Sunday, July 28, 2019

What a World at Worship Would Wear: Sermon on Revelation 7

When wrath comes, there is chaos in the land. All are frightened when the Judge draws near. Everything is in tumult; all things fall apart and crash. As the world shakes, people scatter and flee and hide – but there is no hiding. Long ago, the psalmist wondered, “At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned. But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?” (Psalm 76:6-7). So those caught in the judgment – saying, as Hosea predicted, “to the mountains, 'Cover us,' and to the hills, 'Fall on us'” (Hosea 10:8) – have the same question: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath can come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:16-17). In the day of wrath, who can stand? That's the question of the world, when all things fall apart: Who can stand? John hits the pause button. Then rewind. He's got to search for an answer, if there's an answer. Is there an answer to their question? Can he find anyone who can stand? John scans for an answer.

He lands on a scene with a quartet of angels – “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree” (Revelation 7:1). Well, John isn't surprised if these angels could stand – but he's not sure if it really answers the question as it was meant. But John'll keep watching. These four angels are restraining the forces of chaos. “Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, 'Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads'” (Revelation 7:2-3).

Now this is more promising. But who are the servants of God? John hears them counted off – 144,000 of them, from the twelve tribes of Israel, equal contingents from the tribes, Judah through Benjamin (Revelation 7:4-8). What symbol is this? John will catch them again in another vision, standing on Mount Zion and singing a song (Revelation 14:1). There, these 144,000 are described as male “virgins” who tell no lies, “for they are blameless” (Revelation 14:4-5). What does it mean? The key is in the first chapter of Numbers, where we hear the same kinds of phrases, counting off by tribes. The angel is taking a census. A military census. John hears the counting off of the Army of Israel, being kept pure for a holy war. Some Jewish groups expected that, in the end, Israel's army would again be organized by all twelve tribes, and that they'd sing war hymns, and that they'd have to keep pure, and that they'd win. What John hears tracks with those expectations so far. And this Israelite army he hears about is to receive a seal on their foreheads, just like the high priest bore the name of God on his forehead. It's going to mark them as belonging to God and no one else, and it's also going to yield a form of protection as they march out, allowing this army of avenging Israelite warrior-priests to stand in the judgment.

When we hear about the 144,000, we're prone to get nervous. We know about groups like Jehovah's Witnesses who badly abuse this passage and claim that it's a literal numerical limit for a special 'anointed class' with a heavenly hope, as opposed to those who'll live in a restored earth. We know of others who wonder if this is a figure for all who can be saved. And the figure does sound awfully limiting, even as an end-time army.

But whatever we think we've heard, we're in for a surprise. We don't yet know what we're hearing about. John sometimes hears about something, but once he sees it, he gets a whole new perspective. Earlier, John heard that there was a Lion of Judah – a Jewish warrior-messiah, the traditional expectation. But as soon as he looked, he saw a Lamb who'd been sacrificed. The Lion he heard about is the Lamb he sees, because Jesus the Messiah gains his victory through giving himself away at the cross. John's vision cracks open what he hears about and reveals a deeper truth. Just the same way, here John hears about an Israelite army of 144,000 (again, something of a traditional expectation), but then he looks, he sees, “and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). Instead of just Israel's tribes, it's all human tribes; instead of just a large number, it's a crowd beyond the reach of mortal math. And they're standing near the Lamb. It's the same group, but now he sees and his expectations are blown away. Turns out the army was the church!

So what does that mean about us? Both what John first hears, and then what John sees, teach us about what and who we are, as a church. John hears about the twelve tribes, and we learn that the church is heir to Israel's long-awaited hopes and is the fulfillment of the prophets' dreams about Israel's future. It's just like Paul taught: the church is Israel, just with branches from all nations grafted onto the trunk growing from Abraham's roots (cf. Romans 11:17). So when we read in the Old Testament about the promises made to Israel, we shouldn't think of them being fulfilled by a nation in the Middle East – that's not what they're about. They're for us, the church.

We also have a new vision for the church. The church is the end-time army of God. Which means the church is supposed to fight. Things are not supposed to be an easy vacation for the church on earth. The church is an army. To be baptized into Christ, as we all have been, is to enlist. But like Paul says, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). We have “weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). We take up “the shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:16-17). And we go forth to conquer, for “everyone who has been born of God conquers the world, and this is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4). The Lamb conquered by sacrificing his life, and the end-time army – the church – conquers by our fearless and faithful witness 'til death. As the army of the true Israel, we are not called to do violence but to suffer it; we imitate Jesus. And as we do, we must remain pure and truthful. It's on account of us, being sealed by the Holy Spirit as we're saved, that final wrath is held back from the earth.

