Monday, September 25, 2017

9-24-17 “The Grown Up Church” 3rd in the "There Is UNITY in the CommUNITY" series

9-24-17   “The Grown Up Church” 3rd in the "There Is UNITY in the CommUNITY" series

   When I was a kid, in the 1960s and early 70s, I couldn’t wait to grow up. In elementary school I couldn’t wait to get to Junior High then High School. 
When I was in 5th grade and we were signing up for band I wanted to play drums, but they wouldn’t start kids on drums until 7th grade and I didn’t want to wait to start band, so I played trumpet instead. I couldn’t wait to turn 13 so I would be a teenager, which meant I could date. I couldn’t wait to turn 15 so I could get my learner’s permit to learn to drive, and after that I couldn’t wait until I was 16 years, one month, and one day (the law in Indiana at the time) to get my driver’s license. And once I was in high school I couldn’t wait to graduate and go to college. I couldn’t wait to leave my podunk little home town and get away, on my own. I simply couldn’t wait to grow up! And now that I am - I just wish things would slow down! 
   But that was typical of kids back then, at least of the kids in my hometown, of my generation. We were anxious to grow up, to become adults, to have our independence, to make our own decisions. We looked forward to moving out of our parents’ home, having our own job and our own money, to gaining some degree of freedom, to experimenting with “adult beverages, substances, and activities.” But boy, have the times changed. In a study published in the journal Child Development that was released on Tuesday of this week, researchers found that “the percentage of adolescents in the U.S. who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decrease in the last decade.” And the study indicated that the decline appeared across racial, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, and in rural, urban, and suburban areas.

   And the study, as reported in the Washington Post, said that “to be sure, more than half of teens still engage in these activities, but the majorities have slimmed considerably. Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school senior and had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015 only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion who had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 to 55 percent. And the portion who had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016. And though not part of this study, teens have also reported a similar decline in sexual activity, dropping from 54% who reported having had sex in 1991 to 41% in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 
   So the gist of the study results are that kids are “growing up,” at least by those measures, more slowly than they used to. And one of the reasons cited for this is that kids today, for the most part, don’t have to do these things. In those earlier times, based on economics, college accessibility, and other factors, there was a “survival instinct” that drove kids to earlier development. The uncertainty of economics, the fear of war, nuclear annihilation, and other factors led young people to frame their life trajectory in a way that meant striving for independence amidst the uncertainty of what lay before them. 
In earlier times, the article says, “the goal was survival, not violin lessons by age 5.” In that model, it suggests, “a teenage boy might be thinking more seriously about marriage, and driving a car and working for pay would be more important for establishing value as a potential mate based on procurement of resources,” the study said. 
   And the study goes on to say that researchers were able to eliminate what might seem like obvious answers to this slowing down - the internet, homework, extracurricular activities - suggesting instead that smaller family sizes and a sense of the importance of a more nurturing home environment contributed greatly. In addition, in many cities with greater availability of bike paths, buses, and ride sharing many teens don’t see the need to drive. With a greater emphasis on getting an education and exploring life before committing to a relationship and eventually children, dating seriously in high school seems much less important or even practical to many kids today. In effect, the study says, adolescents have “remodeled their brains” when it comes to what have been looked at historically as “rites of passage” activities among teenagers. So maybe it’s not that they’re growing up more slowly than many of us did, maybe it’s that they’re growing up differently.

   Confirmation is a rite of passage within the church. 
It’s that time in our spiritual growth progression when we begin to think independently of and beyond the Bible stories we learned in Sunday School as children. It is, for many young people, the time when their faith and beliefs begin to go through the same kinds of churning and questioning that all the other aspects of their lives, not unlike those mentioned earlier, are subject to as well. So, rather than coming out of the confirmation process as fully indoctrinated little Christians marching to an orthodox drummer, most youth come out of it, if it’s a healthy process, with as many or even more questions. Confirmation is more a process of helping the youth to understand how to think about their faith, how to apply their faith in their lives, than it is telling them what they must think or believe. And it’s done in an atmosphere of love and support, where all questions are fair game, and where uncertainty and differing ideas are welcomed and explored. And thinking back to the image I gave you about redwood groves a couple of weeks ago, and how these mighty trees survive with very shallow root systems because of how a grove of trees supports one another by “holding hands” underground, this process of discipleship growth that is Confirmation takes place within a community - this community - that covenants with the confirmands and with one another to hold each other up, to provide love, support, and nurture for one another as part of a church family. 

   Paul’s message to the church at Ephesus in today’s reading is also about how we grow up, and the need for Christians and for the church to grow up.
And like the root network of the sequoia trees, he says that it takes all kinds of people and gifts and support for individual Christians and for the church as a whole to grow up in a healthy and sustainable way. 
Just as a single redwood cannot exist outside of the grove because of the lack of support provided by its own roots, no Christian, no church can function as God intended it to on its own, using only its own gifts and skills, outside of community. Paul wrote in today’s reading,
11 [God] gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 [God’s] purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.

   A church consisting of all apostles, or all prophets, or all evangelists, would be neither healthy nor sustainable. And you can’t begin to imagine what a church made up of all pastors would be like! No, God calls different people together into the body of Christ the church, as Paul said, “for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we reach the unity of faith…God’s goal is for us to become mature adults…” That is, God is calling us to grow up.

   Often, when we think about “church” and “growth,” we focus on the numbers; what’s the worship attendance, how many members are there, how many baptisms, confirmands, professions of faith, etc. have there been. And while I’m not suggesting that those things aren’t important I am saying they’re not the most important. Why? Because boosting attendance can be done with gimmicks. I shared with you at Easter an advertisement I saw for a church that held a drawing to give away a flat screen TV during worship on Easter Sunday. 
Now, I’m sure they had higher than normal attendance that Sunday, and maybe even a few of them liked what they saw and came back, but that is not, I think you would agree, a growth strategy built on a foundation of integrity. That’s a gimmick. If increasing average worship attendance is really important to a congregation, which it should be, there are two very easy things a congregation can do and the first is quite simple: invite someone to church. If every person in the congregation brought one other person, worship attendance would double, would it not? And the second thing that would increase average worship attendance, is for everyone who attends to attend more frequently. If a person attends worship on average, half the Sundays in a year and that person increased their rate of attendance to three fourths of the Sunday, the average worship attendance would increase. So, growth in numbers can be achieved with gimmicks, by inviting, or by attending more regularly, but that doesn’t equate to the spiritual growth that Paul is talking about here. I have a sign above my desk of a quote I read some time ago that reads, “Instead of focusing on getting BIGGER, focus on getting BETTER, then the community will demand that you get BIGGER!”

   The kind of growth that makes us better at what we do is spiritual growth, growth in faith and discipleship. 
And how do we grow in faith and discipleship? 
How do we get better at anything? We practice. 
By practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, studying scripture, meditation, serving others, and giving. In the membership vows that we all took and that Jon and Wesley just said for the first time, we promise to support the church - that is, one another - with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. That’s what we said we would do. 

