Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding Revelation, Part 6 (Revelation 22:12-21)

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Revelation 22:12-21
There’s a simple scene enacted in millions of homes and other places across the country every single day.

It may involve a family with children, sitting before a freshly cooked, multi-course meal together with extended family.

It may entail a single person with a frozen dinner they’ve just microwaved.

Or it might play out among a group of friends grabbing a fast food meal on the road.

In each scene, heads bow and either silently or aloud, a prayer is said: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed.”

I bet you’ve been part of a similar scene yourself many times. It’s likely that you too have said that prayer yourself countless times.

In fact, say that prayer with me again right now: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed.”

Like other well-known prayers we say, this one may have been nearly bleached of personal meaning for us by constant use. But we say this prayer and teach it to our children and grandchildren mostly, I think, because, as we eat and drink and, maybe, visit with others over our meals, we want Jesus to be at that table with us.

A simpler prayer on which this one is based, goes all the way back to the first Christians. Paul offers this it in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, breaking away from the Greek in which it and the whole rest of the New Testament was written to use a phrase from Aramaic. (Hebrew was a dead language by the time Jesus was born and Aramaic was the language that He and all the people of Judea used back then.) Paul prayed, “Marana Tha,” (Maranatha), meaning, “Come, Lord.”

But I wonder, as we pray this simple prayer, how much do we mean it when we ask Jesus to come to us?

An old joke has a man telling a friend: “I was praying last night and when I did, I sensed God giving me two messages: good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?” “The good news, I guess,” the friend answered. “OK, here's the good news: Jesus is coming back soon,” the man said. His friend was excited. “If that’s your good news,” the friend said, “I can’t imagine any news being bad enough to make me unhappy. What’s the bad news?” The first man answered: “Jesus is really ticked off.”

When we think about the words of that old dinnertime prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus…,” we may wonder that if Jesus really answers it, whether we'll like what happens?

No doubt, we’re sincere in our invitations to Jesus when things are going badly in our lives: When we’re facing health issues, when a teenaged son or daughter is driving home on a stormy night, when we get an audit notice from the IRS. The old saying is true, I think: “There are no atheists in fox holes.”

But when things are going well—when we’re healthy, the kids are home safe, and the tax refund is safely deposited in our account with no questions asked, we may not think too much about Jesus, let alone inviting Him to be our guest.

In fact, having Jesus as our guest may be the last thing that we want. When I was in college, I worked as youth coordinator in an acquaintance’s campaign for the State House of Representatives. I spent a lot of time with Bob*, a guy whose stint in the Army and impending tour of duty in Vietnam were ended when he got into a motorcycle accident that required the amputation of a leg. I was an atheist in those days and Bob told me that he believed in God.

“But,” he told me once, “I don’t want to get too close to God. I don’t want to have to change any of the things I like to do. The way I figure it, I’m going to live it up, do whatever I want to do. And then, when I’m on my deathbed, I’ll ask God to forgive me of my sins—accept Jesus or whatever, and then go to heaven.”

Even then, as an eighteen year old, I remember thinking that a man who’d lost a limb in a motorcycle accident should know that the opportunity for making peaceful deathbed confessions of faith are guaranteed to no one. In this fallen and dying world, anything can happen and it often does, without our plan or approval.

The writer of our second lesson for this morning, John the Evangelist, writing in the New Testament’s last book, Revelation, knew well how nothing in this world can be taken for granted. When he wrote the letter we call Revelation to the Christian churches of western Turkey, John was without freedom, a manacled prisoner exiled on the Mediterranean island of Patmos.

And the believers in Jesus to whom John wrote also knew that life may not go as planned. By the time John's letter had come to them, they had already felt the sting of harassment and pressure from authorities of the Roman Empire demanding that they renounce their faith in Jesus, which those in power saw as a threat to the Roman way of life. Some of these early followers of Jesus had been imprisoned for their faith. And some knew church members who had been killed for believing in Jesus. Their lives were hard. The empire under which they lived was evil. Their prayers for Jesus to come to them or to come to bring down the curtain on this world had an urgency that you and I seldom feel when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

It was for Christians like these—to give them comfort, hope, and strength—that Jesus, already crucified, risen from the dead, and ascended to heaven, revealed to John the visions that make up much of Revelation.

Jesus wanted His people to know that all who repent for their sin and trust in Him have all that they need in this life and the next.

The last verses of Revelation that make up our second lesson today find Jesus repeating this promise--the promise that is at the heart of Revelation--to John, to those early Christians, and to us: “See, I am coming soon…”

But I’m convinced that even when Christ seems to be far away, He is already with us. There are times when we find that hard to believe. But if we will, as Psalm 46, the psalm whose words inspired the lyrics of Martin Luther's 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God,' tells us, “be still and know that” God is God, we may be surprised by the ways in which Jesus comes to us.

Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who, along with her family, were imprisoned by the Nazis during World War Two because they helped Jews escape their occupied country, is one of my heroes. During one four-month stretch of her imprisonment at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Corrie was placed in solitary confinement. The cell was dark and there was dirty standing water on the floor. At times, she heard the cries of other prisoners and knew that she too could be tortured by the Nazis. Once, terrified beyond all bearing, she cried out to God, “Lord, I’m not strong enough to endure this. I don’t have the faith.”

At that moment, Corrie looked down to see an ant. She noticed that the moment the ant felt water on the floor, it went straight back into its hole in the wall. Corrie realized that when the ant confronted something too big or overwhelming, it went to its hiding place. “Corrie,” God seemed to tell her, “don’t look at your weak faith...I am your hiding place, and you can come running to Me” the way that ant went to its hiding place. When we’re desperate enough to truly mean it when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we may take it as a matter of faith that Christ will come to us!

And one day, Jesus will come back in the flesh to bring the old earth and old heaven to an end and the new earth and the new heaven into being. But what will Jesus do when He comes back?

The answer to that question is found in the first verse of our lesson. After promising that He is coming soon, Jesus says, “My reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”

Now, every good Lutheran knows, of course, that we are saved not by what we do—by our works—but by the gracious gift of new life God gives to those with faith in Jesus, Who died on the cross and rose from death for us.

So, what does Jesus mean saying that He’s going to repay us according to our work? Is He changing the rules of the game? If He is, we’re in trouble.

No, Jesus isn’t changing the rules. Jesus, the Lamb of God Who takes away our sin, is, as the book of Hebrews tells us, “the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

For those of us who live in the in-between times—the times between our own births and deaths, the times between Jesus’ resurrection and His return to the world, between the mysteries of this life and the triumphant answers of the world to come, the work that Jesus rewards is well-known. Jesus put it this way in words recorded in John’s Gospel: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom [God] has sent.”

Trusting submission to Jesus is the work of the Christian. Allowing ourselves to be washed of all our sin and death in the blood of the Lamb of God: That is the work we do to enter eternity. We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Christ; that’s our work.

We began this series of sermons on Revelation five weeks ago with the idea of simplifying a book of the Bible that people love to complicate. When all is said and done, the message of Revelation is simple. No matter what trials or uncertainties we may deal with in this life, when we turn from sin and trust in Christ, we have strength for today and hope for tomorrow.

Christ can come to us even now as he did to John on his island of exile. And Christ promises that once our lives here end, He will come to us again. Toward the end of our lesson, near the end of Revelation, Jesus says again, “Surely I am coming soon.” John responds, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

May that be our prayer through all the moments of our lives. And when that is our prayer, we can be sure that the blessing that ends Revelation will be ours every day: “The grace of the Lord be with all the saints. Amen!”

Come, Lord Jesus!

*Not his real name.

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