“Salvation belongs to our God”

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A message for All Saints, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran church

I want to focus on a single verse from our first reading this morning. It is from verse 10:

They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

To set the context for that verse, however, we need to begin with verse 9:

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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

It is hard for us to fully appreciate the words we are hearing. This is a society in which the image of the emperor is on every coin, with images and titles that are just like this. The emperor was acclaimed as the savior of the world. He’s the bringing of peace. He’s the source of prosperity. The emperor sits on a throne with choirs and crowds attending him. The emperor had temples built and cities named in his honor. The emperor’s word had the power to free or condemn a person, a city, or a whole people.

Among the Judeans, however, there was a current of deep resistance to such claims of divine honors for the emperor. It led to the revolt that broke out under Judas Maccabeus in the 2nd century BCE when the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV – who called himself ‘Epiphanes’, the manifestation of God on earth – put a statue of himself inside the temple of Jerusalem. And it led, ultimately, to the revolt against Rome in 66 CE that resulted in the emperor to be, Titus, marching his armies through the land in desolation and slaughter. They built an arch in Rome to honor his victory that shows Judeans being led away as captured slaves, and the temple treasures carried to Rome by triumphant soldiers. The wealth of the temple would pay to build the coliseum where Christians and others would be crucified and fed to the lions for spectacle entertainment. Rome seemed to have won the argument over whether or not Rome ruled the world.

But in his vision, the prophet John, exiled to the island of Patmos, would see people from all over the world gathered around a different throne, waving palm branches and singing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

We live in a society where we tend to hear these words as religious language and to imagine that they are separate from political speech, but they are not. “Salvation belongs to God” means that kingship belongs to God. Authority, power, glory – these all belong to God and not the emperor.

The second thing that we should recognize in these verses is that this proclamation is being announced by people of every nation, tribe, and language. The emperor presented himself as ruler of the whole world. Of course, the Roman Empire wasn’t anything like the whole world, but it was the whole Mediterranean and it was big. It dominated the world from England to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucuses to all of North Africa. The Emperor ruled many nations, tribes and languages – but the prophet sees all these nations singing the praise of God not Caesar.

The third thing we should recognize here is that the people gathered around the throne of God are from every nation, tribe, and language – which is to say that God is the god of every nation, tribe, and language. God is not the god of Judeans only. God is the god of the whole world. God is not our god; God is the salvation of every nation, tribe, and language. God is the redeemer of the whole world. God is god of all creation.

Ancient society was even more ethnically divided than our own. You have to think back to that time when the neighborhoods in our cities were divided by language: Irish neighborhoods and Italian neighborhoods, and Jewish neighborhoods, and African-American neighborhoods. In East Toledo there was a Hungarian neighborhood where, when I was there, the priest still did the mass in Hungarian. The Lutherans in the German neighborhoods had given up German services because of the war, but they were still German churches. There was an Hispanic neighborhood which the Germans told me was okay because those people knew their place. And there was a Dutch neighborhood where, not so long ago, they wouldn’t speak to the new wife of a man who married outside his community.

But gathered around the throne of God are people of every nation, tribe, and language. The followers of Jesus fought this battle and recognized that Samaritans were welcome and eunuchs were welcome, and that God insisted they break bread with Gentiles.  Every nation, tribe, and language. God is the god of all. And we are many peoples who gather together as one people.

When we gather to worship, we are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is our salvation not any human ruler. We are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is the God of all people. We are joining the chorus of heaven that gathers us as one people – all that divides the human community is washed away in Christ.

What is it that divides us? Is it not our sin that divides us? Does it not all come back to our fears and greeds and hates and tribalism? It is washed away in Christ.

And finally, the one who is seated on the throne is the lamb: the lamb who was slain but lives. The lamb who was sacrificed to save the world from bondage but was made alive again. The lamb who was sacrificed to save Isaac from the knife. The lamb who is the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. The lamb who is the good shepherd, who brings us to lie down in good pasture and leads us beside still waters. The lamb who stands at the beginning and end of time and makes all things new. The lamb who is the world’s true lord, reigning not by power and the sword but by grace and truth – who opens blind eyes, who heals the sick, who gathers the outcast and reconciles the divided. The one who welcomes sinners to his table, and washes away our sins in the font. The one who is our light and our life, now and forever.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASynaxis_of_all_saints_(icon).jpg By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

97,000

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Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The true shepherd

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For Friday

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

It was winter. It would not have been a Minnesota winter; it would have been a San Francisco one – that damp, penetrating chill. The note that he was in the portico suggests he was sheltered from the rain. It’s interesting to imagine Jesus under dripping, grey skies. We don’t think about the real texture of his life.

