[This continues a series inspired by the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota.]
How many have you took French when you were in school? I did. It’s a language that can sound so beautiful. But it isn’t easy. The grammar can be different from our English and the elisions, those changeable links between words that can sound like mumbling to English-speakers, are hard to learn. Comedian Steve Martin had a routine he once did in which he imagined someone writhing on the ground like an idiot. “Help!” someone cries, “He tried to speak French!”
The Biblical equivalent of trying to speak French may be trying to understand the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. You can bet that the people who claim to have it all figured out don’t.
But it is possible to say a few things about this book.
First, we can say that it represents a revelation--that is, something that was revealed--to the apostle John by the risen and ascended Jesus Christ decades after Jesus died and rose again. In fact the title in the original Greek of the New Testament is literally, The Apocalypse of John, the Revelation of John.
We can also say that Jesus reveals a number of things to John. Mostly, He indicated the disasters, persecution, and opposition Jesus-Followers would endure as the cosmos convulsed in its inevitable death throes and the wonderful eternal future that awaits those followers beyond the end of history.
We can also say that the number seven is important in the book of Revelation. As one scholar says:
The letter to the seven churches is followed by seven vision-cycles depicting the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven visions of conflict, the seven visions of Mount Zion, the seven bowls of the wrath of God, the seven visions of the fall of Babylon [Babylon probably represented the Roman Empire to John and more universally, represents the world’s sinful, selfish ways of doing things], and the seven visions of recompense.Now, there’s a reason I bring all this up. One day, when we lived in northwest Ohio, my wife and I found a baby-sitter and drove into the big city of Napoleon to do some shopping. We were heading back to our house in the country and laughing about something. As is my tendency, I was clowning around. My wife said something, which I pretended had offended me.
Just as we pulled up to a four-way stop, I acted like I was backhanding her. Though my hand stopped about a foot from her face, a guy who knew nothing about our cutting up and only saw my gesture, pulled up opposite us at the intersection at the same time. There was a look of rage on his face. At least for a moment, he thought that he was looking at a wife-beater.
If you want to understand content, you must understand the context. If you want to understand the specific things that people say and do and avoid misjudgments, you have to know something about the circumstances from which they arose. That’s also true of the complicated book of Revelation and Bible lesson we’re looking at today.
It recounts a scene in which John observes throngs and throngs of people wearing white, symbolizing that they’ve been made pure by the blood of Jesus that washes away the sin of all who believe in Him, and waving palm leaves, which in the ancient world symbolized victory, hailing Jesus.
The people John visualized were believers in Jesus who, in spite of the difficulties, tragedies, and calamities of the world, continued to follow Him, even with their dying breaths. They reached heaven because on earth, they ignored the blandishments and the persecution of a world that opposes God and persevered in following Jesus.
One of the things that so interests me about this passage is how Jesus chooses to tell John about the rewards of perseverant faith in Him. Think about it. Jesus could have told John, “Here’s Frank (or some other individual person). Frank kept following Me and now Frank is in heaven.”
Instead, Jesus showed John an army of Franks and Lindas, Manuels, and Lucys. Why?
Last Sunday and the Sunday before that, we celebrated Baptisms here at Friendship. Mackenzie Jane was baptized two weeks ago and Benjamin Malcolm was last week. We could have baptized them privately. But it’s always preferable to do so during our public worship because our lives as followers of Jesus are not private matters. Christian faith isn’t just about, “Jesus and me.” When we are baptized into Christ, we’re also baptized into His family, the Church. Real faith involves relationships, not only with the bigger world we want to love into following Christ with us, but also with the people who are part of our church family.
We need the church, in fact, probably more than we need our earthbound families. But those earthbound families can tell us something about why our church family is so important. Back when our son was in the eighth grade was required, as I suppose all the kids in that grade in our district were required, to write a family history. So, at Christmas time, he asked the oldest of my three sisters, who is three years younger than me, “What was it like growing up with Dad?” She smiled and asked me, “Should I tell him the truth?” When I said that would be okay, she told Phil, “He was a pain in the [inappropriate church word].”
After elaborating on that, she turned serious and told Phil there was something else she wanted to say about growing up with me. “Your dad and I used to have long talks. One of the things we talked about was that everybody, whether they’re black or white, is equal. He really believed that.” Her eyes then misted over. “Years later,” she told our son, “when my daughter began to date a black man, I had misgivings about it. I was worried about what they or any children they had might go through. But then I remembered what your dad told me and how firmly he believed it. It really helped me to understand how wrong it would be to object to my daughter marrying someone of a different color.”
Folks: Sometimes our family members, even the members of our church family, can be pains in various portions of our metaphorical anatomy. But, if we persevere in our relationships with God and each other, those family members can also help us to deal with the difficulties of life and become our better selves.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with Carol, a member of our congregation who volunteers time and energy for our outreach program at Friendship. She also does a lot of things behind the scenes to help our congregation that few people see or know about. She told me why she did what she does. “This,” she said, referring to all of you, “is my family.”
It isn’t easy to follow Jesus Christ in our world today. You young people in middle and senior high school know that. So, does everybody in this room.
Putting God and not yourself first is a radical idea.
Loving your neighbor rather than living by the ethic of “shaft or get shafted” is not how the world recommends we do business these days.
We know that Jesus will meet all who have kept faithfully following Him in eternity. But along the way, we need the encouragement of our church family to help us to keep following.
Real faith relates.
So, join one of our small groups--the Women’s Book Club, the Men’s Group, our Tuesday Bible study.
Get involved with one of our ministries.
Telephone that person you haven't seen in worship for awhile.
Your faith will be stronger for it and your life will be better for it.