God’s Rainbow Promise

In looking ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, these words from Genesis 9:12-13 stand out to me: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

What I love about God’s rainbow promise is the expansiveness of it: all earthly creatures, even the very earth itself, from that point into eternity. The whole rainbow of created things, in all their vast diversity, is included in God’s always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant.

Yet in this expansiveness of God’s promise there is still a very personal dimension. “I make this covenant,” God says to Noah, “between you and me”—Noah individually, personally, in the midst of his family, in the midst of all God’s good creation. And so God repeats this always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant with each one of us, individually, personally, in the midst of all God’s good creation. This is good news; this is gospel.

The rainbow has become a symbol of the beautiful spectrum of human sexuality—all sexes, all orientations, all genders. That’s appropriate, given the expansiveness of God’s rainbow promise here, encompassing the full diversity of creation. It’s appropriate, too, given the fully affirming nature of God’s promise to each human person.

As we walk in our work this week, may we be mindful of God’s immense love for us, for all people, and for all creation, from the most unloved of individuals to the very earth itself.

Why Worship? Why Worship Together?

It’s Sunday morning, and we gather together as Christians to worship God.

The specific experiences are as varied as the number of churches, but most worship services have a few things in common.

We sing together—sometimes off-key, sometimes hymns too slowly, sometimes choruses too repetitively, too repetitively, too repetitively.

We pray together—sometimes faltering, sometimes mumbling, sometimes with too little genuine feeling, sometimes with too much “Lord, we just, Lord, want to just ask, Lord…”

We break bread together—not all of us every Sunday, not always in a ritual, sometimes with too little ritual.

We read Scripture and reflect on it together—sometimes with poor exegesis, sometimes with too little Jesus, sometimes going past noon with dinner waiting in the crockpot.

Why exactly do we do all these things, worshiping in these and other ways Sunday morning after Sunday morning? And is this “worship” really all that important?

Revelation 4-5 speaks directly to these kinds of questions—and gives us some surprising and challenging answers.

Let’s start with the big picture, stating the obvious: Revelation 4-5 is all about worship. (That much at least everyone can agree on.)

But notice where this vision is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1 is introduction, setting up the rest of the book. Revelation 2-3 are specific letters to the seven specific churches Revelation is written to—in a sense still introduction, setting the stage for the main act. And then we hit Revelation 4-5—the first major vision John sees, determining the course of everything else that follows.

The first major vision at the heart of the book—and it’s all about worship.

This tells us that worshiping God is an essential activity. And not just worshiping God individually—worshiping God collectively, gathering together with others in worship, is essential. It grounds our way of life. It sets the tone for everything else.

But why is this? And how exactly does this work?

Let’s focus in on some of the details of this vision.

At the centre of it all, the object of all this worship, is God, seated on his heavenly throne, ruler over all creation. God, the Indescribable One, only imagined in colours and light.

Elder 2Four “living creatures” are immediately around the throne, one on each side: a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. These represent all living things—later they are heard saying “Amen” to the declaration of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (that’s pretty comprehensive). All creatures of our God and king, giving honour and praise to God.

Twenty-four “elders” surround them, seated on thrones, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their head. These represent all God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ—as we hear later when the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are brought together in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem. All God’s people, bowing in reverence to God, singing God’s praises.

All creation, all God’s people, from the beginning of the world until its end, worshiping God.

So here’s one answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is a participation in something fundamental to all creation, something that all creation is intrinsically engaged in.

The birds of the air, the flowers of the field—they honour their Creator simply by being what God created them to be, doing what God created them to do. Simply by being as God made them to be, existing as God made them to exist, all living things worship God.

Likewise, humans honour our Creator simply by being the way God made us to be, living the way God made us to live. We glorify God in our humanness, by being fully human. Simply by being as God made us to be, existing as God made us to exist, we worship God.

This ceaseless praise of God is intrinsic to creation; it is the very grain of the universe.

And so we are encouraged to see our worship together as a participation in this eternal, ceaseless worship of God by all creation and all God’s people. We are encouraged to see our worship together as giving voice to this never-ending, underlying rhythm of worship that is happening all around us.

But there’s more.

As we keep moving through this vision in Revelation 4-5, we hear some very specific declarations of praise. As the elders and living creatures give voice to the worship of all creation, their voice says some specific things.

God is holy. God is other. God is unlike any other. God is unique.

God is almighty. God is the source of all true power, power that creates and gives life.

God is eternal. God was. God is. God will be.

