Revelation 7:9-17 & Philippians 1:3-11
by William Klock
Earlier in this morning's service we prayed in our collect:
"Father in heaven, keep your household the church firm in godliness, so that it may by your protection be free from all adversities and may devoutly serve you in good works to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Think about those words: “Keep your household – the Church – firm in godliness” that we “may devoutly serve you in good works to the glory of your name.” The collect sums up our essential duty: to be steadfast in conforming to the nature of God, to cooperate with the Holy Spirit as he works to set us apart as a holy people, to sanctify us, so that we can do the good works that God calls us to do – to leave behind the works of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to put on the character of Christ. And we do this not selfishly for our own benefit, but to give glory to God.
This is what the Prayer Book refers to as “our bounden duty and service.” The post-Communion prayers remind us, saying:
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all partakers of the Holy Communion, may be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him. And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Again, it's the Christian life in a nutshell: God gives us his grace so that, through Christ, we can be restored to fellowship with him. And while that restored fellowship doesn't instantly make us perfectly righteous on our own – we still have to rely on the righteousness of Christ for our redemption and ultimately to please God – that restored fellowship does do a work of sanctification in us. It takes a heart that was devoted totally to sin, and turns it gradually and bit by bit toward God. It's only by the assistance of God's grace that we can continue in that “holy fellowship” and that we can do the “good works” that God has prepared for us “to walk in.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism gets at this when it asks its first question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” And that's the tack that I want to take with this today. The “chief end of man” is to “glorify God” and “enjoy him forever.” That's what we were created for. So we have to ask: what's our problem? Birds were created to fly and fish were created to swim, and that's exactly what both of them do naturally and without any problems. But the last thing that we're inclined to do as men and women is to glorify God. In fact, St. Paul reminds us in Romans that in our natural state we're all enemies of God – not just indifferent to him, not just not caring about him, but really and truly in complete and total opposition to him and to his plans.
God created us to be in close fellowship with himself, but in our natural state we're far from him and can never come close – in fact our desire is to stay away, as far as we can, from him. That's what sin does. Light and dark can't exist together, because one drives the other way. Righteousness and unrighteousness can't exist together for the same reason. In our case, our unrighteousness drives us away from God – just like most of us wanted to run and hide from our parents when they found out we raided the cookie jar, broke the window, or got in trouble at school. We know we displeased them, we knew that we were eventually going to be punished, and so all we wanted to do was run and hide. And for God's part, his perfect righteousness calls for perfect justice. He can't just overlook our sins. Our darkness can't be allowed into his presence without first being covered by the the long robe of Christ's righteousness – until we've been washed clean by his blood.
Before they sinned, Adam and Eve lived in that perfect fellowship that God created us for. But I don't think that's the first aspect of their lives that we think of. No, the first thing we think of is the beauty and perfection of the garden into which God had placed them. For us, paradise means no weeds, no thorns, no pain, no back-breaking labour, and natural beauty all around. We're not so inclined to think about paradise in terms of the full fellowship Adam and Eve had with God. The author of Genesis gives us a great picture of the closeness they had with God when he talks about them actually hearing God as he came down to walk with them “in the cool of the day.”
It's interesting that throughout Holy Scripture we see this idea of “walking with God” over and over. Adam and Eve really did, literally, walk with God – they were that close, they had that kind of intimate fellowship. And so it's not surprising that we still talk about someone “walking” with God when we want to stress both the closeness of the fellowship that that person has with God and the uprightness of character and life that person has. But since the fall, none of us can ever walk with God the way that Adam and Eve did. Not even Enoch. Enoch “walked with God” and was so close to him that one day God simply took him home with him. But even Enoch's close “walk” with God wasn't like Adam's walk with God – in order to be that close God had to take him home. Enoch was a “righteous” guy, but he was still a sinner. The only way for him to be restored to that full, whole, and open fellowship with God was for God to take him and perfect his righteousness in heaven.
I think that heaven was the real hope of Adam and Eve more than it is for anyone who's ever lived after them. No other human being has even had the fellowship with God that they lost when they sinned. I can't imagine how pained they must have been when they realised that fellowship was broken. All they knew of God was his perfect holiness, his perfect love, and his perfect peace. They walked in that presence every day. And because they knew the perfection of God's holiness so well and so fully, when they sinned they understood better than we ever can the full magnitude of what it means to offend God – to commit cosmic treason against our Creator. They knew the perfection of his holiness, and the moment they sinned I think they knew that they had suddenly thrust themselves out of his presence. They knew what real holiness was and realised that they were no longer fit to be in its presence.
The rest of us are a little like chickens. A chicken doesn't know what it means or what it's like to fly – that's not something they're capable of doing, so it doesn't make much of a difference to them that they can't fly. But clip the wings of an eagle and ground it, and you've effectively killed the bird. It's no longer capable of doing what it was created for and it knows it. All of us who have come after Adam and Eve are like the chickens. We're born sinners living outside the presence of God. Adam and Eve were born eagles – they lived in God's presence and then clipped their own wings. God creates all of us as eagles, but because of our sin we live like chickens. Adam and Eve knew what it was like to be grounded, but since none of us can soar like they once did, we sadly fail to miss what it is that God created us for.
