Category Archives: Pastor Duane Hix

Whoever Welcomes a Little Child

“WHOEVER WELCOMES A LITTLE CHILD”
September 14, 2014 Matthew 18:1-6
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

I enjoyed last week’s worship service immensely, and that’s not just because I didn’t have to write a sermon! To hear Kaylee and Jonah and Janna and Caitlyn speak so positively about their experience at the Middle School Conference was reassuring and touching. When Kelli and Michelle and Jeremy also testified at how they loved the music and the worship, I knew that by sending them we had helped transform the lives of both youth and young adults. They saw Christ working at Massanetta Springs, and they brought back that infectious spirit to us in their words and those energizers that we struggled to perform. Yes, I enjoyed their presentation immensely. As I said, it was reassuring.

But today we will take a harder look at our ministry to the children and youth of our church and community. Members of the Christian education committee know that Sunday school attendance over the summer was meager, almost non-existent. Vacation Bible School attendance this last summer dropped by 30%. We struggle to have more than a handful of children in our classes and worship, and I am not sure there is enough interest in confirmation class to hold it this year, even though it is long overdue. We need to ask ourselves serious questions about the future of our Christian education program. We need to examine if we are fulfilling the scripture’s mandate to train our children in the way of righteousness and faith.

That mandate, that calling, appears in passages like the one we read from Matthew today. The passage actually has two parts. Each bears a distinct message, though the first leads into the second. Let’s look at verses 1-4 first.

The disciples have finally summoned up enough courage to ask Jesus a question you know has been eating at them since the day Jesus gathered them together: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Of course that could have been an entirely theoretical question, but more likely they looked at one another, this group of twelve, and wanted to know where they would stand when the time came for handing out rewards. In other words, what characteristics should they cultivate to get a better place than their competitors, to receive a place of honor from God?

Jesus, as he often does, acts out his answer: he calls a child into the midst of the disciples and then says: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now what does Jesus mean here? What qualities in a child is he pointing to that we should emulate? Maybe it is that children are innocent, non-judgmental. They haven’t learned prejudice yet, don’t discriminate between a black person or an Asian person or a white person as long as that person is ready to sit down and play or read them a story. Maybe we need to be more innocent, more accepting. Or perhaps it is the trusting nature of children that we must copy, their dependence on someone else, someone bigger and wiser than they are, like we should be trusting in the bigness and wisdom of God. And again, children are often excited about the future. They can’t wait until their next birthday. It seems so far away. They aren’t apathetic, defeated by the woes of the world, aren’t cynical. They are hopeful; they believe that the future will be great. So Jesus may want us to be less skeptical, more full of wonder and joy. I expect all of those virtues would help, but to catch the full import of Jesus’ words, we need to recognize that in the ancient world, even more than today, children had no status, no power, no rights. They might have been treasured within the narrow confines of their homes, but legally, outside those domestic walls, they were nobodies. Their legal status was the same as a slave or a non-citizen. They were the opposite of great and important.

So Jesus’ action and his words mean this, primarily: you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? To be great in God’s eyes, you must surrender any presumption that you are great already. You must recognize that in the eyes of God you have no special status, no inherent right to be honored. The paradox is this: to be great in God’s eyes you must stop thinking about being great and earning your way into God’s grace. God knows better. These children here, they know how dependent they are, how they would end up unless someone else cared for them and protected them and educated them. They haven’t done enough to earn their place in the world. They need help. Do you know that you need God that badly also? Jesus’ words to his disciples bluntly put them in their place, and they have the power to do the same to us if we dare listen to them.

Jesus promptly moves on the second theme of the passage. He says to the disciples: “… whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these … to sin, it would be better … to be drowned in the sea.” So first Jesus has called on us to purify our motives, to set aside our pride and realize our need of God. And now he emphasizes that these children need God too, need God desperately, and if we turn them away from the Lord, we are better off dead, for God’s punishment will be severe. That millstone he mentions – it is big, and heavy. You don’t swim back to shore if it is around your neck.

So, how are we doing? Are we welcoming children in his name? Or are we by our actions and inaction turning them away, casting them adrift, teaching them vices rather than virtues? What must our congregation and every Christian congregation do to lead children and youth to Jesus Christ?

