Revelation 11:16-19 – Be Encouraged

The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
    who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
    and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
    but your wrath has come,
    and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
    and saints and all who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (New Revised Standard Version)

Late in his life, as the old Apostle John lived in exile, he experienced a grand vision. It is what we today refer to as The Book of Revelation, or The Apocalypse of John. 

At the turn of the first century, Christ’s Church was facing a great deal of difficulty and hardship. Christians were the minority. Believers in Jesus were looked at with suspicion. Followers of Christ were often misunderstood and persecuted because of false information. 

In short, all of the myriad sufferings and persecutions that Jewish people currently face and have faced for millennia were true of the early believers in Jesus.

Therefore, the purpose of John’s vision was not to give slick preachers a reason to craft elaborate prophecy charts about what’s going to happen in the future. Instead, God was concerned for the current welfare of his people. The vision was meant to bring encouragement.

The message to John, passed onto the suffering church, was that this present hard situation will not always be this way. Danger, adversity, and hardship will not last forever. There is a day coming when God’s judgment and benevolent reign will truly rule in all of its glorious fullness.

Our prayers will be answered, the ones we have lifted to God for centuries: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Gergeti Trinity Church, Georgia

The Lord did not want his beloved children to succumb to discouragement and lose heart. So, the vision from John assured them that all will be made right. Jesus is Lord, and his good rule will have the day. 

Yes, we currently live in a world profoundly touched by the presence and power of sin. And because of that sad reality, we feel all kinds of various pain. We have no choice but to endure the hardships of national wars, bodily diseases, lack of resources, economic woes, mental disorders, emotional distress, and spiritual warfare.

It is possible to observe, as well as experience, all the crud of this sinful world and fall into despair. If or when that happens, we give-in to unhealthy ways of coping with the adverse circumstances around us.

Graciously, we have been given a glimpse into how all of history will shake-out in the end. That brief pulling back of the curtain is meant to bring us needed encouragement, steadfast hope, and patient endurance. 

There is coming a day when expressions of grief and lament will give way to praise and gratitude to God. And that incredible praise will explode with all believers, past and present, along with all creation, proclaiming together that the Lord God is all-powerful. 

The kingdom of this world belongs to our Lord and to his Chosen One. And he will rule forever and ever.

Some might protest that Christians have been harping on this return of Jesus for two millennia and he still isn’t here. We must not misinterpret God’s inaction as uncaring or that God is non-existent. Because it is really patient grace.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV)

Our present sufferings must also not be misinterpreted, as if God hates us or is just plain mean. For the Christian, suffering is transformed into solidarity with Jesus Christ.

My dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful test you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you. Rather be glad that you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may be full of joy when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13, GNT)

All of our collective experiences are meant not for harm, but for good so that we might realize spiritual growth and maturity.

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, NIV)

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you caused our earthly pain to be sacred and have meaning. Through your example of humble obedience, you opened the way for us to walk through our own hard circumstances with grace and submission.

Be near me in my time of weakness and pain. Sustain me by your grace, so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to you will. Help me always to believe that what happens to me in this present life is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God.

As Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace; through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. 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.

Exodus 35:1-29 – Real Worship Isn’t Boring

Gathering to Build the Temple by Yoram Raanan

Moses gathered together the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do:

Do your work for six days, but the seventh day should be holy to you, a Sabbath of complete rest for the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath will be put to death. Don’t start a fire in any of your homes on the Sabbath day.

Moses said to the whole Israelite community, This is what the Lord has commanded: Collect gift offerings for the Lord from all of you. Whoever freely wants to give should bring the Lord’s gift offerings: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and deep red yarns; fine linen; goats’ hair; rams’ skins dyed red; beaded leather; acacia wood; the oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet-smelling incense; gemstones; and gems for setting in the priest’s vest and in the priest’s chest pendant.

