Jesus Is Lord (Revelation 21:5-27)

“The Risen Lord” by Chinese artist He Qi, 2001

Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” He also said to me, “Write this, because these words are true and can be trusted.” And he said, “It is done! I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. To anyone who is thirsty I will give the right to drink from the spring of the water of life without paying for it. Those who win the victory will receive this from me: I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, traitors, perverts, murderers, the immoral, those who practice magic, those who worship idols, and all liars—the place for them is the lake burning with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came to me and said, “Come, and I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” The Spirit took control of me, and the angel carried me to the top of a very high mountain. He showed me Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming down out of heaven from God and shining with the glory of God.

The city shone like a precious stone, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates and with twelve angels in charge of the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the people of Israel. There were three gates on each side: three on the east, three on the south, three on the north, and three on the west. 

The city’s wall was built on twelve foundation stones, on which were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The angel who spoke to me had a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. The city was perfectly square, as wide as it was long. The angel measured the city with his measuring stick: it was fifteen hundred miles long and was as wide and as high as it was long. The angel also measured the wall, and it was 216 feet high, according to the standard unit of measure which he was using. The wall was made of jasper, and the city itself was made of pure gold, as clear as glass. 

The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with all kinds of precious stones. The first foundation stone was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh yellow quartz, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chalcedony, the eleventh turquoise, the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls; each gate was made from a single pearl. The street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass.

I did not see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. The city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God shines on it, and the Lamb is its lamp. The peoples of the world will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their wealth into it. 

The gates of the city will stand open all day; they will never be closed, because there will be no night there. The greatness and the wealth of the nations will be brought into the city. But nothing that is impure will enter the city, nor anyone who does shameful things or tells lies. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of the living will enter the city. (Good News Translation)

“The Risen Christ” by He Qi, 2004

So, I’m just going to put something out there and see if you resonate with it, or not:

Sometimes we long for Christ’s return, the end of time, and eternal bliss because we don’t want to deal with being our true selves right now in this present moment in time. We just want out of our current reality.

At times, we take ourselves so darned seriously that the true self never comes through to others. Yet, when I’m real, authentic, and genuine, I connect with others from the very core of my being, and not from some contrived self that I’ve put up for others to see.

I say all this because, if we want to see the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, and experience the very presence of God and the Lamb, then it comes because you and me are being our real selves. Only the true, the brave, and the vulnerable shall have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

I think the reason why we have such a detailed description of the New Jerusalem is that this is a sure thing; it’s real, man. And only real authentic people can inhabit the city.

Please know that, even though we may want things to change from the way they are now, things will not always be this way. Life will not always consist of heartache, suffering, and tears. The world, as we now know it, will eventually pass away with its constant barrage of war, famine, hunger, sickness, misunderstanding, conflict, and pain. 

There is a coming a day when Jesus will return and make everything new. The vision of this next-to-last chapter of the Bible portrays a sovereign Lord who is in charge, and whose authority, in the end, shall be seen for what it truly is. 

Everything wrong will be made right; all that is crooked shall be made straight; and the endless struggle to do what is right and just will prevail once and for all.

Whenever we get caught in some seemingly endless cycle of addiction, or insecurity, or fear; whenever we find ourselves having to endure yet another day of undeserved backtalk; and whenever we see that perseverance has become our abiding companion; it is in those times – much like the original recipients of the Apostle John’s vision of the final apocalypse – that we are strengthened and encouraged with the truth that Jesus is Lord. 

Jesus Christ reigns as King over all creation; his rule will be revealed to all nations. In Christ’s benevolent kingdom, everyone who is thirsty for justice will receive from a life-giving fountain; and all who hunger for righteousness will be filled and satisfied.

Yet, until that time comes, we hold to our hope that Jesus shall return to judge the living and the dead. 

For righteous persons, this is truly good news. For the wicked, not so much. 

Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be in the celestial city. 

So, today is the day to be a real, authentic, vulnerable Christian who puts on words and deeds that are appropriate for God’s kingdom.

Lord Jesus, you are making everything new. You are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. All things hinge on your gracious rule in this world. Help me to so embrace your kingdom ethics that every word I say and each deed I do is consistent with your divine justice and mercy through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. Amen.

Worship That Is Fit For a King (Colossians 1:11-20)

17th century Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of the glorified Christ

[May you be] strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (New International Version)

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is intended to help us see the cosmic reality that Jesus reigns over all creation as the only rightful Sovereign of the universe. This particular Sunday always comes just before Advent so that we remember to anticipate both a baby and a king.