So much for what John heard, but what about what John saw? The “144,000” aren't a special privileged part of the church – it's a symbolic number for the church, as a whole. In switching from hearing to seeing, John's just hit the fast-forward button and gotten a new heavenly perspective on the church. The end-time army has turned out not to be an elite few, but a very large crowd. There are times we think, with Elijah, that we're all alone – that in the corruption of our day, we've been whittled down to the smallest remnant. There are times we look around at a sanctuary with pews that decades ago had bodies in them but today go unused, and we get discouraged. But we here are only part of a crowd bigger than math, no matter how small or marginalized we may feel in any time or any place or any congregation. We may feel small, but we belong to a bigger crowd. We may feel like we're sidelined in country and culture, but we are part of something that outlasts White House and Wall Street and Washington Monument – we belong to the church. And the church goes to the heart of everything.

When John looks at the church triumphant, he sees “a great multitude that no one could number,” but they did not just come from the twelve tribes of Israel, like he briefly thought. The mantle of that heritage has been now stretched across all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). The church is beyond classification. It isn't just Jews. It isn't just Greeks or Romans. It isn't just American citizens. Most of the crowd he sees had no US passports, though some did. Most of the crowd he sees never saw or saluted a star-spangled banner. And they're quite fine with that. The faces he sees don't all have the same amount of melanin – some are pretty pale, others very much not. The church is not ultimately divided on racial lines, even though ethnic self-segregation is a hurdle we struggle to overcome in American church life still today. And the voices John hears are not all speaking English. Only a small fraction do (and that with a plethora of dialects). He hears also Hebrew and Spanish and Farsi and Xhosa and Arabic and French and so much more, but the Spirit blesses with pentecostal understanding. Where here we're tempted to scornfully say, “This is America, speak English,” John might well say, “This is the church, speak everything!” Because what John sees is so much bigger than our little corner of it. And if we make our limited experience the measuring stick of what church should always and forever be, then we're missing the bigger picture.

When John looks at the church, all their focus is on Jesus. In fact, when the church considers Jesus, they think of him as “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” (Revelation 7:17). To the church, Jesus is no outlier. Jesus is not at the fringes. Jesus is not shunted off to one side, a mere portion of God's plan. No, Jesus is at the heart of who God is. When we think about God, we have to think of Jesus. The church can never worship a generic god – we worship God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus the Son reveals God his Father and pours out the Spirit – they eternally live and reign, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” So Jesus can never be demoted – not in the church's estimation, or else the church is less than church. The church worships Jesus because we see him in the midst of the throne, not to the exclusion of his Father and his Spirit, but with them. All we assume about God must be tested in light of Jesus, of whom scripture speaks from Genesis to Revelation.

As John sees the church, the church has been cleansed and purified – but not by their own moral compass, not by their own accomplishments, not by their own efforts. As he looks, John sees them all “clothed in white robes” (Revelation 7:9), and he's told that “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). As John will later see the end-time army with the Lamb on Mount Zion, “these have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4). “Jesus paid it all; all to him [we] owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, but he washed it white as snow.” So “lay aside the garments that are stained with sin and be washed in the blood of the Lamb! There's a fountain flowing for the soul unclean – oh, be washed in the blood of the Lamb!” There is “no other fount [we] know” that can make the garments of our lives “white as snow.” The church will always be defined by what Jesus did for us, not what we did for ourselves. It is not moral advice we preach, but Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen (in whom alone do we have out-of-this-world wisdom to offer)!

When John sees the church, he sees us as a countless crowd “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). He does not see them as isolated individuals in rows of apartments, each minding their own business. He sees them together, in communion, in fellowship. Nor does he see them occupied in busy work, out roaming the streets. Private prayer is good – but it doesn't define the church. Social work is good – but it doesn't define the church. What does define the church is gathering collectively in the presence of God and of the Lamb. What we are doing right now, if God is here as we believe – that is being churchly, at heart. There are other things the church must do, but this is who the church must be: a gathering presented to God and Lamb. Which is why gathering together isn't optional, and why a spiritual life is a life lived together in the presence of Jesus. Worship is at the heart of who we are, and we must worship together.

