Sunday Sermon

“Loyalty to God”

Open PDF Open Word Document Open Sunday Bulletin

05/08/2022 | The Rev. Dr. Greg Jones

Revelation 7:9-17

» send to a friend


"Loyalty to God"
Scripture – Revelation 7:9-17
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, May 8, 2022

To enhance your worship experience, we encourage you to download the accompanying Worship Bulletin.

The Revelation of John is like no other New Testament book. Its author was writing a document filled with outlandish visions that contained symbols, numerology, and poetic imagery. When we read his description of the throne of God or the lion with six wings or the four horsemen of the apocalypse or a chorus of a thousand angels it can sound as if it was written by someone under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. However, the author is straining the boundaries of language to communicate visions he experienced. His intent is to encourage followers of Jesus to remain faithful regardless of the immense pressure of the Roman Empire.

John was exiled to the island of Patmos courtesy of Caesar. Patmos is a small, arid island in the Aegean Sea, 40 miles west of the coast of Turkey. If you travel there today, you can step into the cave where John was held captive. It is now the worship space of a small Greek Orthodox congregation.

Most biblical scholars believe that John composed The Revelation toward the end of the first century – most likely in the nineties during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Like Nero, who ruled forty years earlier, Domitian brutally persecuted Christians.

So, why was John exiled more than 600 miles away from Jerusalem? Because he dared to defy the Roman Empire. As a leader in the early church, he encouraged Christians to declare that Jesus, not Caesar, was their king.

Throughout history, governments have taken steps to silence their critics. The apartheid government in South Africa jailed Nelson Mandela for nearly 30 years. The military in El Salvador assassinated Oscar Romero as he was celebrating Mass. The Chinese government massacred hundreds of students in Tiananmen Square. More recently, we know what Saudi Arabia did to journalist Jamal Khasoggi, and that critics of Vladimir Putin have been poisoned.

In the Book of Revelation, Rome represents any government that demands loyalty to itself above God. John calls on followers of Jesus to resist policies of earthly empires that conflict with the ways of God's realm.

Today's passage begins: "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb...They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!'"

This great multitude that John envisioned were those who were killed for their faith. These faithful assumed a special place before the throne of God where Christ guided them to springs of the water of life and God wiped away every tear from the eyes. (Rev. 7:15-17). Although they experienced unjust suffering in this life, God will make it right in the hereafter.

And John's declaration in verse 10: "salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne" is a defiant statement that rejects the propaganda of the Roman Empire. "This propaganda claimed that salvation – understood as rescue from danger and the enjoyment of peace – had its source in Rome."1

By sharing his visions of heaven, where suffering will be no more, John was encouraging the faithful on earth. He was telling them that those who had died for their faith had not died in vain. They are now reaping a heavenly reward. John hoped his visions would inspire those who were being persecuted to hold fast and not relinquish their faith. They are on God's side and ultimately things will be set right.

Although John's visions were meant initially for those living under the tyranny of Rome, his message has inspired followers of Christ for 20 centuries to persevere in the face of injustice and to remain faithful. And we are to remain faithful, not only because of a future reward, but also to throw our energy into resisting evil and spreading God's realm throughout the world.

To be clear, John was not saying, "One day, God alone, will set things right and until then all you can do is grit your teeth and endure whatever suffering comes your way." He provided us with visions of life in God's eternal realm not only to give us hope for a future reward, but also to inspire us to spread the kingdom of God during our time on earth. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We say it every Sunday; I trust we mean it.

In The Revelation, John was calling on followers of Jesus in all times to stand firm in their faith that Jesus is their Lord, not any earthly ruler. Therefore, if the demands of the state conflict with the demands of faith, we know where our chief loyalty should be.

You may have heard about some of the outlandish statements of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. He interprets the Christian faith through the lens of the Russian state, rather than evaluating Russian political decisions through the lens of the teachings of Jesus. Patriarch Kirill "called Putin's rule a 'miracle from God,' and justified the slaughter of civilians in Ukraine as an apocalyptic war against western immorality."2 This hate-filled movement has also spread to such countries as Hungary and Brazil.

This is precisely the sort of danger that can result when Christians forget that we should always keep an eye on Caesar rather than becoming too cozy with him. Christian faith is meant to critique and influence political powers, not to find ways to accommodate them.

Our situation in the United States is not as stark as in Russia, but there is an ideology that poses a similar threat in this country.