   Have you ever gone to a gym to begin a workout regimen only to be intimidated by all the chiseled and sculpted bodies all around you? It’s a real challenge and very humbling to go into that situation and be surrounded by all those “beautiful bodies.” But those people worked hard to get to that point, they were disciplined, and even after they achieved that level of health and fitness that, honestly, most of us will never get to, they keep going, they keep investing their time and energy into it in order to maintain that level.  If we want to grow bigger muscles then personal trainers will tell us that we must exercise those muscles, we must lift weights, feed the muscle tissues with protein, and then let them rest and recover. And then do it all over again. If we want to grow in our knowledge of something, we have to invest time and energy into reading and researching that subject. If we want to grow in our faith, we have to invest our time and our talents, our prayers and our gifts, into that growth, on an ongoing basis and for more than an hour or so on Sundays. 
And it’s the church, the body of Christ, that surrounds us with people to support us in that journey, that quest.

   But it’s not easy. Like most people who go to the gym, the enthusiasm lasts a little while but then we quit. Or like a new convert in the church, we’re into everything initially, but soon burn out. Or the opposite, we’ve been in the church a long time and take the attitude, “I’ve done my share, it’s somebody else’s turn.” And in the church, as in the gym or in life, we sometimes tend to focus on what we don’t like rather than what will make us stronger: “I don’t like lifting weights,” “I don’t like getting sweaty,” “I don’t like that music,” or “I didn’t like that sermon.” We can always find something, something that we don’t like or that isn’t our preference to justify not taking the steps needed to improve or to grow can’t we?
   It’s more helpful, healthy, and holy to work alongside others toward creating a community that is becoming more Christlike, a body that is stronger, a people in love with God and one another. This is the necessary work for a maturing church. But getting there requires us to change how we do things sometimes, to shift our thinking, to take on new practices.

   Shifting our way of thinking about our ministry in the church includes first adopting the conviction that the ministry belongs to all of us and not just a few. 
And second, it requires the understanding that our focus is most helpfully placed on growth and maturity. But a third essential concept from Ephesians 4 is our continuing need for conversion, that is, our continued growing up. Whether your initial conversion to Christianity came in what is often called a “Road to Damascus” moment, that is, a sudden all at once conversion moment that you can pin to a specific day in your life, or whether it was more of a “Road to Emmaus” process, a gradual conversion over time as suggested by the story of two disciples who came to gradually understand who Jesus was while walking on the road to Emmaus following the crucifixion, either way it was a conversion. 
And a conversion is, by definition, a call to leave the old life behind, and to enter into a new world. It’s the same idea expressed in the idea of repentance, of turning our life in a new direction. In fact, we need to repent, to convert, on a regular basis because it’s very difficult to leave the old life behind in its entirety.
   Conversion is work God does within us, and we resist it! The grace of God that comes to us by faith is a work of continuing, ongoing conversion. This new life is described in all too specific language near the end of the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “put away your former way of life, your obsessions with sex and money; be renewed, live faithfully, be holy, that is, live differently from the world; speak the truth in love in a way that shows your love for others; be honest, don’t steal, work hard, so that you will have resources to help others; forgive others, because after all Christ has forgiven you.”

   This is a rich description of a new life, and a vivid reminder of our need for ongoing conversion. So when Paul calls us to grow up, he’s inviting us to a lifelong conversion process of growth, of investment of ourselves and our lives into becoming more Christ-like in how we are, how we think, how we act. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, by feeding all God’s children, body, mind, and soul. And the first discipleship conversion we’re called to make is our own, surrounded by other disciples who are on the same journey - those other redwoods in our grove whose underground roots “hold hands” with our own for mutual support.

   And to do that we have to give up something, something near and dear to us: our pride. And you thought I was going to say your money didn’t you? No, our love of money is just a symptom - pride is the ultimate sin that keeps us from fully converting. In the Christian tradition, pride is considered the deadliest sin.
Pride is our inability to ask for help. Pride is our refusal to accept a gift. Pride is our rejection of God. Like idolatry, it’s placing something else - ego, fear, money, possessions - ahead of God. And to overcome pride requires our surrender: surrender to God, to God’s grace, to God’s promises, to God’s love. 

   The removal of pride makes a space for something else, something greater: “I pray,” Paul said, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Christ takes the place of pride in our lives. The love of self gives way to the cross-shaped love of God and neighbor. The illusion of wanting to be in control, or of thinking we’re in control, is replaced by the image of the One “who loved [us] and gave himself for [us]” (Galatians 2:20). The arrogance of desiring first place is corrected by the great reversal of the gospel, where the last are now first.
   In my pride, I reject the natural limits and boundaries that shape my life. 
In love, I give thanks for circumstances that ground me. In love, I praise God for creation and my place in it. In pride, we claim more knowledge than we actually possess. In humility, we stand before a mystery. And Paul continues, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” We bow, finally, before a mystery. God creates, redeems, sustains, and sanctifies the world, that we might all be united in one faith, one hope, and one Lord.
   As we become more grounded, more humble, more Christ-like in how we love and care for one another, God draws near us. We come before God in prayer and in worship, in adoration and praise. And we pray for the gift of love. We love, because God first loved us.
   The mission God gives belongs to all of us, and effective participation in the mission will require the God-given gifts that each one of us have been granted. God is calling us to grow up, to become more like Christ, as we are strengthened to be his body, the church. We do that with prayer, for one another, for our mission and ministries, and for our community. We do that through our presence, by being here “in the grove” where our roots provide support for others when they need it and where their roots support us. We do it with our gifts, when we give not out of what is left over but when we, out of an understanding of and appreciation for all that God has done for us, seek to give back ten percent of our income from the first fruits to support the church and its work as the hands and feet of Christ. We do that with our service, when we give of our time serving to those ministries that align with the vision that God has given us. And we do that with our witness, when our cross-shaped lives serve as a testimony to the presence of God and the growth in our faith, and when we invite others into the same relationship and growth that have shaped and guided us. That is what Paul means when he calls us to grow up, to be the grown up church.

   The Christian life is a process of ongoing lifelong conversion. We’re invited to leave the old life behind and enter a new world. God gives us everything we need to not only survive but to thrive in that new world. And God surrounds us with a grove of redwoods who support us on the journey just as we support them. The commitments we make today, much like the commitments to the faith that these two young men have made in our presence today, bear witness to the covenant we make with God and with one another, to grow in our faith, and to grow in our hope, as we seek to grow with our Lord. Amen.

