Sunday, May 12, 2013

Beyond the Next-to-Last Word

Revelation 22:10-22
Easter 7 (C)
William G. Carter

It’s been a while since I have read one, but I like to read a good mystery novel. Good mystery novels are a lot like other good books. They are filled with colorful characters, vivid scenes, snappy dialogue, and ingenious writing. But there's one thing you can always find in a mystery novel that you don't often find in most other books, and that is a good ending.

If you have ever read a mystery, you know what I mean. Within the first few chapters, something horrible always happens. Most of the time, it's a murder.  Someone discovers it. A detective is assigned to the case.  Some clues are discovered. The plot will twist and turn, revealing some new information. Nevertheless, when you get to the end, a mystery will reward you with a neat and tidy conclusion.

You wade through 287 pages in the book. Then you turn the last page, only to discover that the butler did it with a candlestick in the drawing room.

He was having an affair with Mrs. Englebert, who wanted access to her rich husband's life insurance policy. That's why her peculiar shade of lipstick was found on the butler's shoehorn, which, in turn, Had fallen out of his pocket while he was dusting the grand piano, which, in fact, had been discovered by the jealous Colonel Engelbert late last Wednesday, the very night of his unfortunate demise. While the colonel confronted his unfaithful wife in her drawing room, the butler crept out of her closet, tip-toed up to the Colonel, and bonked him on the head with the closest weapon at hand."

After reading through 287 pages, you finally discover "who done it.” That can be a very satisfying ending to a story. All the hidden actions are revealed. All the ugly motives are clear.   All the characters are seen for who they really are: the unfaithful spouse, the suspicious colonel, the impulsive butler. By the last page of a mystery novel, all the loose ends are tied together.       That's a good way to end a story, and it makes us feel better about ourselves.

It's worth wondering if that is how the Bible ends. A few minutes ago, we heard the last words of the last chapter of the last book in the Bible. We've just heard the ending of the Story.

Some of us remember how the Bible begins: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." On the first day, "Let there be light!" And there was light. On the second day, "Let there be evening and morning!" And it was so. On the third day, "Let there be sky, and let there be sea!" On it went, one day after another, until God crowned all creation by making a couple of people. When God made those people, it was a grand and glorious day! The mountains were singing. The stegosauruses were tap dancing. The turtles were leaping with joy.  Great day!

But only a few pages into the story, the plot thickens. What began so beautifully starts to sound like that old mystery novel. There's an unfaithful spouse (Eve), who takes a bite out of a forbidden fruit. There's a suspicious Colonel (Adam), who wonders if that apple will satisfy him, too. There's even an impulsive Butler (Cain), who acts out his frustration by bonking someone over the head.

How can it be?   When the story began in Genesis, it was so beautiful. Birds were singing.  Flowers were blooming. The sky was ablaze with light. But look what happens! Within the very first few pages, a garden is full of thorns and thistles and snakes that bite. And the Almighty wants to know, "Who done it?"

That's how the Story begins, the great Story of Creation. Given such an opening, we might wonder about the conclusion. How does it end?

Now, some listen to today's ending and say, "We know how it will turn out." The story will end with judgment. When all is said and done, people will be exposed for what they are. There is evidence of that kind of clarity in this text. The writer says, "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. But outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

In other words, everything shall be revealed. John sees a wall separating the clean and the dirty,
the good and the evil, the saints and the ugly beasts. On the one hand, there will be martyrs in white robes, God's own people, always willing to suffer for what's right, yet unwilling to give into the demands of unrighteousness. On the other hand, well, you come up with your own list...

The writer of Revelation affirms a final judgment. To be sure, the idea of judgment makes a lot of people nervous. Garrison Keillor says it makes him nervous. It reminds him of all the voices that once frightened him as a teenager, voices that haunt him still.  

Keillor tells of vacationing on the Greek island of Patmos, the very island where the book of Revelation was written:

"A quarter-mile down the road is the cave where John dreamed about the end of the world...and told about the Lake of Everlasting Fire that so absorbed my entire youth.  A few miles farther is a sandy beach where young German and Swedish and French women lie in the sun, which would have absorbed me even more then than it does now, which is, considerably.  We ride to the beach, and then back up the mountain on green Honda scooters. My mother never let me own one or ride on one, feeling that any motorized two-wheeled vehicle was a ticket to flaming death... When we cruise down the mountain at 15 miles per hour, I hear (my mother's) voice say, `Be careful, Gary!  Not so fast!' When we putt-putt up from the naked beach past John's cave, I hear his voice say, `Woe!  Woe!  Woe!'"[1]  

When Keillor thinks of "judgment," he hears voices.  Maybe you do, too. Whether it's the lingering voice of an over-protective parent or the voice of some cranky preacher, there always seems to be somebody who will remind us that our passing thoughts are lustful, that we do not deserve the gifts of God's good creation, that, if we're not careful, our end will be one of destruction.

