Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Revelation 18

by Daniel Harrell

Perhaps you noticed the striking contrast in sermon titles on the board outside as you walked in this morning, bleary eyed from yet another night of stirring playoff baseball. Mine reads Post-Mortem while Gordon’s sermon for tonight is entitled Born Again. Clearly my sermon title was posted prior to Thursday night’s dramatic come-from-behind victory. “Just like you to always be looking on the dark side,” a friend remarked. Perhaps. But this morning my dark side actually has a bright side, and I don’t mean the Red Sox. My topic remains the wicked witch of Babylon, whom you may remember from last time. This so-called “The Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth,” bedecked in extravagant array and fine jewelry, managed to bedazzle even the apostle John with her witchcraft. Mercifully, an accompanying angel snapped him out of it so that John could see how what he thought to be glamorous was really ridiculous, that what seemed so desirous was in fact ludicrous. Here in chapter 18 her seductions no longer cause any dread because (ding dong) the witch is dead. Surprisingly, she was consumed by her own irredeemable accomplice, the notorious 666 beast on which she rode. The beast turned on her and devoured her, testifying to evil’s own proclivity for self-destruction. Though it was all God’s doing. Chapter 17 declared that: “God put it into their hearts to perform his purpose.” God executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous The harlot now lies fallen, we read in verse 2, her carcass a haunt for every detestable demon and spirit.

“All the nations had drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries,” verse 3, “and the kings of the earth committed adultery with her.” “Adultery” in common parlance is cheating on your spouse, but in Biblical parlance, the spouse is God. In the Old Testament, unfaithful Israel committed adultery whenever they practiced idolatry; whenever they worshipped other gods. Here in the New Testament, the old pagan idols are gone but not the idolatry. Golden calves gave way to golden coins—the lust for which explains the second stanza of verse 3: “the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” Greed and excessive wealth are labeled deadly dangers throughout Scripture, mentioned more than practically anything else. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus said. Though given the marriage analogy he could just as well have said “no woman can have two husbands. Either she will hate the one and adore the other, or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot love both God and Money.”

The Harlot of Babylon as symbolic of greed, excessive wealth and the deceptive power it brings, led to its identification as the ancient superpower Rome. However, more than a mere polemic against ancient Rome; Revelation condemns every arrogant abuse of power whatever institutional or political form it takes. In light of Revelation’s (and the rest of Scripture’s) particular emphasis on the evils of monetary excess, and with our current worldwide financial crisis having been fueled by so much greed and arrogance, I went so far last time as to refer to Wall Street as an example of the mythic Harlot and her demise. The chapter 18 descriptions do fit. Verse 2: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” The Dow, the Dow, has fallen alright—some 5000 points from its high last October. In verses 9 and 10, the kings of the earth (aka the politicians) who shared in her luxuries bemoan her demise and the subsequent loss of their own power and prestige. We’ve seen plenty of that too, especially as dramatic government attempts at intervention have so far failed to do as promised. In verses 11-15, the merchants (the business sector) bewails their disastrous loss of capital and stock value. And in verses 17-19, seafarers likewise mourn, representative perhaps of people like you and me. Caught up in the high tide of bloated real estate prices, easy credit and a surging stock market, we all gave in to greed. And predictably, in no time at all, verse 17, all that “great wealth has been brought to ruin.” Verse 23: “By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.” I’d say that pretty much sums it up.

It’s not like Jesus didn’t warn us. Back in Revelation 3, the risen Christ dresses down the church at Laodicea, chastising them for loving too much the buzz of economic prosperity: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ Don’t you realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked? Take my advice and buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Buy white clothing from me to cover your shame and ointment to open your eyes. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

And be quick about it too. Here in verse 4, shifting tenses from past to future, a voice shouts down from heaven warning God’s people to run for their lives because his judgment against greed and all evil stands at the door to knock it down. The warning echoes those given to Israel about historic Babylon. Jeremiah warned the Israelites to “flee from the fierce anger of the Lord.” Jesus issued similar warnings himself about Jerusalem: “Let those in the city get out, for this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Revelation paints mythic Babylon’s future doom with the past tense to underscore the certainty of evil’s fate. Her certain defeat elicits a song of joy, a victory chant in verse 20: “Rejoice over fallen Babylon, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.” The glory and luxury with which she clothed herself came at the expense of those she exploited. Verse 24: “In her streets flowed the blood of the prophets and of God’s holy people and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world.” This stanza indicts Babylon’s disregard for human life; she blithely eliminated any who dared threaten her power while using the rest to supply her voracious appetite for more.

