Sunday, June 9, 2019

Casting Crowns: Sermon on Revelation 4

It felt strange to look the enemy in the eye. Especially here at Rhandeia, and on an occasion like this, with all their troops gathered on every side. But Tiridates, king of Armenia, was ending the war. His opponent, the Roman general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, was an honorable one, at least. To think things all started eleven years earlier. Tiridates' big brother Vologaesus had become king of the Parthian Empire in AD 52. Needing a territory for his little brother Tiridates, Vologaesus had taken advantage of chaos in Armenia, invaded it, and made Tiridates the king there. Fortunately, the locals decided they liked Tiridates better than his rivals. But the Roman Empire hadn't been happy – they were accustomed to crowning the kings of Armenia. And so when Nero came to power in 54, he sent Corbulo east, and four years later, it came to war between the empires. For several years, Rome and Parthia duked it out, and Tiridates had been one of Rome's great devils, humiliating a Roman army at Rhandeia. But then came time for war to stop. In 63, Tiridates met Corbulo – at Rhandeia.

And this was the day. The Parthian cavalry was there in squadrons, each displaying the emblem of their people. The Roman legions stood there, golden eagles shining in the sun, idols of their gods crowding around, making them look almost like a temple. And there in the heart of it, Tiridates approached a platform the Romans had assembled. On it sat a throne. And on the throne, not a man but a statue. A statue of the Roman emperor. But this was what they'd agreed. Tiridates came closer, had the animals summoned. And he made a sacrifice there. Approaching Nero's statue, he took the Armenian crown off of his head, felt its heft in his hands – and then he gently placed it at the foot of the throne, vowing to be crowned as king only by Nero himself. And he left the crown at the base of the throne where the statue was.

A couple years passed, as Tiridates returned to Parthia, visited his mom and brothers, gathered personnel for the big trip. As a devout Zoroastrian, he wouldn't sail more than a day over water, so it would be a long trek by land – a nine-month journey, nice and slow, with his three thousand horsemen, with his nephews and wife and sons, with a band of magi like himself – the ones whose grandfathers had once journeyed somewhere called Bethlehem. So Tiridates set out, with a Roman escort, too. And in October of 65, he met Nero in Naples. Fascinating to meet Rome's emperor in person – Nero was just 27 at the time; Tiridates, likely in his thirties. After the entertainment of gladiatorial games in nearly Puteoli, they marched to Rome in early 66. And there, in the forum of a city recovering from the Great Fire, early one morning Tiridates, his dagger nailed to its sheath at his hip, marched between columns of Roman soldiers toward a platform with a throne – this time, with a living Nero seated on it. All around, the very roofs of Rome were crowded with spectators. Banners filled the city, and the forum was thronged with citizens in white robes, carrying laurel branches.

Swallowing his pride, Tiridates approached the base of the platform atop which sat Nero's imperial throne – and Tiridates did what he never expected: he bowed in worship. Tiridates' voice rang out: “Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and your slave. And I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I do Mithras. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine, for you are my Fortune and my Fate.” Nero, deeply flattered, invited him to walk up the ramp to come closer. He declared Tiridates the rightful king of Armenia. And as Tiridates knelt below Nero's feet, the emperor took him by the hand, raised him, kissed him, and then presented the crown once cast before his throne and placed it back on Tiridates' head – and the crowds went wild on that 'Golden Day.'

News traveled far and wide. Nero proclaimed it as the dawn of world peace: he had the doors of the Temple of Janus closed, minted coins to commemorate the occasion. 'World peace' didn't last – in just a few months, a revolt in Judaea would lead to the war that would see Jerusalem's temple burnt to the ground. But the story of Nero and Tiridates would spread. It was likely just three decades later when, on Patmos, John – living in the era of the Emperor Domitian, the late Corbulo's son-in-law – was invited to come see a brighter 'golden day' in a far more glorious imperial court than Rome ever boasted.

Sometime after John's vision of the risen Christ, whether minutes or months later, he had yet another vision – “After this, I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I'd heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, 'Come up here...'” (Revelation 4:1). A gateway in the sky. An invitation. But how would John get through? He's down on earth, on the land, at a level with me and you. And the place he's asked to see is way up there, beyond all that we know. No nine-month journey around the coasts of the Adriatic Sea could get him through that resplendent portal overhead.

But we keep reading. “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with One seated on the throne” (Revelation 4:2). There's the bridge! There's what gets John through that heavenly door – he's once again “in the Spirit,” experiencing reality not merely through his natural senses but through the Spirit of God. What a nine-month march couldn't ever do, the Spirit of God does immediately, shifting John far beyond all he's ever seen or heard or touched or known.

The scene he sees there is absolutely mind-blowing. He dares not dwell too much on what it was like to see a vision of the One seated on the throne: “The One who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:3). This colossal throne outshone Nero's in every way, outstripped all Rome's pageantry, all Parthia's exoticism, dwarfed any and all earthly kings. The only way John can get even part of an image across is by comparing the vision to jewelry – to precious gemstones and crystals, refracting light into an emerald rainbow, a vivid halo around the throne. John's seeing what Isaiah saw, what Ezekiel saw. He's seeing “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD(Ezekiel 1:28), a vision in which his eyes have to take in, and his brain has to interpret, the perplexing vista of the God “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). And yet in the Spirit, John sees the Unseeable, beholds the Unbeholden, seated on heaven's royal throne, “enthroned in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1).

And that's not all. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and sounds and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5a). It has to remind John of the story of when Moses and the Israelites waited at the base of Mount Sinai for God to appear, and then “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire,” and “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled..., and the whole mountain trembled greatly, and as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:16-19). And so in heaven, John meets the Storm of the Almighty; he stands in Moses' shoes, but the smoke is gone, John sees only the brightness and the dazzling figure, far outshining all Rome's glittering gold, which now looked cheap.

And as if that weren't enough, “before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne, there was – as it were – a sea of glass like crystal” (Revelation 4:5b-6). Blazing in front of the crystal sea, smooth and tranquil, which rests above the world, John sees the same Spirit that fills him and surrounds him, the Spirit through whom he can see any of this blessed vision. The same Holy Spirit is forever in God's presence, multiply ablaze at the base of his throne, connected integrally with heaven's authority and never dying out. We'll find in the same chapter that the exact same Spirit also radiates like seven horns from the head of the Lamb who is Jesus Christ – one Spirit radiating from the Father and the Son, a perfect picture of the Holy Trinity. But the Spirit can't show John the Father until the Spirit has come from the Son.

It's much the same for us now. We could not have a personal encounter with God apart from the Spirit. And the Spirit would not be indwelling us if Jesus had not first died and lived again and ascended into heaven so that he could pour out the Spirit from God's throne. If not for Good Friday, if not for Easter, if not for Ascension Thursday, there could be no Pentecost Sunday; and no Pentecost means no vision, no Pentecost means no power, no Pentecost means no encounter, no Pentecost means no revelation – and heaven's open door would remain forever beyond reach. So praise God, it's Pentecost! Praise God, Jesus lives and sends down his Spirit – the same Spirit through whom John viewed a vision – and that Spirit lets us encounter the Enthroned Glory!

As he stands in heaven, John sees some strange things around the throne – but then again, maybe those things would think John the strange one, dull and quiet and made of mud, when life's for splendor and song and flame. He sees, for one, four “Living Creatures” around the throne, maybe supporting the throne – “four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes around and within” (Revelation 4:6-8). If you can't picture it, you aren't alone – nobody really can. The psalmists said their God was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1), and when Ezekiel saw God's throne, he saw it suspended over “four living creatures” with humanoid bodies but four faces and four wings (Ezekiel 1:5-6) – and later says, “the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel … were cherubim” (Ezekiel 10:20). But John sees creatures with six wings, like the seraphim that Isaiah saw around God's throne; and they're saying what the seraphim say (Isaiah 6:2-3). Neither prophet caught the full view of what John's looking at. These creatures – hybrids of Ezekiel's cherubim and Isaiah's seraphim – sum up in themselves all that's best in creation (lion, ox, eagle, human) – as they shine and burn. They see things from every angle – nothing on them is sightless. They have no blind spots, no rose-colored glasses – they see everything as it is, nothing escapes their view.

