Wednesday, December 14, 2011

River of Life

Revelation 22:1-17
by Daniel Harrell
Advent, meaning coming or arrival first appeared in church liturgies not as a Christmas ramp-up, but as a Judgment Day wake-up. By setting its sights on Jesus’ second coming instead of his first, Advent affirms that line in the Creed where Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.” Christ will come to right the wrongs of injustice and exalt the humble. Christ will come and make all things new. Advent counters the rampant despair and cynicism common to life in an unjust world, while at the same time fighting against any backsliding and backbiting common among Christians who’ve decided that Jesus isn’t really paying attention. “Keep awake,” he warned in the gospels, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner of a house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Not that Jesus is coming back as a burglar—just unexpectedly like one. And he’s coming back soon, he said—three times in this chapter of Revelation alone. But given the delay, some 2000 years and counting, some prefer to translate Jesus as saying, “I am coming back quickly,” to emphasize the suddenness over the soonness. Any talk of Jesus coming back at all inevitably leads to Revelation, a book everyone says they want to read until they actually start reading it. You’re attracted to its vivid imagery, symbolism and predictions: Those crazy creatures that look like nothing found in nature—multi-faced animals with wings and eyes in places you’d never want them to be. There’s the numbers that don’t quite add up and funny looking angels with scrolls and lamps and bowls and horns that do battle against evil mythical enemies with bizarre names like Gog and Magog who end up cooked up into a final grim supper of burning flesh, the carrion of evil eaten by the victors. It can get pretty gruesome.
Nevertheless, Revelation has inspired countless sermons, works of art and musical compositions from the mighty Hallelujah Chorus to the tender strains of It Is Well With My Soul. It has also fueled social upheaval and sectarian religious movements which were founded and then foundered on what were thought to be surefire decipherments of Revelation’s secrets. Frenzied Biblical prophecy bloodhounds with rapture-ready sun roofs, eager not to be left behind, scrutinize every geopolitical development, technological advancement and social crisis for clues as to the exact time of Jesus’ arrival (this despite Jesus’ own insistence that nobody but God knows the date). Others, mocking these misguided efforts, display snarky bumper stickers such as: “In the event of rapture, can I have your car?” Confusion over Revelation’s meaning proves so exasperating that in the end, most people are all too happy to put it back on the shelf. Martin Luther thought that it shouldn’t even be in the Bible.
Of course taking Revelation out of the Bible doesn’t really remove it. Just about everything Revelation foretells first appears some place else. Turn to Isaiah or Ezekiel or Daniel in the Old Testament, or the gospels or Peter and Paul in the New, and there you’ll find practically all of Revelation’s themes. For instance, Jesus’ own glorious return finally fulfills Daniel 7, which is stocked full of bizarre animals and complex numbers and judgment thrones and plenty of fire. Daniel sees a son of man riding in on clouds who’s crowned King of kings and Lord of lords—as Jesus himself reiterates in the gospels. Revelation adds the “soon” part—which for those checking their watches is a problem. Given the delay, concerned timekeepers suggest “soon” to mean Jesus coming back in the crises of life or at the point of each individual’s death. But applying this to Revelation just complicates everything more. I think a better solution comes from St. Peter who insists how “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I like that God waits as long as it takes in order that all might believe.
However waiting for all to believe doesn’t mean that everyone will. Patience has its limits. Even at the end there remain those outside the Pearly Gates: “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and lives lies;” that is, everyone who refused to take a bath in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus promises to “repay according to everyone’s work,” the evil and filthy as well as the holy and righteous. This is why Luther wanted to hit the delete button. Where’s the justification by faith alone? Do you show up at the Pearly Gates only to have Peter pull a fast one and ask for your resume? While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. Jesus was clear that you can’t just call him Lord and then refuse to do what he says. You can tell a tree by its fruit, Jesus said. Your treatment of the poor and sick and hungry and imprisoned will show what you think of him. Right in line with the holidays, turns out that Jesus is making a list and checking it twice too.
Revelation labels his list “the Lamb’s Book of Life,” and its contents are those whose lives bear good fruit, by grace. The new covenant God promised in Jeremiah promised to write the law on your heart so you’d know what is right to do by heart. But since that might not be enough, God promised through Ezekiel to provide you with a new heart. What salvation demands, God provides. “Let everyone who is thirsty take the water of life as a gift,” says the Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. As he said to the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give him never thirst. The water I give will become a spring of water within welling up to eternal life.” Water and spirit go together—what flows in must flow out. Eternal life is not just about getting your name in the book. Eternal life has to be lived. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart, out of your gut, shall flow rivers of living water.’”
We’ve talked a lot about water this fall, and here in Revelation all the streams converge. The sea—that satanic abode of chaos, disorder and darkness that appeared at creation—has swallowed up Satan and dried up itself. In its place there’s the river of life flowing from “the throne and the Lamb,” meaning from Jesus himself. Abundant fruit-bearing trees of life line the banks, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s miracle river flowing from the Temple of God modeled after heaven itself. It’s a Temple that never got built, you’ll recall, because in heaven there’s no need for a building to house God’s presence. There’s no need to shield his glory from sinners. God’s creatures no longer hide their faces in shame and seek refuge in the shadows. Instead, washed clean, we freely step into the light and look on God’s face. The Old Testament warned that nobody could see God’s face and live, a danger that mandated the high priest to identify himself with God’s name stamped on his forehead each year as he annually stepped into the Holy of Holies to make atonement. However in heaven there is no more atonement and no more fear. Everyone wears the name of God on their foreheads here.
