Sunday, May 1, 2016

Phil Kniss: On where to bring your glory

Easter 6: God who radiates light
Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5

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During this Easter season,
    as we dip in and out of the book of Revelation,
    we keep unveiling new works of Divine Art.

This is art with a singular purpose—
    to let a suffering church see God.

I want to begin, again, with this important reminder, and disclaimer.
This letter, called the Revelation of John,
    which is full of imaginative apocalyptic visions,
    was not written by John to give raw material to
        fear-mongering end-times predictors, or
        to Christian fantasy writers and film-makers, or
        to those wishing for a dramatic escape from a violent world.
    Those who use this book for those purposes, are mis-using scripture.

No, this letter was written to give hope—in the here and now—
    to followers of Jesus living out their calling,
        and suffering for it, on the margins of society.
    This letter was written to help early Christians see God more clearly,
        during a time when their vision was being clouded by persecution.

Our preachers these last three Sundays—
    Pastor Barbara, David Boshart, and Moriah Hurst—
        not only gave me a nice little break from preaching,
        but they did, beautifully, what I hoped this series would do.
    They unveiled different pictures of God
        that gave us encouragement,
        that proclaimed Good News for our times.
    Three weeks ago, Barbara reminded us
        that the suffering of Jesus, the lamb of God,
        made it possible to sing a new song that transcends our suffering.
    Then David Boshart unveiled a picture of hope and joy
        because God goes with us across boundaries,
        and because salvation belongs to God.
    Last Sunday, Moriah encouraged us with the image of God
        as one who moves into the neighborhood with us,
        and dwells among us, on our turf.

Today, this metaphor of unveiling a work of art, is especially fitting.
    It works well for today’s visual image of God as light.

So John writes about a vision, in which he is taken to a high mountain,
    and sees the city of God, the new Jerusalem,
    coming down out of heaven, from God,
        which connects to Moriah’s emphasis last Sunday,
            of God bringing heaven to us.

    This vision makes a huge impression on John,
        and we know what specifically grabbed his attention,
        because he repeats it so often, in the retelling.
            He says it at least seven different ways.
        What impressed John was the powerful light
            emanating from the center of that city.
            The kind of light that puts the sun in its place.
    He writes, “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
        for the glory of God is its light,
            and its lamp is the Lamb.
        The nations will walk by its light,
            and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
        Its gates will never shut, because there will be no night there.
            People will bring into it
                the glory and the honor of the nations.”
    And a few verses later, again,
        “There will be no more night;
            they need no light of lamp or sun,
            for the Lord God will be their light.”

    It’s pretty obvious.
        If we want to understand this passage of scripture,
            we need to explore what this light is all about.
        And the first thing I noticed, when I started studying it,
            is the direct link between light, and glory.

    John talks a lot about glory.
        The glory of God.
        And the glory of the kings of the earth.
        And the glory of the nations.
    Glory is a prominent theme in scripture, Old and New Testament.
        Almost every New Testament book refers to glory at some point
            and three books practically dwell on it—
                the Gospel of John, Romans, and Revelation.

    I think we Mennonite-Anabaptists
        could stand to think a little more, and a little deeper, about glory.
    We aren’t naturally drawn toward it.
        With our history of simplicity and humility
            and being “quiet in the land,”
            “glory” seems a bit assertive for our taste.
        It’s a little bit “out there” for us.
        Glory smacks of pride.
        Glory also seems to be related to power and fame
            and ostentatious displays of wealth.
            It might conjure up images of the glorious cathedrals
                that our ancestors protested in the 16th century,
                and that, despite their glorious exterior,
                    were the power center for our oppressors,
                    and were spiritually empty at the core.

    It’s in our Anabaptist spiritual DNA,
        to be wary of glory.
        And that’s not all bad.
        But it doesn’t give us reason to ignore
            such a major biblical theme.
        Rather, we ought to explore the theme more deeply,
            see how to redeem it,
            see what we might be missing.

The Hebrew words that get translated as “glory” in the Old Testament
    imply “weight” or “heaviness.”
        Weight, as in . . . importance . . . honor . . . majesty.
The Greek word used in the New Testament, is doxa.
    This also carries with it the sense of honor,
        or more specifically, “good reputation.”
    When we give glory, we show high esteem, we give praise.

So with that in mind,
    let’s look again at this Revelation text,
    and let’s picture in our minds what is going on here
        in the city of God.
    The “glory of God” is the light for the city.
    It is overwhelming, to say the least,
        this glorious light of God.
    This light is so compelling,
        it magnetically draws into its orbit,
        every other lesser light, sun and moon included.
    Its glory puts into perspective all lesser glories,
        including the glory of the kings of the earth,
        and of all the nations.
    These kings and nations “bring their glory” into the city of God,
        where they get outshone by the glory of God.

    Now chew on that for a minute.
        What’s more important for the “kings of the earth,”
            what’s more essential for political power structures,
                than glory?
        Rulers cannot rule, at least not for long,
            without their power being held in high respect,
            without being granted “glory” by their subjects.
        Ideally, respect is born out of positive esteem and affection.
            But it can also be born out of fear.
            In either case, the power of the ruler is respected.
            Their subjects are fully aware of the good, or the evil,
                they can accomplish by their power.

