Kissing Jesus

sermon for Pentecost 

(John20:19-23; Psalm104:24-34,35b; Acts2:1-21; 1Corinthians12:3b-13)
Perhaps you’ve noticed I occasionally get around to pairing titles with sermons. If you’ve noticed that, you may also be wondering about this one, perhaps whether it pairs with the ignominious category of Christian rock praise songs disparagingly referred to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. They come with lyrics like: In the secret, in the quiet place…I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more. With such over-the-top sentimentality, they are the type where if they didn’t mention Jesus by name, you’d think they were love songs about a boyfriend. Although I’m pretty sarcastic about things like that, and though on the flip side I wouldn’t want to disparage nuns who view their chastity as marriage to Jesus, still my title isn’t about poking fun. I’m not trying to commend that you should be so passionate you want to kiss Jesus.

Instead, I’m pointing to the kissing being done by Jesus. There are interpreters who understand this breath and giving of the Spirit in the Gospel of John as being a french kiss from Jesus.

But, having set that odd image in front of you, I’m going to leave it aside for a moment. From that extreme intimacy with a sense of giving the Holy Spirit as so personal it involves a kiss, I want to back up to the most generic view of how you’re given the Holy Spirit. It’s generic, but incredibly awesome in its abundance. That’s the view from our Psalm. In the Psalm God’s Spirit is the breath that gives you life, and life to all humans, and to all creatures. (You might be well-served by the play on words that in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament, the same word can mean either breath or Spirit.) This passage says God is giving each and every creature the Holy Spirit with each and every breath. Far from Pentecost being a one-time phenomenal event, this is supramundane. God is with you to sustain every respiration, over and over again literally in-spiring you, putting the Spirit into you, and into cattle, and birds, and sea monsters, and (we’d understand more fully than the Psalmist) even into trees of the field, which also breathe (with the Amazon rainforest being called the “lungs of the planet”), and soils and oceans also inhaling in vast global processes of trans-spiring, the Spirit moving through and across our world.

I first want to pause so we can hear how astonishing that is. If we understood God’s Spirit as the breath of life for our world, it seems impossible to arrive at a conclusion to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate change is in a strong theological way the earth losing its breath, being so winded it just can’t catch a breath, being exhausted (for a different play on words, with the fumes from our tailpipes and smokestacks). It is directly causing respiratory issues for the poor and ill, the elderly and children who continue being born. Now, if the earth can’t breathe, it means it is suffocating for God’s Spirit, gasping for it, but since we are choking off God’s intention, earth is unable to breathe in, to be renewed, to sustain life.

Having said how remarkable that is and what an enormously faithful perspective, that in the time I’ve uttered these sentences, God has been replacing God’s Spirit, God’s breath within you over and over and over, as exhilarating or inspiring as that thought is (and I truly am hoping you’re receiving it that way, as a gift more than you can appreciate), I also want to realize that that’s not enough. God works constantly to renew, to rejuvenate, to revitalize you by filling you with the Holy Spirit. But even though that happens day and night, constantly and by definition through your whole life, still that’s not enough.

Because mostly you’re not aware of it. You’re not exhilarated by it. You’re not sustained by this constant sustenance. You don’t observe it everywhere you go among people and in nature. And that’s why you’re here. Or at least part of the reason you’re here. The Psalm says that we praise God with all our breath, and maybe you’re here to praise for God’s lifegiving care. But I suspect you’re here also because you forget it, because you doubt if God cares, wonder about God’s presence, because you need reassurance.

That connects with the two readings about the followers of Jesus gathered together. They are there because they’re worshipping, yes, and because they need each other. And they need more than each other, they need an assurance of God’s striving for life, even through and beyond death.

So then that breath of God, a Holy Wind of the Spirit comes whipping into the room in another way, comes to refresh, to re-enliven them, comes so that their young people may dream dreams and their old people may again envision the future, comes to release them from captivity, from all that binds and confines them, to forgive so that they may share that blessing with others.