First, the teaching ministry of the church must be preserved and enhanced. Since the early days of the Protestant Reformation, when John Calvin broadened and improved the academy in Geneva, we Presbyterians have emphasized education, both secular and Christian. The teaching ministry of our congregation is based on the belief that the written word of scripture is a link to the past revelation of God in history and to the present revelation of God in current events. To learn the stories of biblical figures is to preserve the tradition of truth that has withstood the onslaught of temptations through many centuries. We trust it will serve our children well too. So if we want to help our children have faith in God, let us learn those stories well ourselves, and then be sure we are equipped with exciting curricula and stimulating classrooms, teaching environments that make the children glad they came. The Bible is a gift from God to humanity. It is a remarkable act of grace placed in our hands. We must not surrender the teaching ministry that will place its truth in the hands of our children and youth.

It is good to teach about God and the stories of scripture. But there are many dimensions of the Christian faith that are not so much “taught” as they are “caught”. Children “catch” them as they watch other Christians walking their daily walk of faith, performing their ongoing roles as children of God.

One of these times for “catching” the faith is in worship. One key way for a child to learn Christian faith is simply to come and worship with others. Yes, most of the service will be above their heads; yes, maybe the youngest among them should be in nursery; yes, we may expect to hear from them that the hour drags and they are bored. But I will never forget the statement made by a young man entering the ministry. He said there was a turning point in his life, about age 13, when he could either continue to complain about the worship service to his parents or he could start paying closer attention and learn what actually was happening and why. He chose the latter, and it led him to want to serve the church as a vocation. When children worship, they will learn without even realizing it that they are part of a Christian people praising God, growing more humble in the presence of a holy Lord, discovering mystery through the sacraments, experiencing harmony through singing together. Those are lessons we want them to catch. So even if the very youngest head off to the nursery, let’s welcome the others in our midst, tolerate their squirming, and gather them into a worshipping community where they know they are welcome.

What else do children “catch” from us in the church? They discover how to care. From the first time they get a birthday card from a member, or are congratulated in church when they receive a school award or have their picture in the paper, children know that the church cares about them. And then, what’s more, they learn it is their own job to start caring for others as well. Mentioning the names of hospital patients and other prayer concerns may take up worship time and seem temporarily distracting, but it teaches our children that we care about people with problems. Taking them with us when we go to Stagecoach Manor or letting them carry in the food bank contributions show youth and children the central Christian practice of self-sacrificial caring and service. This will draw them closer to Christ. This caring ministry is every bit as important as the worshipping and teaching ministries of the church, and all of them are means whereby we welcome children in the name of Christ. This is what a local congregation like ours can do.
But of course if we are honest, it isn’t just what the church does that matters. Children are influenced much more by our nation’s cultural values that they encounter 15 hours a day, 6 and ½ days a week than by the values they learn at church on half a Sunday. So, switch scenarios for a moment and ask: what can we do to keep our children from sinning due to the influence of destructive values that run rampant throughout our culture? We feel so small in the face of violence in the media, of fast-paced life that steals time for family dinners, of cyber-bullying and the temptations of alcohol and drugs. What can we do?

We can take our stand in personal relationships, that’s one thing: we can refuse to buy our kids and grandkids violent video games that teach disrespect and callous disregard for life, like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. We can tell them why we believe these games, exciting as they are, are harmful to their soul, and substitute a more wholesome gift. We can slow down our family lives enough that we become available for the young instead of neglecting their development because of our or their business. Who says that kids need to be involved in three extra-curricular activities at once in order to succeed and be popular? Why is that better than helping them respond when an elderly neighbor needs companionship? And do our families really need two full-time incomes to prosper? Is that more important than one of the parents being home when a child returns from school? These hard decisions at a personal level may show our children a different set of values than what our overly competitive and overly stressful society offers.

We can also move beyond decisions in personal relationships to advocacy on a political and social level. Maybe the local chapter of M.A.D.D. needs a secretary. Maybe we lobby the school board to start classes later so our children can get enough sleep, even if it means shorter sports practices and drama rehearsals. Maybe we rally local pastors to reclaim Wednesday night for religious activities at churches and mosques and synagogues. Maybe we talk to realtor into providing a vacant lot to start an urban garden, so fresh vegetables can grow in the middle of a food desert. When our children and our neighbors’ children see these community efforts supported and successful, they may draw back from the modern temptations that lead them into sin and depression and violence.

