Sunday, August 6, 2017

Visions of Love

Revelation 5:1-13
“Visions of Love”
06 August 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Last week I made a passing comment about how apocalyptic literature, specifically Revelation, can seem more like science fiction than reality. Tales full of mythical creatures and fantastic scenes that defy reality and sometime exceed our imagination. Just as those tales describe deeper truths and ideas represented by the characters and settings of the story, so too Revelation needs keen interpretation.

This chapter is where the allegory, or representation of deeper truths with fantastical elements of writing really begins to take off in Revelation. So, I want to again describe the posture I take in reading Revelation. Because of the nature of the imagery and the many diverse ways people have interpreted the meaning of the symbols, images, numbers, and characters in this and the following chapters, it is vital to define the posture we bring to reading Revelation.

If you are anticipating tales of how Revelation will predict the collapse of governments, impending wars that will devastate the world, predictions of how God will snatch people straight out of their clothes, or how those left behind will face unbearable trials and fight to save the characteristics that define humanity, I fear you will be disappointed over the next few weeks. This chaplain doesn’t read Scripture, especially Revelation with that expectation. If that is what you were expecting I will point you to theologians who share that reading. However, I will also ask that you give another reading a compassionate ear.

When we read Scripture in its entirety we find a story of a loving God repeatedly calling humanity to walk with the divine in a personal way. Unfailing love towards humans that frequently fail and disappoint sometimes even defacing and humiliating the one that transcends everything on earth. In Genesis, God pronounces creation as good but shows humanity’s special place in God’s heart by decreeing humans as very good. We were the apple of God’s eye from the beginning. God wants us to succeed and will always love us despite, and in spite of, our flaws of which there are many.

God called Abram out from Ur not to the exclusion of others, but rather as the vehicle from which all will be exposed to and included in the unfailing and unbounded love of God towards all creation. It’s the reason all of creation, everything that has breath praises the Lord. Praise which we vividly saw in the Scripture passages the last two weeks.

As we continue to read Scripture we see humanity failing to love God and follow God’s guidance to include and love all in response to the love we have received ourselves. Despite our attempts to hoard and hide God’s love (including yours truly), it always shines through in the most unexpected places. God’s love always wins.

And that is what we see in Revelation. Despite the darkest foe, the darkest power, the darkest side of the force, God’s love wins. Darth Maul, Darth Vader, the Emperor, Kylo Ren are no match for the light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

When we understand God’s desire for us in this way and read Scripture in a way that describes God’s desire for hope and inclusion, Revelation is revealed as a beautiful and pastoral vision of the Kingdom of God and its ability to overcome the darkness of power politics, death, destruction, and exclusion. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the images we see in today’s passage.

The scroll for whom it is difficult to find a being that is worthy to open represents God’s plan for humanity which is hidden from us until God is ready for us to understand and see that plan. Because of the magnitude of such a plan, it is only fitting that the individual chosen to open and look upon that plan be of a certain makeup and character. It’s also not surprising that John weeps bitterly at the realization that no one was found worthy to open the scroll.

We all want to know our purpose and reason in life. If we were in the presence of the document, item, or person that could shed light on the arc of our lives most of us would experience a strong desire to hear of said plan. John has been drawn into a heavenly vision where he is expecting a revelation of God’s plan of, in, and for humanity. It’s right there in front of him, yet will his vision fail to provide the answers he desperately seeks? John’s reaction is completely understandable.

So is his surprise when the one found worthy to open the scroll is the Lamb. Human nature has an expectation that only the powerful can change the world. That power comes from human ideas and notions of strength and vitality. Yet, in this vision, just as in the Gospels, power is turned upside down. We expect a lion to come roaring in and save humanity through military might and typical notions of power. However, the one who is worthy of seeing and revealing God’s plan for humanity is the lamb that was slain by its own choice.

Throughout Revelation we see Christ represented as a lamb, counteracting the expectations of the mighty lion ruling over the kingdom. And this vision of the lamb in Revelation echoes the Passover Lamb from Exodus as well as the lamb we read about in Isaiah 53. Christ came not as a conqueror but rather as a self-sacrificial savior of all. Christ’s self-sacrifice is the only power that matters in the cosmic drama unfolding in this vision, in the drama that enfolds us each and every day.  

