Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for November 27, 2022: “Waiting in the Shadows” based on Matthew 24:32-44 (Written by Becky Walker)
Matthew 24:32-44 The Lesson of the Fig Tree
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
The Necessity for Watchfulness
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Happy New Year, Church! This is a new year! The journey through Advent begins today. You might think the year would begin with trumpets and fanfare, or maybe the softness of Christmas Eve....But instead, we begin in the shadows of war, despair, sorrow, and hate. And it’s precisely here that the God of grace will arrive. It’s precisely here that the church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. You are invited to listen, watch, remember, and wait...It’s a season that holds the certainty of the past and the predictability of the future with the choices we make.
The biblical story we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, like most biblical narratives, was written several decades after the fact. Jesus is nearing the end of his public ministry and in this passage, there are signs that the current age is coming to an end.
The disciples have been asking Jesus questions all through chapter 24 in Matthew. When Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, they ask him when it will happen and what are the signs of his coming. And we hear in this passage Jesus finally offering a direct answer to the “when” part of their question. But, it’s not the answer they’d been hoping for.
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, there would be times of great suffering, but then, slowly, new signs would appear and Christ will arrive and make things right. But when? When will this happen? Not even Jesus knows. He stresses that only God knows the answer to when this will happen. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Then, Jesus reminds the disciples about Noah, and how the people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. Noah only knew the great flood was coming and prepared the best he could by building an ark and gathering a variety of animals before the sudden devastation happened. There would be no warning, no alert to let them know what was coming. “...and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away...”
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Watchfulness or wakefulness is not a defensive posture. It’s having heightened awareness to the signs of God’s presence. The power comes from preparing, preparing for the coming of the Lord even though we don’t know “when”. We are not supposed to know “when the Lord is coming”, like the disciples keep asking. Jesus tells us to stay awake and watch.
The season of Advent is a time of actively waiting for Jesus to come by entering the shadows of despair, conflict, hate, and sorrow. We light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. Today’s passage helps us look forward without anxiety because we can’t be afraid to look back. As we look back on the time of Noah, we learn he prepared for the great flood. When we do that, we see what God has done and can have confidence in what God will do, in God’s own time. The beauty of the power of scripture is that it provides the stories that foreshadow what God is doing in our own time and will do in God’s time.
This morning, listen and hear what Jesus, and the writer of Matthew are saying. Enter into the shadows, the places where all hope seems lost. Listen to the desperate refugee, the lonely prisoner, the heartbroken addict, and the homeless. Once you’ve entered the shadows, you can proclaim the good news, and spread hope that God is on the way.
Keep awake! Be ready! Jesus is calling us, inviting us to repair the world, little by little, one person at a time, changing this anxious world to one filled with hope, hope of things to come...Peace, Joy, Love.
Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man is present healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. This is where we, too, go to see what God is doing.
Challenge yourself this Advent season to find the joy in turning toward God, walking humbly, to loving mercy, and doing justice. We have the power and the invitation from Jesus to change our lives as we learn from the past. So, keep awake and prepare as you wait in the shadows.....be ready! Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week 1: “Be Ready”, Matthew 24:36-44, 11.27.22
Cheryl A. Lindsay: Sermon Seeds: “Stay Alert”, Matthew 24:36-44, First Sunday of Advent, Yr. A, 11.27.22
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-matthew-2436-44-6
David L. Bartlett, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, KY: Matthew 24:36-44, pg. 20-24
The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, Fourth Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press 2010) Matthew 24:32-44; Pg. 1783.
Hebrews 1:1-9 Letter to the Hebrews: God Has Spoken by His Son
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The Son Is Superior to Angels
For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
One day during my chaplain training, I found myself in the neonatal intensive care. I was talking to a nurse I knew well. She had pulled me aside and pointed to three very tiny babies, each in an incubator. They were all very early... born at 24 or 25 weeks. The nurse was worried, not just about their health, but also about their families. Being a parent is already hard, even if your baby is healthy and full term. These little ones were going to need months of expensive and time-consuming medical care. After spending time with these families, who were just beginning to wrap their heads around caring for their babies, and looking pretty overwhelmed, the nurse told me that she was so unsure about how things were going to go. Looking at the scary and hard present, it was difficult for her to be optimistic about their future.
