Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Final Fight: Sermon on Ezekiel 38-39

What's the world coming to? Have you been watching the news, reading the newspaper? There must be dozens of wars going on right now in the world. This year so far, I don't think a day has gone by without at least two “terrorist incidents” somewhere – just last night, a man in Brussels tried to ram a car into the police, and earlier this morning, another car bomb claimed more lives in Syria. There's been so much violence and mayhem – stealing parents from children, children from parents, spouse from spouse, friend from friend.... We've watched in horror as kids wash up on beaches, as people get burned by bombs or chemical weapons. And the guilty so often walk free. Even in Lancaster County, people may well 'settle' arguments, not with a better argument, but with a bullet. And I read in the paper just this morning about an assault here in our own township. It seems like theft, violence, and injustice always win the day. It seems like pain, sorrow, and death always have the upper hand. It seems like greed, exploitation, and media frenzy always follow in their wake. It seems like that's just the way the world is – hopeless and cruel. It seems like we still aren't so far from the way Thomas Hobbes described the 'state of nature,' wherein human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So in light of that, what we read here in the prophecies of Ezekiel maybe doesn't sound so unfamiliar, so out of place. All this talk of a vast army, their heavy equipment, and their talk of an evil scheme to attack the innocent and carry away plunder; this portrait of fire and blood. It's not a pretty picture. But it is a meaningful one. And it starts like this: “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him” (Ezekiel 38:2). Oh boy... Gog and Magog... They play a pretty prominent role in eschatology – that's a fancy word for the study of the end times, the study of the last things. If you've ever listened closely to an “end-times prophecy expert,” you've heard about them plenty, since they show up in Revelation again. That's one of the big questions they're often so sure about – “Who exactly is Gog? Where exactly is Magog? What will all this look like?”

And throughout the years, they've been very sure. Some Christians in the third century were sure that, when Ezekiel (and, later, John) said 'Gog' and 'Magog,' they meant the Roman Empire that was dead-set on persecuting them. But then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperors started believing in Jesus – so maybe they weren't Gog and Magog after all. But there were these heretic barbarians called Goths, so a bishop named Ambrose suggested they were Gog and Magog. Fast-forward a few centuries, and now the empire is being challenged by a sweeping tide of Arabs, propelled by a new religion called Islam; and you start to get a few people suggesting that they're Gog and Magog. Then, in the thirteenth century, barbarians from northeast Asia start invading everything, sweeping across the world, and a missionary says these Mongols are the people of Magog – even Marco Polo gets on board!

Fast-forward a few more centuries, and there are a few ideas. Joseph Mede suggests that the 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be the American colonies! But more popular was Martin Luther's idea that 'Gog' and 'Magog' refer to the Ottoman Empire, the great Muslim world-power in Turkey that then ruled over the Holy Land. Up through the Revolutionary War, that was the most popular notion. A few decades later, after the bloody and godless French Revolution, there's a pastor in New England who makes a case that the French Empire under Napoleon is what's meant by 'Gog' and 'Magog.'

A few decades pass, and the Crimean War in the 1850s pits Russia against Britain, France, and the Turks – and now that Russia looks like the bad guys for a moment, somebody says that they're 'Gog' and 'Magog.' But that passes, and during the Civil War, one Methodist pastor thinks that Europe as a whole might be 'Gog,' and that after the Union wins, they'll attack America. Then World War I comes around, and someone suggests that 'Gog' and 'Magog' might be Germany. But in the wake of a pair of world wars, and as the Cold War begins, a lot of people set their sights on Russia again, on the Soviet Union, as 'Gog' and 'Magog' – Hal Lindsey spread that idea in The Late Great Planet Earth, and even Ronald Reagan believed it.

Then the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell, and most of the “prophecy experts” – (by the way, any time you hear somebody call himself a 'prophecy expert,' change the channel) – but most of them were still fixated on former Soviet powers, so they just downgraded Gog's importance. Tim LaHaye, John Hagee – in the nineties, they still insisted Ezekiel was speaking of a “Russian-Muslim alliance” against Israel. Joel Rosenberg says the same thing now, focusing on Russia joining forces with Iran (a Shi'a power, rather than the mainly Sunni antagonists in other scenarios). And in the past couple years, you've started to see a new idea come out of the woodwork: Ron Cantor proposed that ISIS is actually 'Gog' and 'Magog.'  And I won't dare prophesy to you what theory will take hold next.

That brings us up to today, so... what are we supposed to do with all that? And I'd like to suggest that they're all missing the point of what Ezekiel is saying here. Earlier in his book, he has a set of seven judgment messages against nearby nations. And now, at the climax of a sequence of prophecies about God's people being restored, he has one last judgment oracle... and it's against a mysterious “chief prince” from a people-group who haven't really been mentioned since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10! What's more, if you count, he's got seven military allies, all from Israel's distant north and south – but none of them are the same as the earlier seven countries. But a lot of the language comes from those earlier messages. So it starts to look like 'Gog, of the land of Magog' is actually a symbol – a symbol for something mysterious and vicious – a symbol that sums up what was wrong with all those evil empires Ezekiel had called out earlier.

