Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Resurrected Christ is Worthy of Our Worship

Revelation 5:1-14 Throughout the Bible—Old Testament and New--there is a connection between God’s will for how we are to live our lives and his saving work on our behalf.  In other words:  our obedience flows from his salvation.  Let me give you some examples:
When God gave the Ten Commandments he began this way:  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” and then he goes on to write his will for how we are to live on tablets of stone. 
We find the same connection between God’s salvation and our obedience in the New Testament.  Paul says in Ephesians that we are saved by God’s grace through faith so that we might do those good works God has prepared in advance for us to do.
Our life of faith and obedience and good works as Christian people BEGINS with God’s saving work for us.  That biblical principle is especially true when it comes to our life of worship.  Our worship flows from God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.
In our Easter series on Revelation we see a glorious vision of all of creation:  angels and archangels, the saints who have gone before us and the saints on earth, and every living thing—worshiping the resurrected Christ.  Jesus is worthy of that worship because of his great work of salvation.  John writes that he:
…saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.  
            The rest of the Book of Revelation is the story of the breaking of these seven seals and the opening of this scroll and what is revealed by the words written upon it.  That there are seven seals indicate that it is the unveiling of God’s work (symbolized by the number “3”) among men (symbolized by the number “4”) when added together give “7”.  In other words, written on this scroll is the future of the world.  And a mighty angel asks the question:
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”  And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it…
If you remember our sermon from last week you know that at this point in history the church was “back on her heels” and “up against the ropes”.  They were undergoing fierce persecution from the Roman Empire and many of them were facing execution and exile.  They had no ability to look into the future and see how it would all turn out.
So it is for us.  The future is hidden from us.  We do not what the future holds for us.  We do not know what will happen in North Korea or the direction of our economy or what our health will like in the days to come or how the lives of our children will unfold.  We just don’t know!
That kind of uncertainty can make us anxious and afraid like it did for John who began to:  weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.  You see, it wasn’t just that John didn’t know what the next few years in the future would hold, he wondered and worried about the final outcome of the whole world.
Was there any meaning or purpose to history at all?  The unbelieving world still asks the same question and because they do not know the outcome—they have no hope.  This is one of the big reasons why the world is full of depression and despair. 
If there is no ultimate meaning to life (or at least one that can be known) --if there is no purpose to our existence on this earth—if there is no final fulfillment but the same cycle of life and death until the sun runs out of energy and life on earth comes to an end-- why shouldn’t we live for the moment—if this brief life is all there is? 
We need to know that there is a purpose to our lives and a meaning to our existence and a fulfillment to the future.  We need to know that there is One who is guiding history in general- and our lives in particular- who has a purpose and plan that will give eternal meaning and lasting value to our few short years on earth.  And there is!  One of the elders told John:
“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain,
            There was no need for John to weep about the future and there is no need for us to worry about it either!  Where before the future was literally a closed book, now there is someone who guides it and directs for our good. 
That person is the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the root of David and the Lamb of God.  That person who holds history in his almighty hands and guides it to its glorious fulfillment is the resurrected Christ who has conquered our enemies of sin and death and the devil.
Try to picture that scene in your mind’s eye as it appeared to John:  told by one of the elders to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David you can imagine what he expected to see:  a majestic golden lion who strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies or the ancient of days and King of kings who laid the foundation for David’s throne. 
But as he turns to look at the One who guides the future of the world, what does he see but a Lamb who still bore the marks of being slain.
You see dear friends in Christ, at the very center of human history—reaching back before the foundation of the world and stretching forth into eternity and influencing every moment in between --stands the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.
He is the One who guides history because history is HIS story—the story of God’s love for the world and his desire the reconcile us to himself—a story that will go forth into the world until that moment that the full of number of the elect have been brought safely into his fold through the work of the Spirit.  And that explains the lamb’s unusual appearance which had:
seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
The Holy Spirit--portrayed as the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lamb-- has but one purpose and that is to bear witness to Jesus Christ so that we can be saved from our sins and sanctified in God’s sight.  That’s it! 
That is the purpose of every sermon and every baptism and every celebration of the Lord’s Supper and every Word of Holy Scripture—that the Holy Spirit would work to bring us to faith in Jesus and increase our faith in Jesus and keep us in faith towards Jesus—for he is the way to life with God both now and in the future.  John writes that the Lamb took the scroll and…
the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.  And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
            The One who holds history in his Almighty hands—the One who guides all of human history—the One who wisely incorporates our own story into his story-- is not some cold, uncaring celestial bureaucrat or cosmic technician. 
