Thursday, May 29, 2008

Be Healed

Mark 1:40-45

The next in a series on red-letter Christianity by Daniel Harrell

So I served on my first jury this past week. I’ve had jury duty plenty of times, but heretofore I’d managed to avoid getting impaneled by listing my occupation as “televangelist,” even though technically, I’m only a closed-circuit televangelist. The case was a civil case, ironic as always given the tenor of the litigation. The rancorous dispute concerned personal injury resulting from an automobile accident. One of the lawyers was this oily, obnoxious shyster vilified in our society by the stereotype ambulance chaser. You know, the kind who advertises his services on TV promising that if ever you are in an accident, call the number and you’ll get everything that’s coming to you. Apparently the judge when selecting the jury figured that if anybody could be impartial about an ambulance chaser it would be a televangelist. Added to the irony was the fact that the defendant in this case was an ambulance driver. While changing lanes in a non-emergency situation, he hit the plaintiff’s car and crunched his front right quarter-panel. The ambulance driver quickly jumped out of his vehicle to ascertain the condition of the driver he’d hit. The other driver said we was fine. Said the same to the police officers who arrived on the scene. But then excused himself to make a phone call. When he got back, he complained about whiplash and insisted he be taken to the hospital. Which he was, again ironically, by the ambulance driver who had hit him. Why the sudden surge of pain? While it is true that sometimes symptoms are slow to surface, these symptoms were a result of the phone call. The man had called the number of a TV attorney who told him to run back to scene and get to the hospital. He’d hit the jackpot.

The lawyers for both sides were hilariously combative, waving their arms and melodramatically lecturing on the various travesties of injustice suffered by their parties. It was actually entertaining at some moments, excruciatingly boring at others as the attorneys debated the most picayune of points. Half a day was spent arguing over whether a Google map could be considered an accurate depiction of a Google map. I dozed off in the jury box only to be awakened by my drool, horrified that the judge would find me in contempt of something. That is until I saw that the judge had nodded off too. The attorneys dissected every syllable of every word, angling for any thread they could twist to their advantage. Apparently they’d already twisted it into knots. This lawsuit had been plodding through the court system for more than five years, taking up an inordinate amount of time, money and energy. While alternately amused and bored, we were also perplexed: Why hadn’t the case been settled by insurance companies? How had what seemed so straightforward become so complicated?

The law’s like that, I guess. At the end of the trial, the judge’s instructions to us jurors ran on for over an hour as he had to explain the legal definitions of simple words like negligence and damage and injury. He then recited statute after statue governing the law in this case—statutes like the one that determined the particularities of blinker usage, which further explained why so much time had been devoted to fastidious arguments about blinkers, which ended up having no bearing on the outcome. To me the lawyers confused indicators with actions, asserting that simply using a blinker (or not) was equivalent to actually making a safe lane change (or not). They were being legalistic, a term with which we Bible readers are familiar. New Testament ambulance chasers (we call them Pharisees) consistently confused the indicator with the action. They insisted that flashing the appearance of righteousness sufficed for righteousness itself.

Of particular concern were the legalities of cleanliness. If you’ll remember from our romp through Leviticus, to be clean before God was the first step to holiness, the epitome of one’s right relationship with God. The good news was that purity was the baseline. To be a Jew was to be clean, declared so when chosen by God. The trick was keeping clean. Pagan Roman culture was rife with all sorts of temptations to unfaithfulness. God needed his people to be wary. He needed some way to drive home the importance of purity. Ergo two plus chapters of Leviticus devoted to skin infections. If there’s one thing you cannot ignore, it’s your skin. So the Lord used skin as an object lesson, an indicator if you will, to teach the importance of moral cleanliness. However the object lesson was not the infection itself, but what happened once you got it. God declared an infection unclean and ruled that you were to be quarantined from the community, both socially and religiously. Getting back in once your skin cleared up required a priest. Two birds. Some cedar wood. A piece of crimson yarn. Hyssop. Fresh water. A clay pot. Some soap to wash your clothes and body. A razor to shave yourself. Three lambs without blemish. Six quarts of choice flour and a cup of olive oil. Along with an elaborate ritual that could be performed only in Jerusalem, which for the skin-infected leper here in Mark 1 was something like an eighty mile walk.

Who in their right mind would go through all of that? But then again, when you’re cut off from your friends and your God, who wouldn’t do whatever it took to get back in right relationship? The seriousness of ritual was a sign of the seriousness of purity to God. However, once the Pharisees got a hold of it, the ritual became the reality itself. Purity became only skin deep. The cleanliness code had become corrupted. Which unfortunately for the leper, made his plight all the worse. It no longer mattered that his heart were pure. If his skin was infected (leprosy is a catchall term covering anything from a pus-spewing sore to a little rash), so was he. No wonder we read of him chasing Jesus down and begging for help. He had become an outcast. If you’ll remember from last Sunday, Jesus had already done so much healing and demon-exorcising that he had to retreat into the desert to pray. Simon Peter tracked him down worried about another huge crowd gathering in town. “Everybody is looking for you,” Peter urgently said, meaning everybody who hadn’t gotten their ills cured or their demons cast out the day before was waiting for Jesus to do it now. But instead of returning and doing the good that needed doing, Jesus said, “Let’s go somewhere else.”

So off they went, leaving plenty of unhealed people behind, which for this particular leper meant continued estrangement. He’d seen Jesus heal others and knew this was his only ticket home. So runs after Jesus, falls to his knees and begs, “If you will, you can make me clean too.” By which he meant make me acceptable to my community and my God again. Of course Jesus was willing to do that. Moreover, only Jesus could do that. This is partly Mark’s point. Only God can heal and make clean. Jesus heals and makes clean. Jesus is the Son of God. He touches the unclean man and immediately he is healed in every sense. All that was left was for him to make the trip to Jerusalem and “show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for his cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Now, having just come from jury duty, I am very aware that a testimony can be a good or a bad thing depending on what gets said about whom. Which was it here? A good or a bad testimony? And for whom?

