Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday of Easter + May 8, 2016
Our second reading for today is from the book of Revelation: we read the very last verses of this book about the very last days of the world as we know it. The book ends with promise and invitation. Jesus promises, “See, I am coming soon,” and the Holy Spirit and the Church respond with an invitation (that might also be a plea): “Come.” And we are all invited to join in saying “Come, Lord Jesus!” And Jesus promises again: “Surely I am coming soon.”
But somewhere in the midst of all that is another invitation: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Not only is Jesus coming soon, but we are invited to come and receive from his promises.
When you think of the book of Revelation, these warm words probably aren’t the first images to pop into your mind. I know the first pictures I imagine are usually dragons and terrifying angels and deathly horseman. Revelation can be a pretty nightmarish book. In fact some of you may have noticed that our reading is a cut-and-paste selection of verses. A few sentences have been left out here and there; we basically skipped over the scary ones.
How can one book — even one passage — contain both grotesque nightmares and beautiful hopes?
I think that this seeming contradiction is a way of grasping at the full picture of what Jesus coming again could mean for the world — or even what Jesus coming into our lives now can do to us. Jesus brings things like peace and joy and freedom. But those things come only with change: change that can be demanding and painful.
Even answering that warm invitation –“Come! Take the water of life as a gift!” — going forward to accept the grace of God — can be a demanding challenge. A pastor some of you may know, Delmar Chilton, shared a great story about this. When he was a child, he and the other children were singing “This Little Light of Mine” for the congregation during worship, and so they all had to sit in the very front row of pews. During the service the pastor came right up close to them, held up a quarter, and said: “You can have this quarter if you want it. Just come up and get it.” He waited. He waited. None of the children moved. Then he looked to the rest of the congregation and said: “Now, if I had told them to get up and run to the back of the church, and whoever got there first would get the quarter, they all would have jumped up and run for it.”
In our culture we value work and earning your own way. So to hear: “My forgiveness is free. My peace is free. My love is free. Here it is.” Well, it can be hard for us to even accept it or to believe it.
And that’s only the beginning. When Jesus comes and we come to Jesus — that’s when things really begin to change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “The Cost of Discipleship.” Revelation describes it via world-shattering monsters and plagues. While I sat in a circle of pastors and soon-to-be pastors waiting to go into candidacy interviews, someone described the Holy Spirit coming, not like a gentle dove, but with beady red eyes and strong talons. All these different words and images are getting at the same experience: the wonderful, beautiful, free grace of God comes to change us deeply. God leaves no part of us untouched.
We see echoes of this even in today’s reading from the book of Acts. In last week’s reading we heard about Paul and Silas and other disciples bringing the word of God to the Roman colony of Philippi (Acts 16:9-15). Lives in that town were being changed. In today’s reading, things get really shaken-up.
It began almost accidentally: this fortune-telling slave-girl had been following the group around, shouting things in their wake. They were true statements: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”…so I guess it was just the fact of following and yelling that got Paul “very much annoyed.” Finally Paul spun around and performed a quick, crabby exorcism. A spirit left the slave-girl, and she could no longer tell fortunes; she was no longer driven to follow them and prophesy.
And that touched some of the people right where their hearts were: in their bank accounts. The owners of that slave-girl had been making good money off of her fortune-telling abilities, and now those abilities were gone. These foreign preachers were hurting their profits; they had gone too far. So these men started stirring up public outrage: These foreigners are coming through and spreading their religion around. They’re not preaching Roman values! They are turning people away from our way of life!
So Paul and Silas got thrown in jail. (Happy Mother’s Day.)
But in the night a divine earthquake shook open the doors and the chains. When the guard saw this, he knew his punishment for losing all these prisoners would have to be death, and he started preparing to do it himself. But Paul yelled out, “Wait, we’re all still here!”
I can imagine the guard thinking: “What? That’s not how people work. The jail doors crack open, and the prisoners run to escape. That’s what anyone would do.” But this story isn’t run on how people normally behave; it’s a story about God changing things – and that comes from totally unexpected behavior. Paul and Silas’s totally unexpected behavior — staying in their open jail cells — is enough to start this guard’s quick journey to baptism.
That’s where our reading ends, but in the Bible this story continues. After the conversion of the guard and his family, the police showed up and told Paul: “The town rulers say you can go.” And Paul still wouldn’t do the expected thing and make a run for it. Instead, he said: “No. Those rulers publicly beat us and threw us in jail with no reason. Tell them to come and publicly let us go.” And they did (Acts 16:35-40).
This story that begins with Paul losing his temper ends with his pride… God uses that story to turn a whole town upside-down. A demon has been cast out. A guard has invited his prisoners home. The rulers are shamed and the prisoners are lifted up.
When Jesus comes to town, things change. And it’s not necessarily pleasant to have your world turned upside down. We often talk about the gospel message as if it should be so easy to accept: just run up and grab the quarter and sit back down! But we all know it gets harder when that gospel message starts to change us: demanding things from our bank account, or moving us to act in ways that defy our culture or our social norms, that ask us to be different from the people around us. Reminding us to put God first, to love our neighbor, to love our enemies, to live in unity with other Christians. Thinking of accepting God’s radical love is beautiful; but learning to live in that radical love can be painful.
Maybe that’s why, in today’s Revelation reading, we hear the invitation to come to Jesus this way: “Let everyone who is thirsty come.” We have to be thirsty enough. Thirsty enough for grace that we can get past our need to prove ourselves or earn or compete…and accept that we have been given the free gifts of forgiveness and love. We have to be thirsty enough for a different way of living — to accept with joy the crazy, difficult changes demanded as God tears up our world. We have to be thirsty enough to really want Jesus to come into our lives — even if that means we are going to have to change.
In the times when we are not thirsty, of course God still loves us. But when we are thirsty, we can look on even the most difficult parts of being a disciple of Jesus with joy. It is when we are really thirsty that this final message of Revelation can give us the most hope: “Amen, come Lord Jesus.”