In the Gospel reading, it is a direct application of the Spirit so that they may have confidence. Now, the reading itself just says that Jesus breathed on them. But is this more than letting them sniff whether he remembered to brush his teeth on the way out of the tomb that morning?

Rather than just blowing toward them as a little symbolic gesture that God’s breath was in them, it has been suggested that Jesus may have kissed the disciples.* In ancient culture, a kiss meant sharing the spirit or breath of life. When you kiss someone goodbye, it is so that a portion of life, of spirit, of being remains shared with each other. Even if we don’t express it, we retain some of the sense. There on Easter evening after the resurrection, when Jesus was going away to ascend into heaven, as the readings tell us, through this kiss and sharing of his Spirit he would still be present with his followers, with his beloved even after he said goodbye. This is exactly how the Holy Spirit is described; we heard a Gospel reading from John 14(:18) two weeks ago where Jesus says he’s going away, but he’ll give you his Spirit to remain with you and in you.

It may be from this kiss of Jesus as he says “peace be with you” that the church also got into kissing. Four of Paul’s letters end with an instruction to “greet one another with the kiss of peace.” For 1200 years, the church was trying to figure out how to honor that without giving in to promiscuity and having too much smoochy-face in the worship service. I think that reaction probably overdid it. We could probably use more sense that we are supported in life, that we share life with each other, that we are cared for by God, by Jesus, and through the Spirit of Jesus, within this community. We need to be here for that reassurance, to be bound together, to breathe together, which, for our plays on words is literally the word “conspire”.

And since we’re being conspiratorial here together, since that’s what comes from having the Spirit of Jesus within and among us, that propels us on to the next thing. We come because we need that reassurance and blessing for life, but when we come here, we’re also sent. In Acts, the followers of Jesus are sent to share good news with those who didn’t even speak a language they knew. In the Gospel reading, those followers are hiding behind locked doors, but Jesus directly sends them. He won’t let them stay locked up in fear; and the forgiveness may explicitly be for those whom they fear! That’s what this blessing of peace and life lead to when you’re inspired by God.

I don’t often do direct applications in my sermons. That presumes a sermon can be resolved, while I believe God applies the Word to you as you need it, often in miraculously unexpected ways. But today may call for some direct application, so I want to conclude with a word about our sanctuary meeting. After worship today, the MCC will be discerning our readiness to serve as a sanctuary site for an undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation and separation from her or his family and tearing up the fabric of our community. This isn’t an easy conversation. It could be likely the person doesn’t speak the same language we do. With ambiguous and unknown outcomes, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, to be afraid, to keep closed up by ourselves behind these doors and not be opened to God’s mission of offering peace and life. But I am truly hoping we can catch our breath, can confront the risks, and can be on the side of blessing.

I haven’t mentioned our reading from 1st Corinthians yet. Mostly we use this as a passage about each of us as individuals having diverse gifts—that Sybil can play the piano and Jean can organize the garden and Brian can be our president and John can swing a hammer and children teach us. But we can also hear the gifts of our congregation within the larger body of Christ. In asking the question of sanctuary, we may well have gifts that other congregations, other groups of eager people don’t. We may be in a better place to say yes, with facilities that will serve well, and your daringly faithful young staff, and a congregation who is accustomed—when facing hard issues—to offer leadership to the wider church.

And when trepidation remains, when we need another dose of assurance, that is why we are here together, brought into community by this kissing Jesus, and we’re inspired filled with fresh breath, with new life of his resurrection, moment by moment, week after week, and on toward the promise of eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

* Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko, p82

 

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a funeral sermon

IreneWith Thanksgiving for the Life of Irene Josephine Rasmussen

September 1, 1919 + July 13, 2016

Exodus 20:9-12; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 14:27-28

 

“How long?” is a familiar question amid the Bible’s Psalms, a repeated refrain, even a persistent demand. I’ll come back to the Psalm later, because it takes a different tone, but let’s stick with the phrase “How long,” as it’s been on my mind in these weeks and months for Irene and since her death.

“How long!” might well begin as an exclamation for Irene. Her nearly 97 years made her the second-oldest member of this congregation, and well above most any expectation for life.