This sacrifice was not for a small number of people. Christ’s sacrifice was for everyone in the world, regardless of nation or creed. Just look at hymn sung about the sacrificial lamb in verses 9 and 10, “for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.” Christ’s sacrifice brought forth God’s Kingdom on earth from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Again, an emphasis on inclusion rather than exclusion from participation in God’s Kingdom and plan for humanity in the cosmic drama we see playing out in John’s vision.

We have seen in this chapter a vision of how God will include humanity in the plan for creation. In fact, we have seen how only Christ through his self-sacrifice for the world is the one being able to see and understand God’s plan for creation. Through Christ and his sacrifice for us we are invited to participate in God’s plan for all of creation, for every living thing. This isn’t a small plan for only a select few. Rather, this plan is for everyone that desires to be part of God’s Kingdom, for there are myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands singing God’s praises and participating in this ultimate plan for creation.

This is also a vision of hope. In the midst of John’s despair that all was for naught and that no one would be found worthy to handle God’s plan for creation, Christ stepped forward to see and reveal the plan. While we’ll never fully know the plan for creation on this side of eternity, we can look towards and model the life of Christ to get a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God does in the world and to begin to understand our role in creation.

It is a way of life that seeks peace, unity, love, mercy, grace, inclusion, care for all of creation, not just humans, hope in the certainty of God’s benevolence and ultimate victory over the dark side of the force, and inclusion of all into the plan and eventual praise and thanks for the goodness of God.

If that sounds like a lot to take in and understand, it is. After all we are dealing with eternal and transcendent things in Revelation. Nothing is too small or too large to be discussed and included in God’s plan of redeeming creation and bringing creation together in harmony. Perhaps the hardest part is the waiting and not knowing if we are on the right path. It is for that reason that Christ came to earth, to show us the way. To guide us and give us a glimpse into the heavenly plan of which all of creation will play a part. The Gospel is that we all will play a part because God loves us and wants to include us in the wonder of creation. That is our hope and joy in life.

 You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Throwing Crowns

Revelation 4:1-11
“Throwing Crowns”
30 July 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

With all of the baggage surrounding Revelation, it has to be a crazy pastor that decides to embark on a four-week journey into this book. That, or one that wants to break through a few stereotypes and look at this type of Scripture in a different light. Many people have heard more about this book than have read and studied this book.

Many of us here have read the Left Behind Series that came out in the 1990’s. These novels, which are wholly fiction by the way, tapped into a reading where Revelation is seen as a book that predicts the future, specifically the end of the world. A book that connects with the prophecies of Nostradamus. A place to go where we can predict events in the world and develop a timeline of how the world will end, the holy and righteous will be saved from a time of tribulation. But the saved are only those who subscribe to the correct theology, which always happens to be the theology of the individual providing the interpretation of the visions John describes in Revelation.

When read this way, Revelation sounds like a book based on destruction and exclusion. And for the life of me, I cannot come to an interpretation of any book of the Bible that is focused on destruction and exclusion. God’s Word is full of hope and inclusion, so why would everything suddenly change on a dime? Why would God, who has been seen throughout Scripture constantly and lovingly calling people to him suddenly become one of pushing people away?

Revelation falls into the genre of literature called apocalyptic. When we hear the term apocalyptic our mind may flash to scenes of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner where there has been a horrific war and those unfortunate enough to survive are left to fend for themselves and endure the daily struggle to survive. Or, we imagine a world such as we see in The Walking Dead where the zombies have taken over, society has crumbled, and people begin to lose their humanity in the effort to survive.

Apocalyptic writing was a common genre back in the first century, and this letter was written near the end of the first century. Apocalyptic literature, as a type of writing, “designates the mysteries of the transcendent world, either cosmic information about how the universe works or information about the future destiny of the world.”[1] In that time, it would have read more like science fiction where there is symbolic language, reality is presented in dualistic terms where one doesn’t want to succumb to the dark side of the force, and an expectation where good, in this case the Kingdom of God, will ultimately triumph.

