The One Who Was, Who Is, and Who Is To Come

Easter 2, Year C, April 28, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Revelation is probably the single most misunderstood book of the Bible.  When Christians today read it, we often try to crack the code and read it as a road-map of the future, a timeline so that we can be prepared for the end days.  Or we try and figure out what people today are associated with the various symbolic figures in the book: who’s the Beast?  Who’s the antichrist?  And so on and so forth.  Most of all, we get scared.  We read about all the terrible things that happen in the book, and we get scared: of God, or of the world, or of judgment.  But the thing is, the Book of Revelation was written to inspire and comfort its readers, not scare them.

Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written.  The great persecution hadn’t started yet, but Christians were despised and discriminated against.  Almost all of them were poor and marginalized—slaves, women, landless laborers, the sort of people who were easy to use and abuse.  They were ostracized and mocked for their belief.  They were persecuted and suffered for following Christ.  American Christians sometimes complain about being “persecuted,” when what we mean is that  we don’t have the respect and prestige that we used to.  The Christians of John’s day had never had any respect or prestige.  They had been despised their whole lives, and their faith was just one more thing to despise them for.  And, when someone is poor, and has no social influence, and belongs to some weird minority—which is what Christianity was at the time—it’s really easy for that person to be hurt.  To suffer.  Anyone who likes to do evil can hurt them with impunity.

And the thing is, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly a good and kind nation.  Their idea of creating peace was to kill their enemies and salt the ground so it couldn’t be used anymore.  The whole empire was built on slave labor on a scale that wouldn’t be seen again until the 18th Century.  They’re the people who thought up and regularly used crucifixion, one of the most sadistic ways of killing people ever created.  They divided the world into “us” vs. “them,” and if you were not a Roman citizen (and most residents of the Roman Empire were not citizens), there was almost no protection from the brutality of anyone who wanted to hurt you.  And most Christians were pretty near the bottom of the social pyramid.  So the Christians of John’s day were very used to suffering.  They were used to having evil done to them.  They were up close and personal with death, with violence, with all the terrible things that people can do to one another, because most of them happened to them at one time or another.

When someone has suffered, you can’t just paper over it and smile and assure them of God’s love.  When someone has had evil done to them, you have to deal with the reality of the evil.  You have to deal seriously with the question of why good people die and bad people live, why good people suffer while their abusers prosper, why evil exists, and with the question of where God is in the midst of al of this.  How can God be good if God allows evil?  Where is God when there is pain?  And if your religion doesn’t offer a convincing answer, well, it’s not going to last long.

The book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ answer to the problem of pain.  Evil is always present and acknowledged.  Yes, there is evil in the world.  But you know what?  Evil is temporary.  Evil is defeated, always.  God is stronger.  Even if things look grim, even if things look weird and strange and horrifying, the book of Revelation is quite clear: God is going to win.  Evil will be defeated and destroyed.  God’s love is stronger than any other power in the universe, no matter how much it may seem otherwise in the moment.  The book takes evil and suffering seriously, both showing the consequences of evil and the ways in which God will eventually defeat it, but the point of Revelation isn’t to dwell on the evil or destruction or suffering.  The point is that such evil and destruction will be defeated.  The point is that the suffering will eventually end and God will be triumphant, that God who created the world will also be there to re­create the world as the paradise God always intended it to be.  The point is that no matter how grim or hopeless things seem, God is always at work, and God’s will—God’s peace and love and salvation—will prevail.

The book of Revelation isn’t a road map, it’s a vision.  Like an impressionist painting, the purpose is not to provide an accurate, factual account, but to make you feel, to capture an impression.  When we read it, we’re supposed to feel how terrible the evils of the world are—and we are supposed to be relieved and filled with joy by the knowledge that they will end, that they are finite, that God is greater than they are and their time is limited.  We are supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that even if we have to live through the worst the world has to offer, even if we must suffer and die, our lives are not in vain and there will come a time when all evil will be destroyed, all sickness and injury will be healed, all people will be made whole, and all of heaven and earth will be made new.  And all this great joy and hope comes to us through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.