Whether in personal relationships with children we know well, or in community efforts on behalf of children we will never meet, or in the churches from which we draw our Christian values, we are called by stirring words like these of Jesus to welcome children in his name and protect them from the seductive temptations of sin. The church cannot do everything, but it can do something. Individual Christians cannot do everything but they can do something. Community groups cannot do everything but they can do something. The problem is not new; it is old. It will not go away. But if we are inspired by the words of our Lord, we will not sit back easily and see our church school crumble and our families disintegrate and our children drown in commercialism and popularity contests. We have been drawn by Christ into the family of God. Let us be sure the young receive the same welcome. Amen

Revelation 5 – New Heaven, New Earth

THROUGH THE BOOK OF REVELATION
“A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH”

August 24, 2014 Revelation 21:1-8, 22:1-7
Dr. Duane Hix W.M.P.C. Willow Spring

To Christians everything in existence, except God, has a beginning and an end. That includes people like you and me, and space, and even time. The Bible also has a beginning and an end, and the book of Revelation is that end. When the early church was compiling the books of the Bible, and debating what should be included it, some leaders thought that Revelation was too difficult, too unclear, or too violent. You yourself may have felt that as the weeks of this series plodded on. But the majority believed that the struggle to understand the book was worth the effort, that just because a book is difficult doesn’t mean we can avoid it. Revelation is a fitting end to the Bible. Its chapters describing the defeat of evil and the recreation of earth and heaven simply had to be the final chapters of all Christian scripture. For here the end comes, the end of time and the end of the New Testament’s message. What happens at this end?

Appropriately, the biblical story that began in the first verses of Genesis gains its resolution here in the last verses of Revelation. Eden is restored and transformed.

You remember: Genesis began with a garden. Rivers flowed through it. Vegetation was lush, with every kind of fruit and all that was good to eat readily accessible. There seemed to be no division or discord. Man and woman, Adam and Eve, lived in close communication with God and were unashamed of their naked innocence. But of course evil intervened. Nature turned from verdant soil to unyielding dust. Man and woman chose knowledge for themselves over obedience to God. They are expelled from the garden, afraid of facing the Lord whom they have betrayed. A fiery sword prohibits their return to Eden. Life with God, with one another, with creation, will never be the same. God’s original intention for the world in the garden was stymied by human sin and nature’s fall.

But now, through the work of God’s chosen people Israel and God’s chosen One Jesus Christ, the perfect relationships of Eden are being restored. The images especially in chapter 22 reveal this. Again there is a river of living water, and again there are trees with fruit for every season. This time the leaves of the trees are not made into aprons to hide humanity’s shame, but rather they are leaves of healing, and the people once ashamed to look for God now see God face to face.

The main differences between the Bible’s first verses about Eden and its last verses in Revelation are that what began as a garden is now a city. What started as a single couple is now a whole commonwealth. What was originally a pristine nature uninfluenced by human tools is now a civilization that has perfected its human contributions to the glory of God. God began again, after the fall, and led the earth to a new destiny even more complete than Eden’s original perfection. The New Jerusalem transcends the garden. That is what happens at the end.

Also at the end, all that is opposed to God’s plan will be gone. It should come as no surprise to us by now that if we read carefully what John says will no longer be present in the new heaven and earth, we will discover that there are seven things. We read them in our passages from chapters 21 and 22: there will be no more sea, no more death, no mourning or crying or pain. None who are accursed and evil will be there. And there will be no more night.

Most of these seven seem self-evident. Certainly if we yearn for eternal life with God there will be no death. Certainly if God eliminates evil there will be no cause for crying or pain. But why the sea, why is it to be gone? And why night, why exclude the darkened hours?

Remember that throughout scripture, even again from the first pages of Genesis, the sea was the murky, unruly place of chaos. At creation God had to tame the waters first before land could emerge and life as we know it could begin. All through scripture God brings order to chaos – through the Law, through the temple, through the church. So if the sea is no more in the New Jerusalem, this means that order has overcome the chaotic powers of incoherence, and tuned discord into harmony.

And night, which also is banned? In the ancient world of scripture, and today as well in many places, night was the time of danger. We who live with electric streetlights and police officers on 24-hour shifts forget that a city of the first century would close its gates as dusk fell and allow no stranger to enter. Homeowners would bar their windows and doors, and families would retreat to the security of their houses, leaving the streets to thieves, who work under cover of darkness. And thus the New Jerusalem, the perfect heaven and earth, would eliminate darkness and the danger that goes with it. The holy city is a place of security, for the bright light of God’s presence will illuminate it.

All these seven threats and sources of sorrow are now removed. If you could make a wish list for the earth and its people, for peace and security and friendship and fulfillment, that is what you would find in God’s new creation. Perhaps it sounds like an impossible dream, an elusive ideal. But scripture tells us that it is a reality, a commonwealth of reconciled people held together by their love of God and God’s love of them. This is what comes at the end – the completion of God’s plan for the world he created in love. Here all things gain their highest happiness as they fulfill their original intention.

