A Thanksgiving Prayer

Ephesians 1:15-23

Individual Triumph and Cheap Grace?

Sometimes we read scripture selfishly. Like here: at first blush, this section of scripture—this prayer of Paul—seems to celebrate our individual enlightenment. It seems to extol those who have received the sort of secret knowledge that gets them “in” with God. Or maybe to put a more contemporary spin on it, it’s all about you: your coming to faith, your learning and growing through the Spirit, your hope, the inheritance of your salvation, and the power of God now available to you.

I trust that you are able to see a problem with this interpretation. The kind of radically individualistic religion that is focused only on oneself is incompatible with the message and example of Christ—at least that is what Christians have affirmed for centuries. Early and often, this kind of individual-enlightenment emphasis has been denounced by the Church as heresy.

It is (perhaps) ironic that we so easily read these words in this way, because this passage actually speaks to a very different kind of faith. Instead of “a faith grounded in individual triumph and cheap grace,” Paul speaks of how the lordship of Jesus Christ ushers in “an age of communal witness,” rather than one of “solitary reward” (Cole, Feasting, 328).

When we examine Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving a bit closer, we realize that this prayer is not aimed at us individually, but corporately. The wisdom that brings hope, inheritance, and power is not desired for individuals, but for a church. A church—that means a group of Jesus-followers committed to living in the kingdom of God in the here and now.

It is onto the community of believers that Paul prays for God’s Spirit of wisdom to come.

It is the community of believers that Paul desires to grow in their understanding of the hope God has for them.

It is the community of believers where the “riches of his glorious inheritance” will be seen and known.

It is in the community of believers that the resurrection power of God will be observed, realized, and manifested.

You see, this prayer of Paul “is not a victory dance for those who have arrived but a…call to live a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, to exhibit the body of Christ as God’s called-out people for the world,” (as pastor John Cole has written) (Cole, Feasting, 328).

Christ is the head; the Church is his body. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Christ without the Church anymore than you can remove the head from the body.

And “because God’s saving work is not finished, neither is the task to which believers…have been called, as Christ’s body.”

It is this commitment to community growth and development that drives Paul to prayer.

Thanksgiving in Community

And this is a thanksgiving prayer that Paul offers up. Appropriate, for the season for giving thanks in which we find ourselves.

But I want to suggest something this morning—something that may sound a bit radical: You can’t have thanksgiving without community. You cannot give thanks without sharing your appreciation with others.

I mean: How does this sound?

God, I thank you so much for providing for my need that I’m going to tell you and no one else what you have done, but I really appreciate it, which is why I’m telling you, even though you already know all things…

That’s not how this works. God does not work resurrection power in your life so you can feel better about yourself. Nor does God do so because God needs you to pat God on the back. God works resurrection power in your life because (1) God loves you, and (2) God wants to work that power in the lives of others. And that requires them knowing what God can do, so they will be open to God working in their lives as well.

E pluribus unum

For most of the history of the United States, we did not have an official motto. There was, however, one dominant un-official motto. Something so pervasive to our cultural and historic identity that it appeared on our coinage even before our Constitution was written. Something so widely appreciated that it appeared on the Seal of the United States even before our Revolutionary War was complete.

This motto is: E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”

As a nation, we’ve latched onto this motto because it describes the historical realities of the origins of our country. We were many colonies, made up of different religions, nationalities of origin, economic means, and even native language. But out of everything that made us different, we found ourselves called to a kind of unity.

Our rallying cry was “Freedom!” But it was liberty we sought as we recognized that we have a collective responsibility to protect precisely those things that make us different. We realized we cannot be truly free if others are not.

As Christians, we could adopt the same motto. We are as different as human beings can be. Our origins are different. Our experiences are different. Our abilities are different. Our commitments are different.

It has always been this way. And the lowest points in Christian history have all come when we failed to respect, honor, and guard one another’s difference.

We each come to faith and life with very different sets of eyes. The easy answers for one do not satisfy another. The deep theological wrestlings of her may seem unnecessary for him. But we are a body. We are one, with Christ as our head. And part of our responsibility in coming together is to share and guard each others’ difference.