All of you who are skilled in crafts should come forward and make everything that the Lord has commanded: the dwelling, its tent and its covering, its clasps, its boards, its bars, its posts, and its bases, the chest with its poles and its cover, the veil for a screen, the table with its poles and all its equipment, the bread of the presence, the lampstand for light with its equipment and its lamps, the oil for the light, the incense altar with its poles, the anointing oil and the sweet-smelling incense, the entrance screen for the dwelling’s entrance, the altar for entirely burned offerings with its copper grate, its poles, and all its equipment, the washbasin with its stand, the courtyard’s drapes, its posts, and its bases, and the screen for the courtyard gate, the dwelling’s tent pegs and the courtyard’s tent pegs, and their cords, the woven clothing for ministering in the sanctuary, and the holy clothes for Aaron the priest and his sons for their service as priests.

The whole Israelite community left Moses. Everyone who was excited and eager to participate brought the Lord’s gift offerings to be used for building the meeting tent and all its furnishings and for the holy clothes. Both men and women came forward. Everyone who was eager to participate brought pins, earrings, rings, and necklaces, all sorts of gold objects. Everyone raised an uplifted offering of gold to the Lord. And everyone who had blue or purple or deep red yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or rams’ skins dyed red or beaded leather brought them. Everyone who could make a gift offering of silver or copper brought it as the Lord’s gift offering. Everyone who had acacia wood that could be used in any kind of building work brought it. All the skilled women spun cloth with their hands and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and deep red yarns and fine linen. All the women who were eager to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. The chiefs brought gemstones and gems to be set in the priest’s vest and the chest pendant, spices and oil for light and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet-smelling incense. All the Israelite men and women who were eager to contribute something for the work that the Lord had commanded Moses to do brought it as a spontaneous gift to the Lord. (Common English Bible)

At first glance, today’s Old Testament lesson might seem a bit tedious, perhaps even boring. After all, being informed of all the details on the furnishings for building the tabernacle (the Ark of the Covenant, the utensils for worship and sacrifice, and the tent that houses it all) appears like some ancient engineer wrote it. It’s just downright laborious. 

But that’s the point. It took a great deal of planning, effort, and commitment to realize it all. Although Moses received the instructions and revelation from God on the mountain, he still had to communicate it to the people and solicit their help.

There is a wonderful synergy here, between God and the people, a kind of divine/human cooperative, a spiritual rhythm of revelation and response. 

The contributions and the work were done by people whose hearts were stirred to give of their resources and their labor. The people freely offered their things and themselves in order to realize the tabernacle’s construction. 

The epicenter of worship is a divine dialogue between us and God. That is, God speaks, and the people respond. God reveals the divine will, and the people’s hearts are stirred. 

Whenever worship becomes a mere duty and drudgery, it is cheapened. Worship that degenerates into mere obligation becomes dull and flat. Duty without delight is boring. Such worship has no impact or effect on us.

Contemporary problems of Christian worship are typically viewed as liturgical issues. Many modern worshipers disparage particular prayers, Scriptures, or readings said every week as being vain repetition. The Lord’s Table may be celebrated only occasionally, so as to not lose something of it’s specialness.

Yet, none of us looks down at eating every day, praying multiple times in a day, and using the same daily phrases of greeting and saying good-bye to others. We don’t create new shoe stores which have no shoelaces because tying our shoes every day is so boring and pedantic.

The real issue is us – not the form of worship. It’s about our own hearts. The ancient Israelites gave of their time and resources in worship because they wanted to, not because they had to. They weren’t looking to be highly entertained, emotionally captivated, or mentally stimulated. The people simply wanted to please their God and to truly connect with the Lord.

Worship isn’t a monologue. It’s not a one-way communication in which we, the people, passively sit and soak-in what’s in front of us. Worship is work. It’s active. It’s participative. And it’s a process which involves some tedious and sometimes slow patient effort. 

Moses and God’s people were genuinely enthused to participate in what God was calling them to do. Worship that comes from willing hearts is a beautiful thing, because encountering God and being stirred within by a Divine call is a wonderful and mystical thing – and it isn’t boring.

Gracious God, just as you laid it upon the hearts of people long ago to participate in the work of worship, so impress my heart with your mission in this world.  I give you my life along with my possessions so that my entire self will be dedicated to the worship of Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Chronicles 34:1-7 – Getting Rid of Idolatry

Russian Orthodox icon of Judah’s King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.)

