Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Sharper Image

Revelation 19 by Daniel Harrell

It is odd that one of the most hopeful seasons on the Christian calendar begins in the midst of the darkest days of the year. There are reasons for this. As you may know, Christmas itself was a relatively late addition to the Christian calendar. It was not celebrated until the 3rd century; not until the expanding church began to domesticate competing pagan rituals by assimilating them into its religious life. As the contemporary American church regularly incorporates popular music into worship or secular business and marketing strategies into outreach; so the early church turned elements of ancient winter solstice Saturnalia into Christmas garland, mistletoe and holly wreaths. This pillaging of paganism explains why many Protestant Christians wouldn’t touch Christmas until the late 18th century. Massachusetts technically outlawed it until 1859. Protestants continue to bewail the residues of heathen revelry embedded in Christmas, not to mention the commercialism that demeans its true meaning.

We could just move Christmas to the spring and thereby dissociate it from retailers’ year-end profit reports. According to most scholars, Jesus was probably born in March anyway. Moving Christmas to the spring would cut down on some of the commercialism and alleviate a lot of the darkness. However, you’d have the problem in some years of Jesus being born one Sunday only to then rise from the dead the next Sunday on Easter. Some years Jesus could conceivably even die and rise before being born. That could get very confusing. Either way, I don’t think you’d want to move Advent to the spring. Although these four weeks on the church calendar have come to serve as a ramp-up to the Nativity; originally, Advent was intended to remind the church of Jesus’ second coming. Advent emerged in the 6th century as a wake-up call to bleary-eyed believers who had grown too complacent in their spiritual lives due to Jesus’ delay. Dusted off and assigned to Advent were those Scriptures labeled apocalyptic—passages from books like Zechariah, and like this morning’s from Revelation. Read Revelation and you realize it’s best to schedule apocalyptic preaching during days with limited sunlight. Its characteristic doom and gloom remind us that all is not yet right with the world. It’s why we light the candle of hope.

Regrettably, apocalyptic talk too often descends into debate over prophesy predictions and the meanings of metaphorical signs. It is puzzling to read Revelation when the points of reference remain so ambiguous. Still, for the earliest Christians who first heard it, apocalyptic assurances of evil’s demise (themselves reiterations of Old Testament assurances) provided necessary courage with which withstand brutal Roman persecution. Drawing imagery from the prophet Daniel, Jesus promised in Matthew: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” Why do all the earthly peoples mourn at Jesus return? Because of what the Son of Man’s power and great glory imply. In this morning’s passage from Revelation, you get a glorious Jesus not gliding in on fluffy white clouds, but an avenging Jesus galloping in on a stormy white stallion, a broadsword protruding out of his mouth. Jesus promised this too. “Do not think I have come to bring peace,” he said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” So much for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. No wonder visions of sugarplums took over Advent. Who wants to kick off the Christmas season with visions of violence?

We are bothered by the dissonant images of Jesus on a cross forgiving his tormenters, and this Jesus on a horse making meat of his tormenters. But then we read of Wednesday’s horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai, or of the Taliban using water pistols to spray acid on young schoolgirls in Kandahar, or of women brutally raped and children forced into battle on both sides of the Congolese civil war, or of a five-year-old dismembered by his father in Lynn. Such atrocities beg for vengeance, as did those atrocities suffered by early Christians under Roman tyranny. One of the more harrowing pictures in Revelation that I’ve mentioned numerous times is that of those saints murdered for their faith huddled under the heavenly altar in chapter 6, begging God to avenge their blood. For them, finally getting to chapter 19 and having their unrepentant perpetrators cut down by Christ was nothing short of rapturous. It’s why they sing Hallelujah!

For those of you heading to Symphony Hall or Jordan Hall to hear Handel’s Messiah this Advent season, take these images of Revelation 19 with you. After all, this chapter was Handel’s inspiration for his Hallelujah chorus. The fourfold hallelujah sung in these verses respond to another heavenly chorus in chapter 11: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.” The bringing together of heaven and earth as Christ’s eternal kingdom is a two-sided coin, or in keeping with the metaphor here, a double-edged sword. On the one side is reward for God’s servants, “for those who reverence his name, both small and great.” On the other side is destruction “for those who destroy the earth.” Both are good news for the faithful, and it is their voices that resound in heaven and on earth. There’s that place in the Hallelujah chorus where all the parts sing back and forth to each other to represent the back and forth between heaven and earth. It climaxes with the declaration from verse 6: “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” We never tire of hearing it. And then, with heaven and earth both purged of their evil (the beast and false prophet all having been dumped into a lake of fire with Satan soon to follow), heaven and earth join together as one. Verse 7: “the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”

