Saturday, May 12, 2007

'Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends': Links to All 11 Installments

Here is a link to all eleven installments of a series I hope that people will find helpful. Each post is written in the form of a letter, each one respectful I hope, to those who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to be part of a church.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

To see an explanation of what this "pass" is about, go to the first pass here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
10And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
(1) Most commentators say that the phrase "in the spirit," which is used frequently by John in this book, isn't a trance-like state. Instead, it refers to worship. While in worship, maybe with other believers exiled to the island of Patmos, John saw the visions revealed to him by the risen, ascended Jesus.

(2) Mountains were always places of worship in the Near East. Of course, it was on a mountain that God revealed his glory during the prophet Elijah's contest with the prophets of the false deity, Baal. It was on a mountain that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. On a mountain, three of Jesus' disciples saw His deity revealed in the Transfiguration.

(3) This passage continues a theme of last week's lesson, which says that the new reality that belongs to all who have followed--worshiped--God and the Lamb supplants the first creation, the first heaven and earth and the first Jerusalem. Here we see the fulfillment of Isaiah's words, written seven centuries before Jesus' birth:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
Paul says that followers of Christ begin to experience this new reality even in this world:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
(1) The New Interpreter's Bible notes:
"If a temple marks a discrete place of divine presence in the midst of a world, here the divine is immediately present and all-pervasive..."
23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
(1) The notion of God's radiance fills the Old Testament. His bright holiness was deemed so great that no one could hope to look at Him face-to-face in His full deity and live. The reason for this is that God is, as theologians put it, "wholly other," completely perfect and infinitely holy. Although God wants fellowship with us, the fact is that we are completely unworthy to be in His presence. (See here.)

24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
(1) Up to this point in Revelation, the world's kings have been under the spell of the beast (17:2; 18:3) Here though, they surrender any claim to personal glory and yield it to the true King.

25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.
(1) With only the limited light provided by torches, sundown brought danger and fear to the ancient world in which John lived. Cities were the safest places to be, bound as they were by walls and hemmed in by gates that were shut when the sun went down. The gates were shut in times of particular danger, when armies threatened attack. But the new Jerusalem is here described as a place of safety in which fear has been banished and all live in the bright, protective light of God.

26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
(1) Just like the kings, now the people of nations will bring the glory and honor of nations. Here, we see Babel reversed. You remember Babel. It was the ancient city that decided to build a tower they believed would make them greater than God. To save themselves from their own hubris, God caused the residents to speak many different languages. Misunderstanding and quarreling ensued, making completion of the project impossible. At that, the people dispersed, settling in many different places, each with their own languages and customs...and very quickly, their own brands of hubris.

In the new Jerusalem, all speak the same language and each are united by one thing: their adoration of and submission to God. They do so because they know that in Him is life. (See here.)

27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
(1) The new Jerusalem is pure. Throughout history, various well-meaning, but misinformed, Bible-readers have tried to establish new Jerusalems here. There's certainly nothing wrong with trying to create positive communities. But two things need to be pointed out:
a. The new Jerusalem in Revelation comes at God's instigation.
b. It's God's will that as long as the first earth, heaven, and Jerusalem exist, the possibility of evil exists. The new Jerusalem will only come when God is ready to bring down the curtain on the first things. Until then, we followers of Chrst are on a mission to be His witnesses, telling others the Good News that they too can live with God forever.
22:1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(1) Jesus is the living water. (John 4)

(2) This is a really productive tree! And I believe that it's the same tree found in Genesis, the tree which Adam and Eve were prevented from getting near, for fear that in their rebellious state, they would eat its fruit and be lost to God forever.

3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
(1) Based on what's written above, the meaning of these verses should be clear.

Comic Brings Laughter to Amelia Church

Could you use a good laugh?

The laughs will be in ample supply on Saturday, May 19, starting at 7:00PM, when comedian Marty Daniels brings his wacky worldview to Friendship Lutheran Church, 1300 White Oak Road, near Amelia.

Daniels is currently involved in a major tour, taking him to huge venues in the Midwest and South.