One

There’s a hymn that I really like that celebrates this oneness we have when we are unified as the Body, with Christ as our head. We’d have sung it today, but I don’t think it is all that familiar to most of you. It’s lyrics go like this (#286):

Our God has made us one—
In Him our hearts unite.
When we, His children, share His love,
Our joy is His delight.

Our God has made us one—
His glory is displayed.
For as we build each other up
Our love becomes His praise.

Our God has made us one—
In sorrow and in joy;
We share the cross of Christ, our Lord,
In Him we now rejoice.

Our God has made us one—
One Church to bear His name;
One body and one Bride of Christ,
And with Him we shall reign

Thanksgiving

This season—and especially right now, this year—I do offer thanks to God for this community of faith.

Like Paul, I pray that God will give this church a spirit of wisdom and revelation, as we grow in knowing God.

I pray that as the eyes of our heart are enlightened, we will know “what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

I give God thanks for the resurrection power God is working in our midst—power that even now may be overwhelming our ability to resist it—as God breathes new life into God’s church, heals our wounds, forgives our failings, and teaches us to love again.

“Christ was Lord in the beginning, he will be Lord in the end. Even now, he is Lord” (Cole, Feasting, 330).

Prayer

O Christ,
may your kingdom come,
may your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Amen.

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Here It Comes

1Thess 5:1-11

Winter

Winter is coming.

That reality is pretty hard to ignore after the arctic blast of this past week. Monday I was enjoying my day off by hiking with the family—we were in short sleeves and enjoying pleasant fall weather. That night, however, the wind picked up as a front moved in. You know: you experienced it too. Over an hour or so, the mercury plummeted nearly 20 degrees.

When I arrived at church this morning it was only 14 degrees, with   a “feels like” temperature of -1.

Winter is coming. We feel it in our bones. So even without thinking, we gather and split firewood. We make sure the deep freeze is full. We “winterize” our houses and our cars and our wardrobes.

Winter is coming. There is no denying it. No one can say they are in the dark anymore. No one can say they are surprised. What began in the turning of the grass and the rustle of wind-through-leaves has grown, escalated, and intensified into the cold wind of winter that seems to sap even the heat of the sun.

Winter is coming. No human, animal, insect, or even plant in Atchison is asleep to that fact. We have woken up. We are aware. Winter is coming.

Thessalonians

At the time our scripture reading picks up in 1Thessalonians, Paul has already been talking about the coming Day of the Lord for some time. In those previous verses of chapter 4, the apostle sketches out a teaching on the return of Christ in the future. He wants his hearers to know that those who have already died in faith will not be at a disadvantage on the Day of the Lord.

But in contrast to the future-oriented teaching of chapter 4, Paul’s focus in chapter 5 is decidedly on the present. These instructions are not concerned with what Christians should believe about the future, they are about how they should act in the present.

Their actions—to use the expression Paul employs repeatedly here—should be driven by their ongoing awakening to God’s Kingdom. You see, if we truly know Christ’s return is immanent, then we will feel it in our bones the same way we do as winter approaches. That knowledge will drive us—consciously and subconsciously—to action: to work even more diligently—even more urgently—in the cause of Christ.

  • What (I wonder) is our equivalent of gathering and splitting firewood?
  • What is our equivalent of winterizing our houses, cars, and wardrobes?
  • What is our equivalent of gathering the foodstuffs necessary to sustain us through the season?

While they may not line up perfectly with this analogy of winter awareness and preparation, Paul does issue three instructions to the Thessalonians here.

1. “Be sober”

The first instructions are found in v.6, where the apostle urges Christians to “keep awake and be sober”—instructions repeated and expanded upon in vv.7-8 as well.

Now this is a passage of mixed metaphors, but it is still clear that Paul is not urging all of us to be insomniacs and teetotalers. Here and other places we see this direction is a plea to Christians:

to wake up to the truth of God’s kingdom,

to not dull our senses to God’s action,

and to be attentive and ready to respond when God breaks into our lives in small or large ways.

