Sunday, October 6, 2019

At the Table for Good: Sermon on Revelation 19:6-9

Five months and two days ago, I was so glad to see so many of you at an event that brought immense joy to my heart and, I hope, joy to yours as well. Since that day, I think I've scarcely seen anybody without being asked how I'm liking married life. The answer is, very well, thanks for asking. It's been a blessed five months and a blessed two days. The wedding ceremony was, I think, beautiful and profound and every other good thing I can say about it – the bishop did a wondrous job in officiating, the bride was breathtaking, every moment rose to the plan. And the celebration continued for those who could join my new wife and I at the reception afterwards. Ah, what a reception! So much laughter, so much dancing, and a truly phenomenal potluck-style meal spread before us all – I've basically never eaten so well at a wedding before, and I hope you all enjoyed it too. Now, I am certainly fond of sampling different sorts of foods and flavors, especially in the company of family and friends – it's why this past week, with the local fair, was such a great time, especially when I got to see quite a number of you there as well. It had all of those things. And so did that wedding feast. There's something about a really well-done wedding feast (and its celebratory festivities) that draws us all in. We love to keep a feast.

In days of old, when the Jewish people looked forward to the end-times and beyond, a feast was what they were expecting. After all, the prophet Isaiah had said that “on this mountain, Yahweh of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,” and that “he will swallow up death forever; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:6-8). So in following the prophet's lead, the rabbis came to say that this life, this world, is like the little entryway or antechamber leading into a spacious banquet hall (t. Berakhot 6.27). And they understood that prophets like Isaiah were looking forward at “the banquet prepared in paradise” (Exodus Rabbah 45.6).

Taking their cues from that vision, some rabbis imagined that the dinner menu would include the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan, the earth-beast and the sea-beast (Leviticus Rabbah 13.3; b. Bava Batra 75a). And some rabbis commented that Isaiah's 'well-aged wine' would be made from grapes from the Garden of Eden, grown during the days of creation itself and fermenting down through the whole history of the earth (b. Berakhot 34b; b. Sanhedrin 99a) – the ultimate vintage. The rabbis were excited to think that “the Holy One will prepare a feast for the righteous in the Garden of Eden” in the world that God is going to make new, and when they daydreamed about what it'll be like to sit down at that banquet, they daydreamed that there'd be no need for any seasonings, because the fragrant winds blowing through Eden's trees would perfume every morsel with flavors beyond our wildest imaginations (Numbers Rabbah 13.2). Best of all, at this banquet, sanctified Israel and every redeemed nation would all sit down and eat with the Messiah forever (3 Enoch 48a.10).

When Jesus came onto the scene, he agreed there'd be a banquet. He said that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). But it was Jesus who added a fantastic twist to the old expectation. Jesus explained that this wouldn't be just any kind of banquet we were waiting for. It was going to be a wedding feast. He told stories about the kingdom of God being like a great king throwing a feast for his son's wedding, and trying to pack the wedding hall with all the appropriately dressed guests he can, no matter who they are (Matthew 22:1-4). In those days, remember, the betrothal was already a legally binding arrangement. But when the time came for the wedding feast, the groom and his party met up with the bride and her party; the marriage contract would be read and affirmed; and the bride and groom would go off into a room set aside as a bridal suite, while witnesses waited outside. And they would listen for the bridegroom's shout after the marriage had been consummated. With a festive procession, they'd reach the groom's house to join in the wedding feast. Everyone the groom's family could afford to support would be invited – the entire city, if possible – and the feast would last for seven entire days. And there'd be good food and plentiful wine, and music and dancing, and everyone would celebrate with the bride and the groom. It was so important to celebrate with them that not only did the families take off work entirely for that whole week, but many rabbis said that the wedding party was even exempt from some of the ordinary requirements of God's law during that whole time (t. Berakhot 2.9; b. Sukkah 25b).

That's what a wedding feast, a marriage supper, was all about. It was such a massive celebration, such a joyous party, such an extensive feast. Jesus explained that that's what the kingdom of God is going to be like. And he then insisted that he himself would be the Bridegroom, while his disciples would be his groomsmen (Matthew 9:15). It's an audacious claim, really – to say that everything in all of human history is leading up to a wedding, thrown by God himself for all the righteous from all of time, and that he will be the Bridegroom, at the front and center of it all! The only question left is who's left to be the Bride. And so just as the prophets talked about the old covenant being a marriage between God and Israel, the apostles talked about the new covenant being the marriage agreement between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church: “'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Right now, all of history in the shadow of the cross has been the betrothal, the engagement period. Binding and deep. But what's coming is so much more intense and so much more festive. It's with all this expectation from the prophets and the teachers and the messiah and the apostles that we come at last to this passage and hear the tremendously exciting announcement: once Babylon has fallen, the space will be clear for the Bride to truly come into her own. And then the thunderous call of a vast crowd can finally declare, to the delight of every believing ear: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns! Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7)!