Marty Daniels has been called lethal, outrageous, and quick-witted, among other things. He generates laughs based on humorous observations of the absurdities of life, even those of the church. He also happens to be hilarious!

Daniels spent 15 years working as a popular radio personality in mainstream and Christian radio. Always a visionary, he helped build one of the nation’s top radio stations from the ground up in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

Over the past 20 years, Marty has helped plant churches, worked in comedy clubs and on college campuses, and been instrumental in the start-up of several business ventures. His squeaky clean comedy has inspired laughs for everyone from the sick, the homeless, the elderly, and grief stricken to top figures in industry, politics and entertainment. His corporate shows earn rave reviews.

An interesting element of the May 19 performance is that Daniels' first comedy CD will be recorded then.

Daniels also happens to be the brother of Friendship’s pastor, Mark Daniels.

You won’t need a ticket for this evening of fun. A freewill offering will be received. EVERYBODY IS INVITED!

For more information, contact the Friendship Lutheran Church office at 513-752-5265.

To find out more about Marty Daniels' comedy, go here and here.

The Blair Era Ends

Tony Blair's premiership was wrought ten years ago through clever Clintonian triangulation. Blair told British voters that he represented "new Labour," a left-leaning party no longer wed to a socialist agenda or to the trade unions.

As when Bill Clinton won the presidency here in the States in 1992, also in a three-way race, Tony Blair presented a moderately leftward agenda, one that traditional Labourites could grudgingly accept and that voters who liked the policies of the Tories but hated that party's perceived smarminess after years of Margaret Thatcher and of Thatcher-Lite under John Major, could vote for.

After a decade of Blair in 10 Downing Street, it's tempting to compare him to Churchill or Thatcher. One wants to speak of a Blair Era. But the analogies to historically significant PMs don't work at several levels.

First, Blair's tenure had less to do with public excitement over a proactive new Labour agenda than with the public's reaction to the continuing failure of either the Conservative Party or of the less likely Liberal Democrats to get their acts together. The Tories have been especially pathetic, failing throughout Blair's time in office to offer Britons a credible competing vision. Year in and year out, seeing Blair's contests with the Conservatives was a little like watching a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the local eight-year old peewee football team. His opposition made winning elections easy for Blair and his Labour compatriots.

Second, while Britain has the strongest of the European economies, there are widespread suspicions that this has less to do with Blair than with Britain's central bank and with chancellor Gordon Brown, who kept the PM mostly in the dark about economic and financial policies. But besides all that, there are fears that the current boom is shallow, a house of cards built on inflated real estate valuations, among other things.

Third, as was true of Clinton, the President who, after getting his nose bloodied in the battle for a national health care system, decided to talk about such pressing national issues as school uniforms, there's also a feeling that Tony Blair, for the most part, accomplished very little. He was so busy triangulating, this argument goes, that he did little to improve education or health services, two areas where he promised reform when he came to power.

Of course, there may be a bit of the twenty-first century's penchant for truculence in this criticism. An article in Slate notes: opinion polls...many of the British say—bafflingly on the face of it—that they are worse off, or worse served by the National Health Service, than they were 10 years ago. The statistical evidence shows that this cannot be so...
In other words, things are better for the British and Blair has done more for them than the public thinks, but none of it is quite enough. We see that sort of "don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" whininess by voters in this country, whether our Presidents and Congresses are Democratic or Republican.

There have also been notable achievements during Blair's tenure, among them devolution in Scotland and Wales and the extraordinary power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland. These often are overlooked.

The fourth and most notable thing beclouding Blair's legacy is his stance on Iraq. In his own country, the PM's decision to push Britain into the war and the troubled peace in Iraq, has made him deeply unpopular, although not so much so as to cause him to be ousted in the most recent elections.

Blair is a likable character--bright, articulate, eloquent, undeniably brilliant. (Republicans in this country who supported the War in Iraq often wished that he were President, feeling that he presented the case for the conflict much more convincingly than George W. Bush.) Blair is also savvy. The Queen, highly fictionalized as it is, made clear just how attuned Blair can be to public sentiment.