Monday, September 18, 2017

9-17-17 Sermon “The Miracle of Inclusion” Part 2 of our “There is UNITY in CommUNITY!” series on Ephesians

9-17-17 Sermon  “The Miracle of Inclusion” Part 2 of our “There is UNITY in CommUNITY!” series on Ephesians

   I was listening to a discussion this week about the ramifications of the hacking of the Equifax Credit Reporting Agency for 143 million Americans whose sensitive credit information was stolen. 
The hacking of social security numbers, dates of birth, and other critical information means that for nearly half of our population, their credit is not and will not be secure for the rest of their lives. Have you checked to see if your information was stolen? Check again…
  One of the things that was pointed out in the discussion that I heard, and that most people don’t think about, but as citizens, as consumers, as credit users and borrowers, our relationship to Equifax is not a business-customer relationship. We are not their customers, banks and businesses are their customers. No, we are the product. Our information, our credit history, in effect, our financial lives are the product they buy and sell. 
  And one of the things that pundits are suggesting we should do to protect ourselves in this mess is to get credit monitoring. That is, utilize a service that monitors our credit reports for us so that if anything fishy pops up, they will notify us. And coincidentally, who do you suppose provides that kind of service? 
Equifax, and the other credit monitoring services. And of course, they’ve offered it to everyone effected for free for the first year, but after that the service has a cost attached to it. One person who was participating in the discussion that I heard equated that arrangement to an organized crime protection racket, where a business had to pay gangsters for protection, and if they didn’t those same gangsters would destroy the business.

   And if that’s not enough, Equifax, who knew about this security breach for months before they made it public, revealed that some executives in the company sold off large amounts of their company stock prior to making 
the public announcement of the breach. Prosecutors are looking into whether there is actually insider trading going on in this situation because they had access to this insider information and tried to profit from it. It is both criminal and immoral to seek to profit at the expense of others based on having access to information that is not generally available to the public. The law prohibits that kind of “insider trading” - being an insider has its privileges, but it also has its responsibilities.

   But, more broadly than this, we like being insiders, it feels really good to be an insider doesn’t it - to know what’s going on, to know what’s coming next, to know who’s doing this and who’s doing that? I’ve always been a news junkie because I liked to know what was going on. As a kid, I used to buy the Fall Preview issue of the TV Guide magazine the first day it came out because I wanted to know what the cool new TV shows were going to be so that I could map out my TV viewing plan well before any of the shows actually debuted. Yeah, I was THAT kind of nerd. It was easier then, though, there were only a handful of stations and networks that you had to worry about. I used to be the one who went to the really big movies the day they premiered so that I could be the one to tell my friends and family about it. I loved being an insider in those ways.

   At the same time, being an insider or an outsider isn’t always a choice. I was never an insider when it came to playing sports. There was nothing I hated more than gym class in school when the PE instructor, one of the school coaches, picked two of the star athletes in the class to choose sides for a baseball, basketball, or kickball game because I knew I was going to be among the last ones picked and then only because EVERYONE had to be on a team. I would bat or kick near the end of the lineup, or I spent most of the basketball game on the bench because I wasn’t part of the “inside” crowd of athletes or “jocks.” Band nerds don’t get to play pitcher, they play right field if they play at all. Being on the outside stinks. 

   And in one of the most obvious, “you-shoulda-seen-this-coming-for-miles” sort of transitions or segues that I can recall ever using in a sermon, the Apostle Paul, in last week’s reading, shared that we are all “insiders” to God’s plan for the redemption of the whole world. We are, Paul says, inside traders because of what God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. But rather than just seek to profit for ourselves, we are instructed to make this information known to anyone and everyone. God loves all of creation and has a plan to bring redemption and salvation to all the world - that is, God wants everyone on the inside with this one.

   That’s not as easy as it sounds though because, realistically, we have enemies. We do, we have enemies in the world, people we don’t agree with, people we don’t like, people who don’t like us.  From people on the opposite side of culture wars, to that nemesis at work or the bully at school, most of us have an enemy who is not entirely an abstraction. We may not use that word, but the effect is the same. Many of us may also be “the enemy” of someone else. And then, when relationships like this get really convoluted, we sometimes get into “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of thinking and then you don’t know who’s who.

   But like it or not, in life, there are insiders and outsiders. The welcome mat is placed for some and not for others. Some are accepted—others are rejected. Perhaps you have had the experience of being on the inside, of knowing acceptance. It’s a secure feeling. Maybe you have also known rejection and exclusion. It can be frustrating and disillusioning. 
Interestingly, as much as we waffle back and forth on the issue - being open to including as insiders “people like us,” while being less open to “people like them,” studies of young men - and it is almost exclusively young men - who commit mass shootings, hate crimes, and who are radicalized into some kind of violence, are often people who have been excluded, shoved to the outside at some critical juncture in their lives. That kind of insider-outsider ostracism comes at a huge cost for many in our society when it reaches that level of extremism, which it seems to be doing with more and more frequency.

   But what do these questions have to do with us, reading this letter to a strange place and to a people identified by the word “Ephesus,” twenty centuries later? The answer is that it has everything to do with us - EVERYTHING. The primary issues in this letter are our acceptance before God, our access to God, and our acceptance of one another. The good news, Paul proclaims, is that there is “wideness in God’s mercy.” The good news, Paul insists, is that Jesus Christ has destroyed the distinctions between insider and outsider, accepted and rejected. Jesus has torn down the walls that the world, society, and religion has sought to build up - just knocked them to the ground.
   And this is really, really good news for us because, 
you see, we are the outsiders to whom Paul refers, 
we are the Gentiles, we are the ones who once were far off, but now have been brought near, who once were lost but now are found. As Gentiles, ours is the group that was pushed to the edges, left in the margins. 
Thank God there’s wideness in God’s mercy! 
This has happened through the love of Jesus, through the work that God did when Jesus was nailed to the cross—a cross that represents the peace that God has made with the world; a cross that represents all divisions; a cross that communicates God’s desires for the world.
   The wall of division that Jesus tore down was the wall of temple and law, which separated the holy people from the unclean; which prevented many people—most people—from God; which limited their access. God was kept hidden within the walls by the so-called insiders, but this could never be God’s ultimate purpose, because it is true, there is wideness in God’s mercy. 

   In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the multitudes who are hungry and has compassion (Mark 6), and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the Gentile, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the stranger, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon children, and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon women and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon the prodigal (Luke 15) and says, “You are included.” 
In Jesus Christ, God looks upon us, you and me, in all of our conditions, and says, “You are included.”
   This is the radical message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are no longer insiders and outsiders - no longer male or female, Greek or Jew, Gay or Straight.  There are no longer the accepted and the rejected. There are no longer the holy and the unclean (see Acts 10). There are no longer some who play the game and others who are banished to the sidelines! Jesus has knocked down the dividing wall between these groups. The two have become one.

