Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Letters to the Seven Churches: Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7)

(Second in a series on the Book of Revelation)

Chapters two and three of Revelation contain individual letters written to the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom the entire book of Revelation is addressed. We should see these letters as seven actual letters written to seven actual churches in seven actual cities. There is absolutely no evidence that would cause us to see the seven churches as somehow representing seven periods of church history, as some would have us do. Our appropriate use of these letters is twofold. First, we can use them to gain insight into the historical situation addressed by the book of Revelation. Second, we can look for parallels between their situation and ours so that we can accurately apply the message in the letters to our own situation.

Let us first look at some of the details of the letter to Ephesus.

First, note that the letter is addressed to the “angel” of the church. Some have suggested that the “angel” of the church is the pastor of the church, since all pastors are angels. Actually, the word angel literally means “messenger,” so that is not an unreasonable suggestion. We must note, however, the explicit statement at the end of chapter one: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20). So, the angel of the church is its heavenly representative. There are two possible ways to think about that truth. First, perhaps each church has a “guardian angel” in heaven. Second, this is a pictorial way of affirming that the help each church needs is found in heaven. In essence, Christ holds the church in his hand in heaven, and the church can rely on his help.

Second, Ephesus was a leading city of the time. It had the best seaport in Asia Minor, although the harbor was always threatened by a silting problem. It had a tremendous temple built for the worship of the goddess Artemis, so idolatry was an ongoing temptation for the Ephesian Christians. Ephesus was also the site of a great temple of the worship of the emperor Domitian, which no doubt made the church’s situation very difficult.

Third, the church was an important church. We can’t be sure when the church was founded there or who founded it. On the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem Jews from Asia Minor were present (Acts 2:9). Perhaps some of them became Christians and took the gospel back with them. We know that when Paul arrived in Ephesus he found disciples who had been baptized with the baptism of John the Baptist, and Paul baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19). He spent three years there. One of the many remarkable events was a riot that took place. It was incited by silversmiths who made idols for the worship of Artemis and whose business was being cut into by the growing number of Christian converts.

With those background matters in mind, let’s look at the content of the letter.

Verse one communicates that the church has help in heaven. It also communicates that Jesus is always among his churches (the “lampstands”), so he always knows what they are doing, be it good or bad. It implies that Jesus is there, either to help or to judge.

Words of commendation are offered in vv. 2-3. The Lord knew what the church was doing right. He complimented them for the work they were doing. Included in that work was their effort to detect and to identify doctrinal problems among certain teachers. We cannot know exactly who these teachers were. They “claim to be apostles but are not.” Apparently they claimed some kind of apostolic authority. Perhaps they were travelling evangelists. At any rate, the Ephesian Christians correctly disputed these teachers’ incorrect and dangerous doctrine. The church is also commended in v. 6 for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans.” Our best guest about these heretics, who were also a problem at Pergamum, is that they taught that it was all right to be involved to some extent in the worship of Artemis and/or the emperor, since that involved only the body but not the spirit. Such an attitude would be very dangerous in a context like Ephesus. The church is further commended in v. 3 for their endurance.

All is not positive in the letter, though. The Lord criticizes them for having “abandoned the love you had at first.” What is this all about? There are several possibilities, none of which are mutually exclusive. First, they might not have loved Christ as much as they had at first. Second, their love for one another may have waned, particularly in light of the doctrinal and ethical issues they had dealt with. Third, their evangelistic witness and zeal may have deteriorated; that is, they did not love the people around them enough to be the kind of witnesses that first generation Ephesian Christians would have been. Persecution could have put a damper on their missionary spirit, as well. The continuation of this criticism in v. 5 gives some credence to that interpretation. Perhaps the lampstand has in its range of meaning the sense of “sharing the light” of faith; not doing so would result in the removal of the lampstand.

How can we apply the message of this ancient letter to our situation?

First, we can remember that the Lord Jesus walks among us. That can be good news or bad news, depending on our condition. He is with us to help us in our troubles, and he is with us to judge us in our failings.

