Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One Tribe

One Tribe
Revelation 7:9-17[1]
We who live in the “United States of America” often find ourselves wondering these days how “United” we really are. We see news reports of events happening in other parts of the nation, and we shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how our fellow citizens can be so different from each other. One author thinks the reason for this is that we are actually eleven different nations, the origins of which can to some extent be traced back in part to the original colonies.[2] Each of these nations represents a group of people with a unique outlook, lifestyle, and culture. From a different perspective, the Jefferson Institute has mapped out every county in the US based on the kind of community it represents.[3] They found twelve basic community types based on a wide variety of economic, cultural, educational, climate, and religious data. When you look at this kind of information, it’s no wonder that we feel more like the “Divided States of America!”
Unfortunately, for most of us, the ways of thinking and living, making and spending money, entertaining ourselves and raising our children, are so ingrained in us that we may not even notice them. We notice when others are different from us. But it’s incredibly easy to simply assume that “our way” is the right way, and those who differ from us have gone astray somehow. So it is that even in the church, we fight over ways of being Christian in this society, over our response to changes in the culture around us, and over what really defines us as Christians today. Unfortunately, most Christian denominations in the US are as divided as the rest of the country.
As we’ve been introduced to the Book of Revelation, we’ve seen how it focuses on what God is doing in this world. And we’ve witnessed the worship of God and of the Lamb who was slain by all creation. In our lesson for today, we get to look in on another worship scene. But this one comes after some seriously troubling visions. In the previous chapter, the Lamb begins to open the seals that initiate God’s judgment. The first four seals unleash the fabled “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They in turn inflict conquest, warfare, famine, and death upon the earth. The sixth of the seven seals on the scroll initiates cosmic catastrophes: the sun is darkened, the moon turned to blood, the stars fall from the heavens and the mountains topple. These are traditional images in the Bible depicting the end of all things.[4]
After all of that, we would expect to see the end of all things. That would be the logical conclusion of what has transpired in chapter six. But instead of the witnessing the end, we see another scene of worship.[5] In this case, however, the focus is not on the object of worship, but rather on those who are gathered around the throne, worshiping God and the Lamb. As before, the group is described as a vast throng: it is a “great multitude that no one could count,” and it is made up of those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[6]  It seems to me that this vision of those who worship around the throne of God is very similar to St. Paul’s vision that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, …, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
I think it is significant that although this multitude that cannot be counted who are worshiping God and the Lamb around the throne are said to have come from different nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, in this vision of worship they are called the “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3).[7] Despite any differences in their ethnic origins, their culture, their race, they are all described as martyrs who have faithfully borne witness to Jesus even to the point of death (Rev. 7:14). And there is no division or disagreement or disunity among them. They are united in their ascription of praise to God and to the Lamb: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).
In Revelation, as in the Gospel of John, the ultimate goal of God’s saving work among the human family is that we would all become one tribe: the servants of God.[8] We see this reflected in the description of those worshiping around the throne earlier in Revelation: “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Rev. 5:13). While those who worship God may come from all different races and people groups, from different classes and walks of life, in God’s sight we are intended to make up one tribe: the people of God. And it is significant that it is in worship that all the ways humanity has of distinguishing one group from one another are essentially erased. At the end of all things, there is only the vast multitude of humankind united in their worship of God and the Lamb.
I don’t think that all differences are a bad thing. In fact, I think diversity can make us stronger if we don’t let it tear us apart. But the vision of worship around the throne of God in our lesson from Revelation for today is much bigger than any one people or nation. This vision assures us that regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our family origins, regardless of our language or nationality, we will all one day unite around the throne of God. We will all one day confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That is the ultimate goal of God’s saving work in Jesus, the Lamb who was slain: to unite the divided human family as one people who worship God, one clan who are the servants of God, one tribe who are faithful in bearing witness to Jesus.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Reid Wilson, “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?” The Washington Post, November 8, 2013 accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/11/08/which-of-the-11-american-nations-do-you-live-in/ .
[3] Cf. The Jefferson Institute’s website: http://www.patchworknation.org/regions-page.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 92, where he cites passages from Joel, Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Cf. also David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, 424: “the events accompanying the breaking of each seal (with the exception of the fifth) belong to traditional Jewish and early Christian conceptions of the tribulations that will introduce the end …, though the scenario stops just short of the great day of wrath itself.”