But that may be the source of greatest difficulty that people today have and which future historians will have in evaluating the Blair era. Great leaders tune into public sentiment, then figure out how to marshall it to achieve great objectives. Many will say today that all Tony Blair did with his ability to read the public was get elected Prime Minister three times.

Only the passage of time, with the revelation of heretofore undisclosed documentation and the opportunity for sober reflection, will tell us if that assessment is fair or not. But this we do know: Mr. Blair's avuncular successor and longtime Labour rival, Gordon Brown, is unlikely to live at 10 Downing for nearly as long as Tony has.

(For more see here and here.)

(Also go here to see my earlier musings on Blair's departure from government.)

[THANKS TO: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice for linking to this post.]

Thursday, May 10, 2007

'12 Ways to Love Your Wayward Child'

This is great. (TY to Andrew Jackson of SmartChristian for linking to this. By the way, have a safe trip, Andrew!)

NYT: Giuliani Will Favor Abortion Rights

This is surprising?

I agree with Chris Matthews when he says--as he did on his Tuesday evening show--that the idea that pro-life voters are just discovering that Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice is absurd. (I also agree with Matthews that this idea reflects the media elite's disdain of the intelligence of conservatives generally and of pro-lifers specifically.)

These voters have known that Giuliani is pro-choice all along and many have supported him anyway. That's because most of them aren't single issue voters and because there are gradations of opinion within the pro-life camp, just as there are among other categories of voters.

This shouldn't shock anybody: Even Sam Brownback, arguably the most pro-life and the one most connected to the Religious Right in the current GOP presidential field, said last week that he would support a pro-choice Republican nominee for President.

I used to be among those who thought that Giuliani had no chance of securing his party's nomination in 2008. He still may not get it. He may be too liberal on a variety of issues to finally win people over. But Giuliani apparently scores high in the minds of GOP voters on other areas they deem important, such as toughness and leadership.

As opposed to Mitt Romney, who is perceived as a flip-flopper on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, Giuliani gets points from social conservatives who consider him an honest person of principle.

The strange thing to ponder though, is how many conservatives are willing to overlook Giuliani's liberal views on social issues, but can't stomach the Senator with one of the most conservative voting records in recent decades, John McCain. The focus of conservative ire seems to be that McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts and is the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws. Are conservatives--even those from the Religious Right--saying that taxes and campaign finance are bigger deal-breakers than abortion and gay marriage? That's an interesting thought...and I don't think we yet know the answer.

(See Ann Althouse for a discussion.)

[THANK YOU TO: Brian at for linking to this post.]

[This piece has been cross-posted at]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"...we see life not as it appears..."

"...but as it is: tied to a hope in a savior who promises us not the fictional white clouds and easy life, but the raw and powerful courage to bind ourselves to the joy for which we were created by the God who loves us with such an intensity that it makes our desire for our complacent lives seem as empty and hollow as a freshly dug grave."

So writes Phil Daniels about the illogical hope that belongs to Christians, a hope that he sees at play in the most recent events in Northern Ireland.

Christ gave us this awesome world and more importantly he gave us Himself so that we would never be separated from the wonder of the Something that dared to create. And it is hope that forever binds us to this other world.

We find that hope permeates who we are. It makes us more than we are. It drives us blindly to a goal "wise men" do not see. Thus I leave you with this benediction, whether you live in Northern Ireland, Cincinnati, or any place in between. Paul says, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Knowing this hope is enough to make any person smile with honest happiness.
Read the whole thing.

What is Life About?

In 1982, Paul McCartney released what's commonly acknowledged to be one of his best LPs, Tug of War. It was the former Beatle's first project after the 1980 murder of his onetime bandmate, friend, and composing partner, John Lennon.