Second, doctrinal integrity is important. Not everyone who speaks in the name of the Lord speaks accurately in his name. Now, I think that we should remember that not everyone who disagrees with me is a heretic. There can be honest differences of interpretation on matters that are open to interpretation. Still, some matters, like the person of Christ and the reality of salvation in him, cannot be debated. All of us have access to all the books and speakers and tapes and TV programs that we want, and then some. Be careful. Be discerning.

Third, love is important. In our disagreements, let us still love. Most importantly, let us love Christ and the people around us enough to share the gospel with those who need to hear it.

Fourth, courageous integrity is important. We cannot worship at the altar of the world and the altar of Christ simultaneously. Be careful about how easily and regularly you compromise your exclusive devotion to Christ.

Finally, great joy and blessings await those who are truly Christ’s and who truly conquer those things that beset us. The reward will be paradise restored, as we will eat from the tree of life (v. 7).

Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Do We Have a Book Like Revelation? (Revelation 1)

(The First in a Series on the Book of Revelation)

Much ink is spilled over the book of Revelation because of its unusual nature. Unfortunately, much of that ink is spilled inappropriately because the interpretations offered by many are so far removed from the actual message of the book and are so sensationalized that they obscure the gospel message contained in Revelation. What I hope will happen over these next few weeks is that you will see that Revelation makes sense. Its message is straightforward and very accessible, once you realize and accept a few truths about the book. Today I want to try to answer the question: Why do we have a book like Revelation?

Because strange times call for strange words

Revelation is persecution literature. The people to whom this book was originally addressed did not wonder about a coming time of tribulation; they were already living in a time of tribulation. They were looking for a word to help them.

Revelation was written to real churches living in the real world. The book was apparently circulated among the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom “mini-letters” are addressed in chapters 2 and 3. However, we must always deal with the fact of symbolism in Revelation, and in Hebrew numerical symbolism, the number seven was a number of completeness. So, even though the book is addressed to seven historical churches of the first century, the book also communicates through its numerical symbolism that it is meant for all churches everywhere.

The tribulation that the book addresses probably took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 AD. John himself was a victim of persecution, having been exiled to the small, rocky island of Patmos, some 40 miles off the coast of Asia Minor. So, as he himself said, he was brother with his readers, because he shared with them in persecution because of faithfulness to the Gospel (v. 9).

Because of the strange and difficult nature of a time of persecution, John used an old Jewish form of writing that was itself strange and, for the uninitiated, difficult. That form is known as apocalyptic. That is the literal Greek of the word translated in v. 1 of our English Bibles as “revelation.” The word means to uncover or to reveal. That form of literature had a long history among the Jewish people. Some parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are apocalyptic. The book of Daniel is the only full-length apocalyptic book in the Old Testament. “Between the testaments,” though, many apocalyptic books were produced which also had an influence on the content of Revelation. Apocalyptic books are characterized by an interest in the fulfillment of God’s purposes and by abundant animal and numerical symbolism. Times of persecution were so hard and so unsettling that a different kind of language was needed to address it. That language was apocalyptic. But the message was not much different from any other book that presented the gospel message.

Because God’s people need a word from the Lord

Do not, under any circumstances, lose sight of the fact that Revelation is a presentation of the gospel message, just like Luke or Galatians or 1Timothy. It seems so different because it addresses a certain kind of situation using a certain kind of literary form. But when you boil Revelation down, what you have is a word from the Lord that his people need to hear.

In answering the question posed by the title, it is important to realize that we need help. The world is tough, and Christians who really try to live as Christians are going to have a tough time in the world. That is, fortunately or unfortunately, much more true in other parts of the world than it is here in our little part of it. It is universally true, nonetheless. It is also important to realize that the Book of Revelation was given by God to Christians to give us some of the help that we need. Therefore, our interpretation of Revelation should look for the ways that the message of the book helps us in our pilgrimage in the world. So, interpretations that are overly creative or that are overly subtle or that are overly mysterious are to be avoided. Why? Because they aren’t helpful. One thing that makes a book of Scripture a book of Scripture is that it spoke to its own time but continued to speak to later generations of God’s people. Revelation had a message that the people to whom it was originally addressed needed to hear, and that message is still applicable to people in every succeeding generation, including ours.

