Joel 3:11-17, Revelation 21:1-7
Do you remember all the hype around “Y2K”? It didn’t dawn on computer programmers back in the 70s and 80s that their programs would still be running in the late 90s and so they used 2 digit codes for year. Somewhere around 1997-98 people began speculating on the problems that would occur when January 1, 2000 came and computers could not differentiate between 1900 and 2000. Computers would become confused and crash leading to all kinds of failures in everything from power grids to banks.
Meanwhile, religious fanatics of various stripes saw the end of the 2nd millennium as the likely time when the forces of God would wage the final global war against the forces of evil. It was a great time for doomsayers. Even Don McLean’s “Bye-Bye Miss American Pie” was looking prophetic.
The new millennium came with nary a flicker in a light bulb and we all let out a collective sigh of relief. We had nearly put the apocalyptic nightmares away for good when 9/11 hit. Simultaneous and more than coincidentally, Jenkins and LeHaye’s “Left Behind” series became best sellers. Then came the 2nd war in Iraq, in the heartland of what was once the cradle of civilization.
Not surprisingly there is now a revived interest in the eschatological visions of the last days as described in scripture. Witness this fancy brochure I received not too long ago which suggests that the recent events in Iraq and Iran where long ago predicted in the Bible and that these are signs of the coming end to the world.
Given that the world once again is about to meet its demise, it may well be that few will notice the significance of this particular occasion, the celebration of the first anniversary of this congregation. That would be a shame. I suppose in comparison to the loss of all the world’s great literature, the end to all the music from Bach to
Cher, the destruction of three
millennium's worth of art, not to mention all the creations of humanity from theater to politics—well maybe we could do without the last one—missing out on this event tonight is no big deal.
And yet, my message to you is that what you are doing here tonight is far from insignificant. To the contrary, it is not only significant, it is essential to the vitality and wholeness of the one human institution created by God as the visible manifestation of God’s design for our world, namely, the church.
So I am here this evening on behalf of the congregation I serve to not only congratulate you that you are still here a year after you began—some had their doubts—but also to speak to you about the larger vision to which you and I are dedicated.
I chose these particular texts from the prophet Joel and Revelation because I want to reflect with you on God’s vision for our future and God’s intent for our world. First, my simple conviction based on not just on my own personal observation and study, but 2000 years of reflection and learning by thousands of learned men and women of many traditions: the world is not going to end tomorrow. I hope you are not disappointed. For some Duck fans the world ended yesterday, but for most of the rest of us, I assure you, there is a long future ahead in this world.
Does anyone pay any attention to Hal Lindsay anymore and all of his rambling about “The Late Great Planet Earth?” I sure hope not. Likewise authors LeHaye and Jenkins of “Left Behind” fame may be entertaining writers but they are lousy interpreters of scripture. Their sensational rendering of unbiblical concepts like the rapture and Armageddon are nothing more than a religious racket. Ask me later and I’ll tell you how I really feel about their work.
Apocalyptic texts, such as Revelation, are very powerful scriptures and therefore, must be taken very seriously and read very carefully. The prophet Joel speaks of a time when there will be an outpouring of the Spirit and the old will dream dreams and the young will see visions. He then proceeds to give us his vision of a time when the Lord will roar from Zion, heavens and earth will shake, fortunes of Israel shall be restored and her enemies destroyed.
Likewise in Revelation we read of a time when the cosmic struggle between good and evil will come to an end and God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and death will be no more. These visions are not predictions of the end of the world, as commonly assumed, rather they present a vision of our destiny of God’s people, of a new Jerusalem, a new earth or a new age, in other words, of an alternative presented by God to the present time.
The consistent Biblical witness is of a universe guided by a vision—God’s vision of our ultimate destiny. If you have difficulty seeing how such a vision is operative in this confusing, messed-up world, consider this: the Biblical vision of heavenly perfection did not arise in times of peace and tranquility when all was right and good in the world, in fact, it was the opposite.
Joel was written around 400 BCE, over a century after the Babylonian captivity came to an end and those living in exile were allowed to return home. There was in that time a natural expectation that God would restore their fortunes of old and a descendant of David would rise to the throne, ushering in a time of peace and prosperity.
Only that is not what happened. Instead Israel remained nothing more than an impoverished province within the Persian empire and daily existence was a constant struggle. When many would have concluded that God had abandoned them, Joel reveals that God in fact is faithful and the day of the Lord is yet to come. His message, therefore, is one of encouragement, do not lose hope.
In the case of Revelation the circumstances were even worse. The Roman emperor,
Domitian, had decreed himself as “Lord and God”. Those who refused to address him as such were routinely executed or exiled. Among the latter was John, the author of Revelation. In exile during one of the greatest periods of persecution Christians have ever known, he presents a vision of God’s ultimate victory and complete transformation of the world through Christ.
Even in the worst of times, John’s vision teaches us that faith in God does make a difference in this world, that everything is not the way it is supposed to be, that God is still at work, that transformation is still possible.
Please note, if you are used to hearing Revelation, Joel, Daniel or other such scriptures as a prediction of the future, culminating in the end of the world, that is not the way I understand these texts. Nor do any of the Biblical scholars I have known or read, including virtually all of those associated with mainline denominations such as ours. (I do not know if it is an insult or a complement to include MCC in that group, but know that you are members of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, for better or worse, I count you among us.)