The knee-jerk reaction is to think positive. A leper gets healed and welcomed back into fellowship. That’s a good thing. But then we read how the Jesus “sternly” or even “angrily” instructed the ex-leper to offer his testimony and not to say anything to anyone on the way. What was it about this incident that incited Jesus? A leper runs up and begs for help. Jesus, filled with compassion, helps him. Why then the anger? Interestingly, if you happen to be following along in a New English Bible, a New Revised Standard Version Bible or one of the new NIV Bibles (called the TNIV), you’re wondering if you have the wrong passage. Verse 41 does not say that Jesus was filled with compassion when he healed the leper, but that he was indignant, or literally, filled with anger. The discrepancy is due to some ancient manuscripts of Mark reading compassion, and others reading anger. And since we don’t possess Mark’s own writing, all we can do is make an educated guess. So some Bibles guess one way, and others the other way. For Jesus to be “filled with compassion” definitely makes more sense. But that’s the problem. There’s this general rule of thumb that says that the harder reading is probably the original reading. You can imagine some copyist concerned for Jesus’ reputation changing anger to compassion, but not the other way around. So if he was angry, what made Jesus mad?

Maybe he was mad at the interruption. After all, he was on a tight schedule. A lot of towns to hit and sermons to preach, a kingdom to kick off. He was trying to get away from the crowds that were keeping him off schedule when yet another infected person chases him down pleading, perhaps even challenging Jesus to heal him, to which Jesus, now filled with anger, responds, “OK OK!” touches the guy, and still ticked off, tells him he’d better not go blabbing his mouth about this to anybody but head to Jerusalem and do his Levitical duty. While I like the sound of this since it makes Jesus sound more like me, it doesn’t sound a whole lot like Jesus. Therefore some scholars argue that it was the leper who was “filled with anger” because Jesus had skipped him back in town. But if that was the case, why would anyone have ever changed it to “filled with compassion”? Others suggest that Jesus was mad at the devil. That’s always true. Others say he was mad at the disease. The devil and disease do sometimes come as a matched set.

But if Jesus was mad at the devil, why does he then angrily instruct the ex-leper to keep his mouth shut? Not that the ex-lepers does that. He runs his mouth all over everywhere so that Jesus could no longer openly enter any town. He’s forced back out into the desert. The desert (translated here as lonely place) is code for a tempting place, the temptation being that Jesus might be enticed to become a Superstar savior rather a crucified savior. Did Jesus foreknow that the ex-leper couldn’t keep quiet? Is that why he got mad? You’d think that if avoiding stardom was tops on Jesus’ list, then he wouldn’t have healed the leper at all. Maybe Jesus was using reverse psychology. He angrily told the man to keep quiet, knowing he wouldn’t, thereby saving Jesus a trip to some towns. The ex-leper spread the word himself which makes his testimony to them a positive one and the them the crowds with whom he shared the good news.

On the other hand, the testimony to them is at the end of verse 44, connected to Jesus’ instruction about showing the ex-leper himself to the priests and doing what the law required. And as the gospels attest, Jesus’ relationship to the priests and teachers of the law is anything but positive. What if instead the them are the priests and the Pharisees and the testimony to them is an indictment against them and the ways they had distorted the law and burdened the people with legalities the law was never meant to impose? That might explain Jesus’ anger. Perhaps he sternly warns the ex-leper to not speak to anyone until he gets to Jerusalem because he wants the ex-leper to get there quickly to testify negatively against the entire legalistic system that loaded people down with guilt and kept them away from grace. Even though God was still in the cleaning business, the cleanliness code had become corrupted. It was no longer an object lesson in moral purity but a lever with which the Pharisees abusively controlled access to God. It was no longer about purity but about control of the Temple and the levers of the legal system. As Mark and the rest of the gospels bear out, Jesus got really angry about that. In Matthew he rebukes the legalists by saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of wickedness.”

Most Bibles go with compassion in verse 41 because they match up with the actions of Jesus, but anger works just as well. There is a righteous anger that rightly cuts through the abuses of justice and the hypocrisy of pretense. An anger that indicts the way you can put on a clean shirt and show up at church so you can feel OK about all the ways you don’t show up for others. An anger that indicts the way you can shake your head at the plight of the poor but never lift a finger to help. An anger that indicts the way you can extol the goodness of loving your neighbor while you gossip behind their back. An anger that indicts the way you can so celebrate God meeting your needs that you ignore the needs of people right beside you. An anger that indicts the way you can say Jesus’ death for your sins is the most important thing in your life, but then never mention it to anybody who doesn’t know it. An anger that indicts the way you can praise God and receive his mercy and then withhold that same mercy from those who have hurt you. An anger that indicts the way obedience to the ritual replaces what the ritual represents, rightly flashing your blinker to cover making a disastrous lane change.

Even though the plaintiff hired an oily ambulance chaser for a lawyer, we found the defendant, the ambulance driver guilty of negligence. The plaintiff’s testimony and the photos of his car were enough to persuade all twelve of us jurors that the ambulance driver had not looked as he should. The defense lawyer’s insistence that the ambulance driver signaled and that the other driver should have seen it was bogus. To claim to have turned on his blinker was not enough to absolve him from turning to check his blind spot. Had he done that, he would have seen the plaintiff’s car alongside. Not that this meant the plaintiff was going to get rich. He won the case, but his gain was his loss. No way were we going to award the lying plaintiff damages for injuries he never suffered and for pain and suffering that were specious at best. Attempts on both sides to twist the law and work the system for personal benefit, be it exculpation or enrichment, were nothing in our collective minds but legalistic shenanigans. That both sides tried it made all of us mad. There is a righteous anger that rightly cuts through the abuses of justice and the hypocrisy of pretense.

