Friday, March 27, 2009

Yes We Can

Mark 9:14-32

by Daniel Harrell

Coming down off of mountaintops can be hard――whether it’s the first day back at work after a long-awaited vacation, or a return to America after an inspiring mission trip overseas, or literally leaving a spectacular vista for the hike back to reality. If you’ve ever had a mountaintop experience, you never want it to end. Perhaps this is why Peter tried to set up three tents on top of that mountain last Sunday. He wanted to prolong the experience. Along with James and John, Peter got a glimpse of Jesus transfigured, unveiled and resplendent with the light of God’s glory. Moses and Elijah, two Old Testament superheroes, showed up as witnesses to the fact, as God himself God thundered his loving affirmation of his Son. The experience left no doubt that the long-expected Christ, or Messiah, had arrived in Jesus. The only problem was that Jesus hadn’t arrived as expected. He didn’t come as a Moses-like Messiah, brandishing plagues with which to smite his enemies. He didn’t come as an Elijah-like Messiah brandishing fire to chastise his foes. True, Jesus did do some very cool stuff—from walking on water to telling a storm to calm down. But Jesus still came as a suffering Messiah, doomed to die at the hands of his enemies and foes, after which he would somehow rise from the dead, something that the disciples found very confusing. Messiahs don’t rise from the dead because Messiahs don’t die in the first place.

The confusion may have been another reason Peter wanted to stay on the summit. The flashes of glory, clouds of witnesses and thunderous approval were more like what he had in mind for Jesus. But in a flash the flash was over and Jesus was back to being that poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth, standing all by himself. Heading down the mountain, Jesus told the dazed disciples to forget about what they had seen until they saw him risen from the dead, which got the whole debate going again amongst themselves about what “rising from the dead” meant. Once at the bottom, their private debate gave way to a more furious public one in which the rest of their motley crew was embroiled. Seems the other disciples had been trying to drive a demon out of a sick little boy, something they should have been able to do since they’d done it already before. Back in chapter 6, Jesus gave them demon-busting power which they deployed with some success. But when they tried to do it this time, they flailed. The religious authorities, who hounded Jesus and his disciples everywhere they went, took the opportunity to jump all over the disciples’ failure as evidence they were posers. A crowd joined in on the fray, loving it when people who think they know what they’re doing are made to look like fools.

I feel their shame. As a hoops junkie during every March Madness, I love getting in on bracket pools. We got one going here amongst the ministers and I got one going at home too. I do all the hoops homework necessary to generate the winning bracket, confident in my astute basketball acumen and leaving nothing to chance. I can get a little obsessed. Dawn, on the other hand, designed this method whereby Violet, our 17-month-old daughter, could fill out her NCAA bracket by repeating back the names of the team she wanted after Dawn recited each match up. It was cute. Cute, that is, until today when Violet’s bracket started beating mine. I’m not too worried though. Violet’s got Siena picked to win it all. She is so going down. Still, I feel pretty stupid.

I’m guessing that the disciples felt pretty stupid too. Granted, you read the sick boy’s symptoms in verse 18 and you realize his was one tough demon: it robbed the boy of speech, threw him to the ground, made him foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and go rigid. Many recognize the symptoms as an epileptic seizure for which there remains no cure. Jesus said that “this kind can come out only by prayer,” implying that the disciples had forgotten to say theirs. Had they taken their previous successes for granted? Did they think their ability to heal was attributable to them? Had they neglected to pray? I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that even if they had prayed, there’s no guarantee that the boy would have been OK. How many prayers get prayed for healing only to have nothing happen? A recent study of 1,800 coronary patients from six hospitals (including Beth Israel Deaconness in Boston) concluded that prayer for cardiac patients has no significant effect on reducing their complications. Worse, patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. Such findings are always disappointing. Jesus says “ask and you shall receive” which I know doesn’t mean ask for whatever I want, but for proper things like curing disease, repairing a marriage or finding a job. I’ve asked for all these things, for myself and for others, but have not always received them. Mark offers little by way of explaining why aside from reminding us how Jesus himself didn’t heal everybody. Jesus never got married or held down a steady job.

