Sunday, April 3, 2016

(Easter 2) The arc of resurrection in the age of death

Easter 2: God who comes
Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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I’m so glad we heard the whole Easter story again this Sunday.
    Once wasn’t enough.
    Not nearly.
Given our state of being—
    in all its beauty and brokenness
    in all its wholeness and contradiction
    in all its joy and suffering
        we need to keep hearing this story.
        In some way, every time we gather to worship.

I’ve made the statement on Easters past,
    and I made it again in a devotional Wednesday,
        at the Park Village coffee hour,
    that conquering death by way of resurrection
        was not some brand new idea that God got into his head,
        after Jesus got himself into a fix and got crucified.

God had been on a resurrection trajectory, a resurrection arc,
    ever since Adam and Eve were sent from the Garden.
    Resurrection was what God was aiming for,
        ever since God started moving in human history.
    The resurrection of Jesus just put a grand exclamation mark
        on everything God had already said . . . and done
            up to that point.
    If you read the Old Testament in light of Easter,
        you see resurrection all over the place.

God’s actions to bring life from death fill the pages of scriptures.
    In Isaiah 25, the prophet speaks,
    “On this mountain of Lord—where everything is now in ruins—
        the Lord of hosts will make a feast.
        He will destroy on this mountain
            the death shroud that is cast over all peoples,
            the sheet that is spread over all nations;
            he will swallow up death forever . . .”

        He will destroy the death shroud.
        In other words, God will rip into shreds
            the cosmic body bag this world has been put into,
            and say, enough of this! death is done!

    We looked at some other Old Testament resurrection texts
        in the weeks leading up to Easter.
    Isaiah is full of them.
        Chapter 43: “I will give waters in the wilderness
            and rivers in the desert.”
        Chapter 41: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
            I will turn the desert into pools of water,
                and the parched ground into springs.”
        Chapter 11: “The wolf will live with the lamb,
            the leopard will lie down with the goat.”

    All of these point to God’s overarching strategy, God’s mission.
        To overcome death with life.
_____________________

If we accept that as God’s primary strategy in the world,
    then we have a problem.
    It’s called . . . reality.
    It’s that death still has a grip on us, and on this world.
        Need I even point it out?
        Death is ubiquitous.
        Death is relentless.
        And, to underscore what we’re probably all thinking right now,
            in light of the death of Anna Kathryn Eby,
            death can be unfair, and untimely, and heart-breakingly sad.

    In times like these that we live in—
        no matter what form of death
            is knocking on your door right now,
        be it the literal death of a loved one,
            or the loss of a dream, of a relationship, of a job,
            or whatever your grief—
        in times like these we often go looking for God.

    When things in life just aren’t lining up
        in the way God intends them to line up,
        when nations are pitted against nation,
            and religion against religion,
        when politics is going off the rails,
        when tragedy is piling on tragedy,
            then . . . many people go searching
            trying to discover where God is in all of this.

    There is no doubt
        that many diligent, and faithful, and persistent seekers of God,
            have come up short.
        If not empty,
            at least not fully satisfied.
    Some of the most saintly men and women in church history
        give witness to this unfulfilled longing—
        St. John of the Cross, St. Therese de Lisieux,
            Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, and more.

Even the prophet Isaiah,
    the one who spoke so eloquently and optimistically
        that God is about to do a new thing
            and make water spring out of the desert,
            and destroy the death shroud,
    this Isaiah also cried out in utter desperation
        when God seemed silent and inactive
        in the face of the desperate suffering of God’s people.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,”
    Isaiah cried out in chapter 64.
    Isaiah longed for a God that acted decisively.
    A God that intervened in the world,
        did something about the mess they were in.
        A God that spoke with the sound of thunder.
            . . . . . .
        But all he got was silence.
    A deafening silence in the face of unspeakable evil.

    Isaiah wondered, if God is who God claims to be . . . why . . .
        “Why, after all we’ve been through?”
    And I quote, from Isaiah 64:12—
        “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
            Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”

Isaiah’s questions are no easier to answer today.
    But in a strange way, it is comforting to hear
        in these ancient pages, such cries of lament from God’s people.
    For one thing, we’re obviously not the first of God’s people
        to struggle with persistent evil and pervasive death.
    But I am also comforted by the vibrancy of their faith,
        that they could lay out their complaints against God
            as honestly as they did.
        Because they had that level of relational stability and trust.
        Generally, you don’t talk like that to people,
            unless you actually trust in their ability to hear and respond.
_____________________

I am also comforted by today’s reading from Revelation.

    And just to let you know,
        throughout this season of Easter to Pentecost,
        we will be dipping into Revelation every Sunday,
            exploring the vibrant and expressive images of God there.
        The whole purpose behind the book of Revelation
            was to reveal the just and compassionate nature of God
            to an early church that was in agony from its suffering,
                being persecuted to the extreme,
                and were certainly experiencing God’s silence.