Back in the courtroom, we announced our verdict. I was impressed that justice was done, that the jury system worked and that jury duty hadn’t been so dreadful at all. Afterwards, following thanks from the judge for our work, we jurors all piled into an elevator together, feeling pleased but wondering how the lawyers and their clients felt. Suddenly the elevator doors opened and there they stood. The ambulance chaser and the ambulance driver, heads downcast. We couldn’t help it. We burst out laughing. They looked up and starting laughing too. The truth will set you free. Real justice can make everybody happy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Mark 1:38

I know that the scripture readings have been really short lately, but that’s not totally my fault. I’m into a sermon series on the sayings of Jesus found in Mark’s gospel (if you have a red-letter Bible these sayings are printed in red ink); and so far in Mark, Jesus hasn’t had a whole lot to say. His kick-off sermon only ran 16 words. After that he issued a brief invitation to four fishermen to join his kingdom tour, followed by an even briefer command to a demon to quit blabbing about him being the Holy One of God. The problem with focusing on these sayings by themselves is that it can be hard to tell what Jesus is talking about. His first saying in Mark—“The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news”—works fine on its own, but sayings like tonight’s “Let us go somewhere else” need their context to be understood. For this purpose, the sayings of Jesus come packaged in units of thought called pericopes from the Greek word meaning cut out. A pericope is a selection of text surrounding a saying or action of Jesus that provides context, and subsequently meaning, for that saying.

The pericope for tonight’s saying begins in verse 35 with Jesus getting up very early in the morning, while it was still dark, and going to a solitary place to pray. Now if you are a Christian, prayer is one of those things you do. Jesus did it so you should too. And not only should you do it, but based on this verse, you should do it by yourself. Spend time alone with God like Jesus did. And not only should you pray alone by yourself, but according to this verse, you should do it, like Jesus did, very early in the morning. And moreover, even though the text doesn’t say this, you really should do it very early every morning. Verse 35 provides the indisputable basis for that practice known as the “daily quiet time,” or as we called it in my college fellowship, the DQT, or the QT to make it sound cool. Aside from its obvious value for connecting with God, the QT can also serve as a valuable indicator of one’s spiritual health. Show me a Christian who gets up every morning before the sun to pray, and I’ll show you a Christian who’s serious about prayer—unless that is, he brags about getting up every morning before the sun to pray. That’s just a Christian who lies.

My wife Dawn writes that prayer is communication with God—give and take. In prayer we entreat, praise, thank, and make confession. And through prayer we receive direction, encouragement, peace, conviction, rebuke, and mercy. Prayer is also communion with God—a sense of connection and unity, belonging and being. Prayer as communion nurtures prayer as communication by improving the actual give and take with God, but it does more than that. It transforms our communication abilities into the very skills of Christ. In this way, prayer is a spiritual discipline, and as with all disciplines, we learn best by doing. However, discipline can be difficult work. Which is why it takes discipline. Routines like daily quiet times are designed to help. My problem is not so much with prayer per se (though I do confess that prayer has never come easy for me). I’m fine with being quiet (though my mind can wander). I’m OK with the daily part too (though some days are better than others). I do however have a problem with the very early in the morning part. If Jesus had only waited until noon.

In my college fellowship, for adolescent reasons, prayer could get a little competitive. The QT was our way of keeping score. When asked, “How’s your QT?” someone might lie, “I got up and interceded for the entire planet this morning.” Somebody else would be like, “You got up? Shoot, I never went to bed, praise the Lord!” Now, if I’d been smart back then, and really wanted to win this competition, I would have noted how Jesus got up to pray very early in the morning only this one time. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus only prays three times total. I could have got up early one morning, said three prayers and declared victory. As it was, I guiltily struggled with my QT so much that I figured the only way I would ever get myself to pray and read my Bible more was to become a minister. So here I am. Now one of the things you learn when you’re training for ministry is how English translations of Greek words sometimes mislead. For instance in your pew Bible verse 35 reads that Jesus went off to a solitary place to pray, the picture being one of quiet and peaceful serenity (ergo the Q in QT). But solitary is probably better translated as lonely or even desolate. Which is definitely how prayer can sometimes feel. What’s significant is that it’s the same word Mark used back in verse 12 to describe that desert place where the Spirit drove Jesus to be tempted by Satan. For Jesus to pray in a desert place here somehow implies temptation again. What was going on that was a temptation for him?

Dawn and I have gotten sucked into this season’s American Idol. Our fingers are arthritic from all the texting. We’re rooting for David Cook. However, we both sat dumbstruck watching this past week as finalists as they returned to visit their hometowns. Did you see it? It was ridiculous. Following obligatory appearances on their local FOX news affiliates, the contestants were paraded through town and rabidly fawned on by mobs of squealing teeny-boppers and their giggling parents, effusive city officials and paparazzi buzzing around them like flies. Not only was it ridiculous, but for each of the finalists, it was overwhelming too. Photographers’ prying lenses zoomed in on them all breaking down into tears at the frenzied outpouring. They were superstars living their dreams! Yet mention “Britney Spears” and we’re all quickly reminded how superstardom can be a nightmare too. Applause comes at a price. It has a serious dark side. The praise that initially blows your mind eventually blows up your head. You lose perspective. Endearment becomes entitlement. Adulation an addiction—a drug for which you’ll sell your soul in order to keep the fame aflame.

We’re not through the first chapter of Mark and already Jesus is a Superstar. Having healed many sick people and driven out their demons while preaching really short sermons, his popularity had spread all over town. Verse 33 reports that the entire city gathered at his door, pressing for a glimpse, a glance or a touch. It had to be overwhelming. As with last Sunday, teeny-bopping demons squealed out Jesus’ true identity as the Holy One of God, threatening to derail the whole project. Making Jesus a Superstar Messiah was nothing but the devil’s way of using fame to divert Jesus from his true calling, just as Satan tried to do in the desert before.

Jesus was the Holy One of God, the very hope of Israel. As described by the prophet Isaiah, the Holy One of God was Israel’s Redeemer, their hero who would save them from their oppression and perversity and establish them as an everlasting kingdom. Jesus announced the nearing kingdom, but unlike your usual kingdom, his would not be established through military might or political power. Instead, the kingdom of God would come through the surrender of might and by yielding to power. Injustice would be overturned by succumbing to it. The futility of violence would be exposed by suffering its cruelty. Sin would be taken away by taking it on. Death would redeemed by dying. Victory won through defeat. This is not how superstars operate. This is not how superheroes save. Which is why Jesus preached repentance. The people needed to get over their delusions of conquest and trust in God’s way of doing things instead. The only problem was that God’s way of doing things was so upside down that it wasn’t easy to trust, not even for Jesus. Turn to his last prayer in Mark, and Jesus is heard praying in the garden of Gethsemane for some other way to do this holy thing the Holy One would have to die to do.

