04/25/2010 Easter 4
Rv 15 (sung), 16, 17:1-6 (message)
Exodus 15, selections (call to worship)
John 21, Peter & the epistemology of love (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p 72) (children)
Two weeks back, we introduced the Revelation and the opening vision of Jesus. We talked how to read it – immerse our imaginations, engage our senses, read aloud, receive in worship, decipher signs. It is a revelation "of Jesus Christ"; whatever else it is about, it is about Jesus first of all.
In the opening chapter we examined the revelation of Jesus – revealed among the churches, presented as our mediator and high priest, and described in a seven-fold nesting set of features bracketed by grace in both forgiveness and blessing.
Then, we skipped over some material and watched Jesus step up to the throne - pulpit, and unseal the scroll of the word, preaching to us one seal at a time about the place of evil in the world – bracketed by the white horse and rider (Jesus going forth to conquer evil) and by the prayers of the saints, which move heaven and shake earth.
Discussion on Wednesday, Circle of Friends!
Today, we take another jump forward to the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues, but we need to build a bit of background together first. Otherwise, we are simply overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic images of judgment and death and conclude simply that God is out to get us or, just as dangerous, that God is out to get our enemies. The judgment expressed here is not the wrath of a spiteful deity just waiting for people to mess up, or judgment that comes simply from failing to live a moral life.
This judgment is presented, first of all, as "good news". In 14:6-7, an angel flying in mid-heaven declares the "eternal gospel" (a word for "good news"): "Fear God and give him glory because the hour of his judgment has come". That, on its face, has nothing to do with love and grace and forgiveness . . . with all the things we associate with gospel.
Second, this judgment cycle is presented as the climax and finalization of God’s victory and the deliverance of God’s people. In the seals cycle, between seal 6 and 7, there is an interlude dealing with the endurance of the saints. The saints are "sealed" and, to answer the question raised in seal 6, they are the ones who can "stand" before evil as well as before God. In the trumpets cycle, between trumpet 6 and 7, there is an interlude dealing with the endurance of the saints. The saints are the ones who witness, even though they may risk rejection and death, because, at the last day, Jesus’ resurrection will be theirs. In the bowls cycle, there is NO interlude, no call for endurance . . . only a proclamation of final victory: "It is done!"
The language of the first five bowls, like the language of the first five trumpets, echoes the language of the ten plagues upon Egypt, the very plagues that end with Israel delivered through the Red Sea. Instead of the Red Sea, however, the sixth bowl, like the sixth trumpet, is the Euphrates River, upon which the city Babylon was built. Among the ancient accounts of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Great of Persia is the story that Cyrus’ engineers redirected the flow of the river so that his men could enter the city on the dry riverbed, his army and cavalry taking the city by surprise in the midst of a festival. This is exactly what we are supposed to imagine with the sixth bowl. And, it is exactly what is described in greater detail in Revelation 18 – the sudden destruction and utter fall of Babylon the Great. In chapter 19, the "great multitude" (19:1, 7:9) breaks into song and "Hallelujah’s" for their deliverance, a song like that of Moses and Miriam after Israel has come through the Red Sea (Exodus 15).
The Hebrew prophets declared, "Forget the former things, I am about to do a new thing" (Isaiah 42:9, 43:18, 65:17). The message? You were delivered from Egypt, but you need a fresh deliverance today, from your Babylonian captivity. John’s churches need fresh deliverance not from Babylon but from the imperial oppression of Rome, the Babylon of their time, and the trumpets and seals promise and finalize that deliverance. What fresh deliverance do we need today? Freedom from fear? From hatreds and prejudice? From death and grief? From joblessness? From pollution? From lack of food?
The deliverance of God’s people was particularly about worship. In the ancient world, there was no concept separating religion and state. For John’s churches, the hand of Rome declared, "Caesar is Lord". To proclaim the most basic creed, "Jesus is Lord", was treason and, far too often among John’s circle, a capital offense. In Exodus 5, we are told that Moses approaches Pharoah asking not for full release from slavery but for the chance to hold a big camp meeting in the wilderness: "Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness" (Ex 5:1).
When Israel went into exile in Babylon, they struggled with worship. "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137). In this vision, Babylon – a symbol of John’s Rome, or "the kingdom of this world" (Rev 11:15) – is presented as a great prostitute. It is a sexual image used by the prophets to denounce the worship of idols (e.g., Ezekiel 16:25). And, like the prophets, the Prostitute is contrasted with an upcoming image (in Revelation chapter 19) of God’s people as the Bride.
Eugene Peterson describes the image: "For the [Prostitute], sex is in the service of commerce; with the Bride, sex is devoted to love. For the [Prostitute], sex is a contract; for the Bride, sex is a life commitment. For the [Prostitute], sex is a calculation; for the Bride, sex is an offering" (Reversed Thunder, 147). It is so easy to fall into the trap of worship as commerce – whether it is what we can get out of it, or what the church gets out of us (or our pockets). Worship is life. Worship is everything we are and have. Worship is love.
But lest we too easily simplify this word of judgment to our enemies, lest we too quickly polarize the world, a note of humility. "The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God" (1 Peter 4:17).
In the opening worship sequence, the people are gathered around the Glass Sea. The sea is heaven’s baptismal font. One of the realities of baptism is judgment upon the life of sin. Yes, baptism is about new birth, but it is also about cleansing. Yes, baptism is about life, but it is also about death. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). Anyone who has faced baptism honestly has no time to waste judging everyone else.
In the opening worship sequence, the overcomers sing the judgment "song of Moses and the song of the Lamb" (Revelation 15:3). It is word play with Deuteronomy 32, in which the people of Israel learn "the song of Moses and Joshua" (32:34). In the Greek Bible, the one used by most folks in John’s churches, the name "Joshua" is read "Jesus" (Peterson, 139). Indeed, Deuteronomy 32, "the song of Moses and Jesus", is a song of judgment. It is not, however, judgment upon the nations but upon God’s own people. When we sing the Revelation 15 "song of Moses and of the Lamb", we are submitting ourselves to the judgment of God, and doing so with trust in the God who loves us, in the God whose "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).
So, how do we find our way back to the "gospel of judgment"? It is nice to know that Jesus delivers his people, saves the victims. But we aren’t given much chance to savor the victory, to indulge in any triumphalism. We place ourselves willingly under judgment.
But here is where this "gospel" takes an unexpected turn. I’m ready to rejoice at the demise of MY foes; I’m ready to worship. I’m willing (but not that thrilled) to take a dose of humility. But, remember, this is a "revelation about Jesus".
From the seventh trumpet: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail" (11:19). And, the same theme taken up in the worship prior to the seven bowls: "After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened" (15:5).
The holiest place in the temple – where the ark was kept – was off limits to normal folks, accessed once a year through a heavy veil by the high priest, and only with smoke and incense to hide what was inside. When Jesus died, that veil was torn in two, top to bottom (Mark 15:38). In that action, in the ripping of the veil, which elsewhere the Scriptures proclaim as Jesus’ flesh (Hebrews 10:20), we have been granted access, safe passage into the presence of God.
"Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended" (Rev 15:1). This word for "ended" is the same root used by Jesus on the cross when he declared, "It is finished" (John 19:30).
When we sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb, we discover that Jesus has absorbed all our judgment. He has delivered the oppressed AND saved the perpetrators. He is both victor and victim. In the language of one of the seven bowls, we are told that they got "what they deserved". The gospel of judgment is that Jesus gets what we deserve, that, in Jesus, the wrath of God finds it fulfillment and completion. In his flesh, the veil is torn; we are ushered into the holiest place; and God has accomplished for us eternal salvation.