Instead, the One who directs history and guides our lives is the Savior who shed his life’s blood for us on the cross—and knowing this makes all the difference in the world in how we view our lives and how we view the direction of the world.
Even the quickest glance at the newspaper or evening news is enough to make us almost despair of the world we live in.  There is war and injustice and hunger and poverty and ugliness and evil everywhere we look.  In our own lives it seems as if some kind of setback or difficulty is always just around the bend, casting a pall over the good times.  That said…
We are not caught up in some unending cycle of sorrow and suffering, always resulting in despair and death.  There is a loving purpose full of life at the end for us and the world.
That is what is seen as the scroll containing the future is opened by the Lamb who was slain—that is why the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb in worship as he took the scroll in hand! 
How could they keep from worshiping the resurrected Christ!  He changed the entire direction of creation away from death and damnation back towards life with God.  He paid the ransom price to set men in every time and place free from sin and death.  He took slaves and made them into a kingdom of priests who would one day rule a new creation.  Jesus is worthy of our worship!  John writes that around the throne of the Lamb he heard the voices of thousands of angels:
saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”  And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
            We can compel our children to attend Lord’s Day services and we can guilt our spouse into doing the same.  Over the course of history Christian monarchs have enacted laws requiring people to observe the Sabbath.  But no one can make another person worship God—not even at the point of a sword.  True worship—not just going through the motions of sitting and standing and bowing—true worship is a matter of the heart which stands in awe of God’s salvation.
The angels who saw man fall and creation destroyed in the beginning rejoiced to see Jesus’ victory over the devil and they worshiped.  All of creation (which also fell victim to man’s sin) looks forward in hope to the day when death is destroyed because of Jesus’ resurrection and it worships.  The saints in heaven worship before God and the Lamb day and night because Jesus kept his promise to bring them safely home.
Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven join their voices in an unending song of praise and thanksgiving on account of what Jesus Christ has done in his life, death, and resurrection.  What about us?  Is our voice heard among theirs as they worship God?   God grant that it is so for the resurrected Christ is worthy of worship!  Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

There is Hope for the Church in the Resurrected Christ!

Revelation 1:4-18 Do you know the phrases “back on his heels” and “against the ropes”?  They come from the world of boxing and they describes a boxer who is so beaten and battered that he is no longer able to fight back and is about to be knocked out.  Sadly, that’s the way that many Christians think of the church, especially here in the United States.
            In their eyes the church seems beaten down by the culture wars and the fact that millions of our fellow citizens no longer share the same convictions regarding marriage and family and sexuality and the sanctity of life.  The church seems battered by the lack of commitment from its own members.  The church seems broken by the claims of science. 
Beaten, battered, and broken down, too many Christians see the church as “back on its heels” and “against the ropes”—one strong assault away from being knocked out for good.
This is not the first time in the history of the church that Christians have felt this way.  The disciples felt this way after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The day of our Lord’s resurrection found them hiding out for fear of the Jews.  The reign of Nero led them to the same place of fear and worry.  They wondered:  How could the church stand against the Roman Empire and its emperor who accused them of burning down Rome?  Beaten, battered, and broken down.
So it was in the final years of the first century A.D.  Domitian was the emperor and he was committed to the old pagan religion of Rome and so he persecuted Christians even more severely than Nero and exiled and executed their leaders.
That is the context for the Book of Revelation:  the church seemingly back on its heels, against the ropes, persecuted by the most powerful empire of the day, its members and leaders going through great tribulation. 
It was at that moment—when all seemed lost—that God had a message for the church—a message that is still timely for our day because it is a message of hope in the resurrected Christ who promised that not even the gates of hell would prevail against his people the church—not then and not now.  John wrote: 
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.  To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
            One thing that happens to us when we are going through hard times is that we lose perspective.  The crisis becomes everything.  The blessings and good times of the past fade from view- and the future has a dark cloud over it that hides its blessings from our eyes- and all that we can see and know and experience is the tribulation of the moment.  That is the way that many Christians feel about the church.
            But the hope we have in the resurrected Christ is that he is the God over all of it—the past, the present and the future—he is the one who was and is and who is to come—and his powerful presence and bountiful blessings can be counted on today and always!
The persecuted Christians of John’s day and the worried Christians of our own day need to be reminded of what Jesus Christ has already done:  that he has accomplished our salvation by the shedding of his blood—that he has brought us into God’s kingdom and made us his priests.  These are the accomplished facts of salvation history! 
