Monday, August 26, 2013

Sermon from Sunday: Seven Churches

Numbers in the Book of Revelation: Seven Churches

Read Revelation 1:1-6
 Are you ready for the Book of Revelation?  No “s”.  The book of Revelations does not exist.  Revelation, no “s”. 
            There are so many wild notions that exist about the book of Revelation. I remember when I worked at RadioShack while I was in seminary we had just gotten a new manager of the store.  And I remember having a conversation with him about the Book of Revelation.  He said that he had studied a few years ago and that he believed that some of the visions, some of the descriptions could fit real, modern day creations.  For example, he talked about how in one of the visions locusts are described as a part of how the end of the world and he said the description sounds a lot like an Apache Helicopter.  And that meant he could’ve been predicting the end of the world for us who are living now.  And I thought well, okay I guess that’s possible.  I have since learned, no, the book of Revelation has nothing to do with Apache helicopters.  Nothing.
            My hope in this series is to help you read Revelation the way it was intended to be read.  And to understand what you are reading the way it is intended to be understood.  To pursue reading and understanding the book of Revelation you have to be okay with unanswered questions.  Because while God has definitely put enough in this book for us to understand and for us to grow in our faith and in our witness, there will definitely be things we don’t’ understand.  And we just have to accept those things and push on as best we can.  At the same time God has given us brains and resources and enough in the book of Revelation that we can know a whole lot about it.  So what do you need to know.
            First, the book of Revelation is first and foremost a letter.  Notice verse 4…"John to the Seven churches in the province of Asia.  It is a letter from John to the Churches in the province of Asia.  Before being an end times saga with weird visions and strange symbols and bowls and lanterns and dragons and other wild stuff, it is first and foremost a letter.  Written by a person while in exile on the island of Patmos…a person under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 
            I have here my neighbors mail.  I have in my hand Jeff and Connie’s mail.  Oh yeah, I just decided to be curious when I was getting my mail and thought I would walk across and get their mail as well.  We have a good relationship so I didn’t think they would mind.  So lets see what’s here.  Oh, trying to get them to switch to DirecTV.  It looks like this is a bill from the city of Hickory, must be a water bill.  Store coupons that we all get.  Ooh, what is this?  Mt. Creek Construction.  Ooh it’s from his company…lets see what it is.  Annual performance review…ya’ll want to be nosey?  You want to see how Jeff is doing his job?
That’s crazy right.  That’s absurd.  I would never go into their mailbox.  And hopefully they know that.  We trust each other not to do that.  And I think it’s federal offense to get into someone else’s mailbox.  As absurd as that sounds that’s what the book of Revelation is.  It’s a letter in which churches get to read each other’s mail.  It’s written to these seven churches on one scroll.  Here's map of Asia Minor. 

