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Why Are You Afraid?

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them,“Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Read this week’s full text, Mark 4:35-41.

Mark 4.35-41 is filled with questions answered with questions. Wind and waves are overwhelming the boat as Jesus’ companions wake him asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He answers by stilling the storm and asking them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They answer his question-answer with a question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Questions ache off the page throughout scripture, not the least of which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And how about Genesis when God says to Adam, “Where are you?” And that big book of suffering, the Book of Job, in which God speaks in questions upon questions. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”

 

Are you still afraid? I often think I definitely am. Some days I feel fear radiating through me—I feel electric with fear, like a sickness, like a short-circuitingknock-knock joke that won’t stop telling itself. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Fear. Fear, who? I’m afraid, are you? I’m afraid, are you, who? Wait, who are you? Knock-knock. Where’s that knocking coming from? Fear. Fear, who? Where are you? Knock-knock. Is that you? You, who? Yoo-hoo! Fear? Are you out there? In here? Anyone? Knock-knock. Who’s there? Fear. Afraid of what? Who?Knock-knock. You, too?Are you still afraid? Are you?

 

My granddad used to scream in his sleep—memories of World War II. On summer sleepovers at our grandparents’ house in elementary school my younger cousin told me scraps of our grandfather’s war stories that her mother had told her, ways of explaining his nightmares. I stood in the hallway, in bare feet and a nightgown, staring at the closed door of the sleeping porch where he slept alone. He was screaming. I should go in there and wake him. I should try to help or do something. I just stood there.

 

He’d been an U.S. soldier in Europe then Japan. He took photographs of the newly liberated concentration camp Buchenwald thinking no one would believe him otherwise. When I was in eighth grade he came to my school to talk to my English class. Someone asked him about the war. He stood there and cried.

 

At his funeral, as he had requested, we sang “Silent Night.” It was 2006. My sister and I drove up from a still wrecked New Orleans to attend the funeral with our family and there we stood, singing a Christmas carol after lowering his casket into the green earth, that heart ache refrain, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” And, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” And those final lines of song, “sing Hallelujah. Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.”

 

The truth is not that the flood waters will never overwhelm our boats, flood our cities, drown us, our families, our neighbors, plummet whole neighborhoods under water. It happens all the time. God notes that Job is faithful, among the most faithful; then all ten of his children die when a house collapses on them.

 

Are you still afraid? It’s the wrong question. I conflated the two questions Jesus asks in Mark 4.35-41 and in doing so I’ve gotten it all wrong, made a depressing jumble of things I don’t understand. Jesus knows the people are afraid. That much is totally clear. They’re terrified that they’re drowning, and they’re mad he’s not more worried about it.

 

Jesus doesn’t ask whether they’re afraid, he asks why.

 

He says to the roiling wind and sea, those forces that the people with him experience as real and pressing threats, “Peace! Be still!” The result? “Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” You were afraid of death? It isn’t coming—life everlasting is present already, here in the dead calm of the sea and in the windstorm, too, here even in our suffering, in our anger, in our confusion, and in death. Love cuts through every horror and sadness. Grace is all present all the time everywhere. I think that’s the idea, anyway.

 

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks before going on, “Have you still no faith?” It’s as though the divine is roaring in our trembling, terrified ears, I am here. I’m with you in this. You’ve got questions? Ask them. I’m going to ask you right back.

 

Jesus asks “Why are you afraid?” and then, instead of asserting that they have no faith, he asks them. He says, “Have you still no faith?”In asking this, Jesus invites them into faith.

 

The question is not whether we’re afraid. Of course we are. The question is why and what’s the way forward. Do we use our fear as occasion to blame others? To be like the people on the boat asking Jesus why he’s not helping us more? To scream, “Doesn’t anyone care about me?” All the while Jesus is here with us, right here with us, offering peace and asking “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We can stand in our fear with faith, let it become a reverent fear, a faith that in awe asks to know God more fully—Jesus, who says “Peace!” in the midst of the cruelest, most terrifying, storms.

Reflection written by Annie Mountcastle. If you are interested in writing a weekly reflection for Durham Church, contact Carynne.

Seeds of Faith

Still-Background-Set-Seeds-of-Faith_slide4_426x320Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”

He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

Read this week’s full text, Mark 4:26-34.