The pride and fall of Babylon patterns the hubris and downfall of all systemic evil. The harlot failed to see herself as vulnerable. Verse 7: “I am the queen; not a widow. I will never mourn.” Again we hear Old Testament echoes. In Isaiah, the Lord said to historic Babylon: “You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’” Likewise in Jeremiah: “I am against you, O arrogant one, for your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up; I will light a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her.” As in Jeremiah, Revelation inserts an object lesson as an exclamation point. Jeremiah tied his prophecy scroll to a stone and sank it in the Euphrates river as a sign of historic Babylon’s plummet. In Revelation, a mighty angel lifts an enormous boulder, evoking the historic culmination of all evil, and hurls it into the chaotic sea from which it came. The lights go out, verse 23, and the Harlot is no more.

This defeat of evil that Revelation portends has in effect already occurred. As theologian NT Wright reminds in his book Evil and the Justice of God, it is in the death of Jesus that evil is confronted, defeated and had its power exhausted, even though a continuing virulence persists. It is true that the beast remains on the loose, as does the false prophet and the dragon, Satan himself. But their days are numbered. Babylon’s doom will be theirs too. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that every evil power we confront on earth is already a beaten power—no matter how contrary it may seem to our experience.

And yet, it is this contrary experience that recurrently dogs us. We refer to it as the problem of evil. If God is great and God is good, why do bad things happen? If Jesus had evil by the throat on the cross, why not throttle the life out of it completely? Why leave it to torment and wreak such horrific havoc so many centuries hence? Why leave it to so severely obstruct those who might otherwise believe? Part of the answer to this dilemma has to do with recognizing this crucial aspect of God’s victory over evil: The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power but an act of powerlessness. Jesus defeats death by dying. He annihilates evil by exploiting evil—by using it to do God’s thing just when evil thought it was doing its own thing. I think this helps explain why God still allows evil to exist. The idea of evil may typically obstructs faith, but get a dose of real evil and even skeptics start believing in God in a hurry.

Trace back through Christian history and you rarely find evil addressed as a “problem,” that is, a puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered. The reason is because evil eludes reason. Evil makes no sense. Its incomprehensibility extends beyond the problematic. Its illogic is part of what makes evil so evil. Even if you blame the devil, what made the devil decide to become the devil? Adam and Eve, created as good by God, had no commonsensical reason for choosing evil. They just did it. And we’ve all suffered since.

The irony, or perhaps the tyranny, is that while evil possesses us, we remain responsible for the possession. Because we choose evil, evil proves the existence of free will, but this autonomy, this independence and freedom to choose, this greatest of modern goods only ends up the epitome of evil itself. The freedom to choose is really not freedom at all because as soon as we choose we are no longer free. As Paul made clear in Romans, our choices set boundaries, our unavoidably bad choices set inescapably tight boundaries that affect our futures not only in finite time and space but for eternity too. Our freedom constrains to such a severe extent that Paul could only speak of it in terms of enslavement. “I do not understand myself,” he memorably wrote, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How can a person raised to new life with Christ still be so plainly buried in the dirt? How is it possible to be both lost and found, sinner and saint, old creation and new creation, dead and alive simultaneously? Saint Augustine argued that evil and good necessarily go hand in hand, because like cancer, evil gets its energy from the good it perverts. The language we use testifies to this notion: words like immorality or injustice or dishonesty or iniquity. Because evil is so inextricably entwined with the good things it perverts, evil becomes indestructible apart from destroying the good things too. God cannot destroy evil without destroying his entire creation—including you and me. Therefore the gospel declares that what God did instead of killing evil in us was to divert evil away from us and onto Jesus. The spotless lamb becomes the black sheep; the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking on the sins of the world. Your sins and mine.

And yet we still “we do the very things we hate,” demonstrating over and over that while evil may be a defeated power it is still powerful enough to harm. How long before fallen Babylon finally falls? This was the question posed back in Revelation 6 by martyred Christians, murdered by their Roman persecutors, whom John saw in heaven nevertheless complaining that God’s final judgment was too slow in coming. They called out in a loud voice of desperation, “How long, O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood?” Does your mercy endure forever? No, not forever, but it will endure for as long as it takes. Because evil is so inextricably entwined with the good things it perverts, God cannot destroy evil without destroying his creatures whom he loves. And thus the tardiness of God is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. As St. Peter put it, “The Lord is not slow about his justice, as some think of slowness, but is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” God so loved the world that he gave his only son, humiliating Himself for the sake of the humiliated and for the sake the oppressed—but for the sake of their oppressors too. In Christ, God enters into the condition of the guilty. He does not die a natural death, but rather the violent death of a guilty offender. Jesus suffers the suffering of injustice; but he also suffers the suffering of condemnation. The spotless lamb is the black sheep; the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking on the sins of the world. Yours and mine and theirs.