    Now think about this.
        Think about the audience John was writing to—
            persecuted Christians,
            who were marginalized, oppressed, imprisoned, exiled,
                and in the most extreme cases,
                thrown to the lions for public entertainment.
        Their persecutors are these,
            whom John pictures as “bringing their glory into”
                the city of God,
                and having their glory overwhelmed
                    by the glory of God and of the Lamb.

    This picture of God in Revelation 21 and 22
        is not a picture of God having pity on the oppressed
            by whisking them away to safety in heaven.
        This is a picture of the powers being put in their place,
            of kings being toppled,
            and their victims being emancipated.
        This is a picture of a revolution on earth,
            being initiated by God in heaven.
            Things are going to be set right by God.
    I don’t know of any other honest way to read these words:
        “The nations will walk by its light,
            and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it . . .
            Nothing accursed will be found there any more.”
        And then there’s this beautiful tree image thrown in there—
            the tree of life growing by the river, with
            “the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.”

    This is the art being unveiled—
        the light and glory of God
            as THE orienting light and glory of the nations.
        Every other expression of light and glory
            is subordinate to it.
        God says, through John,
            that every king, every nation,
                is one day going to answer
                to the glory that overshadows them all.
        The kings are going to bring in their puny pretense of glory,
            and that glory will evaporate in the blinding glory of God.

    This work of divine art was created to inspire those being crushed
        by the kings of the earth, and by the nations.
    John the Revelator says to them,
        Your God, the Sovereign God who rules earth and heaven,
            is going to hold all kings and nations accountable
        “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

And of course we also have to admit,
    that goes for any personal claims of glory we might cling to.
    Our glory also finds its proper place, it proper orientation,
        when we bring it into the city of God, so to speak,
        when we allow the light we carry
            to be subsumed into the light of God.
        I think that’s what this text calls us to do.
            It doesn’t put out our light.
            It doesn’t diminish the worth of our own light and glory,
                which is a good gift of God.
                We are created in God’s image, after all.
                    God’s glory is reflected in all of us.

    But what this text calls us to do
        is to bring our glory into the city of God.
        Our light and glory finds its fullness, its beauty,
            when it is brought into, included into, subsumed into,
            the light and glory of God.
        When our purposes line up with God’s purposes,
            when our posture toward the world looks like God’s posture,
            when our identity is formed by the identity God gave us,
            when our loves are shaped by what God loves,
            then we can say that we have
                brought our glory into the city of God.

Now, I don’t want this to be lost in pious generalities.
    This text was written to real followers of Jesus in a real world.
        They were in a complex web of beauty and brokenness
            that comprised their lives on the margins of the empire.

    So this text also needs to speak to us, today,
        in the complex and beautiful and broken realities we live in.
    And it needs to speak in terms
        just as life-giving and encouraging to us,
        as it would have been to them.

This perspective on God’s glory and ours,
    needs to speak to our posture and behavior as followers of Jesus,
    when circumstances in the world around us
        feed our fears,
        or stoke our righteous anger.

It needs to speak to what we say and how we act,
    when the Middle East teeters on the edge of collapse,
        and even more human beings suffer,
    when the presidential campaign gets more insane by the day,
        playing on our insecurity and prejudice,
    when climate change predictions get even more worrisome,
    when a third conference votes to leave Mennonite Church USA,
    when the reality of sexual abuse is named by our denomination
        as a cancer in the church,
        and the ripple effect of abuse shakes our own churches,
            and families, and people we love.

This call to bring our light and glory
    into and under the light and glory of God,
    also needs to speak to how we live in hope and joy
        in a world that holds such brokenness and such beauty
            at one and the same time.

The beauty I refer to is often right there in the middle of the brokenness,
    precisely because someone chose to lean in toward the light of God
        instead of giving in to hopelessness.

You know, there are sincere Christians who hesitate,
    when we lift up these pictures of a future
    where God will one day make all things right again.

Some worry it might lead to inaction, or escapism.
    That if God is going to fix everything in God’s way and God’s time,
        then what is there for us to do,
            except be patient,
            and wait for the day God will come to take us away?
    To think that way misunderstands God and scripture and history.

    Revelation was written to generate hope
        in the lives of suffering Christians.
    And I believe we need to read it in precisely the same way.
        We should be able read these texts about the Lamb’s triumph,
            and be more hopeful,
            than before we read them.
        In Christian faith,
            hope is never an excuse for inaction or passivity.
        Hope is what we need to start living into
            the very future that God envisions for us.

Scott Hoezee, a Christian Reformed pastor, preacher, and author,
    wrote about the relationship between hope and action.
This is what he wrote, and I paraphrase it slightly . . .

Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King and others walk across the bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of his prison bed every morning. Hope is what moves every volunteer in a soup kitchen to ladle out bowls of chicken and rice . . . It is not the hopeless who establish hospices and Ebola clinics in Africa, or stand in the breach when rival drug gangs threaten to shoot up neighborhoods, or boldly stand up to power. It is the hope-FULL who do all that, precisely because even now they serve a risen Savior, who even now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come, when the vision of Revelation 21-22 becomes every creature’s everyday reality.
That is the impact of Easter on us followers of Jesus.
That is the impact of our light being overwhelmed by the Light of God.
    It gives us hope.
    It moves us toward a world that needs this hope.
    It puts us exactly where God wants us.

—Phil Kniss, May 1, 2016

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