The third thing the scripture tells us about the end is that people are in the closest possible relationship with God. Our passages say it again and again: “The home of God is among us.” God “will tabernacle (that means “dwell”) with us”. We will be God’s people. We will see God face to face. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes. “I will be their God and they will be my children,” says the Lord. The sea that once separated the saints and martyrs from the throne of God is now removed. We may approach the throne of grace and have an audience with our sovereign Lord. All of these references make it clear: nothing any longer separates us from the presence of God.

So the end, as we see it portrayed in Revelation, is not merely a chronological event, not just a point in time or beyond time when a holy city comes down from heaven. No, the end is also a person, a personal God who has been the goal of our life, the purpose toward which we have been heading. To be at the end is to be in the full presence of God. There doesn’t need to be a separate temple in the city, because God is not separate any longer. There doesn’t need to be any other light of sun or moon, because God’s light is all around us. Heaven is belonging to the family of God, to be so close to God that wherever we go in the new city God is with us. The alpha and omega, the living God, is our beginning and our end. We cannot, and do not wish to, escape from his presence. That happens at the end also.

I want to talk with you about one more topic today, a topic that carries a level of significance not many of us recognize. The picture of the end painted in John’s vision in Revelation does not make it completely clear whether the new heaven and the new earth is a continuation and perfection of the old, existing heaven and earth, or instead is a complete break, an entirely new world after the old is gone. On the one hand, John says that the old heaven and earth have passed away, and the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. On the other hand he says that it is those who conquer in the final battles who will inherit what God has prepared for them, and all the images connected to Eden make it seem as though the new earth is a transformed and perfected old earth.

This lack of clarity probably shouldn’t have made as much difference as it has in Christian theology, but over the last century or two a debate has arisen that forces a split between two ways of thinking, a debate over whether the end of history and the second coming of Christ occurs after a 1000 year reign of peace and justice, or before it. In other words, does this perfect reign of God, this New Jerusalem, come as a result of a long process of progress and improvements here on earth, or will it only come after this earth and all that is on it is blown to bits from human war or natural disaster? We call this the debate between pre-millennialism, when Christ comes before the golden era, and post-millennialism, when Christ comes after it. (Remember, 1000 years, a millennium, again means symbolically an extremely long time.)

Now you can forget those big theological words as soon as you leave in a few minutes. But here’s why this debate makes a difference: if we believe that the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and earth, are the 1000 years of peace and prosperity before that second coming, that God’s new reign is a continuation and perfection of the present earth, then we will see what we do as a Christian and as a citizen as contributing to that new creation. When you start a new business, for example, that will employ more people and contribute to the community’s betterment, or when you work in a soup kitchen or a clothes closet for the homeless, or when you tutor a third grader in math, you will believe that you are contributing to the future kingdom of God, bringing closer that day when the 1000 years of peace and prosperity will begin. And this view can be wonderfully inspiring. But it can also be potentially dangerous, because of its misplaced idealism that may lead to despair when wars and hunger continue, and our good intentions never make much difference.

On the other hand, if we believe that the 1000 years of glory can only come by this earth passing away, that God must intervene to destroy the old before the new can come, then we don’t act in this world to create some ideal society through our efforts. In fact, we don’t see much hope for the future. You do God’s will simply because you want to be obedient to God. You actually want people to look beyond this world for their redemption. You are much more the realist, maybe even a pessimist, who sees little hope in human effort and all hope in a transcendent God who redeems us despite ourselves. You may find yourself praying that Christ will come again soon and free us all from this veil of tears and sorrow. You may start looking closely for signs that he is coming, that the end is near.

I cannot tell you today which is right, because I do not know the way God’s plan for the end will unfold. Perhaps there needs to be a healthy blend of realism and idealism in all of us, a knowledge that God’s first creation is worth saving, but that only a heart and will completely emptied of human schemes and completely transformed by God are capable of any contribution toward that glorious day of a new heaven and a new earth.

John ends his book with a vision that produces hope and confidence in all who read it. Christ does conquer evil. Death is beaten. Tears are wiped away forever. God is sovereign, alpha and omega. The last things will be even better than the first things. This final book of the Bible assures us of all this. No one who is in Christ need fear the end. No one who seeks God will fail to find God. In the end, whenever and however it comes, all will be well. All will be well indeed.

Amen

Revelation 4 – Fallen Is Babyon

THROUGH THE BOOK OF REVELATION
#4 – “FALLEN IS BABYLON”
August 17, 2014 Revelation 14:1-12
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

This is the hardest of the sermons on Revelation. It is hard not because it is unclear and needs thorough deciphering, which might be said of other passages. No, this passage is hard because it is so clear, clear about God’s wrath, about retribution against the ungodly; clear about the suffering caused by God, about the eternal torment of the condemned. We deal today with two difficult subjects: the persecution of the righteous and the judgment of those who persecuted them. They are difficult for different reasons, one because we are unfamiliar with it; the other because its harshness offends us. Each in its own way presents problems that make the book of Revelation formidable and uninviting. Let me do my best to describe the hard life of the early churches to which John wrote this book, and to explain what Revelation teaches us about repentance, judgment and eternal punishment.