Make no mistake about it, though: Revelation is a word from the Lord. Verse 1 says that God gave it to Jesus to give it to his servants and that he sent his angel to show the message to John. So, the message of Revelation is a message that God wants us to get. It is a message that is divine in its origin and thus a message of good news. It is a message that is meant to be experienced. Notice that John “saw” the message (v. 2) and that it was to be “read aloud” in the churches (v. 3). It was a message that John experienced and we are in turn to experience it. Revelation must engage our believing imagination if it is to become the word of God for us that it is intended to be.

The people in those seven churches of Asia Minor needed a helping word from the Lord and so do we. The word from the Lord contained in Revelation is a word about how God was working his purposes out in the time and the lives of the original readers. It is also a word about how he is working his purposes out now. Is it a word about the “end times”? Yes, if you understand that the end times began with the resurrection of Jesus. We live as all Christians have lived since the beginning of the church: anticipating what God will do at the very end but also anticipating what he will do right here, today. Unless you keep both elements in mind you will miss much of the impact of Revelation.

Because we need to be reminded of who God is and of who we are

Vv. 4-5a reminds us that God is God in all of his awe-inspiring fullness: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” That phrase refers to God the Father. God the Father always has been, always is, and always will be. This affirms that God is in and over and thus in charge of all of history, including its ultimate outcome and what is going on right now. “And from the seven spirits who are before the throne.” Again, seven means completeness, and this is a way of referring to the Holy Spirit in all of his equipping and comforting and encouraging power. “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Here is the teaching that Jesus Christ in his resurrection power is the most authoritative individual in the universe. This, John tells us, is the God who is on our side, the God who is always with us: he is God in all his fullness, Father, Holy Spirit, and Son.

So John reminds his original readers, all Christians who have ever lived since, and we who are alive here today that the triune God, God in all of God’s fullness and power, is on our side. That in and of itself says something about we who are Christians. But John says more about what it is to be Christians, about what it is to be the church.

For one thing, he says that we are the forgiven ministers of the Lord. That’s what is affirmed by vv. 5b-6: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” We are forgiven for our sins not because of what we have done but because of what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood. Having been forgiven, we are now to serve. We are to serve as kings and priests. How do we do that? Well, how did Jesus become the great high priest and the reigning king that he is seen to be in vv. 12-16? He did so by giving of himself, by serving, and by suffering and dying as the prelude to resurrection. That is how we serve, too. We are called to give of ourselves in service to God by serving the world. We are to embrace whatever suffering comes our way as our service to God. We are to know that on the other side of suffering comes resurrection. This is who we are to be as we live in this world of woe.

For another thing, John says that we are those whose lives are secure. In vv. 12-13, John says that he “saw seven lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands…one like the Son of Man….” Later the lampstands are explicitly identified as the seven churches (v. 20). What does this symbolism tell us? It tells us that Jesus Christ himself is in the midst of the church. That is a heavenly reality. That is, our place and our life are secure in heaven. But that is also an earthly reality. As will become clear as we work through the book, Jesus is always with his faithful churches right here and right now, no matter what we’re going through.

So there are some very good reasons that we have the book of Revelation. The bottom line for today is this: we have it because God knows that we need it. We need its encouragement, its challenge, its hope, and its assurance. We need to know what it tells us about God and we need to know what it tells us about us. May we know more and more the truth that Revelation makes sense, and may we grasp God’s word for us today.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sermon by Sarah Holik

(Note: a few weeks ago our Minister of Preschool/Children/Senior Adults Rev. Sarah Holik preached this sermon at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald)

Luke 2:22-40

What makes a family? What makes something or someone holy? What makes a family holy? At this point it’s tempting to offer the obvious, Sunday school answer and say, “Jesus.” Jesus fits all three questions. That’s the end of the sermon—let’s all leave and go eat lunch. But these are short essay questions, not one-word-answer questions, and I can’t really do that with Dr. Mike sitting here. Maybe the next time he’s out of town…

Ideally, most of us hope to be part of a family with two parents who love each other; children who get along, get good grades, and who stay out of trouble; and where everyone is healthy. That kind of family—the kind where everything is perfect, just the way we imagined—that kind of family is rare if not imaginary. Sometimes we forget, but not even Jesus’ family was that perfect.

