.  

            We know it has to go this way. The Bible begins in a garden and concludes in a city. Genesis begins with the creation of the first human, Revelation ends with a well-populated heaven. And there are more people there than anybody can count.

            This has led people to make a few jokes. You have heard them and told them. A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the gate and offers to show him around. The eternal realm is just as Jesus described, a mansion with many rooms. They go into the choir room, and the Methodists and the Pentecostals are singing exuberant hymns. They go to the wine cellar (heaven has a wine cellar, you know), and the Catholics and the Episcopalians are selecting the vintages for that day’s great banquet. They pass by a conference room and the Presbyterians are having a committee meeting.

Then they come upon another room, no window in the door, locked from the inside. The man says, “Who’s in there?” Saint Peter says, “Those are the people from the Independent Baptist Church. They think they are the only ones here.”

            It does amaze some people that God’s heaven is well-populated. More people than anybody can count! Some folks have reduced faith to a personal matter, just me and Jesus, and the prospect of a crowd is more than they can handle. Others have declared that heaven will be full of people just like them, thereby declaring that they are the gatekeepers, and not Jesus himself, who says, “I am the gate for the sheep.”[1] They don’t know how to handle the deep, wide mercy of God.

            Still others don’t like generalities. They want a number. “Give us a number!” And then, they find a number. It’s right there, a few lines immediately before our text: one-hundred-forty-four thousand. Aha, John gives us a number. One-hundred-forty-four thousand.

            That brings to mind the strange story of Charles Taze Russell. Ever hear of him? Raised as a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, he left the Presbyterians as a teenager. At that time, he was drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk of people burning in hell, as a way of forcing others to convert. It didn’t work, so he went his own way.

Russell was an independent student of the Bible, defined as somebody who comes up with his own ideas. He made a fortune as the owner of some clothing stores, but in 1876, he sold his five stores for a sum equivalent to our 6.5 million dollars. He had become convinced that Christ would come and the world would end in April 1878, so he decided to devote his remaining days to gathering followers and spreading his message.

            April 1878 came and went. This pushed him to recalculate his dates, and he started a magazine called “Zion’s Watch Tower,” which is now called “The Watchtower.” Maybe you’ve heard of that. Another one of his beliefs was that exactly 144,000 people would be raised in the final resurrection. That was quite an incentive for his movement, which came to be called the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, when the membership roles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reached 144,001, Russell’s people had to recalculate a few more figures. Either that, or find out who had sneaked in.

            There’s been a lot of silliness about numbers and how they are utilized in the book of Revelation. You see, John is not always counting when he gives us a number. Rather he is saying something else. In ancient times, numbers had symbolic value. Four was considered a perfect number. So was seven, and also twelve. The number one-thousand was meant as a huge number, an amplification. When John says later in this book that Christ reigned for a thousand years, he means “a really long time.”

            There are seven days in the week that God created. Seven is complete and perfect. If you have a six, it is unfinished and imperfect. And if you have three sixes – 666 - that symbolizes something that is really, really bad. Maybe you heard about the maintenance worker in Tennessee who got a W-2 tax form, saw the number “666” on it, so he quit his job. True story! And don’t tell him that my cell phone number has “666” in it; I knew the gadget was evil and now I have my evidence.

            Well, what about 144,000? There were twelve tribes of Israel, so amplify each one by a factor of one thousand. Do the math: 12,000 times 12,000 equals 144,000. It points to God’s complete tribe, and the number signifies it was an enormous group of people. It is not be taken literally, any more than the 666 on the W-2.

When John writes down his visions in the book of Revelation, he wants to expand our imaginations, not specify the membership list. He is pointing to a number that no one can count. The crowd is bigger than anything we could ever count. No one in the ancient Roman Empire could imagine that. The colosseum in Rome seated about 50,000 people. The great theater in Ephesus, not far from the island where John wrote down his Revelation, could handle about 25,000 people. So for John, 144,000 is about the same size as the number that I used as a kid – a million zillion. We had no intentions of counting that high. It was a million zillion.

How many leaves on that big tree? A million zillion. How many chores did he have to do around the house? A million zillion. How many grains of sand on the beach? How many home runs did Willie Mays hit? A million zillion. In other words, a million zillion.

How many people gather around God’s heavenly throne? Not 144,000 or 144,001, but a million zillion. More than anybody could ever count, even though God knows every single one. God loves every single one. God saves every single one. And I think that means there is always room for one more.