   We are included, and the visible sign of this inclusion is the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is a reminder that as Paul tells us in his letter to the church at Rome, nothing can separate us from his love. Nothing. It is a reminder that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) but that even that cannot separate us from God’s love. It is a reminder that God’s love is expressed to us in the miraculously good news that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 RSV).
   What does it mean for us, then, that the excluded are now included? What does it mean for those on the inside and for those on the outside? 
For those on the inside—in the day of Jesus this would have referred to those who officiated in the temple and knew the laws—we open ourselves to the possibility that God is not confined to our traditions, codes, and formulas and not to our doctrines. The cross takes precedence over circumcision, that is the law, in the inclusion now of Gentiles. The cross expresses the heart and character of a God whose covenant was intended for the blessing of all the families of the earth (Genesis 11). So living a  life that brings glory to God, as we discussed last week, what is sometimes called living a cross-shaped life, means we broaden our circle to include those we previously thought were on the outside, remembering that there is wideness in God’s mercy.
   And what does a cross-shaped life look like? 
I’ll invite you to stand as you are able, but if not do this sitting, and extend your arms straight out to your sides. With your body, you are making the shape of the cross. Living a cross-shaped life, like the shape of the cross itself, means maintaining that vertical relationship, the upright of the cross, between God and yourself, while at the same time maintaining the horizontal relationship with other people represented by the outstretched arms. And if you think about it, you must adopt the form or shape of the cross in order to embrace another person - you cannot embrace another without taking the shape of the cross. So I invite you to turn and embrace another right now. Please be seated.  
   For those on the outside, the cross is good news, it is Christ’s embrace of us. Sometimes we become accustomed to being outsiders, standing apart, not taking our place in the circle. Yet the history of God’s salvation continues, weaving together insider and outsider, offering new interpretations of law…
 as when Jesus said,  “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you”. Through the love of Christ and cross-shaped living by Christ followers, outsiders are welcomed in and transformed into insiders. We become “one body through the cross,” or as our song last week said, “we are one in the Spirit.” There are no longer two groups - we are one.
   Jesus comes into our world to make peace, to embrace, to integrate, to unify. This great work was accomplished in his body, on a cross, and continues in his body, the church. At times we forget, and we lapse into our comfortable divisions, looking toward those who look and think like us, while turning away from those who are “strangers and aliens” to us.
   This is never God’s dream for the church or for God’s people in the church. God wants something more. The miracle of being included, when it happens, is a foretaste of something greater, of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We know it when we see it. We rejoice when we experience it. There is a wideness in God’s mercy. In the work of Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, there is the creation of one new unified humanity, where all are included. In a divided and conflicted world, this is surely good news! Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

9-10-17 "But Wait...There's More!" - First in the “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY” series on Ephesians

9-10-17 “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY” Ephesians Series
 Week 1 - “But Wait! There’s More!”

   I don’t know about you, but I’m a person who wonders about things. I’m curious - how did this come to be, who was the greatest at or the first to do that, why is this “whatever” this way? I’ve always been a questioner, and with the advent of Google the answers to my endless questioning is often only a few keystrokes away. So, do you ever wonder, what is the greatest invention of all time? I mean, which inventions, over the course of history, have made the biggest impact on the world? It’s a big question, and of course, the answer you get depends largely on who you ask. 

   Well, my work in researching and preparing for this sermon admittedly often took a circuitous route, not un-like the route Billy often takes when asked to do something in the comic The Family Circus, by Bill and Jean Keane. Like Billy in that cartoon, I sometimes begin with a particular task in mind and after meanderings through the Bible, books, online commentaries, a timeout for another cup of coffee, You-Tube videos, my iPhone music playlist, Google, more coffee, and any number of other stops along the way, I end up with something different than what I started out looking for. 
So, here’s kind of what the process looked like for me, this time.

   I began by reading the scripture - good place to start, right? And as I read chapter one of Ephesians the writer points out that God’s plan is for much more than just the forgiveness of our individual sins, there’s more to it than that. And then my brain made the connection of “more,” first to the song by Steve Lawrence (sing “More than the greatest love the world has known…) but I didn’t stay there long before I moved to the TV informercials and the line that always pops up - and became the title for this week’s installment, “But Wait, There’s More!” And that connection made me think about all of the things we’ve seen advertised on these ads over the years, from the Popeel Pocket Fisherman (which I know for a fact Tom Pettit still uses to this day) 

to the Vvegematic, Flex Seal tape and thousands of other As Seen On TV inventions. This, of course, led me to the question, what is the greatest invention of all time? Which led me to Google, and that’s how we go to this point, right here, right now
   So, according the website BIGTHINK.COM, (by Paul Ratner, October 30, 2016) the top ten greatest inventions of all time, in descending order are:

10. STEAM ENGINE - invented between 1763 and 1775 by James Watt, who built upon the ideas of previous steam engine attempts. The steam engine powered trains, ships, factories and the Industrial Revolution as a whole.

9. ELECTRICITY - utilization of electricity is a process to which many bright minds have contributed over thousands of years, going all the way back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, when Thales of Miletus conducted the earliest research into the phenomenon. The 18th-century American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is generally credited with significantly furthering our understanding of electricity, if not its discovery.

8. PRINTING PRESS - invented in 1439 by the German Johannes Gutenberg, this device in many ways laid the foundation for our modern age. It allowed ink to be transferred from the movable type to paper in a mechanized way. This revolutionized the spread of knowledge and religion as previously books were generally hand-written (often by monks).

7. GUNPOWDER - this chemical explosive, invented in China in the 9th century, has been a major factor in military technology (and, by extension, in wars that changed the course of human history).

6. PAPER - invented about 100 BC in China, paper has been indispensable in allowing us to write down and share our ideas. 

5. COMPASS - this navigational device has been a major force in human exploration. The earliest compasses were made in China between 300 and 200 BC.

4. OPTICAL LENSES - from glasses to microscopes and telescopes, optical lenses have greatly expanded the possibilities of our vision. They have a long history, first developed by ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, with key theories of light and vision contributed by Ancient Greeks.

3. NAIL - The earliest known use of this very simple but super-useful metal fastener dates back to Ancient Egypt, about 3400 B.C. If you are more partial to screws, they’ve been around since Ancient Greeks (1st or 2nd century BC).

2. WHEEL - the wheel was invented by Mesopotamians around 3500 B.C., to be used in the creation of pottery. About 300 years after that, the wheel was put on a chariot and the rest is history.

1. FIRE - It can be argued that fire was discovered rather than invented. Certainly, early humans observed incidents of fire, but it wasn’t until they figured out how to control it and produce it themselves that humans could really make use of everything this new tool had to offer. The earliest use of fire goes back as far as 2 million years ago, while a widespread way to utilize this technology has been dated to about 125,000 years ago. Fire gave us warmth, protection, and led to a host of other key inventions and skills like cooking. The ability to cook food helped us get the nutrients to support our expanding brains, giving us an indisputable advantage over other primates. 
   But the power of Google to provide answers aside, I have to disagree. Having lost untold hours of my life that I will never get back watching thousands and thousands of commercials for everything from the Aqua Dog canine water bottle to the Flippin’ Fantastic Perfect Pancake flipper to the Spin Mop, I think the greatest invention known to humanity HAS to be… the digital video recorder. 
Why? Because it allows the user to skip past all of those ridiculous commercials and saves you hours of couch time that would otherwise be wasted! But, as a means of giving credit where credit is due, were it not for the Billy Mayes, Ron Popeils, and others who interrupt our viewing of CSI and Law and Order reruns with ads for mops, all things plastic, and time savers in the kitchen, we might never have heard the phrase, “But wait, there’s more,” and WHO KNOWS where this sermon might have gone! 

