God’s glory is right here

If you were to publish the book of Esther in a mass paperback edition, the cover might look like one of those bodice-ripper romances, and there’d be a hangman’s noose swinging ominously in the background.

Esther is a beautiful young Jewish woman who wins a beauty contest and becomes queen of Persia. Her cousin Mordecai learns of a plot to massacre Jews throughout the Persian empire. Mordecai tells Esther she must persuade the king to stop it.

She hesitates, explaining: “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law: all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for 30 days.”

Mordecai replies: “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.”

He adds: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Esther tells Mordecai to call all the Jews in the city to three days of prayer and fasting.

She says: “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

On the third day, Esther puts on her royal best and approaches the throne. The king is pleased to see her. (Reality check: Why wouldn’t he be pleased to see her? She’s the most beautiful woman in the empire.) He holds out the golden scepter and vows to give her whatever she requests.

Happy day! The plot against the Jews is foiled, the perpetrators are hanged, and Jews live in relative security in Persia from that day on. (Read Esther 4:1-5:3)

The Jews are saved not only because of Mordecai’s warning and Esther’s bravery. Though God is never mentioned in the story, the providence of God is implied in Mordecai’s statement to Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Today I want to ask that “Who knows?” question of all of us. For what moment has God been preparing each of us? For what moment has God been preparing you?

God surely has prepared you for many things leading up to this moment. For what other things has God been preparing you?

Janice McLain spent many years in Africa as a United Methodist missionary. When she retired to the Paola area a dozen years ago, she said that looking back on her life, she could see how God was always preparing her for what came next.

She said: “It makes me wonder. What is God teaching me today that is going to be of use to me in the future that I don’t know about?”

I’ve always appreciated that approach to living. For what future is God preparing me that I cannot imagine today?

Mary Lou Redding, former editor of The Upper Room magazine, has a new book out titled God Was With Me All Along. It offers dozens of stories from everyday folks who look back at the events of their lives and realize that God was never far, in bad times as well as good.

Her thesis is that God is weaving a tapestry of love and redemption for the world. Each person’s story is a part of that tapestry. She asks, how does my story fit into this tapestry? Again, for what future is God preparing me?

There is at least one moment of decision and action for which I am uniquely prepared. What is it? When will it come? How can I be sure I’m ready?

Irenaeus, an ancient church theologian, once said that the glory of God was a human being who was truly alive.

John Eudes, a French priest who lived 400 years ago, expanded on that thought.

He said that each of us should base our lives around the thought, “I am the glory of God.”

We are each the glory of God, he explains, because we are where God chooses to dwell. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual life involves making space within ourselves where God can dwell and where God’s Spirit can grow stronger and God’s glory can shine for the world to see.

Eudes asks, “Where is the glory of God?” It’s right here, he answers, in each of us. I am the glory of God. You are the glory of God. Just as God has been preparing a place within each of us to dwell, God also has been preparing each of us for a mission, for a specific moment, or for a succession of specific moments, times in which God’s glory can shine for the world to see.

For what moment has God been preparing you? How can God’s glory shine in you?

I am retiring from church ministry, so this is my last post based on a weekly Sunday sermon.

This post is a partial transcript of a message delivered June 13, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Esther 4:1-5:3.

Apocalypse right now

Probably more lies are told about Revelation than about any other book of the Bible. That’s too bad, because Revelation has an important message for us that should not be obscured by lies.

Most of the lies come from what is called Dispensationalist theology. This is also known as “Left Behind” theology because of the series of best-selling books it inspired.

Dispensationalist theology was created virtually out of the whole cloth in 1830 by a wacko Brit named John Nelson Darby. Since then it has managed to infect many believers around the world, but especially in the United States, where it took root like a poisonous weed alongside other similarly wacko fundamentalist fantasies.

The chief Dispensationalist lie is that Revelation is about predicting the future. It is not. Revelation is a book of prophecy, but – as I’ve said many times before – prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophecy is telling the truth about the present. Prophets aren’t harassed and killed because of what they say about some far-off neverland. Prophets are harassed and killed because of what they say about the present.

The title of the book actually tells all. Revelation is an English rendering of the Greek word apocalypsis, meaning unveiling. Revelation reveals or unveils or unmasks the truth about what’s going on in our world.

Think of that scene in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the funny little man controlling all the scary pyrotechnics. That’s what Revelation does. It lifts the veil, it parts the curtain, it shines a spotlight on the truth about human life and how God is acting to save us.

Revelation is not primarily about the future. It is mostly about the present. That’s why misunderstanding it is so critical. Revelation is not about what’s going to happen a long time from now. It’s about what’s already happening right now.