But we also know that Jesus doesn't stand still. He's at work in the world, moving in the world. And as he does throughout our weeks, we have to keep on track with him. So in John's other vision, he describes the end-time army, the 144,000 who are the countless church, as those “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). The church, at heart, is a roving band of Lamb-followers and Lamb-imitators. You have no guarantee that the Lamb will go out to eat at a nice restaurant and then to your house on Sunday afternoon. If he's headed elsewhere, we'd best go with him. If he's headed to the streets to confront violence, the church needs to follow. If he's headed to the hospitals, the church needs to follow. If he's headed to the hearts of the hurting, the church needs to be there too. Again and again, the church must follow Christ to the crosses of the world – even if that puts nails in our hands and feet. So the church is on mission in the world – that's what we do because of who we are, as we follow the Lamb. It isn't our initiative. We don't need to decide where to go and what to do. We just need to pray to see the Lamb on the move, then go that way.

As John sees the church, he understands that the church triumphant has a painful past as the church militant. He is told that the church he sees consists of “the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14). John knows that this life is not easy. When he speaks of 'the great tribulation,' he doesn't only mean the challenges of some era in the future. He means the hard trials and tribulations we face now, which were to become worse in the last days – (and we've been living in the 'last days' for a couple thousand years now). “In the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33) – Jesus promised that to his first disciples, and he says it to each of us in his church: You will have tribulation. Life will be hard. Life will seem unfair. Life will be taxing and tiring. The church John sees has lived through that. They have, they really have. Each white-robed saint in John's crowd has a backstory of bad days. We must endure tribulation, but it does have an expiration date. There is an exodus from tribulation, even from the great tribulation.

And on the other side, the church celebrates an exodus victory. Just as ancient Israel celebrated their exodus out of Egypt by holding the Feast of Tabernacles and waving palm branches around as they camped with God (cf. Leviticus 23:40-43), so the church in glory celebrates their exodus out of tribulation by holding an eternal Feast of Tabernacles around God's throne (cf. Zechariah 14:16). So it's no wonder we find the church “clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). People reading Revelation hot off the presses would've got this. Romans knew that military victors, people celebrating a triumph, might “run around with a palm branch” (Suetonius, Caligula §32). Jews remembered that, when they kicked invaders out of Jerusalem, they'd “entered it with praise and palm branches..., because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51). Waving palm branches is for the winners. And from John's heavenly perspective, he sees that the whole church is full of winners in God's sight – those who fought the good fight and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). On the other side of tribulation, the church camps with God and enjoys the victory.

The church is the end-time army, but they don't see the victory as 'theirs,' as if the church has accomplished it for themselves. It isn't a victory they achieved by bearing up under the struggle, though they did have to endure. It is victory from God. Because that victory, that deliverance, that exodus first from sin and then from suffering, they call 'salvation.' And they shout, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). The church takes no credit! The church is not pulled up by its own bootstraps, and neither is any Christian. Salvation is the work of God – he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and for that we thank God and the Lamb (1 Corinthians 15:57). This is the major theme of everything the church has to say, and if the world hears too much else from the church, then maybe we've gotten off-script. Our key theme is that we get no credit, but God sent Jesus to be our Lamb, to die for us, to rise again having accomplished an eternal salvation, and through Jesus God gives us victory as a gift. Everything else we do is response to victory already won for us before we stepped onto the field of life. We were already rescued, already delivered, already saved – and now we're just waiting for the other side of that, the completion of our exodus.

That is the church's major theme, the message we should be singing and saying and shouting. So that's what the church in glory does. (You may have noticed, but in Revelation nobody whispers or mumbles – all the voices are loud voices! Maybe church as we practice it here is too tame, too quiet, too muted?) The church shouts in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” But then what does John see next? “All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, 'Amen! The blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!'” (Revelation 7:11-12). Two chapters ago, when we looked at heavenly worship at the ascension of Jesus, our picture was worship initiated by the four living creatures, affirmed by the twenty-four elders, then joined by the mega-millions of angels, and finally echoed by all creation before bouncing back. The angels set the tone and led the worship. But in John's new picture of the church in glory, that's changed. The church takes the lead in worship, and the angels take their cues from us. We write the song, and they say the amen. We lead heavenly worship, and the angels follow our leadership.

What we find is that John's picture of the church in glory is one where we become heavenly priests. The whole church will be a priestly band in the heavenly temple beneath God's protective presence. The redeemed church “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will tabernacle them with his presence” (Revelation 7:15). Now we understand the robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. When Israel gathered long ago under Mount Sinai, Moses told them they could be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6), and to become that, he told them they needed to “wash their garments and be ready” to enter God's presence (Exodus 19:11). Later, when the levitical priests were consecrated, Moses took sacrificial blood from the altar and “sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons' garments; so he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons' garments with him” (Leviticus 8:30). A priest had to have his garments washed and sprinkled with blood. John says that the entire church has washed their robes white in the blood of Jesus the sacrificial Lamb, so the entire church is ultimately ordained as a common priesthood to serve God in his heavenly temple, sheltered by the canopy of his presence (Revelation 7:15).