That time stretches back to the kind of farm life that hardly exists anymore and a Norwegian identity that has mostly been melted and blended into American culture. “How long” was such a length for her that it involves the increasingly rare trait of being shaped by the Great Depression, with thrift and endeavoring after careful and wise living. Irene could remember when their large garden produced almost all of her family’s food and that she didn’t have store-bought clothes for years, but only those made by her mother. She could recall when her father traveled to have a job with the Works Progress Administration, and—maybe even more remarkable for its contrast to this current culture—the overwhelming sense of optimism that went with hearing a speech from FDR. It sure feels like it must be a long time ago for somebody to say they were inspired positively by a politician!

The “how long” isn’t only a distance in the past, though, but also a duration. We can certainly celebrate that Irene and Paul’s marriage lasted for 65 years, which likely didn’t feel too long at all. And we can celebrate all they enjoyed through the course of those years, especially in travels to camp: Maine, the Black Hills, Montreal for the Expo, and much more. A couple weeks on the road each summer, and almost a month of the year spent camping out. That’s a lot, a long time to be outside. On those voyages, following after “are we there yet,” “how long” may also have been a question from a son in the back seat.

Those camping trips inspired a couple of the hymns (How Great Thou Art and Beautiful Savior) and Bible passages we heard this morning. The Exodus reading is actually part of the 10 Commandments given to Moses while the people were camping in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. I like the part about honoring father and mother because it offers an encouragement, a blessing: “so that your days may be long in the land.” It’s such a good biblical phrase for the “how long” of life and enjoying the world.

And the previous commandment about honoring the sabbath with rest also seems to fit with the recreation of those camping trips with Irene, of pausing to enjoy the world around you, of breaking from regular routines of life, and observing nature and the glories of creation and life around you.

Similarly, the vision of Revelation isn’t a description of the heaven we are destined for, but is a grand assurance and broad insistence that in spite of all that goes wrong, we share the blessings of life with a multitude, humans from all times and places, and all creatures, on earth and in the skies and under the earth and in the seas, as it says. A beautiful notion of praise, I expect it is part of the worship that Irene found on camping trips.

It’s also a vision that fits this occasion, of being brought back together with those who have been through ordeals and suffering, of God’s ongoing striving for redemption and to wipe away tears, of the baptismal springs of resurrection to new life. Good words, carrying us into the “how long” of eternity that stretches out in front of Irene and awaits us.

But before we get there, we also need to pause with the Psalm’s sort of “how long,” asking “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?” (13:2) It’s not a cheery question, but that “how long” was more the sense that I knew in my brief months with Irene, and which she had been headed toward over the past several years.

Sometimes “how long” is a lament, a prayer to God, a question of yearning. That certainly must have been the case for Irene at the tragedies of death, for her son David, and grandson Jonathan, and when she lost her husband, and her siblings, and so many friends. That is certainly a hard down-side to longevity.

And we wondered the question for Irene, too. How long will dementia worsen? How long until she isn’t able to recognize me? How long before a worse fall? How long will she be able to last? How long will this life go on?

Asking those harder parts of “how long” isn’t to say the situation was desperate. “How long” also meant important time of care from Paul and Maria. Irene did remember family and longtime friends. She remembered her childhood. She delighted in the visits from her church circle and could relate very well. She eagerly welcomed me as her new pastor, often over and over again during our visits. She continued to be eager to receive communion.

And maybe that’s part of our answer to the question, that in some ways we don’t know “how long.” We don’t know what will last or what’s coming next. Besides good times, we have plenty of anxieties that surround and lurk after us. Yet this faith turns us continually back to God and repeated assurance of hope, inspiring us perhaps with patience, but also promising the peace that surpasses all understanding, such as the world cannot give.

So that is for you now, for the “how long” of these ongoing days without Irene and for the rest of life: the peculiar assurance that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Somehow, in spite of it all, your “how long” is held in the promise of God’s embrace, that Jesus is with you forever and always.