For those of you who know the enneagram, I’m a 5. For those of you who don’t, I’m an investigator. This means that I “want to possess knowledge, to understand the environment, to have everything figured out as a way of defending myself from threats from the environment.”

This makes religion a bit of a sticky subject for me.

My sticking point is what’s at the core of every religion. Underneath the debates, underneath the discussions, underneath the ideological difference and the dogmatic similarities there’s one common, undeniable core – faith.

It’s faith, or the leap of faith, that flings us from the shores of logic to the sea of spirituality. It requires us to admit, not to others, but to our own souls, that there is something more. Something that we will never fully comprehend. And that that is OK.

That’s tough for me.

I like to be able to look at a seed in the ground and tell myself: “First it will germinate, then stem cells will mutate to fit the plants needs at each stage of life. It will pollinate and fertilize, form new seeds then disperse those seeds to start the process anew.” I like those words, ‘germinate’, ‘mutate’, ‘pollinate’, and ‘fertilize’. They’re science words, meaningful words, words that let me convince myself that I know what’s going on.

But, if I were to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that they only teach me I know nothing. A process, maybe, but I still don’t know why the trees grow. Why the wind places the seeds where it chooses. Why the water gives life to some and not to others.

I hide behind the words these words because I feel like they have power, but I stray away from words like God and prayer and Christ and Love because those words actually do.

Those words have to power to show us why the trees grow and the winds blow, but only so long as we are so humble and so honest as to admit that we know nothing, and that we never truly will.

Reflection written by Garrett Button.

Sitting with Jesus

Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”
Read this week’s full text, Mark 3:20-35.

I can easily imagine the conversations that went on as Jesus’ family overheard bits and pieces of stories about his ministry. Is he eating enough? Is it really good for him to spend so much time with these prostitutes and swindlers?

And then when they heard how he was upsetting the local people in power, they really got worried. Does Jesus really want to confront these powerful people? If he keeps going like this, he’s going to get himself killed.

After worrying themselves sick, they decide that they need to do something. For his own good, they’re gonna bring him home where he can think it all through and come to his senses. “We need to go and take charge of Jesus,” you can just hear Mary saying.

Have you ever felt like that?

Those of us who have known Jesus our whole lives, who grew up in the church, singing all the right hymns and praying before every meal—we‘re pretty darn comfortable with Jesus. We think we know just exactly what he’s up to. And sometimes, we might know a bit better than Jesus what faithful Christian life looks like.

Like Jesus’ family, we hear about Jesus’ teaching and it is too scary, too dangerous, too risky, and too uncomfortable to really be taken seriously. Just like his family, we want to say to Jesus, “You are out of your mind.”

But the key to understanding this passage comes with where we sit. Jesus’ family insists that he come out to them, sending in a messenger to announce that Jesus’ family has arrived. They remain at a distance, not willing to be confused with the desperate throng that surrounds Jesus.

Jesus beckons them—and us—to come inside.

In this passage, Jesus shows us that we are not merely invited into a relationship with him, but we are invited into a new family. But just before this, Jesus comes down hard on people who “blaspheme the Holy Spirit.” To blaspheme is to slander, to insult, to go against God’s way. It is to divide ourselves from the only One we truly belong to—Jesus Christ. Maybe the ultimate blasphemy against the Spirit is to refuse to enter the house of sinners, even though Jesus makes it clear that’s where he is going to stay.

Jesus still beckons. He asks us to join the throng, to sit in the circle around him, to get our hands and knees dirty on the dirt floor, to press our bodies in with the outcast, the prostitute, the sick, and the swindler. Jesus says that if we want to come into his house and join his circle, we don’t get to choose who sits beside us.

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman.

The Wild Kingdom

Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 21:22-22:5

national_parks_26A few weeks ago Garrett and I decided to plan a romantic weekend in the mountains to become officially engaged. We had a three day backpacking route around Linville Gorge mapped out and anticipated fields of wildflowers and beautiful sunsets.

It was all going to be perfect. And it was…for a few hours. After a day of hiking we found an ideal campsite, only to discover that the water source shown on the map was impossible to find. It turns out that when you have only a half liter of water left, deciding whether to get married seems like a very minor problem compared to whether you’ll survive the night. But we did finally find water–at the bottom of a long and winding road.