The book of Revelation starts and ends with this hope, and keeps returning to this hope and joy throughout the book, even in the midst of some of the most frightening parts.  So let’s take a look at the introduction to Revelation, which is our second reading for today:  God is the one “who was, and is and is to come.”  God was present before all things—God created all things, seen and unseen!—and God is with us now, and God will always be with us.  We can trust in God, because God will never end.  God is the Alpha and the Omega: Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega was the last letter of the Greek alphabet.  So John is telling us that God is the A to Z, the beginning and the end.  But also, that God is part of everything and in everything.  There is no part of the universe that God does not touch.  There is no part of the universe that is hidden from God, or that is more powerful than God.  All the physical things that we can see and touch come from God, and all the unseen things—all the spiritual forces—bow before God.

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who shows us what God is like in his actions and words.  Jesus Christ is the one through whom we come to meet God more fully than any other path.  Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead.  As Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so one day all the dead will be raised, when Christ comes again in glory.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but the God who created us out of the dust in the first place will re-create us, will resurrect us just as Christ was resurrected.  Even the powers of death are nothing before God, for Jesus Christ has destroyed death and rose from the grave, and will one day raise us from the grave as well.  He did this because he loves us, and forgives us our sins.  There is evil in the world—there is evil in us—but God forgives us through the saving actions of Jesus Christ.  And because of that love, because of that salvation, we have a calling: we have been made God’s people, called to serve and be part of God’s kingdom.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  The day will come when Christ will return, and the dead will rise, and evil will be defeated, and all the living and the dead will be judged.  So we don’t have to worry.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil happens, no matter how much we suffer, we know that God loves us, that God is with us, that God’s love will win in the end and all the evils in and around us will be defeated.

Amen.

 

Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

Does Jesus Heal?

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, Sunday, February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lutheran seminary students are required to spend at least one summer working as a chaplain in a hospital or nursing home as part of our training.  This program, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, combines practical hands-on work, group study, and one-on-one mentorship, and one of my classmates who had been in the Army called it “boot camp for pastors.”

I did my CPE at Oregon State Hospital.  It’s the mental facility where they filmed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There were strict rules for all employees and volunteers at the hospital.  One of them was that we could not tell anyone the names of the patients we worked with.  If we saw them out on the street, after they left, we could not make contact.  Unless they came up to us, we could not acknowledge that we knew them, and unless they brought it up, we could not say where we knew them from.  Not if anybody might be able to hear us.  This rule was supposed to protect the patients from people knowing they spent time in a mental hospital.

You see, there’s a stigma about mental illness.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s unpleasant.  If you are known to have a mental illness, people will look at you differently, and you will likely be discriminated against … particularly if your illness is severe enough that you end up in the hospital.  “Can’t he control it?” you hear people say.  Or “Can’t she just snap out of it?”  “Why can’t they act normally?”  Mental illness is a hard thing, a difficult thing to deal with that can split families and ruin lives.  There are no easy cures or answers why some people have it and others don’t.  So people ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and in the process they ignore the people who suffer from mental illness.  There is a divide between the world and those who suffer from these devastating conditions, and it can be as wide as the Grand Canyon.  The mentally ill are often treated like lepers.

What the Bible calls “leprosy” included a lot more than just Hansen’s Disease, which is what we call it today.  Leprosy included everything from true leprosy to bad psoriasis to severe acne.  Leprosy was a terrible thing in the ancient world.  If you were a leper, you were an outcast.  You could not associate with healthy people.  You could not work to earn your daily bread, but had to beg.  Your own family would probably cast you out.  You could not go to the Temple to worship God and participate in the community of believers.  And you were often told their affliction was a punishment for the sins they had committed, so it was your own fault.

We hear this, and we think, “How horrible!  How primitive, how superstitious and cruel, to blame people for things that aren’t their fault and isolate them from the support they need to live and thrive!”  When the truth is, we do the same thing.  But instead of penalizing people with incurable diseases that are visible on their skin, we do it to people whose wounds are in their hearts and minds.

