The Third Sunday after Easter, Year C
The Sunday following the Boston Marathon Bombing
April 21, 2013
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton
This last Monday afternoon, at about ten minutes before three, once again we were swept up in horrible, unimaginable violence. That violence and its aftermath are hard to bear—and hard to bear spiritually, in particular. We feel overwhelmed—with dismay, with fear, with anger, with deep questioning. In the midst of the terrible happenings, we also have a humbled gratitude for those who stepped forward into spheres of great danger, to tend to the wounded, to comfort the dying, to be present with the bereaved, to secure our safety—and work toward the administration of justice.
We’re here, together, this morning, drawn by the Spirit; asking questions, and taking hold of such threads of hope as are given to us. And maybe that’s what matters most of all today. Yesterday, I was asked—in short order—about capital punishment, pacifism, and the universality of forgiveness. Well, I probably won’t have very good answers. We’re all struggling, aren’t we?
Before going on, though, maybe I need to offer a brief comment about forgiveness. It is, indeed, the unbroken proclamation of the church that God’s forgiveness is sufficient to deal with every manner of sin, even the most terrible. But we take hold of God’s forgiveness, we connect with its wonderful reality, through repentance and faith. However, if we are outraged at the very notion that we need to be forgiven, if we thereby hold the Giver in contempt and refuse the Gift—we still have a major problem. Forgiveness is Grace, not magic.
Long before last Monday, I had planned to preach on the passage from Revelation that we just heard. Of course, I had no idea then how strangely apt its language might be for us today.
We’ll launch in, now, with a quick reminder that the whole book of Revelation is highly symbolic. It’s extended poetry—and we can’t take hold of what the Spirit means to give to us in this strange book unless we can apprehend it with poetic diction. It’s a highly repetitive book—with flashbacks and flashforwards; increasing in intensity, the scene shifting back and forward between Heaven and Earth. It’s filled with extravagant imagery, resonating with many biblical allusions, many of which we now barely “get.” But as all this poetry sweeps over us and seeps into us, perhaps we will “hear what the Spirit is saying.” May it be so.
What’s the message? In one word: “God.”
It’s about God. From first to last; Alpha and Omega. It’s about the real God who is infinitely more than an extension of ourselves; a God who is irreducibly “other.” This is the God who can be intimidating—whom we would often rather avoid when things don’t feel quite so high-stakes, but nevertheless—at deepest down level—the God we know we need at crunch time.
More than this: that great, irreducibly “other” God cares—from his very heart of love and mercy—about us.
Yet a difficult honesty has to admit that much of the time it doesn’t feel as though this is so. In the world where you and I live, often (maybe more often than not) God can feel distant and disconnected. We wonder “where are you?” In his time, Jesus wondered that too, didn’t he?
Emily Dickinson is one of the English language’s greatest poets. She was not a conventional believer, that’s for sure, but she certainly conveyed human experience powerfully—especially our struggle with faith. One of her poems came to mind for me in this last week. I’d like to share it with you:
Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.
Yes. It sometimes feels that way, doesn’t it? And yet, with all due respect to Dickinson, the Poetry of the Spirit given to us in the book of Revelation sets forth an even greater reality; more than our eyes can now perceive and more than our present can possibly hold.
To be sure, this doesn’t “make it all better” right away. It doesn’t immediately answer all the questions. But as we keep putting one foot in front of the other in this broken world of ours, and with these broken hearts, this strange utterance of the Spirit recasts all things. “Behold, I make all things new.”
Throughout the book of Revelation—and centrally in today’s text—we find the theme of worship. For God’s People, it is worship which connects our present, still-broken earthly reality with the heavenly. Now, we ought to be clear about what worship is and what it isn’t. It is not as though the Almighty God is of such terribly weak ego strength that he has to be flattered constantly to build up his sense of self! No, God doesn’t need our worship. It is we who need to worship—in order to be attuned to reality. We aren’t speaking, here, of mere ritual, in itself, but, rather—as God’s People, the adoration, the delight, the obedience and full response of our life to our holy and worship-worthy God.
We must never buy into the notion that this is some sort of corporate indulgence on the part of the Church; a diversion from our other, “really important” business. That may be how the world would like to see it. We must not. Rather, the worship of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is always our first duty and our culminating joy as God’s People. Everything else we do flows out from it—and leads back to it in turn. This is what connects us, here and now, to heaven. This is what attunes us to reality.
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped.” (7:9-11)
In most popular thinking about the world to come, we focus on the question: Who “gets” to go to Heaven? This ignores the deeper—perhaps much more critical—issue of whether we would like it very much if we were there! Imagine “Heaven” as a great, eternal, cosmic celebration. But suppose, for the sake of illustration, that we really didn’t like being around the others who were invited, suppose we found the activities unpleasant, and—finally—didn’t care much for the Host, the One around whom it all was gathered. There’s nowhere “else” to go, and it’s never going to end. We might have a rather different word than “Heaven” for that experience, mightn’t we?
Something to think about.
So how do we get to the “there” about which we’ve been speaking—and recognize it as a blessing? How do we get to the intersection of eternal joy? That’s the question which the seer of Revelation poses, himself. Who are those summoned to this adoration and saving delight?
“ ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ” (7:13-14)
We know a little more—maybe a good deal more—about “ordeal” this last week; both the outwardly traumatic, and also the quiet sufferings of the heart, with which our life is now bound up.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
This isn’t only just for the future (although it is certainly future in significant part). These words also testify to a present reality: sharing in the victory of God; born into the delight of God, even here and now—when we don’t have answers to questions we so desperately seek. And we get to this reality, both present and future—through the Sacrifice of Jesus. It is through the Self-emptying of God Incarnate, in the Blood of the Lamb, that we are born into the reality of worship and adoration. It is through the Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice on the Cross that we are able to stand before the eternal throne.
So, while we are involved—with the totality of our being—worship is not our separate human project. It is based, at the root of it, on who God is and what God does.
That’s where we begin—always. And where does a life of worship lead? It leads to God. Alpha and Omega. Worship leads us back to the provision which God gives—to the care in which God holds us: more than our eyes can now see, and more than our present can now hold. Ultimately (even though we must wait for a time), a life of worship leads us to the redemption of all suffering.
From first to last, it’s about God. Only because of this do we matter, in turn. If it weren’t about God, if we were just slogging it out in a universe of happenstance, then we would pass away into insignificance. But because of the real God, we matter. Yes, God is at work—with nothing less than cosmic redemption. God is concerned for the character and quality of human community. But we matter. You and I matter. Personally. We are infinitely more than mere raw material for some collective utopia. Our joys, our aspirations, our failures, the burdens of our hearts—we matter.
We hear in the text: “God will wipe away every tear.” I thought of Psalm 56, too, which speaks to the same theme:
O God, “you put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” (56:8)
Yes. God cares for the great and the global. But God cares about you, too, right now as you sit in the pew—and to eternity. And there’s no burden too insignificant—or too big—for the Wonderful Mercy. So even if we will need to learn to walk in the dark for a while, we carry the light of God implanted by the Spirit in our hearts.
The habituation of worship in our lives takes commitment and spiritual discipline. In a world with plenty of distractions this doesn’t just happen. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally,” (The Problem of Pain, “Divine Goodness”) That’s not stinginess but reality. Yet, once again—Praise be! It is God himself who gives us the desire and capacity for worship. It is God, through Jesus the Son, in the power of the Spirit, who leads us as we acquire “the taste for Heaven” ever more perfectly—then to share it ever more abundantly. This is the hope of God’s People:
“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7:17)
And so, in the midst of all things; even today—especially today:
“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (7:12)