[5] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 127: “They looked for the End and what came was the church, not as a substitute for the act of God but itself a dimension of God’s saving activity.” Cf. also Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 79-80, where he says, “the victory of the Lamb’s followers through martyrdom” … “intervenes between the sixth and the seventh judgements of the first series of seven judgements: the seal-openings.” At this point, it would appear that “The judgment has been delayed only so that they can escape it through martyrdom.” But Bauckham insists that thus far the real secret of God’s purpose for the role of the church in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth has not been revealed.” That “secret” is that the repentance of humankind is effected not by judgment but by the faithful witness of the church.
[6] In fact, the chapter seems to describe two different groups, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel and the “great multitude.” However, as Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 76, points out, in Revelation there is a contrast between what John hears and what he sees. He says, “The 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8) contrast with the innumerable multitude from all nations (7:9). But the two images depict the same reality.”  Cf. similarly, Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 419, 424; cf. also ibid., 424: “God’s promise to preserve and restore the tribes of Israel is kept  y redeeming people from every tribe and nation through the death of Jesus.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 98. On the other hand, Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible XII:620-21, where he asserts that the first group is a Jewish remnant, while the second consists of those who are identified with Christ. Cf. also Aune, Revelation 6–16, 440-60, where he argues extensively for the view that the 144,000 represent a Jewish remnant.
[7] Cf. Koester, Revelation, 416-17, where he points out that the marking of slaves on the face was an act of punishment. He insist that this does not fit the context here. Cf. also ibid., 211, where he summarizes the idea of Christians as “servants” of God in Revelation. He says, “God’s people address him as Lord and Master and are to obey (4:8, 11; 6:10; 12:17; 14:12), but the paradox is that God’s servants are truly free, since Christ freed them from subjection to other powers (1:5, cf. Rom 6:18-23; 1 Cor 9:19; Gal 5:13).”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 150, where he speaks of “the restoration of all things” and “universal reconciliation” as “an expression of hope and of trust in God’s goodness.” Cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256, where he extends this reconciliation and restoration beyond the human family to include all God’s creatures.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Revelation 5:11-14[1]
When I was an eager college freshman starting out on my educational journey, because I had already committed my life to ministry, I was a “ministerial student.” Those of us who fell into that category underwent significant testing at the beginning and end of our college careers. We took various personality profiles, including one that measured how dogmatic we were. One of the “tests” we took was to arrange in the order of importance the various tasks of ministry, at least according to our perspective. I don’t remember all of how I answered that test, but I do remember that I placed worship near the bottom of the list. Thankfully, by the time I graduated, it was at or near the top.
I’m afraid that many of us might have made the same mistake. If your experience was like mine growing up, worship was a boring event you had to endure. It was a place where you heard the same old things over and over. The sermons were dry and mind-numbing. The music was typically less than inspiring. And the prayers were hollow repetitions of standard phrases everybody said every week. There just didn’t seem to be much of a reason to be there. For all I know, some of you may still feel that way about worship, although I certainly hope not. But I think we’d have to admit that, for the most part, worship is not something that is a high priority for many people these days.
So, when we hear the lesson from the Book of Revelation for today, it may strike us as odd. It comes from two chapters that are completely dominated by a scene of worship. In chapter 4, those who are gathered around the throne worship God, saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). And in chapter 5, the vast throngs of all created beings worship Jesus, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). In our setting, all that may leave us scratching our heads.[2]
As I mentioned last week, the Book of Revelation provides struggling believers with images of God’s rule as the true reality in this world to counter the claims that contradicted their faith. One of the most basic ways in which the Bible has done that throughout the centuries is by reminding people of faith that, regardless of what may happen to us in this life, God remains on the throne, ruling all things with mercy and love and faithfulness.[3] One of the most familiar expressions of that vision is found in the Book of Psalms. Again and again, the Psalms reassure those who may be struggling in this life that we can trust that God will see to it that his grace will have the last word.
One of the fundamental premises for this faith is the belief that God is the one who created all things in the beginning. As the innumerable voices cry out in Revelation, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, … for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). The idea is that God is the only one powerful enough to create all the heavens and the earth and everything in them. And for that reason alone, for the fact that God has created a marvelous universe, God is worthy of our worship.[4] But more than that, Revelation reminds us that this God is the one who is powerful enough to right all the wrongs in this world.
