Sunday, July 20, 2008

Like a Thief in the Night

Revelation 16

by Daniel Harrell

Since it’s in the bulletin, I should probably begin this morning by explaining how my 9-month-old daughter Violet broke her leg. For those of you not in church last Sunday Night or having yet to read the church blog, Violet recently learned to pull herself up to standing. Week before last she was doing just that using an ottoman that sits in our living room. She used the ottoman because on it sat our TV remote. Now no matter how many toys we surround her with, Violet invariably wants the TV remote, proving, perhaps, that children’s fascination with television is somehow genetic. Our TV remote is taboo because a) she chews it and b) we’d like to keep her away from TV as long as we can, you know, given all of the violence that fills the screen these days. Anyway, she pulled up on the ottoman to grab the remote, but in reaching for it she let go of her hand, lost her balance and fell back onto her leg and fractured it. She’s in a cast for another week or so but hardly notices it. In fact, she’s learned to use it as a way to communicate. The other morning Dawn and I bolt upright in bed as Violet whammed her cast against her crib to let us know she was awake. Still, I feel bad, mostly because I’m the one who left the TV remote on the ottoman. Clearly I’m not as concerned about protecting her from violence as I say. If I was concerned, I’d get the TV out of the house. Shoot, if I was really concerned, I’d get rid of the Bible too.

Did you hear what I just read from Revelation 16? Malignant boils covering the skin, oceans and rivers turned to blood, demonic frogs, hundred-pound hailstones pounding down on people’s heads, darkness and thunder and cosmic war? That’s nightmare material. Of course, if you’ve been following along with me these past two years through Revelation, nightmares are not new. We’ve seen plenty of blood, gruesomeness and violence already. As compared to the seven seals and seven trumpets, these seven bowls of judgment pour out God’s wrath with greater intensity—as if any more intensity were necessary. Perhaps you’re wondering when all the violence will stop. We did get a welcome breather last month as we were reminded how God’s final triumph over evil will top any Celtics’ championship victory parade. But this month it’s back to cataclysm. The good news is that the end is in sight. In verse 17, as a seventh angel spews ruin into the air, the voice of God booms from the heavenly temple and declares “it is done.” The bad news is that because Revelation is not sequential, three chapters of grisly details remain.

This third and last set of judgments was announced as “the third woe” back in chapter 11. The third woe commenced with the terrifying appearance of a dragon—Satan the ancient serpent himself—along with the fabled beast and false prophet: an unholy trinity of deception and destruction. Standing up to their menace was Jesus the Lamb, slain and risen, along with those saved by his sacrifice. An angel flew overhead with a message for any who remained on the fence: “fear God because the hour of his judgment has come.” The angel’s warning applied to every wicked system and government that abused its power, along with every individual who pledged allegiance to their insidious designs. In the foreboding angel’s wake rode a “son of man” seated on clouds and crowned with gold—Jesus again—only this time wielding a sharp sickle with which to separate the wheat from the chaff; that is, those who remain unashamed of the gospel from those who succumbed to the serpent. The number of the faithful totaled 144,000, though that number is not an exact figure. It is figurative of all who keep the faith.

Having harvested the wheat, it’s now time to deal with the chaff—the ones who wear the mark of the beast. You may remember from our look at the beast a few months back that there is support for understanding 666 (the numeric mark of the beast) as a generic symbol of imperfect and incomplete humanity (777 being a number representing perfection). People marked with the mark of the beast are people devoid of endurance and devoid of faith: both faith in Christ and faith like Christ. They include those who abandoned Jesus in the face of persecution as well as those who refused to believe in the first place. Both chose instead to follow the worldly wiles and wants of the antichrist.

Chapter 15 blew open with more portents of their doom; leaving chapter 16 to provide the initial particulars: seven more angels with seven bowls brimming with divine heat. These seven bowls do finally exhaust God’s anger, but in doing so they exhaust the entirety of creation too. Sin has environmental consequences. A dead sea of cold blood destroys aquatic life. Coagulated rivers poison the drinking water. The sun’s intensified heat cooks the earth to a char. Desiccated and well done, people look to the beast for deliverance, but they cannot find him. The Lord has plunged his throne into darkness. All these burnt wretches can do is writhe in agony and gnaw on their tongues in misery. Another bowl and the way is paved for an invasion from the East. Babylon, the capital of devilry is done for. As a last gasp, the dragon, the beast and the false prophet each yak up frogs, demonic spirits capable of mobilizing armies for world war. Lightning and thunder crash, as God himself readies for the final confrontation. It is Armageddon, Vengeance is on the agenda—these vile perpetrators of brutality will be met with brutality. The Jesus who stood at the door and knocked in chapter 3 now prepares to blast the door off its hinges.