Separated as we are by 2000 years of history, we find it hard to understand exactly how and why the early Christian church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. We have heard the stories of young women and children thrown to the lions in the Coliseums, of bishops tortured until they die rather than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. And these things did happen, although in smaller numbers than we are led to believe. Most persecution, though, was less vivid and more intermittent. In fact, the real danger to the Christian faith, then as now, was that not enough people did resist Rome. When the few who were fully obedient to Christ did resist to the end and were martyred, that actually won sympathy for the church, and perhaps also a few converts, as revealed in the words of an early church father named Tertullian: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. No, the real danger to the church was that too many people accommodated themselves to living with Rome, rationalized their behavior, and compromised their faith. So some of John’s pictures – of the virtuous 144,000 or the martyrs crying beneath God’s throne – are his attempt to encourage more Christians to be faithful. Don’t give in to the Roman way of life, he urges, don’t justify your cowardice and easy acceptance of practices that deny God.

That said, however, at the specific time John was writing this book, there was a serious persecution of Christians. Despite its prowess in military conquest, despite its advances in law and commerce and architecture, Rome had a vicious side. The Roman emperor Domitian, like other emperors before him, toward the end of his reign decreed that he was to be regarded not merely as a human ruler, but as a god. To this, Christians and Jews alike reacted strongly, for such a claim contradicted their belief that God is one and only God is sovereign. No longer did citizens of Rome and its subject nations merely pray for the emperor. Now they must pray to him as well. That the Christians would not do.

This was the primary reason for Christian resistance to Roman policy, and Roman persecution of those who resisted. But there were other reasons as well. Rome, to the Christians, represented all that was wrong with government: it ruled through tyranny and conquered with ruthless force. Plus, its form of religion dishonored God, encouraged sexual immorality, and was a useless, inconsequential influence on ethical behavior. So when John says in verse 4 of our passage that the redeemed have not defiled themselves with women, what he means, symbolically, is that they have not given in to the temptation of Roman religions. And when the angel pronounces in verse 8 that “Babylon has fallen!” or later in the book when the enemies of God are marked with the sign of the beast, 666, the symbolic figure for the former emperor Nero, or when we read that the rebellious prostitute sits on a city of seven hills – we should know instinctively that this is all code language for Rome, which will fall because of its unjust, violent, oppression of the saints.

Such persecution, though familiar to the church in John’s time, is unfamiliar to the church in 21st century America. We Christians are much more likely to simply be ignored by the powers that be rather than threatened or persecuted by them. We aren’t much of a threat to them—we have accommodated ourselves too much to the political and economic forces to worry anybody. But back in the time of Emperor Domitian, the one who claimed to be a god, coins were circulated that bore his image, and often also around the edge of a coin was the proclamation that this emperor was a god. Back then a deeply conscientious Christian would refuse to handle those coins or pass them on to others or use them in commerce. Thus those loyal Christians would be subject to a kind of self-imposed economic boycott. Their businesses would suffer. The tax authorities would harass them. Their neighbors would accuse them of gross disloyalty and unpatriotic activity.

Maybe the reason we aren’t persecuted today is because we aren’t as loyal and obedient to Christ as we should be. What would happen, for instance, if we believed that military expenses or Medicaid mismanagement had become so contrary to the will of Christ that we withheld a portion of our income tax? Would the government be so tolerant of us then? Wouldn’t we quickly discover a form of economic persecution like Rome imposed on Christians during the reign of Domitian? You bet we would. Revelation therefore raises the troublesome question: if there is no persecution of Christians today in the U.S., is it because we have accommodated ourselves to the materialistic, imperialistic life style that Christians 2000 years ago would have seen as completely opposed to the will of Jesus Christ? Maybe the unfamiliarity we feel with the book of Revelation has more to do with us than with the book itself.

The Christians who were faithful to Christ, who did not sell out to Roman values, understandably yearned for an end to this time of oppression. Whether their persecution were economic, and their family business failed because of their faith, or they were hounded into the arenas where they stared death in the face, they hoped that God’s final plan included vindication of their sacrifice, punishment of their oppressors, and a final victory of Jesus Christ in whom they had trusted. John understands their plea, for he himself has been harassed and exiled because of his faith. And because he believes in God’s ultimate sovereignty, he includes in the middle chapters of his book clear, startling and even somewhat repugnant scenes of judgment.