Jesus didn’t get everything he prayed for either. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for God to let him off the hook. He asked to bypass God’s cup of wrath against human evil and sin. He wanted the Father to find some other way to save the world. Yet rather than express disappointment with God’s answer, Jesus responded with submissive obedience, praying what he taught us all to pray: “Thy will be done.” In the end, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is about getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. Does this mean that God wants disease and divorce and unemployment and unjust suffering? No, but clearly these are all things God allows for reasons we cannot always comprehend as we endure them. But once we’ve gone through them, there is, looking back, oftentimes evidence of God’s presence in our lives in ways we would not have otherwise experienced it. A world where disease and disaster and suffering never occur is a world Jesus would never have had to die for. A perfect world is a world he would never have come to in the first place.

Such a world is not our world. In our world, Jesus confronts not only a lack of prayer but a lack of faith too. Surveying the ruckus as he comes down the mountain, Jesus throws up his arms in exasperation. Verse 19: “O unbelieving generation! How much longer do I have to stay here with you? How much longer do I have to put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought the possessed boy over and when the demon saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into another convulsion. The desperate father, willing to try anything, pleaded with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus seemingly takes offense at the inference. He responds “If I can? Everything is possible for him who believes” which sounds a lot like “Ask and you shall receive.” There is a strong link between prayer and faith, but not always like we link it. I don’t think the point is to have enough faith to get your prayers answered. It’s never the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it is pointed. Even weak faith is strong as long as it is faith in Christ. The point is not to have enough faith to get your prayers answered; but to pray enough for faith to accept whatever answer God gives. In the end, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is about getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

Oftentimes when praying for others, I’ll tack on that caveat “Lord, if it be your will,” which makes some Christians mad. They’ll insist such an addendum only exhibits doubt; it’s like I’m managing my disappointment on the front end by giving God an out, which sometimes may be true. They’ll say if I want God to act, I have to ask boldly and believe without doubt, which ironically ends up putting most of my faith in me and my own ability to believe. It is interesting to note how the faith of the sick boy is never at issue here. Commentator Lamar Williamson observes how in Mark, no exorcism is ever contingent on the faith of the demon-possessed person. Indeed, the absence of faith (which he defines essentially as trust ) is the very nature of the possession. Demons do believe who Jesus is, but they cannot trust him.

I was recently counseling yet another casualty of our reckless economy in whom demons of despair had come home to roost. Fearful and despondent, this man believed in Jesus, but wasn’t sure how to trust Jesus, the job possibilities look so bleak. With my mind on this passage, I quoted Jesus’ own words as encouragement, “Everything is possible for the one who believes,” which unfortunately came off sounding somewhat glib. He shook his head sadly, such possibility felt too impossible to him, his faith was so wobbly. Like the desperate father, he believed, but he needed help for his unbelief. So before we prayed for a job, we prayed for his faith. We prayed for faith to trust Jesus knows what he’s doing, even when he’s not telling. Such faith is not some optimistic pipe dream that looks on the bright side and hopes for the best. If anything, Christian faith is essentially pessimistic. It refuses to naively minimize life’s tragedies and troubles with dismissive assurances along the lines of “don’t worry, it’ll be all right.” Instead, Biblical faith instills hope that sees the effects of evil and sin for what they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross. Thus suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates through the cross into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. And evil, rather than the perpetual source of inhumanity and injustice, becomes the already vanquished foe, its energy exhausted at Easter. Our own fallible selves, doubtful and devious at times, by faith are nevertheless becoming who we already are in Christ: new creations raised with Christ from the dead.

Coming down from their mountaintop experience of Jesus, the disciples struggled to understand how this could be possible. What does “rising from the dead” mean? How is that possible? In verse 31, Jesus again teaches them how “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” Mark then adds, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” This is the third time Jesus taught them this, and it won’t be the last. This is also the third time they have no idea what he’s talking about, and it won’t be their last. But they had learned enough to know not to ask him about it. The first time they brought it up Jesus called Peter Satan. The last time they brought it up in reference to a returning Elijah who was supposed to blaze the path for the Messiah. Jesus told them how Elijah had returned as John the Baptist only to lose his head. A suffering Elijah makes the way for a suffering Messiah who comes not as a conquering hero but as a crucified criminal who after three days would rise again. But how is that possible? People don’t rise from the dead. If “everything is possible for the one who believes,” does that include coming back to life?

