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Beginning at the End

Revelation 22.12-17, 20-1

Each summer, the worship team gathers to talk about worship themes for the coming year.  Advent.  Lent.  Special worship series themes throughout the year.  This summer, the topic came up that we should do a sermon series on the book of Revelation!  I groaned.  Out loud.  “Revelation is so complex and confusing and best associated for its horrible interpretations about exact dates when Jesus is coming back – which are always wrong – and the Rapture – which isn’t even in Revelation.”  As I groaned aloud once more, I said these things.

Pastor Meredith had a different take at the meeting, though.  “Revelation ends with such hope and beautiful images and good news!”  And, since she was taking the notes, it made the list.  And, finally, I relented.  We would do a sermon series at the beginning of the year on Revelation.  “Beginning at the End.”  Even had a catchy title.  So, I went off on vacation and returned home, ready to hear Pastor Meredith’s wisdom on Revelation.  And last week, I was not disappointed.  She preached a brilliant and masterful sermon with grace and wit and wisdom…on the First Chapter of John.  It made for a quite enjoyable staff meeting on Tuesday.

Actually, to be truthful, at least once a week, I am reminded how brilliant Pastor Meredith is, and this was no exception.  Because the prologue of John, on which she preached last week, is a perfect companion to the passage that I preach this week – the 22nd chapter of Revelation.  It matches the themes of grace and good news and beautiful imagery perfectly, and for good reason.

You see, most scholars now agree that there were several New Testament books written by the same author.  The Gospel of John.  The letters of John – First, Second, and Third John.  And the Revelation of John.  And many now believe that it was not simply the work of one guy, but actually a Christian community that lived together, prayed together, studied together, and taught one another the life preached and inspired by Christ.  Sometimes called the Johannine Community, this group of believers protected these writings, lived by them, and maybe even helped to write them together.  So, we have these two passages together: the Prologue to John’s Gospel, which are the very first words from this community; and the last chapter of Revelation, which are the very last words from this community (and the very last words from our canon of Scripture).  And it is powerful to read them together like this, to find these common threads of vision and purpose.

So how does this relate to your life or mine?  Quite simply.  For here is this group of Christians who wrote about the life of faith.  The life of Jesus in the Gospel.  The life of the Church in the letters.  And this vision for the present and future reality in Revelation.  They were trying to figure out how to live life in community.  How to live the life of faith.  And their lessons – bookended by the first chapter of John and the last chapter of Revelation – are a perfect way for us to begin our new year together.  As a community trying to figure out how to live life in community.  How to live the life of faith.  Together.

Skip Johnson says it this way: “[Revelation is] a call to ministry, not a ticketed invitation to sit in a stadium and watch a spectacle.  It is a reminder that being a Christian assumes an active disposition and an attitude of grace-filled practice within the community of faith.”

Here we are, diving into 2014 together.  We have no idea what the next 12 months are going to bring.  The future is uncertain.  The present is scary.  But, here’s what the Community of Revelation teaches us: there are ways to be together, to live the life of faith together, and to understand God at work in our midst.  Let us gather and be taught by the John of Revelation – and the Gospel – and learn how to go into the new year with hope and anticipation.

First, watch what John teaches us about Christ’s enduring presence.  Last week, Meredith spoke brilliantly about the ways that John celebrates God with us.  Dwelling with us.  Tenting with us.  Logos.  Now, Revelation does the same, naming the Logos – the Christ – as the Alpha and the Omega.  The Beginning and the End.  Above and beyond us.  Yet almost inexplicably with us!

Joyce Hollyday describes this experience of Alpha and Omega: “He encompasses the whole range of human history, the entire alphabet of life’s experience, ‘the beginning and the end.’  Nothing – no wound, no sorrow, no joy – lies outside of Christ’s enduring and embracing presence.”  I have been blessed now to celebrate that in community with you over these last four plus years – plenty of wounds, plenty of sorrows, plenty of joy.  That binds us and bonds us together, doesn’t it.

More than once over the last several months, I have been blessed to be able to share that experience with you.  Because of a wound, a sorrow, or a joy, we find ourselves together.  And in that together, we have found the Alpha and the Omega tenting with us.  It has been, and it always is, my honor and privilege to be included in those moments of your lives, and to see with you the touch of Christ in our midst.

But there’s more from Revelation.  The community of Revelation was working hard to distinguish itself from the world around it.  They saw significant problems and challenges that faced them in their world.  By the way, that’s what most of the crazy stuff in Revelation is really about.  The beasts with four heads and the whore and the dragon and all that stuff.  They were oppressed by the Romans and so they had to write in this code to explain what God was up to in the midst of this oppression and struggle.  They used this code to describe Rome or the Emperor, but they called him the Beast or the Whore of Babylon.  We misread Revelation when we think it is like Nostradamus, some prediction of the distant future.  It had relevance for then and there, not just some far away date.