As this scene of judgment begins, the redeemed gather with the Lamb on Mount Zion. The name of Christ and the name of God are written on their foreheads, marking them as members of God’s army of martyrs, preparing to battle those who have been marked with the sign of the beast. The forces are arrayed in opposition. A third angel declares the inevitable fate of those who worship the beast that is Satan. They will drink the wine of God’s wrath, unmixed, no water in wine to dilute the fury of his punishment. The angel declares that they will be tormented with fire and sulfur; day and night the smoke of their torment goes up, forever. There is no rest for those who worship the beast.

Please recognize again that John’s language is largely symbolic, although that does not mean his implications are any less severe. The picture of fire and brimstone, which is merely a more ancient word for sulfur, comes from the image of a dump heap that lay outside the city of Jerusalem. The Greek word “Gehenna” is translated today as Hell. Gehenna refers to the Hinnon valley, a dry stream bed running alongside Jerusalem into which all the refuse of the city was thrown and burned. If the fire died down, sulfur could be added to increase the heat and send up a putrid smoke. At night, one could watch from the walls of Jerusalem as all that had been rejected permanently from the holy city was burned to ash, smoke ascending into the sky. This is the image that informed John’s language as he pictured the burning fire of judgment. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the evil will literally be burned in eternal torment upon a fire. But it still does mean that there is harsh punishment for all who have rejected God and thus God has rejected.

Let’s explore further the idea of judgment and punishment, for the book of Revelation is filled with this theme. It is immensely difficult for Christians who believe in a God of love and in a Savior who surrendered his life to defeat the evil that threatened him, to accept the idea of God punishing the wicked with the fire of eternal torment. We have been told repeatedly that we are justified by Christ and redeemed by the love of God. Where then is such love in the 14th chapter of Revelation, when the wicked drink unmixed the cup of God’s wrath?

One place God’s love is founds is in the repeated calls for repentance that will allow those destined for judgment to escape it. Before each phase of punishment an angel offers the chance at salvation. John sees an angel flying across the earth, proclaiming to people of every place and tribe that the hour of God’s judgment has come, that there is still time to turn toward righteousness and honor God. Again in chapter 18, even as the destruction of Babylon is underway, a voice from heaven cries: “come out of her, my people, so you will not share in her sins, or receive her plagues.” Consistently, the messengers of God offer the possibility of salvation. Again and again, people are given a chance. If they do not turn away from evil, it will not be because they were never invited.

Secondly, scripture and Christian doctrine make a theological distinction between evil and sin. Sin is evil that is acknowledged and repented. An evil person does not become merely a sinful person until the evil that they do is recognized and regretted. The judgment made against those who are sinful is different than the judgment made against the evil. If we are sinners, this implies at least that we know and accept God’s will enough to sense that we have broken it, that we deserve punishment, and that we should try to change. The judgment that comes upon us, who are sinners, is a judgment that leads to redemption. The fire of judgment into which we fall is a purifying fire. It cleanses us and helps us become better. Because we know we have done wrong, and we don’t want to offend God, our judgment is not eternal. Christ instead redeems us for eternal life.

But the judgment made against evil, against those who either do not believe in God at all or believe in him only enough to consistently defy him, those who do not acknowledge they are wrong, who turn a deaf ear to sorrow, who do not care even if the innocent suffer – against these, against the evil, God’s punishment is severe and lasting. They cannot be saved because they will not be saved. If to live in heaven is to live eternally in the presence of God, and thus to discover our highest happiness, then to live completely isolated and alienated from God must be eternal torment. This is the fate of those who persistently follow the Evil One and refuse to change. Again – all will be saved that can be saved. But some cannot be saved because in persistent defiance they will not be saved. To these, and these alone, belongs eternal punishment, eternal separation from God.

The passage ends with John’s call for the endurance of the saints. The few among the Christians who were faithful, who did not sell out to the culture of Rome, no doubt struggle to remain true. John encourages them through the insight that their redemption is assured and the punishment of evil is equally assured. John had seen evil at work in the world. He knew it was real, that it could not be taken lightly, that it needed to be opposed. But he trusted in God to bring evil to its judgment. The hope John has, the hope he offers to his followers, is that God is faithful and true and just. God will redeem; God will punish. God’s judgment will come, someday and somewhere. As sure as the eventual fall of Rome, so will be the fall of evil. It will be destroyed through the victory of the Lamb.

