Revelation 4:1-11 – In Another Dimension

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík, Iceland

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also, in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“‘Holy, holy, holy

is the Lord God Almighty,’

who was, and is, and is to come.”

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
    to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
    and by your will they were created
    and have their being.” (New International Version)

Whenever we open the door to God’s gracious invitation to commune with us, we gain an incredible glimpse of heavenly realities.

The Apostle John’s vision is so otherworldly that all he can do is try and describe what we saw with the limitations of language, metaphor, and simile.

Let’s acknowledge up front that, when it comes to the biblical book of Revelation, there are plenty of folk who want to understand it all. I believe this to be a fool’s errand, not because we ought not to try and make sense of things, but because far too many people try and conquer the text of Holy Scripture rather than letting Scripture capture them.

In our anxiety about the future, we would like some certitude, some semblance of knowing and understanding what will occur so that it will ease our icky feelings of not being in control. Newsflash: You and I aren’t in control of anything but ourselves. Ultimate control belongs only to God, not us. Our role is self-control.

So, before we start making complicated prophecy charts and trying to predict future events with precise certainty, let’s take a step back and see that worship is always the appropriate response to any vision of God – not conquering the Bible and colonizing other people’s minds with our supposed apocalyptic insights.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, and the soapbox is back in the closet, let’s simply appreciate this incredible scene before us of God’s heavenly throne room in today’s New Testament lesson.

Since God is an awesome God, I imagine that John was downright slack-jawed with awe over the bedazzling vision before him. It is a vision befitting a God of great majesty and power. The scene of worship which unfolded before John’s eyes is continual – praise and adoration of God has been going on, is going on, and will keep going on forever and ever.

To a church beat down by the world, John’s vision is meant to encourage and inspire the suffering believers toward persevering in faith. Hardship is but for a season; worship, however, is for all time.

The four living creatures worshiping God reflect the nature and character of God: the lion (majesty); the ox (strength and power); the man (intelligence); and the eagle (transcendent over creation). All of them, covered with eyes, front and back, testify to the sovereignty and omniscience of God, who sees and knows all things – nothing is hidden from God’s sight.

The twenty-four elders, likely signifying the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve apostles of the New Testament, together represent the one new people of God without walls or barriers to unity, fellowship, harmony, and peace. They all rightly honor God by giving back their own authority, given to them from the Lord to accomplish divine purposes on the earth.

We, as the people of God today, are meant to be encouraged and uplifted by the reality that God is forever the same – powerful, loving, good, honorable, and holy – and will be so permanently for all time and beyond time.

The Lord does not exist merely in three dimensional space, as we humans do. God is truly multi-dimensional and reigns supreme over each and every one of those dimensions – however many there truly are.

I suspect the Apostle John was privileged to step into another dimension so that he could return to our three-dimensional world with the good news that God is still and forever on the throne. God’s good purposes shall be accomplished, no matter how tough things get here.

Now is temporary; then is eternal. Let us, then, embrace that which is permanent and unchanging, even Christ our Lord, who shall return to judge the living and the dead, and consummate a benevolent kingdom which will last forever.

May you be so privileged to have the dimensions unveiled, for even a few minutes, and know the eternal love and grace of God for humanity. Amen.

2 Samuel 6:1-15 – Be Careful How You Celebrate

Ark of the Covenant by Isabel Piczek 1982, St. Norbert Catholic Church, Orange, California

David again assembled all the best men in Israel, 30,000 in number. David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.

When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.

David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so, he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” So, David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months.

The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family.King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So, David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets. (New English Translation)

The Christian season of Eastertide is a grand celebration of Christ’s resurrection and the new life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Since God is the center of all things, celebrations need to be mindful. Nothing in life is a matter of doing whatever the heck we want to do.

Even celebration has its boundaries and limits.

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote the today’s Old Testament lesson wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.

God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol of God’s presence with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). Thus, the ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually the symbol of God to the people.

I’ve been a Christian for many decades. One reason I refer to the seasons of the Christian Year in the present tense, is so that it doesn’t become old hat to me. Although I just presided over yet another Easter Sunday in my long tenure as a pastor, I am still in awe of Christ’s resurrection and am eternally grateful and full of joy over new life in Jesus Christ. I always want it to be fresh, as if I’m stepping up to the empty tomb for the first time.

Stained glass in the First Lutheran Church of
Washburn, North Dakota

Yet, we have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar, that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation, which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it.

Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark. The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance.

Or it could be that they were tired of moving the ark in the same old way they had always done it. Maybe it was old hat to them, and they were ready for something different.

For pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement. When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done. Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience. 

Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt. One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear. He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah, resulting in his death, was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us. The Lord doesn’t allow the creature to manage the Creator.

God wants a pure, unadulterated, and obedient worship celebration from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:15-24 – The Dark Underbelly of Sin

“Golden Calf” by John Bradford

Moses continued: “So, while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves. How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow! So, I took the stone tablets and threw them to the ground, smashing them before your eyes.

“Then, as before, I threw myself down before the Lord for forty days and nights. I ate no bread and drank no water because of the great sin you had committed by doing what the Lord hated, provoking him to anger. I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again, he listened to me. The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he wanted to destroy him, too. But I prayed for Aaron, and the Lord spared him. I took your sin—the calf you had made—and I melted it down in the fire and ground it into fine dust. Then I threw the dust into the stream that flows down the mountain.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you. (New Living Translation)

I’m really glad there was no social media back in the day when the Israelites made the golden calf idol. Most people tend to post flattering pictures of happy families and wonderful experiences. Somehow, methinks the ancient Israelites would have tried to make the whole thing at Mount Sinai look like some party we would envy going to.