And no matter where they look, they see just one thing. They see the glory of God. And so “day and night they never cease to say: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'” (Revelation 4:8). Wherever they look, they see the holiness of God. They see everything as it is, and so – to the capacity of any created being – they see God for who God is. And to the extent they see God for who God is, they're in the throes of worship. They don't praise God for anything in particular he's done. He doesn't have to do anything to win their allegiance. He just has to be himself. God is God, he is who he is – that's enough for them. That right there suffices to elicit their galaxy-shaking shouts of praise. No matter what happens, so long as God is God, they proclaim him as triply holy, the eternal God who can do all things, the Almighty Lord who never fades and never fails. And if we want to learn the heart of worship, John writes so that they can teach us. Revelation is a book on worship, and here's Lesson #1: God gets worship just because he's his holy self.

We have a tendency sometimes to functionalize or instrumentalize God. We praise God because of some cause, some act that we approve of. That in itself isn't bad, but if disconnected from God's intrinsic worthiness, it can make worship mercenary. What these living creatures see is that, even if God did nothing, even if God created nothing, even if God were God alone and there were no heavens and no earth and no angels and no creatures – even then, God would be holy, eternal, almighty, glorious. God alone would rightly see that God alone is worth praising, even in the depths of timeless eternity where the Father, Son, and Spirit praise each other without end and without beginning. And if God is worthy of worship even if God is all that exists, that truth still holds true when creatures live to give voice to that truth. That's what these heavenly worship-animals live to say.

And they never stop saying it. “Day and night, they never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy'” (Revelation 4:8). It's a perpetual chorus, each calling to the other. It's the concert that's lasted since the dawn of Eden. It was going on when Nero and Tiridates had their little 'Golden Day.' It was going on when John languished on Patmos. It's going on this very instant. Right now, as you listen to this sermon, these four living creatures covered in eyes can see me behind the pulpit and see you in the pews, and they're saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” They've seen all the joys and sorrows of history. Their eyes have, from afar, watched genocide and reconciliation, abortion and new birth, enslavement and liberation, destruction and redemption. And still, having a far better sight than we of what the world's really like, beholding every pain from every angle, still they talk of the glory of God! Still they think God worthy of honor! Still they thank God for being the God he is! For John tells us: “the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the One seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:9). Having seen all they've seen, and seeing everything that's affecting you right now, and viewing and understanding it better than you ever will in this world with the two eyes you can aim one direction at a time – they keep glorifying and honoring and thanking God. And that's how we know that heaven's throne is no seat of mismanagement! Those who've seen the most are most thankful that God's on the throne. And if they see so much yet thank God, you can thank God, too, no matter what's within the limited horizons of all your eyes can see.

What's more, these heavenly living creatures keep saying their praises “day and night,” without ceasing. No lunch breaks. No time-outs. Their life is fueled by worship. This message, this gospel of God being God, is the sum total of their existence. There's a beloved hymn – and you know it – where we sing, “When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.” And I'll be honest, there was a time in my life when I thought, “How frightening! A never-ending task of one thing, stretching out beyond all I can imagine, with no end in sight? It's like a prison sentence that keeps multiplying for eternity!” But then I started thinking about these four living creatures. Since the start, they've been saying the same thing, over and over again. Why don't they get bored? Why don't they need to shake things up, branch out? And then it hit me: Every time they see God, they see something they've never seen before. He's like a gem with many facets, that every way the light shines through it brings out something new. These living creatures are on an endless voyage of discovery of the infinite God, who contains more limitless variety in himself than the universe will ever attain at any definite point in its past, present, or future. The life of these living creatures is the very opposite of boring. They never have a dull moment! They're learning every second of every day! And what they learn is life-changing, transformative, astounding, amazing. Their whole existence is a thrilling adventure into God's infinite riches of character and quality and being – new and fresh at all times, always and forever! And if that's true, then if our worship really does bring us into contact with God, it should never be stale. Our worship grows deeper and deeper every time we connect with God, because there is literally no end of fresh brilliance in him.

Honestly, if these living creatures were all John saw around the throne, that'd be enough to teach a lifetime of lessons. But they aren't all he sees. Before he even mentioned them, he already told us that “around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads” (Revelation 4:4). And there's a lot that's mysterious about that. But these are, in all likelihood, the ones whom biblical scholars call 'the divine council.' As one psalm says, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Psalm 82:1). We glimpse it in other verses, like when the prophet Micaiah says, “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kings 22:19). It's the court staff of heaven, the council of God's administration. And here they correspond to the twenty-four divisions David made in Israel's priesthood and the twenty-four divisions David made among the Levite singers, the worship leaders of Israel (1 Chronicles 24-25). These elders are heavenly priest-kings whose thrones ring the greater throne of God, whose authority is part of his administration, who are set apart to minister in his presence (cf. Revelation 5:8).

And when the living creatures shout out and give them their cue, these ancient heavenly priest-kings – who themselves outshine the gods worshipped by Rome and all nations – they themselves “worship the One who lives forever and ever,” and they say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11). The living creatures praised God just for who God is. And that inspires these elders to praise God – specifically, for who God is to them. They praise God for what God has done: created all things. He is the Creator; all else is created and contingent, dependent on God's will. Everything else receives its very existence as a gift from God. They themselves, like the living creatures, would not even exist unless God had decided they should. Every beauty in creation – it's God's artistry. Every marvel in creation – it's God's engineering. Every novelty in creation – it's God's inventiveness. God is the Creator of all things. No exceptions. There's nothing for which anything else can take credit. In every way, we are creatures, created things, but God is Creator. No one invented God, no one dreamt God up. He does not depend on us at all. But we depend entirely on him. And, these elders say, that makes God worthy! It means that, when we worship God, we can appeal to an endless variety of reasons. We can worship God by citing his greatness in stretching out vast galaxies. We can worship God by citing his craftsmanship in designing the inner workings of the humblest bacterium and its genetic code. We can worship God by celebrating the colors of the sunset and the songs of the birds at the dawn. We can point to any plant, to any animal, to any rock, to any star, and understand that it's a reason to proclaim God as worthy to receive glory and honor and power! Our worship has an endless string of rightful justifications, because God created all things. The universe was not designed by committee, and it developed under his careful and loving hand, by his sovereign will and choice. Not a thing has ever existed apart from God's will. He is Creator and Sustainer.

And in the face of this, how do these ancient priest-kings in heaven worship? How do they express their vivid conviction of God's worthiness? How do they respond to the gospel of the living creatures? “The twenty-four elders fall down before the One who is seated on the throne and worship the One who lives forever and ever: they cast their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10). Just like Tiridates in front of Nero's throne, they bow down to the ground and worship and give up their crowns. It's a surrender of authority. That's what their worship is all about. They know that their crowns, their authority to rule in God's administration, any power they have or influence they exert – it's all a gift. They possess their authority by grace. And they perpetually submit that past and present grace to God, leaving it up to him whether to graciously continue to crown them anew and keep them in office.

As I said, it's a lot like Tiridates. He proclaimed Nero as his master and his god. He announced that he would worship Nero. He accepted Nero as the fate deciding the future course of his life and the fortune holding all his hopes and dreams. He bowed to Nero, submitted to Nero. He took the crown off his head and surrendered it to Nero, conceding that Nero had the right to authorize royal authority over Armenia, even if Parthia would be the nominator of the man to be coronated. He vowed – sincerely or insincerely – that he didn't want the crown unless it came from Nero's hand, unless his rule received Nero's permission and blessing. He relinquished that power and prestige, trusting Nero to return it more splendidly than ever.

And what Tiridates ascribed to a Roman tyrant, these elders ascribe to God on heaven's throne, their Emperor of Emperors. They proclaim God as their master and their God, they worship him, they accept him as the fate and fortune holding their hopes and deciding their future. They bow to him and surrender their authority, knowing that only God can re-authorize it, over and over and over again, each and every moment. And they do not want to have any power or prestige or privilege that's overstayed its welcome. Every time God gives them a gift, they thank God for it and submit it to God's continued approval. They live by grace, and grace alone.