Amen

Revelation 3: Worship Before the Throne

THROUGH THE BOOK OF REVELATION
#3 “WORSHIP… BEFORE THE THRONE”
August 10, 2014 Revelation 7:1-4; 9-17
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

In my years of ministry I have often met people who are attracted to certain activities of the church, but who just don’t “get” worship. They may be drawn to a small support group, or enjoy the fellowship of church suppers; they appreciate study opportunities, or hands-on mission work rehabbing houses and feeding the hungry. But worship leaves them cold. They don’t sing much, and don’t see what the big deal is about the hymnbook. They are confused about when to stand and when to sit, and what to do during silent prayer. And they endure rather than appreciate the sermon, which uses words they don’t understand to answer questions they haven’t asked.

Despite these hesitations, I have always encouraged such people to come to worship, to come regularly until the service is not so unfamiliar, because this hour of worship is the heart of the church, the single gathering point from which all the other ministries spin. I believe that if a person doesn’t join the worshipping community in that weekly hour, he or she will miss the soul of the Christian faith. Worship is that important.

You may find it surprising to discover that the Book of Revelation has supplied many of the ideas that have shaped Christian worship. Scenes of worship arise regularly in the book, when the inhabitants of heaven join the inhabitants of earth in praising God. Worship is the primary activity of the saints in heaven – that’s where that lasting image of people floating on clouds playing harps comes from. So today I want to look at verses from chapter 7 and elsewhere to consider what worship is and how it should be conducted.

In keeping with the concept of a Sabbath day, worship in Revelation always seems to be an interlude, a break between other customs or actions. We see that here. Earlier, in chapter 6, the first six seals were broken as events at the end of time unfold. Catastrophes rocked the earth – wars, famine, earthquakes, each one worse than the last. We anticipate that the breaking of the seventh seal will be the most startling and destructive, and indeed it will be. But before that happens, the action pauses; an interlude occurs. Violent winds are ready to be unleashed, but an angel holds them back. Six days of destruction (matching the original six days of creation) are followed by a time of rest, a kind of Sabbath postponement, while we catch a reassuring glimpse of God’s grace at work: “Do not harm the land or sea or trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of God.”

Like this interlude, this pause in heaven’s action, worship provides a pause in our own weekly pursuits. Worship tells us to stop for a while, to lighten our schedules, to slow down our activities, to glimpse at least one day a week when we are not cramming our life so full that we have no time to consider the author of that life. Worship calls for Sabbath rest, and we worship best when we take time for it, don’t rush it, prepare to meet God and linger in God’s presence for the rest of the day. If we disconnect worship from the interlude of Sabbath rest, then both our worship and our rest will lose a vital dimension. It takes unhurried openness to meet and praise our God. It takes the presence of God to give true, lasting rest.

While the angels hold back the destructive winds, John hears a voice call out the number of all who are sealed during the interlude. 144,000, from every tribe of Israel are then listed by the name of their tribe. Now you can, I suppose, interpret that number literally, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did until recently, and conclude that only the most select 144,000 people in the world will be saved by God. But John never intended that number to be a limiting figure. Indeed, it is a sign of perfection, wholeness. It is a holy number, 12, multiplied by itself, and then three zeros added, which in the ancient world was how you designated a huge number beyond counting. Again, there is symbolism even in numbers.

The uncountable number expresses inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. This idea is reinforced in verse 9, where John sees a great multitude that no one could count, not just the Jews of the 12 tribes, but people from every nation, tribe, and language, standing before the throne worshipping God. Worship is thus a place where the barriers of ethnic background, nationality, and language differences dissolve into insignificance. People of immense variety are united by praise of the Lord.

As that is true in heaven, so should it be in our worship on earth. Worship is best when it does not exclude, when sanctuaries are handicapped accessible, when a scruffy homeless man may sit without worry next to a finely-coiffed, well-dressed woman, where African drums may join in voice with a pipe organ. From every corner of the universe those who have been saved by grace gather to worship the one who saved them. Worship isn’t true Christian activity if it doesn’t break down the barriers that otherwise would isolate us.

Now, what do they do, this uncountable multitude who stand before the throne? They are, to begin with, clothed in white, and wave palm branches in their hands. Both of these images signify victory. When a Christian in the ancient world (and in some places still today) was baptized, he or she would don a white robe, identifying themselves with the purity of Christ and with his victory over death, just like a Roman general would wear a white robe when he entered Rome in a victory parade. So also, a palm branch signaled victory. All would chant in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” They wave the branches, they fall down on their faces before the throne, and they call out loudly in victory, assuring the world of God’s triumph. It is quite a scene!