This part of Thessalonians is heavily dependent upon Jesus’ own teaching, especially those teachings recorded in Matthew 24 (42-43), Mark 13 (33-37), and Luke 12 (37-38). Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus teaching that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and all three Gospels record Jesus using a variety of analogies and parables to help his hearers understand this instruction to stay awake. These analogies include things like:

…trying to catch or ward off a thief at night,

…guarding over someone else’s home or possessions while they are away,

…eagerly waiting for the arrival of one who is delayed,

…and even anticipating a natural disaster.

All involve readiness. All involve gathering knowledge and resources. All involve the ability to immediately accept and adapt to the changing reality of what is coming.

At today’s stage of the history of God and the world, we cannot afford for our senses to be dulled—they must be heightened! We cannot afford to sleepily or wearily procrastinate our response to God’s invitation to mission—it must be immediate, or it may be too late.

You know how in the old movies, someone will get hysterical about something, and their counterpart will slap them in the face. The impact “wakes up” the previously hysterical person, and they can suddenly think clearly and do what needs done.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in real life. But the twin instructions to “be sober!” and “wake up!” are intended to be that kind of slap in the face, something to break our hysterical focus on this world so we can think and act clearly for the cause of Christ. Jesus, Paul, and the others who use these idioms want to see Christians clear their heads, come out of the fog we are in, and see fully what God is doing around and through us.

2. Gear Up

If the first instruction involves coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, the second requires preparing for our involvement in it. Verse 8 of our reading says: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet [put on] the hope of salvation.”

Paul’s language here is very reminiscent of what he writes in Ephesians 6, in that famous passage instructing believers to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:13). Much as with that text—the emphasis here is on defensive—rather than offensive—weaponry. What are these defensive guards?——They are faith, hope, and love.

Which should immediately bring to mind what Paul famously writes in 1Cor 11 (12-13), other words about life in this world and the coming Day of the Lord:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

So how do we “gear up” and prepare for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in this world?

Quite simply: we become disciplined practitioners of faith, hope, and love.

We study and reflect to remind ourselves of the hope of salvation, which is secure in Christ Jesus.

We grow our faith as we pray and increase in our trust of the God whose faithfulness endures forever.

And we intentionally choose to follow the path of love, as revealed to us by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

3. Leave No One Behind

That leads us to the third instruction. After coming to terms with the reality of what is happening around us, and preparing for our involvement in it, Paul’s third instruction is to “Encourage one another and build up each other” (v.11).

You see, our responsibility is not to ourselves. It is to others. I wonder if what Paul is advocating here is something like a “No man left behind” policy. As Christians, our responsibility is to support and encourage one another—it is to see them through. I mean, listen to this rapid sampling of verses.

Mark 12:31, Jesus instructs: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

John 15:13, Jesus declares: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Luke 17:33, Jesus teaches: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Revelation 12:11, the Voice in John’s vision says: “And they have conquered [the Enemy] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

I could read a lot more. But I don’t think I have to. You know the Christian life should be focused on others instead of yourself. I know it too. But we all have to struggle daily to purge that selfishness that seeks our own encouragement and growth over that of our neighbor.

I think I mentioned this a couple weeks ago—it’s been on my mind a lot. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says if you save one person, you save the entire world (Talmud Bavli, Art Scroll Series, Tractate Sanhedrin, folio 37a).

It’s a powerful concept. And it’s a notion that has some resonance with teachings in our New Testament as well. In it, I hear echoes of Jude 22-23:

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear…

And then there’s Matthew 10:42:

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

And of course Matthew 25:40:

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Jesus is coming again.

Let us wake up to the reality of God’s Kingdom—living in it now, even though it is not yet fully revealed.

Let us diligently practice faith, hope, and love—training and strengthening ourselves to be ready for God’s call.

Let us genuinely support each other—Let us “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” as we read in Galatians 6:2.

Let us do it today, so that on that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again.

Amen.

Dangerous Assumptions

Matthew 25:1-13

I: Retelling/explaining the Parable

A friend reminded me (this week) what an offensive text this is for us.

That’s kind of a funny thing, because it’s so strange and foreign when compared to our customs today. But yet somehow, intuitively—innately—we can see through all of that, even not understanding the customs. There’s a piece of this parable that we understand all too well, a piece that offends us deeply.

That offense (I believe) is the suggestion that we do not have as much control as we think we do—control over our lives and control over our time. You see, these bridesmaids think they are in control. They think they can manage. They think they have the power to do as they see best.

