Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Back to danger"

Message preached September 12, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Revelation 3:14-22

Order of Worship
(note: this sermon was delivered without notes. Below is not exactly what was said, but close.)

              Someday, I want to return to the Grand Canyon ... without children! Back in 1997, when our family visited there, I could not relax. Our oldest child had just finished elementary school, and there were three younger ones behind her. Lots of energy! When we were close to the rim of that ‘big ditch,’ I was nervous.

            I vividly recall the evening we went to a National Park Service program at an outdoor amphitheater near the edge. Afterward we decided to walk the short distance together to the rim. The only problem was - we had forgotten to bring our flashlights. But that was okay, since many others were doing the same thing and the path was well paved.

            The closer we got to the rim (its exact location slightly unknown), the more nervous I got, especially when I realized Caitlin - our oldest - was walking ahead of us. Calmly I asked her to come back and walk with us, perhaps even hold my hand. She, however, had other ideas. After all, she was now a middle schooler. "I’m not a little kid any more, Dad. I know what I doing." When I recently asked her permission to share this story, Caitlin told me that it now scares her, though at the time she wasn’t the least afraid.

            You can probably imagine the conversation from this point, how my calm not-so-gradually dissipated and her resistance not-so-gradually increased. It was a parental moment which I vividly remember. In that instant it became clear to me that a great deal depends upon where you stand as a parent. Do you stand with your back to safety, such that when your child naturally rebels against your authority, she backs herself into danger? Or do you stand with your back to danger, such that she can either come to you and together you both move to safety, or she can back herself into safety? ... Now, I know it’s more complicated than that, but this stark image has stayed with me.

            I wonder if this illustration and its key question does not also apply to us as a church, and individually to us as members of the body of Christ. Where should we stand? Should we stand with our back to safety, or with our back to danger? It’s more complicated than that, I know, and I could make a case for both. After all, our natural position is usually the first. "Come, follow Jesus," we often invite, with the safety of God’s kingdom behind us, hoping our neighbors (as well as our own children) can see the One who stands behind us.

            Unfortunately, it is also human nature to back away - even from the good stuff. Do those we are called to love as Jesus loved then back themselves into danger? Perhaps standing with danger behind us is a better option. That way, children of all ages can either come with us and together we walk to safety, or they can back themselves into the safety of God’s arms. Again, I know it’s more complicated, but allow the starkness of the image to grab you.

            Much depends upon where we stand. Don’t be deceived, however, into seeing the choices along the lines of how the world sees them. After all, we’re in the middle of a crazy season when we must choose between Republican or Democrat. Each side calls us to get out of the middle and to be either cold or hot (I’ll let you determine which is which). Many, in fact, claim theirs to be God’s side, defining God’s issues as their own issues. Use your freedom to vote, my friends, but don’t be misled to see the world as either ‘red’ or ‘blue.’

            Much does depend upon where we stand. But the bigger question, for us as believers, is to ask where Jesus stands. Our Lord is neither ‘blue’ nor ‘red.’ In fact, as case could be made that he stands in the middle which, in reality, is a hot location. When he walked as a man, he was neither a zealot nor a Sadducee. In fact, he often stood in places that made both uncomfortable - with prostitutes and tax collectors and other lost folks. Down to the very last, he stood with his back to danger. One of the central symbols of our faith, which is before us whenever we gather here in his name, is evidence of this fact. He died with his back to danger, nailed to a cross. When Jesus said, "come unto me," it wasn’t from a safe position. It was from a difficult place. And yet we claim that his path is the way.

            This morning we have heard the seventh of seven letters that John in this last book of the Bible wrote to those seven churches God called him to oversee. In this seventh letter, which follows the same format as the other six, John was seeking to open the door of the praying imagination of God’s people, to help them then, and us today, to see a bigger picture. Some of those seven churches were facing persecution from outer authorities for their faith. Others were experiencing inner conflict and division, as various persons were trying to pull them off track. There was a bigger picture, however. To open the door of their praying imagination, John addressed each letter not to them, but to the angel of their church. His imagery was intentional to help them see the source of their strength, and the wider panorama of God’s work in the world.

            Of course, some other churches, like those in Sardis (the focus of last week’s message) had few struggles. They weren’t troubled by the question of where to stand. Theirs was a smooth path which, in their own eyes, was a sign that they were right where they should be. Unfortunately, that’s not where God wanted them to be. Furthermore, they were missing out on growth, for the obstacles we face into become opportunities to grow in the faith, to mature, to be strengthened in character.

