I’ve been sitting with the book of Job for over a year now, and I suspect the heaviness of Job’s story has been working on me more than I’ve known. Weird emotional reactions to YouTube videos are one clue. Add to that the intentional trauma of Boston and the accidental tragedy in West and, well, I’ve just needed to breath. I felt like I’d been offered a deep, deep breath when I listened to Eric Howell’s sermon from the Book of Revelation. Perhaps you will find a touch of oxygen here also. You can listen to it here if you prefer the audio version.
By the way, Milton and I are in the final stages of preparing Whirlwind for publication. We hope to have it available by late May….
A Sermon for DaySpring Baptist Church
April 22, 2013, Fourth Sunday of Easter
“Who can stand this?”
What a week it has been this week. What a string of days and long nights it has been this week. I suppose you could gather enough stories and tragedies from around the world together and say that about any week of any year if you try hard enough . . . and the news media certainly tries hard enough to do that all the time. But there are some weeks that stand on their own–without artificial urgency, outrage, flashing lights and spinning things designed to grab and hold our rapt attention. This has been one of those weeks.
On any given week of any year there are sufferings, disappointments, and personal tragedies that are carried by individuals and families sitting together here. There’s always something big going on in someone’s life near you. It’s good to be mindful of that when you’re dealing with people. There’s always something going on.
But this was a certain kind of week in which the shock, anger, grief, and sadness was shouldered by many, maybe by all of us, especially as the events splashed across the world’s TV screens was happening in our neighborhood. My neighbor answers 911 calls for the city of Waco which dispatches to West. He told me that all night Wednesday night he took calls from panicked residents looking for missing loved ones and reporters from Israel and Europe looking for quotes for their stories.
Wearied doctors at a hospital in Boston ordered pizza for wearied doctors at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco.
We’ve shouldered this week together . . . even if it seemed some days like this week would knock us flat on our backs.
Faced with epic tragedies and human suffering, throughout history Christians have turned over and over again to the book of Revelation as a way to try to make sense of it all. In the grim and grisly apocalyptic images of the book and in the ultimately triumphant promises of the Lamb and the New Heaven and New Earth, Christians have found a way to make sense of what is happening in the grand, epic scale of the end of the world, the end times, and the dawn of the final spiritual battle for the soul of the world.
But, of course, Revelation has been fodder for interpretations of every enemy as the antichrist from Hitler to Saddam Hussein. Every generation reappropriates the images and characters for their own times. Not us though, we’re just humbly following the lectionary cycle as it glides through the lily- and daffodil-lined paths of the Easter season to springs of living water and fields of ripe fruit ready for the harvest.
But a funny thing happened on the way to our peaceful contemplation. The world exploded and the lectionary dropped us right into the middle of Revelation. What is more, the lectionary dropped us right into the middle of the opening of the seven seals by the Lamb, one after another. If you were in or around Waco 20 years ago this week, you heard a lot about these seven seals from a certain preacher who found something here that sparked his misguided self-understanding and led to such tragedy here in our hometown. So just this week we faced the convergence of a 20-year-old scar, the new wounds of this week, and a reading from Revelation.
The lectionary doesn’t actually point us to read chapter 6, which is where six of the seals are opened one by one. That’s far too grim for the lectionary. But what we do see in our reading happens in the context of those seals. And I couldn’t help feeling the weight of them this week. I know, I know, we better be careful with Revelation’s imagery and be careful not to apply it to our lives and times too closely. If we do that, we fall in the sinkholes that have swallowed so many other interpreters of Scripture. I know, I know this is first century apocalyptic literature that is speaking to persecuted and suffering Christians in the first century, using loaded, fully loaded images that they would have understood but whose meaning is often lost to us. I know, I know that apocalyptic imagery has its own rules for interpretation, and we’re not to make them personalized to our situation.
