Unity in Diversity before the Throne (Rev 7:1-17)

Community Of Eden 5 - Unity in Diversity before the Throne

On Palm Sunday Jesus marched into Jerusalem on a donkey before his death. This shows that Jesus conquers not through military might but weakness, not the power of a lion but the weakness of a lamb (Rev 5:5–6). Not only does Jesus conquer in this way, but the church follows the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev 14:4). Revelation 7 develops the image of Rev 5:5–6 and applies it to the church as a whole; the army led by Judah (Rev 7:1–8; cf. 5:5) is the multitude of worshipers of the Lamb (7:9–17; cf. 5:6).  As a result Revelation 7:9 is less a worship service and more of a post-battle victory song.[1] We see that our diverse army is assured victory through perseverance which is rewarded.

First we see a diverse army (Rev 7:1–9). A census of young males (7:4) typically suggests military preparation, with a sealing suggesting God’s protection (7:3). They are led by the tribe of Judah (7:5), because this is the army of the Lion of Judah (5:5) whose power is expressed through the Lamb that was slain (5:6; cf. 7:9). Oddly, the order of the tribes of Israel begins with Judah, neglects Dan and adds Manasseh, and its order places the sons of the concubines before the sons of Jacob’s wives (7:5–8). And this mighty army of the Lion of Judah is interpreted as the multiethnic, multilingual multitude before the Lamb (7:9), just as the Lion of Judah is interpreted as the Lamb that was slain (5:5–6). God’s army comes from every background, every nation, and every tongue; no one is excluded from participation because of their ability or background.

Yet though we step into battle, our diverse army is assured victory because of the power of our God (7:10–12). The victory cry will go up, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (7:10)! This victory is not because of the greatness of ourselves but the power of our God on the throne. And the angels who stand around the throne and see every detail of what God is doing give glory  and honor and power to God for that victory (7:12). Therefore, this victory cry reminds us that God is the assurance of our victory.

Although our victory is assured, this victory happens through perseverance, made possible by the sacrifice of the Lamb (7:13–14). This army is clothed with white robes, the reward of those who persevere without compromise in the face of corruption (3:4–5). Now a robe is white because it has avoided dirt or been washed; purity is not simply the avoiding of evil but also perseverance in the face of evil. Just as robes must be washed after battle, so God’s people are pure because they have persevered and overcome in their battle with evil. This is possible not because of their perfection but their purification; our robes are made…white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). Our perseverance is made possible because of what Jesus Christ has done on the cross for us.

While the battle will take its toll, we know that perseverance is rewarded (7:15–17). While the battle rages there will be a cost. We look forward that in the shelter of his presence (7:15) we find satisfaction (without hunger or thirst), protection (from the sun and heat; 7:16) and restoration from living water and tears wiped away (7:17). This means that the battle may be costly as we are exposed to hunger, thirst, heat, and anguished tears, but we look forward to when these pains will be rewarded.

So rise up church. We are called to be a church ready for battle. God does not call us to comfort but he calls us to victory. Yet our diverse army is assured victory through perseverance which is rewarded.

[1] Revelation 7:9 is often used to argue for a multiethnic church on earth. Since Rev 7:9 pictures a  heavenly worship service with people from every nation, therefore we ought to have our earthly worship ought to reflect that same reality. Yet the picture is more of a post battle victory song! The dominant imagery is militaristic: censuses were typically taken to prepare people for war (Rev 7:4), palm branches is peace after war (7:9), and washing robes happens after battle (7:14).

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Young, Scrappy and Hungry…in Faith

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With March Madness upon us, I begin with an uncharacteristic basketball illustration. When I play basketball I have one thing going for me: I’m scrappy. I don’t have skill, height, knowledge of the game, ball handling or experience. But I’m scrappy, and I just push hard to get the ball no matter what. And I hope that our faith reflects my basketball playing — that we are scrappy and always hungry for more. Like a line from the musical Hamilton, “I’m just like my country and I’m young, scrappy and hungry.” I have a simple question for you this morning, “How scrappy is your faith?”