            It pushes the question: if you would like to end up in heaven, how well do you get along with others? Praise is a community activity. It’s not a little personal thing. Praise belongs to crowd. Even if we can’t always see a crowd, out there is a crowd, and it is God’s crowd. Authentic Christian faith is a communal faith. It belongs to a much larger gathering than we can imagine, manage, or sort out.  

            John says, “I see a multitude … from every tribe and every nation. They were people of every language.” There was no single language, as there was before the Tower of Babel. No, this is God’s Pentecost community, where speech is in every conceivable language, even the language that nobody knows.

            I remember when my wife and I attended worship at the Back Free Church, near the city of Stornoway in the western Hebrides Islands of Scotland. I had heard they chanted the psalms in that church, line by line, and I wanted to experience that. So I dragged Jamie out there for a Sunday morning, ten miles from nowhere. The chanted the psalms, all right, in Gaelic. Then the preacher stood and preached passionately for fifty-two minutes in Gaelic. I did not understand a word he said, but from the passion in his voice, I knew he was talking about Jesus. The message mattered, the vocabulary did not. When he spoke, it felt like we were part of something so much bigger. Infinitely bigger.

            From every tribe and nation – that’s what John sees. A peaceful, joyful mob, all gathered around God. All the pain and destruction from earth has not worn them down. They have persevered. They have kept going. Last Monday, Andy Howard, son of my friend Roger Howard, finished the Boston Marathon in about three hours. While he was resting in a nearby hotel with his sister, who also ran the race, the bombs went off. Andy told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the shock of going outside, seeing the euphoria of long-distance runners turn to fear.

            But then one of his fellow racers added this: “I will be back every year that I can qualify for it. We distance runners don’t stop. We keep going. Our sport is all about perseverance. This sort of thing only instills more solidarity among us to bid together and continue doing what we do.”[2] It’s all about perseverance – running the race all the way to the end. John says the saints gathered around God have gone through a great ordeal and kept going.

            How many are there? More than anybody can count. Who are they? People of every tribe and nation. I checked to be sure, and that’s what it says: every tribe and nation.

A number of years ago, Ken Burns filmed a lot of jazz musicians for a series on PBS. There is one segment that still pierces my heart. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was talking about returning from World War 2. Brubeck put together a band that played its way through Europe during the war. The band featured a mixture of musicians from different races. It was called the Wolf Pack Band. Black and white musicians worked together, laughed together, played music together. When the war was over, however, they returned to the same, old America. Black musicians could not buy a hamburger at the same lunch counter as the whites.

As he struggled to make sense of American racism, Brubeck recalled an event from his childhood. His father was a cattle rancher in California. One day he took Dave out to meet one of the other ranchers, an African American, and said, “Take off your shirt and show Dave.” The man unbuttoned his shirt and showed the marks of where he had once been branded by a cattle iron. Dave’s father said, “These things can’t happen anymore.” As he retold the story for Ken Burns, Dave began to weep.

That scene still haunts me. It nearly immobilizes me. And that’s my problem. As for Dave Brubeck, do you know what he did with that experience? Dave Brubeck put together a world-famous quartet that featured white and black musicians. And if a bigoted concert promoter had a problem with that, Brubeck would simply cancel the gig, keep the non-refundable deposit, and go somewhere else.

You know how he could do that? Because he knew that God’s people was a crowd full of people who did not look only like him. He learned that it from his father. He also learned it in church, where his mother was a Presbyterian choir director who led the people to sing, Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” And she knew the choir was bigger than anybody could ever count.

            Go ahead. Try and count them. How many are there? A million zillion. A million zillion saints that God has saved and gathered.

            That is to say, when we look around the crowds that we know, there is always room for one more.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Can You Hear the Song Above Us?

Revelation 5:6-14
Easter 3
April 14, 2013
William G. Carter

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.

 To prepare you for the sermon, we have to teach a song. The song is an old spiritual and it goes like this:

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

It’s a song from difficult times. An anonymous slave put that tune together. Undoubtedly it was composed in difficult times. Down here on the ground, human beings had been imported to this country from Africa. Their full humanity was reduced as they were bought and sold as mere merchandise. They could cling to hopes that they might see their families once again, but there was nothing certain about the future.

Every day was hard work. They were forced to labor for those who purchased them. If they resisted or rebelled, they were treated fiercely. The African slaves were strangers in a foreign land, identified and demeaned by the color of their skin. To this day, the emotional scars of slavery have never been healed in our country.