God is Creator. All that is, is because God is.

God is Redeemer. All that is good, is good because God loves.

Elder 1Here, then, is a second answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is worldview-shaping, crafting the lenses through which we see our world and understand our place in it.

Good worship—worship in both spirit and in truth—is instructive. It teaches us; we learn from it.

Through our worship together we understand God’s role in the world as Creator and Redeemer. All things exist because God is. And although there is hurt and brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, all things can be redeemed because God loves. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Through our worship together we understand the world as God’s beloved creation. God does not hate us. God does not despise the work of his hands. God loves all creation, and imbues it with his grace and glory. We learn this in part through our worship together.

And through our worship together we understand our role as redeemed priest-kings and priestess-queens extending God’s reign throughout the earth. God calls us as God’s people to a particular task, a particular way of being in the world. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Revelation 4-5 gives us a third answer to the question of “why worship God,” and it’s the most surprising one of all: Our collective worship is a profoundly political act; it is a powerful statement about how we should order our lives as human societies.

It’s all too easy for us to pass over the significance of the “throne.” For us, thrones are something from ancient times or fairy tales, or from the Bible. Of course God sits on a throne! God is king, after all!

But when was the last time you saw a king or a queen or an emperor or empress actually sitting on a throne, wielding some real power?

The “throne” doesn’t really mean much to us. But no one in the time of Revelation would miss the significance: the throne was a thoroughly political symbol, even the most potent political symbol one could use. And, in a world filled with absolute claims to absolute power, it was also about as subversive as you could get.

“Worship” is about “ascribing worth”; it is about declaring value. Worship is an expression of devotion and commitment, an expression of allegiance. When we come together and “worship God,” then, we are declaring our allegiance to God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

But this vision is even more politically subversive than that.

Lion-Lamb 2In Revelation 5 we see a scroll, and we’re told that “no one can open the scroll”—no one in heaven or on earth or even under the earth, no creature, no human being, no human ruler, no angelic being. It’s not clear what the scroll represents—the title deed to the universe, perhaps, or the unfolding of human history. Either way, it’s the kind of thing that any good Roman would expect the emperor to rightfully possess and be able to open at will.

Yet it is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who alone can open it—Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s promised king from the tribe of Judah, descendent of king David. This is as any Jew in Revelation’s day would expect—but there’s another twist.

The “lion” is in fact a “lamb,” a “lamb who has been slaughtered.” The Messiah, Israel’s king, has not gained the right to rule by crucifying his enemies, but by being crucified. The true Lord and Ruler of the cosmos has not changed the tides of human history by killing his enemies, but by being willing to die for them.

God reigns not as a tyrant, not as a bully, not through coercion or violence or any other form of raw power. God reigns through the humble, self-giving, suffering servant, who gives himself for the world. God reigns through forgiveness and compassion. God reigns in love.

When we come together and worship God, then, we are saying “no” to any other way of being in the world, any other way of ordering our lives as human societies. We are saying that no human society that will stand the test of time, no civilization that will last, can be built on deceit or corruption or coercion or violence or injustice of any kind.

When we come together and “worship God” we are worshiping the God who exercises power and authority through self-giving love. We are declaring our allegiance to this God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

So the next Sunday you’re in church and the person next to you is singing that hymn a little off-key, or the organist is dragging a little, or you’re on your twenty-fourth time through the chorus of “Oceans,” or the Scripture reader stumbles over “Melchizedek,” or the preacher is droning on while the roast is drying out, remember this: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

You are participating in the worship of all creation. You are giving voice to the wordless praise of all living things.

Your mind and heart, your very soul, is being shaped by God. God is training you to see the world differently, preparing you to step out and find your God-ordained role in this world.

You are making a declaration of allegiance. You are standing unequivocally with the God who loves, the God who brings life, the God who gives his life in love.

Come, let us sing to the Lord. Come, let us worship and bow down.

Together.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The Horrors of the Apocalypse”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 10, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

You Are Not Alone

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 31, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Forgiven,” “Needed.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

It’s one of the most basic needs we have: the need for human connection. It’s one of the most common fears we have: the fear of being alone. They’re two sides of the same coin: fear on the one side, desire on the other.

As soon as our eyes begin to focus as babies, we are looking for faces: eyes and noses and smiles. And, as babies, we need that human touch: loving, gentle, firm, safe.

At the other end of our lives, not much has changed. We still look for kind faces with warm smiles. We still crave that loving human touch. Right to the end.

