Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Safe Landing

When we think of "disasters of biblical proportion" we don't have to look very far, do we? Earthquakes, world-wide pandemics, global war and conflict, cruel dictators, poverty and economic hardship-- these are not events of the distant past or an unknown future...but a present reality. In Revelation 6: 1-8, John speaks of four symbolic horses and their riders which are visited upon the world: the white horse represents conquest; the red horse, vengeance and strife; the black horse, scarcity and inequity; and the final horse -- the pale green horse --sickness and death, which is often the result of the other three!

In John's vision, we meet these four horses and their riders when the Lamb of God -- who is Christ -- opens the sealed scroll that is in the hand of the One who sits on the throne. That scroll represents the eternal decrees and redemptive plan of God. We're told that John wept when no one was able to open the scroll in heaven, but the angel says, "Don't be afraid! The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals" (Rev. 5:5).

The image of the Lamb with the scroll firmly in his grasp (yes, I know that Lambs don't have fingers, which should underscore to us all that Revelation is a book dominated by figurative rather than literal imagery) is a reminder that, whatever may come, Christ is at the helm of history; that "He's got the whole world in his hands." Michael Wilcox has it right when he says, "We don't need Jesus to tell us that this world is full of troubles. But we do need his explanation of history if its troubles are not to be meaningless" (cited in Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder).

But back to the four horses.... In these mysterious horses and their riders is the answer to the question: "How does God 'judge' evil and show it to be what it is? Answer: God judges evil for what it is through the suffering it causes. That's right, we know that war, poverty, and unrestrained greed are devestating precisely because of the suffering they cause. God help us if they were somehow pleasant realities! No, God does not desire for there to be conflict, famine and resulting death, and so God permits them as the inevitable result of living contrary to his will.

In Jesus' end-time Sermon (Matthew 24: 6-13), he clearly describes the events symbolized by these mysterious horsemen. For "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; but see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birthpangs." In other words, what is described here in the four horsemen of John's vision is not an extraordinary cycle of End of the World events. No, in the words of F. Dale Bruner, this is merely routine history! This is the pain of a world that is at enmity with God and God's best for the world.

Routine history is where we live...and it is only extraordinary in the sense that it is the prelude to God's new world and Christ's return, remembering that "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matt. 24: 36) says Jesus. How then are we to live in these "interesting times"? Jesus is very clear about this.

First, we are to be calm, for Jesus says in his Sermon on End Times, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed!” (Matt. 24: 6). In times of crisis, God's people should be the calmest people on the block because we have the Lord’s peace. The old people of God knew this peace: “Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (Ps. 27: 3). I'll never forget the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. I was nine years old...and my brother and I were still in our bunkbeds when the quake began. Within seconds, my father had made his way into our bedroom -- with no little difficulty -- and managed to get to our bedside where he placed his hand on the rails to steady us through the shaking. I clearly remember my father's calm presence. It was the assurance that whatever happened...he and my mom would be there with us. How we need to be that for one another when news of the latest disaster, unwelcomed disease, or economic recession hits!

Secondly, be compassionate. Jesus remarks that in the future, "because of the increase of lawlessness -- the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24: 12). As Jesus' followers we should be filled with genuine concern for people, for animals, and for the creation in general. It has been falsely taught that "Jesus told us to fish in the swamp, not clean it up!" My friends, the idea that we should not be too quick to fix world disasters, work for peace or exercise social responsibility, lest we delay Christ’s return, is a dangerous distortion of the Gospel that ignores the moral teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: e.g., “Blessed are the peacemakers... love your enemies... give to the needy.”

Finally, be committed, for Jesus says that "the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). That’s not salvation by works, but salvation by a faith that works, that's real and engaged in the world which God loves and sent his Son to save. Our endurance, the fruit of a life of faith that has been strengthened through testing (James 1:1) enables us to be credible ambassadors for Christ to a hurting world.

John's vision of the seals, though disturbing, is also filled with assurances for God's people, assurances not that we shall be exempt from suffering but that we shall be comforted in it, and that we shall "come out of the great ordeal" with our robes "made white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14). Again, it is Jesus' sacrificial love for us, his suffering love that will give us strength in the midst of the most trying situation. Only a God who knows so intimately our pain can truly identify and heal our own. One day, John is told, we will "hunger no more, and thirst no more....for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear" from our eyes (Rev. 7: 16-17).

I'm reminded of the headline story of Captain John "Sully" Sullenberger who was recently hailed by his hometown of Danville for his quick thinking and heroism in landing a crippled jet on the Hudson river -- the first successful water landing of a passenger jet aircraft without without loss of life in aviation history. Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Dolan writes,

"Sullenberger, in a dark suit and tie, sat on a stage next to his tear-stained wife, Lorrie, and smiled and placed his hand over his heart as the crowd whooped and hollered, waved small American flags and hoisted signs that read, 'Sully's Soaring Saved Souls,' 'Sullyfied Hero' and 'Excellent Landing!'

