Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Beginning of the End

Revelation 15

by Daniel Harrell

So another professional sports season, another championship parade in Boston. If only Rodney Harrison had batted down that ridiculous pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree in the Super Bowl, we would have had a three-fer. But let’s not get greedy. After all, we did get to enjoy that 39-point thrashing of the Los Angeles Lakers this past Tuesday night—the totality of which did have a certain apocalyptic feel. Not that I dare compare Tuesday night’s romp to Judgment Day, but you have to admit that such total humiliation of an enemy followed by such total exhilaration as evidenced on the court following and at Thursday’s parade does exude a Revelation ring. Here in chapter 15 we read of total humiliation for the nefarious beast of 666 fame followed by exhilarated throng, harps in hand, who lift their collective voice in celebratory song. Some might say that stereotypical saints with harps on cloud-nine hardly stacks up with rocking Duck Boats rolling down Boylston St. But if you know that the instrument described in verse 2 is actually more of a guitar, then Revelation’s celebration becomes one jubilant jam session that even Thursday’s confetti-laden, green-clad party could never match.

Ironically, green is not only the color of victory. A Philadelphia talk-show personality was unreserved in his resentment of Boston’s surplus of championship riches. “We hate you,” he said, “Everybody hates you. You can go to any part of the globe. People hate you.” So much for the city of brotherly love. This irony raises a similar one in regard to Revelation. While God’s defeat of Satan’s minions and their converts is cause for joy, it’s a joy often tempered with uneasiness. If you’ve followed along in my journey through Revelation, perhaps you’ve been bothered by so much of the violence too. The wrath of God rages with such ghastly vengeance, many wonder: where’s the love? I did explore this question last month by suggesting that love and wrath are intensely related. If you have ever loved, you know how absolutely wonderful it can be. Yet if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. You know the intensity of emotion that can follow betrayal, the rage that rejection ignites. Wrath’s intensity derives from scorned love. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” the Proverbs declare, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.” The Bible portrays God as a husband to his people, and thus his reaction to rejection are not unfamiliar. But it is unnerving. In Ezekiel, the rejected 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.” Unnerving indeed.

It is important to remember that any view of God’s wrath that seeks an analogy in human passion rather than rooting itself in the theology of divine pathos is bound to misunderstand. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never consider God’s anger as unaccountable, unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong, provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s anger which consumes and afflicts never does so without moral justification. And though the wrath of God is terrifying, it is also a temporary. It is something that happens rather than something that abides. As the Psalmist sings, “His anger lasts for a moment but his favor endures for a lifetime.” The wrath of God is momentary because it is conducive rather than conclusive. It is the means to an end rather than the end itself. Its purposes line up with love and justice. Repentance, redemption and righteousness are its ultimate aims.

Last month in Revelation 14, John witnessed an angel mid-flight, proclaiming an “eternal gospel,” the only time the word gospel appears in Revelation. This gospel is good news for the oppressed: including Revelation’s original hearers who endured brutal Roman persecution. For the oppressor, however, as well as for those who cave in to the pressure, the gospel is only bad news. The angel’s proclamation is followed by pronouncements of doom on those individuals who have forsaken the Lamb as well as on wicked systems and tyrannical governments, all of which get summed up under the label of “Babylon the Great.” After the foreboding angel comes one riding on clouds, a “son of man” crowned with gold, who wields 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.” Trampled 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 fire and brimstone that burns an infinitely rising torment of smoke forever.

Just when you might think that would have been sufficient, chapter 15 opens with portents of more: seven angels with seven more plagues, bowls full of divine heat that amp up the judgments already blown by the seven trumpets and opened by the seven seals. These seven bowls do finally exhaust God’s anger, but in doing so they also exhaust the entirety of creation too. Chapter 16 will go on to narrate a time of tremendous upheaval and unprecedented suffering. The land, sea, fresh waters and galaxy will all bear the full devastation of God’s ferocity. People will gnaw their tongues in agony and incited by demons, the kings of the earth will prepare for final battle. I’m sure you’ll not want to miss that sermon next month. For now, the beginning of the end begins with a solemn liturgical procession, seven angels dressed in white processing out of the heavenly temple with bowls shaped something like our offering plates. Yet rather than collecting tithes, these plates dole out the doom. The last time Revelation mentioned golden bowls was back in chapter 5. There they were filled with incense denoting the prayers of the saints. But here the action reverses. Rather than prayers rising up before God, here fiery ruin pours down on the earth. The prayers of those martyred saints huddled under the altar in chapter 6 are answered. God avenges their blood in full.