I want to conclude with a couple words about our next hymn (When Memory Fades, ELW 792). For “how long,” we could’ve sung Amazing Grace’s notion that “when we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” Instead we’ll sing this hymn with its strong text, perhaps almost too strong. In that, there’s some yes and no of how these words do and don’t apply to Irene and for our gathering today. I’m hoping that you find value in them for what they do say, perhaps even in spite of the hard honesty of the laments of “how long.” But if it doesn’t exactly make you feel like the resurrection praise we heard about from all creation in the Revelation reading (and our opening and closing hymns are probably better for that), still this one is a great tune, and for Irene’s love of symphonic music, it’s worth singing with gusto.

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Jesus & Our Priorities, Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas

(John1:1-18; Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14)

Here we are beginning a new year, turning calendars to 2015, thinking ahead of resolutions and what needs to change, and I’m foolishly going to suggest we need to use this opportunity to look backward.

Furthermore, we have this gospel reading from the start of John’s Gospel, the Prologue, as it’s known. It’s an intro, an opening. It is there for us to look forward, to set the tone of all that is going to come in the story of Jesus. Plus, we’re on the cusp of Epiphany, when for six Sundays we’ll encounter the next parts of Jesus’ story, the ways this light is revealed to the world, of how people got to know him and how we get to know him.

But for now, as we have maybe a pause, a hint of what’s coming, we also need a reminder of what came. We gather today on day 11 of the 12 days of Christmas. The Christmas season officially concludes tomorrow. And it’s worthwhile that we have to think back to Christmas Eve today. As we gather amid falling needles and poinsettia debris, our world in so many ways has already moved on. The gifts are unwrapped and put away. By December 26, radio stations had already switched off the holiday hits. Focuses changed to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Decorations come down as we tidy up. We return to work and school, to regular rhythms. We go back to life.

Yet today, interrupting again, we are compelled to recall a baby born in a barn. And just to be clear, that isn’t a cuddly and sweet story endeared to us because it is set well to music. It isn’t just a holiday pause. It’s not a diversion from life, but a reorientation of life. And Christmas must be that because centrally what we believe and continue to proclaim is that God was born.  God was born. Again, our understanding of Jesus isn’t just that he grew up to be a nice guy, or that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who could be a thorn in the side of the world’s most powerful empire, nor even that he knew a lot about God. What we believe is that Jesus was—and is—God.

As the story continues, it gets even more disturbing. Beyond the Prologue, all of John’s Gospel could be seen as a commentary or an argument about how Jesus, a particular person could make God present for us and, more, actually could have gone on to be killed. God, even though he’s human and not unbroken and, yes, even though he was executed on a cross. It’s just plain outrageously foolish.

But then we amp up our foolishness to the nth degree. Our peculiar readings for today expand our perspective, identifying in Jesus God’s eternal wisdom that provided the shape and pattern for the existence of our universe since before anything came to be.  Since we’re looking back, we’ll look waaay back. The readings step back from the Bethlehem stable to say that the one who was born there was with God, was God, since the beginning, speaking all things into existence. “No one has ever seen God,” it said. Only Jesus has made God known. That’s a no-nonsense statement with oomph.

So, aside from the fact that this has been scriptural understanding and that Christians have held this belief ever since there were Christians, still Jesus as God has gotta give us some pause and make us uncomfortable. It is so direct, so particular.

It has been making me think of a phrase I hear too often from friends and others generally. In talk about raising children regarding faith, they say they’re “going to let them decide for themselves and choose what they want to believe.” It’s a strange thing to say. I mean, for simple starters, we don’t let kids decide whether or not they want to use silverware or have table manners. Going to school isn’t optional. We pretty well expect they’ll subscribe to our society’s ethics and norms. We even struggle with disappointment when they challenge our allegiances, to an alma mater or to a sports team. But God is up for grabs on doing whatever they might want?!

It seems so backward. Isn’t the whole point of God, being something that’s bigger than you? That you are among creation, and so don’t get to pick (or be) the Creator? Wouldn’t it be the height of presumptuousness to imagine you could set aside God for another deity, or that you could take-or-leave the whole spiel altogether? Isn’t this exactly what the 1st Commandment is about, and why it’s the 1st Commandment? That is to say, it’s a question of priorities—literally meaning what we put first.