Our community of faith is much like that of the community of Revelation.  Now, we aren’t oppressed in the same way physically or politically, but that doesn’t meant that we don’t face what Paul called the powers and principalities of a world.  We are surrounded by a world that does not live in the way that Christ taught.  So, like that original community, we are called to be different and distinct from the world around us.

The word that I use, with some trepidation, is piety.  We are called to a community of piety.  We had a great conversation a few weeks ago in the On Tap group about piety and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.  And I think it can be either…it all depends on your definition.  So, today, I use the definition by Abraham Heschel.  Heschel uses piety to refer to a person whose life is lived in a manner “compatible with God’s presence.”  Piety, then is about the response that we make to God, who breaks into our ordinary-ness (God dwelling with us…tenting with us) with both grace and judgment.  We cannot think that our behavior is always acceptable toward God.  In our violence toward others.  Indifference toward others.  The ways that we treat our bodies or others’ as anything short of God’s very image.

Hence the words in Revelation about those who “wash their robes.”  It is a symbol throughout Revelation for those who live according to the commandments, according to the law, according to the life of piety, as Heschel defines it.

This is a tough one, isn’t it?  Our individual-centric culture would have us say that our behavior is between us and God.  That we ought not speak to one another about our behavior or our relationships or the way we treat one another.  The community of Revelation would disagree.  When we agree to be a community of faith, we agree to have some real and honest conversations with each other.  We pick up the 10 Commandments together and read them together and ask what they mean for our lives.  We pick up the Sermon on the Mount and read it together and ask what it means for our lives. We pick up Ephesians 4 about new life in Christ and read it together and ask what it means for our lives.

It is passages like this, and conversations like this, that we must allow, even invite, if we are to be a community of piety.  For as soon as we think we have it all figured it out, it is the call of the life of Christ that reminds us that none of us have robes that are completely clean.  None of us live the life that Christ calls us to.  None of us can get it done on our own.

Which is what leads us to the final point about what Revelation teaches us today.  We are a community of presence.  We are a community of piety.  And we are a community of grace.  It is the final benediction of Revelation, of Scripture: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.  Amen.”

That is the important distinction about that word – piety.  In Herschel’s definition, it can be a way for us to grow closer to God and God’s wisdom for our lives.  But it can also be a call to self-righteousness.  To judgment.  To pious, down-the-nose, living, assuming that we know better than others how to live.

But we cannot be a community of piety without also being a community of grace.

We cannot truly be a community that reconizes God’s presence without beginning with grace.

So, a story of grace….

Flannery O Conner writes a short story titled Revelation about a woman named Mrs. Turpin.  Mrs. Turpin is a proper Southern lady, and the story begins with her in a doctor’s waiting room, sizing up her co-inhabitants.  She is awash with judgment about each of them.  A dirty, white-trashy woman, wearing dingy old slippers and missing most of her teeth.  Her unmannered, stupid little son, doomed, she supposed, to a life of white trash like her mother.  A fat, pimply college student, whose mean expression and unfriendly eyes are stuck behind a book about human development.  Mrs. Turpin spends the afternoon judging with her eyes and spouting off with her mouth about how disgusting and unlovable all of this trash surrounding her appears to be.  In fact, she even thinks to herself, a smug look on her face, “I thank God that he didn’t make me like any of these horrible people.  Thank you, Jesus!” she exclaims.

That is about the moment that that book on human development sails across the room and hits her above the left eye, followed closely by the pimply college student, who is wrapping her fingers around her throat, and calling her names.

Needless to say, it takes most of the afternoon and evening for Mrs. Turpin to shake off the event.  But she can’t.  She can’t shake away the names the girl had called her.  The fierceness in her eyes.  Her determination.  With the sun setting, and now all alone, Mrs. Turpin looks heavenward and demanded, “Why’d you send a message like that to me?  Why me?  There’s no trash here!”  And in immediate response, she sees a vision, a revelation in the setting sun.

In a long, purple streak in the sky, she sees a bridge filled with people.  And on this bridge were all the people in her life and in the world that she had looked down on.  White trash.  People of color.  Lunatics.  And all of them are raising their hands and singing Hallelujah as the bridge carries them into heaven.  And at the end of the long line, there is a group of people like her.  Proper.  Respectful.  They are the only ones actually singing those songs of Hallelujah on key.  But the look on their faces is what Mrs. Turpin notices.  For they are shocked and amazed that so many unsavory characters would accompany them, even lead them into heaven.  But there they are, right alongside of folks like her.  And, as the prim and proper walk along this bridge, O’Conner writes, “even their virtue was being burned away.”  And Mrs. Turpin returns to the house, led by the Hallelujah songs of the crickets, clearly affected by this Revelation of grace.

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