And that's what 'Gog' is – he's a really vivid image for evil's last effort. He's a summary of evil powers, with a complete set of seven military allies and a complete set of seven merchant powers trying to cash in on his spoils and plunder. In our world now, we see all sorts of different countries, different gangs, different terror groups, different factions using violence and robbery to prey on the weak, to exert their power, to augment their prestige and privilege. 'Gog' is that, but projected on the big screen of creation. 'Gog' is what they all aspire to be. 'Gog' is the summary of human evil, the summary of oppression and injustice, the summary of what it means for a nation to be given over to sin. It doesn't matter what mask he wears – whether it's the mask of red tape, or the mask of terrorism, or the mask of gang warfare, or the mask of identity politics, or the mask of nationalism or internationalism or any other mask – Ezekiel is unmasking him, the 'him' to which all history's violence points.

One day, Ezekiel says, that full fury gets unleashed in the direction of God's people – by God's permission. But when we look at Gog and Magog and all their host, when we eavesdrop on their plans, we aren't seeing just one nation or another nation – we aren't seeing and hearing just the Romans, the Goths, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Russians, the terrorists – we're seeing the exposure of something that's everywhere, even here. Because this is how evil operates, even now. The strong, greedy, and envious use death and pain as a weapon to silence anyone who resists them; to take what isn't theirs; to gain more power, more wealth; to impose their vision on an unwilling world.

You saw it in Castro's Cuba. You saw it in Stalin's Russia. You saw it in the Third Reich, and in Mussolini's Italy. You saw it in the killing fields of Cambodia, the forced marches of the Armenian genocide, the ethnic warfare of Rwanda and elsewhere. You see it in the streets of Chicago. You see it in the Middle East. You see it all around you. The past few months in our own county have seen multiple murders – people using death as a weapon to 'settle' an argument, to 'settle' a score. Families from our own church have been plundered of their belongings. Families from our own church have been exposed to the powerful pain of death. And all that – that leads up to Gog. So many powers in our world use the pain of death and the fear of loss as a way to control, and they wish that they could be like Gog. One day, they may just get their wish.

If that were all there were to the story, it would not be a pretty story. It would not be a happy one. If all human history leads to Gog, and Gog stands triumphant over his enemies, just like violence seems to stand triumphant over the world today... well, where would that leave us? If that's all there is to the story, then for the most part, death and violence work. People can be silenced. People can be crushed and destroyed by it. Millions upon millions have lost their lives, their dignity, at the hands of Gog's precursors. Millions upon millions have been turned into mere statistics, covered up by the sands of time. And if Gog is where it's all headed, what's the point of anything else? History would be nothing but a revolving door of oppressors, tyrants, and revolutions. The violence of the world would go unchecked, because the violence of the world is the real winner on the world stage. Beneath all the civilized veneer we try to use like a mask over Gog's face, it really is the law of the jungle out there, nothing but nature red in tooth and claw, nothing but might making right – or, at least, might making right irrelevant. Gog is on the right side of history, as they say, the side toward which power and influence and popularity gravitate, the side toward which history's arc seems fated to bend. At least, if that's all there is to the story.

And yet the story continues further! Because Jesus Christ is risen! Amen? And because Jesus Christ is risen, 'Gog' can never have the last word. 'Gog' can never finally destroy. Death and violence may be the strongest weapon in Gog's arsenal, but Jesus has the veto power over the death penalty – even after it's been carried out. And so for all those whom Gog or his precursors execute, for all those whom they gun down in the streets, all those whom they blow up, all those they burn away, all those whose property or heritage they steal and violate... their story is not over. Their story may just continue long after Gog's has reached its conclusion. For those who follow Jesus, that's not just a possibility; that's a guarantee.

And so the Prophet Ezekiel makes a few things very clear. First, God and Gog do not see eye-to-eye. In fact, when Gog manifests himself once and for all, so does God's wrath against our wrathful lives. God's judgment on human violence and greed is laid bare here in terms few other prophets equaled: “My wrath will be roused in my anger,” he says, “for in my zeal and in my blazing wrath I declare: … I will summon a sword against Gog on all mountains … Every man's sword will be against his brother. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples who are with him torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur. So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:18-23).

And Revelation makes it just as clear: “I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against [Christ] who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Revelation 19:19-21). And when the devil “comes out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle, … they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:8-10).