That, in and of itself, would be reason enough for our worship of God. But the vision in this passage goes on to declare that the Lamb who gave his life for us all is also worthy of our worship. Again, the vast multitude praise him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Part of the reason for this worship is actually found in the verses preceding our lesson: the Lamb who was slaughtered “ransomed for God [those] from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).[5] Because he gave his life to set us all free, he is worthy to receive worship alongside the one who sits on the throne.[6]
I think it’s important to recognize that the scene of worship around the throne of God is framed by the fact that the risen Lord is “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” [7] The Easter message is not that a ruling monarch was “assumed” to heavenly glory.  Rather it is that the power to vindicate one who was executed as a criminal is a power that can transform everything and everyone.  We hold this hope in the assurance that if death could not stop him, then nothing can.[8] And he will continue to transform all things until every knee bows and every tongue joins in the chorus, “worthy is the Lamb”!
Our lesson from Revelation, and the context from which it is drawn, presents us with the two most basic reasons for worshipping God. First, God is the creator of all things, and as such he also has the power to ensure that all things work out for good in the end. Second, Jesus is the one who gave his life for us all, and nothing can stop him from finishing his work of making all things new. Like Christians throughout the ages, we worship God because we constantly need to be reminded of these two central affirmations of our faith. We don’t worship because God needs some kind of ego boost. We worship because we need to be reminded who it is who is at work in our lives here and now. We worship because our Creator and our Savior are worthy.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] In fact, in the overall purpose of Revelation, “The issue of true versus false worship is fundamental to John’s prophetic insight into the power-structures of the world his readers lived in. In the end, the book is about the incompatibility of the exclusive monotheistic worship portrayed in chapter 4 with every kind of idolatry—the political, social and economic idolatries from which more narrowly religious idolatry is inseparable.” Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 35. Cf. similarly Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 383, where he points out that the visions of the worship of the beast in Revelation includes features that were common to the Roman imperial cult. He says, “It was common to give gold wreaths to Greek and Roman rulers, who might be called ‘lord’ and ‘god,’ but in Revelation the wreaths and titles are given to the Creator (4:10-11). Similarly, hymns were sung to the emperors, who wanted it known that they ruled by the universal consensus of people in their realm …; however, in Rev 5, God and the Lamb are acclaimed worthy of rule by all creation.”
[3] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 32, where he observes that in Revelation, “true knowledge of who God is is inseparable from worship of God.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 102, where he says that “This scene is the theological fountainhead and anchor point for the whole document. The bulk of John’s writing will be composed of visions of the catastrophes represented in the traditional apocalyptic imagery of the seals, trumpets, and bowls of chapters 6-18, … . Yet before portraying these eschatological woes, John wants the hearer-reader to see what he has seen: At the heart of things God rules in sublime majesty, the God who has defined himself as the Lamb who suffers for others.”
[4] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 48: “The one God is defined as the One who brought all things into existence. As Creator, he alone has ultimate power over everything. As Creator, to whom all creatures owe their very being, he alone is to be worshipped.” He says further (ibid., 50) that “the roots of the religious apprehension of the uniqueness of God” is “the awareness that beyond all the interdependence of creation there is One to who alone all things owe even existence …. This awareness is inseparable from monotheistic worship, in which worship is acknowledgment of the ultimacy and incomparability of this Creator ….” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 350, where he affirms that in Revelation God’s “sovereignty over the world is legitimate because he brought all things into being.”
[5] The language is intentionally inclusive. Cf. Koester, Revelation, 380: “God’s intent was that the earth’s tribes (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; Ps 72:17; Amos 3:2 LXX) and nations (Gen. 22:18 LXX) should be blessed and that all peoples would serve God (Pss 67:3; 117:1; Mic 4:1). Similarly, Revelation calls people of every tribe and nation to worship God and shows them being redeemed by the lamb (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 14:6).” Cf. also Boring, Revelation, 111, where he observes that both worship scenes conclude on “an absolutely universal note.” He continues, “The last words of the heavenly chorus of 4:11 worship God as the Creator of all; the choir that sings the final chorus of 5:13 in praise to the Lambe is comprised of the whole creation.”