And the promises given to the church in glory are so abundantly beautiful. They're the inheritance of Israel. In the prophecies of Isaiah, we hear that when Israel was to be restored, “they shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them” (Isaiah 49:9-10) – and when death is defeated, then “the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). John sees the church inheriting those promises forever: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every teardrop from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

Isn't that everything we could ever want? The presence of God and of the Lamb. The restoration of all that's here been lost. The perfect comfort for every tear we're ever cried and every sorrow we've ever felt. No more scorching wind or sunstroke, no more hunger or thirst. No more lack, no more suffering. The leadership of Jesus himself, a Lamb for our Shepherd, one who knows just what we've been through and what we need (cf. Hebrews 4:15). And by his guidance, we'll drink the water of life and find perfect refreshment and satisfaction.

This is John's picture of the church. We are a community, a communion spanning space and time, who have been given salvation through the sacrificial death of Jesus. We are defined not by what we must do, but by what he has already done. He has given us a purity and holiness that we are charged with keeping. We see him as the heart of who God is, and we worship and praise him. We give all thanks to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are a band of priest-led priests appointed to ministry in the world, and we are an army called to fight the good fight of faith and to endure through the tribulations of this world. We are the heirs of Israel's promises and prophecies, and we know that amidst the tribulations we face, we are sealed, marked as God's, and protected in our inmost beings. We are those who gather together in the presence of God and the Lamb – that's just who we are as the church. But what we do, from that gathering, is follow the Lamb out into the world, and live as he's shown us how – not with lies but with truth, not with coercion but with compassion, not with doing violence but with accepting violence and remaining faithful all the same. We know that the boundary markers of this world – nationality, ethnicity, language, sex, class, and all the rest – are glorified and transcended in the church. We are drawn from all categories, carrying our distinctives into the richness of the great crowd. We know that, however small or weak we may feel, we stand in the heavenly majority, and will one day see the truth of that.

For one glad morning, when this fight is over, we will see our exodus having been completed. We will behold God and the Lamb face-to-face. We'll shine with the victory of our pure faith that's conquered the world, and we will give all glory to God and to the Lamb for our salvation. We will serve God forever as priests in his presence, will enjoy fully the refreshing gifts of Jesus that we now taste in part, will be freed from the threats and discomforts of this world, and will be personally pastored by Jesus forever. We will lead angels and all the creatures of heaven and earth in worship, and will forever be with the Lord our God. We will be perfectly loved and perfectly protected, and there will be no doubt about it, because we will be the priesthood of heaven and the celebrants of the festival of eternal joy, and we will forever sing and shout the victory. We will stand.

The psalmist asked who could stand when God judges. The judged ask who can stand in the great day of God's wrath (Revelation 6:17). And the answer is, we can. We can, when we've been saved by the blood of Jesus – when we've been given purity – when we've been constituted as the population of a new world that's to come. We can, when we've been identified as his and have been sealed by his Spirit for our protection and preservation and are granted the grace to endure.  We can, as the end-time army and as the great gathering of worship. Who can stand? We can stand. Have no doubt about it. The church, the true church, can stand, clad in white robes and carrying palm branches – what a world at worship would wear, the righteousness and resurrection-triumph of Christ.

Through what John heard and what John saw, we've caught a glimpse in a God-given mirror. This is who and what we fundamentally are, and what and where we hope to be. The question before us today is, how much do we live like it? Do we live now like the army of the Lamb, devoted to wage a holy war with the weapons of righteousness and to conquer the world by our faith (and our faith alone, which works by love)? Is that how we really see ourselves? Do we live now like a vast multiethnic multitude? Do we live like we're gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb, like we've had our robes washed white, like we've been given a victory and have such beauteous promises waiting for us? Do we live like it now, and do we 'do church' like it now? What would it be like if we really thought of this chapter as a mirror? What would it change about the way this church looks? What would it change about how you see yourself and each other? Our task through the week is to really think about that, reflect on that, use that to see ourselves and each other and this church anew, and then come back together again with what God has taught us through that this week. For know this: “Salvation belongs to God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” We can stand! We can stand! “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever, amen!” (Revelation 7:10, 12).