Furthermore, it’s evident that we’re bad at making these so-called choices. The Prologue says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. It’s saying that they already had some knowledge of this God, but still couldn’t see it, wouldn’t accept him. Or, as it says a bit more gloomily after John 3:16, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”

Yet it’s not just our postmodern families, with lives overflowing with flashy options (even if they’re not truly optional and not all that good or bright). It’s not just those who want to sleep in on Sundays. Getting back to the main issue at hand, still even those of us who have spent our lives in church probably have difficulty with identifying God with Jesus alone.

I suspect for our children we need to re-focus this devotion, and we ourselves need to be more devoted. We would benefit from reclaiming this wisdom, remembering the true shape of our lives and what brings us light. We are people with myriad commitments and obligations and diffuse interests, scattering us in so many directions, and probably leaving us un-grounded and less enlightened, if not entirely self-devoted idolaters. I can say for myself, right along with the rest of you, that I certainly fall short in having this be the center of my life, with all the rest of who I am to be oriented around Jesus, structured out from that center, to know that life is marked from a manger to the cross and out beyond an empty tomb.

And there’s the core of why it matters. We look back to Jesus to know what God still plans and intends for us, what the shape of our lives and the goal of our universe is supposed to be. So it isn’t that we have a God who so sternly demands obedient allegiance, with threats of “or else.” It’s that there’s so much promise for us and for all creation around us in this God who has come to dwell with us. It’s worth being able to trust our lives, our hopes, our existence to Jesus. That’s what makes it the priority. This is what God wants for us, to offer assurances and to guide and fulfill our lives.

For starters with that, we’re not left aimlessly wondering whether the universe is against us, or if we just need to try a bit harder to have karma go our way, or if there’s any point to it at all or if our lives are simply irrelevant. We, instead, are given confidence in love and charity and community. In Jesus, we know compassion. We know that our lives matter, that we’re not just waiting for our souls to fly away, but that this flesh, this created stuff, this world is vital to God. God is utterly invested here. With Jesus as God revealed for us, from a lowly birth in Bethlehem to being with the poor and the ill, on to the end you may know that God’s good for you cannot be stopped even by death.

One last word of promise for today, a nice, tender image. I really cherish and cling to these during this Christmas season, because I find the image of Mary cradling and nursing the baby God so stunning and beautiful. This is a parallel to that. Our final verse from John had the stuff about no one ever seeing God, but God being made known only by Jesus. Along with that was the phrase that the Son “is close to the Father’s heart.”

That’s helpful already. That heart-felt image of knowing God by heart tells us of proximity, of shared emotions, of love, of Jesus revealing for us what is centrally important to know about God.

But rather than just heart, a more direct translation of that phrase would be that Jesus is held “in the bosom” of the Father. Just as Mary nursed Jesus, the baby God, so God’s own bosom nurses with tender care. And Jesus isn’t the only one held close in God’s bosom. Jesus brings you into this family, making us all children of God, nursed and sustained and held dearly, close to God’s heart and in God’s bosom forever. That’s good stuff, worth knowing, worth remembering, re-orienting your whole life. So, Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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Abundant Antichrists and Persistent Faith — sermon on Revelation 13 for 17 August 14

My reading and research preparing for this week were different than normal.

See, I began looking around, counting horns and heads. I looked at President Obama, but couldn’t find any horns, so guess he must not be satan. I realized I have seven screens, of computers and phones and TVs, that I look at a lot, and wondered if those seven faces of technology matched seven heads of the beast.

It got worse: it talks about one who looked like the lamb but spoke like the dragon, uttering blasphemy, using godly language but in reverse, for falsehood and leading astray. With that, boy, did I worry that was actually talking about the church, the ELCA. What if we ourselves are the beast?!

