04/18/2010 Bethany, Easter 3
Rv 5:1-5, 5:14, 6:1-17, 7:1-4, 7:9-14, 8:1-5 (message)
Psalm 110 (call to worship)
Romans 8:18-25, Paul & the epistemology of hope (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p 72) (children)
Last week, we introduced the Revelation and the opening vision of Jesus. We talked about what kind of book it is – which shapes how we read it. It is an "apocalypse" (an "uncovering" or "revelation") that invites immersion and imagination and the engagement of every one of our senses. It is a revelation "of Jesus Christ" – it is not about final judgment or the end of history but about Jesus. It is "sign language", designed to be "read aloud", and received in the context of worship.
We looked at the vision of Jesus in the opening chapter – 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.
Today we are leaping over some material. In chapters 2 and 3, John receives seven letters for the seven churches in his care. In chapters 4 and 5 we have a glorious vision of worship – including the heavenly types of pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table; images that include the entirety of God’s people (the 24 elders, signifying both Israel’s 12 patriarchs and the church’s 12 apostles) and the entirety of creation (living creatures before the throne); songs and a great "amen" from the faithful; Jesus presented as "the Lamb that was slain"; and a scroll with seven seals.
"Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" Throughout Scripture, a scroll refers directly to the word of God, written to be read aloud and preached. No one is worthy to open the book, to open the Word, to proclaim it. But Jesus – the slaughtered Lamb – steps to the throne, the pulpit, takes the Word, and begins to preach. One by one, he opens the seals and discloses the message, a message that John’s churches needed to hear, a message that we need to hear just as clearly today. So, John’s vision, his apocalypse, his uncovering of worship in the heavens unfolds to the vision of the seven seals, to a vision of Jesus’ sermon to the church.
Like any good sermon, Jesus’ message has a clear focus and specific purpose. He speaks about evil, placing it in the larger context of the promise of God and the prayers of God’s people.
Remember the seven features describing Jesus in the first chapter? The first and last items in the list are of special importance, placing the whole description in the framework of the grace of God. What are the first and last seals? And, into what framework do they place the entire discussion of evil in the world?
First, "Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer" (Rv 6:1-2).
Last, "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake" (Rv 8:1-5).
The white horse shows up once more in the Revelation, in 19:11, with the exact same Greek phrase. And its rider, in 19, is "called Faithful and True". He rides to war and conquers all the enemies of God. He is, we learn in chapter 19, Jesus himself, victorious. We have trouble putting this image of Jesus together with the image of Jesus as the slaughtered Lamb. It goes against the grain of history, we see precious little evidence that the "meek inherit the earth". History, we are told by the skeptics, is written by the victors – and they aren’t the ones who are slaughtered. In biblical faith, the victorious Jesus and the slaughtered Lamb fit together because of resurrection. Jesus triumphs, through weakness. Jesus destroys death, by dying. Jesus remakes the world, by being rejected and killed. His path to victory is not anticipated or expected. But the promise of God stands firm, and the church has adopted as one of its signs the Lamb, slain and triumphing.
One of the favorite psalms of the early church (Peterson, 75; N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, ) was Psalm 110, which we shared together this morning. It is militant about the victory of God, and its language is echoed in the Revelation imagery of the white horse and its rider, particularly in chapter 19. Some lines from the psalm:
The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your foes.
The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
And this victory is accomplished by the weakness and death of the Lamb.
And the final seal is a powerful image for prayer. Do you ever wonder if your prayers are heard? There is silence in heaven for half an hour, just so God can focus on our prayer. Do you struggle with how to pray correctly, purely? Our prayers are mixed with incense from the altar, they are purified by the angel, and then offered up before God. We don’t have to get it right in our prayers; we can trust God to do that. Do you doubt that prayer makes a difference in the detail of daily life, that prayer is effective in any area of life other than the "spiritual"? That incense censer, filled with prayers, is tossed over the walls of heaven to land with immense force on earth. "On earth . . . as it is in heaven." You probably won’t find it in the newspaper headlines, but prayers moves not just heaven but earth.
The churches under John’s care needed signs of Jesus’ victory and assurance that their prayers were heard. John himself, we are told by church tradition, was boiled in oil before being exiled to Patmos where he receives this Revelation from Jesus. Timothy, who worked on Paul’s apostolic team and led the Ephesus church, was beaten to death with clubs. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a student of John, was whipped, made to hold fire in his hands, tormented with flames and hot pinchers, and fed to wild beasts (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, edited by Marie Gentert King, pp 15-16). Slaughter was everywhere: "Most [Christian] families in the late first century would have friends and relatives among those . . . martyrs" (Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 103). No matter the evil you face, no matter the battle or struggle, Jesus’ sermon tells us that he is victorious – the promise of God is sure – and that we are heard in heaven and that our words shake the earth – the prayers of the saints are powerful.