I don’t remember everything I said to her that day. We only talked about 10 minutes. But, I talked a little about my own life and the lives of people I know and care about. I said, “look at us. We are here. We have good lives. You have to leave a little room for grace. You have no idea what can happen that will end up being good for them.” I assured her that even though she was likely right in assessing the difficulties these families were facing, she couldn’t predict the good that would come into their life and wouldn’t know how they and their parents would mature into a family that cared for each other. Leaving room for Grace means being hopeful that there is a more healthy and hopeful future than you can see right now.
At some point, the nurse also asked what kind of cookies I liked. I told her chocolate chip. A few days later, I stopped in the main chaplains’ office and Steve, one of the staff chaplains, asked me what I had talked about with that NICU nurse and I told him the story. He handed me a bag of cookies. He said he’d never had anyone make a chaplain cookies before. I guess what I said was the encouragement she needed at that moment.
I don’t tell this story to brag on my ministerial skills. I mess up plenty, as I am sure you are all aware. But, I remembered this encounter as I was reading up on the book of Hebrews. According to the scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Hebrews is best understood to be an anonymous sermon written for an early Christian community to encourage them during a hard time. When times are difficult, it can be challenging to imagine a hopeful future, especially if you are an astute judge of the present. I mean, you don’t always even need to fall into dour pessimism to worry about the future. The concern we have about the future in the midst of the hard times of the present is often realistic, not pessimistic. Despair and concern are often reasonable responses to the world we are witnessing and the world that we fear might come. And, yet, even our wisest assessments of the future cannot possibly take all things that might happen into account. We don’t know how the Spirit can move in surprising ways. So, even while things are hard, we can live in faithful ways because of the potential we know is possible with the Spirit.
The preacher who wrote Hebrews begins with a reminder of how God engaged with this church’s religious ancestors. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets.” We know because we have shared the stories of our past that God spoke to us. This is a reminder and a promise. God has spoken and is speaking. The preacher goes on to talk about how God is speaking differently in what they refer to as “the last days.” Remember, people have often thought they were living through the end of the world. And, also, worlds end all the time. Even if the world is ending, you still have to figure out how to live through the end. This preacher says we live through this end knowing that God is capable of doing brand new things because God’s word was no longer simply spoken by the prophets but came alive in the Incarnation of Christ.
“The Son is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being, and the Son undergirds all there is by his word of power.” That’s how Wil Gafney translates part of today’s reading. Jesus is the brilliance of God’s glory and the reproduction of God’s very being and undergirds all there is by his word of power. Craig Koester, in his commentary on this text, says, “The writer will not let the readers’ imaginations remain impoverished with a Christ who is too small.” Over the course of nine verses, this preacher quotes five different parts of Hebrew scripture to try to capture the radical and wild and new iteration of God’s Spirit that was Jesus called Christ. Verse 5 is Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. Verse 6 is from Deuteronomy. Verse 7 is Psalm 104. Verses 8 and 9 is from Psalm 45. It takes the genres of prophecy, poetry, and history to even come close to describing the Jesus. And, the preacher is clear, faith in this Living Word of God who loved righteousness across time and space will be what carries this church through the hard days, through the end of all things, and into a future that they can’t even quite imagine yet.
Last night, I read a little bit of a conversation that the activist Mariame Kaba was having about hope being an essential part of her faith and work. Someone else in the conversation offered up these words by Rebecca Solnit:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
It strikes me that this is the kind of hopeful faith that the writer of Hebrews was calling the church to. Yes, times are difficult. Yes, this feels like the last days of something vital. And, yet, the Word of God is alive as a reminder and a promise. Jennifer Vija Pietz describes the promise in this way: God is committed to pursuing relationship with creation, God is faithful, Jesus is dealing with sin and leading us on our journey, and God is greater than we can see. So, we must leave room for Grace, the Spirit, to move in ways we can’t yet see. We must wield our hope ferociously, cutting through our despair, making room for a healthy and thriving future to grow with the Spirit’s help. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors and God still speaks today. May we have enough hope to keep listening.