Although stuff on the internet could support any of those hypotheses, to me it was leading in an unpleasant direction, so I tried another approach. I investigated 666, playing biblical cryptoquote by assigning a number value to each letter. Nevermind that interpreters have long figured that 666 was the value for Nero Caesar, a terrible Roman emperor at the time Revelation was written. It’s more fun to keep adding, discovering that people have found 666 to be the value of popes and of Hitler and of Ronald Wilson Reagan for having six letters in each of his names, and also for Barney, the big purple dinosaur. With all of those speculations, it seems the beast is really on the loose, tearing through history, spreading its progeny, even infecting our homes. Lord, help us!

If that seems maybe a little silly in its wild guesswork, that’s right where we should be for this hard, strange chapter from our Bible’s last book, not thinking we’ve got the accusations figured out, but using it to question and redirect our lives to God.

Like much else in our Bible, we benefit from using something that wasn’t written for us. It was written for a time and place of persecution, when Christians were oppressed by the Roman Empire and were actually being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pit.

Yet, many somehow still claim the exact opposite about Revelation. In trying to decode the symbolism of a many-headed beast and expecting it predicts the future, that means that anybody who read Revelation before Hitler or the United Nations or whatever had no idea what it meant. It would’ve been useless.

That’s precisely the reverse of the repeated refrain throughout the book: Let anyone with an ear listen! The book isn’t written as a secret for only one future point in history. It’s written trying to disclose a secret, to broadcast the good news, to continue a reminder.

And the amazing thing is that the message continues to be useful. Somehow, this crazy book with all of its strange imagery of wrath and terrors all around continues to have a message that speaks good even to us now.

Yet a sure way to screw up the message is to treat it as a forecast instead of a metaphor. Think of it this way: If we say, “it’s going to rain cats and dogs,” metaphorically, that is understood as a fancy way of saying that when you look out the window, it’s really going to be raining heavily. If you tried to treat it as a forecast, however, you’d be waiting for dogs and cats literally to be falling from the sky.

Well, Revelation is like that. If we tried to break it down to its simplest message, cutting through the metaphor and fancy imagery and lots of special effects, essentially it’s trying to say: following Jesus is worth it, so keep at it.

With that, let’s return to our reading for today, not trying to decode and dis-cover, which isn’t the point, anyway. Let’s listen for the basic message.

So there’s a powerful entity, and it seems everyone is excited about it, thinking nothing could be better than this. Now, that which you love and trust above all else is a pretty fair definition of what your god is, right? And this so-called god makes that even clearer by blaspheming the true God, making false claims. It’s aided by another, who can do miraculous stuff. Further, the so-called god makes demands. It affects the economy. It creates fear and causes death. It lays claim to people’s lives.

Unpacking that, we can see that calling it a beast intends to repel us. The so-called god appeals to many others; only our insight enables us to see it as repulsive. Again, as metaphor and symbol, it remind us that this ugly so-called god is not our good God.

It works that way with numbers, too, 666 and 42 months. If 7 is a number of wholeness (like 7 days in a week), then 666 and 3½ years emphasize imperfection, a lack of godliness.

The same with the term antichrist. It’s not literally looking for red horns and a pitchfork. Instead, antichrist is a term that just means against Christ, anti-Christ. So if we’re being led away from God and astray from following Jesus, then no matter what it is, it is anti-Christ and is evil. (Actually, the term antichrist isn’t in this reading or anywhere in Revelation, but only in the letters of John, where it describes allegedly corrupt other Christians!)

Again, rather than expecting that we’ll see some multi-headed beast emerging from the ocean and then be able to say, “uh oh,” or claiming it needs to be a massive dictator misses most of the point. It’s a question of competing loyalties. To return to our list that included Obama and an entertaining dinosaur and technology, any of those have potential to lead us astray, to distract our attention from God, even if they work what we’d call miracles, like the amazing things that our cell phones do.

So do you need a sermon about putting away your cell phone, about not trusting that more than all else? Or not calling a political figure a savior? Or about not getting so distracted by the things that entertain you?

Or think about the economic restrictions in our reading, where the saints fared worse. What if being a Christian meant that old pattern of taking sabbath and resting on Sunday? Or what if it meant not profiting from exploiting workers or causing violence or destroying the environment? What if it was wrong to benefit at the expense of increased inequality for the poor? Any of those would make it harder for us to fit into the dominant global economy, to make money on retirement investments, to make purchases without hardly thinking about such consequences.