But why not the superstar way? American Idol does Idol Gives Back. Celebrities like Bono and Bradgelina raise awareness and money to fight world poverty and diseases that ravage so many millions in developing countries all over the world. What’s wrong with that? Why not use your fame to draw more crowds to yourself? When you’re famous you can heal more, feed more, comfort more. Why not use rock star celebrity for good? Jesus was already rocketing up the charts. Why not be a superstar?

Because superstardom has a serious dark side. And for Jesus, the dark side was the dark side of evasion: giving in to the fame and thereby going around the cross. “How can I die when the people need me? Wouldn’t it be better to stay and make their lives better now? Why not establish a kingdom and be the king here? Israel is oppressed. Rome is the oppressor. I can take Caesar. There’s a whole lot of good that needs doing now.” Yet as Jesus will make clear in Mark and throughout the gospels, while the kingdom of God does exist for the sake of justice and goodness and compassion on earth, all of that remains a mere appetizer, a down payment on the kingdom to come. Beyond the temporal bounds of this world, the kingdom of God transcends time and death to encompass the glories of eternity. But for eternal life to happen, somebody had to deal with the darkness of human evil and sin, which meant sacrificing your own life for it—something that superstars simply don’t do. Their fans won’t let them.

And therefore Jesus needed to get away from the fans. He needed to pray. But he’s not even a verse into his prayer before Simon Peter tracks him down. There’s another mob scene back in town. “Everybody is looking for you,” Peter urgently says, meaning everybody who hadn’t gotten their ills cured or their demons cast out the day before was waiting for Jesus to do it today. But instead of returning and doing the good that needed doing, Jesus says, “Let’s go somewhere else. I need to preach there too, you know. This is why I have come.” Now, I assume that Jesus’ traveling sermon stayed the same: “the kingdom is near, repent and believe the good news.” To say kingdom implied power and popularity, but people needed to get over their delusions of conquest and fame and trust in God’s way of doing things instead. The only problem was that God’s way of doing things was so upside down that it wasn’t easy to trust, not even for Jesus. Which is why Jesus had to get away and pray. We’re not told what Jesus prayed that morning, but I’m guessing his prayer was not unlike the one Mark records him praying in Gethsemane. If Jesus was tempted at all by the acclaim and by a desire to bypass the cross, he likely prayed: “Not my will but Thy will be done.”

That’s a hard prayer to pray. I’d rather pray for what I want. “Ask and ye shall receive,” and all that. Now I know “ask and ye shall receive” doesn’t mean ask for selfish things, but for proper things like healing cancer, or repairing a marriage or finding a job, or for wars to end and for relief for those devastated by earthquakes and cyclones—but that’s OK, I want that. And this is why I struggle with prayer. I ask for these things yet don’t always receive them. Why? Mark offers no explanation except to narrate how Jesus departs Capernaum without healing everybody who needed healing. And of course Jesus never gets married or holds down a paying job himself. And as for disasters, the only mention in the gospels is that time in Luke where 18 people get killed by a tower that collapses on them in Jerusalem. Told about that Jesus replies rather harshly, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

There’s that repent word again. Just like in his sermon: “Repent and believe the good news.” But what’s so good about unanswered prayer? I guess that’s where repentance comes in. We’re accustomed of thinking about repentance only in terms of being sorry for our sins. But there’s more to repentance than just that. Repentance is a change of heart, a conversion of mind, a reorientation of will. For Jesus to say “Not my will but Thy will be done” is a move of repentance on his part. Not that Jesus ever sinned, but he did want something other than God’s will for his life. The same is true for you and me.

Jesus says “ask and ye shall receive.” He also says “God knows your needs before you even ask,” which could mean that God gives you what he knows you’re going to ask for. But since that’s not always the case, it may be better to it like this: “God knows what you’re going to ask—so he gives you what you need.” Jesus prayed for God to let him off the cross. He asked that God’s cup of wrath against human evil and sin pass him by. He wanted the Father to find some other way to save the world. But God knew what Jesus needed. Or more to the point: God knew what we needed—even before Jesus asked. And Jesus did too. Which is why Jesus prayed, “Not my will but Thy will be done.” In the end, prayer is not getting God to do what you want, but getting yourself to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. Are disease and divorce and unemployment and war and natural devastation things that God wants? No, but they’re clearly things that God allows for reasons the Bible does not always explain. We don’t like that. But maybe this is another place where we need to repent. The tendency can be to imagine God’s will for our world as one where disease and disaster never exist, that somehow faith should shield us from all of life’s sadness and horrors. But that’s not how faith works; at least no faith in the crucified Christ. We need to repent and to get over those delusions of God that insist He act like we would act if we were God. We’re not God. We need to trust God and to trust his way of doing things instead. But God’s way of doing things is so upside down at times that that it isn’t easy to trust. So we need to pray too.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Mark 1:25

Happy Pentecost! I know. It doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen does it? It’s too bad, really. Pentecost, the official birthday of the church, was celebrated as a Christian holy day long before Christmas ever made the rotation. Perhaps the tepid treatment Pentecost receives has something to do with Pentecost itself, what with its mighty wind, floating tongues of fire and subsequent miraculous speaking and hearing. Even though virgin births and resurrections are just as miraculous, for some reason they don’t seem quite as weird. Or maybe the Trinity’s third-person-second-class-treatment has something to do with the fact that the Holy Spirit is too, I don’t know, spiritual? It’s easy to conceptualize God as Father and Jesus as Savior, but how to conceptualize the Spirit? Up in the air? A bird? A flame? There’s also the historic, and ironic, dissention among Christians regarding the Holy Spirit—from the first major church spilt in 1054 between Catholics and Orthodox, all the way down to current squabbles over charismatic gifts and spiritual fruit. I’m sometimes asked what I would do if the Holy Spirit ever showed up during one of my sermons—assuming that what is meant by this question is what would I do if the Holy Spirit ever interrupted one of my sermons. OK, so I’d probably, I’d say something like: “Be quiet, I’m preaching!”