Christ as Lord of all exposes three problems humanity faces:

  1. Building our own petty kingdoms and setting ourselves up as masters over our own small worlds.  People who have been hurt (all of us) often attempt to seize power for themselves in order to avoid ever being hurt again, or in the belief that wielding power could have prevented others from being hurt. The classic villains of movies and literature are ones who seek to destroy the current establishment so that they can rebuild it in their own idea of how the world should operate. The destruction is motivated by protecting loved ones from pain. The irony is that a lot of hurt is inflicted on the protagonists in order to alleviate the antagonist’s pain.
  2. Bowing to other kings besides King Jesus. When distressed, we might rely on alternative authorities to address our hard circumstances – expecting another to give us what only Jesus can. Instead of running to Christ, there is a fleeing to politicians or pundits or pastors. And we rely on them to cope with whatever is going on in our lives.
  3. Lacking awareness of the power we have as subjects of King Jesus. Christians possess authority in Jesus Christ. As believers in Jesus, we reign with him and can exercise authority over every dominion that exists, especially the dominion of darkness.

Jesus is King. Neither you, nor I, are. 

A simple statement; yet, not easily engrafted into daily life. 

Part of the original sin of Adam and Even was rebellion – to break the bonds of loving authority God provided for them. Westerners, especially, tend to have an anti-authoritarian strain which runs rather deep in us.

When my middle daughter was a child and grappling with the implications of faith in Christ, she blurted out an honest cry that we can likely resonate with: “I just don’t want another person in my life telling me what to do!” 

Indeed, Jesus is King; we are not.

Christ the King Sunday reminds us of the pre-eminence and lordship of Jesus Christ: 

  • All things were created through Jesus and for him. 
  • Everything in all creation is held together by Jesus. 
  • Christ is the head of the church. 
  • In Jesus Christ, complete divinity exists and reigns. 
  • Jesus made peace through the cross because he had the authority and the qualifications to do so. 
  • Broken relationships and proper lines of authority are now restored and redeemed in Christ.
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of the glorified Christ

We can also likely relate to, at times, indulging in the illusion (and delusion!) of being in control and independently dictating the course of our lives. Yet, mercifully, Jesus is the great sovereign King, and this is a good thing – because in Christ we find authority to redeem and reconcile. 

Because Christ is King, we really ought to submit to him. In fact, we need to pay some attention to how our bodies are to submit to his lordship.

When the body moves to animating physical actions of submission, this helps the heart to follow. Whole person worship involves engaging the mind, spirit, emotions, and, yes, the body. To neglect the body in worship is to truncate the ability to connect with God in Christ.

A typical metaphor for the Church is the “Body of Christ.” We can live into that phrase through an embodied spirituality of submission. Our individual bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, important for expressing worship. (1 Corinthians 3:16)

God created us with literal physical bodies. And Jesus has a literal physical body. Bodies are important for whole person worship. This means the physical postures we take in worshiping King Jesus are significant. We need to pay attention to them.  

A healthy practice for Christians is to kneel in the presence of the Lord. I realize some Christian traditions do it as a part of their worship, and some do not. Some like it, some don’t. Yet, bowing, even prostrating oneself (if you are physically able!) can be a powerful symbol of the heart’s desire and disposition to submit to the lordship and authority of Jesus Christ. 

Crawling out of bed in the morning getting on your knees and beginning the day with submission to live into the will of God; and also ending the day in the same manner, is a practical way of remembering who Jesus is and who we are.

I believe all Christians need to feel free in adopting a physical posture of worship which helps them connect with God in Christ. For some, that will be sitting in a comfortable position in contemplation. Others will want to stand, raise their hands, even dance in praise.

It also behooves us to let our bodies respond to whatever is happening with us spiritually. Exuberant praise needs the expression of hand clapping and toe tapping. Confession of sin needs a bit of bowing, kneeling, even prostrating. For prayer, hands open and palms facing up to receive blessing from God is a good bodily position of worship.

You get the idea. Just remember we need to strive for congruence in our worship, that is, what is happening with our outward bodily movements needs to match what is occurring inward with our spirits. And when the two are in sync, meaningful worship can happen – worship of submission fit for a king.

Sovereign God, in your mercy you have sent your Son, the Lord Jesus, who has brought reconciliation to a once broken relationship. I bow before you in obedience, submission, and worship. Let me live a cross-shaped life through enjoying the peace you have given me in Christ in both body and soul. Amen.

Luke 6:1-5 – Lord of the Sabbath

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (New International Version)

We Christians tend to be rather hard on the Pharisees. Yet, most of them, much like us, were just trying to uphold their understanding of God’s commands. They wanted to do God’s will. And so did Jesus.

The problem in the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus and some of the Pharisees (not all of them, e.g., Nicodemus) were at loggerheads about how to view and interpret the Law. Jesus wanted them to see the purpose of the law, the heart and spirit of the law, and who was the lord of the law. For Jesus, many of the Pharisees were spiritually blind. They either would not or could not discern who Jesus was and what he was all about.