Several songs on the album seem to have been inspired by that tragedy, including the title track, which appears to describe the complicated relationship McCartney had with Lennon. There, one line, appearing in the bridge, says:
In years to come
We may discover
What the air we breathe and the life we lead are all about
But it won't be soon enough, soon enough for me
Tomorrow, I'll preside at the funeral of a man I got to know three years ago through our mutual community activities. I didn't know him well. But I look at his death at far too early an age, at the widow and two twenty-something children he leaves behind, and at the hole he leaves in the community service organization for which he worked and the rock and roll oldies band of which he was a part and I understand the sense of futility some may feel. We may wonder: What is the "air we breathe and the life we lead" about?

King Solomon, among the wisest people to ever live, writing in the Old Testament, had similar questions. He lamented:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
(I love the honesty and forthrightness of the Bible. Imagine the audacity of God, inspiring a Biblical writer to use words of doubt about the meaning of life to lead off a book of faith! God isn't afraid of our doubts and He encourages us to be honest when we have them. Maybe that's because You can only doubt someone or something you believe in. If you didn't believe in God, you couldn't doubt Him; you simply wouldn't believe in Him or give Him a thought.)

Is life futile? The Bible says, "No!"

In spite of the mysteries and questions I can't answer, life, the Bible teaches, has a purpose. The New Testament book of Ephesians says:
It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. (Ephesians 1:11-12, The Message)
So, who are we? We're children made in God's image. Though we and our world have fallen away from God, God loves us too much to simply give up on us. That's why He's become one of us in Jesus Christ. And, having lived a sinless life in Christ, He went to a cross, taking our deserved punishment for sin. Having died in our places, He now offers new life to all who will turn from sin and entrust their whole lives--from the womb to eternity--into Christ's hands.

When we do that, God sends His Holy Spirit our ways to guide us, helping us to understand what we are living for. It turns out that we're living to enjoy relationship with God and with others. That's why Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love others.

That's it--believe in Christ, love God, love neighbor. That's what human life is meant to be about.

God will show each of us our own unique ways of doing these things. We may do them as rock stars, kings, contractors, police officers, social workers, pastors, poets, writers, housewives, presidents, athletes, restaurant servers, engineers, teachers, gymnasts, accountants, entrepreurs, farmers, nurses, attorneys, doctors, whatever.

But we don't have to wait to discover what the air we breathe or the lives we lead are all about.
  • We are children of God who, through faith in Christ, can live with God forever.
  • Once we believe in Christ, God will help us to have life as it's meant to be lived: in love for God and love for others.
Whether we live a long time or a short time on this earth, if we follow Christ and heed His call to love, we will have truly lived. (Simple as that seems, I realized as I wrote that last sentence how desperately I need to pray that God will help me to do just that today and each day.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Bible Lesson: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
10And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

22Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

General Comments
1. In last week's lesson, we saw the first heaven and the first earth supplanted by a new heaven and a new earth which came down to the first. Here, the new Jerusalem is described.

2. C.S. Lewis does a wonderful job of explaining what Revelation is getting at in describing the new heaven, earth, and Jerusalem in the seventh book of The Chronicles of Narnia. It's called The Last Battle. There, the main characters of the book which I regard as the most sublime in all of English literature, witness the end of Narnia, the world they so loved. Its end is wrought by Aslan, the Christ figure of Lewis' novels.

They find themselves in a beautiful place: Narnia, but not exactly the Narnia where they'd once lived. It's a new Narnia. As Lucy Pevensie, the girl from our world who became a queen in that world she once reached through a wardrobe, explains it:
"I see...This is still Narnia and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below..."
Lewis helps us to see that everything we love about this life and every good thing for which we naturally yearn as creatures made in the image of God will exist in the new Jerusalem and according to the vision given to John in the book of Revelation, all who have believed in Christ--whose names are written in the Book of the Lamb--will live in that new city.

3. Jerusalem was not only the capital city of Israel (later Judea) or the focal point of its worship life. Jerusalem, because it housed the Temple was also thought to be the place where the very presence of God dwelt. It was in the Holy of Holies, once the repository of the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

4. What's stunning is that in this "new Jerusalem," there is no Temple. God--the Father and the Son (the Lamb)--dwell among the people with no structure concealing or containining God's presence, although God is still worshiped, still higher, still greater. Accessibility doesn't lessen God's glory. But, contrary to some religious teachings, the Bible reveals that human beings will never be on the same level as God. Even in eternity, God will be the Creator and we will be God's creatures. God will always be divine and we will worship God.