I do count on the Holy Spirit making an appearance earlier in the week. I tend to believe that stepping up to speak without being duly prepared is more a sign of foolishness than faith, but then again I may be trying to justify myself. After all, the apostle Peter was hardly prepared to preach when the Spirit blew open his mind and lit his tongue on fire. Peter ended up giving one of the more effective sermons in history. Not only did it get printed in the Bible, but some three thousand people joined the church that first Pentecost.

Of course joining the church back then was a much more hazardous proposition. Today, the scariest thing our new members had to do was stand up in front of the congregation. But back then, to claim Christ as Lord meant you claimed Caesar was not Lord—an act of treason punishable by death. Rome viciously squelched what it viewed as political resistance with crucifixion. It’s what Jesus meant when he said to follow him would require taking up a cross. But of course Jesus also changed the meaning of the cross. Whereas Rome used the cross to violently put down rebellion, Jesus used the cross to expose the futility of violence. And then, rising from the dead, he declared victory over oppression and injustice, while at the same time securing grace for the oppressor and the unjust. In his kingdom come, peace was made not by shedding his enemies’ blood, but by shedding his own.

Still, even the new meaning of the cross didn’t make death any less deadly. Victory still looked like defeat. It’s partly what makes obeying the words of Jesus so hard. And mostly why we need the Holy Spirit so much. Even after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they still hid out for fear of the Romans and their religious conspirators. It’s wasn’t until God finally burned it into the disciples’ skulls that they found the courage to stand up and speak truth against evil, sin and injustice. No longer afraid to lose, they were no longer afraid of the Romans, the Pharisees or even the devil.

Which brings us to our passage for tonight. While there’s a lot left to say about the Holy Spirit, I’d like to say something about unholy spirits. Since Easter, I’ve been preaching from the red-letters of Mark’s gospel. For those of you with so-called red-letter Bibles, you know that the red ink represents the actual words of Jesus. I got the idea from a book entitled Red-Letter Christians by Tony Campolo. His book is mostly about faith and politics, while tonight’s passage about faith and demons, though maybe that’s not so different. I started this sermon series with Jesus’ own short sermon, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Amen. Next came Jesus’ invitation to four fishermen to become fishers of men by sharing the good news with others.

In tonight’s third set of red-letters, Jesus heads over to the local synagogue to teach. We’re not told what Jesus taught, but I presume his sermon was the same: “The kingdom is near.” The people who heard were amazed, Mark writes, because this out-of-town Jesus taught them as one who had authority, not like their teachers, some of whom I presume were in the synagogue that day. I imagine folks running up to them and saying, “Wow, what a sermon! Have you ever heard anything so great in your life?” And I imagine the teachers’ response. I know how it feels when folks gush following a guest preacher’s sermon. The sting of envy. The resentment. The exasperation. “If I hear one more time how that guest preacher’s sermon was so spirit-filled. I mean, what, is the Spirit absent as I’m slaving over every sentence week after week? And for what? So that some fly-by pastor packing his best heat can waltz in and hog all the glory? Yeah, I can imagine my response, “What do you want with us, out-of-town preacher? Have you come to destroy me?” Which is almost how the demon-possessed man responded in verse 24.

Now let me assure you that I do not feel this way toward our guest preachers. Not usually. I offer it by way of illustration. Throughout Mark, among the most demonic were those assumed to be the most religious: the professional ministers, the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus goes so far as to label “children of hell.” We’re not told that this demon-possessed man was a scribe, but we are told that the demon was sitting in church. And if you’ve been in many churches, you know it’s not hard for demons to get in here. This unholy Spirit interrupts Jesus’ sermon, or better, he disrupts it. He shouts out, “I know who you are, Holy One of God!” To which Jesus replies, not “Be quiet, I’m preaching,” but “Be quiet and come out.” Which the demon dutifully does, albeit kicking and screaming. The congregation erupted in further amazement, for they had never seen their teachers perform such authoritative feats: “Even the evil spirits obey him.” Which may have been Mark’s backhanded way of making another point: If the evil spirits obey Jesus, what does that say about you and me when we don’t?

If we speaking of the Holy Spirit can seem weird, talking about demons can be downright bizarre. These days, much of what used to get called demon possession now gets described in terms of chemical imbalance or as a consequence of genes or bad learning. A good therapist and medication can probably keep your demons in check. Still, there is evil in this world and in human behavior that surpasses anything we might blame on chemistry or even human volition. It’s the kind of evil that causes a father to drown his children to get back at his wife or teachers to abuse their students; the kind of evil that deforms political leaders into tyrants and infects entire nations resulting in the horrors of holocausts, world wars, genocides and terrorism. There’s the systemic or corporate evil that contaminates civilizations and institutions resulting in ecological upheaval, ecclesial crusades and global poverty. For such endemic evil the word demonic doesn’t seem so bizarre.

Jesus preached that the good news that his kingdom was near, which was bad news for evil. In shouting, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” this demon speaks up for demons everywhere. “Have you come to destroy us?” The answer is yes. Whereas in the presence of mere mortality demons feel free to lie and deceive, in the presence of Jesus they tremble with fear. They tell the truth too. “You are the holy one of God,” this terrified demon confessed. Jesus then rebuked the demon, which at first seems sort of odd. Why wouldn’t Jesus want people to know who he is? But then you realize that the last thing you need when you’re trying to get a world religion off the ground is a demonic endorsement. Jesus shuts the demon up and then shuts him down for good. In doing so Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom was more than near. It was here. No wonder the congregation was so amazed.