Day two was going to get better. We would descend into the gorge, cross the river on a bridge, and have a pleasant walk along the river while happily imagining our future life together. But the descent turned out to be one of the longest and steepest trails either of us had ever seen. And our reward at the bottom was a bridge that had washed out from a flood two years earlier. After deciding that we had minimal chance of boulder-hopping across the rushing river with our packs, we reluctantly turned back up the mountain to retrace our very steep path from the morning.

Relieved to have finally made it to the top, we were looking forward to finding a campsite and having a well-deserved dinner and rest. That seemed to be within reach, until we ran into wafts of smoke and tiny floating cinders. Yes, there was a forest fire. On our trail. Between us and our car.

After only slight panic, we managed to find a ride from from a friendly former ranger at a nearby parking lot, who took us an hour and a half out of his way to arrive at our car minutes before the search and rescue team set out to look for us. We decided that surviving dehydration, floods, and forest fires seemed like good practice for surviving marriage. And then we went to Asheville and ate for 24 hours straight.

The weekend reminded me that nature is wild. It’s powerful, unpredictable, and overwhelming. But on the first night we did enjoy a stunning sunset. And eating lunch next to the river, we admired the rushing water and swirling pools. The hike back to the top of the gorge culminated with a beautiful view of a lush gorge, overflowing with spring’s bounty of leaves, buds, trees, and flowers. Our drive to safety down the mountain took us on winding back roads, past hidden glens of evergreens and peaceful fields. Nature’s strength is only surpassed by its beauty.

Last week, John’s Revelation told us that God will dwell with humankind. This week, we see what God’s dwelling here looks like: A glowing city, basking in eternal sunlight and flowing with “a river of life-giving water, shining like crystal.” This river of life is bordered with trees of life–a whole orchard of trees, overflowing with good fruit to eat. Adam’s curse is lifted and we live in peace with nature, with God as our neighbor.

We often talk about the kingdom as “breaking in” to our world, as if it is only appearing in tiny cracks and we may get a glimpse of it if we are very lucky. But if the kingdom is crafted from the rivers and trees of life, then it is already here, exploding, just outside our doors!

God didn’t create a world filled with nicely mowed lawns and perfectly air conditioned spaces–we did that. God created a huge wilderness, brimming with divine strength and power and filled with beauty and life-giving water. And he placed us in its midst, inviting each of us to drink.

Reflection written by Carynne McIver.

Make us beautiful

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring.Those who emerge victorious will inherit these things. I will be their God, and they will be my sons and daughters. But for the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, those who commit sexual immorality, those who use drugs and cast spells, the idolaters and all liars—their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This is the second death.”

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 21:1-21

One day at church, I stood next to my pastor friend while the congregation began singing that gorgeous song by Gungor: “Beautiful Things.”

You know the one:

img-thingYou make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of the dust

You make beautiful things;

you make beautiful things out of us

As the music swelled and the more evangelical among us started to get a little bouncy, my pastor friend leaned over and said: “I don’t understand why we think this is such a nice song. We should be flipping God off while we sing this one.”

His point being: it hurts to be made new.

Being made beautiful by God is not without its pain.

————

Revelation 21 is one of the most beautiful, hopeful passages in all of the Bible.

There is a new heaven and a new earth!

God’s dwelling is now among the people; He will dwell with them!

There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain!

He says: “I am making everything new!”

————

Revelation 21 is fresh and bursting with newness. A newness that is so light and glorious precisely because the old has passed away.

But the church didn’t just wake up one day and put on its sparkling wedding gown, suddenly ready to descend as the new Jerusalem.

The church labored and tore its flesh. Cried and talked and talked and cried. Prayed some and fought some and resisted newness to the point of exhaustion.

Being made beautiful by God is not without its pain.

But look! A new heaven and a new earth are on the horizon.

So maybe we give ourselves to the pain.

Make us new, God. Make us beautiful. And then come and sit in our midst.

Reflection written by Sara Moser.