It’s been a long time coming. Throughout the Old Testament and New, the prospect of a happy marriage between heaven and earth, between God and his people had been dashed due to Israel’s persistent infidelity. Given the choice between self-sacrifice and self-gratification, it’s always easier to choose the latter. To follow God, to follow Jesus, demands that you turn the other cheek, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you and even lose your life for the gospel―things that in this life tend to get you little more than two bloody cheeks, a doormat for a backbone, more mistreatment and an early grave. Disincentives to be sure, except that in Revelation, these things make up the fabric of your bridal gown. Verse 8: “‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous deeds of the saints.)” Specifically, these righteous deeds were the outcomes of “holding to the testimony of Jesus” (verse 10). The Greek word for testimony is martyr. Martyrs do not go around looking for ways to die. They simply hold to the testimony of Jesus and refuse to let go. Chapter 14 described them as those who “followed the Lamb wherever he went.” The rest is out of their hands.

Following Jesus can still bring trouble. Dawn recounted to me her family’s evacuation from Angola during the civil war that ransacked that country back in the early 1990’s. Rebels had moved into the area surrounding the mission hospital where Dawn’s dad worked as a surgeon. They left behind the Angolan hospital administrator, a fellow Christian named Ruben, who took it upon himself to guard the hospital from looters so that its equipment and supplies could remain for the wounded and war refugees. One day a couple of armed rebels burst in on Ruben and demanded that he turn over the hospital supplies or they would kill him. Ruben said no, the supplies were not theirs to take, this was God’s hospital and the supplies belonged to the Lord. Furious at his resistance, the rebels hauled Ruben out back to shoot him, only to have him not resist death, but raise his arms and commit his spirit to God in their hearing. The rebels couldn’t believe that this dead man’s last words, instead of a plea for leniency, were prayers to a God who clearly was not going to save his life.

Jesus was clear that to follow him meant taking up you own cross too, and for many, such crosses remain literal. In America, they tend to be less lethal. If anything, in America taking up a cross typically only means you die a social death. Whether this makes you happy or sad, I don’t know, but I do know that for some, even social death can be too much to bear. I remember a woman in my office some years ago who despaired how believing in Jesus was no fun anymore. Her family and her co-workers all thought she was crazy and treated her like she had some infectious disease. Moreover, the good deeds she did—being honest and moral, serving others first, tithing her money—these things tended to blow up in her face leaving her exhausted and bitter. Her honesty only got her in hot water, her morality left her devoid of dates, putting others first got her taken advantage of and tithing made her poor. I reminded her how the Bible promises that “if we share in Christ’s suffering we shall also share in his glory.” I even went so far as to remind her how Jesus himself said “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” This wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear. “Rejoice and be glad when people insult you?” Let’s be honest, a person can only take so much gladness.

Banking on heaven doesn’t always make up for hardship on earth—especially once you get a gander at heaven. Revelation promises your marriage to the Lamb alright, but do you remember what the Lamb looks like? Forgetting the seven horns and seven eyes for a second, the thing that startled even John the writer of Revelation was that the Lamb had been butchered and bloodied. Just as on earth, Jesus appeared in heaven as Isaiah foretold: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” It’s hard to be glad about marrying that. Which may be why, like the ugly duckling who morphs into a beautiful swan, the bloodied little lamb gallops into Revelation 19 decked in white and riding that gallant white stallion. His eyes blaze like fire and his head is crowned with royalty. The despised and rejected Lamb, weak and mortally wounded, returns more valiant than any Prince Charming. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Hallelujah!