But for those in that congregation who followed Jesus’ career to its end, any amazement likely soured into disillusionment. How can a man able to conquer demons get crucified by Romans? If that was victory, it sure looks like defeat. Not only on earth, but in heaven too. In the book of Revelation, which I’ve been preaching through on my morning turns, the writer John wins a trip to heaven where he hears an angel announce the coming of the Lord. The angel introduces Jesus as the Lion of Judah and the Root of David. The “Root of David” comes from Isaiah where God’s Holy One is portrayed in warrior-king like fashion; one who “will give justice to the poor and decide with equity for the meek. One who will smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked.” The Lion of Judah was a throwback to Jacob’s blessing where Jacob tells Judah, his lionized son, how “the scepter shall not depart from him, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendents until tribute comes to whom it belongs; and with it the obedience of all peoples.”

Yet when John turns to look what he sees is not a ferocious King of the Beasts but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been slain. Granted, Isaiah had predicted this too. The victorious heir of David was forecast as one to be “oppressed and afflicted, led like a lamb to the slaughter.” But what kind of King comes looking like a weak loser? The same kind of king who rises from the dead still wearing his scars. In the kingdom of God defeat is victory. A lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. And by eternally wearing the marks of his dying, Jesus shows that crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Instead, crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the identity of God, and thus on the identity of God’s people. Which is how we are able to endure suffering and death ourselves. Whenever we’re defeated, we win.

And yet we struggle to believe this. Our models of faith generally remain models of success. The testimonies we hear tend to be told by accomplished people. Not that accomplishment indicates a lack of faith, but imagine if success was all that early Christians got to see and hear about. Condemned to suffer the brutality of political and religious persecution, their accomplishments looked more like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. The God who would save them would not save them from suffering but through it. Their loss would be their gain. Their triumph over evil would be their submission to it.

Of course to submit to evil is not to do evil. The weapons of evil are violence, hatred and abusive power. The kingdom fights back with weapons of patient endurance, love and peace-making—obedience to the words of Jesus. Read on in the book of Revelation and these are the weapons that work. The crucified Lamb morphs into a white rider of justice who wields a sword with which he eradicates wickedness and slices up the devil and his minions before dumping them into a lake of fire. Yet the sword that the rider wields protrudes from his mouth. And unless you’re willing to think that somehow Jesus jousts with his enemies with some wacky projectile sticking out from between his teeth, then you realize that Jesus’ sword is the sword of his word. He speaks truth to power and kills it, which is how the demon here in Mark knew he was doomed. The kingdom was more than near. It was here.

Dawn and I had the privilege of attending a talk on Friday given by a former Park Street member, Chris Seiple, who is involved in what he calls “faith-based diplomacy.” Funded by concerned Christians, he and his colleagues engage the most strident of Muslim leaders, convinced that to make peace, faith must speak to faith. When you stop and think about militant Muslims, one of the things that strikes you is how much like committed Christians they are in some ways. They have a deep passion for God and possess a willingness to die for what they believe, which actually gives Chris and his colleagues a invaluable entry point. In Washington DC, Chris, president of a group called the Institute for Global Engagement, became acquainted with a conservative Muslim who served as a high-ranking Pakistani official. Chris had this man and his family over to dinner, and even cleared space for them to pray on the floor in his house. In Muslim culture, hospitality is an inviolable value. Eat dinner with someone and they are your friend for life.

I hope to tell you more about Chris and his work, but suffice for tonight, Chris’ relationship with this man was a relationship shaped by Chris’ faith. Whereas most would never break bread with an enemy who believes that America is Satan, Chris follows Jesus who said to love your enemies and did that. Some months later, Chris traveled to the most dangerous parts of Pakistan where this official reciprocated the hospitality. Chris would be safe from harm since in Pakistan to be a guest is to be guarded by the life of your host. Having discovered a shared intensity of faith, if not a shared content of faith, the Muslim official was eager to meet other passionate believers in his district. Chris showed up for a dinner the official arranged, and not only were other Christians seated at this Muslim man’s table, but Hindus and Sikhs too, which is huge when you remember the heated conflict that roils on between Muslims and Hindus over the province of Kashmir. Chris could not tell us how many Muslims had converted to Jesus as a result of this faith-based diplomacy. He didn’t know if there were any yet. But he could tell us about a new church and a new Christian school in Pakistan, the cornerstones for both laid by this passionately Muslim Pakistani official.

What was particularly striking about the presentation was how amazed the presenters were (former military men who knew the power of literal swords) that the teachings of Jesus—love your enemies, be peacemakers—that these words actually worked. These words had authority. They worked for Peter and the rest of the disciples at Pentecost. They worked for the persecuted Christians Revelation addresses. They work for all against the best the devil can dish out. Writing a few hundred years after Pentecost, Athanasius insisted that any Christian worth his salt could cast out a demon. Martin Luther concurred when he said, or better sang, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”

I sometimes get accused by my more charismatic brethren of not giving the devil his due. If this is true, it’s only because the devil is doomed. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that any evil power we confront on earth is always a beaten power—no matter how contrary it may seem to our experience. The kingdom is not only near, it is here. With our Spirit-infused forebears, we can stand up and endure whatever the devil dishes out. When through the Holy Spirit you’re no longer afraid to lose, no longer afraid even to lose your life, what can anybody do to you?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Wine Pressed (Thoughts on Hell)

Revelation 14

I had the honor of conducting the funeral of a war veteran not too long ago and was captivated by the solemnity and honor with which service people are buried. The ritual posture of respect, the dress uniforms, the twenty-one gun salute, the presentation of the flag—all of it designed to pay rightful tribute to those who make the supreme sacrifice. I was duly moved by the ceremony and wondered whether I would be willing to die for my country. I read of American servicemen and women in Iraq who actually oppose the cause for which they risk their lives. For them their willingness to die is for their friends, their fellow soldiers, and not for Iraqi freedom or American foreign policy. Would I be willing to die for my friends? How strong is the self-preservation instinct? I stroll my daughter Violet across a busy intersection, morosely imagining some unyielding car careening toward us. Would I sacrifice my life to save hers? Or would self-preservation reflexes take over instead, accustomed as I am to looking out for myself? How about my faith? Would I give up my life for Jesus? We speak of the gospel in terms of saving your life, but Jesus was clear that believing in him means losing your life first. Would I do that?