   Seriously though, “But wait, there’s more!” is the core of the message of Paul or pseudo-Paul -  remember from our earlier series, Ephesians is one of those letters that we can’t say with certainty that Paul actually wrote, or whether it was one of his followers who wrote in his name. We’ll call him Paul to keep it simple. And likewise, the earliest versions of the letter don’t have the name “Ephesus” included in it, leading some to believe that this letter originated as a more general letter and that “Ephesus” was added later. Regardless, the gist of the message in our passage today is, “But wait, there’s more.”
   And the letter begins with Paul pronouncing a blessing on God rather than any kind of thanksgiving for the Ephesians themselves, one of the traditional marks of the genuine Pauline letters, by the way. And then Paul, in verse 5, at nearly the beginning of the letter, makes clear the implications of God’s work for those to whom the letter is written: they (and we) have been adopted by God. And then Paul proceeds to list many of the things that God has done for us:
  • God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence even before the creation of the world.
  • We have been freed through Christ from those things which bind us or hold us captive.
  • We have forgiveness for our failures through God’s grace.
  • God revealed God’s plan in and through Jesus Christ.

   And then comes the “But wait, there’s more” moment. In addition to all that God has already done for us, this is God’s plan for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. All things, all people, all of creation - all means all!

   Paul says that we are insiders to a much bigger plan than even the lavish grace that forgives our sins and frees us from all that would seek to own us. 
God intends to gather all things up into Christ, so that the love, healing, wisdom, and welcome that we associate with Jesus will be the way the whole creation works. This is our destiny and that of the whole creation: to “live for the praise of God’s glory.”

   But what does this mean for us, today? 
What does this look like for us - made in the image of God as co-creators with God? And what does it look like for church, the hands and feet of God in the world? And how are we to think about what it means to “live for the praise of God’s glory?”

   Let’s think about it in three ways - a kind of a trinitarian approach. We begin with the idea that God provides. God is at work in our lives before we are even aware of it, before we can even think about responding to that providence. God has a plan, not a detailed step-by-step set of controls that dictates everything we say, think, or do, or everything that happens in the world, but a plan, a desire, a preferred future as it is sometimes called, that is not only for our good and our redemption, but for the redemption of the whole world
It’s a providence rooted in grace, particularly what John Wesley called prevenient grace, the grace that precedes or goes before us. It is the love of God for all of creation that tugs at us, loves us, woos us into relationship with God even before we have awareness of it. 

   So there is God’s providence, and there is also God’s power. We see and experience God’s power as it makes us whole, holy, and blameless before God. 
It’s a power born of love, not of control; a power that defers to our free will; that desires our love but never forces it. And the source of this power can be found in the phrase “in Christ,” which is found multiple times in our reading for today. To live “in Christ” is to live in such a way as to strive to glorify God as we seek to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ, who came to reveal God’s self, God’s plan of redemption, and God’s irresistible love most fully to us, glorifying God in how he lived and died.
   So what does the power of God mean for you and for me? At the end of the letter, in Eph 6:30, Paul refers to himself as an “ambassador in chains.” 
That is, even as he is in prison awaiting trial, Paul still clings to the power, the love, the grace of God. By all obvious measures or appearances, Paul is powerless. Some of us sense that we are powerless in this life, that we have lost, or never had control of our destinies, that our lives and the world is closing in on us.

 Since that fateful day sixteen years ago, when two planes brought down two towers, and stoked the fears of the world, the world has become much smaller - too small for some.  Corporate decisions seem to have been removed from us, the adage “follow the money” speaks to how fear, including the fear of scarcity, has replaced faith for many and points to the idol that many people truly worship if the truth be known. The challenges in the world seem more immense, the needs greater, and the resources fewer. Paul writes as one in bondage, and his writing challenges us to consider, to what are we in bondage? Fear? Idolatry? Racism? Materialism? Privilege? Consumerism? Militarism? Greed? But even as Paul writes from a place of physical bondage, he knows and claims the power of God. And he tells us in our reading today, that the power that he claims is promised to us, is an inheritance to us, as well.

   So God provides for us. God’s power is with us and for us. God also has a purpose for us, that we might live “to the praise of God’s glory.” That is, that we might live lives that testify to the presence of God in our lives and that doing so brings glory to God. And what does that look like for us? A clergy colleague shared a wonderful illustration with me several years ago that I’ll share with you to help us picture this.  

   Have any of you ever been to Redwood National Park, or seen redwood or sequoia trees in nature?  These majestic trees are said to be the tallest living species in all of God’s earthly creation.  They can exceed 300 feet in height, and can be 44 feet around at its base. With trees this big, you would expect them to have huge, deep roots underground, supporting and stabilizing them, right?  But, in fact, redwood roots are very shallow, growing only 4-6 feet deep.  This isn’t much support for a tree that grows 30 stories high and more than 40 feet around, is it?
   A redwood’s roots don’t grow deep, but they do grow wide, spreading as far as 125 feet in all directions.  And redwoods never grow alone, they grow in groves, or communities, so that as each tree’s roots grow outward, they interlock with those of its neighbors, to form a network of roots.  It’s as though they’re holding hands underground, forming a web of roots that allows the trees to withstand even the greatest of storms. God created them in such a way that they must grow in community with other redwoods.

   Now, I’ll ask you to turn and look at all of these who are gathered here with you today - those on your left and right, those in front and behind. These are your redwoods - this is your grove, your network of roots, your community. This is who God has provided for you, planted alongside you to interlock with, to hold hands with, to grow with, when the seasons get testy, when the world seems cold and violent, when the wind of change blow hard and the fire of conflict appears ready to bring us crashing down. 

   This unity is our purpose; the unity that Jesus modeled in selecting twelve to follow him, twelve to stand together. Only one of the twelve fell - the one who attempted to live outside the grove, the one who tried to go it alone. And this is the unity in community as a church family that is our purpose that we are invited into when we share together in our worship, in our service, in fellowship, in our giving, in our living. Where any one individual or family cannot, on its own, do all the work of living in a way that glorifies God, when we are joined together in community, then all things are possible through the God’s providence, power, and purpose. It is in that unity that we support one another, love one another, provide care for one another, and hold one another up, bearing one another’s burdens, carrying each other.
    In a couple of weeks we’ll ask you to make two commitments to unity in our community. The first will be with your pledge of financial support for the next year, answering after prayerful consideration, “what percentage of your income God is calling you to give to support the vision, the mission, and the ministries of your church for the next year.” And second, we’ll ask for your commitment to giving of your time and talents to both support and extend the community to those around us through our mission and ministries here at Crossroads. 

   As an act of worship this week we invited you to help us prepare the soil for the seed that God has planted in our community. As we shared in our last series, the Tree of Life was present in the garden “in the beginning,” and had become a grove of its own “when God made all things new” in the new Jerusalem. The Tree of Life, in some ways, represents all that God desires for us and for all of creation; it represents the life-giving presence of God with us, as well as the “more” that Paul promises us in the opening of the letter to Ephesians. And it represents that unity that we find in Christ, as a Christ-centered community.