And yet the signs of his sacrifice do remain. Verse 13: “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood.” Many scholars assume that the blood is the blood of his enemies. They assume this based on Isaiah 63 where we read of one who “has trodden the winepress and trampled the nations in anger and trod them down in wrath; their blood spattering [his] garments, and staining all [his] clothing.” But since the final battle with his enemies has yet to occur in verse 13, other scholars assert that the blood on Christ’s robes is his own, undeniably identifying the white rider as the same Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world. Riding in tow are the armies of heaven on their own white horses, all clad in fine linen, white and clean. Some say these are angels, riding to battle with Jesus. But again, others assert these are the saints themselves, those who by holding to the testimony of Jesus received from God their bridal garments of white. In chapter 7, these saints were identified as “those who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me,” Jesus said. “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

The God who saves you does not save you from suffering; but he does save you through suffering. Your cross is your gown; to share in Christ’s suffering is to share in his glory. The only difference being that unlike Christ, you don’t get a sword sticking out of your mouth. It appears that God does not trust even the redeemed with loaded weapons. Vengeance remains His sole prerogative. Because our hearts and our hurts too easily deceive us, the Bible continually cautions against throwing stones or passing judgment. Just as God loves and forgives in ways that flawed human beings only approximate, so does God exact vengeance in ways that flawed human beings only approximate. His wrath is never an explosion of impulsive temper, but a righteous reaction against injustice and wickedness. “Well, exactly!” you say, “There’s nothing wrong with my anger as long as it’s righteous!” Except that any righteous anger on our part remains only an approximation of righteousness. More often than not, we pervert righteousness and justice even as we seek to do it. As theologian Miroslav Volf reminds, “the fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict. We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness.”

Which is why Jesus says, “do not judge” and “love your enemies.” And why likewise Paul says to the Romans, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Of course those of you who know your Bibles also know that Paul adds that “in so doing you will heap burning coals on your enemy’s head.” Some have taken this to mean, goody, by being nice I can burn his brains out. But actually this metaphor from Proverbs draws from an ancient Egyptian repentance ritual where a brazier of live coals would be worn on the head to supply the repentant sinner a constant supply of ashes to express his or her profound remorse, similar to ashes on Ash Wednesday (Thanks to Gordon for this). Burning coals are like a searing conscience; it’s that guilt your co-worker who called you a jerk now feels after you kindly give him an unexpected Christmas present. Of course it may be that you gave your co-worker the Christmas present just to make him feel guilty. In which case you are a jerk. OK, so loving your enemies can derive from mixed motives. Fair enough. But the same cannot hold true for God’s justice. God’s justice cannot be “fair enough.” It has to be textbook perfect.

Which it is and therefore why in the textbook Paul also says “Do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath. As it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.’” The anger of the Lord is always righteous, and so is his justice. Unlike popular depictions of justice, God neither dons a blindfold nor needs any scales to measure. The Lord does his justice with eyes wide open. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” Jesus warned, “Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” This is another motive for loving your enemies now. Convinced of evil’s ultimate defeat, you can already take pity on them. You can pray “God help you” and actually mean it.

Chapter 19 paints evil’s defeat in no uncertain terms. In a grim comparison to the wedding feast of the Lamb, the great supper of God also has human flesh on the menu; but rather than the righteous body of Christ, the grim supper serves up the carrion of evil: “the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great” who chose to worship the beast. Jesus hung on a cross and forgave his tormenters, but not all of his tormenters welcomed his forgiveness. The beast, the kings of the earth and their armies make war against the rider instead. Again quoting Miroslav Volf, “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.”

The beast and the false prophet are tossed alive into that burning lake of fire while the rest are killed with the sword from the mouth of the rider. Some prophesy wonks assert that when John writes of armies mounted on horses and smoke rising from bottomless pits, he really refers to warheads mounted on missiles and the resultant mushroom clouds of destruction; that Armageddon is code for World War III. But Revelation’s only mention of weaponry is a single sword wielded in a most unusual way. But before you imagine Jesus taking down evil with something akin to a sharp cigar in his mouth, slicing down his enemies with the shake of his head, remember what the rider is called in verse 13. “The Word of God.”

“Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth,” Jesus the incarnate word of God said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword,” writes the author of Hebrews, “it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;” Isaiah prophesied, in yet another popular Advent passage, “but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with equity he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” Christ’s final judicial decree—the last sentence—is this double-edged sword. On the one side is reward for God’s servants, “for those who reverence his name, both small and great.” On the other side is destruction “for those who destroy the earth.”

In both cases, good news for the faithful. The saints of God do not get to bear weapons, but they do bear witness to the outcomes, and it is this witness that gives them, and us even now, the strength and the courage to hold to the testimony of Jesus no matter what. In Angola, it gave Ruben the strength to stand up to his persecutors even though they held a gun to his head. I should tell you that Ruben did not die. His persecutors were so amazed at his courage that they couldn’t kill him. Whether this amounted to heaped coals of fire on their heads I do not know, but I do know that Ruben continues to serve God at the hospital, where I imagine he does so with a whole lot of joy.

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