And yet, in the middle of that brutal enterprise, this song emerged. As some slaves were compelled to go to the white people’s churches, they heard about a God who is above all the brutality down here on earth. The words were formed, then repeated. The melody swirled and emerged. The song pulled the singers off the ground and up toward the sky.  Can we sing it again?

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

There must be a God somewhere. Take that, not as a statement of ambiguity, but as a word of protest. There is something beyond the pain and suffering on earth. There is Someone beyond the people who oppress, demean, and destroy. There must be a God somewhere.

On December 16, 1985, the police in Johannesburg, South Africa, got word of a worship service of Christmas carols. It was schedule for Athlone, a township where people of mixed races lived together. It made the police nervous. Athlone was a community where people were weary of the minority of white people who ruled with an iron fist over the large majority of people with darker skin. When they spoke up, the police struck them down. A thousand people of color died.

Church people held prayer services, often interrupted by the authorities. Candlelight vigils were broken up by the police. They had no interest in large groups of people gathering to speak out against apartheid, a policy of white superiority in an African country. So what did the riot police do? They declared that the singing of Christmas carols in that town was “illegal,” that it stirred emotions, that it was deeply subversive. They threatened to use tear gas and horse whips to break up any such gatherings.

Do you know what the people Athlone did? They sang Christmas carols.[1] They remembered that King Herod tried to shut down the first Christmas, but they also knew there is a king greater than Herod. Do you remember the song?

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

A song like this is the key to understanding the book of Revelation. Revelation is a book of Christian protest against the forces that would oppress, demean, or destroy God’s people. The prophet John was exiled by the Roman empire. They wanted to silence him, to squelch the Christian voice. We don’t know exactly what he did to get himself sent to the rocky, little island of Patmos. Whatever it was, it got him in a lot of trouble. It might have been as simple as to say that Caesar didn’t run the world. This is God’s world; God made it, God loves it, and God is the rightful ruler of everything and everybody.
The historical records are spotty, because it was a time when the global empire had turned against the small group of people called Christians. Most of the history books are written by the empires, not by the minorities, so history is easily skewed. We do know that the Emperor Domitian was annoyed whenever anybody did not bow down and regard him as divine.
We also know that locally, citizens were encouraged to turn in their neighbors to the authorities. Was there somebody who dared to worship anything other than the empire? He or she would need to be silence. Was there anybody who would not go along with the general drift of an empire in perpetual war, an empire that used up anybody who got in its way? They would need to be eliminated.
And then, on the rocky island of Patmos, the prophet John says he saw a door swing open from heaven. The great Voice that first spoke to him like a trumpet said, “Come up here!” John was caught up, carried up. He saw a throne – The Throne! – and Caesar was not upon it. Oh no! He had a vision of God, who alone is worthy to sit on the great throne.
And then, he heard the music. The great, glorious music. Do you remember the song?
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

Some people sold us a bill of goods about the book of Revelation. They have spooked us into thinking this book is a bus schedule for the end of the world. That’s nonsense. Do you know how I know that? Because people like that haven’t read the whole book. They cherry-pick a verse here, a verse there, and glued them together a verse from the book of Daniel, and a line from that bizarre prophet Ezekiel. Then they write books that aim to scare us into speculating about Middle Eastern politics and allowing multinational companies do whatever they want.

No, if you read the whole book, Revelation is a worship manual. This is a hymnbook for the worshiping church. Lyrics are compiled from the Psalms and the prophets, all aimed at praising the God who rules over everything else. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Or as the worship leaders sing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

If we sing those words, we start seeing things differently. We begin to identify the fakes and the counterfeits who want nothing to do with a God who loves everybody. We start saving our praises for God alone, the only God who is worthy of our praises, and not the steroid-injected athlete, the silicone starlet du jour, or the get-rich-quick advisor. The song of praise trains us to praise the God we cannot see, and to take God’s concerns as our own.

In a recent book called The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice, Mark Labberton reminds us, “In the midst of a world of suffering and need, we sing. We enter into the longings and laments of God and thereby share God’s heart. We do this for the sake of enlarging the context and perspective we live in … and we are changed and called.”[2] Worship lifts us out of our isolation and our insulation. It brings us so close to God that we begin to see life differently. And it begins with a song . . .