Frankly, reminding ourselves how God’s anger only consumes with moral justification doesn’t always suffice when we read Revelation. Our moral sensitivities crave more assurance. The stark contrast between God’s wrath and his mercy are jarring. As if sensing the dissonance, Revelation inserts a hymn of praise in order to reorient perspective. We sing a song that reminds us of God’s trustworthy character. Verse 3: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

This hymn is sung by those same martyred saints who no longer hide out. Gathered for the heavenly equivalent of a duck boat parade, they rejoice alongside a sea of glass—albeit it one tinged with fire. The portrait is not of some tranquil seaside campfire, but of a turbulent ocean calmed. The sea represents the chaotic abode of evil from whence came the beast in chapter 13. The beast may still be on the loose for now, but he is a defeated foe. He no longer threatens these saints. The scene by the sea is resurrection scene. Having lost their lives in the fight, the saved their souls. They spurned the beast and his lies. They refused his mark on their foreheads. They did not compromise to a culture devoted to personal possession and security, but sacrificed themselves for the sake of honesty, compassion, service and witness. Not that they were looking to die. They’d merely discovered the way, the truth and the life, and resolved to follow wherever he led. The rest was out of their hands.

Yet now in their hands they grasp guitars and sing the new song they learned back in chapter 14. It’s not a totally new song. It’s called the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, but it’s more of a compilation of the Old Testament’s Greatest Hits. The Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah—their lyrics are all here. That Moses gets mention immediately takes us back to the songs he sang in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Suddenly the triumphant saints gathered by the glassy sea celebrating the demise of the beast remind us of the triumphant Israelites gathered by the Red Sea celebrating the demise of Pharaoh. Similarly the mention in verse 5 and following of the tabernacle and the glory cloud that engulfed whenever God was in the house reminds of God’s presence with his chosen people as they made their way to the Promised Land. The God who righteously acted in the past through Moses has done will do righteously again in Christ. As horrible as Revelation can sound, this song of justice plays to the tune of redemption. God’s wrath is the means to an end rather than the end itself. The gospel that comforts the oppressed with God’s promise of vengeance cautions the oppressor with that same promise of vengeance. Revelation paints its picture of doom so that the enemies of God might recognize how it is in their eternal best interest to make peace—a peace already made by the crucified Lamb who suffered the full wrath of God himself. The song’s closing refrain forecasts a positive outcome: “All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” Every knee will bow down and every tongue confess Jesus Christ the Lamb as Lord.

That Revelation inserts music into the midst of its mayhem reminds of the way music taps into God’s power. When we praise God we find our own voices reawakened, our hope renewed, our worries assuaged, our convictions intensified and our resolve reinforced. On most Sundays, it may be that standing to sing feels like little more than blithely strumming harps. But on those Sundays when anxiety threatens to overrun you, or you’ve been beaten down or abandoned, or when your faith feels fragile—on those Sundays, to stand and sing is an act of amped up defiance against the forces of this world that conspire against you. There is undeniable strength in the simple praise of God.

To praise God is to participate in Revelation’s chorus. It is to see yourself in the picture as you will one day be. Any doomsday scenario pales alongside the glorious scene of your resurrected future. That scene is one of incomparable joy. Just like last Thursday. During the parade I loved looking around at how the thrill of victory united people of every age and color and nationality. Strangers smiled at strangers, and even talked to one another without diverting their eyes! Somebody would bump you and practically knock you down, but that was OK, you’d just come up laughing. Everyone was so happy. As the players rode by, the crowd went wild, a continuation of the contagion of joy expressed on the court after the game Tuesday night. While it’s easy to be a cynic when it comes to millionaire men playing childhood games, it was hard to be cynical about the tears of gladness streaming down the faces of Kevin, Paul and Ray. Despite having all the money in the world, these athletes could never buy this one thing they treasured. It had to be won. Their joy at winning was so overwhelming you couldn’t help but crave it for yourself. It’s why so many showed up on Thursday. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that happiness?

I had just arrived at Park Street the last time the Celtics won the championship, back in 1986. The staff piled out onto the Mayflower pulpit as Larry, Kevin, Robert and Red paraded by. Those were salad days for Boston sports too, though the salad had substantially wilted with the Patriots getting thrashed by the Bears in the Super Bowl. By the end of the year, a little baseball dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs. Little did we know the Celtics wouldn’t win for another 22 years. Of course had we known then what we know now—that the Patriots would go on to dominate football in the 21st century, that the Red Sox would win not one but two World Series after 86 years of futility, and that the Celtics would go from worst to first in a single year, Bostonians might have endured the intervening years with a much less despair. Revelation’s glimpse at our victorious future fixes that. By knowing God’s kingdom dynasty is coming, we can manage the meantime with unassailable hope. The Bible paints the future is such certain terms that it can speak of the future as having already happened. We read in verse 3 that the saints “sang the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” The Bible speaks of the future as already accomplished because in Christ it already is. And thus joy need not be reserved for heaven. Since our future is sure, we can enjoy the joy right now. Revelation’s picture is painted with you in it.