And that's how our worship should look. No matter how high and mighty we think we are, worship is defined, at a fundamental level, by what we refer back to God. He has given us so many gifts we can't even name them, so many crowns we can hardly believe them. But if he does, our proper worship is to continually take them and place them at the foot of his throne – surrender our every right and our every dignity back to God, returning it to him as glory, letting him be the Heavenly Emperor who chooses, in every moment, whether to re-authorize us to continue in our privileges or not. Our proper worship defers to God in everything. Our proper worship doesn't get bogged down in our personal preferences – our best-beloved styles, our best-beloved tunes, our best-beloved postures. When we cast our crowns before the throne, we're saying it doesn't matter what we might prefer: our greater preference, we're saying, our greater choice, is to erase our preferences and put God's in their place. We acknowledge our rights as continually subject to God's choice. And we trust that, if he chooses, he'll keep on restoring us, keep on creating us anew as kings and priests to him in Christ by the Spirit (cf. Revelation 1:6).

You see, Revelation is a book of worship. It's not a confusing book of endless puzzles. It's not a scary book of fear and doom and dread. It's a book of worship – of basking in God's light and learning how to react to him and to what he's done, and then live in a way that announces how worthwhile this God – and only this God – is. That's what John's visions are for. That's why John has led us away from the cheap pageantry of Rome or of Parthia or of any earthly country, and led us to the throne room of the heavenly empire, where God holds court and his glorious servants worship him in truth. And when we read it, we learn what our worship should be like, what we should be doing here on Sunday morning and what we should be doing the rest of the week – “day and night.” And when our worship says what theirs says, and when our worship is truly focused on God, and when our worship has us hitting the dirt and casting our crowns before God's throne, and when that worship fills up our lives – then we can say that heavenly worship is happening here. Then we can say that we have heaven on earth. And that is what the church is for – possible only as we encounter God in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit that radiates from the Lamb and burns before the Father's throne. May we be a church that sees! May we be a church that falls in love! May we be a church where seven torches of Spirit-fire burn forever, to the glory of the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, amen!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Our World Exposed: Sermon on Revelation 17-18

It was dark outside on the night of Sunday, June 27, 1954, and a similar gloom had settled over the president's heart. It was, unexpectedly, his last day in office. As he sat in his office in the National Palace, President Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzman fiddled with the equipment that would let him broadcast one final message, if anyone would tune in and listen. Arbenz reflected as he readied his address. He'd been one of the first democratically elected leaders in the history of Guatemala. Before that, he'd served in the armed forces during World War II, when the dictator Jorge Ubico used them to violently crack down on... not criminals, but simply poor farm laborers. Arbenz had been disgusted, and vowed to help the oppressed if ever he came to power. Once Ubico was overthrown in '44, Arevalo had his six years, and then Arbenz had his turn.

In June 1952, he'd given his Decree on Agrarian Reform, ordering that land sitting uncultivated should be seized by eminent domain and distributed to the starving workers who'd actually make something useful out of it. But one of the biggest holders of unused land, whose value they'd lied about on their taxes, was the United Fruit Company. An American corporation whose ex-CEO worked in the State Department and whose past lawyers included the Dulles brothers – one now Secretary of State, the other now Director of the CIA. It was plain to Arbenz what had happened: United Fruit Company supporters like the Dulles brothers had lobbied President Eisenhower to approve an operation to meddle in Guatemalan affairs; the United States government had thus hired mercenaries to invade Guatemala and stage a coup d'etat. And it had worked. The CIA's propaganda had so demoralized his people and army alike that Arbenz stood no chance, and was now being forced to resign and flee to the Mexican embassy. So, though few were listening, Arbenz gave a final message for his people:

For fifteen days, a cruel war against Guatemala has been underway. The United Fruit Company, in collaboration with the governing circles of the United States, is responsible for what is happening to us. … The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company and the other US monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America … One day, the obscured forces which today oppress the backward and colonial world will be defeated. I will continue to be, despite everything, a fighter for the liberty and progress of my country. I say goodbye to you, my friends, with bitterness and pain, but remaining firm in my convictions. … Long live Guatemala!

And with that, Arbenz walked into the night, an emotional wreck. But if any man in history who'd never run a country knew how Arbenz felt that night, it may have been John the Revelator. John would have understood.

Last Sunday, if you were with us, you might recall we started exploring the main cast of characters, ten in all, that we find in the Book of Revelation. And there, we encountered two trinities – one of God, Lamb, and the sevenfold Spirit; the other of Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet. God and the Dragon each have their throne of authority, but could scarcely be more different. God calls for truth, goodness, and beauty; the Dragon, or Satan, utters lies, authors corruption, and is grotesque. And just as the Lamb reflects his peace-loving Father, so the Beast – political and military power that turns violent, blasphemous, inhumane – the Beast reflects its spiteful father, the Dragon. And just as the sevenfold Spirit inspires witnesses to point truthfully to God and the Lamb, the False Prophet – a propaganda machine – points to the Beast and enforces its worship.

There we have six key characters, and the seventh and eighth are the crowds that worship and follow them, dividing all humanity into Lamb-followers and Beast-followers in the end. John could describe these things so well because he recognized them in his own time and place, when the Roman Empire's politics had become a beast oppressing nations from across the sea, and where the provincial council of John's own home in Asia Minor, having become enthusiastic for emperor-worship, was a false prophet leading the masses astray.

But then John has a vision of the ninth main cast member of Revelation's drama, and it's a doozy. Riding on the same Beast as before, John is shown “the great prostitute who is seated on many waters” (Revelation 17:1) that signify “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Revelation 17:15). John sees her sitting on the Beast's seven heads, which are seven hills, and hears the name that tells who she is: “Babylon the Great, mother of prostitutes and of earth's abominations” (Revelation 17:5). Dressed in fine clothes and jewelry (Revelation 17:4), she's gotten herself drunk on innocent blood (Revelation 17:6), and not just that, but “the wine of her prostitution” has gotten the entirety of earth's society drunk as they prostitute the whole world to her (Revelation 17:2). But this same woman is revealed as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:8), “for all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her prostitution, and the kings of the earth have committed prostitution with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (Revelation 18:3).

John and the seven churches would've known what he was talking about. When John says 'Babylon,' what they heard him saying was 'Rome.' Other Jewish writings from those days use the code-name 'Babylon' for Rome, even calling this 'Babylon' a “hateful harlot” that's doomed to fall (4 Ezra 3.2; 15.46-48; cf. Sibylline Oracles 5.158-159). The same churches John oversees had earlier gotten a letter from Peter and Mark, living in Rome, who sent greetings from the church in 'Babylon' (1 Peter 5:13). John and others saw Rome as a violent culture, a corrupt civilization, that was extending its influence around the world, seducing all subject nations into its evil ideals. Roman coins and statues portrayed Rome itself as a goddess, Dea Roma, seated on Rome's seven hills. John sees the same figure, but instead of a dazzling goddess, he sees a less savory figure, a drunken harlot.

John sees Babylon riding the Beast because the influence of Rome's culture and economy piggybacked on the movements of Rome's military power – Roman force secured the supremacy of Rome's privileged status as “a prime exporter of immorality,” as one scholar calls it. Rome's thirst for luxury goods was a problem that even Roman moralists complained about, but John's vision attacks it mercilessly. He rattles off a list of imports like “gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves – that is, human lives” (Revelation 18:11-13). Rome really did import those luxuries and give special tax breaks to ships taking them to Rome. But John sees exploitation, especially as he caps off the list with human lives being reduced to a mere commodity for Babylon's enjoyment. The Roman economy, oriented on luxury consumption in the city at the expense of the basic dignity of the common man or woman in the provinces, is entirely corrupt, built on violence and deception; but Rome's culture and supposed benefits are seductive, and John says Rome has all the leaders of the world out of their wits.