The desperate father prays for help to believe. Jesus dramatically answers by commanding the demon to flee from the boy. Demons believe but do not trust Jesus. Except that’s not exactly true. Demons trust Jesus to do them in. So this demon obeys and departs, but not without convulsing the boy one last time so violently that he went limp like a dead man. The stunned crowd now gathered around concluded just that. A fearful murmur ran through the people. They said, “He’s dead.” But since “everything is possible for the one who believes,” Jesus reached out and took the boy by the hand and lifted him up, or better, Jesus took him by the hand and raised him up, the verb being the same as the verb resurrect. Throughout Scripture, healing and resurrection are always analogous. Healing is an image of the resurrection, it’s a picture in part of what new creation and our new bodies will be when we’re whole. Healing operates as a signpost pointing out the trail, it is not the final summit. Jesus didn’t heal everybody on earth because this life is not it. Even those whom Jesus did heal all got sick again and eventually died.

But those who eventually died will eventually rise. “Everything is possible for the one who believes” means “resurrection is possible for the one who believes.” “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies; whoever lives and believes in me will never die” everyone who believes resurrects. Even Peter would eventually get it, and experience it too. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” he writes, “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer. This suffering comes come so that your faith――of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire――may prove itself to be genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed again.” Even weak faith is strong as long as it is faith in Christ who died and rose from the dead. Let us pray for the faith to believe in Him, that we may want what God wants, on earth as it is in heaven, no matter how hard as that may sometimes be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


by Daniel Harrell
Mark 9:2-13

We’re back in Mark’s gospel tonight, having been working through it for almost a year now――stopping on those passages where Jesus has something to say, the so-called red-letters of the New Testament. Tonight Jesus not only has something to say, but something to show. Three weeks ago, Jesus finally came clean on his true identity. After asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter blurted out “you the Christ” and Jesus told him to keep quiet about it (which in Mark is Jesus’ way of saying “you’re right”). Why all the secrecy? His concern, I think, was like the one faced by U2 on Wednesday. Wanting to slip into town to rock out the uncharacteristically cozy confines of the Somerville Theater, U2 had to keep it a secret or a crush of their fans would have made their plan impossible to pull off. As it was, Davis Square was still packed out. Jesus’ celebrity in his day made Bono look like Taylor Hicks. Wanting to slip into the world to save it uncharacteristically by way of a cross, Jesus had to keep it a secret or a crush of his fans would have made his plan impossible to pull off. Had word got out that Jesus really was the celebrity Savior everybody wanted, no way would they have let him be the suffering Savior they needed.

Not even Peter. After recognizing Jesus as the Christ, Jesus then explained what being the Christ entailed. He said that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the religious leaders, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Peter was totally confused. Must be killed? Rise again? What had he signed up for? He didn’t sacrifice his family and job just to have Jesus die on him. Hanging out with Bono and basking in all of the fame and fortune is one thing, especially when you can parlay that fame into doing good stuff for hurting people. But it’s another thing if Bono suddenly says he’s going to start writing American Idol ballads just so that the critics will kill him. Is Bono gone Bozo? Is Jesus the Messiah or just messing with my head? Peter rebuked Jesus for his crazy talk, only to have Jesus turn and call him Satan. That had to hurt, and it had to make things all the more confusing. How nuts are we to follow this guy? And now he wants to hike me up some high mountain? For what?

Dawn and I love hiking up mountains, especially in the fall when the valleys are awash in their autumnal brilliance. However, getting in a hike this past fall was tough with our daughter Violet, since she couldn’t walk yet. Undeterred, we bought one of those baby-backpacks from REI, strapped her in and headed up Monadnock, which I didn’t remember being quite so precarious—probably because I’d not hiked it with my only child on my back before. There a number of places where the trail gives way to granite scrambles, and as I climbed them hikers looked aghast at my apparent recklessness. We overheard one say to a friend, “How nuts is this guy?” Pretty nuts, I guess. But the view on top was awesome. Likewise for the disciples, except for them it wasn’t the view of the valleys that proved so glorious, but rather their view of Jesus. English Bibles call what happened a transfiguration, in Greek a metamorphosis――but it was less of a change than it was an unveiling. The curtain pulled back and Jesus shined with the glory of God. And not only that, but Moses and Elijah showed up too.

Now why Moses and Elijah instead of say, David and Samuel or Adam and Eve? The reasons had to do with those popular Messianic expectations. God had promised that one day he would raise up another savior like Moses, only greater. For the Israelites, this meant another hero to make fools of their enemies and establish Israel as the greatest nation on earth. When Elijah arrived on the scene, he was a whole lot like Moses—meeting God on mountains, walking across parted waters, calling fire down from heaven. But then Elijah just left, carried back to heaven in a fiery chariot, leaving Israel to languish in eventual captivity to the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans. Still, because Elijah did not technically die, everybody expected he would return someday to finish the job. The prophet Malachi closed the end of the Old Testament by telling Israel to remember Moses and look for Elijah. “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Interestingly, rather than using conquest and vengeance language, Malachi talks about repentance making clear that Israel’s biggest enemy was themselves. Elijah would come back alright. He would come back to call back Israel to God. But it would take another Moses to get them there.