It is modern day Turkey.  Here’s where John is in exile and here is where the churches are.  So Ephesus is the first church.  They will copy the scroll to have for themselves and send the original up to Smyrna.  And on around the letter would travel.  It wasn’t just a letter, it was a letter strategically written for a purpose to these seven churches.  Churches that would then spread the message from their own cities out across the rest of Asia and Europe. 
The book of Revelation is a letter written to seven churches before 100 AD and it was one scroll.  For that reason, it was intended to be read out loud during worship services.  It was primarily heard by the people more than it was seen by them.  So the rich imagery and symbolism would have had them able to follow along with the message throughout the reading of the book.  And when I say reading, I mean the whole book.  It was probably sometimes split up into sections, but they would have been large sections, not just a few verses like we are looking at today.  So what that means is that it can be dangerous to take just one verse or two verses and make it say whatever you want it to say without considering the entire book of Revelation as a whole.
Another thing about the book of Revelation is that because it is apocalyptic literature, it is not to be taken literally.  The word “Revelation” in Greek is apokalypsis – which means an unveiling or revealing.  It is full of imagery and symbolism from the Old Testament because it was written to Christians who would have been familiar with the Old Testament and what those images meant.  Therefore, most of Revelation cannot be taken literally.  It just can’t…the 1st century readers did not take it literally…John did not write to be taken literally…neither should we take it literally.  The genre of Apocalyptic means it is written in way to be read non-literally.  So it is a letter written in the form of apocalyptic literature to tell the truth about what is happening.
            The reason this is so important is because a letter is written at a specific time, by a specific author, to a specific person or group, for a specific purpose.  John, the author of Revelation, did not have Adolf Hitler in mind when he wrote the book of Revelation.  I remember a guy told me when I was in College that he thought that Bill Gates was the Anti-Christ.  When John wrote the book of Revelation he did not have Bill Gates or any other contemporary figure in mind.  Some of the descriptions of evil in Revelation has more to do with the emperors around the time John wrote the book then they do with the rulers of today.  Most likely the Roman emperor in power was Domitian and he was not kind to Christians.  Also, John was familiar with another evil emperor who oppressed Christians named Nero…he will be important later on in this series on the Book of Revelation.  Here’s what I’m saying, so many pastors and Christians make Revelation say what they want it to say instead of looking at the context in which it was written.  Start with the context then ask what does this mean for us today. 
At the time of Domitian’s rule in Rome Christians in these areas were being persecuted.  John wrote the book of Revelation to show the Church that in the end Jesus and those who belong to Jesus would be victorious.  That what is happening now is just temporary and that the victory is already won even though it doesn’t seem that way.  Remember the word Revelation in Greek means an unveiling…John is unveiling the truth of what has happened is happening and will happen for those who hold on to their faith in Jesus Christ.  He is saying, in a time of great persecution, keep the faith because the lamb of God has already won.  The book of Revelation is a message of hope to persecuted Christians in it’s original context.  John’s purpose was not to predict the end of the world or to give us 21st Century Christians who the anti-Christ would be…no it was written to bring hope to Christians who were being put in the arena and torn apart by wild animals.  It was written to Christians who had heard the story of the emperor using Christians as human torches to light his banquet hall.  It was written to Christians who had heard about someone who would not claim that Domitian was Lord so they bound him to corpse and left him to rot alive.  That’s the context.  That’s why it was written. 
Next time you think you have it bad, think about what it would be like to face a torturous death simply because you would not claim that the national leader was lord.  See Domitian and other emperors like him, demanded that they be called lord and God.  And of course Christians and Jews too could not claim that the emperor was lord and god because only God, only Jesus held that title.  And so Domitian simply sought to get rid of them.
You would think Christianity would die during this time.  That the fear of persecution would destroy the church because people would fear for their lives.  You didin’t have to tell these Christians that the great tribulation was coming, no, they were already in the great tribulation.  Later in the letter when John writes of the great tribulation, these Christians are saying, yeah, that’s what we are going through here and now.  It wasn’t sometime in the future, it was here and now for them.    They were already suffering the worst of the worst.  And you know what, the church did not shrink and lose members, the church grew.  Throughout history, during times of the greatest persecution the church has grown exponentially.  When the persecution is the worst, the most faithful Christians rise up and spread the gospel more powerfully that at any other time in history.  Throughout history, during times of great blessing and prosperity, the church has shrunk and declined.
You all know where we are in the United States of America.  Christians are not persecuted here.  We don’t fear for our lives.  In fact, most people in the United States of America think they can make it in life on their own.  So why do we need God?  John, writing under God’s inspiration writes in Revelation chapter 3 to the church at Laodicea verses 17-19.  That sounds like the United States of America.  Now, it was written to the church at Laodicea and the warning was for the church at Laodicea, but we can see the same thing happening around us, can’t we. This is how you apply Revelation.  I’m not saying John was writing the United States of America when he was writing to Laodicea.  What I am saying is that like the churches in Laodicea, we have bought the lie that we are self-sufficient.  We have bought the lie that we can accomplish our dreams and when we do we will be happy, we will be rich.  It doesn’t work that way does it. 
The kind of richness God talks about in verse 18 is a richness of recognizing that we are the opposite of self-sufficient.  That we can’t live life on our own.  That we need a savior and a Lord.  Not a lord like Domitian that purports a lifestyle of prosperity and ownership and power by the sword, but a Lord who purports a lifestyle of faithfulness, love, generosity and power by grace and mercy.  Revelation is a letter whose warnings and promises we need for today.  We may not be persecuted like the church was at the time this was written, but we still need hope.
            The closest thing to persecution most of us experience is the testing of our faith.  It’s in those times that we realize the significance of the message of the book of Revelation  That when our faith is tested, we must realize that Jesus has overcome evil, sin and death and we have nothing to fear.  That even in the face of certain death…we have nothing to fear…because death is not the final answer.  Jesus has overcome and eternal life is the final answer.  Death just leads us into another life, into a new creation.  Revelation is about hope and faithfulness to Christians in the midst of hard times. 