Hadlee just read the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple, what we might celebrate as Jesus’ dedication, and everything seems bright and shiny, hopeful. Two parents, check. About 40 days after Jesus’ birth (the law for male babies), check. Coming to the temple to present the appropriate sacrifice, check. But those parents are probably sleep-deprived. Maybe they’re each wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. And if we take Matthew’s gospel into account, Mary and Joseph may have already been to Egypt and back…40 days and a whole lot more, not quite on the perfect timetable of Mosiac law and ritual. Who knows what Mary and Joseph’s parents think, if they’re still living, if they’re still talking to their scandalized children. Sure, there have been angels singing glory to God and saying, “Fear not,” but there have been angels. And strange visitors. And even though it’s an honor to be the parents of the Messiah, they know a lot more about the future of their child than most parents do…and that’s a lot of pressure, raising the savior of the world.

So Mary and Joseph aren’t perfect, but they sound a lot more relatable. Jesus’ family is starting to sound a lot more like a family we know, maybe even a family we’re a part of. Most of us know that family is more than the people you’re born to or the people you live with. Family is something we can create—it’s the people we choose to be around, the people we invite into our lives, the people who understand us best. Family is made up of our friends in the next town, the people we call “neighbor,” the parents of our children’s closest friends, the people we worship with.

And Mary and Joseph have that kind of family, too. Our passage from Luke tells about Anna and Simeon—about their joy at the longed-for savior, about Simeon’s honesty that what’s ahead is not an easy road, that it will pierce Mary’s heart. Let’s imagine that this encounter is just the beginning though. This encounter is the first of the annual meetings at the temple until Anna and Simeon die because their purpose is more than being prophets in that one instance, because Mary and Joseph need their wisdom. They need cheerleaders for when the pressure of raising a savior is too much and prophets for when their heads get too big. And while we’re imagining, let’s say that the Josephs visit with Elizabeth and Zechariah each year. While Jesus and John play, they talk about the angels, the visions, the realities of raising a child whose birth was foretold in scripture, and all the things their other friends don’t understand.

Mary and Joseph’s family isn’t holy just because Jesus is their child. The relationships they have with others are built on their common faith. We’ve imagined a lot this morning, but we do know that Mary and Joseph valued their faith in God. They were open to the work of God in their lives. Despite the challenges, despite their doubts, despite the loneliness of their calling, they said, “yes” to God. They chose to pursue faith in the context of their family of faith and its traditions. They’ve created a holy family.

We do the same—you wouldn’t be here this morning if there wasn’t some part of you seeking family, familiarity based on common faith and shared belief. It’s why we don’t just sing songs and listen to preachers—we celebrate baptisms, we dedicate babies, and we eat at the Lord’s table together. We pray together, and we mark holy time together. But all of that is just the beginning. All of those things have meaning, but the things we do here--the actions, the disciplines, the church year—those things are not the only things that matter.

There’s a reason that we notice what’s going on in the outside world when we’re in this space—why we have special worship services for Memorial Day; why we have youth Sunday, children’s Sunday, senior adult Sunday; why we welcome guests like the ABAC Chamber Singers or local students for squad day. We do those things because our relationships matter, because God has been, is, and will be at work in our relationships, in the families we’ve made. There’s something special that happens when God and humanity interact, when God becomes enmeshed in who we are as individuals and as families. It’s why our litanies for mother’s day and father’s day thank God for the people in our lives who are parents even though we never lived in their house or shared their name or DNA. The relationships we have, the families we create aren’t just special—they’re sacred. They’re holy.

What’s holy might have its beginnings in this place, in what we do and say and sing here. What’s sacred in our lives might have their start in the prayers we say and the Bible we read, but none of those things are all that’s holy and sacred in our lives. It’s the people we love that speak wisdom and truth in our lives that make the Bible come alive, that make Jesus’ teachings come alive. It’s the people that pray over us and for us in our darkest nights that help us see where God is at work. What we do here as a family opens the door for us to be ready and receptive to the holy that happens—mostly in other places.