So you can imagine the disciples’ awe not only at seeing Jesus shine, but at Moses and Elijah standing alongside. This was huge. Peter (being Peter) suggested turning the mountaintop into a three-ring circus to prolong the experience. (Mark, perhaps embarrassed for Peter, adds that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was so freaked out). God himself puts a stop to the silliness by lowering a tent of his own, just like he did with Moses’ back in the desert. A cloud enveloped them and they heard a voice say regarding Jesus, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah provide their own validation, pointing to Jesus and not to themselves as the One. Jesus was not to be confused with a reconstituted Moses (a political hero to deliver them from their oppression) nor a returning Elijah (a flame-throwing prophet to coerce the religious leaders into faith). Jesus’ victory would come through defeat, coercion by way of love. He would save their lives by losing his own.

Yet if deconstructing expectations was Jesus’ intent, is flashing your power atop mountains the way to do it? Such glorious displays hardly debunk hopes of invincibility and grandeur. And yet, as quickly as God’s glory shone, the lights went off and Jesus was alone with his disciples again, clad as the poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth. The disciples likely now thought Jesus to be merely disguised as a homeless human――Almighty God in cheap clothes. But Jesus debunked this fallacy too by telling them again to keep quiet until after he rose from the dead; thus reminding them that being human meant dying, something that rock star Messiahs aren’t supposed to do.

It was all very confusing, but Peter knew better than to open his mouth. Instead, verse 10, “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” Nobody they knew had done that before. They say nothing for an entire verse, but then they can’t help but display their confusion. Verse 11: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” An odd question even if we are used to the disciples being portrayed as obtuse. Perhaps it would help to imagine the intervening conversation. “Hey James,” Peter asked, “what does he mean rise from the dead?” “I don’t know, Peter, but I do know that nobody rises from the dead until Judgment Day.” “Wait a minute,” John chimed in, “Malachi said that Elijah comes before Judgment Day?” “Well, who do you think that was that was we saw up on the mountaintop?” “Right, but the teachers of the law say that Elijah comes first to restore all things.” “Well that’s not right, things are a mess. Jesus is talking about getting killed, for Christ’s sake.” “It’s all very confusing. We should ask.” Verse 11: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

The idea comes from a passage in the Apocrypha that teaches how Elijah paves the way for the Messiah basically by doing all the dirty work himself. Jesus seems to agree. Verse 12: “To be sure Elijah does come first, and restores all things.” But then he goes on to question that very assumption: “Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” If Elijah does all the dirty work, how can the Messiah suffer and be rejected? It is very confusing. It might help to insert a set of quotation marks in verse 12 before “Elijah” and after “things” (which I can do because punctuation is not inspired). What you then have is Jesus saying something like, “To be sure, the teachers of the law do say that (quote) Elijah comes first and restores all things (end quote). But if Elijah restores all things, then why is it written (in Isaiah for instance) that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” No, verse 13, “I tell you, Elijah has come (just like Malachi said he would, not to restore all things but to preach repentance) and they have done to him everything they wished.” Here Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah to come. John preached repentance alright. And he got killed for doing it.

A suffering Elijah makes way for a suffering Messiah, a second Moses who comes not as a conquering hero but as a crucified criminal. Jesus wins through surrender; he destroys evil by subjecting himself to it; he gets glory by giving it up. The roaring Lion of Judah is the humiliated Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself.

This wasn’t what the disciples expected. And it wasn’t what they wanted either. It wouldn’t be until after Easter, until after God burned it onto their brains at Pentecost, that they would finally get it. But even when you get it, it’s hard to keep it straight. We want the flash and power. We want the celebrity and all the fame and fortune that goes along with that. We want the circus tents. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration in Israel today and you’ll see they finally built one. OK, it’s a church and not a circus tent, but that only makes it worse. In our Lenten services this past Wednesday, Toni Kim preached about Jesus saying in Mark 8 how, “if you want to follow me you have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it.” Rather than fame and fortune, following Jesus often brings shame and misfortune. We don’t want that, and still, we all nodded agreeably as she preached. Even when she reminded us how taking up a cross means dying on one, we nodded again, knowing full well how in America at least it would never come down to that. But what if by taking up a cross Jesus also meant letting him take over your life? Like the apostle Paul described it: “I have been crucified with Christ, it’s not me who lives anymore, but Christ who lives in me”?