Since the powers that be don’t want you to know what’s happening right now, they want you to think Revelation is about some other time – any other time – so you won’t know the truth about what’s happening today.

It follows, then, that Revelation is not about the so-called “end times.” It’s certainly not about the “end of the world.” That’s a phrase that you shouldn’t find in your Bible, by the way, though you will find it in mistranslations of Matthew 13:49.

So kindly forget all that “end times” garbage, plus all the nonsense you’ve heard about “the Rapture” and the Anti-Christ and the millennium all the other stale dispensationalist fantasies.

Also forget about reading Revelation literally. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, tells us in the very first sentence that he’s going to be speaking in symbols. Oddly enough, only the King James manages to translate this correctly. John says that God “signified” the message to him. That is, God used “signs” or “symbols” to convey the message.

If that’s not clear enough, John warns us more than 50 times that what he is describing is “like” something. It’s not really this, he’s saying, but it’s like this. So if you take his description literally, you miss the point. Most interpreters of Revelation have missed the point, especially for the last 200 years.

I can hear some of you wondering, “Revelation was written 2,000 years ago. How can it be about the present?” That’s because Revelation is about the way things are, the way things have always been and the way things are going to be – not world without end but until Christ comes in final victory to clean up this mess.

Despite our advances in technology, nothing has significantly changed in the last 2,000 years. What was then also is now and will be. As time goes by, only the names, clothing fads and hairstyles change.

If you read Revelation literally, you will misunderstand it terribly. If you read it as a parable, as a symbolic revelation of how human systems oppress people and how God acts to save us from oppression by human empire, then you will gain much from it.

Revelation is full of bizarre and often violent imagery. It contains visions of seven-headed monsters and the gory deaths of millions of people. Should we take these images literally? No. Are these images real? Oh yes.

One example. You’ve all heard of the Four Horses, or Four Horesemen, of the Apocalypse. These are four horses and riders that appear early in the story as seven seals are broken to reveal the message on a mysterious scroll.

Some people imagine that these horses will appear in the future, and when we see them, we’ll know that the end is near. But there’s something so very familiar about these horses. They’re not future at all. They have galloped throughout history, and they gallop today as well.

First comes a white horse ridden by a conqueror. He rides out to conquer and destroy. Next comes a bright red horse, representing the blood spilled by the conqueror. Next comes a black horse. Its rider measures the hunger and want that always follow war. Finally comes a horse that’s pale green, the color of death, the inevitable result of warfare and oppression by human empires.

There is nothing specifically future about these horses and their riders. We know them all too well. The horses may tell about the future, but they also tell about the past and the present as well. From beginning to end, that’s what Revelation does. It tells about our past and our present and points to a glorious future when God literally brings heaven down to Earth. It also points to disasters that may occur if we continue to ignore God’s command to act as caretakers of the earth.

With that in mind, let’s look at Revelation 8:6-13. This passage describes the first four of seven trumpet blasts made by angels who serve at the throne of God. The text is from the Common English Bible.

Then the seven angels who held the seven trumpets got ready to blow them.

The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood appeared, and was thrown down to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up. A third of the trees were burned up. All the green grass was burned up.

Then the second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain burning with fire was thrown down into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures living in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

Then the third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, burning like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water.

The star’s name is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it became so bitter.

Then the fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars so that a third of them became dark. The day lost a third of its light, and the night lost a third of its light too.

Then I looked and I heard an eagle flying high overhead. It said with a loud voice, “Horror, horror, oh! The horror for those who live on earth because of the blasts of the remaining trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”

Note first that it is never said that God orders these awful events. The trumpets simply announce them. Also note that you cannot take any of this literally. For example, if a star actually fell to earth, more than one-third of the rivers would be affected. All of Earth would be obliterated.

But what if you took this passage seriously rather than literally? What if you tried to discern what Revelation might be saying if you examined its images as symbols of reality, pictures of things that are “like this” but not this exactly, images that point to the truth about current events?

Wouldn’t you, in fact, come up with a picture of what is happening on Earth today?

Wouldn’t you find that the awful images of Revelation accurately describe what’s happening today because of centuries of human destruction of our environment?

Wouldn’t you find that the awful images of Revelation accurately describe what’s happening today because of global climate change triggered by centuries of human destruction of our environment?

Consider the evidence, which corroborates what scientists have been warning us about for more than 50 years.