5. As throughout the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as "the Lamb," the One Who, like the sacrifical lambs once offered in the Temple, gave His life for all who turn from sin and believe in Him to live.

Verse-by-verse comments on the lesson tomorrow, I hope.

Monday, May 07, 2007


That's the word of the day at Conblogeration and Pastor Jeff provides chilling details of what appears to be systematic injustice.

Mass Murderers and Hell Talk

The discussion about the talk of hell coming from the two Republican frontrunners for President over at Althouse has led to a more general consideration of judgment of our sins and hell itself. One commenter, in relation to Jesus's command that we not judge, lest we be judged, wrote:
Any one of us can safely judge a mass murderer. Go *ahead* and judge me by that same standard -- I'll pass with flying colors!"
I wrote:
In a civil and criminal sense, of course we both can and must cast judgments on mass murderers. Even the Bible teaches that God has established civil authority because, in an imperfect world, people will not voluntarily comply with God's Law. Whether speaking of the Ten Commandments or Jesus' discussion of the "Great Commandment," that law can be summarized as love God and love neighbor. Those who haven't voluntarily placed themselves under God's authority will not be complicit with that command apart from coercion. (Biblically speaking, "love" is not a squishy sentimental feeling. Rather, it's a commitment to what is best for others.)

But Jesus would say that if you want to take your chances and have God judge you by the same standards God applies to mass murderers, you won't like your chances. (I wouldn't like mine either!)

Jesus says in Matthew 5: "“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."

To Jesus, sin has as much to do with intention and even thought as it does with the actions we take. We are as guilty of murder if we physically murder one person as six million. And we are as guilty of murder when we use our words to destroy others' reputations as the killer.

By this standard, I know that I am a murderer. That's where repentance--turning away from sin and turning to God--in Biblical theology comes in. Those who genuinely turn from sin find a welcome from God.

We may not like the "injustice" of that. But I often thank God that He isn't "fair." If he were, I'd be as doomed as your average, run-of-the-mill unrepentant mass murderer.
[For a discussion of the differences between "the two kingdoms," God's rule through earthly authorities, on the one hand, and His direct rule over those who voluntarily submit to His authority, go here.]

"It's a turn-around jump shot, it's everybody jump start...

...It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. [Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble]

I think of that line relative to former Senator Fred Thompson today. A fawning media, blogosphere, and core of GOP activists seem to view him as the savior who will soon ride into the 2008 presidential race and make all things right. Discussion of him these days is almost universally positive. He's getting a high toss up the "pop charts."

All of this adulation will likely suck Thompson into the campaign. It's at that moment that we'll see the pop star begin to plunge. It happens to everyone. Voters will learn that they don't agree with him on everything. Bloggers will complain that he isn't really charismatic, whatever that nebulous term means when used by political observers. Reporters will begin to probe and report that Thompson, contrary to the heady expectations being voiced today, is human.

None of this is to say that Fred Thompson won't be nominated. He might be. And, in spite of the fact that 2008 is the Democrats' to lose, given that party's penchant for lemming-like self-destruction at the polls, Thompson might even win. And, more importantly, he may be qualified to be President.

But it is a predictable element of fame in America--and probably the rest of the world--that we love the famous until we decide that it's time to knock them down. It's then that we find some new "saviors," we can boost, then bash.

"There’s talk on the street, it sounds so familiar. Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.
People you meet they all seem to know you, Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new...There’s talk on the street, it’s there to remind you that it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on. You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you. They will never forget you till somebody new comes along." [The Eagles, New Kid in Town]

It's okay to respect those who attain prominence or power. It's also okay to question their decisions, motives, and abilities. But a little bit of realism at either end of the sorry "adulation or savaging" cycle would be a good thing.

For example, the McCain-haters who want Thompson in this race right now would do well to remember that during the two senators' overlapping tenures, their voting records were strikingly similar.