So do you need a sermon warning you against the beastliness of finance?

We are asking those questions, because we live in such a different culture than when Revelation was written. We might say that it’s easy to be a Christian now. We don’t worry about getting killed. We’re not ostracized or shunned in a marketplace. Mostly we fit in with the rest of culture.

But maybe that also should make us realize it’s hard to be a Christian now. If we don’t stand for a different economy, if we don’t oppose killing, if we’re not standing against oppression. If we look so much like everyone else that they can’t recognize our lifestyle as different and we can even forget at times that we’re Christian.

In that way, the clearest line of our reading might also be the most helpful. Verse 10 ends, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” That’s a calling, a message, a sermon we do need. And it’s also the shape of the rest of Revelation. See, just picking the hard, scary chapter out of the cycle leaves us without the assurances, without the constant reminders of good news. This is really a beautiful book of blessing and encouragement for times of crisis.

For the people at that time, the question was whether faith was worth it.   If they could be killed for their trust in Christ, if they suffered because of it, was there any point in continuing on? If God didn’t stop their enemies, did it mean those violent forces had won?

That fits our questions of illness and death. Should we put our faith instead into medicine and hospitals that can at least prolong life, if not save us? Is God too weak to be of any assistance? Is our faith pointless in those times, since it doesn’t offer a cure?

Why continue in faith, why trust, when it seems pointless? That’s even broader nowadays. When there are so many good distractions and fun activities, church often tries to respond by being as entertaining. Or when so much seems helpful and rewarding, when so many offer education and edification, the church often claims that we teach values best and we truly enjoy a life of loving service.

Yet with that, we have to admit that this all gets complex. Cell phones are not strictly evil. Church is not always the best for service projects. President Obama may do both good and bad.

But none of that is the center of our faith. The central message of Revelation is Jesus. In him, evil has been overcome, is already getting knocked out. That is the mortal wound in the reading. Jesus has brought the end of evil. It’s still persistently struggling to get its way, in spite of the cross and even until now. But it will not, cannot triumph. What is wrong in the world does not have the last word. In spite of death and suffering, in spite of horsemen that seem to spread war and disease and disasters and economic injustice ever more broadly across the earth, that is not what is ultimate.

Ultimately, you are redeemed in Christ. Not the powers of the world, but the Lamb who was slain, is the one on the throne forever. And unlike beastly powers that try to conquer by killing, it is by dying that the Lamb is victorious. Jesus died for you, and conquering death he lives for you. He will bring you through all of this, holding on to you, you and all creation, and he will be with you eternally, in spite of any current evidence to the contrary. That is why Easter hymns proclaim things like, “the strife is o’er, the battle done, now is the Victor’s triumph won” and “Thine is the glory, Risen conqu’ring Son. Endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.”

The point of this is for you to cling to that promise when you need it, when things seem so terrible and hordes of devils fill the land. Just as much, it’s for when you’re so distracted that you’re not enduring in the faith.

And with that, we point toward the baptism this morning, because it ties in closely to Revelation. We heard about people bearing the mark of the beast on their hand or forehead. Exactly counter to that will be the mark of Christ on baby Matthew’s forehead, which is mentioned at the start of the next chapter after our reading. By later today, the smell and signs of that oil will no longer be apparent. But God’s mark, God’s claim on Matthew will last forever. It will persist through his struggles in school. It will be there when he seems like a little demon and is driving his mom crazy. It will be there even if it seems like he’s been attacked by an illness, or even if life gets so messed up that he could wonder if he’s cursed. It will be there as a reminder if he’s ignoring faith and not living as a saint. It will be there many long years from now when he dies. And it will be there as we rise together to experience the new life, the fullness of the new creation, that Christ has won for us eternally. That mark of Christ claims him and you, to be an assurance through it all.

That’s what Revelation is about. That’s what faith is about. That’s who Jesus is for you.

Hymn: Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (ELW #378)

We also used images from The Brick Testament to help with visualizing the unfamiliar story!

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