And, you see, they know the protocol. They know their responsibilities. They have arrived from their varying lives with varying amounts of preparation—but preparation may not actually be the point here. There is honestly no good reason that the five foolish bridesmaids couldn’t have waited in relative darkness for the groom. But they thought they were in control of their lives and their future. They dangerously assume they have all the time they need—that the rest of the world is operating on their timetable. But that assumption costs them greatly.

No matter what they thought, they’re not in control. They do not have have as much control over time or even their lives as they think they do at the beginning of the story. And so things turn for them—five of them—in a way they did not anticipate or expect, and will not accept.

You see, there’s dangerous assumptions that we make in this life, and one of the most dangerous is that tomorrow is certain. We assume and even expect that there is nothing in heaven and earth that can interfere with the plans that we have made. But that dangerous assumption is dead wrong.

II. Individual Assumptions

True story. A week ago Saturday—just eight days ago—my friend Daniel threw a surprise birthday party for his wife Kim. Daniel and I used to run around together in college—he’s a couple years younger than I am—and we enjoyed stirring up all kinds of trouble.

They had a lovely party celebrating Kim’s birthday, but Kim developed a migraine that night. It was so bad that they ended up going to the Emergency Room before morning came. At first, doctors thought she had experienced a seizure, but subsequent tests revealed a brain tumor.

That discovery sparked a lot more tests, including a brain biopsy on Wednesday. There is still a lot up in the air, but it looks like it may be a form of cancer that (thank God!) is not very aggressive. Doctors are hopeful about treatment. And as of Friday, Kim is back home with her family—for the time being.

I assure you though: Daniel and Kim have a very different set of eyes today than they did a week ago. Priorities have changed. Plans have shifted. Life looks different.

They have come out from under the spell of this world—the illusion that they are in control of their lives and their future. Just like five of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, their life changed in an instant as this illusion came crashing down around them.

III. Institutional Assumptions

Another true story. One of the largest protestant churches in the USA will no longer exist as of January 1, 2015.

For the year 2013, the Mars Hill Church (in the Seattle area) had an average of 12,329 worshippers a week spread across 15 locations. It employed 16 lead pastors and over 40 additional pastors (link). The church income was over $26 million dollars (link).

But within a period of about the last year, a series of controversies and scandals were exposed. Virtually none of these actually occurred during the last year, but it is (perhaps) as the Bible says in Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” The sins of their past have at last caught up with them. Their founding pastor has resigned, on account of ethical violations and coworkers finally standing up to his abusive leadership style. Some of the church’s locations will become independent churches, but all assets will effectively be liquidated (link). By January 1, the Mars Hill Church will no longer exist.

The thing is: to the members of the church, and to most of the world, this unraveling was sudden and unexpected. They did not see it coming. For all they knew, tomorrow was certain. After all, this church had money, members, respect, a killer praise band, an online presence—it was what so many churches are trying to be. But here, in the span of roughly a year, it will be phased out into nonexistence.

A lot of churches these days struggle with viability; they do not know if they have the budget or the active members to survive. Some, sadly, become paralyzed by this struggle, and they turn inward and lose their focus on and participation in God’s mission.

But the reality (that we are all in) is that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. No matter a church’s membership size or budget, no matter the number of speaking engagements their pastor has each year, no matter how many other churches may idolize them as the ideal—we do not really have that much control over our future. To suppose we do is to make a dangerous assumption that may well be a hazard to ourselves, our churches, and our ability to be involved in God’s mission in the world.

IV: The Urgency of Mission

Now, I realize I might seem like I’m being a bit of a Debbie Downer here, but that’s not the case. It’s not easy to correct these dangerous assumptions, but Jesus works to do it and so should we. Even Jesus’ brother James works to shatter these illusions when he writes “The reality is you have no idea where your life will take you tomorrow. You are like a mist that appears one moment and then vanishes another… But your current speech indicates an arrogance…” (James 4:14, 16a).

James wants us to abandon our attempt to control tomorrow and to live fully in today. Our dangerous assumption that tomorrow is a given is the height of arrogance.