[6] In answer to the objection that the worship of Jesus would seem to be incompatible with exclusive worship of God, Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 60, answers, “John does not wish to represent Jesus as an alternative object of worship alongside God, but as one who shares in the glory due to God. He is worthy of divine worship because his worship can be included in the worship of the one God.” He elaborates (ibid., 62): “It was because Christians owed salvation to Jesus Christ that he was to be worshipped. …. The salvation was too closely connected with Jesus himself for Jesus to be bypassed in worship offered to God for it, but at the same time it was salvation from God that Jesus gave and so Jesus was not treated as an alternative object of worship alongside God. He was included in the worship of God. More generally, we could say that it was because Jesus functioned as God in early Christian religion that he was worshipped. All the divine functions in relation to the world—as Saviour, Lord and Judge—wre exercised by Jesus, of course on God’s behalf.” He hastens to add (ibid., 62-63), however, that “it is doubtful whether, once Jesus was worshipped, Jewish [Christian] monotheists could for long be content with merely functional divinity. The one who is worthy of the worship due only to God must somehow belong to the reality of the one God.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 392: “In Revelation, Christ is not a second object of worship alongside God but is included within the worship of the one God, since God’s purposes are accomplished through him.” Cf. Boring, Revelation, 106, who goes further when he says, “the throne of the Lamb and the throne of God are one and the same—God is the one who has defined himself in Jesus Christ.” The result is “that when Christians say ‘God,’ the one they refer to is the one definitively revealed in Jesus, the Crucified.”                                                                    
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “A Song to Shake the World,” a sermon preached 4/26/1998; accessed at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/ viewsermon.aspx?id=70 . He explains how this scene encapsulates the Easter message: “The Lamb, who knows what it’s like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 386, where he points out three aspects of the “slaughter” of the Lamb as his victory: first, “Jesus conquered by dying as a witness who remained faithful to God”; second, “Jesus’ death is unique in that it alone redeems people for life in God’s kingdom”; and third, the fact that the Lamb is seen as standing means that the slaughtered Lamb is alive, thus “Jesus’ victory continues in resurrection.”
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 73: “Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:1-8[1]
The central affirmation of Easter is that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has once and for all vindicated him as Lord of all. But you and I live in a world in which we are surrounded by images and messages that contradict that central element of our faith. Between Hollywood and Washington, DC and Wall Street, the combined effect is to make it clear that Jesus is essentially irrelevant in our culture. The “lords” of our society are those with the most money, or the most power, or the strongest celebrity appeal. And they don’t typically promote the ideals that Jesus taught. The movies we watch, the athletes we cheer, the advertisements on TV, even the music we listen to proclaim the message that the survival of the strongest and the wealthiest and the most attractive is the true reality in our world.
It may be hard for us to recognize this because it has so thoroughly worked its way into the fabric of almost every aspect of our culture. If you ever find yourself in the Mall, compare the images of people that the stores use to sell their products with the actual people around you. There’s not much similarity. In fact, the “appearance” that our culture promotes couldn’t be further from who we are as a people. But we’ve gotten so used to seeing people with perfect teeth and hair and eyes and bodies trying to sell us everything from cars to clothes to prescriptions that we don’t even notice the subtle message that conveys to us: if you don’t look like this, or have this kind of wealth, you don’t really count.
This was the context into which the Book of Revelation was written. The Christian faith was definitely a minority in the Roman Empire. Christians would either rise before dawn or stay up late at night to worship Jesus as Lord. There was no such thing as a weekend or a Sabbath day in the Roman world. Every day was a work day. And as those believers made their way to homes to worship Jesus as Lord, all around them were images that proclaimed that Zeus was lord, or Caesar was Lord.[2] They, too, lived in a world that was dominated by images of the “powers that be” that contradicted the heart of their faith and the teachings to which they had devoted themselves, sometimes at great peril to their lives.
It is to that setting that the Book of Revelation was addressed. This unique part of the Bible was not written to enable the “fortune tellers” of our age to predict the coming of Christ or the end of the world. Rather it was written to the Christians of that day, living in a world that contradicted their faith.[3] One of the major purposes of this part of Scripture that so many of us avoid was to provide struggling believers with images of a different reality, a reality in which God is the one who rules over all things with “wisdom, power, and love.” Unfortunately, It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees in the Book of Revelation. Much of the symbolism seems strange to us. But at the heart of the book is the message that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s rule is the true reality in this world, and one day God’s rule will be fulfilled as God completes the work of making all things new.[4]
In our lesson for today, the Scripture simply hints at this by referring to God as “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”[5] As you may know, Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. So naming God as the “Alpha and the Omega” is another way of saying that God is “The First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”  In other words, we can count on the God who created all things in the beginning to make all things new in the end.[6] It’s an affirmation that we along with millions of other Christians sing every Sunday morning: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen! Amen!” The God who rules over this world will be the same God at the end of all things as he was at the beginning and is now: a God of infinite love.