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Today’s reading is from the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus regularly does things to prove that he is a particular, special incarnation of God. John’s primary tool for proving Jesus’ identity are seven key stories, usually called seven “signs.” I have been grateful for the work of scholar Karoline Lewis who says it is better to think of the miraculous events in these seven stories not as neat magic tricks but as particular revelations that are crucial for demonstrating who and what Jesus is. Four of the seven are healings, including the resurrection of Lazarus. One is walking on water. One is feeding thousands. In those six stories, Jesus is stronger that physics, has access to more food than a hundred Hannafords, and is more powerful than illness and even death itself. The seventh sign, by which I mean, the first sign, is Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding.
At this wedding, nobody is dying or sick, that we know of. Jesus is just hanging out with his mom at a wedding where everyone seems to be having so much of a great time, that they run out of wine. Even though there’s not a story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in John, Mary, Jesus’ mom, is still vital to this story. Dr. Wil Gafney, in her commentary, notes that it is Mary who pushes her son to help out this couple. How he helps will become the sign that begins his entire public ministry.
At first, Jesus tries to decline his mother’s request. He says “my hour is not yet come.” She does not care and that is maybe my favorite part of the whole story. She’s already decided he can and will help them and has even gone up to the servants, telling them to “Do whatever he tells you.” Because Jesus is a good son, he does what his mom wants. The servants line up 6 big jugs of water. Lewis says in her book about John that each one of this particular kind of jug held 20 to 30 gallons of water. So that means that Jesus was looking at somewhere between 120 and180 gallons of water. The servants are the only ones who see he does next.
Jesus tells them to draw some of the liquid out and take it the head waiter. Sometime between the moment that they draw up the water and the moment the head waiter tastes it, it becomes wine. And, not just any wine. Very good wine. The head waiter just assumes that the groom had good stuff socked away and did the weirdly generous move of bringing it out after everyone was probably too drunk to appreciate it. He would have never guessed that Jesus had simply made the wine appear. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t explain why he decided to make all this wine. He will go on to explain why he does every other sign. This story simply says this was the first of the signs and “revealed his glory.”
A question that you might have: In the face of the life and death... illness and health... walking and drowning... hunger and satiation... why on earth does making a ton of wine at a wedding get to be the sign that introduces us to Jesus? Remember: this is the very first of the seven signs. First, let’s talk about why the wine is important. In her commentary on this text, Lindsey Jodrey notes that there was not a lot of clean water around, so wine was the safest drink for most folks most of the time. And, the wedding celebrations of this era would often take several days. To run out of wine when hosting many people for many days was to run out of a basic provision of life. And, it was just rude. You don’t have a bunch of people over and not make sure they have enough food and drink that is also safe.
Jodrey also notes that, in many cases, family and friends helped provide food and drink at weddings. If this couple ran out of wine, it may mean that they didn’t have enough community support to host the kind of wedding that was expected of them. Given how insistent Mary is that Jesus help the couple, we can assume that she had already made sure they brought their fair share of wedding food and wine. Given that his family had likely already contributed, isn’t it interesting that Jesus decided to be more gracious than necessary?
In her commentary, Jodrey reminds us that feasts are important metaphors for divine generosity throughout the Bible. She also reminds us that a key metaphor for God’s Wisdom in the book of Proverbs is that Wisdom is like a woman who builds a house and sets a rich feast and invites everyone to come eat and drink. And, Jodrey reminds us that the beginning of John tells us that one way that we can understand Jesus is to think of him as the embodiment of God’s Wisdom. The Word became flesh and lived among us, it. While it might not be as flashy as walking on water, in helping this couple more extravagantly host their friends and family, Jesus embodies God’s Wisdom, becoming the One who fills cups until they overflow and fills bellies until they are full. This is not the abundance of the rich, who can just send out servants to scoop up whatever wine they can find in town. This is God’s abundance... taking what is already there and using good will and skill to make sure everyone has more than enough. This is the abundance that is the core of Jesus’ ministry.