Back in 1986 the Celtics had this memorable play-by-play announcer named Johnny Most. He did his radio broadcasts with an unmistakably distinctive gravel of a voice, and for a fee, he would record a replay from a memorable Celtics game and insert your name into the broadcast as if you were the player making the winning shot. The Park Street preacher’s wife back then was named Eva Toms, and she was a rabid Celtics fan. I take for granted she was watching on Tuesday. On one Sunday morning back then, one of my first Sundays here, over these very sanctuary speakers, somebody rigged it so that during church, Johnny Most narrated Eva Toms—a five-foot-four grandmother--taking a pass from Larry Bird, driving the lane, faking out the defense, elevating over everything and slam dunking it home. The congregation went wild, and I thought to myself, wow, what a cool church. Think of Revelation 15 the same way whenever you pray, whenever you sing. Jesus has inserted your name into the play-by-play and handed you your own guitar—complete with whammy bar. You’re part of the celebratory throng now. Jesus paints Revelation’s picture with you in it.

Most of you weren’t around back in the days when Larry Bird ruled the parquet with Eva Toms, but two people in our midst were: Lois Barndt and Robert Bloodworth. I mention Lois and Robert since today marks the end of their long tenures on our church staff. Lois retires from her role as our Director of Women’s Ministry and Robert leaves his role as Co-Director of Music to take a position as Minister of Music and Arts at Free Christian Church in Andover. Both came to Park Street as college students (Lois a few years earlier than Robert) and stayed to serve Christ in this church using their gifts and their charm. We will pray for them and thank them more in a moment, but I wanted to mention each of them here for the way each embody a bit of what Revelation 15 portrays. If the point is that your certain future in Christ should show itself in the present, Lois and Robert make that point with their lives.

Lois exemplifies confident hope and confident prayer. To know Lois is to be prayed for by Lois with an assurance that the Lord is eager to act and to redeem. Her assurance exudes her hope in all her relationships. At a surprise gathering held for her this past week, word has it that she was referred to as “Saint Lois” for the way she embodies Jesus in every interaction. So much so that one woman remarked it was sometimes helpful in situations to think, “What would Lois do?” To me one of the true marks of a person’s character is the way people talk about you behind your back. Lois is the rare person of whom I have never heard a discouraging word. And that’s because hers is a life of encouragement. Her strength comes from a hope that finds its power in the grace God has lavished on her life. This is not to say her life has been trouble-free: not at all. But that’s what makes hope so strong. Hope matters most when troubles arise. Our hope is in the God who has righteously acted in the past, but also in the God who has already acted righteously in the future. In Christ, our troubles prove to be the soil of redemption.

If Lois exemplifies confident prayer, Robert exemplifies confident praise. To know Robert is to see him leading the congregation in worship, lifting his hands even when nobody else will. Having filled his life with praise enables Robert to see past worries that weigh most others down, having tapped into that power that reawakens our voices, renews hope, assuages worry, intensifies conviction and reinforces resolve. To praise God also makes you realize your proper place in the universe. To me, another true mark of a person’s character is the way they receive criticism. Most musicians have the reputation of being temperamental, and all of us can get defensive quickly when critiqued. But Robert, with a gift of humility that only worshipping God can provide, readily receives all people, whatever their gripe. This is no small thing. Because of worship’s power, worship music is one of those things everyone has strong feelings about. Yet even the most ardent complainer finds himself disarmed by Robert’s gracious receptivity. Jesus said that “whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. By receiving and being receivable, Robert displays the grace of Jesus in his life.

As should we all. Revelation’s portrait of prayer and praise amidst trouble is intended to lift us out of our own worry and despair toward that promised land secured by Jesus. The God who righteously acted in the past through Moses has done righteously again in Christ. The future is all set. Revelation’s glimpse at our victorious future means we can manage the meantime with unassailable hope. The Bible paints the future is such certain terms that it can speak of the future as already accomplished because in Christ it already is. And thus joy need not be reserved for heaven. Since our future is sure, we can enjoy the joy right now. Revelation’s picture is painted with you in it. It’s a slam dunk.

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