The bottom line is that neither Fred Thompson, the flavor of this month, Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani, the flavors of last month, or John McCain, the flavor a few years back, are as perfect as the adulation and media coverage accorded them at the tops of their cycles or, most likely, as imperfect or as bad as the reports from the trash cycle indicate.

Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. Thirty years ago, John Lennon wrote, with more than a little self-pity and a lot of self-aggrandizement, yet insightfully, "All the world's a little town. Everybody wants to bring you down." (John Lennon, Isolation)

Secretly, I think, we all believe that we're more worthy than the people who reach or climb close to the heights of politics, music, literature, movies, academia, or our own fields. Ultimately, it's a personal thing that goes back to human beginnings: We boost one hero and then resent their success because, truth be told, we all want to be the hero. We want to be God.

[Also see here.]


for the survivors of what once was Greensburg, Kansas. I pray that God comforts and encourages them and brings healing to those physically injured.

[Also: When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!]

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The New Heaven and the New Earth

[This message was shared this weekend with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church.]

Revelation 21:1-6
The morning my great-grandmother died, when I was eight years old, my mother woke me with the news.

My great-grandmother, as some of you know, was a woman of deep faith in Jesus Christ. Often, when I walked into the living room of her house across the street from the home of my early boyhood, I found her reading her well-worn Bible. She frequently took time to talk with me about God, about Christ’s death and resurrection, and about what life beyond the grave is like for those who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as their King. Knowing that, I could picture it all when my mother said of my great-grandmother that morning, “She’s walking the streets of gold right now, Mark.”

All who follow the risen Jesus Christ live each day with the sure promise that, as Jesus told His friend Martha just before He brought her brother Lazarus back from the dead: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The follower of Christ isn’t exempted from the pains and difficulties of this life. But the hope of eternity with Christ does give us the power to face each day’s challenges.

This same hope also can give us the courage to do the right thing even at great risk. On Saturday, along with other members of the Clermont County OSU Alumni Association, my wife, son, and I went on a tour of local sites associated with the Underground Railroad. That was the pre-Civil War movement that helped slaves escape from bondage in the South and from the threat of being taken back into slavery while traveling in the North under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. The "railroad" helped these escapees then get to freedom in Canada.

The Underground Railroad was founded by committed Christians who believed that slavery was wrong and that even if it meant imprisonment or death for them, the risks were worthwhile. They were undaunted by the prospect of imprisonment or death because the hope of eternity with Christ was strong within them. They no doubt would have agreed with the the first century preacher Paul, who writes in the New Testament, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Baptist pastor L. Joseph Rosas says that our Bible lesson for today underscores the Christian’s hope for eternity in three different ways. I want to talk about those three glimpses into our hope for eternity. But first, a little background.

Like all of the lessons we’ve explored this Easter season, today’s comes to us from the New Testament book of Revelation. In it, the apostle John records a series of visions and experiences given to him by the resurrected Jesus.

In the section of Revelation just before our lesson, you can read about a series of stern judgments rendered against what John calls Babylon. John wrote Revelation in about 90AD. Centuries before--centuries before the birth of Jesus--the ancient Israelites were held in captivity by a terrible empire, Babylon. In John’s own time, the Roman Empire, which exiled him to the island of Patmos because of his faith in Christ and which persecuted many other followers of Christ, was seen as a kind of Babylon. But for John, Babylon represents a worldview that ignores God’s command and God’s call to love Him and to love others. It’s a world of selfishness, greed, and violence that opposes God and that God will one day bring to an end.

Now, the three ways in which our Bible lesson for today underscores the Christian’s hope for eternity.

On the heels of describing the judgment of Babylon, John tells his readers that irrespective of all the bad in our world or in our lives, God is up to something new. Using imagery reminiscent of phrasing in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, written some seven-hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God shows John that in Christ, He is doing a new thing. John writes in our lesson: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

One day, life on this sin-imprisoned planet will end. But God will replace it with a new heaven and a new earth inhabited by all who have trusted in Jesus Christ.

