Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter - 5/6/07

“He knows if you’ve been sleeping.  He knows when you’re awake.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”  Santa Claus is coming to town, right?  Santa Claus or…could it be Jesus?  We talk about this at Bible studies sometimes, not about Santa Claus, but about how many of us remember or at least think we remember learning about God as kind of a scary Santa figure who knows if we’ve been bad or good and can punish us not by failing to bring us lots of presents but by assigning us to the eternal fire of hell instead of the eternal blue sky and puffy white clouds, sunlight and angels of heaven; eternal punishment because we haven’t been good enough or because we haven’t believed all the right things.

For a child growing up Lutheran, this child anyway, this was mostly fear about what would happen when I died so at least there was the comfort of figuring that with any luck that wasn’t going to happen for quite awhile.  On the other hand, even thinking about death was a little bit scary.  But I don’t remember so much thinking about this fear as having to do with the second coming of Jesus, at least apart from memorizing the line from the creed which back then was; “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”  I always hoped I was quick enough.  Certainly though there was no talk of the “rapture,” a time when true believers would be snatched up into heaven with Jesus while others would be left behind to suffer violence and tribulation fighting the anti-Christ.

Now of course, this rapture theology has become very widespread with the wildly popular Left Behind books which I know some of you are familiar with.  I haven’t read much of them, a little bit of one to get a sense of it, but I know they are exciting; they’re page turners; you’ve got good vs. evil, all that stuff which is OK as long as you understand that they are not based on anything resembling sound Christian theology, as long as you understand that the idea of the rapture itself is a relatively recent invention based on a rather gross distortion of a few verses in Daniel and a misreading of the book of Revelation. 

Barbara Rossing, who teaches in Chicago at the seminary I attended, wrote a book titled “The Rapture Exposed” (which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in this) and from which I base much of what I say here, she says, “In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape.  In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war.  In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the lamb.  This theology is not biblical.  We are not raptured off the earth, nor is God.  No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus.  God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!”

Now you’ve heard me say plenty of times that the God of the Bible is an elusive character who doesn’t always act like we in our infinite wisdom know he should act.  There’s a freedom to God that can be kind of upsetting, a freedom that includes a wrathful dimension; that’s a given.  As Christians we proclaim Jesus as the revelation of God which means Jesus has this elusive quality about him too or as I like to say, there is an edge to Jesus that I think we need to pay attention to. 

The bottom line is that we can’t know or understand everything about God, but in our proclamation of Jesus we say that he is the clearest revelation of God that we have…and it is primarily a revelation of God as self-giving, sacrificial love for the sake of the world.  That is the core proclamation of who Jesus is.  As Paul writes in the letter to the Colossians, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  You’re free to choose.  If you find that wrathful, out to get you Jesus of war and violence appealing there are plenty of churches out there who will be pleased to give you more of it.  But you can also choose the Jesus through whom God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  It’s an important choice because it does color how you think about God and also how you think about others. 

Throughout the weeks of Easter we have had readings from the book of Revelation.  By any reckoning it is a difficult book and it culminates in chapters 21 and 22 with the vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, a vision that begins in today’s reading.  What this is though, is the rapture in reverse.  Nobody is snatched off the earth into heaven in this vision; instead God comes down to earth…again.  You remember he did this once before?  We call it Christmas.  Well in this vision he does it again, in order to take up residence with us.  “And I saw a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.’”

It’s interesting that from this point on “heaven” is not mentioned in the book of Revelation.  Heaven is central to the first 19 chapters but in this vision of the city, the throne has moved down to earth where God will dwell with mortals as their God and the word dwell is the same word that is used to describe Jesus in John’s gospel, the Christmas message of “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.”  There’s no more talk of heaven here, because in this vision heaven and earth are the same.

Revelation is a difficult book, but to better understand it, it helps to know a little about the Christians who probably first received this strange letter.  Most importantly, they were Easter people.  They believed that Easter had changed things.  They were still living under the authority of the Roman Empire, that hadn’t changed.  It was an empire that had its good points and bad points as most empires do, but however they viewed that, they believed that the Resurrection of Jesus had marked the beginning of a new community of followers who represented an alternative to the empire. 

These people still had to live their lives, they still had to do whatever they did to live and make ends meet.  But they would also gather for worship to pray and sing songs, to read Bible stories which for them would have been the Old Testament, but also to break bread and share wine in the meal of fellowship that Jesus had told them to eat.  As part of worship they also started to read letters that began to circulate, letters from people like Paul, but also this strange letter from someone named John, out there on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea off the coast of what we know of as Turkey. 

Hearing this letter they could close their eyes and go on a mystical, visionary journey to the throne of God and the Lamb.  On this journey they would hear a call to faithfulness, a call to renew their love for each other.  It was a call to resist what the empire was offering as the path to happiness, a call to remain true to the alternative path of Jesus, the Lamb.  They would hear the promise that they would be victorious, that they would reign in a heavenly city come down to earth.  With John they could see a vision of God’s city of hope which would come to them as a gift, a city where the powers and orders of the empire didn’t hold.  It was a city of life that became more real as the reality of the Risen Christ dwelled with them and they saw that in him all things were new.  Easter had made a difference.

You perhaps notice that this is still pretty much what we do in worship.  These days we live as citizens of another empire and like the Roman Empire it has its good points and its bad points.  We still have to do what we have to do to live and makes ends meet, that hasn’t changed; and what also hasn’t changed or what shouldn’t have changed regardless of how we feel about our own empire, is that as Christians we still understand ourselves to be part of a community that follows the alternative rule and way of Jesus. In worship we envision and enact the reality of that alternative.  As we do so we acknowledge that there’s tension between the already and the not yet of this alternative; already in that it has begun, not yet because it hasn’t yet arrived fully.  But as we sing the hymn of praise each week, words from the book of Revelation, we say the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign…has begun.  Revelation isn’t a chronology of predictions about the future.  It is the vision of a reign that has already begun.

The book of Revelation is a vision of the difference of Easter.  It’s a vision for our life in and with God in the future, after we die, the not yet of faith, but it’s also a vision for now, for what we can do now to live in and with God in the new city, the new Jerusalem.  Part of that doing involves following the teachings of Jesus as best we can, even when, especially when they conflict with the prevailing ways of the world.  Part of the doing is continuing to hope, continuing to imagine, continuing to believe in the already of Easter.  It’s an already that tells us about a forgiving God of love who continues to come to us, to dwell with us, in love for us, and in love for the world.  We don’t have to be snatched up to heaven to be with God.  In Christ, he’s already here.      

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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