To be restored to God, Adam and Eve put their hope in the promise of the righteous one who would come – in the hope of the Messiah. But heaven was their only hope for the full fellowship with God that they had before they sinned. And just like we're not usually inclined to think of life in the Garden of Eden as a time of perfect fellowship with God, we're also not used to thinking of heaven in terms of the restoration of that prefect fellowship. Ask most people what they think they'll be doing in heaven and they'll tell you about being restored with loved ones, not being crippled anymore, or being able to do all their favourite things whenever they want. What most people don't seem to mention is the restoration to fellowship with God that we'll have there – being able to be in his presence all the time, never hindered by sin. I'm sure that Adam and Eve looked forward to heaven because there'd be no more pain and suffering there, but even more I think they yearned for it because, more than anything else, they missed being that close to God.
In Scripture God puts our view of heaven where it should be. In the Epistle lesson from All Saints, St. John tells us about his vision of God's heavenly court and the saints there. Notice he doesn't talk about the things we normally associate with heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:9-17)
The main focus that Scripture puts on life in heaven isn't all those other things – it's on being in the direct presence of God. St. John wasn't given a vision of the saints of God embracing their long-lost friends and family, leaving behind crutches and wheelchairs, or just having fun all the time. John's vision of heaven was of the saints gathered around the heavenly throne in service and worship, while God takes care of their every need. All those other great things happened too – God promises to take care of us – but that all happens so that we can devote our lives – devote eternity – to the service of God in praise and worship. And I think John's vision should be a reminder to us of just how wonderfully amazing it will be to be in God's presence and to worship him if all those other great things we expect pale in comparison!
The beatific vision of St. John the Divine ought to sound familiar to us, because what the saints do in heaven is the same thing that we ought to be doing here on earth in preparation. John tells how God cares for the saints so that they can worship him eternally. Jesus tells us the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount, but relates it to our lives here and now.
In Matthew Six Jesus speaks his familiar words:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven...for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
Jesus' words are hard for us to follow, because it's so often easier for us to trust in those things we can see and hold in our hands, and so Jesus then goes on to remind us that God takes care of the birds of the air and lilies of field. They don't put in any overtime. They don't stress about paying bills. They aren't worried about “keeping up with the Joneses.” And yet God cares for them – and if God cares for birds and flowers, how much more does he care for the men and women he created in his own image:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6:30-33)
This is the whole point of our life here on earth: to learn to trust God, and to devote ourselves to a life of service and worship to his glory. He promises to meet our needs so that we can seek first his Kingdom. That's worship.
One of our problems is that too much of the time when we think of “worship” we think of what we do at church on Sunday morning. That is what we do here on Sunday morning, but worship is a lot more than gathering to sing, to pray, and to hear God's Word read and preached. St. John doesn't tell us that the saints in heaven go about their business six days of the week and then gather around the throne for a couple of hours on Sunday morning. No, St. John tells us that the saints are gathered around God's throne in worship day and night.
If all you do is set aside from ten to noon on Sunday to worship God, your not living the life of the Spirit that God has called you to – and I'll add that if that's all you're doing, your Christian life isn't going to feel very alive and you're not really going to feel the reality of that restored fellowship with the Father that Jesus gives us. I really think this is why so much of the modern Church has turned to an entertainment oriented model for doing church and turned from true worship to emotional manipulation and “feel good” gimmicks. Much of the modern Church has been slack in calling people to a life of true and full devotion to God – to a life of true worship 24/7/365, because today's conventional wisdom says that if you ask people to be fully committed, they'll walk away. After all, we can't ask too much of people. But if we don't call people to wholly devote their lives to Christ, they won't. And then they come to church on Sunday morning, not expectantly, not with the idea in mind to gather with their brothers and sisters before the throne of God as the culmination of a week of worship in the more mundane aspects of life, but they come seeking to “experience” God and to have a feeling of his presence that's lacking the rest of the time.
The problem is that if it's lacking the rest of the time, it's going to be lacking on Sunday morning too – and so too many churches fake it with worship-tainment that manipulates the “worshippers” into feeling happy and good about themselves and about God.
But our “bounden duty and service” isn't just coming each Sunday to celebrate the Holy Communion – it's to continue in his “holy fellowship” and to “do all such good works as [he] has prepared for us to walk in.” If we live a life of worship all the time, we don't need to come on Sunday seeking God's presence having missed it all week. Instead Sunday becomes a celebration of thanks and praise with our brothers and sisters and where we find sacramental refreshment and promise of life at the Lord's Table.