Holding Firm to the Witness of Jesus

I heard something that sounded like a huge crowd, like rushing water and powerful thunder. They said,

“Hallelujah! The Lord our God, the Almighty,
exercised his royal power!
Let us rejoice and celebrate, and give him the glory,
for the wedding day of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.”

…Then I fell at [the angel’s] feet to worship him. But he said, “Don’t do that! I’m a servant just like you and your brothers and sisters who hold firmly to the witness of Jesus. Worship God! The witness of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy!”

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 19: 6-10

Months ago, we celebrated the opening of the heavenly scroll when God would finally do away with evil, pain, brokenness, and injustice. God was about to remake our world to answer centuries of prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This world would finally, finally be made new and beautiful and whole.

And the scroll was opened.

Then, we spent months wading through horsemen and plagues. We heard cries for justice from the saints sacrificed at the altar. We bounced between worship in heaven and chaos on earth.

Destruction, destruction, destruction.

It didn’t go like we’d planned. It didn’t happen in an instant, a flash. The healing of the earth has taken agonizingly long.

But let’s just imagine that it did happen like we wanted. What if those scrolls popped open, and God gave a heavenly clap, and we arrived at all these “hallelujah”s for this week, if the new Jerusalem came right on down from heaven, adorned like a bride for a husband? Imagine if we had skipped through all of these hard weeks. Think of all we would have missed.

The same temptation to quick and easy fixes lies around every corner in our world. Whatever issue you are passionate about – racial injustice, domestic violence, abuse against immigrants, climate change, political gridlock, broken families – we all know the pain of persistent waiting. We all know the temptation to give up, or to pick an easy solution that we know is incomplete. As our weekly confession says, “Our patient endurance runs out.”

But in fact, all of heaven has also been shaped by the hard work of persisting in faith and endurance. Like Jesus’ resurrected body still has scars, the new Jerusalem will also bears the marks of the pain of the world. This week, when John sees that the agonizing waiting is finally over, he is overcome. He falls down to worship the angel of heaven. But the angel says, No way.  “I’m a servant just like you and your brothers and sisters.” Being God’s heavenly messenger is no more than holding firmly to the witness of Jesus through all seasons of hard waiting. 

There are no privileged people who get to avoid the struggle of waiting and witnessing in the darkness.

As we witness in struggle and pain, we join with the angels of heaven and the saints of the earth. Thank you Revelation for teaching us again and again that this hard life is blessed beyond measure with God’s infinite, eternal grace. That as we witness to Jesus, we touch and taste heaven on earth. That deserves another hallelujah.

Reflection written by Amanda Diekman

Why are you so amazed?

I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and the blood of Jesus’ witnesses. I was completely stunned when I saw her. Then the angel said to me, “Why are you amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and the seven-headed, ten-horned beast that carries her.

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 17:1-8.

This week John introduces us to another superhuman character in Revelation–the “Great Whore of Babylon.” He describes this woman in rich detail–her purple and scarlet robes, covered in jewels, carrying a golden cup and riding on a seven-headed beast. The woman is is the source of “earth’s abominations,” a temptation to the people of the earth. She is “drunk with the blood of the saints.”

John’s description is as grotesque and disturbing as any we have seen in Revelation, and upon seeing her he is “greatly amazed.” But his angel guide doesn’t see it that way, asking “Why are you so amazed?” The angel goes on to explain the symbolism and what will happen to this woman, but I stopped at his question. Why is John so amazed by this woman? Is such opulent evil really surprising?

This week I opened my Bible to a section in the middle that I’ve barely touched–the stories of the Israelites after Moses finally brought them to the promised land. I’ve heard the highlights from these chapters, but never sat down and read them, so now I’m trying to.

But it’s frankly just as disturbing as the Great Whore of Babylon. The Israelites finally reach this land that God has been leading them towards and find it flowing not just with milk and honey, but with families, homes, and cities. And what do they do? Do they move into the empty lots and try to become good neighbors? Do they arrange multi-lateral two-state negotiations? No… they just kill them all. It was upsetting and confusing to read about and I was as speechless as John was when he saw the woman.

If an angel had been standing at my shoulder at that moment, would he have said, “Why are you so amazed? Tell me, what is surprising about a group of people moving in and being unwilling to make peace with those who are different? Does this really shock you?”