The other affirmation in our lesson for today is that God is the “Almighty” one. This resonates with countless statements in the Hebrew Bible about the God who is the “Lord of hosts,” or the “Lord of the angel armies”.[7] The idea is very similar to another image in the book of Revelation: God is the one who “sits on the throne,” ruling over the whole universe.[8]  The purpose for this is to make clear that that God is the one whose rule is ultimately true. Despite the fact that the Roman Empire proclaimed itself as the ultimate power in the world of that day, and even demanded worship of those under its influence, the book of Revelation insists that this is an illusion that will one day be swept away.[9] And, of course, Rome’s claim to power was indeed swept away centuries ago.
We live in a world that is dominated by those who make claims that can seem just as false as the claims Rome made in ancient times. In the face of those claims the Scripture reassured the Christians of that day that God is the one who would have the last word. I think the message of Revelation for us today is the same. It stands as a reminder that we too can trust that God will see to it that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. That means all those who (falsely) claim to wield power over the world in the present time are only deluding themselves. Their power may seem very real here and now, but ultimately, just as God’s rule had the first word at creation, so will his rule have the last word in the end. As God was in the beginning, so he ever shall be: the Alpha and Omega.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/3/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version of this sermon is available at http://www.hickmanpresbyterian.org/.
[2] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation,  17: “Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, … all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and the splendor of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world … . The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.” Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 132: “John’s message ran counter to the public rhetoric of the Roman era, which celebrated the peace and prosperity that the imperial rule had brought. According to the dominant discourse, Roman rule was invincible and benevolent.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 40, where he argues that the point of apocalyptic documents like Revelation in the ancient world was not to answer the question “Will there be an end of the world?” but rather “Is God faithful?” He says that they “lived in impossible situations, … when children saw their parents imprisoned or killed because their faithfulness to their confession of Jesus as the only Lord made it impossible for them to yield to the imperial religion … .” In that situation the question was “how can one still believe in the faithfulness of God?” He continues, “It was the honor and integrity of God as God that was at stake, not just human selfish longing for golden streets and pearly gates.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 132, where he reminds us that the setting was actually somewhat complex: “Readers who were overtly threatened would be aware of the challenges and needed encouragement to persevere, but those who were complacent or accommodating would not have sensed the problems. John would need to challenge them  to see issues of which they were unaware, while calling for commitment that would set them at odds with the dominant social, religious, and economic patterns of the cities where they lived.”
[4] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 40: “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfillment of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:9-10). John and his readers lived in a world in which God’s name was not hallowed, his will was not done, and evil ruled through the oppression and exploitation of the Roman system of power. But in chapter 4, he sees in heaven, the sphere of ultimate reality, the absolute holiness, righteousness and sovereignty of God. From this vision of God’s name hallowed and God’s will done in heaven, it follows that his kingdom must come on earth.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:53, where he points out, as many do, that “the one who is and who was and who is to come” is very likely an interpretation of the revelation of God’s name in Exod. 3:14; “I am who I am.” He says, “From the fact that God is He who exists and therefore is the Living One in the supreme sense and therefore the Almighty, it follows that He is not only this, but, as this, also He who was and He who cometh, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. And vice versa, by the fact that He is the first and the last, it is indicated that He is truly He who is. the Living One, the Almighty.”
[6] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27: “God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation recalls texts that stress the singular lordship of Israel’s God: ‘I am the first and the last, there is no other god but me’ (Isa 44:6; cf. 41:4; 48:12).” Cf. further Jürgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 28: “the God to whom [John] bears witness is the living and historically active God.”
[7] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 30: the designations “The Lord, the God of hosts” and “the Lord of hosts” are used especially in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible to indicate “Yahweh's unrivalled power over all things and therefore his supremacy over the course of historical events. … The Greek pantokrator (‘almighty’) indicates not so much God’s abstract omnipotence as his actual control over all things.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation, …, refers to God as pantokrator, ascribing to him power over all things. In Revelation God’s supreme might is expressed in his acts of creation, judgment, and righteous rule (Rev 1:8; 4:8; 18:8; 19:6; 21:22; 22:5-6).”
