While it may only be the first Sunday in Lent, Good Friday is being experienced right now in many places around the world. Just this past Wednesday another report was issued concluding that 40 people died in Iraq at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS. And earlier this week 21 men were killed by this group on a beach in Libya because they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. When will the senseless violence stop?
I know that most of you probably came to church this morning hoping to escape the endless news cycles that spell violence, fear, and hate. Like many of you, the only news I watch anymore is the weather but that’s getting pretty depressing these days too. It’s all just too sad.
But as Christians we aren’t called to escape the world of evil and violence. We aren’t called to insulate ourselves and wait for God to rapture us from evil like too many churches are preaching. Instead, we are called to endure and persevere. Even more, we are called to witness to how God is responding to evil and violence.
This morning I want to spend some time answering, what is God’s plan to rescue us from all this terror and hate? And how can we be a part of God’s plan to deliver the world from evil?
The short answer is spelled out on a church sign on West Dallas Avenue. The answer is Jesus. But what does that mean? How is the answer Jesus? And if the answer is Jesus, someone who lived and died 2,000 years ago, then why does this kind of stuff still happen? Shouldn’t all the world’s problems be fixed by now if Jesus is truly the answer?
Before we can really start to answer these questions, the first thing we must know and believe is that our world has already been rescued from evil through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, even though evil did its worst to Jesus beginning in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and ending with nails driven through his hands and feet, Jesus rose victorious over the cross and the grave. So what does that mean for us on earth 2,000 years later?
Even though evil and death still exist, Jesus’ resurrection means that we now live in a world where someone has lived beyond the grave. We now live in a world where someone has lived beyond the fear of violence and death. Jesus’ victory over the cross and the grave tell us that there is a way to live on this earth where evil and death no longer have the power to tell us what to do.
As Jesus says to his disciples in a resurrection appearance, he says to us today, “Follow me, and I will show you this way. I will show you this life without fear.” Jesus has opened up for us the way to everlasting life—not just in the life to come but in our lives today because we are free from the permanence of sin and death. As Bishop Murray said at diocesan convention, sin and death are only temporary road bumps. The scripture is true; whether we live or die we are alive in the Lord.
I know this might sound a bit strange but the book of Revelation paints this picture of God’s plan for salvation beautifully. Don’t worry. I haven’t resorted to speaking in tongues or snake handling, I promise. Believe it or not, the book of Revelation offers a picture of hope if you can just get past all the starling language and symbolism. Before you can see the beautiful picture, you must see past the symbols of revelation. So here goes your crash course on the book of Revelation.
The writer of Revelation is ultimately given a vision into heaven. And in heaven there is a throne where God sits and to God’s right hand is the Lamb that was slain who is Jesus Christ. In front of the throne is the altar of the Lord. And around that altar and throne is a multitude of angels and martyrs and prophets and every living creature who stand to praise God night and day—sound familiar? But there is a pause in the action when God’s plan for salvation is opened by the Lamb that was slain. The plan for salvation is contained within a scroll and the scroll is sealed with seven seals.
When the first seal is opened a white horse is revealed which represents Christ. The white rider is the victorious Christ the King who rides out to defeat the kings and powers of this world. Seals number two, three, four, five, and six represent some kind of human evil or natural disaster—war, famine, sickness, earthquake, and so on. And the last seal portrays the faithful in prayer. What are the implications of this?
Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson says something beautiful, “evil is bracketed between Christ and prayer…evil is not explained but surrounded…evil is seen as a finite episode and not a total triumph.” Let me summarize that. There is no denying the reality of evil but one day evil will come to an end. Until that day God surrounds evil with Christ and prayer. Peterson goes on to say, “Christians sing…Any evil, no matter how fearsome, is exposed as weak and pedantic before such songs.”
This scene in Revelation is not all too unlike a scene in Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now is a Francis Coppola film starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall and depicts the darkness and chaos of the Vietnam War. There is an unforgettable scene where a priest celebrates the Eucharist with other soldiers in the middle of combat—there is gun fire and bombs exploding all around and a priest and a faithful few stand around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
The priest and the altar seem out of place don't they? Well, at least they do in our world. But it seems that God is trying to say that the bombs and violence are the things that are really out of place. God is trying to save us not through more violence but through a faith that knows that sin and death will not last forever, through a faith that knows that evil cannot stand up to Christ's victory over death.
God’s answer to sin and death has always been to dwell with the people. God’s answer has always been to plant his everlasting kingdom in our world of death and decay. And the good news is that in Jesus we get that permanent dwelling. In order to remind us of that permanent dwelling, God calls us to worship.
This week churches from all over the world are offering prayer vigils in memory of those Christians who were slain by ISIS in Libya—the Coptic Church has already declared these 21 men as martyrs. And this declaration is well deserved. These men didn’t so much as flinch as they faced their persecutors. Only through confidence in the gospel can that kind of stuff happen. Ask yourself this, who displayed more strength and courage-the men who knelt silently before their persecutors or the men in who executed the innocent?
In a few minutes, we will join Christians worldwide and gather around the Lord’s Table. We will offer the Eucharist in the name of the persecuted church, in the name of all those who are killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. As we gather, we will sing with angels and archangels and martyrs, including the ones who died in Libya, in a faith that believes that whether we live or die we are alive in the Lord. Standing around that altar is our ultimate witness to our faith that God has rescued our broken world through Jesus Christ. How can evil win when God calls us to such a faith?
Jesus has changed the world. In Christ, there is life everlasting. Eventually, evil will fall under its own weight. I know what you are thinking—but pastor it is getting worse? Yes, I understand that. I also know we live in a world where our children have to process more evil and violence in a day that most of us have had to do in a lifetime.
As your pastor, I do know this. Exactly because things seem to be getting worse the world is hungry for the good news. Selma is hungry for the good news. And the answer is Jesus. How will the people know the answer is Jesus? Surely not because it is printed on some church sign. No, you are the sign that Jesus is making the world new. Your prayers, your faithfulness in worship, your presence around this altar is the sign that Jesus calls us to live in a world beyond the grave.
Even more, when you leave this place, when you go back out into the world that is torn with hate and fear, you go bearing signs of Christ’s abiding presence, signs that were entrusted to you through this Eucharist—signs of compassion, signs of charity, signs of mercy, signs healing, signs of radical love.
The world is hungry to know Jesus. Selma is hungry to know Jesus. And the good news is that Jesus is hungry to surround the world with his presence. May we have the grace to stand with Christ and surround evil and death with the power of prayer in a faith that knows that God has already won the victory through his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.