  • Exceptional volcanic eruptions on the island of St. Vincent, in Hawaii and elsewhere.
  • Uncontrollable forest fires in the American West, in Africa and Australia and Indonesia and Siberia.
  • Drought, massive crop failures and famine all around the world.
  • Widespread, sometimes unprecedented, flooding, and increased numbers of dangerous hurricanes. Last year’s ocean storm season was the most active on record.
  • Marine life dying because of pollution and changes in water temperature; not just coral reefs and whales and dolphins but also mammals such as sea otters and polar bears.
  • Glaciers worldwide melting and the level of the seas slowly rising, eroding shorelines, destroying beaches, soon threatening cities as well.
  • Poisoned public water supplies such as in Flint, Michigan.
  • The Western Monarch butterfly, which used to be such a joy to see returning every year, now nearing extinction.
  • Winter snowstorms that catch public utilities unprepared, causing power outages, rolling blackouts, and untold amounts of misery

And it goes on. All of nature is out of whack because of human sin. Time after time, the call echoes throughout Revelation: Repent! Change your ways! Time after time, the call is ignored. We continue to treat God’s beloved creation shabbily.

Do you know what leads people to repentance? Two things, according to Revelation. First is the perseverance of the saints. Don’t give up hope, Revelation says repeatedly. Don’t be bewitched by the lies of a twisted culture whose continued existence depends on you believing its lies.

Revelation describes this twisted culture as empire – specifically, in the first century, the Roman Empire. It calls this culture Babylon, and it says, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins and do not share in her plagues” (Revelation 18.4).

Babylon is any human regime that does not honor God and God’s purposes for creation. Babylon is every human regime, to one degree or another, because all humans and all human institutions are tainted by sin and all human governments allow or promote the rape of the earth for momentary profit.

So the first thing that leads the world to repentance is Christian perseverance, Christians awakening to the truth about Babylon and staying free from it as much as possible. The second thing is Christian witness to the truth.

Ultimately, Revelation seems to be saying, Christian witness is the only thing that convinces non-believers to turn from their destructive ways and follow the ways of the Lord. No amount of plagues and other disasters will do it. Only clear Christian witness will convince non-believers of the truth about life and the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

So there you have it. If anyone asks you what the book of Revelation is all about, tell them to forget all the end-times lies they’ve heard concerning monsters and the slaughter of infidels. Tell them that Revelation reveals the shining truth about the love of God and the need for believers to stay faithful to God’s commands and witness to their faith.

Revelation is about the victory of God over the forces of evil – a victory that is being won not in some weird fantasy world in the future but today in our everyday lives, if we are faithful and witness to the truth.

Amen.

This message was delivered June 6, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

God is not mad at you

Trinity Sunday always follows Pentecost because the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost complicates our thinking about God. We think we know God the Father, and Jesus shows us who the Son is, but the Holy Spirit remains a mystery to many of us.

Sometimes on Trinity Sunday, we pastors complicate things even more by trying to explain the Trinity the way we might explain how an internal combustion engine works. All we do is confuse the daylights out of people, not to mention ourselves.

As I wind down my time with you as pastor, I am very conscious of having only a few weeks left and so many things I want to share with you. So today I’m going to offer you three messages in one. And it’s no mere coincidence that these three mini-messages happen to concern Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in that order.

Part one: God is not mad at you.

Not the Father, not the Son, and not the Holy Spirit, but especially not the Father, whom many of us have been taught to fear. Many of us have grown up hearing the mixed message of fundamentalist-evangelical pop religion. You know it well. God loves you very much and has a wonderful plan for your life, but if you don’t shape up, God is going to send you directly to hell, where you will roast in agony for all eternity.

As often as we hear the part about God loving us, it’s the second part that worms its way deep into our heads and influences everything we do. Truth is, most of us, most of the time, are pretty sure that God is mad at us and that God is just looking for an excuse to clobber us. It’s an awful feeling, isn’t it, feeling that God is out to get you?

Against this anti-gospel I wish to declare the real gospel. Our English word “gospel,” you know, comes from the Anglo-Saxon “godspell,” meaning “good story” or “good news.” Some Christians have managed to turn it into very bad news.

Here is the good news. God is not mad at you. God may often be disappointed in you because of the way you treat yourself and others, but God is not angry with you.

Consider this statement that runs through the Old Testament like a refrain: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).

What the Bible sometimes refers to as God’s anger is better described as God’s disappointment over what our sin is doing to us. It’s similar to what any parent feels when a beloved child screws up bigtime. Our sin hurts God in ways that we cannot fathom, but I think what may hurt God the most is the toll that sin takes in our lives and in the lives of those we mistreat. What really hurts God is our inability to be happy in God because we are so mired in sin.

“God is love,” according to 1 John 4:8. And God never stops loving us, ever, because loving is basic to God’s nature. It is never said that God’s anger lasts forever, but it is frequently said that God’s steadfast love lasts forever. The Hebrew word we frequently translate as “steadfast love” is hesed. It occurs several hundred times in the Old Testament. That is impressive testimony to its importance.