Author Anne Lamott tells a story of this carpet guy who sold her what she thought was the perfect remnant for her Sunday School class, for only $50. But when she unrolled the carpet on Sunday, it had this big spot of mold in the middle. No problem. She had a receipt. So she took the remnant back to carpet guy. He told her he wouldn’t refund her money because the carpet was molded. “Right,” Anne replied, “it was molded when I bought it.” “How do you know?” the carpet guy asked. “Look,” she said, in her nicest Sunday School teacher voice, “I don’t want to make trouble here. I’m from a church. This rug is for little children—with asthma.” (She added that part.) It didn’t matter. The carpet guy just waved her away like a mosquito.

So she lost it. “Hey buddy,” she fumed, her hands on her hips and her heart racing with as much fury as she ever remembered having. She thought about all those innocent little Sunday School children. Those innocent little asthmatic Sunday School children, scampering about on the mold, seizing up. At least thinking about Sunday School reminded her to pray. Her answer to prayer was to start behaving better and she would feel better. She wrote, “This is what Jesus would want, and he had to be there in the rug store. Maybe he was being embarrassed to tears by me, like when your kid has a tantrum in public. I stared off at a log pile of rugs. I was trembling; you could have cracked walnuts with my self-righteousness. I need to be decent. For Jesus.” So she tried. Even though it killed her to do it. She said to the carpet guy, “C’mon. Let’s work this out.”

And the carpet guy rolled his eyes.

Anne went walnuts. She screamed, “Do you want me to call the police? Huh? How about that?! Or a lawyer? I’ve got a lawyer. You want a lawsuit? Just give me my freaking money, you (bad word we don’t say in church) jerk!” The carpet guy smirked, rolled his eyes again, and pulled out his checkbook. “Sheesh lady,” he said as he wrote her a check for $50.00. “Must be some nice Sunday School you teach.” Anne immediately took the check to the bank. The bank teller slid it back. “I’m sorry. Insufficient funds.”

Anne took her check outside to sit in the sunshine. She prayed this prayer: “Look God. It’s to you, pal. You copy that?” And then, she writes, I started to laugh. “I felt deep inside that I’d gotten it, though I could not quite have said what I’d gotten. I did not get the delicious taste of release I’d been expecting, like when a wrong has been righted, but I got something better, a kind of miracle. The carpet guy had cheated me, but he was also an innocent bystander in a very old story of what happens inside me every time I get humiliated and stiffed. ‘Well,’ I said to God, ‘the eagle has landed. Now what am I supposed to do?’ After a few minutes I knew. I got the nudge in my heart to buy a bouquet of daisies for the carpet guy. I wrote him a note: ‘Here is your check back. I am very sorry for the way I behaved. Anne.” The store was closed when she went by to drop off the note and flowers, so she slid them through the mail slot. The next morning she called the store. “I got your letter,” the carpet guy said. “That was a decent thing.” But then just as Anne began to savor his words, he added, “But you still behaved badly.”

“I behaved badly?” It started all up in her again, but this time, it didn’t take over because something got there first. You want to know how big God’s grace is? The answer is: very big. It is bigger than you are comfortable with. So she replied to the carpet guy, “Yes. I know. I behaved badly.” It was all true and all very confusing.

Jesus says, “if you want to follow me you have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it.” How nuts do you have to be to do that? On some days, pretty nuts. But we do it not because it’s crazy, or because it helps us behave better, or because Jesus is the kind of Savior we want. We follow Jesus because Jesus is the kind of Savior we need. As Peter confessed, as Moses and Elijah confirmed and the Transfiguration illumined, Jesus is the beloved son of God. Listen to him.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Here, There or In The Air