But there’s always a dark underbelly to all the glitter and photoshopped pics. And God sees and knows it all.

God is full of grace, steadfast love, and covenant commitment. Yet, this does not mean that God is okay with disobedience and people doing whatever the heck they want to do. The Lord has anything but a shoulder-shrugging “meh” attitude toward hedonism. 

In fact, grace only exists because of sin. Where there is boundless grace and compassion there will be found bucket loads of self-absorbed behavior. And, oh my, was there a load of it among the ancient Israelites! They were characterized as stubborn, rebellious, and idolatrous. It’s the kind of stuff that evokes the ire of God.

Genuinely godly people share God’s heart and interests. That is, what upsets God, upsets them; and what makes God pleased, makes them pleased. Moses was in sync with God. So, he was visibly angered by the people’s idolatry. Moses confronted the people with going far astray from the Lord. And, what’s more, Moses showed that his heart reflects God’s heart by immediately engaging in an extended time of fasting and prayer on their behalf – forty days and forty nights.

Lackadaisical attitudes and approaches toward God are a dime-a-dozen with many so called believers. There is little to no sustained, prolonged, and focused times of prayer and fasting among both individuals and groups of people. Many folks are simply too busy indulging in revelry with their idols of money, sex, power, and perfectionist control. 

Until we are cut to the heart with this present darkness of empty souls and vacuous spirits, which run to everything and everyone but God, there will be no entering the Promised Land of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 

The dark underbelly of sin needs to be turned over so that it can be exposed to the purifying light of God’s glory. The worms of guilt must be unearthed, spread before the heat of the Son, and destroyed. The heavy load of shame needs to be jettisoned and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath.

The glory of the Lord is almost upon us, and the season of Lent is nearly here. So, let us make a solid spiritual plan for the forty days leading up to Easter for prayer and fasting on behalf of our own wrongdoing and shortcomings, as well as for the sin of the world.

Holy God, idolatry brings about your wrath because you cannot stand the lack of love in the world. I bow before you and bend the knee to your sovereign reign in my life. Please lead me in your way of righteousness and have mercy on those trapped in darkness so that we might see you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 – Being a Holy Temple

Albi Cathedral in Sainte-Chapelle, France

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (New International Version)

God is holy, pure, beautiful, and completely separated from all that is evil. 

However, there is a problem; but it isn’t with God. 

Ever since the fall of humanity into guilt, shame, and impurity, people cannot be near or approach a perfect Being. Just as we will surely go blind by looking directly at the sun – or be totally disintegrated by getting too close to it – so humans cannot be with such a holy God.

In the Old Testament, God graciously devised a system whereby people could approach the divine. A temple was built. It had very detailed and strict prescriptions about how it was to be built. There needed to be curtains, walls, and borders everywhere to shield the people from being destroyed by the sheer holiness of God.

Entering the New Testament, Jesus is the exact representation of God’s holy being and presence. In Christ, God became intimately close to people. Through the redemptive events of Jesus, humanity is delivered from the vexing problem of being far away from God. 

If that were not enough, God the Father and Son sent God the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. 

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us that, as the church, we are a holy temple which is graciously, patiently, and with great care being built into a spiritual house that can be the place where God meets with humanity.

The triune God has conspired and gone out of the way to be with us. The Lord has bended the arc of history for good purposes to be with us. Like a lover separated from his beloved, God has pulled out all the stops to make us holy so that we can abide with him in divine holiness.

From the solid foundation of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, we take care to build a spiritual infrastructure worthy of holiness.

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NRSV)

God’s will is for you to be holy… God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7, NLT)

Some Christians mistakenly believe that holiness means to exclusively separate as far from everything and everyone who is impure. Any hint or smell of unsound dogma or nonconformity with established rules results in separation. Yet, this predilection for separation is really a form of division – which is contrary to the holiness of God. Because the Lord bends over backwards to accommodate the sinner’s ability to approach the divine presence.

Indeed, holiness involves a separation from all that is evil so that we can attach ourselves to God and others. Holiness isn’t simply an end in itself. To be holy means we are prepared and ready to engage in the highest of aims: Love.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23, NIV)

Holiness without a clear trajectory toward love is like putting a new collar on a dead dog. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Yet, too many folks have put a leash on that shiny new collar and are dragging the deceased around – much to the chagrin and revulsion of the world – who rightly sees this behavior as both downright crazy and plain stupid.

Paul would say that kind of behavior will be shown for what it is: Building on the wrong spiritual foundation.

It’s really all about Jesus. Christians bear the name of Christ because we (ideally) center our entire existence – past, present, and future – on the redemption provided through Jesus.

And that’s what this Christian season of the year is about: We celebrate the birth of Christ, God’s breaking into this world, to bridge the great divide between divinity and humanity.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is our foundation.

Being a holy temple means being a sacred space large enough to hold love for all people.

From that strong support, there is no limit to the breadth and height of God’s kingdom. So, may you, along with the Apostle Paul pray:

I’m asking God to give you a gift from the wealth of his glory. I pray that he would give you inner strength and power through his Spirit. Then Christ will live in you through faith. I also pray that love may be the ground into which you sink your roots and on which you have your foundation. This way, with all of God’s people you will be able to understand how wide, long, high, and deep his love is. You will know Christ’s love, which goes far beyond any knowledge. I am praying this so that you may be completely filled with God. (Ephesians 3:16-19, GW)

Amen.