Often we don’t think of faith as scrappy but comfortable. We go to comfortable church buildings with comfortable people to listen to a comfortable message and sing songs that (we hope) we are comfortable with.  We think of the life of faith as staying in the boat of our routine, keeping things comfortable. Yet the life of faith begins with a step of faith, recognizing that we are a sinner and trusting in Jesus. And every step from there is another step of faith. And (in the words of John Ortberg) if you want to walk on water, you have to step out of the boat.

So we step out of our boat.  We refuse to hold back but step forward. We refuse to condone the rebellion of our children or react in anger, but kneel in prayer to speak the truth in love. We refuse to withdraw into  comfortable isolation from people to step into the awkward and unexpected demands of community. We refuse to settle back into our accomplishments but press forward with obedience and risk. We keep our eyes on Jesus, and we step out of the boat.

I never want to lose a sense of scrappiness in my faith. When I look around us, many things are going well. The church is growing, people are engaging, and things are moving. Yet the temptation is real — we let our guard down and don’t keep looking to Jesus for more. What is the next step that Jesus is calling you toward?  What risks are you taking in obedience to Jesus? Let us keep our eyes on Jesus and keep taking the next step in obedience.

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Great Things for God? Seek Them Not

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When I was in college, I wanted to do something great for God. Today, I’m not so sure. Recently, I was with a gathering of pastors sharing their hearts for their churches. The younger pastors in the room wanted to do great things for God. The older pastors simply wanted to be faithful. Their earlier idealism had been tempered by the hard knocks of reality. But must the school of hard knocks knock the wind out of all our vision? What type of work are we called to?

We may not be called to do something great for God, but we are all called to good work. God spoke to Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch, “And do you seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not” (Jer 45:5). Yet we are all called to good work. Wendell Berry says:

Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known. Good work can only be defined in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places on earth.*

Humility is the key for good work. When we try to do great things, then we end up bulldozing over the little things (particularities) in a place or in people (whether ourselves or others) with destructive results. When the disciples wanted to do great things for Jesus, Jesus told them to do little things like receive children well (Luke 9:46–48). We can do little things well only with humility. Where does that humility come from?

The Psalmist says, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps 131:1–2). Our souls clamor for greatness because we want to make a name for ourselves, clamoring for greatness because we feel like we fall short. And we do fall short (Rom 6:23)! Yet the Father stills and quiets the clamoring of our soul with his love (Zeph 3:17). And a heart quieted in God’s love can gain the humility to do the little things.

A humble heart does good work. Things made well that last are far better than flashy things made poorly that must be replaced tomorrow. But pride wants the flashy and impressive results. We need the humility to do the little things. In this season of Lent, let us still our souls from the desire for the flashy (and fleshy!) so that we can place others over ourselves. Tonight let us join for prayer at 7 PM to still and quiet our souls in the love of our Father.

 

*Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 365.

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Pentecostal Unity (Acts 2:1–13)

Community Of Eden 4 - Pentecostal Unity

In diversity, we often pursue a programmatic unity, drawing on ideas about intercultural competence to navigate challenges between cultures. Such programmatic unity is important; navigating cultural differences was the reason for the first church council in Acts 15. However our unity is not grown from our program; the power for unity is the power of Pentecost. At Pentecost the Spirit comes down in the power to reverse the power of Babel. What is the key for Pentecostal unity? We see in Acts 2:1–13 three images of the Spirit that reverse the division of Babel: wind, fire and tongues. As God’s Spirit empowers (wind), reveals (fire) and propels them toward witness (tongues), the church finds a Pentecostal unity.

First wind; God’s Spirit comes as a powerful rushing wind that fills the house where they are sitting (Acts 2:1–2). As they are gathered together in one place, God’s Spirit empowers each one like a mighty rushing wind; just like God breathed on dirt to make Adam a living being in Genesis 2, so God breathes on the church to fill them with power. . Throughout Acts as God’s people gather to pray, the place where they are meeting is shaken (4:31; 16:26). Power fills ordinary fishermen. The prayer of Moses  for all God’s people to be prophets (Num 11:29) is now fulfilled with the power of Pentecost; the Spirit of God is poured out on young and old, male and female, servants and masters alike (Acts 2:17–18). The ground at Pentecost is level.