John puts him in the temple at the feast of the Dedication. We would recognize it as it Hanukah. It remembers when, after Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the temple and the Maccabean revolt reclaimed the city and temple, they purified the temple. There was only enough oil to keep the lamps burning one day – and the process of preparing new oil took eight – but the lamps continued to burn for the eight days. The light never went out.

Maybe it’s the remembrance of Judas Maccabeus and the deliverance of the nation that leads the Judeans to press Jesus to declare himself openly as God’s anointed, God’s messiah. Were they hoping? Or were they already looking for evidence against him? Were they wanting to dispense with this voice that promised new wine and new birth? This voice that claimed to be the true shepherd unlike the thieves and bandits who bring death in their wake?   And unlike the hired hands who save themselves and let the sheep be scattered?

The words are certainly pregnant with meaning for John’s congregation listening to them in the years after 70 AD – for this is precisely what happened in the War against Rome when hundreds of thousands perished and the temple was destroyed.

Jesus is perceptive enough, perfectly attuned to the Spirit of God, to know the dangerous path the country is following. He answers deftly. “My sheep recognize my voice.” It’s neither a “yes” nor a “no” because he is not, as he will tell Pilate, a king like the kings of this world.   But what he does say is that he will not lose any of his sheep – unlike the shepherds who led the nation to ruin. The disaster they brought fell not just in Judea but throughout the region for, at the outbreak of the revolt, towns loyal to Rome rose up and murdered or drove out their Jews.

But the reign of God in Jesus gives life, the life that cannot be destroyed.

27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_16624_The_Shepherd.jpg  Attribution: תורם התמונה: זינה שיך יוסף [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But there is hope here

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David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70

Watching for the Morning of November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

Year B

The disciples of Jesus are awed by the temple. Rightly awed. It was a magnificent structure that Herod the Great had created, transforming the small temple whose dimensions were confined by those in the Biblical text into a great plaza of concentric courtyards surrounded by porticoes of towering columns. To accomplish this, Herod had to extend the hilltop, building out the huge retaining wall that still stands to support the temple mount. The exposed foundation stones in the southwest corner form the Western Wall where Jews gather today to mourn the loss of the temple and pray.

Herod created one of the wonders of the ancient world. But in 70 CE, four years after the outbreak of the Judean revolt, Rome destroyed it.

The war was devastating for the region and a catastrophe for Judea. Jewish residents of Roman cities who did not flee were murdered. Crucifixions abounded as the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem with concrete examples of the fate that awaited the rebels. No heavenly armies arrived to support the rebel leaders acclaimed as messiahs. The signs in the heavens and the purported miracles on earth did not lead to the liberation of Judea or the dawning of God’s kingdom. All that came was hunger, destruction and death.

Jesus talks about this pending disaster with no glee. There is no joy at Jerusalem’s fall. No delight in God’s judgment on the wicked. Just the sad acknowledgment that this grand attempt to honor God with worldwide renown was not the honor God desired. God desired justice and mercy.

This is the setting for worship on Sunday. It should make us a little weak in the knees. We are drawing near to the end of the church year. In the northern hemisphere it is the end of the harvest season when the grain is winnowed. Winter looms, darkness grows, and themes of judgment and the end of all things echo in our texts.

But there is hope here.

The Book of Daniel faces the devastation of 164 BCE with the promise of God’s ultimate triumph. The Archangel Michael shall arise to deliver God’s people, the grave shall give up its dead, every injustice shall be righted, and the faithful will shine with the radiance of heaven.

The psalmist sings in gratitude of God’s blessing and, when he speaks of God’s healing work, hints at a more profound mystery:

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11 You show me the path of life.

Jesus acknowledges the coming judgment upon Jerusalem but warns his followers not to be led astray. This is not the end, he says, and compares it with the onset of labor pains – pains that end in joy. God’s reign will come, just not yet. The days are scary but not final. There is work yet for believers to do. Works of justice and mercy. Works of witness and service. Works of joy and life.