I have a great family, and a family that’s grown over time that I’ve helped create. We’re not perfect by any stretch. Like any family, we have our stories. As David and I got to know one another and began to talk about the family we’re creating together, I warned him that the family I grew up with—my parents and my sister—were about as stable and boring as my family gets. I’m sure he might have a different perspective now, but he was warned! Much of the holy that happened in the day-to-day activities of our house growing up happened because of a Presbyterian minister of public television fame—Mister Rogers. Mama says that we watched Mister Rogers every day not just because Jane and I liked him and were quiet for 25 minutes but because she needed those 25 minutes. She needed to be reminded that she was loved and special and doing a good job when it’d been a bad day and it would be a few more hours before my dad got home. Mister Rogers describes what is holy like this: “In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of -- moments when we human beings can say ‘I love you,’ ‘I'm proud of you,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘I'm grateful for you.’ That's what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.”

What’s holy in our lives is often what we take for granted and it’s also the things that fall by the wayside when we think that we’re good about saying what we feel or when we get caught up in the busyness of our routines. It’s holy when we say, “I love you,” and it’s sacred when we prepare a funeral meal for a grieving family. It’s holy when we witness a child’s first steps, hear her read each night before bed, and when we sit with her family when she’s sick. It’s sacred when we remember a good man at his funeral, when we celebrate his retirement, and when we witness the first time he coaches a little league team to victory. It’s holy when we witness someone getting out of something difficult, knowing that they’ve made it safely to the other side of a rough patch. It’s sacred when we walk together through something so dark and sad that we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, when we let people in even though we’re not sure everything will be okay.

We need the rhythm of church life to keep us in check, to call us out of the routine of Monday through Saturday, but the holy doesn’t happen without other people. One of the things my mama said over and over to us growing up was, “I just know that God has something special for you to do. I’ve felt it since you were a baby—that God has a special plan for you.” Now of course she thought God’s plan for me was special—she’s my mama. I think what she was really saying was, “I’m trying to be aware of where God is working in my life and in your life. I’m trying to teach you to be aware, too.” But as a high school student trying to pick a college, then a college student trying to find a major, and then an almost grown-up trying to find a job, all I heard was, “God’s got a plan. Don’t miss it. Don’t pick the wrong thing and miss the plan God has.” I couldn’t figure those things out on my own. I couldn’t figure it out with just my mama either. Many of us know that our parents have wise words but we often need to hear them from other people. The holy task of finding God’s plan included my sister, college friends, professors, ministers, books I read, mission trips. My mom needed others, too. She needed the older ladies in our church in Kentucky when my sister and I were small, we were hundreds of miles from family, and my dad was away from home with the Army. She’s needed to her friends and our family to help her know that she’s being a good mother, to help her work through her fears and worries, and to learn how to let go as we grow. I have a great Mary and Joseph, but I need Jesus, Anna, Simeon, John, Elizabeth, and Zechariah, too.

What is holy and sacred in our lives, in our world is because of God but the holy and sacred includes people. Mister Rogers also said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is.” Jesus promises to come again, to bring God’s full kingdom in this world. I believe God is already doing that, already allowing pieces of the kingdom to break through in the holy and sacred we bear witness to, through the holy and sacred we help create with the family we’re born into and the family we’re creating.

My family isn’t perfect. Your family isn’t perfect. Our family here isn’t perfect, but when I’m with my family, when I’m with this family, I do see a little bit of heaven. So leave here ready to say, “Yes!” to what God is doing and receptive to where God leads. Keep your eyes and hearts open. Take note of the people in your life, of the family you have, and of the family you are creating. You are doing sacred, kingdom work. You are holy. Your family is holy. Our family is holy.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

For Every Action ...

(A sermon based on Hebrews 13:20-21 preached on Sunday, February 16, 2014)

Isaac Newton’s 3rd law of motion states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The physical truth explained in that law is that every action produces a reaction that is equal in size to and opposite in direction from the action. So, for example, when the action is a rocket pushing against the earth, the earth pushes back with a reaction that is equal in size to the push of the rocket but is in an opposite direction; that’s why the rocket launches. Newton’s third law also explains why, when you step out of a boat onto the shore, the boat goes off in the opposite direction with a force equal to the push of your foot.