  So as we conclude, I want to invite you, you mighty redwoods, to join hands with those around you, to your right, to your left, in front of you and behind you, that our roots might combine to hold one another up, as I share with you some lines adapted from a brief reading titled, 

“Thoughts from a Garden.”

All the seasons will be yours,
but remember, too,
that gardens are not just happenings.
The more wonderful the garden,
the more skilled the gardener.
So you will have to care deeply for the life that is yours together, and nurture it.
You will have to appreciate your differences and cultivate them.

You will have to take care of yourself,
if for no other reason than out of love for the other.
And you will need the support of family and friends to reach full growth.
As you caringly chose this place to [to connect to God’s community],
so remember its lessons for your life together through the seasons that are yours to share.
And may those seasons bring you joy and happiness [in God]. Amen. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

9-3-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 4

9-3-17 Sermon “You Say You Want a Revelation?” Part 4

(A note - due to "operator error" on my part, the recording of this sermon didn't begin at the beginning, but actually about 1 minutes in. I have indicated below where the recording begins. My apologies for the miscue.)

   So we concluded chapter 18 last week with the pronouncement of the fall of Babylon, John’s code name for the Roman Empire. John’s late first century vision eventually came to fruition nearly 300 years later, when Rome fell in the year 410 - nearly 400 years after Jesus’ earthly life ended. For perspective, that’s about the same time interval as between now and when Pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

   But in contrast to the songs of lament over the fall of Babylon that conclude chapter 18, chapter 19 begins in heaven, with voices of a great multitude singing “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” and the twenty four elders and the four earthly creatures all falling down in worship to God as well. 
And in the midst of this great scene of worshipful celebration, a voice cries out calling all to worship God. And then the voice of the multitude, described again, as earlier, like the sound of many waters or of a waterfall, cries out “Hallelujah!” and declares the marriage of the Lamb, Jesus, has at last come. And who is his bride? 
The church.
   Metzger writes, “The concept of the relationship between God and his people as a marriage goes far back into the Old Testament. Again and again prophets spoke of Israel as the chosen bride of God (Isa. 54:1-8; Ezek. 16:7; Hos. 2:19). In the New Testament the church is represented as the bride of Christ; he loved the church so much that he gave himself up in her behalf (Eph. 5:25).”
   And then John is commanded to write down what is the fourth of seven beatitudes, or blessings found in the book. 
“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” The approach of the marriage supper means the climax of the drama is drawing to a close, or more colloquially, “the fat lady is about to sing!” In this case, Satan is about to be defeated…for good. 

(Recording begins here)

   But first John receives, in rapid succession, seven - count ‘em, seven more visions, each beginning with the words, “I saw.” First, comes a white horse, symbolic of victory, its rider called “Faithful and True,” has piercing eyes and on his head are many crowns. And Metzger clarifies this image for us, saying “To be crowned with more than one crown may seem a strange picture, but in John’s time it was not uncommon for a monarch to wear more than one crown in order to show that he was king of more than one country,” as was the case with the Roman emperor.
   The rider, the victorious Christ, “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13), a description taken from Isaiah 63, where the conqueror’s garments are stained with the blood of his enemies. John reshapes that familiar image to portray Christ, who triumphed over sin and death in the shedding of his own blood. And with him are heaven’s armies, bearing no weapons but wearing white linen. 
And like the vision of the heavenly Christ in chapter 1, from his mouth “comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” No army or armaments are needed other that Christ’s word.
   This is followed by a revolting scene of vultures eating the bodies of those who have fallen in battle, the enemies of the church, familiar language and images John takes from Ezekiel 38-39. 

   And as Metzger repeatedly reminds us, “all of this is symbolism at its highest. No one imagines that such statements are literal. Never shall we see the ‘white horse,’ or the sword projecting form the mouth of the conqueror, or the birds gorged with the flesh of fallen warriors. The descriptions are not descriptions of real occurrences, but of symbols of real occurrences.” 
John’s message, conveyed through symbolism and apocalyptic imagery is that evil will be overthrown - Christ will prevail.

   Now the story moves to the final conflict between good and evil. “The beast and the kings of the earth with all their armies” comes face to face with Christ and his followers. John has been building toward this critical moment from the start. We might expect gory descriptions of this battle to end all battles, similar to “Saving Private Ryan” or “Nightmare on Elm Street,” but instead, John says nothing, evidence that he intends to describe, not an earthly military engagement, but a spiritual struggle. He portrays only the result - the overwhelming defeat of the enemies of Christ and his church. The beast and the false prophet, symbols of the Emperor and the religious cult around him, are captured and are - in the figurative language of apocalyptic literature - “thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” And again, we note, the battle is won without any help from the faithful, but with only the power of Jesus’ word. In this way, Revelation differs from other ancient non-biblical apocalyptic literature, where great detail is provided about how “the battle between good and evil” plays out in the writings and beliefs of other cultures.
   As we move into chapter 20, John sees another vision: an angel descending from heaven, “holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.” 
And it says, “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more; until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must let him out for a little while.” 
   And John writes that during this period the souls of the martyrs who would not worship the beast/emperor - said to be buried under the altar in heaven in chapter 6 - come back to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. John doesn’t say if that thousand year reign takes place on earth or in heaven, but he does distinguish the martyrs from all others, saying that none of the rest of the dead come to life during this thousand years, or millennium, of blessedness and peace. 
   After the thousand years are up, Satan is released for a little while. Why? Who knows, it doesn’t say. Seems like if they had him locked up they could have kept him locked up, but who are we to judge, right? And failing his parole, Satan again deceives the nations, and brings in two mysterious figures, Gog and Magog, to do his bidding. Now, Gog and Magog are references to the book of Ezekiel, where that prophet refers to “Gog, of the land of Magog…” (Ezek. 38), invades from the north against the people of that time living peacefully in the land. Here, John takes the name of a man and a land, and presents them as world powers opposed to God. They besiege the beloved city, which we understand is Jerusalem, but before they could bring harm, fire from heaven consumes them. At the same time, the devil’s questionable parole is revoked and he, too, is thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur for eternity with the beast and the false prophet, the unholy trinity together once again. 
“Satan's rule is now completely and absolutely finished,” Metzger assures us, “and his world-age is ended forever.”

   And so with the devil now destroyed forever, let’s take a time out to consider what is, and what is not found in the book of Revelation. This thousand year period, a millennium, when Satan is locked away, is the source of a fairly recent idea called Millennialism, along with other terms like dispensationalism, and pre, mid, and post tribulationism. All of which are terms associated with what is called “rapture theology.” 

   Surprising to many, rapture theology has only been around for the past couple hundred years and is found predominantly in America. In fact, the world's leading biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, refers to it as an “American obsession” and notes that few Christians in the U.K. hold any sort of belief in it. The same can be said for trained biblical scholars of the book of Revelation, with the exception of a couple at Dallas Theological Seminary. Now I’m not referring to pastors, TV evangelists, Bible teachers, theologians, or even scholars whose expertise is in other biblical books. That qualification is important. I’m referring to academically trained New Testament scholars who have immersed themselves in the Book of Revelation, published peer-reviewed journal articles on the book or written commentaries on the book from reputable publishers. Few, if any, reputable, published, peer-reviewed Revelation scholars support the idea of rapture theology. 