The Prayer of the Day for November 15, 2015

Almighty and eternal God,
set our hearts and hands to work,
not in the building of temples that perish,
but in those eternal works of mercy and truth
that serve your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 15, 2015

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.”
– The visions granted to Daniel of the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes IV come to their conclusion with Israel’s ultimate deliverance.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” – The poet expresses his trust in God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” – Having set forth his argument for the superiority of Christ as our true high priest, the author comes to the exhortation that prompts his letter: that we should “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and encourage one another to remain faithful.

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – When the disciples call Jesus’ attention to the majesty and beauty of the temple, he predicts its destruction. For the disciples, such and event must mean the end of the world, but Jesus tells his followers that “the end is not yet,” and warns them not to be led astray. The conflicts of the nations and the convulsions of nature are but “the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 

David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Falling stars

Wednesday

Mark 13

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Falling Stars, Mihály Zichy

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“After that suffering.” We can’t read the whole Gospel at once – at least not on a Sunday morning. The readings in the liturgy are mere fragments of a story the community is supposed to know. When you hear the piece you ware supposed to remember what comes before and what comes after and how the pieces all fit together. As if you could pick up a small jigsaw puzzle and at first glance know where it fits.

We can’t read the whole Gospel at once, because of the time constraints of worship, but those who have heard this Gospel recited talk about how incredible is the experience. Mark was an oral Gospel, told to the community – preached to the community in the best sense of that word – proclaimed, and only later written down. It is full of the urgency of a breathless witness.   I think of my brother about 10, giving my mother a blow-by-blow rendition of “the best movie ever!” She is struggling to get groceries in from the car; he is oblivious to everything but the story.

“After that suffering.” It is a haunting reference to the struggle the community has endured. Mark’s is not a nice rural or suburban congregation in Middle America. It is like a refugee community on Syria’s border, surrounded by war and its aftermath.

Since the death of Jesus, his followers have suffered violence for their perceived betrayal of communal values – think about Paul participating in the stoning of Stephen, and he himself victimized, including by stoning, for the message he preached. He is nearly murdered by a mob in the temple and escapes an organized plot against his life only by being secreted out of Jerusalem at night by a detachment “of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.” (Acts 23:23)

Conflict within the Judean community in the city of Rome, apparently involving hostility against the followers of Jesus, led to their expulsion in AD 49. Judeans return to the city, but the Christians become numerous and identifiable enough to get blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64. Among the tortures they endured, some were dipped in pitch and set alight as torches for the emperor’s parade route. Then in 66 the Judean revolt began. The leaders of that revolt were acclaimed as the anointed of God – in Hebrew, ‘Messiah’, in Greek, ‘Christ’. When Jesus warns about false Christs, Mark’s community knows their names. The followers of Jesus are perceived as enemies of Romans and rebels alike. Those who fled Jerusalem were captured by the Romans and crucified in a circle around the city, facing the wall so that all inside could know the fate that awaited them.

In the first year of that war, as Vespasian marched through Galilee, refugees flooded the city. They would later starve or perish in the zealot reign of terror. There is a reason Jesus tells his followers to flee to the hills.

So when Jesus continues his discourse with this simple phrase: “After that suffering,” the crowd listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus knows the suffering of which he speaks. It is the suffering of their community squeezed on all sides.

But Jesus doesn’t offer them consolation; he speaks a promise: “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The sun, moon and stars are divine beings in the ancient world, spirit beings inhabiting the realm of the air. We would think of them as forces, spiritual realities that drive human existence, like ideologies and isms. We see these forces at work on a grand scale in the clashing and mutually incomprehensible perceptions and experiences of the world between Palestinian and Jew or black and white in Ferguson. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Fundamentalism, Racism – these are forces that seem beyond human control, but wreak their wrath upon people and children, communities – even on the earth itself as carbon dioxide levels rise far beyond anything earth has known in 90,000 years, changing not just the weather but ecosystems and the chemistry of the ocean. Polar ice melts and orca now plunder the once protected nurseries of the narwhal and bowhead. Polar Bear are reduced to eating seaweed and trying to learn how to fish for salmon.

Before such transcendent powers Mark’s community seems helpless. But their story doesn’t end with suffering. “After that suffering” these powers will be thrown down. The Son of Man, the crucified and risen one, will come with power and great glory.

It is not pie in the sky. It is very far from pie in the sky. It is faith and courage and hope and continuing testimony in the face of great powers – born of the confidence that they are witnesses of a far greater power.

This is Mark’s urgent and compelling and liberating story. The unimaginable has happened: the true Messiah has been crucified but made alive by God – and he is coming to reign.