He finally hears an angel celebrate Babylon's fall and the end of its culture, “for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery, and in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain in the earth” (Revelation 18:21-24). Rome's violence, Rome's glorification of depravity, Rome's luxury when others were needy, Rome's arrogance in dominating other tribes and their cultures, Rome's alliances with self-serving leaders who betray their own people to it – John hates it all and wants his churches to see it as it really is. Plenty of Christians in the seven churches were working in the shipping industry and the business world, which were increasingly impacted by the imperial cult. And so John forces them to face a very uncomfortable question: Given how corrupt the whole system is, if God judged it and made it come crashing down, would you be relieved or distressed? And if you'd be distressed by the collapse of such a culture and such an economy, then whose side are you really on, after all?

All well and good for the seven churches in first-century Asia Minor. But what's it got to do with us? 'Babylon' goes beyond just the city of Rome. It extends to any culture and economy that bear similar traits. What John's done isn't just unmask Rome; he's unmasked the way the world will always work, left to its own devices. The world, bereft of God, will always turn to worshipping beastly power. The world, bereft of God, will always get drunk on violent entertainment, sexual depravity, economic exploitation, and the luxuries of consumerism. We have to admit – John tells us we have to admit – that the society we've crafted, the civilization we've built, can be a dark place – that the very things we accept as normal all around us may well be deceptive masks for less savory things. 'Babylon' is ever with us. In our own time, there are cultural and economic powers that export toxic culture around the world and use the force of their economic advantage, backed by military dominance, to enjoy luxury at the expense of the poor of the earth, all while remaking the world into their own image. And if you'd asked former Guatemalan president Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, he'd have told you all about one such power. He might well have held this picture of Babylon next to ours and asked us if we can't see a resemblance. For while we are not alone there, neither can we claim absence.

You see, we may have to grapple with more of an 'American Babylon' than we ever thought. That's a hard thing to think. It was hard for John's first hearers to see his ugly portrait of their beloved Dea Roma; and we similarly find it hard to swallow if John paints a similar picture of the Statue of Liberty – which is, after all, a monument featuring a Roman goddess as well. And yet we live in a nation that, while it about 800 military bases outside its borders, also exports its consumer culture around the world – just about anywhere on earth you go, you'll find Coca-Cola and Starbucks and McDonald's and our movies and our music. We live in a nation that imports goods from all the earth, striking deals with political and commercial leaders, with reckless disregard to those who work like slaves to provide what we use. We live in a nation that at times meddles in the affairs of other countries for its own advantage, but screams outrage when the tables are turned. We live in a nation that has indeed done its large share of global good, but often oversteps to congratulate itself as the sum of all virtue.

We live in a nation where sex and violence are the cornerstones of entertainment and whose appetite for illicit drugs fuels the crisis of neighbor nations – the nation where the decided majority of the world's pornography is produced and hosted; the nation that's used its foreign policy reach to push same-sex 'marriage' on other cultures; the nation that uses food aid and tariffs to reshape the economic world to its own benefit; the nation that talks democracy but props up dictators if they say they like us. All the while, we're a relentlessly unhappy nation of materialists, leading lives of luxury relative to the rest of the earth. Our hearts and habits are reshaped by individualism and consumerism. And so John's portrait of Babylon, of her relationship with kings and merchants – well, it holds up a mirror that we don't want to look into. I know I dread the hard truth I see there. But in reading Revelation honestly, I have to say: If John were the one here in the pulpit this morning, I have my doubts whether that star-spangled banner would still be here by noon today. And if that thought seems too horrible to fathom, then we've found our idol. We've learned that we love our Babylon.

This is a painful and bitter pill to swallow. We are not used to taking an outside look at ourselves from the view of people like John, looking up at us and seeing right through us. We can choose to ignore John, if we want to. We can choose to embrace the Babylonian elements within American culture and commerce. We can choose to cling to our consumerism and self-congratulation; we can turn a blind eye to what John sees in us, in our world order. We can choose that road. Probably some of us will. But then John warns us that, when cultures and economies get Babylonian, they always fall – and woe to those whom Babylon drags down with her.

Or we can let John shock us back to our senses, away from our RVs and vacation homes, away from our TV sets and heaped-up plates, away from our dollar-sign golden calves and our art gallery of advertisements. We could ask John what we should actually do. And then we hear the voice from heaven: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). Leave Babylon. What does that mean here, here in Lancaster County, to leave Babylon? What's John calling us to do, practically speaking? He calls us to be wary of the sins on which our whole cultural system is founded – sins like greed and pride and lust and gluttony and covetousness. He cautions us that, if we're immersed in Babylonian culture and its commerce, forms of these may seem so normal that we won't recognize them unless we catch his vision. He asks us if we can see ourselves through the eyes of the poor and downtrodden.

John would call us to carefully judge all propaganda in light of the gospel – and that includes the patriotic slogans and party platforms we swallow so easily, with their cheap talking-points and their vain boasts and biases. John would call us to question the purchases and sales we've made. Who gets hurt, who gets left worse off when I do this? How does it affect the world for me to buy or sell like this? John would call us not to open our mouths and ears and eyes wide to take in American culture, not without a lot of straining and sifting – our movies, our television, the inevitably packaged products of corporations serving the base things they worship. John would question whether we've kept enough distance to remain more Christian than American. John would ask if we've kept our sobriety and purity when tempted with Babylon's wine of passion. And I do not know what we can say. I don't know what I can say. How much has Babylon's wine already twisted our vision? How much do we love what's Babylonian around and within us?

A convicting thought. John has seen not just one nation, not just one empire, but the entire world unmasked and exposed. He's shown us the harsh truth behind things we've loved. But at the same time, before he showed us Babylon, John showed us something else: the Everlasting Man, the Living One who holds the keys of death and underworld, the slaughtered Lamb whom God's servants follow wherever he goes, the Lion of Judah. And John showed us a glory that puts all Babylon's finery and jewels to shame. As John's prophetic visions unfold, this Everlasting Man – we know the name of Jesus – offers, in the end, an alternative to Babylon.

The book will close with a last set of visions, showing another city from heaven – not Babylon which must fall, but a New Jerusalem which must descend; not a drunken prostitute, but the pure bride of the Lamb. This is the ideal civilization into which the church is called – through worship and witness and work – to help humanity and society grow up. Where Babylon glorifies violence, New Jerusalem glorifies peace. Where Babylon talks the arrogant talk, New Jerusalem simply shines. Where Babylon exploits and ruins, New Jerusalem extends equal generosity and builds up. Where Babylon is faithless and depraved, New Jerusalem is faithful and pure. Instead of Babylonian inebriation, New Jerusalem is full of clear-headed joy in the Lord; and God himself will be at the center of a beautiful civilization.

We'll learn more about this New Jerusalem later in the year, at the end of October. But John shows us this New Jerusalem to say, “This is what you must come out of Babylon for. This is the template for how human society should look. When you do business, do it like a New Jerusalem economy, not a Babylon economy. When you choose entertainment, watch and hear what looks like New Jerusalem, not Babylon. Live for the splendor of a New Jerusalem that lasts, not the luxury of a Babylon that awaits her doom.” The New Jerusalem John sees at the end is the template, the heavenly model, that Jesus ascended into heaven to plan. And just as John gives us a promise that every expression of Babylon will fall, so we know that Jesus' word will call New Jerusalem to the earth – a new way to be society, a new civilization. New Jerusalem is what the church has always dreamt of being, even as we lament that Babylon has colonized us and stupefied us.