I’m amazed today, when I look up from this book, to see that another black man has been killed and another city is erupting in violence. I’m amazed that the lives of over 4,000 people have simply vanished as the earth crumbled beneath them. I’m amazed that thousands of years later, in the same deserts and valleys that the Israelities conquered, people who claim to love God are still killing each other in His name.

Should I be amazed? Is any of this surprising? Is the whore any worse than the violence and pain humans have inflicted on each other for years? Why should I expect anything different?

But the very fact of our amazement is itself amazing. It’s amazing that even after seeing angels pour out the wrath of God, John can be stunned by anything. It’s amazing that I can really keep expecting neighbors to love each other. Somehow God gives us this deep-seated hope and faith that redemption is finally possible and even as we read about the bests and the dragons of Babylon, we look forward just a few weeks until we can hear about God making all things new.

Reflection written by Carynne McIver. If you are interested in writing a weekly reflection for Durham Church, contact Carynne.

Marked By Our Deeds

This calls for the endurance of the saints, who keep God’s commandments and keep faith with Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Favored are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”

“Yes,” says the Spirit, “so they can rest from their labors, because their deeds follow them.”

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 14:1-13.

Do you think of yourself as marked? Is there anything about you that someone can see and immediately know who you are?
In this week’s Revelation passage, we are told of two groups of people–one, representing all the tribes of Israel, is marked by the name of God on their foreheads. This group gets to stand around God and sing, listening to sounds of rushing water and harps. They are blameless and loved.
The second group has the mark of the beast, or the enemy of God. These guys have a much worse time. They will “suffer the pain of fire and sulfur” and have no day of rest while God’s wrath is poured out.
It’s not hard to know which group you’d rather be in. But like the rest of Revelation, these descriptions are metaphorical, and in our own world, things never seem this straightforward.
If we don’t bear marks on our foreheads, what marks do we have? Some of us are marked from birth–in this country, black or brown skin seems to be a mark that many read as dangerous, fearful, violent, and less valuable.
Others find ways to mark themselves, by using money to  fill their lives with possessions that set them apart as special, successful, and powerful. Still others work hard to create a mark that shows how special they are in other ways, so that they appear to not care about money, or to be educated, or freespirited, or athletic.
God asked His people to mark themselves once before, a long time ago. After sharing his commandments for how to live well, he instructed the Israelites to uphold and remember them in any way they could–passing them on to their children, writing them on their doorframes, and binding them to their foreheads. Those children of God were marked by the way they lived, by the extent to which they followed God’s commandments.
This passage also reminds us that God’s desire for us to live by his laws has not changed. The saints–the marked ones–must endure, it tells us, by keeping God’s commandments and following Jesus. And those who do move on to the next life in peace: “they can rest from their labors, because their deeds follow them.”
We are marked by our deeds, by our love for neighbors and for God, and by our patient endurance. No matter what marks the word may have for you, God marks you as His own.

Reflection written by Carynne McIver. If you are interested in writing a weekly reflection forDurham Church, contact Carynne McIver.

Beginning of the End

11 “But after three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet. Great fear came over those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies watched them. 13 At that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed by the earthquake, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
Read this week’s full text, Revelation 11:1-14

For those of us that regularly enjoy movies, books, television series—really, any form of entertainment in which some kind of narrative is involved—one element is always integral to how we remember and internalize the plot: the ending. But, good endings are not made in the conclusion; they are built from the beginnings and development of the story, a house that can only be as stable as the foundation upon it was built.

No doubt, the foundation of the biblical narrative is the story of creation and the medium of expression is God’s mouth: God speaks creation into existence, breathes life into humanity, declares covenant and promise, expresses love to us repeatedly through prophets, and ultimately fulfills this promise in God’s Word becoming flesh.

So, when we come upon the book of Revelation, the beginning of the end, we should not be surprised to see two witnesses: just as God created two of us to attest to the goodness of creation’s beginning, God has chosen to preserve two of us in the end to testify to the summation of God’s providence in creation. These two are neither described nor defined: we are not given their genders, their race, their social status, their nationality, their political identifiers. But, this should not be unexpected: summation of our narrative which brings Creation together with God must mean the annihilation of things that keep us apart.