And yet, surprisingly, God’s vengeance shows unusual restraint. These vicious murderers who shed the blood of saints do not lose their own blood. The faithful who refused to worship the beast were killed in chapter 13, but these villains who refuse to worship God here only get afflicted with severe skin infections. It’s as if God who punishes their villainy still wants them back. Like the apostle Peter declared: “the Lord does not want that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The door Jesus blows open remains open to a change of heart on their part. The tragedy, however, is that there is only hardness of heart. Despite blistering sores and blistering heat, despite unquenchable thirst and impenetrable darkness, despite blood and devastation and natural disaster, these who rejected God reject him still. Not only do they stubbornly refuse to repent, but they lash out, cursing God in a malicious display of defiance. But is this a shock? It’s like playing “say uncle” as kids. The neighborhood bully would twist your arm until you relented, but that only made you hate him all the more. It may seem that God shows restraint by not killing the villains, but some argue that having to live through these bowlfuls of terror was worse.

Can repentance be coerced? Does faith count if it’s forced? Why would a loving God who desires repentance ever resort to such extreme violence to get it? Looking at chapter 14 a couple month’s back, we explored how it is that a loving God can get so angry. It’s a question that comes up a lot in Revelation. However it’s also a question that answers itself. If you have ever loved someone, then you know love’s power. You know the delight that happens when you give yourself gladly and unreservedly to someone else. To love is a wonderful thing. But if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. How horrible it is when you discover the betrayal, when you get floored by the rejection. You try to make sense but you can’t and start to think you’ve gone mad, and then you get mad. Furious. Vengeful. If you have ever loved and then had that love rejected, you understand how a loving God can be a wrathful God too. And yet anger does have a way of eliciting sorrow. To have someone who loves you justly angry at you can awaken in you a desire to make things right.

God’s anger can do that. His 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 and provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. It’s severity is proportionate to his intense hatred of sin and injustice. Yet among its purposes, in line with His love, is to rouse you toward repentance and scare you (if that’s what it takes) back into loyal relationship with Him, back into compassionate relationship toward your neighbor, and back into grateful worship. And because God “does not want that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” he holds out even for the hold out, even to the point of ferociously twisting their arms that they might see the absurdity of the swine slop they’re eating, come to their senses and come home. Is coerced repentance truly repentance? It can be. Attitudes shape actions, but actions can also shape attitudes. Force enemies to shake hands and that simple gesture of reconciliation can sometimes result in real the thing.

Wrath with an view toward reconciliation is what might be called a kind of restorative justice. As the offended party, God metes out punishment but with a desire to welcome back instead of pay back. God’s justice comes tempered with mercy. Restorative justice contrasts with retributive justice, the familiar “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kind. Both are in the Bible, with the latter reserved for those who want nothing to do with mercy, for those who refuse to believe they need forgiveness. “God will repay each person according to what he has done,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “And if you persist in your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you store up wrath against yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” To repeat a quote from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf: “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.”

Still, the question remains: If God’s wrath is bent toward reconciliation, even toward those who resist reconciliation, why must his wrath be so violent? I mean, hundred pound hailstones? Unimaginable earthquakes? World war? Oceans of blood? Isn’t that a bit extreme? It’s definitely disturbing to read. Sensing perhaps a need for reassurance, verse 5 interrupts with an angel who shouts, “You are just, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” An amen shouts back from the congregation, “Yes Lord, right and true are your judgments.” True, those against whom God lowers the boom are drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. True, they have made war against the Lamb and bedecked themselves in pretentious piety. True, they follow beasts who spread terror and false prophets who spread lies. God’s justice demands that terror be vanquished and deceit expunged. Goodness and light must prevail over evil and darkness or God’s justice is no justice at all. But doesn’t the relentless blood and fire and misery amount to cruel and unusual punishment?