Karoline Lewis points out that abundance is part of several of the other signs, too. When Jesus healed the man in chapter 5, he was responding to the man’s request for help being put in a healing pool. Jesus gave him enough grace that he didn’t even need to get in the pool. In chapter 9, when people responded to his healing of the blind man with fear and anger, expelling the man from their community, Jesus invited him to become a sheep in his fold. After bringing Lazarus back to life after three days, a feat miraculous on its own, we truly know that Lazarus has been restored when we read, a few verses later, that he is eating with his sisters. These actions, actions that go above and beyond, actions rooted in abundance, not scarcity, rebuild relationships among people and relationship between humanity and the Divine. By the end of John, Jesus will be so clearly associated with reckless and extravagant acts of abundant grace that, after the resurrection, the disciples will be assured that it is truly Jesus on the beach when he tells them where to fish and they catch so many that they can barely get the net back to shore.
We are introduced to Jesus with a sign of extravagant hospitality so that we know that God's love, God’s wisdom, is most clearly seen in abundance and reconnection. We are given this story of water being turned to wine so that we know God is offering us more than the bare minimum, and we are called to offer more than empty jars to our neighbors. In a world that tells us that there isn’t enough, this story reminds us that there can be, if we listen to the person pushing us to share it. Some people benefit from us believing that there isn’t enough and fighting for scraps among ourselves. May we know that Jesus doesn’t call us to fight over scraps or to hoard necessities away from our neighbors. Jesus, the very best wedding guest, shows us that water can become wine. May we take this good wine and share it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Lindsey S. Jodrey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3946
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5276
Wil Gafney, "Proper 28 (Closest to November 16) Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
At the beginning of worship, I invited you to remember some events you might have attended in this sanctuary or over zoom in worship. Now, I’m going to invite you to close your eyes and think of Jesus. What kind of picture of Jesus first pops in your head? Maybe it’s Jesus knocking on the door. I preached about that a couple weeks ago. Or, maybe it’s Jesus sitting down at a dinner table. I preached about that last week. Maybe it’s Jesus praying in the garden or Jesus on the cross. Now, I’m going to invite you to open your eyes and look at this image of Jesus. In this picture, Jesus is pretty mad.
This story is one of those that is important enough that it’s in all four Gospels. We need to pay special attention because each Gospel writer had an idea about who Jesus was and picked stories to share based on what they thought were important. All of them thought this story was important. In her commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis points out that John does use this story different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put it towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, just after he returned to Jerusalem for Passover but before he was crucified. That placement makes it seem like this story might be part of the reason he was arrested. John changes it up though, putting it right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, flipping over tables and whipping people is Jesus' second public act. This is quite the introduction!
At this point in John, most people didn’t know who Jesus was and he had no reputation as a public teacher that would help people understand what he was doing. He was just one more Jewish guy at the Temple for Passover (though a few people might have remembered that he was a good wedding guest in Cana who made sure they didn’t run out of wine). Karoline Lewis notes that as a pilgrim, he would have been expected to take part in the rituals and purification required for temple worship. He was just expected to be a regular guy... not the kind of person who would have the authority to make any changes to who was present in the temple or what kind of business they were running in service of worship at the temple.
Because it’s not how we worship, it might be strange for us to imagine all these animals and people crowded onto the temple grounds. Other than Buddy the dog and the neighbors’ cats, you don’t really see animals here at church. But the animals and the people selling them and people offering money exchange services were actually supposed to be there. People were required to make sacrifices and needed to have access to animals and to the proper kinds of coins in order to make these sacrifices. Travelers bought their sacrificial animals at the temple, instead of dragging them from home, and everyone traded the Roman money for half-shekels, the kind of money you had to use for your offering. These merchants had an approved role at the temple. It would have been unheard of for someone to get mad at them.
If somebody ran into our church and knocked over the communion elements and flipped over the offering plates, would you be surprised? Would you be mad at that person? Would you wonder what is going on? I think all the people who watched Jesus run the animals and merchants out of the temple would have been surprised and maybe mad at what he did. And they probably would have been confused when he said, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Because the temple, at least one part of it, kind of needed to be a place where people could buy and sell things. The things they were buying were necessary for them to do the rituals God told them to do.
