"Inclining our Lives"

September 7, 1997
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Revelation 1:1-20

Though "officially" we still have two more weeks of summer, for most of us the season is, in effect, over. We have made the turn in our schedules to new routines. For this congregation, we are rounding yet another corner in our journey together. The last three months have been quite an experience, traveling with Pastor Daniel while I have been on sabbatical. Again, thank you for this time away. I trust we all have grown, that God has taught us something new as we have opened ourselves to his possibilities.

Just now, let me lift up two lessons we, perhaps, have derived from this "summer school" experience. The first involves how we understand time. Time, for us, is a commodity. We measure it, and give it value. "Time is money," we say. Though some of us may be more punctual than others, we all govern our comings and goings by the clock. We hate to waste time, at least most of us do.

Over the summer we experienced the clash of cultures, especially in the area of time. Where our brother Daniel grew up, time is more fluid, not as exact. It is not as much a commodity to be bartered and used, as it is something that happens when it happens. Now, as much as we have something to teach other cultures about how to make the most of their resources, we also have something to learn.

For instance, when the Bible speaks of time, it is operating out a setting more like that of rural Kenya than the United States. Furthermore, in God’s written Word there are at least two ways of viewing time. The first is the human concept of (in Greek) "Kronos," from which we derive the word "chronological." This involves the measured units which add up from smaller to larger, as in seconds that lead to hours and days, weeks that become months and years, decades that stretch to centuries and millennia - however we compile them. Human time.

But there is another kind of time, "Kairos" or "God’s time." We cannot grasp this time, and I mean that literally. It’s not merely a matter of understanding, but of control. You see, God is Lord of time. Our Creator is not bound by chronos (or chronological) time. Neither is our Savior. Did you notice how, in the Call to Worship, the words of John whose revelation sets our imaginations on fire also sets time as we know it on its head? Not once, but twice. In verse four and verse eight of the first chapter, our Lord is described as the One "who is, who was, and who is to come." To begin with, we tend to think in a linear fashion. It makes more sense for us to say God "was, and is, and is to come." Nevertheless, this Word of God through St. John is trying to break through that which constrains us. You see, this very tool which we use well to organize our lives and get things done - time - all-too-easily controls us.

God, however, is eternal - beyond human time, beyond its control. "I am the alpha and the omega," the beginning and the end. That’s what God says. And we are called and empowered to live eternally, even now, to be freed from the chains of time by the One who brought under God’s control the most real and to us often the most dreadful aspect of time: death. Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, IS. He is alive. In him, we are alive, now, even as in him we die, now. Because of this, death loses its power over us. We are set free from a slavery to time because of our Lord "who is, who was, and who is to come." Time, as we know it, then becomes what it was meant to be, a tool not a dictator. Remember that as you face into the after-Labor-Day rush.

Perhaps a second lesson from this summer concerns our ability to hear. Understanding Daniel’s accent was not easy, was it? English was, for him, a third language. The sermons I heard after we returned from our trip were excellent, but you really had to pay close attention. For those with hearing difficulties it was frustrating, I know ... even with our new sound system. I’m sorry for that. I wish we could have done something to help.

Could this, however, be an illustration of our relationship with God? Listening, you know, is a key part - for us and for God. God speaks, most directly through his "Word," the Bible. We hear his voice reverberate in prayer and echo in the streets of our daily life. God, likewise, listens to us as we pray, our intentional prayers as well as our inadvertent yearnings and the sighs and cries of our spirit. This morning we sang "Obey my voice," a verse taken directly from the prophet Jeremiah. The word translated as "obey" in our English Bibles literally means "to hear." Of course, it’s hearing that leads to doing. The phrase "incline your ear" is repeated over and over again in the Bible, which indicates a leaning into the sound of a voice - such that steps in the same direction are sure to follow. Hearing that leads toward walking in the way of the voice - that’s what obedience is.

To catch what Daniel had to share this summer, we had to lean, to really incline our ears. It was hard work to pay attention. The same is true with God. One thing I worked at learning in seminary was how to listen. Did you know that to really listen to someone, you have to almost lean into them? A sure sign someone is not totally listening is if they are sitting back in their chair with their arms folded over their chest. The early Christians knew that and applied it in their "listening" to God. They prayed, not with bowed head and hands clasped together, but with faces raised toward heaven and arms outstretched. "Incline your ear," the Word speaks - incline yourself unto me. Obey my voice and I will in reality be your God. It’s not easy to live "inclined" lives, is it? Standing on tiptoe does not come naturally. It takes work. It’s not a passive lifestyle.