        Each Sunday we’ll see visually striking images of a God
            who loves God’s people,
            who acts for justice and righteousness in a world of evil,
            and before whom all the nations and powers of this world,
                will not be able to stand,
                and not be able to triumph.

        As these images of God are revealed each week,
            it’s as though another attribute of this holy and just God
                will be unveiled, like a work of art.
        That was the idea behind the title I gave this worship series:
            “The Great Unveiling:
                the art of heaven in the book of Revelation.”
        The picture of God we see this week,
            is the God who comes.
            In future weeks it will be the
                God who suffered,
                God who saves,
                God who brings us heaven,
                God who radiates light,
                God who invites all to life, and
                God who sends the Spirit.

    So today we find this picture in Revelation 1,
        as John addressed the seven churches in Asia,
            where the suffering was intense.
        The picture is the throne of God,
            with the seven spirits surrounding the throne.
        Who these “spirits” refer to isn’t entirely clear,
            maybe it’s angelic beings assigned to the churches,
            perhaps it’s a reference to the multifaceted Holy Spirit.
        In either case, the point is that the suffering church
            is not alone in its suffering.
        They have representation, and advocacy,
            before the very throne of God.

    And Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church,
        is pictured as ruler over the kings of the earth.
        In other words, Jesus-followers are encouraged by this word
            that the ones causing the suffering of the church,
            will need to answer to the Lord of the Church.
        This suffering will not be without end,
            or without redemption.
        Because this God is not a God who stays far back,
            removed and aloof.
        This is a God who comes.
            A God who will take the initiative
                to come to where God’s people are,
                and set things right in the world.
            V. 7: “Look! He is coming with the clouds;
                every eye will see him,
                even those who pierced him.”
            And the God who sits in heaven now,
                while the world is in turmoil,
                is the same God who acted in the past,
                    is acting now,
                    and will act in the future.
            God who was, and is, and is to come.
            The Alpha and Omega.

This is the nature and character of God being unveiled in Revelation,
    a God who initiates,
    a God who comes to where we are,
    a God like the one described by the poet Francis Thompson,
        who wrote of God as “the Hound of Heaven.”
        Who lovingly, and persistently, pursues us.

This is also the nature of God unveiled in the life of Jesus
    as we see it in the Gospels.
    Today’s reading from John 20 is one of the most potent examples.
        When the disciples were at their lowest point,
            their most distressed,
            their most confused,
            their most fearful—
                it was then that Jesus came to where they were.

And please remember, this story in John 20
    is not primarily about a certain doubting disciple.
    It’s about a God who comes to us where we are.

    All the disciples, all of them,
        first heard the words of an eye-witness,
            “We have seen the Lord,”
            and remained fearful and skeptical.
    And then all the disciples, all of them,
        were later blessed with an appearance by Jesus,
        who showed them his wounded hands and side,
        and were invited to believe.
    Jesus’ appearance to the 11,
        and later to Thomas,
        are nearly identical in nature.
        The only difference was the timing.

    So let’s not make this story about condemning doubt,
        or looking down on people
            who ask questions and seek answers.
        No, this story is about a God who comes to us on our turf,
            who enters our space, and our time,
                and says, here I am, to be with you.
        This is a story about the pursuing God.

        This story is about God’s action through the Risen Christ,
            to move in, with love and grace, taking initiative
                to restore and reconcile all Jesus’ followers,
                all of whom need to be forgiven, and healed,
                and loved back into a covenant relationship with him.

        This was good news for the first disciples of Jesus.
        This was good news for the early, suffering church.
        And this is good news for us today,
            in an age where death is still very much with us.

Contrary to what we think sometimes,
    God isn’t trying to make it difficult for us to have faith.
    God isn’t playing a cruel game of hide and seek.
        If some of us have a hard time finding faith,
            we may be looking in the wrong places.
    God is generous and gracious.
    God is ready to provide whatever we need for faith.

    Some of us are like Thomas, God bless us.
        We are persistent seekers.
        We are stubborn pursuers of truth.
        We’re not satisfied with easy or stock answers.
    The message of today’s Gospel story is that God honors that.
        And in due time, God will provide what we need for faith.

    Some of us may be more like Peter,
        the passionate disciple,
            who lived more by the heart than the head.
    God honors that, too.
    God will provide what we need for faith.

But the faith God is most pleased with,
    is the faith that says,
    even with our unanswered questions,
        we trust you enough to keep asking,
            and keep seeking,
        until we encounter the God who was seeking us all along.

Or, as an anonymous hymn writer put it,

    I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
        he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
        it was not I that found, O Savior true;
        no, I was found of thee.

    Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
        I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
        'twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
        as thou, dear Lord, on me.

    I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole of love
        is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
        for thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
        always thou lovedst me.


—Phil Kniss, April 3, 2016

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