To understand this story better, in her commentary on this text and some others she paired with it, Dr. Wil Gafney states that Christians need to work hard to remember how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. She wrote, “It may not be an overstatement to say that the temple represented the physical manifestation of Imannu-El, God with us.” The building of the Temple and the destruction of the Temple, and taking of the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple by Babylon, were two pivotal events in the national life of Israel. Rebuilding the temple after the exile was a significant undertaking for generations of Judeans. There was what Dr. Gafney called a “deep national cultural investment in the splendor of the temple.” Jesus’ wild and raucous rage would have been a scandal!
Other pilgrims asked Jesus, reasonably I think, what on earth could justify running the merchants out. Specifically, which kind of sign from God he could show them to explain why what he did was right. His response... his response was not a placating one. It was just about as wild as running the merchants and sacrificial animals out of the space. He says “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” That’s right, he said destroy the temple... this most holy place that they had been trying for generations to get to feel like it did back in the heyday before Babylon.... this temple that Herod the Great had already been working on updating for 46 years. Destroy the temple! And he says that he can rebuild it in three days?! The nerve of this guy.
Three days... what else do we know happened in three days? Right. We who have read the rest of the story know that there are three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Our reading from today says that after the resurrection, the disciples will remember this statement and understand that they have witnessed the fruition of a prophecy. We modern readers might also understand something else. If we remember that the temple was particularly important as special abiding place of God (though not the only place) and that Jesus seems to be comparing his own body to the Temple, it seems to be a fair interpretation that John believed that Jesus understood God to be dwelling within him, “every bit as much as [God] dwelled in their ancestral temple,” according to Dr. Gafney.
Alycia D. Myers, in her commentary on this text, notes that at the beginning of John, the author tells us that Jesus was the Word of God which became flesh and lived among us. And, Dr. Lewis notes that later stories, like the story of the woman at the well in John 4 and the blind man that Jesus heals in John 9, show us how people who weren’t even there at the temple still act as though they know God is with Jesus. In response to his teaching and his healing, they offer worship... worship much like that at the temple. And, that worship is good because God is there, like God would be at the temple. It is vital for the followers of Christ to be reminded that God is present in the disruption of routines as well as in our most beloved rituals... that God is present in the demand for transformation from institutions that work very hard not to change as well as the systems that keep these institutions functioning. This story reminds us that God is not apart... God is with. May we feel God with us at the tables that must be flipped, in our temples, and by the wells where we will worship anew.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2377
Alicia D. Myers: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5
Wil Gafney, "Proper 27 (Closest to November 9)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Rev. 3:14-22: The Message to Laodicea
‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
As someone who was raised surrounded by more Fundamentalist versions of Christianity than the one I currently practice, the book of Revelation has a somewhat conflicted place in my faith life. I encountered this book most often as a threat in the broader culture. I remember reading religious comic books at a friend’s house about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. That story is part of this book. Also, I heard lots of talk of the End of Days. When people talked about the Ultimate Judgment of Humanity by God, they nearly always referenced Revelation. For anyone who wanted to scare people into following Jesus, Revelation always seemed to be the book they hauled out to do it. Because that wasn’t how I understood my faith, I ended up avoiding the book as a whole, preferring to stick around with the Jesus I encountered in the Gospels. I wonder if any of you have had a similar experience with this book of the Bible?
Here are some things I have learned that have helped me more fully engage with this strange and also foundational Christian text. It matters that we take the era in which this book was written into account. In his introduction to this book of the Bible in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Jean-Pierre Ruiz says that the book was likely written sometime between 81 and 96 CE and was shaped by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In a very similar way to how the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE shaped later Jewish ideas about exile, mourning, and the centrality of Jerusalem to communal worship, Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem, which was distinctly tied to wiping out rebellion in the city, shaped how the prophet John would come to understand a Christian’s role within an empire that would do something so cruel. According to Ruiz, the prophet John, who had been exiled to Patmos and who’s prophetic visions were recorded by someone else, offered this instruction to Christians living under Rome: when living in the midst of a regime that is callous and cruel and interested mostly in maintaining its own power, the only proper response is resistance. There can be no compromise and no accommodation with the evil empire.