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Voice of the Martyrs: Sermon on Revelation 6:9-11

By the last day of the games, the slender and youthful Blandina had seen and felt a lot. Because these were no games to her. In the cities of Lyon and Vienne (now in southeastern France), during the last years of the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, things had taken a sharp and unfortunate turn.

Blandina was a slave working in the household of a local woman. Both had learned years ago to confess Jesus Christ. And so when the city began to socially exclude and sideline those suspected of being Christians, both of them felt it. No longer welcome in the baths, in the town forum, chased out of home. That's where it always started. Then the mob had gotten whipped up, dragging them to that forum to be interrogated by a local official. Blandina remembered the questioning. Then locked up in a dark and cramped prison cell together until the governor arrived for the start of a festival. At a public hearing, a well-spoken young man in the crowd named Vettius Epagathus – part of their church – volunteered to act as their lawyer; but, the authorities finding that he was a Christian too, he was arrested instead. Soon, there was a full-scale investigation underway, trying to root out every Christian in the province. They'd caught Blandina. They'd caught 15-year-old Ponticus. They'd caught a woman named Biblis who, like some others sadly did, thereafter denied Christ to save her skin. They'd caught the immigrant Attalus, and the deacon Sanctus from the next town over, and the newly baptized believer Maturus, and others. Their sickly bishop Pothinus, in his nineties, already asthmatic and struggling, they put on trial, beat, and tossed into jail with them. For two days, they watched him decline. Then Bishop Pothinus, their beloved lead pastor, died. In the meantime, even some like Biblis who'd previously denied Christ under pressure now recanted and confessed themselves Christians, ready to rejoin the flock in prison, where most of the believers would be strangled.

The festival then began, kicking off with gladiatorial games, and so many of their former neighbors turned out to watch them suffer, cheer for their woes. It was in the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, with galleries enough to seat twenty thousand – and they were packed. In that ring of red earth, 222 feet by 138, was where they'd meet their earthly end. Maturus and Sanctus, new believer and church steward, were whipped, mauled by beasts, put in hot irons to be seared – but in the end, they stood firm, doing nothing but shouting again and again that they were Christians and would remain Christians. As for Blandina, she'd been tied to a pole, helpless to interfere. Her mistress, who died that day, was worried Blandina could never bear up under these pains – Blandina was too small, too tender. But Blandina's love for Jesus burned hotter than the irons, and she trusted him with all her heart. Attacked from dawn to dusk, the Holy Spirit filled her with power and strength, and over and over she confessed, “I am a Christian, and we do nothing to be ashamed of!” Tied to the pole and exposed to hungry animals, she prayed loud the whole way through; and in that position, whenever the others looked at her, they couldn't help but see Jesus on the cross. And she lent them all her bravery.

At the end of the day, Blandina was taken back alive and put in jail. Others soon joined their number, as the display had lit the fires of their courage. Every day of the 'games,' Blandina and teenage Ponticus were brought to watch as their fellow believers were killed. Every day, the authorities pressured them to offer a token pinch of incense to false gods. And every day, they said no. They watched as the well-known doctor Alexander, with Attalus at his side, were sent back to the arena. And while Alexander silently prayed to his last, Attalus burned on a chair of heated bronze, crying out that Christians were innocent of all the rumor-mongers' slanders.

At last came the final day of the 'games.' The day when it all counted. The day when Blandina returned to the arena. Her injuries from the beatings had healed up enough. She was ready. Asked again and again if she'd sacrifice, she said no. Asked again and again if she'd renounce Christ, she said no. And the crowd got angry. They booed, they hissed, they jeered, they mocked and yelled. Blandina and Ponticus were whipped. Bitten by animals. Ponticus died, but as he did, Blandina encouraged him to stay strong 'til he sent his spirit up to God. And now it was just her in the arena. But she saw she wasn't alone – Christ was with her. And when they put her on the hot griddle, she reached out to him despite the pain. And then when they covered her in a net and let loose a bull, she barely noticed. She was too busy celebrating the Jesus who had never been more real, never been more obvious to her than in those moments. She felt like she'd been invited to a great party. And as the bull tossed her body back and forth, she focused on that joy – and then passed right into it. Blandina, too, became a martyr.