We also need to be reminded of the glorious future still to come—that Christ’s work of salvation is not just what is in the past-- but also our hope for the future--that has prepared a place for us in heaven. 
When we feel that the church is about to be overcome, it is the greatest encouragement in the world to remember that Jesus is coming with power and glory to destroy our enemies once for all and take his people to heaven.  The gates of hell will not prevail against the people of God!
That Jesus is the Lord of the past and Lord of the future matters as we view our present struggles—for he is Lord of this moment as well—whether it is a time of persecution and exile like it was for the Christians of John’s day--or a time of trouble like it is for the church today. 
Jesus is Lord and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  In other words, it is Jesus who is in charge of this world at any given moment and we can count on his promise that whatever we undergo as the people of God- it must serve his saving purpose for us and the world. 
That is why the Lord showed this vision to John—so that the Christians in every time and place could have courage and be strengthened to fight on another day.  Jesus told him:
Write what you see and send it to the churches.  Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
      I don’t know how you picture Jesus in your mind’s eye but I doubt that very many of us picture him like this!  And yet this is just as true a picture of Jesus as the Babe of Bethlehem and the humble carpenter of Galilee and the Good Shepherd and the dying man of the cross. 
The fact of the matter is that this is how the resurrected Christ is right now.  He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the One who was and is and will be, the absolute ruler of the kings of the earth—powerful and wise and mighty!
He revealed himself this way once before on the Mount of Transfiguration as just a few disciples saw him for who is truly is right now and always will be:  his face shining like the sun and fire coming from his eyes and his feet like burnished bronze.  
You can imagine why this image of our Savior was such a comfort for the persecuted Christians of John’s day.  They were facing execution and exile from the most powerful man in the world—a man whose image they saw everywhere they looked, on their coinage and in statues —a man whose image struck terror in their hearts. 
It wasn’t the image of a peasant baby or a crucified man who would drive the terrifying image of their enemy from their minds—it was this picture of the King of kings and Lord of lords that gave them the courage they needed to face persecution.  So it is for us too!
There is nothing weak about the resurrected Christ—he does not appear as “gentle Jesus meek and mild”.  The resurrected Christ is the One who truly rules the kings of the earth, the One who strikes terror in the hearts of his enemies, and the One who is mighty and powerful and strong to save.  That was a comfort of the people of John’s day and so it is in our own. 
What are the forces of evil- and the faithlessness of our fellow citizens-and the apostasy of so many former believers-- compared to the resurrected Christ?  How can we ever doubt that the resurrected Christ is not more than able to provide for and protect his people?  Why should we be back of our heels and against the ropes when Jesus is with us right now?
John saw that Jesus was in the midst of the seven golden lampstands and he held seven stars in his hand.  And so what were the lampstands and the stars?  Listen to how Revelation begins:  John to the seven churches that are in Asia.  The seven lampstands were the seven churches and the seven stars were their pastors.  And it’s not an accident that there are seven-- but that biblical number of completeness tells us that these words are for every church and every pastor in every time and place.
The point is this:  whether it was the persecuted Christians of John’s day or the troubled Christians of our own day we can be confident that the resurrected Christ is with his people.
When we are going through hard times, when it seems as if the church is losing ground to the godless culture around us, when we face persecution for our faith- it is easy to fall victim to the temptation that God has somehow abandoned us; that we are all on our own; that it all depends upon us.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!
The resurrected Christ is with us, upholding us in his Almighty hands, accomplishing his saving work by the sharp two-edged sword which is the word of God which will accomplish the saving purpose for which he sends it.  There is nothing for us to fear—whether it’s the difficulties of the moment or the uncertainties of the future-nothing for us to fear!  John says that when he saw the resurrected Christ:
I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
            Fear not!  So said Jesus to his frightened disciples on the day of his resurrection—so he said to the persecuted Christians of John’s day—so he says to the Christians of our own day.  Fear not! 
The resurrected Christ has paid for your sins by his shed blood and made you to be a part of his kingdom.  He has defeated death for you so that you can face eternity knowing that there is another life to come.  He is ruling this world right now (including everything that is impacting your life) in such a way that IT MUST work for your good.  And he has robbed the devil of any power that he might have over your life.  Fear not!
I know it seems at times that in the life of the church at large and in our own lives of faith we are “back on our heels” and “against the ropes”.  But it is exactly in those moments that these words are spoken to us and this vision is set before our eyes so that that we can know and believe that there is hope for the church in the resurrected Christ.  May God grant us faith to live without fear!  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.