According to Dr. Ruiz, the prophecies that John received vary widely in style and content. Some parts are hymns, much like the Psalms. Some parts describe bloody battles. They also deploy a style of argument that is dualistic: there are two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way. All behavior seems to be able to be sorted into one of those two categories. Our reading for today is from the part of Revelation that is a series of messages to seven different churches in seven different cities in what we know call Turkey. This is the particular message to the members of the church in Laodicea. According to Mary Milne, Laodicea was a wealthy trading city, important enough to Rome to have an aqueduct. Milne also thinks that it is possible that John’s accusation that they were “lukewarm Christians” was a reference to not only their passion for Christ, but the only warmish water they had compare to neighboring Hierapolis, that was known for hot springs.
Regardless of actual temperature of the water, the accusation of lukewarmness was damning. I know that I quoted a Little Richard song in my sermon title, but I think another song might have been more appropriate. During what was known as the Harlan County War, a union activist wrote a song called “Which Side Are You On?” One of the verses goes:
They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
This song, born of the crisis of mining companies taking advantage of their employees, sounds much more like Revelation than that fun song about rejecting a romantic partner who messed up. Sorry, Little Richard. Whomever wrote “Which Side are You On?” understood the power of dualistic thinking in a crisis. There are only two sides: miners or bosses. There was no room for lukewarmness.
In her book about Revelation, Adela Yarbro Collins spoke of Apocalyptic literature, in general, and Revelation in particular, being literature that arises out of a crisis. She also notes that sometimes the feeling of being oppressed is as important as actually being oppressed. I read an article this week by historian Diana Butler-Bass who pointed to the rise of some apocalyptic preachers in the ever-growing Christian-Nationalist movement in our country. People who are drawn to Christian-Nationalist prophecies feel a crisis, but the crisis is mostly one of them losing power they had traditionally held. They become drawn to religious images of God, and eventually them, doing battle with unjust rulers in order to justify themselves hoarding power and money.
While the instability they feel is real, our country, and maybe the world, has been shifting, pushed really, to allow more and different kinds of people places of dignity and leadership. This shift is only a crisis if you believe you benefited from the system that had been in place. If we want to make good and proper use of the book of Revelation, we must tend to our own impulses in reading it and making use of it. If we are looking for justification for our most desperate and fearful inclinations, we will find it here. On the other hand, if we are looking for an example of moral clarity and a clear example of siding with Christ on behalf of the oppressed, regardless of the cost, this is here, too. And, I think that reading is closer to the spirit in which the prophecy was offered. In his commentary on this text, Ron Allen argues that the primary goals of this text are to provide the faithful with encouragement to stand against a powerful Empire, even when it would be easier to just go along, and, also, to remind those who are living according to the empire’s rules, and probably getting rich from it, that that kind of appeasement is not the life that Christ calls us to.
Notice that the imagine of Jesus in this story is not that of a flaming-sword-wielding warrior. It is instead, Jesus, persistently knocking and asking to be let in. Once Jesus is allowed in... notice that he doesn’t kick the door in, he must be let it... he sits down and eats with his friends. The presence of Christ is homey and domestic. This is not a battlefield... it is a kitchen table, a fellowship hall table, a communion table. Not that there won’t be conflict. There is conflict in all of our homes and in all of our sanctuaries. At the table in this prophecy, Jesus retains the right to rebuke those who stand with Rome. Conflict isn’t the antithesis of faith but a sign of a rigorous and trusting relationship... A relationship that is centered around the table. May we be good stewards of the table. Because they are where we meet Jesus and take care of each other. May we always pick the side where Christ is most clearly before us.
Resources consulted while writing the sermon:
Jean-Pierre Ruiz's introduction to "Revelation" The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Mary K. Milne, "Laodicea, "The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996)
Diana Butler Bass: https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/on-prophets-and-politics?r=45vbf&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
The lyrics to "Which Side Are You On:"
Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.