It was and is a letter to 1st Century Christians that we get to read and that we get to believe and live out and whose message we get to receive.  The message is this: there is always hope…no matter how dark life is, no matter that it looks like evil is winning, no matter that a loved one dies tragically, no matter that someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer, no matter that a married couple you love is getting divorced, no matter that your mom or dad is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, no matter that you have lost your job, no matter that what there is hope.  Because God is God, Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit is powerful and God has overcome and defeated all that threatens the human race.  Let the message of the book of Revelation be what it was intended to be…a message of hope and victory for those who put their faith and trust I the slain Lamb of God.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sermon from Sunday

The Wesleyan Way: Freewill

This morning I want to piggyback off of how we ended the service last week.  If you remember I showed a video of a show Oprah did where she had Pastor Rick Warren talking about cards that you are dealt in life.  He talked about how we are all dealt the card of Chemistry: we don’t choose our chemical makeup.  I did not choose to be 6’6”…if I had I would have also made myself able to jump high.  Not my choice.  He talked about the card of Connections.  We don’t choose our earliest connections.  We don’t choose who our parents are.  He talked about Circumstances.  Things happen in our lives outside of our control, those are our circumstances.  Maybe we were born without a limb or with cerebral palsy or whatever our predispositions are…that is our circumstances.  Then our Consciousness, these are things we have been told all of our lives.  Things in our heads that maybe we can’t get out of our heads and just have to deal with.  I cannot change the fact that I have a memory of some kids in school insulting me and making me feel like a nobody.  Then he said, the fifth card in the deck of life we are handed is the wild card.  The fifth card is Choices.  We didn’t choose our chemistry, but we can choose to be positive and take care of our mind and body.  We didn’t choose our earliest connections, but we can choose to have healthy relationships now.  We didn’t choose our circumstances…but we can make the best of what we have gone through in life and choose to put ourselves in better situations for our future.  We didn’t choose our Consciousness…we didn’t choose our brains and we didn’t choose to have the memories we have growing up, but we can choose to make better memories now and we can choose to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Do you remember that from last week?  Okay, most people would agree with that…that we have choices.  Most Christians, pastors and people who make it their career to study the Bible would agree with that.  However, many Christians, pastors, theologians and bible scholars would very much disagree on whether or not we have a choice when it comes to our salvation.  There is this prominent, popular belief among many Christians and pastors and Bible scholars that we don’t choose whether we are saved or not, but that God chooses whether we are saved or not.  This belief called Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption.  The word you may have heard it as is predestination.  It’s part of an entire theological system articulated by a French theologian who lived in the 1500’s named John Calvin and cutely illustrated by the word acronym TULIP.  PIC.
I don’t have time to go over this entire system and preach and teach on freewill, so I just want to talk for a minute about this idea of Limited Atonement then share why I don’t subscribe to this and why I am a Methodist. 
Here are a couple of quotes by John Calvin:
God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.
God “saves whom he wills of his mere good pleasure.”
Regarding the lost: “it was his good pleasure to doom to destruction.”
            This is what is known as double predestination.  If God predestines some to salvation and the person has nothing to do with choosing God, then God also predestines some people to damnation and they have no power, no say in the matter at all.
Let me tell you about Justus Arminius.  He was a dutch theologian that came right after John Calvin and the theology of John Wesley and the Methodist Church comes out of Arminius’s writings.  Arminius believed in free will and wrote specifically against this idea of predestination that John Calvin was so sure of.  Here’s what Arminius said:
Concerning Grace and Free Will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent:—Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace.
                He also came up with a system like Calvin did that doesn’t have a cool acronym like TULIP…it would be HCURF which isn’t nearly as pleasant as TULIP…but I believe it’s more Biblical.  His 5 points are basically the opposite of Calvin’s 5 points.  So where Calvin says we have no say in our own salvation…Arminius says…we have say in our salvation…God’s grace is a gift that we either accept or reject.  We have a choice.  And what that means also is that just as we can choose salvation through Jesus Christ, we can also choose to reject Jesus and no longer be saved.  Arminius believed so strongly in freewill that just as Calvin believed in double predestination – God chooses some to salvation and some to damnation at his good pleasure – just as Calvin believed that – Arminius believed in double freewill – you can choose to be saved and you can choose not to be saved and you make that choice at any point in your life.
                So enough about what these two dead theologians said…lets look at scripture.  Lets look at what the Bible says.  Here’s the deal, there are scriptures that point to predestination and foreknowledge and those kinds of ideas.  However, I believe in each of those scriptures where we see those words and those ideas context dictates the meaning and in each case assumes that the group who is predestined chose for themselves salvation.  How that works I don’t know.  I also believe that where the simplest truth is obvious that’s the one that’s going to win me over when it comes to a debate between freewill and predestination.  Here are two scriptures that to me so clearly and obviously point to the truth of freewill and of what God’s pleasure is.
            Peter is talking about judgment and last days and says this: READ 2 Peter 3:8-9.  God’s pleasure is not that some people are predestined to damnation.  I actually believe that just as Jesus wept for Lazarus and because he saw the destruction of the Temple because of his people’s unfaithfulness I also believe that Jesus weeps when people reject him for their eternal salvation.  If it is God’s desire that none should perish and everyone come to repentance then doesn’t it make sense that He grieves when someone doesn’t accept his gift of grace in Jesus Christ?
            Lets look at the second scripture: READ 1 Timothy 2:1-6.  God’s desire is for all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  Even politicians.  That’s the point of this scripture.  Paul starts by saying pray for your leaders…the kings and all those in authority.  God knows people in authority are often dirty…and he knows that they need to be saved…and Paul says God actually wants them to be saved.  God desires that Obama be saved. 
            When it comes to freewill lets keep it simple…any of you heard of the KISS method…Keep it simple stupid.  It sounds derogatory but I think it’s true.  So I started with all this theology and TULIP and Calvin and Arminius…lets just use the KISS method and think about these scriptures and scriptures like John 3:16: READ.   
It’s obvious to me that we have freewill and that we’ve had from the beginning of time.  If Adam and Eve didn’t choose to eat the fruit (Eve was first) then humanity cannot be held responsible for sin entering the world.
So the question then becomes: what are we doing with freewill?  What kind of choices are you making in your life?  Are you making choices that allow the fruit of the spirit to grow and mature and ripen in your life…or are the choices you are making the fruit…or not even the fruit…but the actions of the flesh. 
            One thing that helps keep us in the right state of mind and helps us remember to develop the fruit of the spirit in our lives is communion.  The fruit of the spirit is this love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  I’m going to say them again and I want you to think about as you take communion which one of these characteristics of the fruit of the spirit do you need to develop in your life.  Would you listen to them again and as you prepare to take communion and as you take communion would you be in a worshipful and prayerful mindset as you think about which fruit of the spirit you want to choose to work on, because you have the choice, to work on it this week.  Which one do you need to work on…and I hope you will choose to pray and seek God and ask him to help you. 