So what can we do? We can keep careful distance from the foundational sins of Babylon, but we can begin to shape our neighborhood in a better way, beginning in our own hearts and homes. We can build better things, keeping our eyes on New Jerusalem for inspiration. And it starts here, as we learn to worship God and not a Dragon, follow the Lamb and not the Beast, take guidance from the Spirit and not the False Prophet, love New Jerusalem and not Babylon. It is a hard word, stacked up against what we've bought as normal. But no one said following the Lamb was easy or comfortable. No one said our idols would be safe. No one said we could keep drinking Babylon's cup and still reserve a seat at marriage supper of the Lamb and his New-Jerusalem Bride. So follow the Lamb, break free from Babylon, and live to open glimpses of New Jerusalem in this church and in the neighborhood around us – to the glory of God, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Everybody Worships: Sermon on Revelation 13

It was time. All across England, in town and country, eager readers counted down the days, marked them on the calendars, until the thirtieth of September, 1925. They were waiting for the latest book published at Hodder & Stoughton, the book the newspaper ads promised was coming on that day – the latest book by a 51-year-old journalist and literary critic, Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Known for his wit and his love of paradox, Chesterton was a sensation for those who followed his newspaper columns, his detective stories, his other books. And then came September's final day, and there it was on the shelves: The Everlasting Man, Chesterton's review of the spiritual journey of humanity. Just over three months later, even American newspapers ran reviews describing it as “a volume that has set two worlds astir.” As avid or curious readers pored over the pages of its fifth chapter, “Man and Mythologies,” they were captivated by passages like this meditation on the motivations and appeal of paganism:

Finally, it did satisfy, or rather it partially satisfied, a thing very deep in humanity indeed; the idea of surrendering something as the portion of unknown powers; of pouring out wine upon the ground or throwing a ring into the sea; in a word, of sacrifice. … The pagan... feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents. … But there was always trouble in the triumph … The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and maim him forever. Henceforth being merely secular would be a servitude and an inhibition. If a man cannot pray, he is gagged; if he cannot kneel, he is in irons. … When the man makes the gesture of salutation and of sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knews he is doing a worthy and a virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made.

Chesterton had an insight. The act of worship – its gestures, its attitudes, its sacrifice – is “one of the things for which a man was made.” Without it, we aren't satisfied. We find it natural, which is why worship has been such a human universal. Always has been. We always attach ourselves to something, always open ourselves to something, always organize our lives with reference to something, seek help and security from something, are distinguished and marked by whatever it is we deem worthy of our recognition and attention. To be that, to do that, is utterly natural, universally human. And that's worship.

Five years ago – many decades after Chesterton – an Old Testament scholar named Daniel Block put out a book titled For the Glory of God. And the opening sentence was just this: “To be human is to worship.” That's just what humans do: they worship. Invariably. Block wasn't the first to say it; back in '96, Rodney Clapp wrote: “To be human is to worship, to adore, to admire, to give our allegiances to powers greater than we, powers that grant our life meaning and purpose, substance and form. … At worship we consecrate our lives: what we worship or ultimately adore is what we live or die for. And at worship we celebrate our lives: what we worship is the source and sustainer of our existence. Thus worship shapes us, it forms us as a people.” Just the other year, philosopher James K. A. Smith defined the human species, not as Homo sapiens, but as Homo liturgicus, 'liturgical man' or 'worshipping man' – “embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate. … This sort of ultimate love could also be described as that to which we ultimately pledge allegiance; or, to evoke language that is both religious and ancient, our ultimate love is what we worship. … To be human is to be the kind of creature who is oriented by this kind of primal, ultimate love..., what defines us..., what we worship.” But to know all that, you could just listen to Bob Dylan when he sings:

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are;
You're gonna have to serve somebody:
Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

And in singing that, he was absolutely right. Every human is going to have to serve somebody. To be human is to worship. We find it natural to worship, because it's one of the things for which a man was made. Worship is a human universal, even if it disguises itself as a 'non-religious' allegiance. But everybody ascribes worth and value, makes sacrifices, is oriented to a primal love, seeks help and security somewhere, is marked and distinguished from others by what that 'something' is; and so... everybody worships. Everybody worships.

And I'd like to suggest to you that that little insight – those profound two words – sum up one of the key themes of the Book of Revelation. We're so accustomed to hearing about Revelation and getting all worked up, or trying to mine its pages for the newspaper headlines of tomorrow, or thinking that it's full of fear and confusion. As we're going to explore, it really isn't. Revelation, in many ways, is a book about worship. The main cast of characters might be boiled down to ten, two sets of five: a trinity, a crowd of worshippers, and a woman who embodies a civilization. We'll explore those civilizations next week. But I want you to meet the basic cast of characters of Revelation as a whole, and realize that Revelation is showing you the human options in worship.

On the one hand, Revelation points us to one object of worship and devotion: the Holy Trinity. We know this Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Revelation describes the persons a little differently. The Father is sometimes just called 'God,' other times 'the One who sits on the throne,' or even 'He who was and is and is to come.' The Son is depicted most commonly as 'the Lamb' – the one who conquers by being sacrificed, the one who wins by looking like he loses but whose faithfulness outlasts and exhausts death. And the Holy Spirit, described as 'the seven spirits,' is what motivates a variety of witnesses and prophets throughout the book, who all point to “God and the Lamb” as the ones who deserve worship from all of creation, heavenly and earthly, angelic and human. In the opening of the book, John wishes the readers grace and peace from all three: first from the Father (“Him who is and who was and who is to come”), then from the Spirit (“the seven spirits who are before his throne”), then from the Son (“Jesus Christ the faithful witness...”).

This Trinity, the Holy Trinity, God and the Lamb and the sevenfold Spirit who points to them, are one option – the right option – for human worship. And so, in the pages of Revelation, we do see people who fall in love with that option and live faithfully by such worship. Sometimes they're depicted as a countable Israelite army, the “144,000” – and sometimes they're depicted as an uncountable crowd from all nations. We'll pick up on that at the end of July. For now, just notice that there are some people in Revelation who are described as “the servants of our God” (Revelation 7:3), who spiritually “stand before the throne and before the Lamb” and give worship to the Holy Trinity (Revelation 7:9). We find them standing on Mount Zion with the Lamb, singing songs of praise (Revelation 14:1-3). And of them it's said, “It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from the earth as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4). They serve God. They follow the Lamb. They were made to worship, and when they worship, they turn to the Holy Trinity and give their sacrifices and songs to God and to the Lamb through the sevenfold Spirit.

And as we read these passages, we find out that they bear a distinguishing mark. Long before Revelation, the Bible had already been depicting Israel as 'marked' or 'signed' by God. In the story of the first Passover, when Israel through Moses was being set free from Egypt, they were told that this observance, the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). In other words, the fact that they were rescued through sacrifice was to be what distinguished them from every other people; they should bear that memory in their thoughts and deeds and should bear witness to it. Forty years later, after they've received the instructions, the Torah, the word of God, they're told, “You shall bind it as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Many observant Jews even today will wear small boxes – tefillin, or phylacteries – containing tiny scrolls with key passages from God's word. The prophet Ezekiel heard God command an angel to pass through a corrupted Jerusalem and to “put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sign and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:4). That mark, in Ezekiel – the mark of loyalty to God, like the sign of the Passover – serves as protection, because Ezekiel describes, just two verses later, how the warriors invading Jerusalem as divine judgment are to “touch no one on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:6).

So it shouldn't surprise us, when we get to Revelation, that those who worship the Holy Trinity are also marked. An angel emerges in Revelation 7 “with the seal of the living God” and describes his mission as to “seal the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:2-3). Seven chapters later, John sees the worshippers on Mount Zion with the Lamb, and they're described as humans “who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1). In various places in the book, certain judgments only happen to “those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (Revelation 9:4).

Revelation is presenting us with one option, the right option. In this option, our human impulse toward worship is given entirely over to God and to the Lamb, to the Father and the Son, as the sevenfold Holy Spirit tells us, through the witness of the church. And Revelation shows us that some of humanity will do this. They will be sealed with the name of God and the Lamb. This isn't literal writing; it's showing that the thoughts and actions of those who worship God and the Lamb will be distinguished from the thoughts and actions of those who don't, and it shows that those who worship God and the Lamb are defined by that allegiance, that primal love, that worship. Whenever we see people like this in Revelation, they're singing and praising, they're testifying and suffering, they're following the Lamb wherever he goes. Even when he trots toward the slaughterhouse. Even when he ascends to his Father. They belong to the Lamb, are owned and operated by the Lamb's Spirit, and that is what marks them and defines them. That is what they were made for and redeemed for – that worship.