But even though we cannot control the future, we do have some control (through free will) to affect the present. I think this is why so many of Jesus’ teachings are focused on how we live in the here and now with one another: Now is where we can effect change. This is a concept Christian writer Richard Rohr describes as “living in the naked now,” and it permeates Jesus’ teachings.

Do you remember what Jesus instructs in Matthew 6:34? “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

When we are willing to lose our illusions about controlling tomorrow, we can live more fully in the present, and then we will recognize an urgency to the Christian life and mission that we miss when we are always working to manipulate tomorrow.

And recognizing that urgency is an important part of the Christian mission. We can’t put off to tomorrow what God is calling us to do today. We can’t delay responding to God’s invitation to discipleship. God’s given us already what we need to participate in God’s mission today, because today is when and where God wants us to act. To wait—to delay—is to dangerously assume we know better than God.

Immediately before Jesus’ words about not being anxious about tomorrow because today is enough to worry about, he tells us exactly what we should be focused on in the “naked now” of our lives. There, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” That is the urgent mission of our “today.”

Our urgent efforts to manipulate tomorrow often crumble and fail, for tomorrow is outside our control. But that push toward “now” can and should drive us to deeper participation in God’s mission of love and grace.

It is Jesus who proclaims in Mark 1:15 that “The kingdom of God is near! Seek forgiveness, change your actions, and believe this good news!”

It is Paul who reminds us in Romans 13:11-12 that “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The darkness of night is dissolving as dawn’s light draws near, so walk out on your old dark life and put on the armor of light.”

And it is Jesus again, who declares five times in the book of Revelation, “I am coming soon” (Rev 3:11; 16:15; 22:7, 12, 20).

Maybe (in today’s parable) Jesus’ instruction “Stay awake” would be better rendered “Wake up to the fact that you don’t know the day or the hour.”

Maybe what he means is:

Wake up to the fact that you can’t control the future.

Wake up to the fact that you don’t have all the time in the world.

Wake up to the fact that all you have—all you can be certain you have—is the present.

So make the best of it. Seek first the Kingdom of God. Love deeply. Give generously. Forgive recklessly. Believe wholly.

Offer your “now” to God. Because “now”?—”Now” is all we really have to give.

The rest of the story is in the capable hands of God.

Hoping in the End

Revelation 7:9-17

The Allure…

With its obscure symbolism and vivid details, we Christians tend to approach the book of Revelation the same way we encounter a traffic accident. There may be a piece of us that wants to understand, but more often than not we are enticed to look by the sheer horror of it all. There is something clearly traumatic about the Revelation of John, something that draws us to look—even if we don’t really understand.

And about that understanding…… I think another part of the allure is that we have been taught that Revelation contains secret knowledge, which can only be understood when we are taught its keys. This way of teaching Revelation is remarkably similar to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which was denounced repeatedly by the historic church as being contrary to the teachings and mission of Jesus.

I suspect that a mentor of mine may be very correct when he says that the reason we don’t find Revelation hopeful is that we don’t really know what it means to suffer.

And knowing what it means to suffer is pretty important if you’re going to understand what John is trying to describe in these particular verses from Revelation 7.

Previous story

Starting with v.9, John’s vision takes a remarkably swift turn. To appreciate that, we have to back up to the previous verses—a vision of 144,000 Jewish servants of God—which assures the hearers that God does not renege on promises.

God began this “salvation” work with the Jews through Abraham in Genesis 12. It is through this work, God promises Abraham, that “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This “phase 1” of God’s plan is reaffirmed by Jesus in John 4:22, where he says “God’s salvation is coming through the Jews.” As the early church finds its ministry expanding among non-Jews, they emphasize that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first but also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

In those verses immediately before our reading, John’s vision affirms this ancient dynamic, indicating how some Jews do in fact experience God’s salvation. And this is of vital importance to John’s hearers, even though they are not Jews. They need to hear it because it reminds them that God does not renege on promises.

So then comes v.9. Immediately after this vision of those saved from among Israel, in a blink John sees another group of people—a group that far outnumbers the “mere” 144,000 of the previous verses. Here is an innumerable multitude—from every nation, people, clan, and language—praising God in a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. Just as on that day, there are waving palm branches, loud shouts of praise, and the declaration that salvation (deliverance) rests in the hands of God.