August Newsletter Article

The Dentist and Church
I went to the Dentist last week (Monday the 29th).  My vehement dislike for dental procedures (including cleanings) meant that I had not been to the Dentist in 4 or 5 years (I would not recommend waiting that long in between visits).  I felt so sorry for the girl cleaning my teeth that I continued to apologize to her.  I felt bad that my teeth had not been professionally cleaned in a long time because I know it made her job harder than it should have been.  She was sweet and assured me that she had seen worse.  While my teeth felt smooth and polished afterwards, my gums were sore (I was quite disappointed at myself for not taking better care of my gums).  I have since promised myself that I would not wait 5 years to visit the Dentist again and that I would be more consistent in flossing my teeth.
            I imagine the experience I had at the Dentist must be similar to the experience first time visitors (or even long time non-attenders) have when they attend a church service: disappointment.  They have finally answered God’s prompting to attend a church service and when they do they just end up being disappointed: either at themselves or at the church.  They don’t like the feeling they get at the church service so they don’t go back to a service for a few years or possibly even ever.
            It’s possible that the person just didn’t attend the right church for them, but often it’s the church’s fault when someone has a bad experience.  Sometimes the congregation can make a visitor or a long time non-attender feel like they don’t belong.  Instead of welcoming them home like the father did to the wayward son in the parable of the prodigal son, they act superior and holier and make the person feel unwelcome and unwanted.  Or maybe the pastor goes on and on about sin and judgment and God’s wrath without ever talking about God’s grace and mercy.  So the person just feels shame and guilt and never wants to come back.
            Maybe it took more courage than we realize for that person to even step foot in a church.  It took courage for me to go the Dentist after not going for a few years.  I had fears and reservations about going but I knew it was important for my health.  Maybe the visitor felt the same way.  They had fears and worries about what their experience would be like but decide to take the chance anyway.  When they take that chance what kind of experience do they have?
            The answer to that question is up to all of us who attend church consistently.  And by the way, if you are a member of a church, any church, you should attend consistently.  If you are a member of a United Methodist church you made a vow (among other promises) that you would support the church with your presence.  That means you attend the worship services when you are able to do so…not just when it’s convenient for you.  If you feel bad after reading the last three sentences then God must be prompting you to get back in church on a regular basis.
            Back to the topic…It is up to those of us who attend church services on a consistent basis to make those who don’t attend services regularly have the best experience possible when they do show up.  We are the Church (captiol “C”), we are the body of Christ, it’s up to us to let people know they are loved and welcome when they make the effort to attend our church (little “c”) services.  Lets make every effort to be the kind of “C”hurch God wants us to be so that people who attend “c”hurch feel invited, welcomed, included and accepted.  As for my part to play…I’m going to start by flossing my teeth!