I know all that, and you do too, but I could help it. I couldn’t help but read through the opening of the six seals . . . read how they are opened one at a time and each time something worse than before happens, something darker . . . and each time a seal is opened you cringe for what is coming because it’s worse than before. I don’t know what it means to open six seals, but it felt this week a lot like opening the newspaper for the last six days. It’s like each day was darker than the day before. By the end of the opening of the six seals and what they unleashed, the people are desperate for some relief. “Who can stand?” they ask. Who can stand up with this much weight? Who can keep standing when you get knocked down this many times and this hard?
Who can stand? That question has sat with me because that Marathon-running man in Boston who was knocked on his back has stayed with me all week. I’ve done a little running, not enough to be invited to run Boston’s famous hills in the Marathon, but enough to go find those hills when I was in Boston last summer and run them. Like a kid imagining he’s running across the goal line of the Super Bowl, I ran them, imagining I was finishing the Boston Marathon to the roar of Boston’s famous cheering crowds. Boston is a holy grail for runners, a Super Bowl or US Open you actually could conceivably play in (if you’d stop eating so much ice cream, for crying out loud!).
I ran it by myself, but actually coming to the finish line of the world’s greatest marathon race was an older man–silver hair, orange tank top. You’ve probably seen him, too. He was just yards from crossing the finish line, and when you’ve run 26 miles and see the finish line, it’s a cord that you’re holding on to, your whole body, mind, and heart are entranced by the memories of what got you there and the promise of finishing. It’s a wonderful, surreal few moments, and it’s why you do what you do. It’s why this old man did what he did. I’m sure of it.
Then came the first blast from the sidewalk. He was the closest runner to it. Did you see him there? His legs noodle, and he falls hard to the ground. It’s those legs that I keep thinking about. By that point in the race your legs feel like that already. With the shock or the noise or the fear, his legs give out from under him. He staggers and drops to the ground. The last image I saw of him was him lying on the pavement, yards from the finish line surrounded by policemen.
I wonder . . . did he finish? In the grand scheme it doesn’t really matter. He’d fought the good fight; does it matter if he finished the race, given what was happening in that moment far more terrible all around him? Lots of runners that day didn’t finish, as the course was shut down, and their day came to an early end. But I still can’t help but wonder about him and hope that he got up and finished as part of his evacuation from the area.
Why does it matter if he finished? I guess it really doesn’t. Except that as the week went on, him lying on that pavement became the image to me of that question that finds us from Revelation 6 and each day’s headlines, “Who can stand this?” And it became the visual image of my own prayers? Wobbly-kneed, falling down. How do you pray through hard and sad times?
Life is like that. It can knock you flat on your back. Put you on the ground. Take your breath away. And leave you laying there. I wanted that guy to get up and go finish because we needed him to. We need to know that we can get up when we’re knocked down.
I don’t mean it as some kind of motivational halftime locker room speech. I mean it as: what you wonder when the world crumbles around you. When the stakes are high . . . as high as they can be. And you are put down. Can you get up again? My gosh, that’s not an easy question when you’re the one in it.
Who can stand? That’s the question of Revelation 6 that ushers in the happy vision of chapter 7. John the Divine, the author, takes us there, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing . . . standing . . . they’re standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, crying praise to God.
Who are these? Are these the ones who escaped trouble, the last man standing sort of people? Are these the lucky ones who made it through life unscathed and unscratched? Are these the people who lived problem free or the ones who won and defeated their enemies? An all-inclusive, expansive, diverse army whose only battle gear was white robes and whose weapons were palm branches? Who are these people in this vision?
They are ones who have suffered greatly and now stand again together. Their robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb, washed white–white robes–the color of holiness, the color of purity, the color of martyrdom. Robes made white by being washed in the red blood of Jesus Christ.
They are the ones who are standing. They’ve been knocked down, dragged down, beaten down, and brought down. This is not a scene of those who have escaped or who have avoided or who have won. This is a scene of redemption. This is not a vision for people who are lucky enough not to suffer. It’s a vision for those who suffer greatly. This is not the promise of salvation from trouble. It’s salvation through trouble.