Aren't those some of the most thrilling words of scripture? The wedding day arrives! The Bride is finally ready – after so many twists and turns, after so many hurdles, after so many temptations and flirtations and cold feet, the Church is finally ready and dressed in the finest wedding gown God, with his infinite riches, can afford – so she's ready to see Jesus her Bridegroom face-to-face, ready to enter the bridal chamber, ready for the feast that's a satisfying meal and a honeymoon all in one! The celebration that literally every nanosecond since the dawn of creation, since the first breath of Eve took Adam's breath away, has been leading toward! Could that day ever finally come – descend from the abstract and the theoretical to the concrete and the practical, come down from out of heaven to this earth of grit and trial? “These are the true words of God!” (Revelation 19:9).

The true words of God are no fantasy. The true words of God are no empty foolish dream. The true words of God are no pie-in-the-sky lie. And the true words of God tell us that the wedding is on, forever on, guaranteed on! No twist and turn we endure now is going to put a damper on that wedding day. There will be a wedding, and there will be a wedding supper. It will be all that prophets and rabbis ever imagined, and so much more. It will be a feast of perfect joy, with delights we can't dream up, with flavors beyond imagination, with appetites forever being perfectly satisfied because this wedding supper is the measure that all our hungers were designed for. And that day, that celebration, will commence the full and perfect intimacy of the Bridegroom and his Bride – who on that day will truly be known as “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9). Just think – the closest you have ever felt to Jesus, the dearest grace you have received, the most tender touch of his love, has all been under a condition of chaste betrothal. The deepest fulfillments you now find in intimacy with Jesus are only the beginning. Because the marriage of Christ and the Church is not yet consummated. More intimacy is promised – something deeper, something richer, something closer – next to which, every spiritual delight of your life now will blush in awe. Oh, for the sound of the Bridegroom's shout!

It's with good reason that the heavenly message is passed along through John to us here today: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). Blessed – how indescribably and unequivocally blessed – just to have the invitation in hand! Just to know that, if we RSVP through faith and if we faithfully keep our lives washed clean in the blood of the Lamb poured out on Calvary, we can be honored guests at that great feast of God! For if we overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of [our] testimony” (Revelation 12:11), then we will have bought “white garments” from Jesus like he offered the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:18), and we “will be clothed thus in white garments,” as Jesus told the church at Sardis (Revelation 3:5), and we will have “washed [our] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). And we will be dressed and ready for the wedding, if only we'll commit and go – go by a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). For on that day, the Bride's gown will be a gift from God himself, which she will then put on: “fine linen, bright, pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Revelation 19:8). God clothes us in his righteousness, we persevere in faith, and he will righteously act to vindicate the Church and her faithful life.

We've been blessed to be invited – how blessed to actually show and be there forever! For where the wedding feasts of Jesus' day could stretch to a full week, this feast will stretch to encompass the full extent of eternal life in the presence of God. Eternal life will mean the celebration of the marriage supper of the Lamb! That's our hope, that's our joy, that's the exciting announcement we're promised to one day hear – the call that it will finally be ready, finally be time. Everything you or I now do, it should ultimately come down to making ourselves ready to hear that announcement and be prepared to act on it at a moment's notice – be ready to see the glory of the Bridegroom in full array, ready with a passion for the Bridegroom, ready with a deep hunger for the supper that satisfies forever.

This hope changes everything. And it can also fill our lives now. Because the fascinating thing about gathering as the church is that, in a way, we step out of sync with the time we know on the outside. To gather for worship is not to merely be in our own time and place. It's to be in every time and place, to be at that heavenly junction where past and present and future break down. To be gathered here with the church is to stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus is crucified. It's to rush into the empty tomb with Peter. It's to behold the appearance of the risen Christ with the apostles. It's to marvel with joy at the ascension as Jesus blesses us from above. It's to be in the crowd of Pentecost, receiving cloven tongues of fire. It's to be gathered with every saint and martyr in the great cloud of witnesses. It's to be among the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures as they sing hallelujahs 'round the throne. And it's to step, in a way, already into the banquet hall of paradise. Because when we gather here to worship, we have one foot through the door into the eternity being woven by our Father in heaven. And we have the opportunity to sample foretastes of the joy set before us.

And those foretastes are on this table, this altar. They are the body and the blood of the Bridegroom. Hidden beneath the veil of loaf and cup, the products of earthly grains and earthly grapes, is a heavenly feast – our first tastes of the marriage supper of the Lamb. For that reason, St. Ambrose compared this eucharist, this communion meal of the new covenant, to the Bridegroom's kiss to his Bride. For this reason, St. Augustine declared that every time we celebrate this meal at our altar, it's a marriage celebration. It may come now to our bodies with flavors we deem mundane and in portions that do not fill – that's why the early church often embedded it in a fuller meal they called the love feast – but in it, under it, our souls partake of joys too flavorful to even be recognized by our as-yet-unrefined spiritual palate. We only await the day we will eat this meal most fully, and with a whole soul will receive it all. And that day is coming – the true words of God have sworn a wedding, a feast! The Bridegroom is decorating the chambers, as the Bride here below makes herself ready. The Lord God Almighty reigns! “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory” (Revelation 19:7). Let us come and take, eat and drink, that when the wedding day at last takes us into the Garden of Delights, we might eternally keep and celebrate God's feast, at the table for good at the marriage supper of the Lamb!

Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!
Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!”

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