When we understand the apocalyptic genre, we begin to see Revelation as less predicting the destruction of the world and more as a letter from a pastor to his church to encourage and uplift them with hope.

John was living on the island of Patmos (show photo) which is a Greek island of about 13 square miles, or 34 square kilometers located 150 nautical miles from Athens. It currently has around 3,000 residents and because of Revelation is a pilgrimage site for many Christians. (show photo)

While in a cave on Patmos, John had a vision from Christ which he recorded and relates to the churches in Asia through this letter because he was unable to travel, the reason for which is unclear in the letter.  Christ has come to John and he feels compelled to let his brothers and sisters in Christ know what he has seen to they too can draw hope and inspiration in their present situation.

At the beginning, Christ addresses the seven churches in Asia those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each church is given encouragement as well as some areas of improvement to better spread the Gospel in their particular context. After receiving information for each of these churches John’s vision takes him to heaven.

What he sees in heaven isn’t destruction, rather a scene of praise to God from all of creation. Just as last week we discussed how everything that has breath is to praise God. Here we see it happening.

There are some really interesting things happening here in this scene. First, it is noteworthy that the 24 elders surrounding the throne aren’t the ones leading worship. The living creatures begin to praise God and the elders follow. The four living creatures represent all types of living creatures on earth. There is a wild animal, the lion, a domesticated animal, the ox, a flying animal, the eagle, and a human being. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

 At first this may not look like worship and praise. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, people would come to the emperor and throw down their crowns before him to show allegiance to the empire all while singing hymns and saying other liturgies of praise to the emperor and Rome. By using this imagery, John is being subversive and making a bold claim. God is the one to whom we owe allegiance and fealty.

Just as Christ came to earth and questioned the authority of earthly leaders, religious and civic here to we see John passing down a heavenly vision of Jesus’ actions on a cosmic scale. While leaders on earth have their place and purpose, the ultimate ruler has ultimate authority and is the only one deserving of worship and praise.

We throw our crowns down at the foot of God’s throne. Everything that has breath swears allegiance and praises God. Creation is close to God with the elders surrounding creation and following creation’s lead in worship of God. Everything that the Roman Empire stands for is called into question in this cosmic drama, just as Christ questioned the power of Rome through his words and actions.

This isn’t anarchy, it is allegiance to the true leader, the one true God of creation to whom we should praise with every breath we take. No other entity deserves our praise. Respect, yes. Praise and worship, no.

When you are under the boot of a repressive government, a message such as this is Gospel, good news. A vision of equality and allegiance to something greater than us all is a message of hope and inclusion. John is communicating hope not just to Christ’s followers, but to everyone. There may be bad times afoot, but in the end the Righteous One wins and is the one to whom we will all offer praise and thanks. Our purpose isn’t to serve mankind, but rather we have a higher purpose dedicated to the transcendent other. The one being that can rise above the muck and despair of humanity because God is the embodiment of goodness, mercy, love, and grace.

As Christians, we are called to learn this message and live into this life of grace and mercy. Not just that but to share the blessing of grace and mercy through our words and actions, conscious of the impact of what we say and do will have on those around us. We are called to throw down our crowns and give allegiance not to America, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, or the Queen, rather to the loving God of whom we learn through the Bible. Inviting others into a story of hope and inclusion so they too can receive and live lives of hope and grace.

[1] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 2212.

 You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Breath of Praise

Psalm 150
“Breath of Praise”
23 July 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Who even knows what a lute is? The Psalmist describes a wide range of instruments and ways to praise the Lord. Not just the lute, but the ram’s horn or shofar, the harp, tambourine, dancing, stringed instruments, the flute, pleasing cymbals as well as shouting cymbals.