So, when we refer to spiritual blindness, let’s have a bit of humility about it. Although for the Apostle Paul, a dramatic event happened in which the scales of blindness (both physically and spiritually) fell from his eyes, most folks have a gradual ability to see, an awakening which requires a process of time and growing awareness. This was true of Christ’s original disciples. They believed, yet their faith was an extended process over three years. It wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost that their faith became complete.

Christ and the Pharisees by Belgian artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Jesus didn’t like it that those who should know better, those persons for whom the light of God’s truth ought to be clear and present, were in darkness. When leaders are blind, then we have the blind leading the blind, and nobody finds the door of God’s kingdom.

Many of the Pharisees in the New Testament, most of the heretics in the early church, and some of the spiritual phonies of today are actually not charlatans, that is, they are not deliberately trying to deceive or lead others astray; they are not trying to keep people out of God’s kingdom – they think they are doing the right thing when they are actually leading others astray. 

One of the eye-opening realities I discovered, when I first began studying church history, is that the early heresies condemned at the church councils were doctrines promoted and put forth by men who were not evil bad people – they were just sincerely misguided. They thought they were helping the church better understand the nature of God and Christ, when in fact they were promoting unhealthy doctrine – unintentionally closing the door of God’s kingdom to some people. 

And later when I worked on my master’s thesis in nineteenth century American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from southern preachers before the American Civil War. I learned that they had a biblical defense for the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of them were pastors of large churches and led many people to Christ, that is, white people. They were slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of African-Americans, and teaching others to do the same.

We can unwittingly slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of people when we say God’s grace is for all and then turn around and avoid particular people; or whenever we have explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from serving or being served; or when we bind people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture. 

The seven deadly words of the Church, believing it is doing the Lord’s will, is, “We’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before… We cannot have somebody out in the field picking heads of grain and rubbing them in their hands. That’s reaping; it’s work; and you can’t do that on the Sabbath.”

Never mind that there are people trying to eat or attempting to enter the kingdom of God. So, we lose sight that the Law was meant to benefit people, to help them thrive and flourish, to lead them into the grace and knowledge of God. The Law gets turned on its head by becoming a heavy burden to carry instead of an easy yolk which brings freedom.

No matter the issue, the last word to everything is grace, God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  

Just as the priest in David’s day was gracious in giving him and his men the consecrated bread meant only for the priests, so Jesus was gracious in giving himself, the Bread of Life, for the benefit of the whole world.

For the Christian, the Law points to Christ, who is the Law’s fulfillment. Now, we carry one another’s burdens, and in doing so, we fulfill the Law of Christ.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful: Make us holy through your abiding divine presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the everlasting Gospel. Bring erring souls to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast in faith to the end.

Give patience to the sick and afflicted and renew them in body and soul. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works. This we ask, O blessed Spirit, whom with the Father and the Son we worship and glorify, one God, world without end. Amen.

Matthew 9:27-34 – How To Use Your Faith

Jesus healing two blind men, 11th century mosaic, Sicily

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”

“Yes, Lord,” they replied.

Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” But they went out and spread the news about him all over that region.

While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” (New International Version)

Every day the news is a steady stream of disease, death, war, and outright human suffering. It’s as if the phrase, “slow news cycle,” is a thing of the past.

As we stare into the face of trouble, I find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.” 

We collectively feel the weight of the world’s suffering, experience the heaviness of concern for family and friends, and perhaps wonder how much more people can take.

It’s in the topsy-turvy times that I come back again and again to the deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day. One of those underlying creeds and affirmations is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus. The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

All the healing accounts in the New Testament Gospels have something in common: They all directly point to Jesus as the object of faith. 

It isn’t about the level or amount of faith, but about where the faith is placed. 

For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.

If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much. 

If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities. 

If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down. That’s because the ultimate object of faith is Jesus. 

If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code.

There should be a consistency that runs through us all. For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

Hebrews 13:8, MSG

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus (Matthew 17:20-21, NRSV)

It says something about our modern Western society that whenever we hear the words of Jesus on faith that we interpret the mountain moving as an immediate event that happens almost instantaneous, like a snap of the finger. Yet, there is nothing in those words that says that. There is also nothing that says an individual necessarily does it.

The fact of the matter is this: Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time, not ours.

Just because we pray without ceasing for days, weeks, months, and even years for something doesn’t mean we lack faith if the prayer isn’t answered immediately. It could be that God wants others involved, maybe even across generations, for the impossible mountain to be moved.

It is misplaced faith which expects microwave results. Faith placed appropriately in Jesus as the object of belief discerns that faithful prayer is consistently prayed until there is an answer.

Healing and restoration will happen – just maybe not always how or when we think it will.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.