A lot of people think that's what judgment is about: "Straighten up, or you're going to hell." Or as the bumper sticker puts it, "Turn or burn."

Is that all there is to the end of the Story? If it were simply a matter of judgment, of good versus evil, of right against wrong, we could simply turn in our time cards and wait for the Verdict. But in the final words of the Revelation, judgment is really about the Voice of the Judge, who is Jesus Christ. "I am coming soon," he says, "and my reward is with me. I will repay according to everyone's work."

For our part, the Story of creation is not over. Not yet. And truth be told, our own situations are far from clear. What looks like good may be tainted with evil. What looks like right may actually be wrong. Everyday life is anything but the last page of a mystery novel.  Hidden actions are not yet revealed. Most human motives are mixed, at best. There are more loose ends than any one person can tie together.

In the end, we wait for something greater than a final judgment. We wait for a Judge who can see better than we can. We watch for an Advocate who sees through the illusions of this age.       We wait for a Savior who will know what we cannot know.

When maybe that’s why, when you get to the last words of the last book of the Bible, the predominant message is not something like, "I can't wait for the sinners to be sent to hell," because, in and of ourselves, we're all sinners. All of us are incomplete without the mercy and forgiveness of God.

So the last words of the story are not gloom, despair, and agony on me. The last ink on the last page is not, "Bring on the judgment! Bring on the fire and brimstone!  Purge this evil world!" Oh, no. They move on to a simple prayer: "Come, Lord Jesus" It has been the church's prayer from the beginning. "Come, Lord Jesus" We pray for him to come because we don’t always see so clearly.

Probably my most unusual seminary classmate was a guy named Jim McCloskey. At 37 years old, God shook him awake one day and Jim decided to do something different with his life. He left his high-paying job on the Philadelphia Main Line and enrolled in Princeton Seminary. He was the only classmate we had who drove a Lincoln Continental.

When Jim came to seminary, he didn't think he wanted to be a pastor. He took all the regular classes in Greek, Hebrew, theology, church history. But the moment of clarity came when he took a weekend job as a student chaplain in Trenton State Prison. As he met the prisoners on the row, they all told him they were innocent. Everybody in prison says they are innocent. Yet as Jim listened to their life stories, he began to wonder if some of them actually were innocent. So when he graduated, he started his own detective agency.

Knowing him is better than reading a mystery novel. Jim McCloskey was the real thing, an honest-to-goodness gumshoe. Every day of his life, Jim is committed to only one thing, namely,   working for the release of those who are innocent.

One Sunday night, I turned on 60 Minutes, and there was Jim McCloskey. He had been in the coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia, working on a case. A man named Roger Coleman had been arrested there for killing a neighbor. People didn’t like Roger before the arrest, and when members of the jury were selected, some of them said to the press, “We expect to put Coleman on the electric chair.” They were still allowed to serve on the jury.

The evidence seemed circumstantial. Police reports suggested he wasn't the assailant. Nevertheless the jury convicted him and sent him to death row. He got Jim McCloskey to take the case, but they ran out of time. Coleman maintained his innocence to the end, and Jim did what he could to take him seriously. It was fourteen years after Coleman’s death that DNA tests determined that he had been lying all along, that indeed he was guilty.

Do you see why we need Jesus? Because he sees everything clearly. He comes in the clarity of judgment. He sees the truth about all of us. And he comes, not only with complete truth, but with generous grace. That is what everybody needs most of all. Everybody.

And that’s how the Bible concludes, you know. Not only with the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus," but with the final blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints." When all is said and done, the One who is coming is the One whom we already know. The One who provides for us each day shall be the One everybody shall see.

So we need never fear. Not if we love Jesus, not if we know him, not if we trust him. This is the Jesus who said of his own murderers, “Father, forgive them.” This is one who invites even the saints to “wash their robes in the Blood of the Lamb.” He is the One and only One who has the last word on all of human life.

And his last word goes like this: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.”

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

[1] Garrison Keillor, “Patmos,” in We Are Still Married, p. 239.

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