Acts 16:9-15++Psalm 67++Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5++John 5:1-9
Online and print media sources have been awash this week with distressing news that has affected 4.4 million people, has been the subject of pages and pages of internet chatter, and has spawned online petitions calling people to account, demanding a do-over. I am speaking, of course, of the finale of the 8thseason of Game of Thrones last Sunday evening on HBO. This epic fantasy series based on the first 5 books of author George R. R. Martin, has millions of faithful watchers who endured 8 years and 71 episodes to get to what many believe to be an abject failure in its finale. Too rushed. Lost the thread. Too many plot holes. Too much that didn’t fit with what came earlier. The complaints are endless.
Now, perhaps I shouldn’t admit to being a fan of this too-much-violence, too-much-sex television epic, but since going to Croatia last year and finding myself seated on an Iron Throne in a location where parts of the series were filmed, we have made our way through a good bit of it, jumping ahead so as not to miss out, which is an impossibility since spoilers abound everywhere we look. While there are some gaps in our knowledge of the plotline, we know enough to know that the ending did not fulfill expectations of the majority of viewers and left many feeling unsatisfied, hoping for something better, and praying that Martin will actually finish those last two books. However, there is one part of the ending that is so theologically rich that it almost makes everything all better.
And I need to give a spoiler alert before I continue, just in case you have been living under a rock or holding off watching or starting the series.
Here goes. In a final council to decide who will finally sit on the Iron Throne (even though that throne has been incinerated by a grieving dragon), the dwarf Tyrion Lannister makes an impassioned speech for a character who has baffled and exasperated many viewers for the past several seasons, Brandon Stark, a paraplegic visionary who can see into the past and inhabit the minds and bodies of other people and animals. In this speech urging the selection of Bran, who has done nothing to indicate that he has any desire to rule, Tyrion says,
What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?… Who’s better to lead us into the future?
Bran knows the story because of his ability to see all the things that have come before and to bring those stories into the present. But it isn’t the Game of Thrones story or Bran’s story that is the greatest one. It isn’t fantasy that brings us here today. The story that belongs to us is God’s story. Each week we gather here to listen to God’s story and to add our own lines, our own experiences, our own living out of the story of how God loved us so much that God took on human flesh, became just like us, and sacrificed that very human life so that death might die and we might live.
From Acts to Revelation to John, we have heard bits of our story today that have details that are often overlooked but that continue to have deep significance for us. In Acts, Paul has a vision in which he is asked to go to Macedonia, so he heads over toward Greece with Timothy and Silas and Luke (who wrote the account), on the sabbath, meets a group of women, including Lydia. In writing this part, Luke is careful to include that Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, and we need to pay attention because purple cloth was the most costly of fabrics, because a woman was the merchant and not her husband, and that this woman was from Thyatira which is in Turkey, so she is traveling, probably with some female companions, and making a very good living, and undoubtedly has access to rich and powerful people – the only ones who could afford her cloth. So when she invited Paul and his friends to stay with her, she is offering to support him in his ministry. This actually happens often in scripture, so often, in fact, that many believe that Paul could not have made his missionary journeys without the support of women any more that Jesus could have traveled about Palestine without the help of all the women who went with him, even to the foot of the cross and to the tomb.
The beautiful vision of the new Jerusalem in the final chapters of Revelation is an allegory about the restoration of the Garden of Eden with which our story began back in the first chapter of Genesis. The reign of God is here on earth. There is no darkness, only the light of God. The river of the water of life flows through the city and the tree – that infamous tree from which Adam and Eve ate the apple is groaning with all kinds of fruits. It is a beautiful image of creation restored, of our story ending with the reconciliation of God and all of God’s creation.
Finally, in the 5thchapter of John, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for one of the festivals and encounters this invalid sitting near the pool of Bethesda. And Jesus asks him what seems to be a really stupid question: “Do you want to be made well” (John 5:6)? This man had been ill for 38 years, and Jesus wants to know if he’s tired of lying there waiting for someone to help into the pool when the water is stirred up with its healing powers? I don’t know about you, but I’ve actually known a lot of hurting people who had a hard time letting go of their hurt, their pain, their woundedness. It had become such a part of their identity that the thought of living without it was more frightening than the reality of living with it. You can practically hear this guy whining that no one will help him, yet what he seems not to understand is that God’s healing is not limited to waters that are stirred or anything else. In my mind, I hear frustration in Jesus voice, “Dude. Just get up and walk.” It’s kind of like at the end of the Wizard of Oz when Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that she had the power to go home all along, and that it wasn’t just about those ruby slippers.
Back when I was in discernment for ordination, one of the questions I was asked (and was actually asked this many, many times) was what I saw as my role if I were to be ordained. Sometimes I spoke of sacramental ministry, of Eucharist and Baptism, of preaching and teaching and pastoral care. But I think my best answer was that I would be responsible for holding the story. For carrying it and telling it and passing it along so that our story would continue to be told until the day when God’s reign comes to pass.
There really aren’t many similarities between Game of Thrones and the story we tell here, other than that we follow a wounded savior and the new leader of the six kingdoms is known as Bran the Broken. There’s no Iron Throne to go with our story, but there is a cross and an empty tomb, and for us, the assurance of abundant life and joy and peace at the end for all God’s people and all that God has created. This is our story, and it begins and ends with God’s unchangeable love. I don’t think anyone would ask for a rewrite of that one.