November 21, 2021
"Alpha and Omega"
Rev. Scott Landis
The Jews mark the end of their yearly Torah cycle with a wonderful holiday known as Simchat Torah or “Joy in the Torah.” As part of their worship on that day, they take the huge Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance through the congregation with the scrolls. Participants reach out and tap the scrolls as they pass by a testament in celebration of the gift these words are to their understanding of their story.
Today we are at a similar place in OUR yearly lectionary cycle. The entire liturgical year culminates in this day as we stand on the eve of the Advent season which begins next Sunday. I wish we had a similar celebration as our Jewish cousins, but instead of dancing we have a debate over whether to focus on the Kingship of Jesus or his earthly reign. Both are important – very important – yet neither seem to get at the whole truth.
All of this stands against a rather ominous backdrop. As our world, nation, and state begin to emerge from a seemingly endless pandemic, AND as our own congregation continues to wend its way through transitions of its own, we look for glimpses of hope – not more doom and gloom! While I hardly every preach on the book of Revelation, I think this apocalyptic genre just might provide the joy and hope that we need.
That’s precisely why I asked Amanda to sing the Canticle of Turning. To proclaim a message of hope and joy is not often done while using the book of Revelation as our inspiration, but I believe this is exactly what Revelation is trying to communicate. Its message is not that the world is about to end in some cosmic battle, but that the world is about to turn – and it’s turning is ever so slowing being evidenced as the work of God.
When you heard the song – especially with the addition of the pennywhistle – perhaps you were tempted to get up and dance? Reminiscent of Simchat Torah, its Irish melody just might get us to sing Revelation’s praises while borrowing the inspiring words of Mary’s Magnificat. Even Mary knew, the world was about to turn – and the turning was toward God – because God is not finished with God’s work in our world, nation, state, church – nor in our own lives. [Pause]
Several years ago, I preached a sermon based on words I heard from the preacher of my home church. Very few of his sermons have ever stuck with me but this one did. He used a phrase that has become a kind of mantra for my life. I hope you might adopt it too. It goes like this: “Please Be Patient – God is Not Finished with Me Yet.”
Perhaps you can identify. I can. I know I still have some learning to do. I still have some patience to be gained. I still have some rough edges that need a little bit of filing. I am well aware – God is not finished with me yet. Hold that thought as we take another look at this often misunderstood book of Revelation. [Pause]
The writer, John, proclaimed this message of the on-going work of God from the opening lines of the book. It begins, “Grace to you and peace from him who is, who was, and who is to come.” Do you see what John is striving to tell those who read these words?
He was writing to a persecuted people – folks who were desperate for a word of hope – something to cling to in a very trying time. He wrote to the seven churches in Asia Minor: Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Smyrna, Philadelphia, Ephesus, and Laodicea. These churches had been decimated by the Romans whom they viewed as the “antichrist.” They so badly wanted the emergence of a military leader who they believed could save them from the secular evil forces that surrounded them. They wanted a military king so that the Kingdom of God as they envisioned might be established in THIS world and during THEIR lifetime. But God had something completely very different in mind.
Recall the words of Jesus in John’s gospel – also read today. It may seem like a story taken wildly out of context for this time of year but listen to its message once again.
Jesus was brought before Pilate accused of being a threat to the Imperial Roman Monarchy and Pilate rightly called him on it by asking him point blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” After some back and forth Jesus finally responded with all sincerity, “My kingdom is not from this world.” It was a statement, and a reality Pilate could not understand – and neither did many of his disciples, and especially not the churches in the book of Revelation – nor do many of us understand even today. [Pause]
Too often we get caught up in an erroneous assumption about the action of God in our world – which is neither substantiated by the scriptures nor our own experience if we pay close attention. For some reason, many Christians adhere to a kind of Superman view of God where one day God will intervene in human history in a way that will, by force, relegate all the unfaithful to a place of “outer darkness.” In other words, they will be severely punished for their misdeeds or misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty.
Preachers in more conservative churches have gotten a lot of mileage out of this in sermons (and some have made a lot of money in books and movies) using Revelation as a proof-text to back their claims. The basic idea is that our world is now ruled by secular evil powers. That ours is a God-less planet. And that all religions other than Christianity somehow stand in opposition to our basic message (since they may not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior) and are, therefore, not valid. This mentality sets up an “us vs. them” situation convincing “us” that one day God will eliminate all of “them.” To which I have a few questions. How could our God ever be that small? And how could God ever be that time-bound? And how could OUR understanding of God be the only valid one?
You see, when we think in limited terms like that – we remove God as the one who is – and who was – and who is to come, and we try to pigeonhole God into the ways WE think God ought to act. In so doing, we try and place ourselves in a position of control and power when what we need to do is remember we are the created ones – not the Creator. That God sees us as beautiful, in fact, the pinnacle of creation but we still have some growing to do, some rough edges to be filed, some learning to complete. So, “please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.”
It’s as if God reminds us, “Relax. I’ve got this. I am the Alpha and the Omega, remember?” I am the beginning and the end. I was here from the very first cosmic blast, and I will be here at its consummation.
What is expected of us is that we live in faithful witness to the reign of a King whose kingdom is not from this world. And that will be tough for many of us to do because doing so demands that we give up our typical penchant for dominance and winning in this crazy game we call life.
Just as Jesus stood before Pilate, our posture need not be one of power – but one of authority — grounded in Truth — as we realize our strength is in God who invites us to surrender to a very different way of relating to the surrounding empire.
In her book Return to Love, Marianne Williamson writes, “Until your knees hit the floor, you’re just playing at life, and on some level you’re scared because you know you’re playing. The moment of surrender is not when life is over. It’s when it begins.” Surrender - is difficult for many of us to accept. It feels like defeat. Waving the white flag. Giving up and all that. But it is the strongest most subversive thing you can do in this world. It takes strength to admit you are weak, bravery to show you are vulnerable, and courage to ask for help. And that’s exactly what God expects of us. That “THY will might be done – on earth as it is in heaven.”
Thank God – this is not work we have to do on our own. Remember, it is God who is, and who was, and who is to come is who is always stirring, always nudging, always encouraging us to embrace the joy and hope of a world that is ever turning – toward love. Our kuleana is surrender to that possibility and trust in the slow work of God that is not finished within us or in our world. I think that’s something to dance about.
Amene.1 Barbara Rossing, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Working Preacher Commentary – November 21.
2 Marianne Williamson, Return to Love, Harper, 1996, 12-14.