Remember the prayer shawl ministry? It is a powerful and visible way to do exactly what the Lamb’s preaching and John’s vision do – put evil in the context of the victory of the Lamb and the prayers of God’s saints. Wrap yourself in that!
In between seal 1 and 7, we have 5 seals that detail and summarize all the evil in the world. They are the adversaries of the Lamb, and they are why the Lamb goes to war, why he rides to conquer.
Seal 2, the red horse and rider, bearing a sword and bringing war to the earth
Seal 3, the black horse and rider, bearing scales and bringing famine
Seal 4, the pale green horse, ridden by Death and Hades, bringing deadly disease
Seal 5, a selective evil on a particular group of people: the souls of the martyrs under the altar, a description of religious persecution. Like all who face evil, they cry out, "How long?" And they, like we who hear Jesus’ sermon of the seals, are given the assurance that their prayers are heard and that Jesus rides to conquer.
Seal 6, a broad-spectrum evil on the entire earth: natural disasters of all kinds
Some comments on the three horsemen who serve as Jesus’ adversaries in this vision. First, war. This vision makes very clear that war is evil. We paint over that far too easily with language of patriotism, freedom, democracy. The church has struggled with this. How do we account for the needs of nation-states, for defense if not for conquest? Biblical theologians have developed ways to determine whether or not war may be "justified". But that conversation does not take place without acknowledging first that war is evil.
Second, famine. Notice that the rider bears scales, used in the ancient world to measure out the weight of precious metal used to buy goods. And the voice cries out, "A quart of wheat for a day’s wage . . . but do not damage the olive oil and wine!" This is the feature of all famine: A working person cannot afford to eat, but there is still plenty of luxury available for the rich. Today we continue to pursue a higher standard of living, but for what? A household has nice TVs and cable, and many other things that are truly unnecessary, but can’t put food on the table. And, those of us who manage to have both cable TV and food on the table? The more luxury we have, the more our souls may be impoverished. We don’t have time for real pleasure because we’re stuck in traffic, working ungodly hours, or sitting in front of a flickering screen.
Third, disease. Remember that Jesus’ ministry was characterized by healing, that he calls his church to pray for healing, and that resurrection is the final healing of the body.
These three horsemen also correlate to the evil in the world summarized in the first letter of John:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world (1 John 2:15-16).
Take them in reverse order and they match up with the three horseman adversaries of the rider on the white horse: "Pride of life", the affection for status and power, at the expense of others, is what is behind war on the national level. Every time we try to one-up another, we are not serving the victorious Lamb but the rider on the red horse. "Lust of the eyes", desire to have what we don’t have, more stuff, more money, corresponds with that pursuit of a "higher standard of living" and the imbalanced scales of the rider on the black horse (Peterson, 78). And, "lust of the flesh", physical desire out of control, while often associated with sex is certainly not limited to that particular appetite. Physical desire out of control is at the root of so much preventable disease. In James, we are told that "when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when full grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15).
Between the sixth seal, the last of the comprehensive list of evils, and the seventh, the prayers of the saints, the vision makes an unexpected turn. The people on earth, faced with evil on the rise, call out, "Who can stand?" (Rv 6.17). And Jesus give us the answer, not in the unsealing of the scroll but in the sealing of God’s people. God’s people – described alternately as the 144,000 of Israel and the "great multitude . . . from every nation" – they are sealed and they stand not only against evil but they stand "before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rv 7.9). And, if there is no one worthy to unseal the scroll but the Lamb, then there is no one who can unseal the saints and separate us from the love of God.
In each of the seven letters to the seven churches, in Revelation 2-3, there is a promise "to the one who overcomes" (or, conquers). I read it and am thrilled with visions of tough perseverance and painful endurance. But that’s not really the point, it’s just the way I am wired. The point is to answer the questions posed in chapter 6, the questions asked in the context of great evil: "How long will it be?" The answer? Until Christ conquers and we join him in that victory, and the final enemy to be destroyed is death. And, secondly, "Who can stand?" The answer? God’s sealed people stand firm both against evil and before the throne. Our prayers are heard in heaven, and our prayers shake the earth. And all that is promised to the overcomers is ours. All that is promised to the overcomers is yours.
Note on sources for this series: Outside of the Scriptures, the texts by Eugene Peterson on the Revelation and by N. T. Wright on theology of resurrection, heaven, and last things have been particularly useful in my study.