Christian maturity is what happens when we seek the Kingdom of God first and always. That's why St. Paul writes in today's epistle from Philippians:
For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 3:8-11)
Paul's great desire for the Christians at Philippi was for them to abound – to grow – more and more in their lives. His prayer was for them to conform more and more to the image, the example, of Jesus Christ so that they could show the world what righteousness looks like, and finally to be able to stand before God as blameless and full of the abundant fruit of the righteousness that Jesus gives us. What I find really strikes me is how Paul ends that prayer: not that they would do all this and grow in righteousness for their own benefit, but that through them God would be glorified.
What Paul desired for the Philippians is what God desires for all of his people. And it's a daunting thing. No matter how often we're reassured that God will look after the worldly things that otherwise bog us down and consume our resources, it's still really easy to let that happen. We do get bogged down in the cares of the world. We do become consumed with worldly things. But this is why God gives us his grace – that with his help, because we can't do it on our own – we can persevere to the end as we put him and his Kingdom first in our lives.
In that same passage from Philippians, Paul gives us some of the most reassuring words in all of Holy Scripture:
I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:6)
If he was certain of nothing else, the Apostle Paul was certain that what God started he would finish. God does nothing for nought. God doesn't waste his grace on any of us. If he has seen fit to call us to himself, if he as seen fit to send his only-begotten Son to die on our behalf, if he has poured his Holy Spirit into our lives, and if he has blessed us with an overabundance of grace, he will never, never abandon us in our struggles. God never looks down and says, “I sure did pump a lot of my resources into Bill, but boy did he blow it big time. I think I'll just take it all back and put all that grace and Holy Spirit power into someone else who will take advantage of it better than Bill did.”
No! When God sees us stumbling and falling behind, he gives us more! Paul also tells us that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. If we struggle with devoting our whole selves to the glory of God, he will give us the grace we need to overcome those things that are holding us back. When we sin and drive ourselves away from his holy presence, he pours out his grace to draw us back. When we have trouble handing over that certain area of our life that we just don't want to let go of, he gives us the grace to find assurance in him so that we can put our trust in him and hand it over.
The key is to live in God's grace. We don't want to be like the man in today's Gospel lesson. You'll remember that he owed a huge debt to the king that he could never repay. By all rights he should have been sold as a slave so that the king could at least recoup at least some of the money owed to him. But the king was merciful and gracious enough to forgive the debt when the man came before him humbly asking for it to be forgiven. But then that same man, who had shown so much humility before the king and who had been shown so much mercy and grace, went out into the street to find a man who owed him a relatively small debt. He grabbed that man by the neck and demanded his money back, and when he didn't get it he had the man thrown in to prison.
I think that a lot of Christians are like that man that the king forgave. God offers his grace and mercy to us and maybe we even approach him humbly, knowing we're sinners. We take God's grace for our own benefit, but all we ever use it for is as a “get our of hell free” card. We fail to apply that grace to our lives and we don't consistently share it with others. We forget that God didn't save us from his wrath for our benefit alone. He saves us so that we can be restored to fellowship with him and so that he can work in us to change and renew our lives as a witness to the world around us of what God is and what he can do.
There really is no excuse for what so many of us do. Christianity is more than just “religion.” It's more than just a “Sunday thing.” Christianity is to be a “Christ follower,” and Jesus didn't leave his spirituality at the church door – he lived his life in the grace of God all the time and every day. He gave himself and everything he had over to his Father in heaven – even to the point of giving his life. He's our example, showing us the way to heaven. But are we living in a way that will get us ready for a life of worship in eternity, or are we living more or less like we always did – yes, we're redeemed, yes we've been saved from our sins – but we're still living in a way that serves self instead of God. We really need to be living in anticipation of what awaits us in heaven, wanting more than anything else to live in such a way here that a life of heavenly worship won't shock our systems when we get there. Have we given every aspect of our lives over to God, obeying him and letting him use us for his own glory?
And so each of us needs to ask: “Am I living a life of worship and service to God?” God calls us to be living sacrifices. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
This is the key to true worship. In response God continues to assure us of his presence with us as we come to his Table. Here he gives us the downpayment on eternal life. Here he reminds us in the bread and the wine, that he is the one who will take care of us, not just in eternity, but this side of heaven too. So I urge you this morning, if there is some aspect of life that you haven't given over to God, that you haven't trusted him with, bring it with you to the altar this morning. Receive God's promise of grace here at his Table and as you do that, lay your cares here, at the pace where he reminds us of his promises. As he gave himself, body and soul, for you, give yourself, body and soul, to him and live for his glory alone.
Please pray with me: “Our Father, we prayed earlier that you would protect us from all adversity so that we may devoutly serve you in our good works. Help us to understand that what you desire of us is true worship done by the devotion of every part of our lives to you and to your service. Give us the grace, Father, to hand everything over to you and to devote every aspect of life to what will bring you glory. We ask this confident in the Spirit that brings us life and by the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.