   Rapture theology originated in 1830 Scotland where a fifteen year old girl, Margaret MacDonald, claimed to see a vision of a “two-stage return of Jesus.” 
John Nelson Darby, British evangelist and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, took MacDonald's vision and created an entire belief system based off of it in which Jesus returns not once (as Christians have always believed) but twice! Darby and others sympathetic to his views went back to the Bible to search for clues, signs, and verses which would justify thinking of worldly history in terms of “dispensations,” divinely appointed orders or ages, which included a seven-year period of tribulation, but not before the church could escape from it.
   Through various “mission trips” to the U.S. in the late 19th century, the notion of a “rapture” was appealing to American Christians who were going through the atrocities of the Civil War which, by all measure, must have looked like Armageddon: nation rising up against nation, brother against brother, son against father, etc. With more than half a million dead, who wouldn't find a “let's get out of here” theology attractive? This mindset was exacerbated fifty years later with World War I and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, Scofield being a Darby disciple, which was handed out to soldiers in the trenches. Two other events corresponded to the promotion of the “rapture” in America: the conversion of Dwight L. Moody to this rapture-based eschatological system (he later founded Moody Bible Institute and a major radio program which would become important in the promotion of rapture theology), and the establishment of a dispensationalism training center, Dallas Theological Seminary (and you get why their scholars are the exception I mentioned above).
   Now Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ, but only in the Darby-Scofield-Moody dispensationalism system developed were there three comings. This was a brand new take on the end, and while Christians throughout the centuries have always wondered whether their days were the last days (including Paul), with some interpreting contemporary events in such a way, the establishment of a system and a timetable was entirely new, as was the idea that Jesus would save the Church from the last days.

   But the thing is, neither Jesus nor Paul taught or believed in anything like a rapture. In fact, most scholars say that the idea of a rapture isn’t even biblical - that those passages that are used to support such an idea are being misused, taken out of context. There’s a term used in biblical study, exegesis. When we research scripture and interpret it within its context, we do exegesis. But when we seek to read something into scripture, or do what is called proof-texting - trying to use scripture to prove a point you want to make, that’s not exegesis, that’s called eisegesis. Those scholars of Revelation that I referenced earlier, suggest that the only way to find rapture theology in Revelation, in Paul’s letters, or Jesus’ teachings, is to read it into those passages. 

   For example, 1 Thessalonians 4, probably the most popular of all so-called rapture texts, talks about being caught up to meet Christ "in the clouds" at his return. But the meaning of this is not as simple as it first appears, primarily because after two millennia we find ourselves in a vastly different cultural context from Paul. Paul is casting a vision of Christ's return wrapped in political overturns. You see, in Paul's day when a king would return back to his country after victory in war, he would be met at the city gates by his people or ambassadors, trumpets would sound, and the king would be welcomed by his people to rule and reign as the victor over threatening powers. Paul uses this same language, same image, to symbolize Christ's return: when Jesus returns it’s because he has finally and fully defeated evil, suffering, and death itself and is establishing his Kingdom here on earth. Contrary to rapture oriented interpretations, 1 Thess. 4 doesn't say that in Christ's return we will all fly away from this earth. Instead, it testifies that Christ returns to this earth and we — those alive and those already passed on — will welcome his Kingdom as God's people, God's citizens, and God's ambassadors. When Paul refers to some being “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) he's not referring to a rapture that comes before a time of tribulation in the modern world: He’s giving his audience hope in the midst of persecution and death and reminding them of the hope that all Christians share, that Christ will come again (just not again and then again!). And he doesn’t say that once they meet Jesus in the clouds that they go anywhere but back to earth. 
   In fact, the words translated as “in the clouds” or “in the air,” scholars point out, in Greek literally translates as “the lower, denser atmosphere, not the higher, ethereal atmosphere.” Paul doesn’t mean heaven here.

   Another passage commonly used to support rapture theology is 1 Corinthians 15:52. The fact that this verse is used to suggest to a pre-Second Coming coming is odd, given that Paul spends the entire chapter talking about the final "resurrection" of the dead. As in the passage above, the "trumpet" is used to symbolize Christ's victory over death and, again just as the passage above suggests, he’s not talking not about being "raised" out of this earth but being raised in our physically transformed bodies to this earth. The resurrection of the saints is a central orthodox belief of Christianity and has been since Jesus himself became the "first fruits." Christ's return will inaugurate the resurrection of believers and the transformation (not the transportation) of both our bodies and this world.This will happen, of course, in the "twinkling of an eye" (meaning, we will not know when it will happen), but this verse and its surrounding context has nothing at all to do with a rapture in which Christians will fly away prior to a worldwide tribulation.

   And lastly for our purposes, Matthew 24:40-42. 
When Jesus speaks of “one being taken” and another being left in this passage, he’s not referencing how Christians all across the world will escape from a period of trial; rather, he is referring to the Genesis flood story (vv 37-40) that he talks about three verses earlier, and, as that context makes clear, being “taken away” is not good. Jesus compares those taken to the ones who were swept away by the flood; it is the one who is “taken away” that faces judgment in this teaching. In other words, you don’t want to be taken, you want to be left behind, regardless of what Tim LaHaye’s collection of rapture-fiction books, emphasis on “fiction,” suggests. 

   What is clear, I hope, are two things: First, context is vital; our reading of Scripture must be informed by wider cultural understandings. Every writer — whether it's the Gospel writers, Paul, Augustine, Wesley, or Bonhoeffer — writes within a context and as responsible Bible readers we must must commit to understanding that context.
   Secondly, out of the number of other texts used to support a rapture theology, and there are more than the “big three” that I just talked about, most of these can be — and should be — understood in other ways. The Second Coming is often confused with the rapture and many of the verses utilized as "rapture verses" are really "Second Coming" verses. They only support a rapture based eschatology if they’re extracted from their context and placed into an already existing rapture ideology or hermeneutic. 
Put another way, if you’re looking to support rapture theology, you can find verses to do that…if you take them out of context.