Josiah was eight years old when he became king of Judah, and he ruled thirty-one years from Jerusalem. He followed the example of his ancestor David and always obeyed the Lord.

When Josiah was only sixteen years old he began worshiping God, just as his ancestor David had done. Then, four years later, he decided to destroy the local shrines in Judah and Jerusalem, as well as the sacred poles for worshiping the goddess Asherah and the idols of foreign gods.He watched as the altars for the worship of the god Baal were torn down, and as the nearby incense altars were smashed. The Asherah poles, the idols, and the stone images were also smashed, and the pieces were scattered over the graves of their worshipers. Josiah then had the bones of the pagan priests burned on the altars.

And so, Josiah got rid of the worship of foreign gods in Judah and Jerusalem. He did the same things in the towns and ruined villages in the territories of West Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as the border of Naphtali. Everywhere in the northern kingdom of Israel, Josiah tore down pagan altars and Asherah poles; he crushed idols to dust and smashed incense altars.

Then Josiah went back to Jerusalem. (Contemporary English Version)

Josiah started out as a boy king. Evidently, he had some good training because by the time he became a teenager, Josiah was raring and ready to exercise his kingship in the best sense of leadership. 

After generations of kings before him who followed other gods and gave the stiff-arm to the Lord, as well as to justice and righteousness, Josiah committed himself fully to Israel’s one true God.  And, as a twenty-year old king, he showed the real muster of his reign.

Josiah took responsibility and initiative to do what was right in the eyes of God – no matter the consequences. 

King Josiah continually performed the dual action of worshiping God and aggressively taking active steps to rid the kingdom of all the ubiquitous false gods. 

The king did much more than simply stick his toe in the water to test what the response might be to removing a high place of Baal worship or an Asherah pole. Instead, Josiah jumped right in and put his entire kingship on the line. 

All of the power brokers who were dealing in false gods could not have been happy about this turn of events in Judah. But any kind of pushback did nothing to prevent Josiah from doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord by thoroughly eradicating idol worship.

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

Simon Sinek

Josiah had a clear sense of purpose. That sense of vocational direction ordered his kingly steps. It led him to do the things he did. Josiah was determined and devoted to leading the people back to God. 

This desire and determination for spiritual revival directed toward the worship of the Lord is not limited to the ancient world. God is still in the kingdom business of bringing all creation under a divine and benevolent rule. 

Therefore, there still remains an abiding purpose to lead others, caught in a web of unhealthy routines and habits of living through idolatrous practices, back to the one true God. 

Like the ancients before us, there is still a need to exercise courage and confidence in following the Lord by making disciples who will worship God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

So, reconnecting with our overarching purpose in life is imperative for taking bold steps of faith in this idolatrous world which worships at the altar of exorbitant eating, shopping, and drinking.

It is no wonder the current zeitgeist of so many of our communities is full of anxiety, discouragement, and anger. There is no justice in the public square. Competing voices, other than the merciful words and ways of Jesus, drown the divine regulations for living a good life of integrity, wholeness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

It is almost as if the collective efforts of idolatrous people have surgically removed the spiritual spine of society. We are now bereft of genuine support, spineless and unable to move toward a life of truth, justice, and a courageous concern for the common good of all persons.

King Josiah shows us a better way. We must radically remove all that is toxic and damaging to our souls. We need a clear purpose in life, to go hard after God and rediscover how the Divine fits into all of life and gives us meaning.

Any old fool can complain about how bad things are in the world. But the one determined to make a difference amidst all the surrounding crud and helps to make things better – that is the wise person who is in touch with their own spirit, who is able to see the spiritual within others.

So, how then will you live?

May your living be in a healthy spiritual groove of loving God and loving neighbor so that worshiping the banal becomes a thing of the past.

Holy God, you are the Sovereign of the universe. Expose the things in my life that I might be trusting in, other than you. Wean me away from evil and bend my heart and mind to truth, justice, and goodness. Help me to be aggressive in my Christian walk so that I steadfastly follow Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, leading others to faith along the way. Amen.