            This week we come to the folks Laodicea. They bore some similarities to the believers in Sardis. "I know your works," the Spirit says - to them then and to us today, words that are both comfort and threat. "You are neither cold nor hot." Again, don’t be deceived into seeing things through the red and blue of election year politics. "You are lukewarm," the Spirit says. Because of this, "I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Why? Here’s the clincher, for these words hit us all in this wealthy nation of ours, for we are the richest, most powerful country this world has ever known. I say this not to brow beat, but to open the door to your imagination.

            As the Spirit indicated in this letter, "you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing." This is a picture of people who are self-sufficient, or at least think they are. Ultimately, they trust little in what God can provide. What matters most is what they can do, what they already possess, their own position and power in this world, their affluence and influence. They are comfortable. John’s letter, however, opens the door of the praying imagination to reveal the truth. Like the story of the ‘emperor with no clothes,’ they are really "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." The bigger picture.

            "Open your eyes and reverse all that," they (and we?) are told. There are riches which go beyond what you posses. There is true gold, gold which lies in the human heart, gold which lies in the kingdom of God. Life is more than your bank accounts, more than your investment portfolios, more than all the things that you think get you by in this world. Invest your life in what is truly the riches of God. Clothe yourself with what God provides. May God anoint your eyes so that you can see what’s really real.

            This line is powerful - "I reprove and discipline those whom I love." When we hear that challenge from the Lord, that critique which may seem harsh [it probably did feel that way to those folks back in Laodicea, as it does to us today - and it should, for we stand pretty much where they did]; remember that God "reproves and disciplines those whom (He) loves." Hear the call to turn, to repent.

            Let’s get back to that question - where does we stand? Where does Jesus stand? I love this word picture in scripture. These are lines that many of us have memorized, even if we have laid aside much of the rest of this last book in the Bible as being too confusing. "Behold" (the NRSV says "listen," which is auditory - "behold" is visual), "I stand at the door and knock."

            You’ve seen the painting by Warner Sallman, based upon this passage of scripture. In it, Jesus stands outside a door - a door with no outer handle. It can only be opened from within. In his letter to the church in Laodicea, John opened the door to their praying imagination with this image. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." Jesus knocked on various doors when he walked as a man in this world, and it drove people crazy. He knocked at the door of Zacchaeus, the tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). He knocked - so to speak - at the door of a prostitute (John 8:1-11). He knocked at the door of folks whom everyone else said it was dangerous to stand there. But he did anyway. "I stand at the door and knock," he said. If you open the door, I come in, and we’ll eat together, me with you and you with me. A beautiful image. That’s the invitation for us as a church, and as individuals.

            As I was talking with Caitlin about this sermon (had to do something to pass the time along our ten-hour drive taking her to college), an illustration of this passage came to her mind. So I share what is actually her illustration. It comes from the 1991 movie, "Hook," a tale about Peter Pan once he has ‘grown up,’ having left ‘Never-never land,’ a successful investment banker who has forgotten how to fly. In fact, he has forgotten all about ‘Never-never land.’ But ‘Never-never land’ has not forgotten about him. Captain Hook, that dastardly pirate, comes to Peter’s new world and steals his children. The movie is about Peter’s return to the world he once knew to rescue those whom he loves.

            Back in ‘Never-never land’ there is a scene in which Peter is among the ‘lost boys’ (hmmm! ‘lost boys’ ... brings to mind Zacchaeus, the prostitute, and all those places in which people say it’s dangerous to stand). They are sitting around a table in their hideaway. On this table is spread a feast. However, all Peter can see are empty plates, bowls, and cups because he has forgotten all this stuff. He doesn’t know who he truly is. The lost boys are eating away, but he can’t see what they are enjoying. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t how folks on the outside might see the table around which Christians gather, a communion which involves a little piece of bread and a sip of juice (and we call it a feast!).

            In this movie scene, there is a moment when Peter’s eyes are opened, when the door to his imagination swings wide. He finally figures out what his truest treasure is. It’s not his investment portfolio. For him, his truest treasure is his children. In that ‘happy thought’ (you know the story of Peter Pan - it takes a ‘happy thought’ to might flight possible) everything changes. He looks down, and what he once thought was empty is now a table full to overflowing with food. Caitlin loves that scene because it was intentionally filmed in vivid colors, which grabs her as a budding artist.

            Once the door to his imagination is opened, he joins in the feast with gusto. In fact, he and the lost boys enjoy this feast so much that what happens (those of you who have seen it)? They have a food fight. It’s a party! "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." It’s Jesus speaking. That’s where he’s standing. If you open the door, I’ll come in and we’ll have a feast at your table.

            Before we sing our last song, let me send you with that question I asked earlier. Allow it to trouble you. Mull it over this week. Chew on it. That’s what good questions and illustrations are for. Where should we be standing? Where does Jesus stand today?   

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Revelation.

©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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