Standing is the visual image of the spiritual reality of redemption through suffering, of God’s victory and sustaining power lived in us. Ephesians 6 says that we have the whole armor of God so that once we have done everything else, we can stand. To stand is to have resilient strength in your legs when they are wobbling, to have purpose in your feet when they are dragging, to be on solid ground when the world is shifting. It’s not a militant posture; it’s not always a defiant posture. To be able to get up and stand is a gift in times when the weight of the world is crushing down on you. And it’s a gift, we are promised, we will be given.
When it seems like the world is falling away beneath your feet, how do you keep standing? When the world has knocked you down, how do you get back up again? In hard days, how do you pray? These are the kinds of questions that seemed to come in waves, particularly this week.
The book of Revelation is all about these questions, no matter whether you read it as prophesy of a time to come or as a window into the suffering of the early Christians–it’s all about the big questions–what wins? Good or evil. How do you endure suffering? Where is God in all of this? That’s what Revelation is about.
Woven through the images and visions throughout the book are these two words that seem so prominent this week: falling and standing. Falling down isn’t all bad. Even here the standing multitudes fall on their faces before the Throne and worship God. The downward movement can be a purposeful movement of obedience, as Christ lowered himself and became obedient unto death even death on a cross, as Christ humbled himself to join us in humanity. Falling, the downward movement, kneeling, can be the most worshipful act.
Whether worshipful or not, whether intentional or not, falling is the downward movement that is met by standing, the upward movement. It’s not lost on us that the downward and upward movements are characteristic of baptism. We are lowered, we are raised. This journey down and up is the shape of baptism, the incarnation, burial and resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian life.
Revelation holds this rhythm and offers one more word of hope. In this epic book these two words are woven throughout the chapters, images, and visions. Count those words, and you’ll see that the word for fall shows up a lot: 20 times. Twenty times is a lot of times for a single word to show up in a book of the Bible. Twenty times someone or something is falling, going down: like stars from the skies, sinners who have stumbled, like figs from the tree, crumbling mountains, Babylon . . . like the burial of heroes, like a man ten yards from the finish line, like houses flattened in an instant.
But the downward movement isn’t the only direction in Revelation. Interestingly, prophetically, intentionally perhaps . . . while fall is used exactly 20 times, the word for standing is used exactly 21 times. You know what they say. It matters how many times you fall. It matters more how many times you get up again. It matters how far you fall. It matters more how far the power of God can raise you up again. It matters how hard you fall. It matters more how you get back on your feet.
I realized that’s why I wanted that running man to get up and cross the line. He is a minor character in this week’s drama, a bit player, a fringe story. So are we, at the most. He’s all of us who weren’t injured by the shrapnel, whose homes weren’t destroyed in the fire, but who felt our knees giving way just the same for all of those who were.
All week I thought about that man and learned this weekend that his name is Bill Iffrig. He’s 78 years old. He’s from Lake Stevens, Washington. He and his wife have been married for 58 years. He’s a retired carpenter and brick mason. In the 2013 Boston Marathon he got up, and with the help of a race volunteer . . . finished . . . fourth in his age group.
Pull back and look at the whole book of Revelation, and this little textual word count detail of falling and standing is, in fact, the whole story of the Gospel. Powers and principalities may bring us low; life’s tragedies, sufferings, and persecutions may knock us down, our own sins and waywardness may make us fall on our faces . . .
But we don’t stay down. That’s not the end. Trouble will come. It will still come. It will come into all our lives and our neighbors’ lives and our children’s lives. It will come. And it may knock us flat on our backs or right on our faces. But we will stand.
By God, we will stand and when we do, we’ll reach a hand down to those on their backs . . . “Come on. I’ll help you. I’ve been there, too.”