Sunday, June 10, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "...As it is in Heaven"

Revelation 4:1-11

After this I looked and there was a door that had been opened in heaven. The first voice that I had heard, which sounded like a trumpet, said to me, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in a Spirit-inspired trance and I saw a throne in heaven, and someone was seated on the throne. 3 The one seated there looked like jasper and carnelian, and surrounding the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. 4 Twenty-four thrones, with twenty-four elders seated upon them, surrounded the throne. The elders were dressed in white clothing and had gold crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came lightning, voices, and thunder. In front of the throne were seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God. 6 Something like a glass sea, like crystal, was in front of the throne. In the center, by the throne, were four living creatures encircling the throne. These creatures were covered with eyes on the front and on the back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion. The second living creature was like an ox. The third living creature had a face like a human being. And the fourth living creature was like an eagle in flight. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings, and each was covered all around and on the inside with eyes. They never rest day or night, but keep on saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is coming.” 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one seated on the throne, who lives forever and always, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one seated on the throne. They worship the one who lives forever and always. They throw down their crowns before the throne and say, 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things. It is by your will that they existed and were created.” (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Two

The eyes of the dying business mogul flitting about, taking in the entire room, filled with the people who had loved him the longest and dearest in life—his sisters, and his spouse, and then—for the longest time, his gaze settled upon his children. The doctors had given him a coin flip of a chance of making it through the night, and so they had all assembled as quickly as they could—as quickly as almost any family would. And they had arrived soon enough to, possibly, be the catalyst for this dying man’s final words, because those final words came after having seen all of the people who had come to lovingly escort him into eternity, and at that moment, having seen all of those faces, Steve Jobs gasps out, three times, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

His sister Mona Simpson, conveying the story of Steve’s death in her funeral eulogy, said that he had told her that he knew he was going to a better place. And I know that we’re supposed to see that better place in the form of the stereotypical white light that we’re supposed to run towards, but..if we as Christians are meant to bring Heaven, the Kingdom of a God of love, to earth, then to see our loved ones as we die is perhaps the greatest precursor to Heaven that we may ever have. And it is a privilege that I wish John would have had in exile on the island of Patmos.

Today marks the second week of a brand-new summer sermon series for each of us. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over!

Last week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and this week, we begin going through his actual vision, and we start in a familiar, heartwarming place before we delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell. So we begin with John’s vision of Heaven itself, not as it will be, but as it is.

Remember how I told you last week about how John begins writing in the present tense, rather than in the future tense? Well, the same holds true here for his vision of the heavenly throne of God. As he writes, “…on each side of the throne are four living creatures,” and “Day and night without ceasing, they sing, “Holy, holy, holy…” This, to John, is quite simply Heaven as it exists in its present incarnation.

A word about the living creatures—the lion, ox, human, and eagle—each traditionally corresponds to one of the individual Gospel writers. In Christian tradition, Mark the Evangelist is associated with the lion, Luke with the ox, Matthew with the human, and John with the eagle, and in this vision, they are as the seraphim, the highest order of angels, in Isaiah’s famous vision in the sixth chapter of his own book—“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne that was high and lifted up, and the edges of His robe filled the Temple, and seraphs were stationed around Him. Each had six wings…they shouted to each other, saying, “Holy, holy, holy…” Imagine the evangelists themselves—the writers of the Gospels of Jesus Christ—surrounding god praising Him, saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and our God.” Just as we go into Heaven hopefully surrounded by our loved ones, so too does God rule in Heaven surrounded by His own loved ones: those who dedicated their lives to spreading the Good News.

But the problem with proclaiming Heaven is that you are liable to hear as many versions of Heaven as there are Christians in the world. This is not even John’s only vision of paradise—we will hear another version of it much later in chapters 21 and 22! Which is, really, entirely fair. I cannot imagine that your first thought of what Heaven might be like has turned out to be your only thought of what Heaven might be like.

When I was a little kid, I saw all the paintings of Heaven being in the sky, where Jesus ascended to and where angels fly around…and then my parents started taking me on airplanes, and I didn’t see any of that, so I concluded that Heaven must be in outer space, and that everyone there was dressed like Neil Armstrong. I am perfectly fine with saying that, even though Jesus says we must be as children to come to Him, that my childlike vision of Heaven is probably wrong. But to the eternal discredit of the church, there are children being raised today with equally erroneous visions of Heaven that have far more drastic consequences.

Making the viral rounds on the internet over the past week or two has been a clip of a worship at the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Greensburg, Indiana. In that clip, a small child is singing onstage a song he was very clearly coached in by an adult, and the song is: “I know the Bible’s right, and somebody’s wrong. I know the Bible’s right, and somebody’s wrong. Romans one twenty-six and twenty-seven, ain’t no homos gonna make it to Heaven.” If you watch the clip itself, you’ll see the pastor nod his approval, and the adults in attendance immediately, with thunderous applause, give the child a standing ovation.

There are no words to convey my shame I felt when showed this clip by friends asking me, “is this what church is about,” that would teach a little child to say such things, because I believe it offends not only my personal conscience, but it offends Scripture. Look at how John ends chapter four—that God “created all things and by (God’s) will they existed and were created.” Gay and lesbian people were created by the same God who creates heterosexual people, and I have to believe that any version, any vision of Heaven, would affirm that reality when trying to guess at who gets in. And I know how many of y’all feel about same-sex equality; you’ve told me and shared with me, and that trust means so very, very much to me. God may have cast Lucifer out of Heaven, but you’ll never hear me predict from the pulpit any other exile.

Earlier this week, I received in the mail a pastoral letter from our church’s General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, outlining the church’s current position on sexual orientation, which can basically be summed up in, “everyone is welcome.” It’s two pages on this sentiment, but the money quote is hidden at the bottom of the first page: “Human sexuality is not an “issue;” it’s who we are. It’s about all of us—including our friends and family members who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender—children of God with names and stories and a faith journey to recount.” As surely as God created all things by the sheer force of His will, God created these children with names, and with stories, and with faith journeys, and far be it for me to be like Saint Paul in First Corinthians and Timothy and pretend to know who gets in and who stays out, because one of the other parts of Revelation is the story of the dragon against Saint Michael, and as we will in a couple of weeks, reading it shows what happens to the presumptuous when they dare to take on the throne.

And so while it may be comforting and even exciting to imagine what Heaven will look like, I humbly ask that we instead return to the creatures whom God has surrounded that throne with—the animals of the four Evangelists, God’s loved ones who have surrounded Him, and who wrote to us of the coming of a Messiah of love, not of hate.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John…forgive us for not hearing that Messiah as well as we could have, or should have. And help us find the way to live out that prayer that we were taught in your Gospels, “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Because in the end, if I’m honest with myself, that’s all I really want. To see us, here on earth, surrounding one another as loved ones in Christ, as it is in Heaven—free of prejudice, free of shame, and full of faith in the God who made us all.

Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 10, 2012

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