At that veteran’s graveside I read from Revelation 14: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.’” The promise of eternal rest in God’s presence eases the pain of loss and the fear that sacrifice inflicts. Yet while I presume the soldier we buried would have died for his country, and maybe even for his faith, he did neither. He lived deep into his eighties and died a quiet death, his faith never a cause for personal endangerment. That’s the way it is for most of us. “Lose your life for Jesus?” Sure, we say, knowing that likely we’ll never literally have to do that. For most of us, bearing a cross is little more than bearing some loss of reputation among those who consider religion to be idiotic. You may have to put up with not getting invited out to drinks after work, or getting left out of conversations on occasion or maybe getting mildly ridiculed. But then only if you have the courage to admit you’re a Christian.

For John’s congregation here in Revelation, believing in Jesus was much more of a grave proposition. To be a Christian in first century Rome was to be an outlaw, a criminal, a traitor to the Empire. To take up your cross would get you strung up on one. There was no Lord but Caesar, and to confess otherwise bought you an automatic death sentence. It was Jesus or your country back then. Naturally, the self-preservation instinct being what it is, many who stepped forward to accept Jesus stepped backwards once the government turned up the heat. Threatened with execution, there were those among the faithful who readily renounced their faith to save their lives. And thus the graveside words of Revelation 14 were not so much for post-mortem comfort as for pre-mortem conviction. In order to steel the wavering faithful for the deadly realities of cross-bearing, chapter 14 paints a portrait of heavenly reward. The Lamb of God slain stands triumphant atop Mount Zion, the enduring 144,000 alongside, representing all faithful people, each marked with the name of the Lamb and the Father, each set to enjoy their eternal rest.

The redeemed are described as “those who did not defile themselves with women,” which is just another way to say they did not give in to the “maddening adulteries of Fallen Babylon” mentioned in verse 8. They did not succumb to the wiles of the beast or to the lies of the false prophet that we looked at last month. Moreover, these redeemed “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” which meant they go all the way to the cross since that is where the crucified Lamb went. They are called “firstfruits” and “blameless,” which, if you recall my Leviticus sermons, are words that denote sacrifice. These redeemed are those who lost their lives for Jesus. Their reward would be eternal rest from their labors. To them Jesus says, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”

For many, such promise of rest and joy proved sufficient motivation to stand unashamed of the gospel against Roman oppression and injustice. But for others, visions of kicking back and singing songs to God forever just didn’t do the trick. Picturing heaven as a fluffy hilltop with strumming harps sounded so boring, why would anyone die to get in there? For these, Revelation paints another portrait, one that warrants the label “fire and brimstone” since that’s how the word “burning sulfur” in verse 10 used to get translated. We read, “Whoever worships the beast and his image and receives his mark [understood in that day as compromising to Roman culture and worshipping the idols of empire power], they will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured undiluted into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image.”

Now you’ve heard such language ranting from the lips of who some would consider deranged preachers who scream on the Boston Common or who wear T-shirts ablaze with images of doom and damnation. As in Revelation, threats of hellfire are supposed to scare you back toward God’s mercy, if that’s what it takes. However, seeing the way most passersby give these fiery messengers wide berth testifies to their ineffectiveness. Ironically, in our day, the threat of hell ranks up there as a chief reason for not believing in God. It’s why you don’t hear many preachers preach hellfire and brimstone anymore, not even here at Brimstone Corner. Critics of Christianity cite passages such as Revelation 14 as evidence of a violent God who gets his righteous jollies out of eternally scorching those who scorn him. As one young man put it to popular New York pastor Tim Keller, “You’ve said that if we do not believe in Christ, we are lost and condemned. I’m sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who aren’t Christians. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too.”

By way of response, in the tradition of CS Lewis, Keller describes hell as “simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” God doesn’t send you to hell. You send yourself. As CS Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people—those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell.” But what about the fire and brimstone? Who would ever choose that? Keller writes, “Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: ‘What if when we die we don’t end, but instead our lives extend into eternity?’ Hell, then, is the trajectory of the soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”

I like CS Lewis and Tim Keller here, if for no other reason than they debunk the whole identity of God as a violent and capricious tyrant. But I also like that they take away some of the guilt I feel when I fail to speak about my faith to others. It’s one thing if keeping quiet means leaving a person to burn in hell for eternity. It’s another if keeping quiet only means an eternity of self-absorption and self-centeredness. That’s not so bad. It’s like driving a Lexus SUV. To the righteous person driving a Prius, a Lexus is a clear sign of self-absorption, one that masks the misery and anxiety that no doubt tortures the Lexus driver, trapped as they are into assuaging their envy and finding their happiness in a fancy car that not only advertises their blatant insecurity and paranoia but ruins the environment too. But hey, it’s a Lexus. The only problem is that when you talk to the Lexus driver they seem genuinely happy. They usually have a lot of other cool stuff too. Self-absorption has its upside. So much so that some Prius owners might start to have second thoughts about their own choices.

It might be better to use another contemporary analogy for hell. Employing the language of relationship, hell can be described as eternal “separation from God.” The horrific epitome of this separation was experienced by Jesus who in his sin-drenched self cried out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” If you’ve ever had an acquaintance forsake you, you know that can hurt. If a good friend does the same—that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, that is devastating beyond comparison. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous the separation. It truly hurts like hell. But there’s a problem here too. Hell as “separation from God” rightly presumes sinful humans as the ones who walk away from God. However, as any of us know, the one who walks away suffers much less hellishness than the one who’s betrayed and left behind.

Yet maybe there’s something to this. If when Jesus stood outside Jerusalem and wept over his people’s pending betrayal and abandonment of him, representative of our own sinful rejection, it ironically steeled him to go through with the only thing that would ultimately bring us back. While at that point it would have been understandable for Jesus to call down some fire and brimstone and be done with us, he chose instead to bring down fire and brimstone on himself for us and subsequently to suffer abandonment by his Father too. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” In God’s eyes you are more wicked than you could ever imagine. But in Christ God loves you more than you could ever hope.

