May 22 Sermon
From its earliest chapters, the Bible is a book of invitation. It’s appropriate therefore that the concluding paragraphs should spell out the invitation one more time -- and with a warning.
If you ever attended a religious revival service, you probably remember certain things: an attention-getting sermon and music that was lively and engaging, in fact, it’s not surprising that so many stars of blues, bluegrass, and country-western music grew up on revival music. And one more thing was a hallmark of these revivals: You knew where the service was going to end. There would be an invitation.
The invitation might vary according to the nature of the service, but you could count on it that the invitation would come. Usually, it was an invitation for unbelievers (or more directly, “sinners”) to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But sometimes it would be a call for young people to enter the ministry, or for Christians to re-dedicate themselves to their faith; sometimes it might even be as specific as an invitation to begin tithing. The congregation would sing an invitation hymn -- “Just as I Am,” or “Softly and Tenderly” were favorites -- and the evangelist would issue an invitation to come to the altar.
Worship services in almost every Christian tradition conclude in the same mood, but it’s not usually so obvious. With some, it’s the receiving of the sacrament, with others an admonition or a hymn of challenge. However, to be honest, most of the invitations may be so subtle or so muted that we hardly know they’ve been issued.
The writer of the book of Revelation concluded his remarkable document with an invitation, and there’s no doubt about what he was doing. His style was more like the evangelists of my youth than like the services of worship most of us now experience. There is no question about what was on the writer’s mind.
How should one conclude something like the Book of Revelation? The book is packed full of action and drama, of blood, fire, and peril. Its visions of terror can take your breath away, while its heavenly scenes are pure bliss. Now how shall it end? How do you end a book that has the mark of the beast, the anti-Christ, the bottomless pit, and the battle of Armageddon mixed in with some of the most magnificent worship ever described in any literature -- how do you bring such an impossible combination to a close? And the writer of Revelation answers, “With an invitation.” What else?
The Bible is full of invitations, you know, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it ends that way. Let me be emphatic, and truer to the point: the Bible is just packed full of invitations. After Adam and Eve sin, back in the Book of Genesis, God goes looking for them. It may not sound like an invitation; it sounds more like a parent who is pursuing a child who has left the yard. But those of us who have been children -- which is all of us -- know that this is an invitation, even if a reprimanding one; it’s a call to come home. And from that point on, the Bible reports one invitation after another: to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, to David, to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Hosea; to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds, to Andrew, Peter, James, and John; to Paul the apostle -- I’ve just named the obvious ones, but you get the point. God is always issuing invitations.
This is very humble of God, because when someone issues an invitation, there’s always a chance of their being turned down. I missed the possible company of any number of wonderful teenage girls when I was a boy, because I was afraid to issue the invitation: “May I take you to the ball game, to church, to get a malted milk?” I was afraid of being rejected. When you submit an invitation, there’s always a chance you’ll be ignored or refused. And when you read the Bible all the way through, you see that God was rejected any number of times. So, see the humility of God! God, being God, could simply grab us by the arm and say, “Here’s what you’re going to do.” But instead, God sends an invitation.
So, when the whole, grand story seems to be summing up, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus himself speaks to the writer, John. “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” Then we hear the gracious invitation:
The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes would take the water of life as a gift.
An invitation can’t get much better than that! As someone once said, it’s an invitation in triplicate -- or perhaps even in quadruplicate. It’s as if heaven is trying to say, “Have I made myself clear? I really, really, really want you to come!”
It’s an invitation to receive the “water of life,” and it’s a gift. The invitation comes from the Holy Spirit and from the bride -- that means the church -- and it is extended to anyone who is thirsty. It’s a wonderfully inclusive offer. There are no racial, ethnic, or economic qualifications, no literacy test, no psychological profiling. Simply this: are you thirsty? If you are, we have the water you’re looking for. And we can hardly wait for you to come. What a magnificent invitation! And it comes at the end of the Book of Revelation, as if to say that this is what the whole Bible is about; it’s about God saying, Come!
So often we don’t realize that we’re getting an invitation, or that it’s coming from God. Sometimes it’s only after enough time has gone by that we put the pieces together and realize that God has been on our trail. I remember the evening I consciously responded to God’s invitation, but only later did I recognize that God had begun sending out the invitation years before, via Sunday school teachers -- like Laura Olson, for instance, who gave me my first Bible. And more than that, by my mother teaching a bedtime prayer, even earlier, and the faithfulness of my parents taking me to church Sunday after Sunday. All of this was an invitation, slowly being engraved on my soul.
Some people have caught the invitation through years of reading the Peanuts comic strip, where they’ve been captured by theology as delivered by Charlie Brown and his little friends. After the legendary country-western singer, Johnny Cash, died, any number of people remembered some of his songs as part of the invitation that brought God into their lives. Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher, said, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously reflection concentrates upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Those two elements have become an insistent invitation to millions of persons over the centuries.
But ultimately, the key invitation is in Jesus Christ. David Wilkinson, the British theoretical astrophysicist, put it simply and directly not long ago. “In all honesty, my understanding of the creator God is not because I once looked through a telescope and saw God’s love written in the stars. It came from looking into the pages of the New Testament at a man who died on a cross for me.”1 Our Lord Christ is the ultimate invitation.
I must remind you, however, that there is a dark side to any invitation. An invitation is by nature such a lovely thing that I hesitate to mention it, but to be honest, I must. Ironically, the scripture lesson as presented in our lectionary reading obscures this fact. It omits verse 15, which tells us that some people have chosen to stay outside the invitation, and it omits verses 18 and 19, that warn us of the possibility that we might miss our chance.
Let me put the issue in the language of our text. God’s invitation is for everyone who is thirsty to come and take of the water of life as a gift. Now the truth is, since this is the water of life, it is essential. Without it, my soul will die of thirst. So, the invitation is the most gracious word I could receive. What more could I ask? But suppose I flat out reject the invitation? Or suppose -- which is more likely -- that I ignore it or put off answering it. If that be so, the invitation will do me no good. I will simply die of thirst, even while the water of life flows abundantly and freely, within my reach. Even while the invitation is coming to me, in triplicate, I can die of thirst! That’s the dark side of the invitation, and I owe it to you that I should tell you.
But let my last word be this, the word that brings the Bible to a close. Come! Come and take the water of life, as a gift.
Grace and Peace,
Pastor John Buddle