As Old Testament scholar Christopher Hays has said: “The inclusion of the whole earth in the promise of salvation was only the latest surprise in the long history of a God who makes unlikely choices and does new things” (Feasting on the Word, 221). This multitude is the fulfillment of the promise God began speaking in Isaiah 43:19, where God says “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”

This multitude is the group that John’s hearers will identify with. These churches in Asia Minor to which he writes—they are not made up of predominantly Jewish Christians. But to them, these verses provide the enduring hope that “there is no limit to the number who may be saved” (Hays, Feasting, 221). These words assure them that God’s promise of salvation is available to them, too—and that those like them will even outnumber those to whom God’s salvation was first extended.

And what God has promised—as to the Israelites of old—God will fulfill.

Scripture talk through…

It’s at this point (v.13) that the chapter takes another turn, this time aimed at understanding who this multitude truly is. One of the 24 elders introduced in chapter 4 asks John if he knows who these people are. John, seemingly taken aback by the question, responds as did Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37): “Lord, you know.”

These, the elder explains, are the ones who have survived the “mega suffering,” the “great ordeal,” the “big squeeze.” “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14b).

As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “they were not transported there on stretchers; they have come out on their own two feet. They have furthermore washed their own robes, making them white in the blood of the Lamb. While no one but God gets to do the math of who is there and who is not, those present have been active partners in their own salvation.”

As a result of their partnership with God throughout bloody persecution, they experience God’s eternal presence. Each promise in this list corresponds to a particular means of torture that was used against Christians in John’s time.

Some Christians succumbed to tortures involving the scorching heat or blazing sun, so God promises them they will be shielded from these.

Some were deprived of food or water, so God promises a time without hunger and thirsting.

Some were subjected to the dangers of wild beasts, so God promises to shelter them.

In the end, we read that “the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17).

It is a word of hope—but not because God promises escape from troubles and suffering. Quite the opposite!

It is a word of hope because it reminds us that God will see us through.

It is a word of hope because we see that those who oppose God (and us) will not get the last word.

It is a word of hope in that it reminds us of the eternal repercussions of our perseverance and pursuit of God.

Application

So there it is, right? But what do we do with that?

Well, as I pointed out at the beginning, one of our biggest problems in correctly reading and applying the book of Revelation is that we do not really know what it means to suffer. And I’m not belittling the troubles and trials in your life. It’s just that the woes most of us experience are very different than being torn limb from limb by wild animals, or being burned to death, or even just living in fear that someone may discover you are a Christian and your life will literally be over.

In the midst of those kinds of troubles, these words are incredibly hopeful.

And I do believe they can be incredibly hopeful for us too. And here’s how:

A help is found in Philippians 1:6. If your bibles are still handy, take a second and turn there. This is one of the most important and hopeful verses in the whole of the New Testament.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

You see, this is the promise and this is the hope that John’s hearers are hanging on. It’s the reason why those 144,000 are so important. God began something with the descendants of Abraham, something that God will bring to completion.

If God isn’t going to finish what God started in them, then there would be no hope for any of us. Because just as God started doing a “new thing” with Jesus Christ, God could abandon this new thing in favor of some other new thing.

But we have the assurance of God in scrptures that even when God begins a new thing, God will still follow through on the things God has been working on. Even when God introduces Jesus into the mix, God still brings his promises to the Jews to fulfillment.

You know: New is tough. Change is hard. Christians (and churches) are not immune from any of that. But we have the hope of God’s promise, secure as it is backed by God’s own faithfulness, that God will not abandon what God has started in us. God will see it—and us—through.

But just like with the multitude in John’s vision, there’s work that we must ourselves do as we persevere and adapt to the changing world in which God’s mission is playing out.

We can take comfort that God will indeed triumph over evil—that the world will one day be conformed to God’s desires from the beginning of creation.

But let us also continue to be encouraged to “be about our Father’s work,” just as was our savior Jesus the Christ, whose death and resurrection pave the way for our own abundant and eternal life in God.

Continue in hope, sisters and brothers, for the God “who began a good work in you will [indeed] bring it to completion.”

Praise be to God, “For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD!” (Ps 117:2).