Revelation 20

by Daniel Harrell

Growing up in church, if I ever heard anything from the book of Revelation, it was either Jesus saying, “behold I stand at the door and knock” from chapter 3, or a sermon on the promise of “no more pain” from chapter 21. As fortunes fall and jobs dissolve in our plummeting economy, God’s promise of “no more crying or pain” remains welcome. What wasn’t so welcome, at least in my church, was anything from the rest of Revelation since either a] it was way too weird and nobody had any idea what it meant; or b] it mostly led to arguments about whether you were a pre-millennialist, a postmillennialist or an amillennialist (pre-mill, post-mill and a-mill for short). Each of these latter designations has to do with one’s understanding of Revelation 20’s thousand years in relation to the second coming of Christ. Will Jesus return to set up a heavenly millennial reign on earth (pre-mill)? Or does he come afterward, with the millennium representing the entirety of church history since Constantine (post-mill)? Maybe the millennium, like so much else in Revelation; works as a figure of apocalyptic speech (a-mill)? If we are in the millennium now, Christ’s reign comes off as rather ordinary, a position we might better label run-of-the-mill. But since there is no way to know precisely when Christ will return (Jesus himself being famous for saying that not even he knows), any speculation (which we should probably call rumor-mill) is always inadvisable.

This being the case, I was startled one Sunday in a church many years ago when the preacher unfurled this long chart depicting in detail how the end of the world would unfold. He’d performed all the apocalyptic math and pegged the return of Jesus for 1989; a year that like every other year, simply came and went. I will admit that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I did wonder whether something was up. Had Satan indeed been bound for a thousand years after all? Ronald Reagan had labeled Soviet Communism as the Evil Empire. But if the past decade has been any indication, it would appear that the ancient serpent is still on the loose.

It seems like a thousand years since last we were in Revelation, so it might be helpful to remember that tradition holds Revelation to have been written by an exiled John towards the close of the first century AD. He wrote just as the Roman emperor Domitian commenced his brutal persecution of the church. More than most, Emperor Domitian was enamored by the whole emperor worship thing, such that Christians who refused to go along were charged with treason. For them, taking up crosses to follow Jesus got as literal as it gets. Revelation’s dramatic assurances of final victory and vengeance emboldened these Christians to remain faithful to Christ, even unto death. In time, the God who rules in sublime majesty would ultimately triumph in perfect justice. But in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God would suffer injustice alongside his people.

The last time we were in Revelation (on the first Sunday of Advent) the bloodied Lamb from chapter 4 had morphed into the galloping White Rider of chapter 19, his eyes ablaze and his head crowned in glory. With the sword of his mouth he struck down the oppressors of his people. Included in his crosshairs were the notorious beast of 666 fame, along with his sidekick the false prophet, both of whom were pitched into a burning lake of fire. The rest of the wicked became a grim buffet on which the vultures of the air feasted. Despite this total annihilation of evil, there somehow remain others here in chapter 20 still to be duped by the devil—which is odd given the totality of the white rider’s offensive. How can there be any wickedness left? One of the interesting things to note about Revelation, literarily speaking, is that it seems to repeat itself, going over and over the same information again and again even as its imagery varies. Seven times in fact (seven being a good apocalyptic number) Revelation reiterates its warnings and blessings, driving home the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.

In chapters 1-3, Jesus called upon existing churches with forecasts of woe and weal, readying them for the apocalypse proper which commenced in chapter 4. Chapters 4-7 described seven seals of God’s judgment, which effectively rewound and repeated as seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. After that, in chapters 12-14, came a woman giving birth to a son whom a dragon awaited to devour, the kind of Christmas story that never makes it onto most greeting cards. The dragon turned out to be Satan, of course, who introduced two beasts to the drama for an unholy trinity, one from the sea (the 666 antichrist) and another from the earth (also known as the false prophet). Next came seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16, which rid the world of its evil, epitomized this time by the wicked witch of Babylon. She falls again in chapters 17-19, along with her two beastly escorts and the rest of the world’s perniciousness. All that remains of evil is Satan, which brings us (on this first Sunday of Lent) to chapter 20, which along with chapters 21 and 22 comprise the last of the seven cycles.

An angel descends to take out Satan, but rather than toss him into the fiery lake, he sentences the dragon to a thousand years. Why not the death penalty? Especially given his record? And why the mandatory work release program? We read that after a thousand years, Satan “must be set free for a short time.” Is Revelation anticipating some sort of repentance and rehabilitation? A thousand years is a very long time, especially by Revelation’s reckoning. So far the longest time span mentioned has been the three and a half years in chapters 11 and 12. The thousand years gives time for the souls of beheaded martyrs to rise up and take their seats alongside Jesus. We read that these headless souls “have been given authority to judge,” but that’s not quite right. A more accurate rendering would be “judgment has been given to them” meaning that the verdict has been handed down in their favor. These saints are the same as those murdered for their faith in chapter 6, the same who had huddled under the heavenly altar begging God to avenge their blood. In chapter 19 vengeance was depicted as the rider’s slaying their oppressors along with the beast whose mark they spurned. In this cycle, justice comes with Satan’s imprisonment and their enthronement. As Jesus promised back in chapter 3: “To those who overcome, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne.”