Yale professor Philip Gorski and University of Oklahoma professor Samuel Perry begin their new book, The Flag and the Cross, with these words: "The chaos of the capital insurrection on January 6th was bewildering for many. In part, because the violent riot was also a riot of images: a wooden cross and wooden gallows; Christian flags and Confederate flags; Jesus Saves and Don't Tread on Me banners; button down shirts and bullet proof vests. But these confusing – and even seemingly contradictory symbols are part of an increasingly familiar ideology: 'White Christian Nationalism.'"3

People of faith need to understand that White Christian Nationalism is a political movement that drapes itself in a twisted view of Christianity. At its core, it is the notion that the United States is a nation created by and for Christians. While that may at first glance have some appeal to those of us who follow Christ, it opens the door to discriminating against millions – Jews, Muslims, Asians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith. As a follower of Jesus, I want his teachings to influence the laws of our country. I believe that would help us to build a more perfect union. However, discrimination is not a Christian principle.

Another key component of White Christian Nationalism is how we understand the word "freedom." The word has become a misguided rallying cry for those who seek a libertarian view of freedom. Such a view disregards the fact that in a large, pluralistic society, individual freedom is limited to the extent that it infringes on the freedom of others. I may desire the freedom to drive however I wish and go barreling through stop lights, but that sort of freedom will lead to a disaster for others. In her new book entitled On Freedom, author Maggie Nelson puts the issue succinctly when she says that she "takes it as a given that our entire existence, including our freedoms and unfreedoms, is built upon a "we" instead of an "I."4

What kind of nation do we want? Do we envision a country where everyone is treated equally, or do we see a nation where "white" and "male" and "heterosexual" are given privileges over those who have not scored that trifecta?

White Christian nationalists not only fear that their values are under attack, but that other groups have corrupted our country and are trying to take it away from them. And those who are trying to take it away are non-white, non-Christian, and non-heterosexual. White Christian Nationalists want to return to a time when the nation was ruled by white, straight men, and those who did not fit into those categories understood their proper place.

So, why would I, a white, straight Christian man who has benefitted from my status speak against White Christian Nationalism? Because I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus and I try hard, as you do, to follow principles found in such biblical passages as:

Genesis 1:27 – "God created humans in God's image, in the image of God he created them; male and female God created them."
Luke 6:31 – "Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Mark 12:31 – "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Matthew 25 – "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
Micah 6:8 – "What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God."
Matthew 5:9 – "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

We are to create a nation based not on the principals of prejudice, privilege, exclusion, separation, and blind loyalty to political leaders; but rather on the principles of compassion, justice, liberty, equality, and peace.

May we have the fortitude to stand firm in our faith.

NOTES

  1. Erik M. Heen, "Theological Perspective," Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p.438.
  2. Dan Clendenin, "The Coldest Monster," journeywithjesus.net, posted May 1, 2022.
  3. Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry, The Flag and the Cross, (Oxford University Press, 2022), p.1.
  4. Amanda Tyler, "Christian Nationalism is Single Biggest Threat to America's Religious Freedom," americanprogress.org, April 13, 2022.

Prayers of the People ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson

Womb of Life and source of being,
home of every restless heart,
in your arms the worlds awakened;
you have loved us from the start.1
In every age you are faithful, O God —
sating our hunger with the manna of mercy;
satisfying our thirst with water from the rock;
drying our tears with a mother's tender touch.
Throughout time, you have led us with cords of human kindness,
      with bands of love.
When, still, we have strayed,
you've welcomed us back with prodigal grace.
And, now — like a hen sheltering her chicks —
      you gather us in.
Draw us close, we pray, and enfold us with your grace.

Mothering God, today we give thanks for all who mother us.
We celebrate those who care for us with love that comforts,
      encourages,
      and challenges.
We celebrate those who cultivate in us a sense of wonder,
      encourage our passions,
      and teach us to hope.
We celebrate those who nurture us in the faith,
      and guide us in ways of justice and peace.
Thank you, God, for mothers and grandmothers,
      for aunts and sisters,
      for all who embody your love and reflect your light.
With grateful hearts, we name them before you in silence ... (Silence)

We also lift before you all who find this day painful.
We remember those who are grieving the loss
      of mothers or grandmothers,
      of children or grandchildren,
      of partners or friends.
We remember those who know the ache of longing —
      whether longing for a mother's love,
      or longing to offer such love to a child.
We remember those who spend today far from home —
      some, because of duty or opportunity;
      others, because conflict has forced them to flee.
We remember those who do the work of mothering
without the support they need —
      those who have no village to help raise their children;
      those who have no access to childcare or healthcare;
      those have no money to keep bodies clothed and bellies fed.
With heavy hearts, we commend these siblings to your care ... (Silence)

Lover of Mercy —
like a Mother Bear, you rage against violence and injustice;
like a Mother Bird, you spread your wings over the vulnerable.
Teach us your ways, O God,
that me might embody your love and reflect your light.
Give us the grace to turn toward others with compassion,
      with kindness,
      with generous care,
until all your children throughout all the world
hunger and thirst no more.
This we ask in the name of your Beloved —
the One who gave us words to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give is this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.

NOTE

  1. From Womb of Life and Source of Being, lyrics by Ruth Duck, Hymn No. 3 in Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).