When all that was done, the authorities left the bodies unburied for six days, then burned them and scattered the ashes in a local river. Soon things died down, and what was left of the church in the town remained in hiding. They sent out letters describing what had happened. One local priest returned from traveling abroad and found himself the new bishop, nearly by default. Years later, he wrote, “The church in every place, because of its love for God, sends forth in every time a throng of martyrs to the Father.” 
And Irenaeus was right. Nearly three decades later, far across the Mediterranean, a group of Christians were killed in Carthage. One of them, Perpetua, was stabbed between the ribs and then allowed a young and inexperienced gladiator to strike her neck. A half-century later, in 250, the leadership of the Roman church, including Pope Fabian, were wiped out in a single week. Eight years later, back in Carthage, the local bishop Cyprian thanked God before being blindfolded and beheaded. In 304, the deacon Romanus was brought before the emperor and strangled to death. Sixteen years later, forty Roman soldiers confessed themselves Christians and were stripped and forced into a lake in the winter until they froze to death. A century after that, in 420, a Persian nobleman named Hormizd was killed for refusing to give up his faith. In the 850s, a number of Christian leaders in Spain were executed by the Muslim governing authorities. In April 997, a missionary named Adalbert was speared by the pagan Prussians he was trying to reach with the gospel. In 1597, in the ill-fated city of Nagasaki, six missionaries and twenty native Japanese believers were crucified. In 1922, Russian bishop Benjamin of Petrograd was gunned down by a Soviet firing squad. Nineteen years later, Polish bishop Antoni Julian Nowowiejski, refusing to renounce his faith while held in a concentration camp, was starved to death. Fifteen years after that, in 1956, five missionaries – 32-year-old Nate Saint, 31-year-old Roger Youderian, 28-year-old Ed McCully, 28-year-old Jim Elliot, 27-year-old Peter Fleming – were speared while trying to make contact with the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador, and so passed through gates of splendor. In 1972, Russian soldier Ivan Moiseyev, who refused to obey orders to abandon Jesus, was stabbed in the heart six times. And in 2015, terrorists executed twenty Coptic Christian construction workers they'd kidnapped and one other believer; two months later, they executed another thirty Ethiopian Christians.

All these examples to say, the age of the martyrs has stretched long, for two thousand years. Any book offering to unveil the real meaning of the world – and 'unveiling' is what the word 'apocalypse' or 'revelation' means – well, any book of unveiling of the lived experience of the church from a heavenly point-of-view must grapple with this perennial reality of the church's life amidst the ages.

Where we left off last Sunday, we saw Jesus the Lamb of God at work unsealing the scroll of God's plan for the ages. The first four seals let loose the 'Four Horsemen,' all the greatest fears of Roman society or of ours; and they received authority to terrorize, and they stalk this world still. But their fearsome work is necessary to keep the plan moving forward. And now we return to that scene as the Lamb shatters the fifth seal. And when he does, John suddenly sees something he hadn't noticed before. “When he opened the fifth seal,” John writes, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had upheld” (Revelation 6:9).

John now sees the souls of the martyrs – of Lamb-followers, Christians, who were killed for a very clear reason: because of their obedient devotion to the gospel message and because they insisted on testifying, even in the face of danger, that Jesus is still King of Kings and Lord of Lords. These are those who will later be described as having “overcome [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). The first plank in their victorious ascent is the blood of the Lamb – the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross for them and for us. Without the blood of Jesus, there can be no victory. Nothing else can wash away our sin. Nothing else can make us whole again. Nothing else can be our pardon and our plea. Nothing else can be all our hope and peace and righteousness. Nothing but the blood of Jesus. And by remaining faithful to Jesus in their own confession of him, by loving their earthly lives less than they love Jesus, their deaths can be, will be, must be transformed into victories.

So these martyred believers – people like Blandina – are no mere victims of suffering and woe. As much as this world is a-brim with violence of every sort, they are no mere victims. Nor can they simply and merely be classed alongside other victims of religious persecution (though they are that too). These are believers who surrendered their lives through witness to Jesus Christ, our true God. Life was not stolen from them; they gave their lives and their deaths to God. The letter that the churches on Lyon and Vienne sent out, describing what happened to Blandina and the rest, was specific in depicting each death as a sacrifice. And so it was – a sacrifice offered by the believer, him- or herself each both priest and offering. It's like the offerings made in ancient Israel, when a priest would kill a bull or a goat and then “pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar” (Leviticus 4:30). So that's where John sees their souls having gone: poured out beneath heaven's altar, a sacrifice acceptable to God. No matter where a martyr dies, that place becomes, in that moment, the altar of heaven. And though the wicked of this world may strive to erase their memory and annihilate them from history, no martyr can be forgotten – their very lives, parted from earth, remain safe and secure beneath heaven's altar, beyond reach of time or tyrant.