That's one option. But famously, Revelation paints a picture of another option, an option it deems a bad choice, an option centered around counterfeits. If Revelation shows us the Holy Trinity, Revelation also unmasks an unholy trinity. When we get to the center of the book, we meet a very unsavory cast of characters. First is the Dragon – “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). This Dragon is hungry to devour, to consume, to kill, to destroy. And he's labeled “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). As the plot of the book moves forward, this Dragon and its allies are increasingly confined, increasingly frustrated, increasingly angry.

And at a pivotal moment in the story, the Dragon stands at the edge of the sea of chaos, and up rises Leviathan – or, as Revelation says, “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads..., and to it the Dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (Revelation 13:1-2). This beast from the sea, this Leviathan, is made in the Dragon's image, reveals the likeness of the Dragon, just as much as the Lamb reveals God, as the Son reveals the Father. And the Sea-Beast even appears as wounded but healed, a counterfeit of Christ's resurrection (Revelation 13:3). We find that the Sea-Beast derives its influence from the satanic Dragon; that the Sea-Beast is a slanderer of God and of his people (Revelation 13:6); and that the Sea-Beast even “was allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them” (Revelation 13:7). The Sea-Beast is a slanderer and persecutor, come to give death as much as the Lamb died to give life. But the Sea-Beast has widespread influence: “Authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation; and all earth-dwellers will worship it – everyone, that is, whose name hasn't been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8-9). We read that the Sea-Beast, drawing power from the Dragon, inspires “the whole earth” to “marvel” as they “follow the beast. And they worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, 'Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?'” (Revelation 13:4).

What would this have meant to the churches in first-century Asia Minor who first read John's vision? That's not much of a mystery. The Sea-Beast is Roman political and military power – the government and military of the empire. It seems to rise from the sea, in that its representatives come to these churches by ships across water. It presents itself as splendid, but the emperors lay claim to titles that belong to God alone. The emperors of Rome, by this point, were demanding worship, depicting themselves as Lord, God, and Savior. And imperial power was used to slander Christians and their God, as when the Emperor Nero had Roman Christians burned alive or dressed up like beasts and attacked by dogs, as scapegoats for a fire in the capital city. And yet the empire won the submission of many nations, and extended its reach far and wide. It promised peace, safety, a new day, and many blessings – but John saw behind the mask. And what he saw was a nexus of political and military power that was in the devil's hand, that was in fact a grotesque monster, that it had tricked the nations through false promises and slander and violence. This Roman government and military machine, John beholds as subhuman.

Today, Rome itself has come and gone, but the Sea-Beast was never limited to Rome. Any empire, any state, that becomes beastly – and they so frequently do – expresses the Sea-Beast. The governments of such states will tend to extend their influence through military power and strength. They'll tend to demand allegiance from those they can reach. That allegiance will require people to orient their lives to the state's goals, to accept the state's vision of what's good and what isn't, to orient themselves to the state's foundational ideology. And John calls that worshipping the beast. Such states will tend to punish those who withhold that allegiance – some will use open violence as a weapon, others will hide it better and be craftier and more subtle. But the claims made by that kind of beastly political and military power will amount to blasphemy, and yet the influence those states wield will impress many, and many will be deceived into thinking the beast beneficial, or at least irresistible. And so they will marvel. And so they will obey and submit. And so they will follow the beast. And that will be their worship. It may not be all they worship. But it will be one thing they worship, among a petty idol host.

In this, the Dragon and the Sea-Beast have help from one more character. Rounding out their unholy trinity, we read of “another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs..., and by the signs... it deceives the earth-dwellers, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain” (Revelation 13:11-15). Elsewhere, this Earth-Beast is called by a simpler name: “the False Prophet” (Revelation 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). It may seem like a kindly presence, looking like a lamb, but it's no lamb – you can tell that when you hear the content of what it says, because it's the dragon's anti-gospel that spews from its mouth. Whereas in the Holy Trinity, the sevenfold Holy Spirit inspires prophets to point to God and to the Lamb, this unholy trinity features a beastly false prophet – the Behemoth – who points to the Dragon and the Sea-Beast. It provides religious legitimation for what the Sea-Beast does, acting somewhat like a chaplain and enforcer, all in one. It impresses on behalf of the Sea-Beast, it glorifies a moving and speaking image, but its marvels only draw lines in the sand, and any who don't participate must be ostracized and punished.

We read further that the Earth-Beast, the Behemoth, the False Prophet “causes all – both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave – to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark – that is, the name of the beast, or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:16-17). Whereas the Holy Spirit seals those who follow the Lamb, the False Prophet dishes out a counterfeit. In Egypt a few centuries earlier, a pagan ruler actually did brand Jews with the sign of an ivy leaf, the mark of the pagan god Dionysus. And similarly, the False Prophet brands people like slaves, making servitude and allegiance to the Sea-Beast a condition for participating in the full economic life of the community for people of every class.

Again, to John's first-century audience, this wouldn't be much of a mystery. In Asia Minor, a provincial council – local authorities, representing all their cities – was responsible for governing local life on behalf of the imperial authorities of Rome overseas. Their ranks included many priests of the imperial cult, and the council sought to encourage all residents to pay appropriate respects to the imperial cult, which worshipped the emperor and Rome itself as a god and goddess. Pagan priests of all sorts had ways to rig cult statues in temples – even in imperial temples – to make them seem to talk and speak, thus making the statues seem more like the living presence of the so-called god they pictured. And this council and its priesthoods had influence over the trade guilds and the money supply. Coins bore the emperor's picture and slogans attesting his divine status; receipts often included imperial propaganda. It became essentially impossible at times to participate in the economy of the Roman Empire without accepting allegiance to the imperial cult and other forms of pagan worship.

Beyond John's day, we find this Earth-Beast appearing under many other masks – whatever provides legitimacy and spreads the propaganda of the Sea-Beast, whatever enforces the demands of allegiance to the Sea-Beast through criminal penalties or market boycotts. Whatever it is, John looks at it, holds up this picture, and calls it subhuman – says it's part of the unholy trinity that, with Satan at its head, leads people to succumb to the state ideology (and other ideologies) that demand allegiance, that demand what John sees as worship. John would've agreed with what G. K. Chesterton said – not just in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man, but in another book Chesterton wrote seven years later, Christendom in Dublin, where Chesterton remarked, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. … Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.”

That's so often true. And that's what John sees at work here in the unholy trinity of Dragon, Sea-Beast, and Earth-Beast – of Satan, Leviathan, and Behemoth. Everybody worships, to be human is to worship, and if that impulse is derailed toward political and military power and toward state-ideology propaganda and economic strangleholds, all at their satanic worst... well, the result is subhuman. It marks the 'earth-dwellers' with a beastly sign – not necessarily a literal, visible tattoo, but symbols of allegiance to the state ideology, to this false option for worship. That might look like a hammer-and-sickle, that might look like a rainbow, that might look red and white and blue – but John looks behind the propaganda and sees the beastliness for what it really is.

And he sees humanity segregate themselves – some showing allegiance to the beast, others serving God. Some worship the Holy Trinity, others accept the unholy counterfeit trinity. What Revelation reveals is, ultimately, that everyone bears some mark. If it isn't the seal that marks allegiance to God and to the Lamb, it's the mark that cryptically names the beast. Without the mark of the beast, you can find yourself sidelined from society and from economic and political life, you can find the police powers of the state and its military strength aligned against you, you can find yourself belittled by its media outlets, find yourself pressed hard on every side. But without the seal of the living God, you can find only judgment in the end.

For all our incessant wavering, we will, in the end, bear one and exactly one mark. For the two cannot coexist. You cannot both be sealed with the seal of the living God, have the names of Father and Son on your forehead, and bear the mark of the beast and worship it. No – you must either worship God and the Lamb in spirit and in truth, or else worship what's beastly in its fearsome deception. You must accept the propaganda, or you must testify against beastliness in governance, beastliness in the courts, beastliness in the military, beastliness in the economy, beastliness in the media, beastliness in religion, beastliness in society. And that is a live choice. Churches can easily be filled with those who bear beastly markings. But everybody worships. And every life of worship bears its cost.