We can also think in terms of cause and effect: something happens that causes something else to happen; something happens because something else happened. So, for example, snow and ice fell north of us last week and accidents happened on the roads; the snow and ice were the cause, the accidents the effect.

Relationships are not rockets and snow storms, though. While something that a person does or says will likely provoke a reaction from another person, that reaction is probably going to be neither equal and opposite—nor expected and predictable. An action might not cause the effect for which the person carrying out the action hoped. Or the lack of a reaction might be astoundingly unexplainable.

Here at the end of his sermonic letter, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews offers a beautiful prayer for the people to whom he wrote the letter:

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The writer prays that “the God of peace,” the God who by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings peace—wholeness, serenity, and unity—to God’s people and ultimately to God’s creation—would make his readers “complete”—whole, mature, perfect—in “everything good.” He also names some things that the God of peace had done: he raised Jesus, who has taken care of our safety and security through his death on the cross, from the dead.

Now, let’s apply our beginning thoughts to this reality. What might—what should—be our reaction to this great action by our great God? God has accomplished this great and mysterious and loving and gracious thing through the crucifixion and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Perhaps there can be no “equal” reaction, but surely there will be a reaction.

Maybe “Wow!” is a good place to start. Anne Lamott says, “’Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 71). There are an untold number of mesmerizing and miraculous things in this old world, but there is nothing more mesmerizing or miraculous than what God did in Christ. Lamott goes on to say, “When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is ‘Wow,’ that’s a prayer” (p. 73).

“The God of peace … brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant.” Wow.

That “wow” can be more than an emotional reaction, though; it can express itself in the ways that we grow and mature and change. So the writer’s prayer was that the God of peace who has done such marvelous things through the death and resurrection of Jesus would make his readers “complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ …” He prayed, in other words, that God’s action in Christ would lead to a reaction on our part that would cause us to become more and more who God wants us in Christ to be.

Our reaction to what God has done cannot be equal to what God has done but what God has done certainly can and should cause an effect on us, namely, that we will grow in doing his will and doing what pleases him. How do we know what that is? Through Jesus Christ! How do we so grow and live? Through Jesus Christ!
God has done what God has done in Christ. Because of what God has done, we serve a risen Savior who is in the world—and who is in the Church and in the Christian—today. We can grow in our relationship with him through prayer, through Bible study, through worship, and through service. My analogy to Newton’s third law breaks down here because our reaction to God’s action in Christ is not in an opposite direction; indeed, God’s action draws us closer to Christ. I started to say that while we draw closer to Christ we are also driven in the opposite direction, away from Christ and to people, but Jesus taught us that we find him in other people. So it’s all about being drawn closer to him.

There is a sense in which our reaction to what God has done in Christ can produce an action that approaches equality. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). God gave himself away in Christ. If we are to follow him, we will give ourselves away, too.
Please take this away with you: who we can become and what we can do comes from what God has already done. We live lives of legitimate gratitude and growth when we are reacting and responding to what God has done in Jesus Christ our Lord …

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Your Two Bits’ Worth

(A sermon based on John 21:24-25 for Sunday, February 9, 2014)

There is a thing in this world known as collaborative storytelling. Here’s how it works: one person starts a story and sends it to someone else then that person writes a section and sends the story on to someone else who adds the next part and so on and so on and so on. And so the writing of the story involves the contributions of many people. I’m told the final result can be a bit of a mess but that’s ok since art is supposed to imitate life and life sure can be messy, especially when you get lots of people—or just a few people—or just one person—involved.

There is a sense in which we are all involved in collaborative storytelling. God started a story—a story in the plot of which God is still heavily involved—and all of us are involved in the writing, telling, and living of that story. We are all contributing to it whether we realize it or not and whether we want to or not; our contributions might be unthinking and haphazard or they might be thoughtful and purposeful. We don’t have a choice as to whether to participate; we do have some choices about how we are going to participate.