The Lord makes everything new, so much so that we probably should call the end times the new times, or even better, thegood times, given what finally transpires. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain. No more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. No more dysfunctional families or broken relationships. There’s no more problem of evil because there’s no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no need for sun and moon anymore because the glory of God provides all the light—a light that so shines in the darkness that darkness becomes as day.
It’s literally heaven on earth. Unlike popular depictions, we don’t die and go to heaven. A huge slice of heaven comes down to us. John writes how he “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” The new Jerusalem is both a place and a people, or more specifically, the redeemed of Christ are the place where God now dwells. So sure is this future that Revelation speaks of it as having already happened. John writes, “I saw the Holy City (past tense), coming down out of heaven from God.” Christ has already come by his spirit to live in us. Eternity has already started. You might say we’re in the final descent. All that awaits is a safe landing and that joyous, never-ending reunion.
I don’t know how many of you travel for the holidays. Living away from North Carolina as long as I have, I’ve flown home for Christmas countless times. I always love how folks gather at the security entrance to welcome their loved ones, arms outstretched with ear to ear smiles. Unfortunately, with security being what it is these days, it can take a while to get from the plane to those welcoming arms. Many of us will remember how they used to let people through security gates without a boarding pass. Family and friends could be there to greet you as soon as you appeared out of the tunnel. I loved the way you used to pop right out then right into those open arms. I loved it so much that it made me sad for people who had nobody waiting for them at the gate. So sad, in fact, that as a teenager (living as I did in a rather boring town), a bunch of us kids, for fun, would go out to the airport to greet lonely people as they came off their flights. We’d stand there with wide grins on our faces, waving and looking until we spotted someone who had nobody there to welcome them home. We’d walk up to these perfect strangers, our arms outstretched, and give them a big hello and a hug, telling them how happy we were that they had arrived safely, and how was their trip, and have a great day in our boring little town or wherever your final destination may be. They’d look at us all confused—“do I know you?”—and no doubt thought us crazy, and yet nobody refused the hug, overcome as they were by our spirited welcome. After their initial confusion, they’d usually hug back, say thank you and then leave the terminal with a shake of the head and smile on their faces—smiles I’d like to think they passed on to others.
OK, it was a weird thing for a bunch of kids to do (we’d probably get arrested for it these days), but it’s really no weirder than anything you read in Revelation. And it’s no weirder that anything you read about Christmas either. Sure, Mary and Joseph don’t have to deal with multi-headed animals and other crazy creatures, bowls and blazes and beasts and bad math, but there are plenty of angels and heavenly trumpets and shining stars. There’s Mary getting pregnant by the Holy Spirit—like anybody was going to believe that. And then there’s God showing up as a baby in a feed trough amidst poverty and scandal and threats from a homicidal, anti-Christ monarch. There’s dreams and forced holiday travel and side trips to Egypt, just so that prophecies can get fulfilled. And this is all without mentioning how the rest of the story turns out, what with a man walking on water and raising the dead before rising from the dead himself. Oh, and then promising he’ll fly back down someday soon to wipe out all the evil and death and despair and dysfunction and greed and sin that presses so hard against any peace on earth and goodwill among people. The only way to keep the weird stuff out of Christmas is to keep your Bible shut.
I was reading this past week about the ever-popular Charlie Brown Christmas Special that’s on TV every yuletide season. CBS commissioned the special in 1965, to be written by Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, who included a scene where Linus reads from the gospel of Luke. Schultz was told that “You can’t have the Bible on television,” but he did it anyway, absolutely appalling the CBS executives. The special opened with Charlie Brown moaning about how Christmas was coming, “but I don’t feel happy.” What kid says that? It got worse. There was jazz music. And no laugh track. Wobbly kid’s voices. Charlie Brown constantly criticizing the crass commercialism of the Christmas season. And worst of all, Linus reading the Bible on an empty stage and proclaiming that’s what Christmas is all about? What would the sponsors think? The CBS execs declared it a flop and said they would air the film once (since they’d been promoting it for weeks sight unseen). But then they would consign it to then can, never to see the light of day again. Of course it was a huge hit. Almost half of the nation's television viewers watched in 1965. It won an Emmy. And we’ve been watching every year for  the past 46 years. Of course if you watched this year you’ll notice they shortened the special again—to make room for more commercials.
In the end, if you read the Bible, the final answer to reining in the greed that drives Christmas commercialization, or to redeeming the dysfunction that drives relationships apart this time of year, or to righting the wrongs of injustice and ending the evil that takes no break for the holidays—the final answer to life’s troubles and sin does not lie in better television or in our ability to make a better world, but in God’s power to make a new one. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus says. “And I am coming soon, soon, soon.” To which the Spirit and the bride say, “Come on then.” And for all who weary and thirsty, including ourselves, we say it too: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Walk on Water