God offers them the companionship of Eve and Adam, a promise like Abraham, authority like Deborah, the fire of Elijah, control of the plagues of Moses. They are a summation of many that have come before them. And like many before them—Eve, Adam, Abraham, David, Moses—they perish, in the face of “the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit.”

Although it has been known by other names and given other faces, we have seen this character in the narrative before: it is the slave drivers and pharaoh in Egypt, it is the army of Saul chasing and pursing the destruction of God’s chosen in David, it is the religious authority figures and adversaries that demanded the death of Jesus, the serpent from the Garden that has returned once again to destroy those who stand witness to God’s word.

And it succeeds. For three and a half days, death is victorious. Violence, suffering, pain, vengeance—they are given their day. The witnesses are silenced, and in their silence, their enemies speak: the inhabitants of the earth “gloat” over their deaths, happy to see their demise. But, once again, we have seen this scene before: the people of Israel under Moses, the kingdom of Israel under David, the struggle between Isaiah and God’s people. God speaks through messengers, we want them silenced, punished, and out of the picture. God’s words spoken through others are a mirror, and we rarely like what we see.

But, the ending is quite literally a breath of fresh air: God breathed the Spirit into humanity and breathed us into beginning and now God breathes life into the two witnesses in the face of death, to face the end. The witnesses are carried up to heaven, and “the second woe has passed. The third woe is coming soon.” God continually speaking for us, breathing life into us, taking the threads of our weakness and weaving a narrative of strength, taking our weapon of choice, death, and transforming it into life. This is the ending that God has built, one of things being made new.

And this ending is only a beginning.

Reflection written by Jarred White

Not the Whole Story

Then I saw another powerful angel coming down from heaven. He was robed with a cloud, with a rainbow over his head. His face was like the sun, and his feet were like fiery pillars. He held an open scroll in his hand. He put his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land. He called out with a loud voice like a lion roaring, and when he called out, the seven thunders raised their voices. When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.”

Read this week’s full text, Revelation 10:1-11. 
I don’t know about you, but Revelation still makes no sense to me. I was excited about this sermon series, hoping that I’d finally be able to explain the scrolls and the beasts and the plagues in a way where it all clicked in my head. I had happy images of us all laughing knowingly together at our June church potluck, thinking back fondly on our six-months-younger selves, who still thought Revelation was the crazy book we should ignore as much as possible.

We still have some more weeks, of course, but I have to admit that my hopes are dwindling. Revelation remains as perplexing and uncomfortable as ever. I guess it’s no surprise that the faithful have spent ages dissecting its symbols in the hopes of finally coming to a clear answer, while the cynics point to it as evidence of the outdated mythology of religion. I’m still not sure where I fall in all that, and some days the verses just seem like a trigger for all the doubts I’ve ever had about scripture and faith.

But we keep going, plodding faithfully along, trying to pull out meaning from the narrative that feels more like a young adult fantasy novel than a missive from God.

Like us, John seems to be dutifully recording the events he sees, with surprisingly little editorial comment. He describes vividly the characters and scenes before us, pointing out a few symbols as he goes. But in this week’s passage, he is stopped abruptly: “When the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and don’t write it down.'”

What did the seven thunders say, I wonder? Words more horrible even than what has already been said? Or maybe it’s the one time the words are not confusing, finally the quick and tidy explanation we’ve been hoping for? We don’t know.

But what we do know, thanks to John, is just that that: we don’t know. We get the descriptions, the actions, some of the language, but it’s still not the whole story. It’s not all the words, and it’s certainly not all the ideas behind them.

As helpful as it is to break this overwhelming book into little pieces, sometimes I think this can also be a distraction. Each week we get a little glimpse into John’s vision, but the parts do not equal the whole.

And that’s really the only comfort I can find in this week’s passage: it makes no sense to me, I can’t explain it to you or pretend to understand it myself. But I know it’s not the whole story. Just like I know Revelation isn’t the whole story, that suffering and death aren’t the whole story. Just like I know that even if the Bible tried to contain the whole story, “I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.”

We aren’t the authors of this story. Just because it makes no sense to us doesn’t mean it makes no sense to God. And I am grateful to John for that reminder.

 

Reflection written by Carynne McIver.