As John watches and listens, he hears the voice of the martyrs – their prayer after death. It's a loud sound, a roar of lament even in heaven: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). They may be in heaven, but the earth still concerns them. There's something they're waiting around for. They're waiting for God as Judge to act in the world and to set things right. The martyrs are praying Psalm 79: “O God, the nations … have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us. How long, O LORD? … Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name! For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. … Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake! Why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes!”

Psalm 79 is the prayer of the martyrs. When the raging nations have killed God's servants, shed their blood, mistreated their bodies, and judged God's servants to be guilty of a crime for their confession of faith, then the psalmist – and these martyrs, taking up the same prayer – asks how long it will take before God sets things right – before God gets angry at the injustice and pours out that anger against all the persecutors. The psalmist calls for “the avenging of the outpoured blood of [God's] servants” to be obvious, so as to silence and resolve the skepticism of the nations who dismiss Israel's God. And that's what the martyrs are calling for. They have two chief concerns. First is God's public reputation. When the martyrs are killed, it's for the word of God – those who kill them are rejecting God, demeaning his glory. So for the “glory of [his] name,” the martyrs call on him to act. But it's also for their own public reputation. The world has made its case against them, judged them, and found them guilty. And that stain will stick unless God overrules the verdict, declares that they were innocent, and prosecutes their killers. That's the only way. Until they get that, even heaven can't be fully satisfying. So they want to know how long God is going to make them wait, and why he hasn't done something yet.

From heaven's throne, they get their answer – maybe not the one they'd prefer to hear. They're told that they need to “rest a little longer.” How much longer? “Until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers, who were to be killed as they themselves had been, should be complete” (Revelation 6:11b). That's the schedule God is keeping to. There is some number, known only to him, that has to be reached. Just as he wouldn't let Abraham take the Promised Land until “the iniquity of the Amorites” had become “complete” (Genesis 15:16), so he won't let his avenging justice take the earth until the iniquity of the persecutors has become complete – a milestone measured in the number of martyrs killed. Each Christian put to death for the word of God and for the Christian confession he or she maintains is another box checked off on God's countdown calendar. And one day, that hidden number will be reached. We don't know how long it will be – we might pretend to know, but we haven't the foggiest notion. But however it relates to the calendars we keep, there will come a time when the last martyr in all of human history will sacrifice his or her life for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for the confession of the Crucified One as having become the Risen Lord. And when that happens, God will say, “No more – the number is complete.” And then, with millennia of martyrdoms entered into evidence, God will unleash the last judgment. The death of the final martyr will be the direct trigger for the end of all evil – for the very thing for which the martyrs pray beneath heaven's altar.

And so those praying martyrs are told that they have to wait. They're restless, but they have to rest. To them, it won't be long, not on heaven's clock. Just one or two more seals for the Lamb to break. But they do have to keep waiting. Even heavenly prayers can get the answer, “Not yet – wait.” But God doesn't leave them wholly unsatisfied. He can partially address one of their key concerns. The martyrs have been judged by the world – weighed in earthly balances and found wanting; accused of lies and crimes, smeared as wrongdoers. God can make it clear, to heaven if not yet to earth, that it just isn't so.

So the same Lamb who 'gave' authority to the Four Horsemen so that they could run wild in the world now 'gives' a gift to each martyr, one by one. “They were each given a white robe” (Revelation 6:11a). A white robe is unstained. A white robe is beautiful. A white robe has a story to tell. It announces that these believers aren't guilty. It isn't orange jumpsuits being handed out. Just the opposite. The white robe declares that the world's accusations are false. The martyrs did not deserve their execution. They were loyal to a higher justice than this world knows. They did not bow to what was false. In the hour of their great trial, they put their hopes in God, trusted Christ, spoke by the Holy Spirit, and confessed the gospel-word, testifying that they belonged to Christ and would honor and obey Christ above all else. And for that, they did not deserve to die. They are promised a favorable verdict. What's more, they're promised a victory march. This is how Romans dressed for festivals of great triumph: “clad in white and carrying laurel branches” (Cassius Dio, History 63.4) – and so the martyrs, with others, will soon be seen “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). And the whiteness of their robes, the purity and innocence and victory of the martyrs, is all due to the robes being made “white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). It is through “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” that the martyrs are not beaten, but rather become conquerors who overcome the accusing dragon, having outlasted and outwitted him and all his doom-bound beasts (Revelation 12:10-11). The death of a martyr is victory. The death of a martyr is righteousness. The death of a martyr is witness for Jesus – that's what the word means.