If you have ever loved someone, then you know love’s sheer power. You know the pleasure, the rapture that comes with giving yourself gladly and unashamedly to someone else and watching their glowing responsiveness. You know that palatable happiness that comes with making someone else happy. That thrill in doing good and sweet things unexpectedly just because you want to. That impish inner grin you get when you realize others envy your joy. Loving someone makes the surrounding air lighter, the colors of your world more vivid, it even makes your food taste better. You smile more, you laugh more. I get the biggest kick out of romantic couples in premarital counseling as they sit close on the couch holding hands, giggling and goo-gooing. And though I wobble between chuckling and upchucking, deep down I am honored to be in the presence of love. It affirms what is good and right about being human. I see the same in friends who teetered on life’s multiple edges the last time we talked, but who now dance with sanguine hope along those very same edges all because they met somebody special. Troubles dissipate in the face of love with a gladness that cascades over you and cleanses away despair, loneliness and fear. Poets praise it. Singers revel in it. Writers exalt it. We all crave it. When push comes to shove, when it gets down to brass tacks and bottom lines, whatever cliché you prefer—the greatest of these is love.

If you have ever loved, you know how absolutely wonderful it can be. And if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. How horrible it is when you discover the betrayal, when you read the note, when you get floored with the abandonment and the rejection. You know the initial incredulity that resounds with the question: How could you? How could you? If you’ve ever loved and been betrayed and abandoned, you’ve known the rawness that hollows out your insides. You know how the overwhelming heaviness that makes it so that you can hardly breathe. You try to make sense but you can’t and start to think you’ve gone mad, but then you get mad. The jealousy kicks in. The rage. If you have ever loved, you know how horrible love can become. And you can see how it is that a loving God can be a God of wrath. And you begin to understand how hell is possible. God passes sentence on sinful humanity with the jealous fury of a husband scorned. As my wife Dawn astutely observed, hell is not the losing your relationship with God, hell is getting into a really bad relationship with God. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” the Proverbs declare, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.” In Ezekiel, the Lord roars “I will bring blood upon you in jealous fury. I will hand you over to your lovers, and they will destroy your pagan altars and your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you ashamed. They will incite a mob against you who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords.”

Here in verse 6 John witnesses an angel mid-flight, proclaiming an “eternal gospel,” the only time that the word gospel appears in Revelation. Only here the invitation is no longer “love God,” but “fear God because the hour of his judgment has come.” This warning is followed by pronouncements of doom not just for those individuals who have forsaken the Lamb, but for wicked systems and oppressive governments too, all of which get summed up in the doom of “Babylon the Great,” the sum total of evil who coerced and enticed the damned into drinking her lies and adulteries. After that there’s one riding on clouds, a “son of man” crowned with gold, and wielding a sharp sickle with which to harvest the earth of its wheat and chaff, followed by another grim reaper who effectively “tramples out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” The blood poured from the great winepress of God’s wrath flows as high as a horse’s bridle, a river of blood stretching two hundred miles. And all this on top of the fire and brimstone that burns an infinitely rising torment of smoke forever.

The temptation may be to write off all this violent imagery as the wacky genre of Revelation, but do that and you’re still left with Isaiah and Daniel, Joel, John the Baptist and Jesus himself from whence Revelation gets all its imagery. Daniel is the one who first sees the son of man riding on the clouds in final judgment. Isaiah is the source of the winepress. Joel ramps it up with the sickle and the reaper. And this without even mentioning Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah and the rest of the Old Testament. John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” He’s in the New Testament. And of course there’s Jesus who names himself as “the Son of Man who comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, who will sit on his throne in heavenly glory and judge all people before him like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The sheep will inherit eternal life, while the goats, aka the weeds, the chaff, the lazy servant and the hypocrites all suffer eternal punishment, weeping and gnashing of teeth and being bundled and burned.

It’s intense stuff. It’s extreme. And frankly, it’s offensive too. But honestly, it’s not unfamiliar. If you have ever loved and had that love rejected, you’re acquainted with the offensiveness. You know the intensity of emotion and the extremity of the jealousy and the revenge and the fury. If you have ever loved and had that love rejected, then you can answer how it is that a loving God could send somebody to hell, you can identify with wrath. But you know, when the Bible describes the jealous fury of the Lord, it’s not really interested in having you identify—with God. It’s pretty impossible to do that. No, here in Revelation and elsewhere, the goal is not to see yourself as the lover wronged, but as the one who commits the wrong—the one who’s walked out.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf puts it like this: God’s wrath falls on those who deserve it—not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves. “Underlying the theology of judgment is the assumption that nothing is strong enough to change those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets. We must not shrink back from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there are those human beings created in God’s image who through their immersion in evil have immunized themselves from God’s grace.” God cannot remain indifferent toward evil and still be a good God. Nevertheless, I do want to explain away the violence somehow, or at least mitigate it a bit. Like by noting how all the violent imagery is actually agricultural. Weeding and harvesting and pressing, these all have as their ultimate goal flourishing growth, right? Dawn told me how lame that sounded. God as “Old MacDonald had a farm.” An Old MacDonald God cannot survive in war-ravaged places like Iraq or Afghanistan, or in Sudan or Zimbabwe or even New York, Los Angeles and Boston. It can’t survive for people whose cities and villages have been plundered then burned and leveled to the ground. It can’t survive for people whose daughters and sisters have been raped, for wives who have been beaten and abused, for brothers and sons who’ve had their heads blown off for no reason.

And yet Revelation’s dire warnings are not weapons to be wielded against your enemies. The Bible asserts that it’s because of God’s wrath, it’s because justice and righteous vengeance belong to him only, that we are free to love our enemies, that we can say “God have mercy on you” and truly mean it. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Christ commands you love them. To refuse to love your enemy actually turns you into God’s enemy. To this end, Revelation 14 is not so much about the fate of outsiders as it is a warning to insiders who ponder the question, “Is it such a terrible thing to compromise to the culture and have a few idols in my life? Is it so bad to withhold love and to be quiet about my beliefs? Is it so terrible to look out for myself and to guard my life and despise my enemies and ignore the poor?” To which John answers yes, it is more terrible than you think. There is a fate worse than death. And our proper response is not to explain it away, but to repent and believe, to fear God and follow the Lamb wherever he goes.