It is violent. But remember that in Revelation, the violence is figurative. Revelation’s language belongs to that Biblical genre known as apocalyptic where fantastical images and events are employed sort of like special effects at the movies. You know that Batman can’t really fall seven stories, crash through the hood of a car, land standing up and then take out an army of the Joker’s henchmen with one swing, but dog if it doesn’t get your attention. Likewise with the graphic descriptions here. They drive home literal truth using literary devices. Armageddon, for instance, translates verbatim into “the mount of Megiddo,” except that there’s no mount at Megiddo. Megiddo is a flat plain some two days walk north of Jerusalem. Megiddo is a place where Biblical battles occurred, but Armageddon in Hebrew could just as well mean any place where armies gather or a “marauding mountain;” scholars are all over the map. End Times enthusiasts waste inordinate amounts of energy trying to locate it on the map. It’s not on the map because Armageddon is a symbolic battlefield, that symbol of injustice and evil combating the Lord on the “great day of God Almighty.” It won’t be much of a fight. That it’s called the “great day of God Almighty” is just another way of saying God has won. Some scholars wonder if Revelation’s use of an imaginary place meant that the battle is imaginary too. Christ has already won the war over evil and sin through his cross and resurrection—if anything, Armageddon is a mop up operation.

Of course just because Revelation’s language is figurative does not mean it’s untrue. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was figurative, yet its narrative has demonstrated its truth countless times over in the lives of those who’ve sees the absurdity of the swine slop, come to the senses and come home. Parables and apocalypse function in similar ways. Literary devices to teach literal truth. The great day of God Almighty will come and evil will meet its doom, whatever that day ends up looking like in reality. The important thing is to be ready for it, to be found faithful to Jesus in deed and in creed, because when the end does come, be it the end of the world or just the end of your world, it may come unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night.” Speaking in verse 15, Jesus himself reiterates what we read in apocalyptic passages elsewhere. “Keep watch,” he said in Matthew, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming (figuratively speaking), he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Jesus’ intent is not to catch you doing wrong but to keep you doing right. If you never know then you’re always ready. By using the language of thievery, the Bible is not condoning crime any more that Revelation is condoning war. They’re simply trying to get your attention; to get you to take your grace and take it seriously.

Why use violence to get our attention? Because it works. No matter how much we decry its ferocity and cruelty, we still line up to see movies like “The Dark Night” and “Hellboy 2,” not to mention “Prince Caspian” or any of the “Left Behind” flicks. The special effects especially affect us. Violence gets to us. Why? No one really knows why— maybe it has something to do with the adrenaline rush vicarious participation in danger provides. Millions of people will take in violent movies this summer, and millions more will watch all sorts of violence on TV, and even millions more than that will play violent video games. Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest chapter in the excessively cruel and massively popular video game series raked in over $300 million in sales in its first 24 hours—a far better one-day take than any movie in history. I don’t play Grand Theft Auto, I’m not much of a gamer. Though I have dabbled in one called Civilization. It’s a rather tame game that pits your computer-generated culture against others vying for world domination. You work your way through history, beginning at 5000 BC, stashing resources and forging industry, building cities and roads, keeping citizens content, doing trade and managing a military, all of which scores you points. It’s pretty addictive—ask Chris Sherwood or Walter Kim.

You can win the game in various ways. You can score a culture victory, or be the first to build a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, or corner world economic markets, or simply amass the most land. Of course the most direct way to win is through war. War comes at a cost. You have to put up with disorder and instability on the home front, not to mention going into enormous debt to finance it, and all the death; but ironically war is much more of a thrill ride. In his book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, author Chris Hedges writes how war is in fact a drug, a powerful addiction. It “is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. …Even with its destruction and carnage, war can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living and dying.”

Hedges witnessed this himself during the Bosnian war. I just got a taste of it at my computer. I managed to stockpile an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. I had my civilization beautifully set up with military superiority. I simply had to play out the game peaceably and all the other nations would bow before me. But there’s something about having access to a nuclear arsenal. Such power at your fingertips. All I had to do was hit F6. This game had already sapped 30 hours of my life. I wanted to win and be done. But I’d gotten further than I had ever gotten before through patience and good judgment, did I really want to risk blowing it all by blowing up the world? Nuclear war never turns out well. But still, the power was intoxicating. It got obsessive, even though it was only figurative war. One night, after lying awake and thinking about nothing else, I got up, logged in and launched. I ignited my own little Armageddon and watched as the entire computer screen detonated into oblivion. The civilization I’d worked all those hours to win was wasted. I lost. Everything was leveled. And I know this sounds silly, but I was so into that game that it felt real. And my giddy eagerness to harm and destroy scared me. What kind of person was I? I couldn’t help but wonder whether the programmers designed it that way on purpose—to use violence as an antidote to violence. And sometimes I wonder that about Revelation too.

Either way, I don’t play that game anymore.

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