Does this imply that those who die for their faith get the best seats at the gala? Not necessarily. At this past Friday’s festivities (which were wonderful, by the way), I noticed that while some of our long-suffering members got tables near the front, others were by the back doors proving once again that there is no favoritism in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, martyrs refers to all faithful believers who one day reign with Christ. There is no hierarchy in heaven. We all stand on level ground at the foot of the cross. Besides, the martyrs’ reward is not for their fatality, but for their faithfulness. Martyr is merely the Greek word for witness. Martyrs don’t go around looking for ways to die, they just fearlessly follow the Lamb wherever he goes, the rest is out of their hands.

Verses 5 and 6 describe the martyrs reign with Christ as “the first resurrection.” If the martyrs do represent all faithful people and not some elite subset, does this mean we all go to heaven in pieces? Our souls float into the sky and our bodies catch up later? This is what many of us were taught. And it seems to be what Revelation is teaching too. Verse 4 speaks of the souls of the martyrs seated with Christ. And yet there is no subsequent mention of bodies being seated. Actually, there’s no mention of a “second resurrection” either, only a second death. John does insert a parentheses regarding “the rest of the dead coming to life,” but surely he’s not talking about the rest of the dead as in the remaining bodily parts of the dead. It’s very confusing. The bigger problem is that Christian theology has always affirmed the resurrection of the body, based upon Jesus’ own resurrection after whose our resurrection is patterned. And Jesus rose from the grave all in one piece.

Science affirms this reality too. Not that science supports any resurrection from the dead (that miracle defies scientific explanation). Yet advances in biology, genetics and neuroscience do suggest that whatever we mean by soul (or mind or sentience), it’s not some separate, disembodied entity disconnected from the brain. Humans exist as singular, integrated persons. Nevertheless, I serve on a community ethics committee for a local hospital where we recently debated the issue of pediatric organ donation after cardiac death. The question we tried to answer is: When is it OK to remove organs for consented transplant from a child whose heart has stopped beating irreversibly? Current hospital policy is to wait five minutes, though many hospitals only wait two minutes since two minutes is sufficient time to ensure actual death has occurred. So then why the extra three minutes? Among the reasons this hospital gives is to provide the deceased with something called “spiritual wiggle room.” Wanting to be sensitive to various religious views, the hospital reasoned that if there is such a thing as a disembodied soul, five minutes should provide sufficient time for a soul to depart its body without any threat of desecration on religious grounds.

While there are many sticky wickets concerning the practice of pediatric organ donation (the ethics of organ procurement itself among them), this particular conflict between soul survival and organ donation was new to me. As you’d expect, the ethics committee devoted a good deal of time to discussing it. Nonreligious members of the committee were naturally nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donation, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure occurs? Is this a hospital or a church? The ethics committee turned to me (the minister) for advice. They asked, “Reverend, how long does it take for a soul to leave a body?”

Now for those of you who’ve read Nature’s Witness (my faith and science book that came out last fall――available for a measly $12.25 on, then you know how I answered the ethics committee. Suffice to say for this morning, the separation of body and soul is not only scientifically suspect, but theologically suspect too. In the Bible, soul is a multi-faceted word that literally means a living being as opposed to a dead one. Sure, Paul draws the distinction between a natural body and a spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15, but that distinction should be read as the distinction we make between a corpse (a buried body or what Paul calls a sown body) and a living body (that is, a raised or resurrected body). There’s no warrant for thinking that spiritual always means nonphysical. Thus the souls of martyrs seated with Jesus are the resurrected bodies of the martyrs, the very spiritual bodies Paul says we all will inhabit. But how does this happen? Our resurrected bodies can’t be identical to our current bodies. These bodies, sinful as they are, decompose in the ground once we die. So what does “resurrection of the body” mean? If there’s no immaterial soul, do I just lie in the ground until the last day? But then if that takes too long, what resurrects? If to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, where exactly am I after I die?