This desire to be connected to others, and its flip side, the fear of being alone, drives us far more than we realize. All social groupings are at bottom fueled by that need for contact with other persons. We form friendship bonds, and partnership bonds, and permanent pair bonds, because we have a deep need to connect with others, and a deep fear of being isolated from others.

Put another way, there’s a reason why solitary confinement is one of the most horrific punishments that can be inflicted on people. Even the most introverted among us craves social interaction with other persons. The difference among us is only a matter of degree.

We long for meaningful connection; we fear being alone.

There’s an interesting feature of the creation stories in the book of Genesis that many people have noticed.

When you read through the first story in Genesis 1, you hear this repeated refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” God separates the land and the waters, and it is good. The earth brings forth vegetation, and it is good. God separates the light from the darkness, and it is good. God creates every living creature, and it is good.

Seven times in Genesis 1, the Creator God shapes something, forms something, makes something, fills something—and then declares it to be “good.”

But then comes Genesis 2, the second creation story. And smack in the middle of it, you read this: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good.’”

Keep in mind, this is before sin has even entered the picture. This is when everything is supposed to be untainted and unspoiled and perfect in its goodness. And in the middle of this very good creation is something that is “not good.”

Here’s the whole statement: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the Human should be alone.’”

The very first thing in the Bible noted as “not good,” even in the pristine paradise of Eden, is human isolation, a lack of meaningful connection with others—being all alone in a big wide world.

We long for meaningful connection; we fear being alone. This parallel desire and fear is not only built into our DNA; it’s built into our most primal stories, our first Scriptures.

And to each of us, God speaks these words of good news: “You are not alone.”

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. And God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you. You are not alone.

Right from the very beginning of the human story, then, the Bible highlights our need for connection with others, that it is “not good” for us to be alone. But as interesting as that is, what’s even more interesting is what God does about it.

We typically think of the story this way: God says, “It’s not good for the Man to be alone,” and then we jump immediately to the end of the story, where there is a Man and a Woman who come together to be “one flesh” in marriage.

But that’s not actually the way the story is told. The Hebrew word for “Man” here is adam, which can mean “man” or “male human.” But it can also mean “human” or “human being” generally, and in the context it’s clear that’s what it means here.

Because right after God says, “It’s not good for the adam to be alone,” God doesn’t immediately make a womanGod makes the animals. You see, the distinction is not between the Man and the Woman, but between the Human and the Animals.

All the Animals are paraded before the Human, and none of them is the “suitable companion” that God says the Human needs. And so God makes another Human, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh”—exactly the same, a fully human counterpart—to be the first Human’s “suitable companion.”

In other words, the problem is not that a man needs a wife, or that a woman needs a husband. The problem is that a human needs another human—we need meaningful human connection, human companionship. And God has provided for that need by creating other humans, other people around us, to give us the connection and companionship that we require. Marriage, then, is one specific and important way in which this basic need for human relationship is fulfilled—but it is not the only way.

I know, that way of reading the story goes against the grain of our received interpretations of Genesis 2. But it’s really the best way to understand the story. After all, if that need for companionship is only satisfied through marriage, then there have been a lot of single people through history who have not fulfilled God’s purpose for relationships—including Jesus.

So here’s the important takeaway from all this: We are not all mandated to get married, but we are all created for human companionship—and God provides us with human companions on the journey of life, human partners in the purpose of life.

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. You are not alone.

Rubens - Jesus on CrossBut there’s more. God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you.

This can be hard for us to believe, to really believe. We can at times feel abandoned by God—usually when we also feel abandoned by others. We can, in other words, feel like Jesus on the cross, crying out in our hearts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Yet, as Jesus himself would have known, God never really abandons us, God is always with us. Even that Psalm that Jesus quotes—his words on the cross are the opening words of Psalm 22—that Psalm goes on to say, “God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (22:24).

So even in our loneliest moments, those times when we feel most isolated from others, most disconnected, even completely abandoned—God is with us.

If you feel like this—lonely, isolated, disconnected, abandoned—listen to these words from Scripture; let them wash over you:

From Isaiah 43:5: [God says,] “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you.”

From Hebrews 13:5: God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

You are precious in God’s sight, and honoured, and God loves you. Do not be anxious or afraid, for God is with you. Indeed, God will never leave you or forsake you.

You are not alone. Others are with you: companions on the journey of life, partners in the purpose of life. And God is with you: even if all others fail, God will never leave you or forsake you. You are not alone.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.