It is frequently said that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and nothing you can do to make God love you less. You can try to impress God all you like with more good works or more prayer or more Bible study, but there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God loves you already. Similarly, you can do the most awful things imaginable, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less than God loves you already.

God loves you exactly the way you are. There is always vast room for improvement, and God will always push you toward that, until you become the person God created you to be. But, to mangle a hymn lyric, God loves you just as you are.

God loves you, period. That’s the mantra of Rudy Rasmus, who pastors a huge United Methodist church in Houston. Rudy is famous for saying: “God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

For your mental and spiritual health, I urge you to ignore all the voices from pop religion that tell you that God is mad at you. That’s a lie. God loves you. God will never stop loving you. And there is nothing you can do about it!

Part two: Jesus shows what God is like.

This ought to be one of those “duh!” revelations, but so many people just don’t get it.

Let’s glance at the testimony of the New Testament, starting with the words of Jesus himself. John 10:30: “The Father and I are one.” John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” John 14:11: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Hebrews 1:3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 2:9: “All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.”

Get the point? If you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus. Why is it necessary to say this? Because a lot of people when they think of God think not of Jesus but of the angry God image that have based on some memory they have from the Old Testament.

They think of God smiting all those who worship the golden calf. They think of God ordering the slaughter of every man, woman and child in the cities that the Israelites conquer in Canaan. They think of these atrocities and more, and they say: “God is really not very loving. In fact, God is a monster.”

But we do not believe that every word of the Bible is the final word. We believe in progressive revelation. That means that God reveals more and more of God’s self as the story the Bible tells progresses through the Bible. So the incomplete picture of God that we get in parts of the Old Testament may be very different from the more complete picture of God that we get from the New Testament.

Jesus himself talks about this. At one point on the night he is arrested, Jesus tells his disciples: “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.” And he adds, “When the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).

Before we turn to the work of the Spirit, though, let’s finish this thought. God is just like Jesus. If you can’t imagine Jesus doing something, then you shouldn’t imagine God doing it. If you don’t believe that Jesus would order the slaughter of innocents, don’t believe that God would order it. Because God the Father cannot do what Jesus would not do, just as Jesus cannot do what God the Father would not do.

Let’s follow that thought a little further. Since human beings are made in the image of God, and Jesus is the perfect image of God, we also can say that Jesus is what a genuine human being looks like.

So if you want to know what God is like, just look at Jesus. And if you want to know what a genuine human being looks like, just look at Jesus. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and you’ll be OK.

Now part three: The Holy Spirit is alive in you, remaking you in the image of Jesus.

The point of salvation is restoring us to the image of God in which we were created. Since this is the image of Jesus, when we are restored to the image of God, we will look just like Jesus.

1 Corinthians 15:49 contrasts our present state with our future state, saying. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.” That is, just as we have borne the image of sinful Adam, we will bear the image of the new Adam, Jesus Christ.

In Colossians 3:9-10, the Apostle Paul says we are stripping off our old self and clothing ourselves with the new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

2 Corinthians 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Earlier I mentioned the term “progressive revelation.” It sounds scary to some people. Does that mean it’s not in the Bible? Well, guess what? A good 80% what you’re routinely told by pop religion isn’t in the Bible at all. It’s just pop culture propped up with some random Bible verses that don’t say what you’re led to believe they say.

Progressive revelation? The Bible hints that slavery is evil but never comes out and says that. Today, the Holy Spirit testifies to our spirits that slavery is evil. A few verses in the Bible say that women should not be pastors, but far more others testify that from the very start women have always been pastors. And that is the clear testimony of the Holy Spirit today, though some churches have closed their ears and minds to such testimony. These churches worship patriarchy and imagine that it is God.

God is not mad at you. God also is not a sexist jerk.

I could go on. The Holy Spirit is not done talking to us. The Spirit did not die at the end of the apostolic age. Nor did the Spirit die when writings of the New Testament were completed. God is not dead. The Son is risen, and the Holy Spirit is very much alive and active today, and we ought to be actively listening to the stirrings of the Spirit in everything we do.

Thanks to the testimony of the Spirit, we are able today to see more clearly than ever before what God is saying to us about how to live in peace with our neighbors. There are still things that, as Jesus says, we are not able to handle yet. This side of Resurrection life, we will always see, as Paul describes it, “but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But that reflection keeps getting clearer, and it’s not because we keep getting a whole lot smarter. It’s because the Holy Spirit keeps speaking to us, as Jesus said, to guide us in all truth to all truth.

Friends, God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it. If you wonder what God is like, just look at Jesus. And if you wonder what your long-term future will be, just look at Jesus, because the Holy Spirit is working in you to make you just like him.

Amen.

This message was delivered May 30, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.