The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “You have been raised with Christ.” He wrote this to them even as they still lived and breathed on earth. He said, “Set your heart where it already is, seated with Christ at the right hand of God.” Paul hints at a dual reality, an already-not-yet existence, with further affirmation from science here too. According to some physicists, our experience of time as the constant tick-tock move toward the future is for the most part just an illusion. Instead, what exists is what these physicists hypothesize as a “block universe,” a greater reality beyond the speed of light where no time passes and everything occurs in the conceptual present—whether past, present or future. Unbound by time, God abides in this block universe dimension interacting with all events of history simultaneously (sort of like a comic strip reader reading the comics). In the tick-tock of “flowing time” (or earth time), our bodies and our selves return to the dust from whence they came. Yet in the dimension of “block universe” time, we are seated with Christ in heaven already, just like Paul said. It’s as if the time between now and the end of time has already transpired, since in the eternal present tense of heaven it already has. The day of resurrection has already happened on God’s clock; we participate in it as we die until that day when the final new creation finally comes down from heaven, and eternity and time compress together forever.

What Revelation describes is not, I think, a resurrection of the righteous in two parts, body and soul, but simply the resurrection of the righteous first. Who, then, are “the rest of the dead due to come to life once the thousand years were ended”? In chapter 21 they are described as “the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, the whoremongers, the sorcerers, the idolaters and all liars―whose place will be in the lake of fire and brimstone. This is the second death.” The first death is the death we all must die. The second death is that eternal death that separates evil from good forever. Likewise the first resurrection is the resurrection of the righteous, over whom the second death has no power, while the implied second resurrection is the resurrection of the wicked. “A time is coming,” Jesus said, “when all who are in their graves will hear my voice and come out―those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

In verse 11, a great white throne splits earth and sky and all of the dead, great and small, stand before the throne as books are opened. The dead are judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. I remember being told how on Judgment Day, God replays our lives as movies for everybody to watch. I think the purpose for telling me this was to get me to get my life into Oscar-winning form, but all it really did was scare me silly. I knew how my movie played. The Psalmist asks, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” And according to Revelation, God does keep a record of sins. Right? Well, not exactly. In Jeremiah, God promised that through the new covenant in Christ, “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” So much so that the Psalmist could answer his own question: “With you, O Lord, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Revelation’s record book is not the book of good behavior as much as it is the book of corroborating evidence. It’s “anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life who was thrown into the lake of fire.” The book of life is the record of faith, the names of those who believe. The rest of the books corroborate that faith. As Jesus often said, “you can only know a tree by its fruit.”

We wrapped up a New Members’ class at our house this past week where we had the privilege to hear people share their stories of faith, which is always inspiring—though years ago it used to downright intimidating. When I first arrived at Park Street, you didn’t share your faith story to an intimate, small group of new friends, but to a committee of some 40 people, called the Conference Committee. The Conference Committee sat in this huge circle, facing you as you told your story. Afterwards, they were primed to ask questions so as to determine your spiritual fitness for church membership. Then they’d vote as to your faith’s authenticity before allowing you to join. Now in all fairness, I should say that the experience was never quite as daunting as I’m making it sound; yet it was enough that I remember having to calm many a nervous new member candidate before Conference Committee meetings. I told them how it used to be worse. It used to be you had to haul along witnesses who could vouch they’d seen your faith in action. It’s sort of what’s going on here. Jesus said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I say?” What good is faith if nobody can see it do anything? “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” he said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 7:16-20). Oh well.

Which brings us at last back to the devil himself. When Satan’s thousand year jail term is over, he’s released from prison only to go out and wreak the same havoc he’d always done. Satanic evil, it seems, is beyond any hope of rehabilitation. The dragon gathers all who stubbornly refuse the lure of grace, all who refuse to acknowledge their sin and their need for forgiveness―“Gog and Magog” for short, rebellious names gleaned from the prophet Ezekiel. Energized by the dragon, they make one last vain attempt to topple God’s kingdom, only to end up burned up, along with Death and the Grave as well. Satan’s release was solely for the sake of his doom. It is finished. “Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death’s sting is sin, but thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The table is now set. All that awaits is the coming feast of the Lamb, a gala full of faithful witnesses who have all lost their heads for Jesus. I wonder if it will be anything like our Gala this past Friday night? How great was it for our whole church to be together in one place, feasting on God’s goodness――past, present and future――as we ate and laughed in one place with those with whom we share a promised eternity. I loved how the festivities embraced both 50-year stalwarts of the church as well as new comers, including Ritchie, one of our friends we’ve met through our Thursday night outreach on Boston Common. It was a genuine taste of heaven. I know some were bothered by what seemed like too much extravagance in such dire economic times, but if Revelation is right, the best time to celebrate is always in the face of adversity. Therefore let us keep the feast.