When it came time to speak, the tall, thin, gray-haired Sullenberger was a man of few words. He said it was 'great to be here in Danville' and expressed his family's gratitude for the celebration. He made only a brief mention of the event that has won him worldwide fame.'I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do,' Sullenberger said in a strong, clear voice. 'Thank you.' With that, he sat down, and the crowd again erupted.

Local officials spoke of Sullenberger's calm and expert flying, noting that he had just two minutes to decide what to do when the jet lost power in both engines Jan. 15 after hitting a flock of birds shortly after takeoff. 'He had only about 121 seconds,' said Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich. 'I can't even say my name that fast, and he had to make all those decisions.' Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) presented Sullenberger with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. 'Because of his actions, 155 Americans are safely home with their families,' the congressman said."

I found it particularly revealing of Sully's character that he did not leave the aircraft after the emergency landing until he had walked the entire plane twice to ensure that every man, woman, and child on board was safely off the plane. Captain "Sully" is for me an ideal example of how to respond in the midst of a crisis -- with calm, compassion for people, and commitment to the task. He illustrates the kind of attitude that we as Christ's people are to have in these "interesting" times. He also reminds me of the character of Christ himself who said that "It is not the will of your Father in heaven that evenone of these little ones should be lost" (Matt. 18:14) and again, "Even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid" (Luke 10: 30-31). We trust his words because he went through death and hell for us...and lived to tell about it.

No, our hope is not in ignoring evil, nor is it in fully explaining evil, but rather our hope is in Christ who has endured evil and emerged from evil (David Jenkins)! For that reason it is not difficult for me to imagine the cheering of the multitudes when he returns, or calls us home. "Cheers to the Lamb who guided us safely through, and set us down beside the waters of life. Not a single one was lost!" they'll say. And the only tears that Day will be the tears of joy!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Who has been the presence of Christ for you in this past year...bringing calm, compassion and commitment in the midst of difficult circumstances? What do you think should be the marks of Jesus' followers in the midst of catastrophes big and small & how are we to be an example to the larger community?

Monday, January 19, 2009

"I Have a Revelation!"

On this date our nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when he spoke to thousands of his dream that one day his children would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I want to consider the fact that racial reconciliation is rarely described as merely a political goal; but as a transcendent moral and spiritual imperative. For long before King's "I have a dream" speech or President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, there was a man named John who said, "I have a revelation!"

John shares that revelation with us in the fifth and seventh chapters of his inspired vision. It begins as a magnificent hymn to Christ, the Lamb that was slain who "ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation and have made them to be a a kingdom and priests serving our God" (Rev. 5:9).

Then in Rev. 7:9, John describes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" and "They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

John describes for us the destiny of the human race and the nations of the earth...and that is a destiny in which peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation are ransomed from evil by God and stand together before his throne in worship and adoration. All who will may come -- whether your skin is of the lighter hue or of the darker hue; whether your hair is black, brown, blonde, or red -- and sit at table in the Kingdom of God. Many refer to MLK Day as "Kingdom Day," which is entirely appropriate -- because it was the "Kingdom of God" that Dr. King was trying to describe on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

John's "Kingdom Day" vision -- like Dr. King's dream -- does more than remind us that the nations and peoples of the earth have value; it establishes the spiritual basis of that value: for it reveals that they were created in God's image and have an essential role to play as priests and servants of the Lamb. Some guess that in God's full world, physical differences like race will be obliterated with the gift of "new and improved" resurrection bodies. Nothing could be further from the truth! John's revelation reveals that the uniqueness of our outward appearance -- including the color of our skin, and our cultural and national identity will by no means be erased, but rather offered up to God in endless praise and creative service! Anticipating that future, Sunday worship should be a foretaste of the heavenly reality that John describes...where people from every nation, tongue, and tribe gather together before the throne. No doubt I have some blindspots when it comes to prejudice or prejudging others...and so it's my prayer that I would be able to more perfectly reflect John's throne room revelation in my own life and relationships.

Tomorrow, January 20, 2009, we inaugurate Barak Obama as President of the United States, the first African American to hold the office -- a gifted and honorable man who deserves and needs our prayers, whether we are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents! Aware of the tremendous challenges before him, he quipped in a post-election interview that, "I am not the Messiah; and I don't do miracles!" Though his election is a significant and historic event, it does not neutralize all of the problems surrounding race in our nation or heal all our divisions. Which is why, as the Lord's followers, we continue to be vested with the responsibility to reflect here and now on earth (in our worship and our work) John's revelation of that magnificently variegated multiplicity of peoples and nations who will stand shoulder to shoulder in song, crying, "Now to the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever" (Rev. 5:13)!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: I invite you to share with me your reflections on worship as it pertains to that ever-expanding circle of cosmic worshipers that John describes. First, what has been the most memorable or significant experience of worship that you have ever had; and what aspect of the ever enlarging circle of peoples and nations around the throne that John describes have you experienced?