Second fire: God’s presence reveals and rests on each individual. Before God’s presence, all of God’s people gather in unity. Before God’s presence, the walls come tumbling down, and all of God’s people gather together in true unity. Growing up I remember my father’s church where we would worship in English, and the Spirit of God was poured out in power. Japanese, Americans, Africans, Asians and Australians all would gather in a powerful and personal encounter with God. When we encounter God’s presence, we gather in unity. In 1906 at the Azusa Street revival during Jim Crow segregation, God used an unlikely one-eyed child of ex-slaves, William Seymour, as a catalyst for the Azusa Street revival, where the outpouring of God’s Spirit brought together people from all backgrounds in a radical encounter with God. When we encounter God’s presence, walls come tumbling down. Even today, of the Protestant denominations chronicled by Pew Research Center, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God is rated as the most diverse denomination.[1]

Finally, tongues: God’s Spirit comes to propel us into witness (Acts 2:4–13). As God’s people are filled with God’s Spirit, they speak in many different tongues so that people hear them speaking the mighty works of God in their own languages. Throughout Acts, the filling of God’s Spirit propels God’s people into witness. This witness brings people together from many different backgrounds. Similarly as God’s people are united in witness, they unite in a common cause that brings them together despite their differences. Our family of churches, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, is a a family united around witness, partnering with churches around the world. Notably in America, our family is more diverse than the most diverse Protestant denomination reviewed by Pew; while the largest ethnic group in the Assemblies of God was 66%, in our family the largest group is 51% of our church family.

So what is the key for our unity?  The power of God’s Spirit draws us into the place of unity. As God’s Spirit empowers us in an encounter with his presence, then we are propelled to witness. May we not only work on a programmatic unity but trust God’s Spirit for a Pentecostal unity that draws us together that the world might believe (John 17:20-21).

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/.

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Friendships and the Kingdom

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“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom 16:3). Why do so many epistles end with a long list of boring names?  Would we not be better served if God’s Word focused only on clarifying doctrine and not deepening friendships? But doctrine must be lived out in the context of friendship. As I reflect on our past Missions Week I am reminded again — the Kingdom of God is about friendships. As I think about our 31 International Workers and God’s work in 20 different nations, I see their faces and know that the kingdom is about friendships.

If we are to be a church united healing a nation divided, it starts with friendship. Events like Charleston and Ferguson caused me to realize that I did not have any African-American pastors as friends. So I had to step out. And I got connected with Pastor Kevin Williams at Second Baptist Church. This led to a meal, then another meal, and a friendship. And that friendship blossomed into the bone shaking, heart moving worship that we experienced on Friday night at Restore.

This Restore Missions Conference as a whole began from a long-held friendship with Pastor Jong Park at The Redemption Church. We started our churches around the same time and began these Refuel/Restore conferences to strengthen our churches. We have partnered for around seven years now. And I think about another new friendship with our speaker Pastor Dan Hyun from Village Church of Baltimore whose urban vocabulary is stretching the boundaries of my suburban dictionary.

Indeed, to strengthen Wellspring’s work among the nations, it is about friendships. Our dear brother Dan Kronstadt brought his entire family from Raleigh, NC, to strengthen friendship.  Steve Wiggers brought his son Ian, helped clean up after the Missions Feast and went to Feed My Starving Children on Saturday with students from the Rock to deepen friendships. Ginny Feldman dressed up and held her ventriloquist puppet to teach our children about building friendships with others in their schools. I could go on and on about Jeff and Laura Edwards, Scott Manke, Rod and Christiana VanSchooten, and so many others. I think of those who wanted to be here who couldn’t make it like Jen Breining and Marian Goheen. I think of all the others who joined us by video. Praise God for the deepened friendships this past weekend.

The Kingdom of God is about friendships. Let us continue to step across the room to build friendships. It begins with a handshake and hello, but there is no telling where those friendships may take us. I hope that the events of this past week have provided new friendships and deepened older friendships. May we be a church filled with friends — meeting with coffee across the street, engaging in God’s work around the world.

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Babel: Uniformity and Pride (Genesis 11:1–9)

Community Of Eden 2 - Uniformity and Pride

Life would be easier if we were all the same. But while singing in unison may be more efficient, we are designed to sing in harmony with each other. Such a symphony is hard work. What happens when we sing the wrong song in unison?  At Babel we see how our best laid plans to make a name for ourselves are frustrated. But as we call on the name of the Lord, God restores and accomplishes his purposes through us in symphonic unity. Sometimes our best-laid plans to make a name for ourselves may be efficient but not effective. Yet when we call on the name of the Lord, God restores and accomplishes his purposes through us in symphonic unity.