Sin, with all its devastating effects on our relationships today and the death that it brings, will disappear. That’s represented in our lesson by the disappearance of the sea. To ancient Jews and early Christians, the sea was a frightening, foreboding place, where sea monsters dwelt and chaos prevailed.

We see this picture of the sea in the first of the two creation accounts that begin the book of Genesis. There, we're told that God's Spirit moved over deep waters, a stormy, chaotic, and forebody place. When God moves over the water though, order and peace and a new creation comes about.

Thought of God the Creator loomed in the minds of Jesus' first disciples during one of the most famous Biblical incidents. The disciples were riding on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. A storm suddenly came up and even the seasoned fishermen among them were terrified. Meanwhile, Jesus slept like a baby in a crib. The disciples shook Jesus awake. "Lord," they said, "don't you care if we all drown." Jesus stood up, looked to the sea, and said, literally, "Be muzzled!" "Who is this," the disciples wondered, "that even the wind and the sea obey Him?" It was really, a rhetorical question. Only one Person Who could do that: the One Who did the very same thing at the beginning of time.

In addition to being a place of sin and death in the minds of the ancient Israelites and first Christians, it also divided peoples, putting oceans between them.

No wonder then that in the vision of the new heaven and the new earth that John saw, the sea was no more.

But in the new creation God will give, nothing will separate us from God or each other. And we believe that God is in the process, even now, even today, as we pay heed to His Word and worship Him together, of doing this new thing. God is in the process of making all who believe in Christ part of that new creation!

Next, in our lesson, John writes, “And I saw the 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; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

When Jesus was crucified, you remember, He was on a cross between two thieves. One joined the crowds in mocking Jesus. The other though could see that in Jesus, a sinless Savior was giving His life for the world. “Jesus,” he asked, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered this man, who was demonstrating faith in the most unlikely of circumstances, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Heaven is a real place, the destination of all who follow Christ. That's the second way our lesson underscores the Christian's hope for eternity.

Then John writes this, at the command of God Himself: “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’”

Pastor Bill Hybels has noted in many places that all of us are born with a longing for “it,” even though we hardly know what “it” is. It’s a void within us that some try to fill with all sorts of things--food, hobbies, money, sex, drugs, alcohol, power, popularity, prestige, fitness. In their place, each of these things can be good. But when we try to use any of them to fill the void within us, we’re still empty.

After trying to find it in a lifetime of dissipate living and partying, Saint Augustine finally found “it” in the God we meet in Jesus Christ. That’s why he once confessed to Christ, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Jesus Christ is “it,” the One Who fills the God-shaped hole in our lives. In Christ, God and His new creation have already invaded our world. Christians, in fact, live in an “already-not-yet” reality. We already are part of God’s new creation; that new creation isn’t yet fully realized. But we’ve seen what it looks like in Jesus: It’s a kingdom to which all people, no matter what their race, nationality, or gender, or their past sins, are welcome. Christ is a never-ending spring that refreshes us now when times are hard and will fill us with life forever.

Yet it’s sometimes hard to see that new kingdom of God’s, isn’t it? How do we see it? The late Belgian priest Henri Nouwen, who deliberately militated against his own pride and self-absorption by working in Christian communities that served the mentally retarded and toward the end of his life, AIDS victims, wrote a book in which he talked about some friends of his who were trapeze artists, the Flying Roudellas.

They told Nouwen about the special relationship between the flyer and the catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the artist who lets go. The catcher catches. While the flyer soars above the crowd, there comes a point when he must let go. He arcs through the air, his job being to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to grab him midair. One of the Roudellas told Henri Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The flyer has to wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but until that moment, the flyer must wait.

We see God’s Kingdom whenever we let Christ catch us:
  • Catch us when we turn from sin and turn to Him.
  • Catch us when we reject worshiping ourselves and instead, trust in Him.
  • Catch us when life hurts us so badly that there's nothing left to do but let Him love us.
In Jesus Christ...
  • God is doing a new thing;
  • He prepares a place in heaven for us; and
  • He makes us new.
If that’s sometimes hard for us to see as we live our lives each day, be still and let Christ catch you.

He always will.