The evil Jesus crushes on the cross he crushes not by throttling its throat, but astonishingly, by forgiving it. And not only does God forgive, but he also forgets. “I am he who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more,” he declares in Isaiah. And similarly in Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, I will remember their sin no more.” NT Wright goes on the add how by forgiving and forgetting, “God not only releases the forgiven world from any residual feelings of guilt, but also, so to speak, releases himself from always having to be angry with a world gone wrong. Not only evil, but all of its shadows are gone too, since with God to forgive is to forget.” But how is this vindication? How is this justice? How is this real comfort? If God is the God for the victims and for the oppressed, how can He forget their oppression, especially as long as the victims remember? Doesn’t this amount to a sort of complicity with the perpetrators? If God forgets sin, don’t the wicked in the end just end up off the hook?

No. Because the sin God forgets is forgiven sin. Because God is love, He exercises patience and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve whenever we ask. God’s loss of memory regarding sin is what brings prodigals back into the unreserved embrace of their father’s arms—arms already outstretched because the father could not lose memory of the relationship. As long as anyone repents and asks for forgiveness, there is no sin God will not forgive. The only unforgiveable sin is the sin for which one refuses to repent. You can’t receive grace if all you do is reject it. The sins God remembers are the sins we won’t let him forget.

Which brings us back to Revelation 18 verse 5: “her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.” In the Old Testament and later Jewish writings, being lifted up or piled up was an idiom for the extreme degree of defiant sin. God remembers Babylon because she sticks her sins in his face. The tormenters whom God never forgets are the tormenters whom God never forgives because they never cease and repent of their tormenting. Therefore one day, verse 6, She will receive as she has given; even double for what she has done. She will receive “as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.” Verse 8: “her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

Revelation 18 draws upon Biblical doom-songs, such as Lamentations, which are directed at the failure of those people, societies, governments, institutions, principalities and powers who refuse to acknowledge God’s mercy and yield to his goodness. Those who like the lukewarm Laodiceans of chapter 3, are lulled into complacency by their prosperity, or who find rejecting the mercies of grace a reasonable price to pay for the favors offered by the harlot.

In verses 9 and following, the kings, merchants and seafarers—power-hungry politicians, profit-hungry businessmen and seasick consumers—all mourn the death of their sugar-momma. In verse 10, they stand far off, terrified at her torment, and cry: “Alas, alas, O wonderful city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour it’s over! Your doom has come!” God’s mercy may feel like forever, but when it finally does end, the ending is quick. This mention of one hour in verse 10 refers back in chapter 17 where God gave the politicians authority for one hour with which to do the right thing. But they chose instead to pledge allegiance to the beast. The merchants could have done the right thing with their businesses, choosing to do good work and provide good products at fair prices and fair wages, but instead in verse 13 we read mention of human slaves—indicating not only that the merchants traded in human beings but in products manufactured by slave labor. The miserly merchants weep, not for the misery they’ve caused, but only for their own loss of profit. In verse 19, the seafarers heap dust on their heads, which is often a sure sign of repentance. Only here, as they witness the smoldering ruins of fallen Babylon, there is no change of heart; they don’t want to get their lives on the right track. All they want is their old life back.

“Get out of there,” Revelation warns, “run for your life! Do not share in her sins or you will share in her judgments.” “I am against you, O arrogant one,” says the Lord to Babylon and all her inhabitants, “your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up; I will light a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her.” If our own overly indulgent economy continues its fall, I can’t help but wonder, is God lighting a fire in us? What if God is teaching us finally to stop putting our trust in riches and trust him instead? What if we finally get it through our heads that the love of money is the root of all evil? What if we finally understand that we cannot serve both God and money? What if God makes us to care about the poor by making us poor? It wouldn’t be the first time. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Jesus said. “So be earnest, and repent.” What if God by getting rid of your excess gets you to repent of your greed so that he might get rid of that too? The dark side can have a bright side. Rejoice over fallen Babylon. Her gloom is God’s glory, and it can be your glory too.

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