But, as Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.” So each day, we must cultivate our love. Do we yield to and cling to the political and military and ideological and economic life of powers behind which beastliness lurks, or do we love God and the Lamb? Which will we love? Which will we run to for protection, security, identity? What allegiance will we pledge: Dragon or God, Beast or Lamb? Whom will we follow to the last? What will we worship?

Is it clear to everyone today which mark you bear? Will that be just as obvious tomorrow? What about the day after that? What allegiance will you pledge? As you ponder it, consider the messages we hear in Revelation 14: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water. … If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on his forehead or his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger..., and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, whoever receives the mark of its name. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints: those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:7-12). Two trinities. Two marks. Everybody's gotta serve somebody. Watch your neighbors – what do they really love, what stories do they really buy into, where do they seek security and prosperity, what do they serve, what do they deem worthy? Watch your relatives – what do they follow, what do they worship? Watch your nation – what worship do its institutions proclaim? And then, what about us? Everybody worships – so what will we? What will I? What will you? Think on these things – and may you be found one of those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and bear no seal but his. In Jesus' name – Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Living One: Sermon on Revelation 1:9-20

The sun hadn't even yet risen. The dazzling blue of the Aegean Sea remained yet cloaked in black. But a man in his early eighties, his gnarled fingers gripping his staff, cautiously but with familiarity felt his way through the darkness up the mountainside path. A younger man walked with him, supporting him on his way to ensure he didn't fall. The elder was thankful. The pair made their way to a small cave in the rock, where two or three others awaited him. The elder struggled to adjust. He was used to overseeing whole districts, gathering with dozens and hundreds, not this tiny band of those he'd reached in just the few months he'd been stuck here. He felt sidelined, reduced, frustrated, idle. He was itching for freedom. But – he sighed to himself – he must have work to do here, else here he'd not be. He just hoped that he'd get some visitors from the outside world again soon. Being relegated to this isle of the sea – a penalty meted out for his 'stubborn' refusal to never lie about what he knew, his insistence on speaking divine words of truth and testifying to the One with whom he'd been privileged to walk – well, the relegation felt, at times, a bit like being hamstrung.

But no matter. It was the eighth day of the week – the day of new creation, the day that burst all bounds of all they'd ever known. Candlelight lit the cave, flickering, toying with shadows and glimpses across the faces of the little cell. They were there to worship a God whom governors and emperors knew not, a God for whose sake the elder had been punished by civil authorities like Bradua the proconsul – or was it Paetus? They all blurred together after a while, at his age. No matter. The elder welcomed his followers, announced the good news. They sang, hummed, bursting the silence of their dark cave with music. Having no texts to read, it fell to the elder to recite the holy words. He chose, for that day, to recall what the prophet Daniel had seen. A series of four beasts, rising from the sea as heavenly winds stirred them up – the grand empires of the earth, with the last being monstrosity of monstrosities. But then, the Ancient of Days – the Holy One, the Eternal – sat on a throne, with clothing white as snow, hair like pure wool, and beneath him flames for his seat, and a stream of fire before him as attendants hailed him. Court was in session, to judge the beasts that ruled the earth. Then approached a man, rising on clouds into the Ancient of Days' court. And the verdict was, this Son of Man would rule – the glory of humanity, not the ghastliness of beasts, would lead the earth, forever and ever, amen.

The thoughts stuck in the elder's mind as he turned to the cave wall, leading his little band in a chant to the Lord Jesus Christ, their God. The elder called; the disciples responded. The elder called; the disciples sang. But the elder's mind stayed on that beautiful prophecy. His heart swelled within him as he chanted, the words taking up every nook and cranny of body and soul; a sensation like lightning rushing down lit the synapses in his brain. His mind wandered, and it took a moment to realize that the responses of his disciples sounded muffled, distant. The elder paused, straining to hear them – and regretted it when they were silenced by a crashing crescendo of sound, a flurry of words, a voice that split eardrums and threatened to split earth.

Whipping around as fast as his aching knees would allow, the cave was gone, candles gone, faces gone, but he found himself – where had he found himself? It seemed like a vast field of mist, pulsating, roiling, stretching out beyond where the rock walls should be. Beneath his feet... he couldn't tell on what he was standing; blocked from view, it felt like crystalline clouds. He peered through the mist, or tried, but found it impenetrable, thick as the veil of old in the holy place, a denser blanket of fog than ever he'd stumbled into. Throbbing, gleaming, living, as if each molecule were an angel of light, dancing in chorus as they swirled round his shins and hid his very hands from his face.

Then a cutting wind started to blow, lashing his cheeks with a cold breeze. And in the stiff blowing of wind, the turbulent mist began to thin. First silhouettes, then light began to emerge. The stunned elder began to see... menorahs. Lampstands, tall, tall almost as he, with their seven branches each. How many menorahs? He knew ten had stood in Solomon's Temple, flanking the sanctuary five by five. But here, at least within reach, he could count... one, two, three, four, five... six... seven of them. Solid gold but bigger than he recalled, with branches with buds and blossoms, topped with seven lamps. And the wicks were ablaze – flames flickered, wavered, lit up the mist that seemed to give way for them, swirling around their lights. The elder was mesmerized. He'd not dreamt he'd see such lampstands again. But here they were, in the ethereal mist.

And then, the elder froze. There was motion in the mist. Behind and between the menorahs, he saw a figure looming, lurking. A human figure, striding with purpose. The elder at first could see no more than the shape, the form. But those clothes... As the mist cleared, the elder could catch glimpses of an ankle-length robe bound by a golden sash and an ephod and the glimmering breastplate of twelve gems. It made sense. Among the menorahs of the temple, there had to be a priest to tend them. But what high priest could this be?

Then the mist split open, cracked like the sky on Judgment Day, recoiled in awe and terror from the luminosity of the priest, and the elder's jaw dropped, his eyes bulged, his heart raced. Here was the man – dare he think of him as 'a man'? – but the man from whose voice that thunder of words crashed, like the collapse and resurgence of a billion oceans. The elder struggled to look that man in the face. His hair was white, like snow on the peak of the mountain, like wool on the purest lamb – it was the hair of the Ancient of Days, the hair of Daniel's God. Above his flowing beard, the elder saw eyes that burned like a furnace, eyes that crackled, eyes that smoldered – and the elder tore away his gaze as his knees buckled and he sank. How could he bear to look into those eyes – those eyes that surveyed the proteins in his cells and the contours of galaxies, those eyes that no seraph dared meet, those eyes that melt mountains, those eyes that lit the spark of creation with their heat? How dare the elder count the hairs that bespoke antiquities of eternity when yet every nebula was a newborn?

The elder tore away his gaze before the radiance could burn him out his body. But where to look? Every inch was overwhelming. The flesh of his hands, flesh of his bare feet, was like living metal, like burnished bronze of highest quality, glowing and molten and polished and perfected and glaring and beautiful. And the elder, the elder wept tears of joy and terror and agony and confusion and bliss. His ears were ringing, still aching from the boom of the voice – that voice that flashed bright, that pierced the mist, that split the air like a broadsword with every divine roar this priest spoke like a crashing ocean and howling tempest – this priest, Ancient of Days and Son of Man in one, whose whisper of command shook the fabric of space and time like an earthquake. The elder felt dizzy, felt sick – his vision pulsed white, fading from overstimulation. Features of the... the man... leapt forth to his view, discombobulated, jumbled, as if every twitch changed the whole picture – the elder felt like a dot, a speck, a fragment of a line trying vainly to comprehend all the unfamiliar dimensions of a meteor.

The elder struggled, from his knees, in a daze, to look up again. He glimpsed, if only for a moment, the priest's right hand. Swirling, spinning, a solar system of flashing light, the sun and moon and planets in their courses, all seven that dictate the nations' fates, were clutched in the man's grasp, nestled in his palm, brushed by his fingertips. The elder's vision sank into those stars, plummeted, toured the vast reaches of cosmic space – all within the man's hand. As the man raised that hand, the elder's sight tracked it almost involuntarily – until it came near the face. That face! That face, bright beyond compare, that face streaming rays of light, that face to which the burning noon is pale, to which the heavens are but a dirty mirror! That face was stronger and brighter than the sun at its height, unobscured. And the vision was too much. The light pulsed, and the elder's sight would have given way to blindness, save that the strength of the vision held his eyes captive against their will, against their protest, as he felt them itch and dissolve in their sockets, compelled to function beyond possibility.