Life teaches us the truth that I am sharing with you but so does the Bible. The last two verses of John might feel open-ended to you and that is probably purposeful. Many scholars believe that John’s Gospel originally ended at John 20:30-31, which also has an open-ended feeling to it. (In fact, the way the last two chapters of John work helps to make my point; it’s as if at the end of chapter 20 we have “The End” and then with chapter 21 we have “But wait, there’s more” and then at the end of chapter 21 we have “But wait, there’s always more…”). Moreover, it is very likely that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel is at Mark 16:8, which leaves the women who discovered the empty tomb frightened and silent. The book of Acts, one purpose of which is clearly to get Paul to Rome, finally gets him to the center of the Empire and then just leaves him there, both under house arrest and preaching the Good News “unhindered.” We know from tradition that eventually Paul was martyred in Rome, but Acts leaves us with an unfinished story.

The Bible presents us with an unfinished story. Life presents us with an unfinished story. The glory of it is that God calls us to participate and to contribute—to see the living of our lives as a part of what God is doing in history.

I was sitting in a class one morning at Mercer University when Dr. Giddens read John 21:25: “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Dr. Giddens asked, “What do you suppose that means?” A classmate answered, “I think it means that the story is still being written.” Dr. Giddens liked that answer and I wished I had thought of it. Think of it this way: every time that Jesus touched a life—every time he healed a sick person, forgave a sin-sick person, embraced an outcast person, taught a seeking person—that life then went out and touched a life which touched a life which touched a life which touched a life---and so on and so on. And we are here because that long line of lives touching lives has extended all the way to us and now extends on through us and beyond us.

Will there ever be an end? No. There will be a fulfillment, a summing up, a completion, and a maturing—but the story will never end because eternity is by its very nature—as God is by God’s very nature—outside of and beyond space and time. And so will we be.

Again, though—we do our part. And we can embrace doing our part with great faith and with much enthusiasm. After all, the unfinished story as presented in John, in Mark, and in Acts happens in the context of the resurrection of Jesus; those who came after that resurrection lived in the power and promise of it and so do we.

What do you do if I knock on wood in the following pattern: knock, knock, knock knock knock? You respond with “knock knock.” But do you know what the knocks stand for? If I say “Shave and a haircut” with that same rhythm, what do you say? “Two bits.” The ditty goes back to when you could get a shave and a haircut for two bits (twenty-five cents) but we know even now how the unfinished phrase is supposed to be ended.

There is a very real sense in which we need to believe and say and do the same thing all together for the Lord and for his Church. There are the basics, after all, such as those that we repeated in our Affirmation of Faith today: “Christ the Lord was crucified! Christ the Lord is risen! Christ the Lord will come again!” Given those basics, though, sometimes we need to think and say and do different things all together for the Lord and for his Church. I’d like everyone to think of a two syllable word or phrase—it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s not “two bits.” Now, when I say “Shave and a haircut,” say that. What a beautiful mess! It sounds almost—Pentecostal!

It is the differences that keep things interesting. The differences are also the ways that God made us each unique and through which God wants to lead us into a most interesting story. Given the facts of the resurrection, the never-ending nature of the story, and the wonderful collection of different people in the world and in the Church, it should be—it is—a fascinating journey, especially if we’re all putting in our two bits’ worth.

Sing along with me (if you dare): “This is the song that doesn’t end; yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because this is the song that doesn’t end …” Ms. Shari Lewis would get so sick of hearing the song that she would drive off (gently and sweetly, of course) all of the puppets and children who were singing it. But that’s not the way we look at life. It’s not a grind; it’s not a trap; it’s not a trick. It’s a journey; it’s a gift; it’s a wonder; it’s an adventure.

In the children’s book The Never-Ending Story, Michael Ende writes of a boy who gets drawn into the story in a book of that same title. At times throughout the story, plot lines are started but not completed. At those points the book says, “This is another story and shall be told another time.”

It’s God’s story but your story is part of it. God has put God’s self all into the story but your two bits’ worth matter, too. God has invested God’s great life in this world, but you have your life to live, too.

I’ve been trying to tell you about God’s story. I can’t wait to hear you tell your story. But that’s another story and shall be told another time …