It's a really graphic description, but what it shows is this: Gog does not have the last word. Gog does not have the final victory. Gog and his precursors may stride the world-stage for a time, playing their role, imagining that they write the script. But they don't. When we suffer at their hands – when we are oppressed, when we are opposed by governments, when we are threatened by terrorists, when we fear for safety in our own streets, when we don't know what to do or where to turn – God is not watching this with indifference. God is not ignoring us. God is allowing this for his purposes, but he will turn our sufferings into glory, and Gog's glory into destruction. When people imagine that violence will get them anywhere, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that the battle goes to the strong, it's because they're short-sighted. When people imagine that violence and theft are forever, that's short-sighted. When people imagine that it doesn't matter what you believe or how you live, that's short-sighted, because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

Ezekiel wants us to know, very clearly: Gog does not win; violence does not win; injustice does not win. The killers and thieves of the world, or the bureaucrats and thugs who aid and abet them, or the spiritual darkness that empowers them, or the political and economic powers who use them to their own advantage – they don't win, not a one of them wins, winning is not even on the table for them. In the end, they will lose. They will lose. They will lose when they find that, in preying on the peaceful, they were picking a fight with fire from heaven. (If you prey on peacemakers, beware when the peacemakers pray!) And we just need to decide, in how we live, whether we're on Gog's side, the “right side of history” (trendily so called), or on God's side, the right side of eschatology!

But Ezekiel has more. If Ezekiel 38 is about the defeat of Gog, Ezekiel 39 is about the disposal of Gog. And there are three major themes there. Gog doesn't get preserved in a fancy mausoleum like Vladimir Lenin, on display to be oohed and aahed at by adoring generations in perpetuity. No, Ezekiel says, “all the people of the land will bury them” (Ezekiel 39:13). But God also tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the birds and the beasts, calling them to come to the dinner God has set out for them, to “eat the flesh of the mighty and drink the blood of the princes of the earth” (Ezekiel 39:18). John records the same thing: “I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, 'Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men..., both small and great.' … And all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:17-18, 21). That is not exactly an honorable burial. All the strength of Gog, all the force of evil, all the power of violence – not only does it die away, but it dies in disgrace. Evil doesn't get to make a name for itself. Violence doesn't accomplish glory; it throws it away. Such is in itself the guarantee of and admission of ignominious defeat.

And then, Ezekiel says, “those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires out of the weapons and burn them – shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs and spears – and they will make fires out of them for seven years, so that they will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any of the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons. They will seize the spoil of those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them” (Ezekiel 39:9-10). In other words, evil can do its worst to us – it can steal from us, it can hurt us, even kill our bodies (for a short while) – but when everything is said and done, God “works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). What they mean for evil against us, God means as good for us (Genesis 50:20). If you've been stolen from, if you've been injured, if you've been betrayed, if you've lost loved ones – well, let all that be true, but if you belong to Jesus, he's going to turn that to your benefit. He'll give you the plunder from those who plundered you; and every weapon that was meant to hurt you will instead end up fueling your life in the world to come. The meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Gog inherits an unmarked grave.

And finally, Ezekiel says, the land will be cleansed after the battle. “For seven months the house of Israel will be burying them, in order to cleanse the land. … They will set men apart to travel through the land regularly and bury those travelers remaining on the face of the land, so as to cleanse it. At the end of seven months they will make their search. And when these travel through the land and anyone sees a human bone, then he shall set up a sign by it until the buriers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon-Gog. … Thus shall they cleanse the land” (Ezekiel 39:11-16). I think that's what Isaiah meant when God told him, “Behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). I think that's what John means when he writes, “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away,” and God “will wipe away every tear from [his people's] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). In other words, not only is Gog defeated, not only is Gog disgraced, not only does Gog's evil turn into benefit for God's people, but in the very end, Gog won't even be a memory. Nobody will still be haunted or traumatized by him, or by his precursors. There will just be no need to remember Gog, to remember violence, to remember the days of evil. All traces, all effects – they'll all be buried.

Brothers and sisters, we look at the world around us, we watch or read the news, and we see plenty of violence. We see plenty of evil. Sometimes it comes near – steals from us, hurts us, does injustice to us, taints our lives with death. And we cry out, “How long, O LORD, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction” (Psalm 35:17). We wonder if it will ever end. We wonder if all this could ever be made right, could ever be fixed. We wonder if Gog, and the aspiring mini-Gogs all over the earth, will always have the upper hand, if we'll always be caught in the middle or under their thumb. And the answer is no. Because Christ is risen, Gog's days are numbered. Violence has an expiration date. Evil will be vanquished. You will see a day with only good news.

So no matter how things look, no matter how terrible Gog's precursors and minions, no matter the harm they leave in their wake, no matter how bad or dark things seem to get, Gog is not forever. Tragedy is not forever. Injustice is not forever. Violence is not forever. Terror is not forever. Pain is not forever. Death is not forever. These things are not eternal. They will be destroyed, they will be disgraced, they will be discarded from life and from mind. Even if Gog can kill your body or take your freedom or property or dignity, that's only temporary. You will outlive Gog, if you follow the Rider who is Faithful and True, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:11,16), the Prince of Peace who died and is alive forevermore (Revelation 1:18). So take heart! Hallelujah – the ways and days of Gog are numbered, but we're with Jesus, with Jesus on the right side of God's story, and Jesus is forever!

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