So worship in heaven is a joyous celebration, a parade, a loud shout of reassurance. Is that how we regard it here on earth? Is that how you would describe the typical Presbyterian worship service? Probably not! I have always appreciated a gentle ribbing about this from the Christian writer Anne LaMotte as she describes a typical Sunday morning at 11: a rushed member stealthily slips into a quiet sanctuary, is handed a paper bulletin and is ushered discretely to an empty, cushioned pew. If we really knew what we could be getting into by coming to worship, she says, the ushers would hand out crash helmets, and you would buckle the seat belts in your pews, getting ready for a loud, wild ride of praise and discipleship!

The heavenly worshippers continue their song, saying: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever!” Did you catch how many ascriptions there are to God? Guess – yes, there are 7. It is a perfect hymn of praise. In other words, worship in heaven declares the worth of God. That is actually what the word “worship” means – it’s a word from the Old English language meaning “worth-ship”, to ascribe worth to one who has earned it, who has qualities deserving of praise. So as we celebrate God’s victory, we honor and praise God for it, returning to God the glory that is due. That’s what happens in heaven, anyway, and it should probably give us Presbyterians pause to consider if that is what our own worship is accomplishing.

We’ve gained some insight into worship by considering what the heavenly worshippers say and sing. We can gain even more understanding by looking at where and how they stand. Last week I described this scene a bit; let’s look at it further: a throne is in the center, on which the indescribable God sits. Next to the throne is the lamb, then arrayed around the back and sides are the 24 thrones of the elders. To the right and left of God’s feet the four animals await his commands. Surrounding all this are the angels. And facing the throne, in front of it, separated by a calm sea, is the great multitude of humanity. All these creatures look inward toward the throne and the God who sits there. All beings, from angels to animals, focus on God, knowing that the meaning of their existence derives from this centrally-located Lord.

This also we should do in earthly worship. Temporarily at least we set aside all the worries of our jobs, the concerns of our physical and emotional health, the anticipation of our many responsibilities for family and community and nation. We clear our minds of these things and focus on God. We do not set these concerns aside because they are unimportant. Precisely because they are important we believe they will prosper most when we put them in perspective and concentrate on the one who gives us strength to accomplish them. God becomes the center that holds all things together. Worship helps us see that and act on it.

As chapter 7 moves toward its end, and the seventh seal is about to be broken, John hears
his angelic companion paint a picture of reassurance to all who are about to undergo the great ordeal, the final tribulation. He promises them a time when the one that is seated on the throne will dwell above them, sheltering them from harm: “Never again will they hunger; never again thirst….The lamb will be their shepherd, will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This is a vision of life after the turmoil ends, a glimpse of heaven after the wars of judgment. There are no more comforting words in all of scripture. They calm us and help us look toward a reconciled, peaceable future.

If earthly worship is at its best, it too will offer a glimpse of heaven. The celestial peace that is there will break back into time and sustain us, in our current difficulties, even as a flash of lightning can reveal a path for miles ahead though it lasts just a second amidst the darkness. We could see this visually if we went to an Eastern Orthodox church for worship. Most Orthodox sanctuaries have a beautiful painted ceiling, with pictures of the triumphant Christ amid a choir of angels. Just at and slightly above eye level on the walls are icons and paintings of the saints and biblical figures. All of this splendid artwork reminds us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, that we are in the midst of a communion of saints, and that the victorious Christ reigns above all the earth. Here we glimpse the future, or more precisely we glimpse eternity, and are thus supported in our struggles and reassured in our faith. Somehow all worship anywhere, not just in a majestic sanctuary, should accomplish this. It may happen through architecture, or through music, or a well-crafted sermon, or the fellowship of genuinely friendly faces or the comfort of prayer. Worship at its best reflects the harmony and beauty and peace of heaven.

So let us put all these elements together, and consider what Revelation teaches us about worship: it is an interlude between other activities, a Sabbath rest while God’s other purposes are accomplished without us. Worship is a time and a place where diverse people may gather as one, with no hint of prejudice or suspicion. It is where we celebrate with joy the victory God has won in Jesus Christ. Like the angels singing their sevenfold ascription of praise, it is here that we publicly proclaim the worth of God. Like all of redeemed creation centered around the throne, our worship helps us focus on God, connecting the tangents of our lives around the one on whom all depends. And if it does its job, worship affords us an insight into heaven’s peaceful beauty.

That is why we gather here week after week. That is why we are all called to give our best effort to make worship wonder-full. That is why worship is the heart of the Christian faith. Without it we could not learn rightly or serve rightly. So let us lift up our hearts in praise, stand around the throne, and proclaim the glory of the Lord.

Amen