Besides the stigma, there’s another similarity between mental illness now and leprosy then.  It’s that both conditions were or are, by and large, incurable.  If you were a leper in Jesus’ day, unless you were extremely lucky and your “leprosy” was only a bad case of acne, you would have it for your entire life.  It was never going to go away.  Likewise, if you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any other mental illness, you will struggle with it for the rest of your life.  Some people are lucky enough that they can function on their own, with or without medication.  Some people will be in and out of mental hospitals, as their condition ebbs and flows.  And some of the people I worked with that summer at Oregon State Hospital will never be functional enough to leave the hospital, even with the best treatment possible.

During the summer I worked there, one of the stories of Jesus healing people came up as the appointed Gospel lesson for one Sunday.  One of my fellow students preached on it, and as we discussed that sermon Monday morning the Chaplain was very critical.  “Does Jesus heal?” he asked.  “Of course!” we replied.  “How can you possibly say that?” he said.  “You’ve been here a month.  How can you possibly believe that?  None of the patients at this hospital will ever be free of their illness.  Many of them will only leave the hospital for their graves.”  After twenty years of being a chaplain in prisons and hospitals, the chaplain had seen too much brokenness, pain, and suffering to believe that God could heal people.  He believed in emotional and spiritual healing—Jesus as Comforter—and social healing—Jesus the Good Shepherd welcoming people back into the flock—but not physical healing.

It can be hard to argue with his reasoning.  I know people who have been healed, who beat the doctors’ expectations, and I believe that Christ was working there, but for each story of hope there are many stories of pain and suffering.  There are so many people in the world who are faithful followers of God who will never receive healing in this life.  Those with mental illnesses, who struggle with addiction, with AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s Disease, a whole host of other devastating conditions will struggle with their conditions for the rest of their lives.

And then we come to a text like today’s Gospel.  Leprosy, the most dread disease of that day, healed with a touch!  Jesus, in one move, cured both the leper’s physical ailment and reunited him with the community that had turned its back on him.  And it makes me wonder why.  Why that leper, and not others?  How many lepers were there in Judea in Jesus day who weren’t that lucky?  What about the people here, now, today?  What about the people who are dying as we speak?  Is the chaplain right?  If Jesus is a healer, why isn’t he healing more people?

I don’t know.  People have been wondering why God allows pain and suffering since the first people existed.  C.S. Lewis called it “The Problem of Pain.”  My professors at seminary had a fancy Greek word for it, “theodicy.”  There have been a lot of theories, but there is no definitive answer.

What I do know, absolutely for certain, is that God is a healer, and God will heal all suffering and brokenness, whether now or when Christ comes again.  For some, that healing comes in this life.  For others, it will not come until the Resurrection.  We pray that healing comes soon, but it whether it comes now or later it will come.

And those who suffer are not alone.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus Christ is with the outcast, the leper, the unclean, the mentally ill, with all those who suffer.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus does not.  Our Lord spent his ministry with those pushed to the margins by their community: lepers, tax collectors, sinners.  Even when we would rather ignore the unpleasant reality of illness, Christ meets it head on.  Jesus Christ has suffered himself; he knows what we go through and will not abandon us.  We may not see the signs of Christ’s presence—when things are hardest, our pain can blind us to the support God is giving us.  There are times we feel utterly alone, and yet later, can look back later and see Christ with us.  We as Christians are invited to participate in this reality, by providing support in tangible ways, and serving as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  We may not be able to cure illness with a touch, but we can support and nourish and love, and create an environment which supports healing.  Christ does not call us to sympathize with those who suffer from afar, to shake our heads and murmur how terrible it is.  Christ calls us to join him in his healing work.

I believe that there are miracles of healing.  I have seen them and I have heard others tell their stories, some in this very congregation.  Some are physical: deadly diseases cured.  Other healings are spiritual, not physical, when someone receives the strength to carry on, or a broken relationship is restored.  But no matter what form the healing takes, no matter when it happens, Jesus Christ is there.

Amen.