Rather, these texts should be seen not as a prediction of the end of the world, but as a vision of the destiny of the world. And there is a world of difference between those two.
It was not a prediction of the end of world two thousand years away and counting that sustained Jews and Christians in the time of their greatest need, but a vision of God’s ultimate triumph over the world.
It was not a prediction of the end of Roman dominance of world Christianity that started the Protestant Reformation but a vision of a church ruled by the authority of scripture rather than the rule of authority.
It was not a prediction of a new nation in the American colonies that inspired the Declaration of Independence, but a vision of a people endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It was the a prediction of the end to segregation that inspired the Civil Rights movement, but a vision of a society where whit children and black children could sit side by side in buses, at school, in restaurants, and none would be afraid.
It will not be a prediction of an earth-friendly world that will solve our environmental crises but a vision of new ways that we can live in harmony with God’s creation rather than independent of it.
It will not be a prediction of statehood in Palestine that will end hostilities there once and for all, but a vision of a new Jerusalem where Jews, Muslims and Christians are welcome as children of God.
It will not be a prediction of military victory that will bring peace in the war against terrorism, but a vision for a just society where the rights of all people are respected and honored.
In other words, it is the vision of what God desires for our world that will change it, not predictions of what God will do to it. It is this vision that scripture offers us, not predictions like some cheesy astrology chart.
With that in mind, I offer to you three essential elements in that vision which I consider to be God’s vision for us.
First, the reality of the Spirit. I hope you come to worship here not because you want to hear a good sermon, though I know you do having just heard Marsha speak this week at Two Rivers Interfaith Ministries. I hope the main reason you come to church is to praise God, to experience God’s love and to affirm that God is alive and present in our world.
When we come to church, we try to get to know one another, to learn each other’s names, to build Christian community and the like, which is all well and good. But coming to church is not about getting to know other church-going people, it is about getting to know God. Being touched by the presence of God, feeling the love of God, is the work of the Spirit. That Spirit is as ever real than the chair on which you sit, and maybe even more so. To be part of a Christian community is to be people of the Spirit, to believe in the power of that Spirit to change lives and to change the world.
Second, the inclusivity of community. My word processor does not believe there is such a word as inclusivity so maybe I should say the community of inclusion. Whichever, I think you get the point. I suspect that this particular community gathered here this evening knows better than mine own the importance and power of inclusion because most of you have known the reverse. In tribal societies the ultimate punishment is not execution, the ultimate punishment is exclusion, banishment. We are very good at practicing that in our society and most unfortunately, there is perhaps no human institution that is better at excluding others than the church.
It depresses and distresses me to no end that the institution which celebrates marriage as a sacrament of God’s love intended for all humanity wants to restrict that sacrament for a certain segment of humanity. I give thanks, therefore, for this congregation because you are the witness to the rest of the church as well as society that God’s love cannot be segmented.
The good news is, many in the church are hearing and seeing that witness. Slowly, too slowly for sure, but slowly, the church is changing. The inclusion of MCC in the membership of EMO is but one sign of that change. The number of clergy and churches joining in the opposition to Constitutional Amendment 36 is another.
I believe the day will come when it will be no more acceptable in our society to exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation than it is on race. That day will come because of the vision given to us by God of the inclusive community. That is the Biblical vision of our ultimate destiny, and because it is the Biblical vision, it is the church’s vision. Some churches just don’t know it yet. But they will.
The central symbol of this inclusivity for your congregation as well as mine is the table. To share together around the Lord’s Table is to make a statement of who we are and who we seek to be as one, united family of God. Thus in our common tradition all are invited to partake of this meal, there are no barriers to this table.
Sometimes you may hear someone say, “examine yourself before you partake of the bread and cup of Christ to see if you are worthy. And to that I always add, and come anyway. The point is not are you worthy enough, the point is that God’s grace is offered to us regardless of our worthiness. So all are welcome at this table.
Lastly, the third element of God’s vision for us especially in this time is a passion for justice. I was very touched by the theme of last night’s interfaith service on the 3rd anniversary of 9/11, “Justice: Our Sacred Calling.” Justice, the social expression of love, is not a tangential concern to Christian faith, it is central to who we are. The way of the world says that first you must achieve a military victory and then you can have peace. The way of God says first you much establish justice before you can find peace.
The President was absolutely correct a few weeks ago when we said that we cannot win the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, he quickly reversed himself after being thoroughly criticized for that statement. I think the technical term for that is “flip flop.” I was even more disappointed, however, that instead of saying that the President finally had spoken the truth on this war, Senator Kerry was one of those who was quick to proclaim that this war in fact can be won.
Wars in general and especially wars against terror do not produce winners, they may produce a victor but not a winner. Only by winning hearts and minds through true justice for the poor, the oppressed, the victimized and marginalized will we ever hope to bring an end to terrorism and a beginning to true peace.
The reality of the Spirit, the inclusivity of community and a passion for justice, these are the marks of God’s vision for us today. All three of those elements are found in the mission statement of this congregation. I read in part from that statement,
We welcome all who desire to know God. We provide a safe haven for all to experience: Spiritual, emotional and sexual well being. Unconditional love and acceptance. Spiritual growth in our search for God. A welcoming and caring environment. We are dedicated to social justice and peace for all people in our families, communities and the world.
Thank you Twin Rivers for your witness in and to our community. May you thrive with the blessings of God.