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

Listen, I don’t know all the troubles that all of us brought to church today. I know some of them. A number of them are written on the prayer cards that we share. Others are hidden in a secret place in our hearts. I do know that if all we have are our troubles, they begin to drag us down. So I remember John the prophet of Patmos, the anonymous slave who composed today’s refrain, the Christmas carolers who ignored the riot police in South Africa. I also remember the people who work and struggle for a better world for all people. All of them know there is something more than the pain and abuse and sickness down here. It may be over our heads, but it is real.

You see, we are Easter people. Easter is more than a day; it’s a lifetime, it’s the life of eternity breaking in down here. And it comes after a hard-fought battle. In the text that we heard from chapter five, all the heavenly beings are circling around the heavenly throne. They sing that God is worthy. They know that God has written down a plan for saving the world. It is inscribed upon a scroll, perfumed by the incense-prayers of all God’s patient saints. And who is going to open this scroll? Who will reveal the plan?

None other than Jesus. John struggles to describe what he sees. He sees a Lamb standing; the Lamb had been killed, but is now standing. He has perfect power (that’s the seven horns). He has perfect clarity (that’s the seven eyes). It was the Lamb’s blood that paid the ransom to win back all God’s people. It is the Lamb’s authority that calls them to be his servants on earth.

And it is the Lamb who is given the seven-fold declaration of worthiness: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, blessing. Jesus suffered, and takes all suffering into himself. Jesus is raised, now standing in all authority, because he stands taller than all that can put us down. When we sing the song, we praise him.

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

So we sing. We lift our heads and sing. We sing because God is alive, Jesus is worthy, and the Spirit keeps filling our lungs. We sing because the song is greater than anything that threatens to destroy us.

I’ve mentioned to some of you before. Some time back, before the mayor of New York City  cleaned up the  subways, I saw a piece of graffiti that changed my life. I think it was written by the prophet John once he got off the island of Patmos. The message said,

You can punch my lips so I can't blow my horn,
but my fingers will find a piano.
You can slam the piano lid on my fingers,
but you can't stop my toes from tapping like a drum. 
You can stomp on my foot to keep my toes from tapping,
but my heart will keep swinging in four-four time.
You can even stop my heart from ticking,
but the music of the saints shall never cease.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] The Montreal Gazette, 16 December 1985. See
[2] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (DownersGrove, IVP Books, 2007) 123-124.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lord, Don't Stick Out Your Tongue!

Revelation 1:9-20
Easter 2
April 7, 2013
William G. Carter

We are spending the seven weeks of Easter in the book of Revelation. Revelation is an Easter book. It declares that Jesus is alive, that he is working out the purposes of God in the power of his resurrection. Despite what wild-eyed people have told you about this final book of the Bible, it is a hopeful book. A glorious book. Some of the opening chapter goes this way:

Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

If you drive down the road, you have probably seen the sign outside of some churches: “We believe in the literal word of God.” It’s a curious thing to say about the Bible. My hunch would be that they mean to take the Bible seriously. Nothing wrong about that. But it would be sad if the only way to take the Bible seriously is to take it literally.

Here’s the opening vision from the Book of Revelation. The Roman empire has put a Christian named John on the island of Patmos. It’s a small, rocky island off the coast of Turkey. This was an attempt to sideline him, to silence him by making him a castaway. And then, one Sunday, he hears a voice like a trumpet. Now, did that Voice say, “Too-too-too-too”?

John turns to see who speaks and the vision is really bizarre. It’s a human figure with hair white as snow. So far so good. But his eyes burn like a blazing fire. His feet are like burnished bronze and his voice, not only sounds like a trumpet, now sounds like a waterfall. He holds seven stars in his right hand. And the wildest detail of all is that a huge, sharp sword is protruding from his mouth. This is a picture of Jesus, risen from the dead. It’s almost enough for us to say, “Lord, don’t stick out your tongue!”

I’ve always wanted to ask somebody who takes the Bible literally what they would do with this. Especially the sword! There was a German woodcutter by the name of Albrecht Durer. He put this scene in a woodcut and kept it as literal as possible. The year was 1498, and there was widespread fear that the world would end in the year 1500. This was the first of fifteen woodcuts that Durer carved from a pear tree. It was dipped in ink, stamped on paper, kind of like an e-mail cartoon that gets passed around very quickly. There in the center of it is Jesus, glowing like the sun, with a large sword where his tongue should be.

It’s a fantastic image, and really strange. Many of us might quickly dismiss this as a symbolic picture out of a dream. Like the lady who told me that she dreamed of a castle surrounded by fire-breathing dragons, and inside, a maiden with long, red hair was protected by a singing harp. You might ask, “What did you have for dinner the night you had that dream?” The more astute would remind us that visions often come in the language of dreams.