The elder had seen what was impossible to see – had seen a man, a portrait of humanity far beyond anything the elder had ever dreamt humanity could be. But once he'd seen such a man, nothing less than this could ever seem human again, could ever measure up again, could ever make sense again. The elder's world was shattered by the encounter. Traumatized, shaken, overwhelmed, he swooned, he gave up his mind to the gulf, he surrendered consciousness, let go, and his body went limp as tattered rags. He collapsed, helpless and hopeless in imitation of death, at the burnished-bronze bare feet of the Everlasting Man.

And there he lay. His story closed. The book slammed shut. Transported to a lethal vision, lethal because too great for human sight. Paralyzed by grandeur, stricken by beauty into a coma, sapped of strength by a vigor so vital tornadoes seem lazily listless in compare. And so fell John, the elder exiled to Patmos, frightened by the sight for which he'd so long longed. Any pretensions of sufficiency, any illusions of competence, any will to achieve and accomplish, any self-concern – they lay slain, dashed to bits on that crystal-cloud floor. If only it could be so for us, who, for seeing and knowing less, can still feel ourselves strong in ignorant twilight!

But then the action goes on. The book is reopened in the Ancient of Days' court. The Son of Man stretches forth his starlit hand and touches the dusty skin of the catatonic elder. A booming whisper of thunder crashes through the elder's paralysis, shatters his chains, heals his hearing and sight and makes them able to bear itself. And the first words that revive the deadened elder to life are these: “Don't be afraid.” The trumpet of truth was commanding, compelling, irresistible, undeniable. It was the whip of an exorcist's words, and fear itself, like vermin, fled the elder's heart as from flame. The inward implosion of his psyche froze; every fragment of his soul stood in place. With a touch, the Everlasting Man restored the elder to himself, gave him back the gift of Johnhood, revived him to perfect peace and stillness, enabled him to stand under the unbearable weight of glory.

The elder's lost eyes and scourged ears became one with the Spirit of the Lord; through the Spirit, he could hear and see the Everlasting Man, look him square in the dazzling face unflinching, hear the surge of a universal ocean in his voice and yet make out the finest tones of heavenly melody. But still he did not understand. This great high priest, tending the seven menorahs – John the Elder could see some of them half-lit, some of them flickering, some of them glaring and blaring, some of them struggling 'gainst the breeze – but this priest who tended them, who dredged out the old and spent, who trimmed and pruned their wicks, who poured new oil into them, who touched them and bade each lamp be lit – this priest, this Everlasting Man: who? what? how?

And to the elder, the Everlasting Man explained. He explained that he knew what it was like for the elder to lay there on the floor, limp and lifeless. He knew because he, the Everlasting Man, had died once. On a chilling spring day, on a hill outside a city, stretched between dirt and sky, robe stolen, caked with gore had he died. He himself had been there. But look, look! The Everlasting Man is dead no more! He is alive again, alive again, and terminally so, interminably so! “I died, and behold! I am alive forevermore!” Forever and ever, forever and ever, lives the Everlasting Man – humanity beyond death, humanity beyond conquest, is he! And so gained the Everlasting Man his new title, new name: “The Living One.” The One who is himself Life itself.

This Living One – the elder was stunned by the revelation. He knew this Living One, had walked with him and talked with him before that chilling spring day, and after, too. Could it be? Could this priest of heaven, this tender of the lampstands, this holder of the stars, be the very Jesus who'd broken bread into his hands? Jesus, the Living One! Jesus, who effortlessly steers fates and destinies with a flick of his finger! Jesus, whom no law of decay can touch, whom no raging eon can wear down, whom no shadow can dim, no chance relativize – the Living One forever and ever! First before the dawn of creation, Last beyond the limits of all infinity, in himself he spans, encompasses all things; as God Most High he dwarfs the universe as the universe dwarfs a dust mite.

With his burning sight, he surveys the true state of all things. Every person – you and me – his fiery view sees. Every collective, every society, every structure – his flaming eyes behold how they really are. The Living One speaks sharpness, striking down all that's unworthy, surgically separating reality cell from cell, atom from atom, quark from quark. His outcry instills and relieves fear, binds and looses the hearts of men and angels. And in his clutches, he's stolen away the very keys of Death and Underworld. No Caesar and no bandit can wield death as a weapon of tyranny forever – they go only so far as the Living One unlocks the doors, and when he locks death and grave against his servant, no power in creation can force them through. No dark chthonic demon, no petty idol, no binding necessity of nature can keep any hemmed in death and grave and netherworld, should the Living One unlock the door and proclaim release. To ferry soul or star or society from upper realm to lower or from lower realm to upper, from death to life or life to death, is to the Key-Holder effortless – and the keys are in the Living One's hands, and no one can steal them away from his grip.

And where does the elder see him? Ministering as a priest between the menorahs, the lampstands. Trimming the wicks. Cleaning out the spent oil. Supplying new oil of his Spirit. Bidding them receive him and burn with bright life. And what are these seven lampstands? He himself – the Living One, the Everlasting Man – tells the elder: They're churches. They're the witness of whole communities of believers, of disciples. Not all are lit up brightly. They flicker. Some have big flames soaring high; others sputter and smolder on just a few branches; some scarcely emit dim puffs of smoke.

But still, to these flickering, flaming, sputtering, smoldering lives, he reaches out his touch, he voices his speech. Even to the small lives, buffeted by stiff winds, choked and spent, he actively ministers, bidding them only receive and burn with bright life. Yet as they flicker still, he does not leave. He has not left. The Living One, the Everlasting Man, the Priest of the Lampstands, in all his splendor and majesty, is ever present among them. He walks between them, never far from the smallest and most misshapen branch, never distant to the brightest or dimmest flame. The Giver of Life, the Presence of Life, is never far from our lampstand here, never absent from your life, no matter how smoky or deadly the breeze.

When we're far from outselves, still he stays near. When we're few, still his starlit hand tends to us as much as to the tallest and most polished. When the hostility of a dark world makes our light seem pointless, still the Living One shines brighter than noonday. When the fashions of a restless world scoff at his antiquity, still he is First before them and Last after them, relevant unchanged for longer than the sun can burn. When the hemming and hawing of an uncertain choir peddles truth softly, still his voice slashes beyond the confusion and speaks a clear word. When the stars above seem dizzy and all fate seems up for grabs, still he nestles the spinning worlds in his hand as they dance from sign to sign. When the seismic shifts of modernity and tragedy threaten to overturn all things, still his burnished-bronze feet stand firm forevermore, and he stabilizes our lampstand if we rest on his hand. And when we swoon in helplessness and hopelessness, still his starlit touch can cast out all fears and raise us up to life and strength again, for every key is in the Living One's hands. All glory to the One who died and is alive forevermore, the Priest of the Lampstands, the Everlasting Son of Man!

Why do I bring you this message? Why do I recount this vision? Why do I share such things to the place from which a lampstand rises? Because I want you to see him. The Living One said to John, “Write, therefore, the things that you have seen” (Revelation 1:19). Write it down. Send it along. Make a record of this vision, that others might catch a glimpse through you. So, through John's obedient writing, may you, too, hear him, see him, know him. Encounter the Living One whom John, caught up in worship on the Lord's Day, saw amidst the lampstands. Find what the elder found. Grapple with a Jesus who is not tame, who is not simple, who is not dull or discountable. See the Jesus John saw, hear the Jesus John heard. Behold him for who he is; let his glory conquer you, yield beneath his starlit hand, allow him to raise you up and make you able. Then write, speak, share the Jesus you've seen faithfully among the lampstands. He is not far. He is not dead. No, no – never dead again. The Living One holds the keys, he holds the stars, he holds us all. Behold him, and be cast down and upheld. All glory to Christ the Living One, far as eternal ages run! Amen!