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 31, where he emphasizes that the vision of God on the throne provides one of the major starting points for the whole book: “the vision of God’s sovereignty in heaven.” He continues (ibid.), saying that this “makes it possible for John to enlarge his readers’ perspective on their own situation by setting it within the broader context of God’s universal purpose of overcoming all opposition to his rule and establishing his kingdom in the world.” From the perspective of Revelation, God’s sovereign rule is “the true reality which must in the end also prevail on earth.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 29: “whereas human rulers like to claim total dominion over the world and have themselves celebrated as rulers of history, …, in truth it is God alone to whom dominion over the world and history belongs.”
[9] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 34: “The Roman Empire, like most political powers in the ancient world, represented and propagated its power in religious terms. Its state religion, featuring worship both of the deified emperors and of the traditional gods of Rome, expressed political loyalty through religious worship. In this way it absolutized its power, claiming for itself the ultimate, divine sovereignty over the world.” By contrast (ibid, 35), Revelation sees the “the view of the Empire promoted by Roman propaganda” from “the perspective of heaven, which unmasks the pretensions of Rome. Revelation portrays the Roman Empire as a system of violent oppression, founded on conquest, maintained by violence and oppression. It is a system both of political tyranny and of economic exploitation.” Cf. also ibid, 39: “it was the Christian vision of the incomparable God, exalted above all worldly power, which relativized Roman power and exposed Rome’s pretensions to divinity as a dangerous delusion.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Coming to Life

Coming to Life
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26[1]
When you pay attention to what goes on in our world, it’s easy to conclude that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The world keeps on turning just as it has for centuries. When you really see the way we treat the members of our human family, it would seem that “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:4, NIV). The travesties and tragedies of life can easily lead us to the attitude that nothing ever changes. The rich get richer, might makes right, nice guys finish last, and the only things you can count on are death and taxes. Our existence in this world is just a matter of taking one turn after another on a merry-go-round that’s going nowhere.
But if we were to embrace that kind of attitude, we would be contradicting everything the Bible has to say about what God is doing in this world and in our lives. The good news is that God is working to fulfill promises like “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” (Isa. 65:17). Promises like “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” (Isa. 11:9; 65:25). Promises like “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” (1 Cor. 15:22). And promises like “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[2] The good news of Easter flies in the face of all the naysayers and doomsayers who see the outcome of our lives as always and only loss, heartbreak, tragedy, and futility. God’s final word over us is not death but life.
I think we see this profound truth reflected in our lesson from St. Paul for today. He says it this way: “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). In his letters, Paul is fond of comparing the effects on the whole human race of Adam’s choice to disobey God with the effects of Jesus’ choice to obey God and go to the cross. From his perspective, “all die in Adam” is more than just a statement about human mortality. It is an assessment of the state of our lives given the fact that we live in a world where sin and death still oppress us. They still have the ability to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.
Despite the fact that we can still feel the sting of sin and death in this life, the message Paul proclaims is that through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead God has decisively overcome the power of sin and death.[3] Even though we still suffer the effects of sin and death in this world, through the cross and the resurrection their power over us is ultimately broken. They may still affect our lives here and now, but they are defeated enemies, and their days are numbered.
The language of the risen Christ defeating enemies may sound strange to us. It can seem almost violent, as if Jesus is going to do battle against part of the human family. But I don’t think that’s the point here. In order to understand what Paul is saying we have to recognize who the real “enemies” are. Paul says that there are “rulers” and “authorities” and “powers” that must be overcome before the Kingdom of God comes to its full expression (1 Cor. 15:24). Paul usually refers to them as spiritual enemies who oppress humankind.[4]  Without attempting to identify them any more specifically, I think we can say that they represent the primary “enemies” Jesus fights against: sin and death. And by dying on the cross and by rising again, Jesus has defeated all these enemies.
At times, however, we may find ourselves subjected to powerful people who choose ways that are opposed to God, ways of injustice and oppression and violence. In so doing, they become agents of sin and death in our world. This is part of the context of our lesson from Isaiah. There are those who, because they continue to refuse to hear the message of God’s forgiveness to all those who genuinely seek him, persist in living a life that actively thwarts God’s purposes.[5] The result of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that their power is broken as well. They may have the ability to wield power over us in this world, but their days are numbered.