When we want to make a name for ourselves, then we force uniformity (Gen 11:1-4). At Babel people sought to make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4) with one language (11:1) in one place (11:2) with one plan (11:3) for one purpose (11:4). This totalizing uniformity brings everybody together in one manmade plan, including God, and they build a tower as a ziggurat to bring god down to them on a large staircase. Instead of filling the earth (Gen 1:28), they settle in a plain in Shinar (11:2) so that they will not be dispersed (11:4). Instead of calling on the name of the Lord (4:26) or allowing the Lord to make a name for them (12:2), they want to make a name for themselves (11:4). They gather together to build a city that centers around a tower with its top in the heavens, probably a ziggurat which features a staircase designed to bring God down. At the center of this community is idolatry, constructing God in our own image, bringing God to our own level. Now idolatry creates community; community can easily be formed when we make god in our own image. Yet the community of idolatry usually brings  uniformity — as we emphasize one side of god, then we inevitably reduce God to our own image. Similarly, we often force conformity to bring efficiency.

Yet efficiency is not always effective; our best-laid plans to make a name for ourselves bring frustration (Gen 11:5–10). The LORD does come down to see the city (11:5), and he confuses their language (11:7) to stymie the development of their idolatrous rebellion (11:6). Not only is their language confused but they are also dispersed to over the face of all the earth (11:8–10). Babel is at the root of Babylon; and throughout Scripture Babylon represents the pinnacle of human arrogance which is brought down (Isa 13:9; 14:13–15; Rev 18:7–10).

We must come out of the idolatry of Babylon (Isa 48:20; Rev 18:4). Instead of making a name for ourselves, let us call on the name of the Lord with pure speech in worship (Zeph 3:9–10). Instead of frustrating our best-laid plans, God restores his people and purposes as he gathers his worshippers from the nations (Zeph 3:17–20). This is fulfilled at Pentecost, as God’s people gather to call on the name of the Lord and the Spirit of God comes down in power to change people from many languages and places so that they might all hear the mighty works of God in their own tongues (Acts 2:11). This is a symphonic, God orchestrated unity.

So what? Let us unite in calling on the name of the Lord. The key to navigating our differences is not by submitting to some man-made plan but by calling on the name of the Lord. As we call on His name, He orchestrates and conducts into a symphonic unity, even as each plays its part.

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Stretching hearts, shoveling snow and deepening values

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Life is busy. We have appointments, responsibilities, practices, projects, piano lessons and nap times.  So do I.  Especially the nap times. But today is the first day of Missions Week. And in the midst of the busyness of your schedule, I want to invite you to this for three reasons: to stretch your heart, help you shovel snow and deepen our value for mission

Missions Week will stretch your heart. Did you know that we have 31 missionary units from around the world? Tomorrow evening almost every one of them will share their latest prayer requests! You will see their faces, hear their voices and lift up your voices in prayer for and with them. This, of course, follows our Missions Feast which will stretch your stomach as well (which is always good). Missions Feast begins at 6 PM; prayer at 7 PM.

Also, this week will help you shovel snow. Recently I was surprised that I didn’t feel as excited about diversity as some people around me. Why? Diversity can be like snow — those who are most excited about it shovel the least. Those who don’t shovel frolic in the snow with excitement; those who do shovel can also enjoy the snow with satisfaction but not feel as excited. We all need to learn to shovel snow better to engage the diversity before us. Our Restore Missions Conference will stretch your cultural competencies as you engage God in worship on Friday and learn from an all-star lineup of seminars on Saturday. On Friday at 7 PM, bring your children as well for Kids Restore; early childhood will also be ready as well.

Finally, Missions Week will deepen your value for mission. We spend time on what we value, and we value what we spend time on. Those who value physical fitness spend time working out and eating well. Those who value friends or family will spend time eating together and connecting in different ways. As a church, our values are being formed based on the things that we are investing our time toward. Since we value God’s heart for the nations around the world and across the street, let us spend time this year — and each year — celebrating and deepening this value.

So join us — stretch your heart, help us shovel snow and deepen our values.  I am looking forward to being with you this week.

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