There are a wide variety of gifts present here today just as there are a wide variety of instruments in the Psalm that are used to praise the Lord. When we look at the instruments listed by the Psalmist individually, there may be one or two in there that we don’t particularly care for, but together they can make beautiful music. So too, while the different gifts we bring to the world through God’s gift may not find their full potential alone, together as the Body of Christ, our gifts provide a symphony of service and love that makes the world take notice.

All of these different types of instruments provide a different form of praise to God. Each one pleasing to God, especially when given in the knowledge that life is a gift and praise and thanks is the natural response to such a priceless gift.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. What a beautiful way to end the Psalms.

We began Psalm 1 with “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” Here we end this book of emotional prayers with a Psalm of praise to God from every breathing thing. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

And we should praise the Lord for the gift that is given us through life.

Breath is a powerful word in the Hebrew scripture and tradition. There are two words that deal with breath in their sound or meaning that I hope will open up the meaning of this Psalm.

It is noteworthy that the Psalmist ends this Psalm with a shortened version of the tetragrammaton, or the four letter way of naming God in Hebrew. It’s from the tetragrammaton that we derive the word Jehovah. When you attempt to speak those four letters together, you don’t get a word that is pronounceable. And in many traditions that name is so holy it is not to be pronounced.

If you do try to pronounce the tetragrammaton it sounds like a breath. In this manner, when we breathe we are speaking the name of God. We are literally proclaiming God with each breath we take. So that makes a few other things in our lives interesting. The first thing a baby does when it is born is take a breath, or can we say that life begins when we first utter the name of God. Similarly, death occurs when we take our last breath, or perhaps when we are no longer able to say the name of God.

Life is God breathed and we should treat not only our lives but those of the others we meet along the way as holy and worthy of respect and praise. Each of us has been given life through the breath of God and through our breathing every living thing is pronouncing the name of God continuously. Because of this we are all holy and we should treat every encounter with a living creature as an encounter with the divine. Just imagine the world if everyone treated every moment with another as an encounter with the divine.

Next is the phrase we find in verse 6, Kol Neshema which translates as everything that has breath. It comes from a root word Neshema that can translate as the blowing of God’s breath. This means that everything into which God as blown breath is to praise the Lord. Just think about that for a minute. Every living thing is called to praise the Lord. Everything.

Each of us here today has received the breath of God or we wouldn’t be alive and here this morning. A gift received for which we did nothing. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t realize it was a gift at first. As we grow in faith and the knowledge of our surroundings and the world around us, we are able to understand the fragility of life and appreciate life as a gift. So the Psalmist is calling us to live our lives as a praise of thanks for the gift we have received.

Calling on everything that has breath to praise the Lord is the Psalmist recognizing the responsibility for each of us to praise the Lord. Let’s just look a moment at other living things in nature praise the Lord, or at least how those of the Christian faith can interpret actions of other living creatures in light of our faith.

Think of the song birds we hear every morning. Their beautiful song is a pleasing and beautiful song that lets the world know that another day has begun. Granted, on those rare mornings I have the opportunity to sleep in past sunrise, my opinion of that music transforms into one of annoyance and questioning why those beautiful creatures of God have to sit outside my window.

We have the opportunity to live in a city in the middle of a garden and can see how flowers and the beauty they provide throughout Singapore are praising their gift of living. The beautiful flowers we see as we walk through the neighborhood or ride around the different areas of Singapore also inspire thanks and praise from us for being able to live among such natural beauty.

So too are we to live lives of such praise that others take notice of the song and physical beauty of our actions. We should all strive for lives that recognize our lives are God breathed gifts. Lives that understand every breath we take is a gift from God where that breath is us continuing to breathe in God’s gift as well as speaking a word of praise to the one whom allowed that breath.

Not only are we called to recognize that each breath we take is breathed into us by God, we are also called to recognize that regardless of another’s beliefs they too are given the same gift of God’s breath and we should treat everyone and everything we encounter as coming face to face with the divine. For if God’s breath is in each of us, each of us is worthy of the same level of respect.

Let us go forth not just thankful of the breath of God that was provided each of us, but also for the breath of God that is present in all of those around us. It will change the way we approach everything, especially how we interact with other people in our day to day lives.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

 You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.