Mark 6:45-52
by Daniel Harrell

Advent means arrival, but it might as well mean to wait. Advent waits for sunlight to reemerge out of darkness and for Christ to be born once again. Historically speaking, however, Advent has always waited more for Christ’s second coming than for his first. Advent showed up on church calendars to point toward that day when God’s kingdom fully comes and all things are made new. In the meantime, with the resurrection providing the down payment, we occupy in-between spaces. Ours is a kingdom not yet. But it’s a kingdom already here too. Christ has come, and Christ will come again.

In the meantime, our waiting, while on the one hand joyful, it’s not always what you expect. You come to church looking for an Advent Wreath and get five candles in fishbowls instead (come to church and see it!). Waiting can be unexpected and uncomfortable. Ask any expectant mother. In-between space can be distressing too. Ask anybody who’s in-between jobs, or in-between relationships, or in-between treatments. Ask Jesus’ disciples here in Mark, stuck in-between shores in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, on a boat getting slammed by howling headwinds. Straining against their oars, all they could do was wait for the storm to subside, for the sun to rise, for land to appear. The last thing they expected was for Jesus to show up walking on water.

We’ve spent our Sundays this fall looking at water in the Bible—which is why the Advent fishbowls. We’ve looked at the chaotic waters of creation all the way to last week’s living water from the well of life. This Sunday’s amazing water story is so familiar that it no longer amazes much anymore. We simply take for granted that Jesus walked on water or he wouldn’t be Jesus. We take it for granted like drinking water out of a tap. Not that everybody can take drinking water for granted. Nearly one billion people still lack access to safe water. It’s estimated to cost only something like $20 billion dollars to make clean water available to everyone without it. I say “only 20 billion” because we Americans spend $450 billion dollars on Christmas every year. For a number of seasons a movement known as the Advent Conspiracy has challenged Christians to bypass a few useless Christmas gifts and give the money to relief organizations working to provide clean drinking water. Astronauts living in the International Space Station get plenty of fresh water—delivered by rocket ship, at a cost of $42 thousand dollars a gallon. If we can get drinking water into orbit, no thirsty human community is out of reach. Though I should mention that the water’s gotten a lot cheaper on the space station. Now on board is a recycling system that turns urine, and even sweat back into drinking water.

If such human ingenuity has the capacity to get clean water to all who thirst, maybe we can figure out how to walk on water too? I ran across out this video promoting a new sport based upon Jesus’ watery feat. It’s called Liquid Mountaineering. 

Before these blokes came along, the only living thing capable of running on water aside from water bugs and Jesus (who walked) was a basilisk, also known as the Jesus Lizard [show photo]. You’ll find them in rain forest rivers and streams. Two Harvard biologists calculated that in order to mimic this lizard, a person would need to run about 67 mph. Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet currently, can only manage about 23 mph. How did these liquid mountaineers do it? They used a submerged dock. Some fancy camera work. That’s right, a shoe company faked the video to sell water repellent shoes.

You’re not surprised, but admit it, you’re a little disappointed. You wanted to believe but you knew it was too good to be real. The disciples knew it was too good to be real too. There was no fancy camera work or shoe companies to blame in the first century, so the only explanation was a ghostly one. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean and in the middle of howling winds—what else but a ghost walks on water? The disciples screamed when they saw Jesus coming. Was this why Jesus intended to pass them by? So as not to scare them? Or had he simply grown annoyed by their faithlessness and wanted to teach them a lesson?

I asked my Wednesday night sermon study group what wasn’t familiar about this familiar story, and they said it was this last line of verse 48: “Jesus intended to pass them by.” How do you explain that? In the preceding verses, Jesus graciously (and miraculously) feeds five thousand hungry people, then sends his disciples ahead in a boat so he can have a few minutes to himself, sees that they’re in trouble at sea (which at night at that distance was some serious eyesight), immediately responds by miraculously stepping out onto the water, comes close enough to terrify them, only to then walk by them and leave them to drown? It hardly sounds like the Jesus we know.