But there are some people who can’t deal with symbolic language. Do you remember that series of “Left Behind” novels about ten years ago, all about the end of the world? The last one was called “Glorious Appearing” and it dealt with the second coming of Jesus. When Jesus finally comes, he speaks – and the sword comes out and literally cuts his enemies to ribbons. The novelist says their bodies were filleted. Pardon me, but that is stupid. Flat, violent, and stupid. One more reason not to read those books! [1]

We don’t have to take all of the Bible literally in order to take it seriously. As Frederick Buechner said somewhere, “If somebody claims that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask him if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he called Jesus the Lamb of God.” Chances are, the Lord is not covered with fleece.

When we enter the book of Revelation, and any other Bible document like it, we enter a world of imagination. We enter a constellation of images. If we try to photograph them, it might not work. They are not intended to be logical. Elsewhere in this book, for instance, John sees a “Lamb on the throne who will be their shepherd.” An eleventh-grade English teacher would take out a red pen and deduct a few points for “mixed metaphors.” The faithful Christian, however, knows exactly what John sees.

So what does he see when Jesus Christ, the Risen Christ, appears to him in a vision? There is the awesome glory – the bright countenance, fiery eyes, the pure-white hair. He is in the center of his people: that’s the meaning of the seven lampstands and the seven stars in his hand. But then there’s that sword – that resounding Voice with a sharp edge. The Christ who is risen is the Christ who speaks – not merely “spoke,” as in wise saying and parables long ago. But he speaks – he continues to speak. This is the Living One, was dead, but now alive forever and ever. This is the truth to which the picture-language is pointing. Jesus is still speaking.

The early church knew this. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, a preacher wrote, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[2] Further reason here why we might be tempted to pray, “Lord, don’t stick out your tongue!” Because when Jesus speaks, it makes a difference.

In his earthly ministry, all he had to say to the crippled person was, “Rise, take up your bed and walk!” and it happened. In the same power of the One who said, “Let there be light!” He could say, “Your sins are forgiven!” and it was so. Some people around him said, “Who does he think he is? Only God forgives sins.” Well, duh…

When Jesus enters into conversation with people, they are rarely left unaffected. Our men’s group is working through the conversations that Jesus had with people in the Gospel of John. Every one of those people is exposed, affected, and changed somehow. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword.”

In the first century, the sword was a fierce instrument. There were no guns, no explosive devices. If somebody had a sword, they had a great deal of power. Indeed, when Jesus appears throughout the book of Revelation, he often has that sword. He invites people to return to him with that sword (2:16). He flashes that sword when evil rears its head (13:14) or threatens his people (19:15-21). This is the sign that he will not be trifled with, nor will he ever be dismissed. The Risen Christ is the Lamb upon the throne, exalted as the supreme authority over heaven and earth. Yet he is also the Lamb who is our shepherd, the Host who sets the table with bread and wine.

This is a lot to take in. I know it’s a lot to take in. And the great gift of imaginative piece of literature, such as the book of Revelation, is that it is rich enough to keep working on us. The picture language, the rich images, all of it is aimed to re-describe our world, so that we see the great glory of Christ, so that we are prepared to hear his thundering Voice that both comforts us and challenges us.

This is the Easter truth – not merely that Christ is risen, but that he keeps speaking to us. He can speak through the ancient words of scripture, even though he is greater than the printed page. The Bible points to him, after all, without ever confining him. That’s why Jesus can say to the people who love him, “I have many things to say to you, but you can’t bear to hear them yet … but I’m going to keep speaking in power of my Spirit.”[3]

Who knows what he is saying to you today? Maybe he is calling you to a deeper relationship, a deeper trust in his love for you. Or maybe he sees that there is some part of your soul that needs surgery – perhaps there is a resentment that you are carrying, or a wound that you are not ready to have healed. It could be that someone has hurt you and you have a hard time letting that go; the sword may come to slice away that burden. Or maybe he speaks and calls you to some new act of service; you say you’re not ready for it, that you didn’t ask for it, that something is holding you back – and he may still speak and set you free to serve him.

As you come to his Table today, listen for his Voice. Listen as he speaks of great mercy. Listen as he invites you to a life of laughter and deep joy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See Nicholas Kristof’s article, “Jesus and Jihad,” The New York Times, 17 July 2004.
[2] Hebrews 4:12
[3] John 16:12-15