   The problem with rapture theology, which affects how many Christians think about the problems of this world is this: it embraces escapism as a solution. 
Rapture theology teaches us to think and hope for an escape from this world, not the endurance to persevere in it. In this view, Jesus loves the church too much to let it go through the intense suffering and judgment the world will face (similar to the popular notion that suffering doesn't happen to godly people). 
But that’s neither the message of Christ or Scripture. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people and Scripture doesn't promise us a way to avoid it, it promises us a way to get through it.
   The message of Revelation, then, is extremely important and how we interpret the last days is reflected in how we handle life and its troubles, both in the current global world and for all of history. Christians speak in a unified voice, “Come, Lord come,” not because we expect to escape and leave the trouble behind, along with the people in it, but because we seek redemption of all of reality and the ultimate death of death itself. God doesn’t call us out of the world but, rather, calls us into it with all its messiness, troubles, and dirt and asks us to be part of God’s work of redemption. Jesus did not, though he certainly could have, escape from the cross - he endured it. Likewise, the message of hope in Revelation is not that we won't face our cross — many of us will — but that God stands with us and gives us the strength to endure. Rapture theology is not biblical, it’s not redemption, it’s escapism and the belief that God won't let us endure tribulation. 
Revelation, however, calls us to the opposite: it encourages us to remain faithful even when it feels like the end of the world. Jesus didn’t pray that God’s will be done in Heaven, away from the earth, but rather that it be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

   So returning to what IS in Revelation, John sees what’s called the Final Judgment, where all the dead are brought before the judgment seat of God and books are opened. And Metzger suggests that the “one book can be called the Book of Merit, for it contains a record and remembrance of all the deeds of each one who stands before the throne of God. Another book is the book of life, which belongs to the Lamb. This one,” Metzger offers, “can be called the book of Mercy. Here the work of Christ who died to save his people from their sin, is put on the credit side of the ledger.” And he concludes regarding this brief scene, “The account in these few verses, in spite of their brevity, is one of the most impressive descriptions of the Last Judgment ever written. John’s vision presents these truths better than any reason argument could ever do. The opening of the books [an image found in other cultural end time sagas] suggest that our earthly lives are important and meaningful, and are taken into account at the end. But the consultation of the book of life shows that our eternal destiny is determined [not by what we did or didn’t do, but] by God’s decision, by God’s grace, by God’s amazing goodness.” And the final judgment then clears the way for the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth, from which sin and death are banished forever more.
   Chapters 21 and 22 provide a magnificent climax. 
John describes the holy city, the new Jerusalem, and reminds us of Isaiah’s promise that God would create a new heaven and a new earth which would abide forever, and that in this new city, God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be [God’s] people, and God will be with them; [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

   Likewise, John says, “there will be no sea.” What does he mean by that statement? Well, Jews regarded the sea as a symbol of separation and turbulence, of chaos. Throughout the Bible it symbolizes restless insubordination, and in Revelation it’s the source of the system that embodies hostility toward God’s people - it’s from the sea that the dragon and one of the beasts emerge. There is no place for this in the new creation.

    And then, for only the second time in Revelation (1:8), God speaks. Seated on the throne God declares, “See, I am making all things new.” Because God speaks so rarely in Revelation, it’s important to look closely at God’s words. “See, I am making all things new” is in present tense, suggesting that God is continually making things new, in all times. It isn’t past tense; God didn’t say, “I have made all things new” as if it were a done deal or one time event. God also doesn’t say “I have made ALL NEW THINGS.” That is, it is the existing things that are made new, they aren’t destroyed, they are transformed, redeemed. God declared creation “good” and “very good” in Genesis, and here God takes creation and redeems, renews, even resurrects it in the new Jerusalem. And then God declares, “It is done!” and offers a spring of living water to those who thirst and repeats the earlier condemnation of those who were enemies of Christ’s church.

   John then reveals more details of the vision of the new Jerusalem. And though it’s intended to be symbolic, it’s nevertheless pictured very precisely. The city measures, we’re told, fifteen hundred miles in length, in breadth, and in height. That is, it’s described as a cube. 
“But how can a city be a cube?” Metzger asks. 
“The description,” he says, “is architecturally preposterous and must not be take with flat-footed literalism. In ancient times the cube was held to be the most perfect of all geometric forms. By this symbolism, therefore, John want us to understand that the heavenly Jerusalem is absolutely splendid, with a harmony and symmetry of perfect proportions. Furthermore, [John] says, the street of the city is pure gold. In ancient times, of course, streets were not paved. In the wet season streets were mud; in dry times they were dust. What a contrast to that is the new Jerusalem, where the redeemed walk on streets of gold!”
   The new city has twelve gates, as the old one did, each made from a single pearl - extravagant symbolism to reveal the created glories of God in all of nature. And while normally the gates of ancient cities were closed during the night for security purposes, the gates of this city are never to be closed, they are always open, because “there will be no night there,” John tells us.
   Likewise, John writes, “I saw no temple in the city.” And Metzger offers, “There is no temple or sanctuary in the holy city, for, in one respect, the city itself is all sanctuary. Its dimensions, being in the form of a cube, are like the Holy of Holies in the Mosaic tabernacle of old. The presence of God is no longer in a reserved place, entered only by the high priest, and only once a year; God is now accessible to all.”

   And like the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, the garden here at the end also contains the tree of life, the word translated as the singular “tree,” actually is a plural, or collective word, suggesting “trees.” 
And besides bearing twelve kinds of fruit to be eaten, notice the symbolic twelve here, they also have leaves that “are for the healing of the nations.”
   And Metzger points out another link to the account in Genesis, when John says in 22:3 that “Nothing accursed will be found there any more.” “After Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the tree of knowledge, they were banished from Eden by the Mercy of God, [get that, banished ‘by the mercy of God,’] lest they eat also of the tree of life and become immortal in their sin. Now that redemption has been accomplished, it’s safe to eat from the tree of life. Paradise lost is now paradise regained.”
   And Metzger reminds us, “There is an old saying that in heaven everyone’s cup of joy will be full, but some cups will be larger than others.” 
That is, the degree to which we shall be able to see, to know, to be near God will depend in part on the perfecting of our spiritual vision here and now. 
That is why the Bible exhorts Christians to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” As we make progress in the Christian life, as we grow in our faith and our discipleship, through study, prayer, service, generosity, and worship, we gain greater capacity to know and understand God. As Paul said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

   So, as we conclude our study, I hope that you’ve taken from this first of all, that Revelation, read in the context in which it was written, as a pastoral letter, as early Christian prophecy, and as apocalyptic literature, is a book, not to engender fear, but to inspire hope.
   Second, I hope it guides you to read Revelation
in a very different way from those who read it as a road map for our future or as a countdown to the end. Read in context, Revelation challenges us to examine the situations of the seven churches addressed by John so that we can discover what practices within the churches were objectionable, how they did or didn’t live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and how they could have lived more fully in line with God’s purposes, seeking justice and wholeness for all people. This, then, gives us a basis from which to discern what questions and challenges John would pose to our church, living in the midst of our contemporary social, political, economic, and global orders. Understanding how John brought the resources of Scripture, prayer, and worship to bear on the situations of his congregations gives us direction for our own process of discernment and our task of proclamation.
   Ultimately, this enables us to better see our world as God sees it, and to know how to respond to its challenges and entanglements in a way that reflects our primary allegiance, not to empire but to Christ, who came among us in order to redeem us, and who taught us to pray for God’s will to be done here, on earth, as it is in heaven. Revelation, in the end, is a book whose message is hope. When all the frightening images are cast aside, when all the symbolic beasts and battles are understood in their context, the bottom line message of Revelation is that regardless of the hell that this life might send our way, God is with us, God will have the last word, and God’s love will win. Amen? Amen.