God’s Word is not easy to hear. There is much of the Bible that I don’t understand, I’ll be the first to confess. While we’re on the topic of confession, let me say that I have avoided the book of Revelation like the plague. Of course, I’ve not been alone in that sentiment. I recently asked Carl Simmons how many sermons he had preached on Revelation over the years. "Not many," he replied. Looking back, the bigwigs of the Reformation: Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, all thought the book less than Christian. Still, great music, literature, and art have pulled heavily from this New Testament work, from Handel’s "Messiah" to Dante’s Inferno to Michelangelo’s "The Last Judgement."

One of the goals of my sabbatical was to focus upon that strange thing called "vision." I’ve felt lacking in that department. Again, I’m not alone in that sentiment. Many echo the concern, especially within the church. Where are the visionaries to lead our denomination in the coming years? "Without a vision the people perish." So says the Proverb. Of course, "vision" in that verse is better translated as "a word from the Lord." "Without a word from the Lord, the people perish." That gets us back to this whole issue of hearing, inclining our ears, leaning into the Word of God. Vision is wrapped up in hearing.

I’ve been turning recently toward, of all places, this strange book of Revelation for guidance in the area of vision. In fact, I’m finding some good stuff that I’d like to share over the next so many weeks. Now, don’t worry - I don’t intend to go hog-wild with it like some others have done and will continue to do as the year 2000 draws near. Perhaps we need to apply one of the things we learned this summer to the interpretation of this book, and the other material in the Bible like it. God’s time is different from our time. We get in trouble when we try to force this "Word from the Lord" into the constraints of our understanding of time, don’t we?

Jesus promised to return one day and fully set the world right. Though we have received his presence in the Holy Spirit, Christians have been asking since the first century A.D., "How long?" How long until this upside down world is set right side up? Actually that is the very question asked and addressed in John’s revelation. The answer, though, comes not in Chronos, or human time, but in Kairos: God’s time. It is a twisting of scripture to make it fit into our calendars. Thus, I have little patience with those all hyper about the turning of another millennia. When God’s time is right, things will happen. Our task is to be prepared, to be awake, to listen - not for signs of the end, but for the voice of God. That’s always been the call, since Adam and Eve hid from God’s voice in the garden because an apple told them they were naked.

One thing I’ve learned about Revelation is that it is intimately connected with the rest of this Library we call the Bible. There are more allusions (not quotes, but allusions: hints, implied or indirect references) to other parts of God’s Word than any other New Testament work. In 404 verses there are 518 references to earlier scripture. It is, thus, appropriate that Revelation is the last book in the Bible. It doesn’t jump out on some limb, it completes God’s Word.

For those who have come through to the end of the Bible, Revelation takes all these images used by the various writers and employs them to set our imaginations on fire that we might live by faith in an often unimaginative, decaying world. Unfortunately, too many people have begun with Revelation rather than ended with it. For some, it is about all they know of the Bible. Thus, they haven’t had their minds honed by God’s voice - regularly listening, inclining their ear to his Word, and walking in the ways God directs. When John says: "blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy," he is not just talking about this last book of the Bible. Since Revelation has fingers connecting it to all of this vast Library of faith, these words apply to all of God’s Word.

"Blessed is the one who reads out loud the words of this prophecy." Whoa! Isn’t it great that we spread out that task in this church to allow so many worship leaders to experience this blessing? We may not be able to understand everything we read. We might stumble our way through many of the strange sounding words. However, God blesses the effort, and us. Furthermore, those who listen and keep (that is actively follow, not store in a closet) what is written are also blessed. That involves all of us!

Well, chronologically speaking, my time this morning is running out. But not God’s time. As I said, I plan on running with this Revelation for a number of weeks. How many? I don’t know. I don’t want to force it into a mold, but rather allow God to mold us, as we listen and follow his voice. By the way, this book isn’t a collection of revelations (plural). It is, as the first verse begins, and the rest of the chapter reveals through all sorts of symbols to set the imagination on fire, (it is) "the Revelation (singular) of Jesus Christ."

This is not facts about Jesus which we collect and add to all the other data with which we are bombarded in this information age. No, this is the revelation of Christ Jesus which involves us in God. It sets our imaginations free to really listen with all our senses and follow his voice. Furthermore, this book focuses upon Jesus - it begins and ends with Christ at the center of all things. It thus calls us to do the same, to place our Lord at the center of everything we are and all that we do.

That’s quite a call, isn’t it? Has that call grasped your imagination? "Come, follow me," Jesus said. Ready?

1997Peter L. Haynes

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