Of course the good news is that Jesus doesn’t pass them by. He tells them, “Take heart, fear not, it is I.” You hear “fear not” a lot at Christmastime. In the Bible you hear it whenever God passes by. The verb isn’t about avoidance but about full disclosure. Jesus wanted to show his disciples his true identity. Mark throws out all sorts of clues. Jesus doesn’t go up to pray on just any mountain, but on the mountain—mountains were always the place God showed up in the Old Testament. Jesus says “it is I”, which is the same as saying “I AM,” the name God used for himself atop Mount Sinai. There’s wind and rough water, which as you should know by now is typically the setting for divine intervention. It was the wind of God over the rough waters of chaos that led to creation. It was the wind of God over the floodwaters of Noah that led to the ark’s rescue. It was the wind of God on the Red Sea breakwaters that led Israel to safety and doomed the Egyptian army. “To pass by” was what God did for Moses back in Exodus on a mountain in a storm so that Moses might catch a glimpse of God’s glory and believe.

In Mark 4, Jesus calmed his first storm, which also freaked out his disciples. He asked them why they were so afraid and did they still have no faith. They responded by asking each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus answers that question here in chapter 6. He passes by on water in a storm so that they might catch a glimpse of his glory and believe. But the disciples still don’t get it. Mark says its because “they didn’t understand about the loaves,” which refers back to feeding the 5000. What didn’t they understand? The only other time that so much bread appeared out of nowhere was when God fed his stranded people with manna in the desert. Wink, wink. But like their Israelite ancestors who could never get it either, the disciples’ hearts were too hard. Their skulls were too thick. People don’t walk on water. Jesus must be a ghost. He can’t be the Son of God.

Ironically, in Mark’s gospel, the only ones who ever recognize Jesus to be the Son of God were ghosts—evil spirits and demons. And in Mark’s gospel it’s a 1] Gentile 2] woman with a 3] demon-possessed daughter (three strikes in first century Jewish culture) who’s the first human to call Jesus “Lord”. There is something about being an outsider that makes it easier to see the real thing. I once read this book about a Christian and an atheist who went to church together. They met when the atheist auctioned his soul on eBay as sort of a joke, only to have the Christian buy it for 500 dollars. But rather than make the atheist convert (if indeed that were possible), the Christian made the atheist go to church and give some honest feedback.

The atheist observed how odd it was to go to churches and be asked to greet the people seated around you. “Why do you have to tell people to talk to each other?” he wondered. “Shouldn’t Christians naturally care about each other enough to greet one another without being told?” He went on to share the story of a buddy of his strung out on cocaine who came to Jesus and got clean. The buddy said all these Christians surrounded him and loved on him and really looked after him. But then when he relapsed six months later, he was too ashamed to tell his new Christian friends. Turns out he was afraid they might think him a hypocrite and kick him out of church—as if grace had a statute of limitations. I can empathize. I’ll hesitate to confess my own screw-ups sometimes because I’m not so sure that forgiveness is always out there. Or maybe I hesitate because I can be unforgiving myself. Even though God forgives me every time.

How much grace does it take to believe in Jesus? How many miracles does he have to do? Mark says the disciples “didn’t understand about the loaves.” So what did Jesus do? He miraculously fed 4000 more people one chapter later. He then gets back into a boat with them, but packs only one loaf of bread for the trip. Wink, wink. What did the disciples do? They argued over who forgot to bring enough bread. Seriously? They’d now seen Jesus feed over 9000 people with just a few slices and they’re worried about running out of bread? Some scholars suggest that the disciples didn’t want to impose on Jesus to fed them too because performing miracles seemed to irritate him so. But it’s not feeding hungry people that ever irritated Jesus. It’s their thick heads and hard hearts. He says to his disciples, “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear? Don’t you remember anything at all? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Seven,” they replied. And Jesus said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Despite the exasperation, a ring of expectation appears. The disciples do not understand—not yet. But they will. Maybe Jesus’ question isn’t so much a rebuke as it is an invitation.

In Matthew’s take on the story, Peter accepts Jesus’ invitation to try walking on water himself. He does not yet understand—but he’s willing to try. Peter said, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind and the waves, he got scared and started to sink. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus immediately reached out his hand and grabbed him, and said to Peter, “You have so little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they climbed back into the boat, and the wind ceased. This time, everybody in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Maybe the reason the disciples get it in Matthew and not in Mark is because Matthew was one of the disciples and didn’t want to look so bad. Why highlight your thick-headedness any more than you have to? Of course even the disciples’ faith at this point wasn’t enough to keep them from deserting Jesus once the crucifixion trouble started. It wouldn’t be until the Holy Spirit broke through their thick heads that they’d have enough faith. Jesus had to do that miracle too. But isn’t that how grace works? On the cross, Jesus gave himself for us that he might give himself to us—depositing his own spirit deep inside our thick heads and hard hearts—so that we can finally believe.