But the purpose of the language about overcoming enemies is not to give God a chance to vent his anger through violence. Rather, it is to prepare the way for a whole new creation. As the Scripture promises, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isa. 65:17). Here, the prophet promises in the name of the Lord that what God is going to do will change things so much that the original creation will not even be remembered![6] In this new creation we will all have the chance to live in peace, enjoying God’s good gifts.
This brings us back to Paul’s statement that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”[7] The resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday was the first act of God’s promised new creation.[8] The promise of Easter is that “all will be made alive in Christ.” Through Jesus’ resurrection, we already get to taste the new life that will be ours one day when God’s kingdom comes to its full expression.
Just as the sun rose on that first Easter morning, announcing to the whole creation that God had begun to make everything new, every sunrise can remind us of the promise of Easter. As the sun comes up each new day we have the chance to be “made alive in Christ” all over again. With the dawn of each new day we can already have a taste of the new creation that will be so breathtaking in the peace and joy it brings that it will make us forget the pain and sorrow of this life. As the first light of each morning reaches us, it reminds us that through Jesus the Christ we have the opportunity today to come to life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/27/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991, § 8.3; 8.5; 10.2, which articulates the faith that God is working toward a day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” when “nations will not learn war any more,” and when we will see “the end of cruelty and suffering in the world.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:157, where he says that Jesus “is according to Paul the ‘second Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:45f.), the One who by His obedience sets the many before God as righteous, whose righteous act confronts in reconciliation the transgressions of the many who by following Adam are involved in hopeless death. In this righteous act there is achieved a justification for all, a justification that brings life (δικαίωσις ζωῆς, Rom. 5:12f.; I Cor. 15:22).” Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 263: The consequences of Jesus’ resurrection “correspond (antithetically) to the consequences of Adam’s sin which brought death upon all humanity. The impact of Jesus death and resurrection is therefore equally sweeping: …. our ultimate destiny is transformed from death to life through Christ’s resurrection.” Nevertheless, he seems to contradict himself by pointing out that (ibid., 164) “Many of Paul’s other statements make it difficult to suppose” that he believed in universal salvation of all human beings through Christ’s resurrection. He cites 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:6; 3:17; 4:5; 6:9-10. Therefore he concludes that Paul “is concerned in the present passage only about the way in which Christ’s resurrection prefigures the fate” of “those who belong to Christ.” And yet, Hays overlooks passages like Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10; and Phil. 2:10, all of which point to a universal salvation.
[4] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 265: these “enemies” “refer in the first instance to cosmic spheres or forces arrayed in opposition to God …, but they also have concrete political implications. The idea that Christ is Lord and that the kingdom ultimately belongs to God the Father stands as a frontal challenge to the ideology of imperial Rome.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:544: “The indictments of false worship from Isaiah’s day are as true for these opponents as they were before, but with the added dark reality that standing as they do on the other side of an era of forgiveness and release from blindness, they constitute more serious offense. To turn away from the lavish forgiveness proffered by God and brought about by the sacrifice of the servant is a worse offense than to stand under Isaiah’s “former thing” judgment. And so, too, the punishment is more severe. God called and spoke anew, but some refused to listen and answer, choosing instead a way of death (65:15).” Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 242: “it was often difficult for the people to persevere in the vocation of [God’s] servant. Especially in times when those struggling to uphold torah and worship found their efforts thwarted both by their own leaders and by the sponsoring foreign powers, … .”
[6] In fact, the very wording of Isa. 65:17 in the Hebrew text alludes clearly to the original creation in Genesis 1:1, but the new creation will by far surpass it. Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:544: “To speak of a new heaven and a new earth is to return to creation and the curses that followed upon the very first act of disobedience. It is to go back beyond the rebellions of Isaiah’s generation, or of the present generation; back to the very point of rupture. In order for the former things to be put away for good, God must begin all over again.” And yet, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 408, can also say, “The words, ‘I create anew the heavens and the earth’, do not imply that heaven and earth are to be destroyed and in their place a new heaven and a new earth created—this is apocalyptic, … . Instead, the world, designated as ‘heaven and earth’, is to be miraculously renewed.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End the Beginning, 161, 164, where he insists that as the effects of sin are universal, so the salvation effected through the resurrection is universal. Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 306, commenting on Col. 1:20: “Unless the whole cosmos is reconciled, Christ cannot be the Christ of God and cannot be the foundation of all things.”
[8] Cf. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References, 210th General Assembly (1998); question 85, which describes the new creation as a new world in which “evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated,” so that “God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth.”