But a question might remain: Why does God allow martyrdom at all? Why doesn't he just protect his servants, make his witnesses immune to all the weapons of this world? Why hasn't he set the number lower and hastened the end, so that those he loves wouldn't have to keep suffering and dying? Why has he so often allowed the wicked to have power over the church, and over the poor and innocent and oppressed more generally? 
But what we see here is that the death of the martyr is victory – and not just for that individual martyr. No, the sufferings they endure advance the progress of the kingdom of God. It was the example of Blandina and others that called fearful and doubting Christians back to their first love and allowed them, too, to gain the crown of immortality. It was the example of freezing soldiers that made even one of their guards rip off his clothes, shout “I am a Christian too!”, and go join them to die. Twenty years after Blandina offered up her sacrifice, a Christian in Carthage wrote a message to the persecutors, saying, “The more often you mow us down, the more we grow in number. The blood of Christians is seed!” And as we've seen, from that seed, incredible things can grow.

During some of the early centuries of the church, there were times when you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in church who hadn't personally known a martyr. Today, I doubt if a single one of us can say we've personally known someone who was killed for their Christian faith. The vast majority of us are not at risk of being killed or imprisoned for our faith, not here in America; though I do wonder if the younger ones among us, looking decades down the road, will see a day when American Christians begin to be martyred between sea and shining sea. It may be that the American church will never see revival without our blood for its seed. Whether or not it comes to pass that my generation or the next will begin to have its martyrs here, it is still true that, except for some of our missionaries who are killed around the world, modern American church life has lost touch with the prospect of martyrdom and with the witness of the martyrs. And I dare so a great deal of the weakness in our modern American church life owes a lot to our having lost touch with that. Many of us wouldn't sacrifice our income level, our sexual preferences, our independent streak, our pride and self-righteousness, or our political opinions for the word of God, let alone our lives. What percentage of American churchgoers, if it came down to it, would stay as faithful as St. Blandina and the rest of the martyrs?

Yet today, Christians are harassed in 60% of the world's countries; Christians are still the targets of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination worldwide; and, in line with that, Christians are still being martyred throughout the world. Thirteen days ago, the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped a 60-year-old Christian woman named Suzan Der Kirkour from her village, al-Yaqoubiyeh, in Syria's northwestern Idlib Governorate; after enduring nine hours of torture followed by a lethal stoning, she found dead on Tuesday, July 9. The next day, in the eastern Pakistani city of Faisalabad, a Christian nurse named Saima Sardar was shot to death after declining to forsake her faith. Thousands of Christians are killed every year, even right now, for the word of God and for the testimony they uphold. One by one, sacrificing their lives for Jesus, they go to join the souls John saw under heaven's altar. And heaven waits for the last one to fill up the number. As for us, while we wait, we have to stay 'in tune' with the persecuted church and with the martyrs. Seventeen hundred years ago, in a book (the Didascalia Apostolorum) compiled between 50 and 130 years after Blandina's sacrifice, the churches were told this:

Should a Christian be condemned to the games or to the beasts or to the mines on account of the name of God and for his faith and love, you are not to turn your face away from him, but shall send to him for his nourishment and payment for the soldiers guarding him from your labor and from the sweat of your brow, so that your blessed brother may be relieved, receive attention, and be not entirely afflicted. Anyone who has been condemned for the sake of the name of the Lord God should be considered a holy martyr, an angel of God..., clothed with the Holy Spirit of God. Through him, you may look upon the Lord our Savior, as he has been found worthy of the crown that shall not be corrupted and renews again the witness of the passion. For this reason, all you faithful are obliged carefully to minister and... to refresh from your possessions those who are bearing witness. Anybody who has nothing should fast, giving to his brethren something from what he would've spent that day. Yet if you're rich, you're obliged to minister to them to the extent of your ability, even to the extent of giving everything you own to redeem them from bondage. For these are they who are worthy of God...

We should be praying that we don't enter into testing. Yet if we're called to martyrdom, we should confess when we're interrogated and be patient while we're suffering and rejoice while we're afflicted and not be distressed while we're persecuted. Not only shall we save ourselves from hell when we act this way, but we'll teach those who are young in the faith … to do the same. And they shall live before the Lord. … Should any find themselves worthy of martyrdom, they should accept it with joy that they're found worthy of so great a crown.

Today, to fulfill that book's vision for both being equipped for martyrdom and for serving the church of martyrs, we have parachurch organizations like the Voice of the Martyrs, like International Christian Concern, like Open Doors, like Christian Solidarity International, and others. They provide Bibles for believers in hostile nations, they help us send letters of encouragement to Christians imprisoned for their faith, they engage in human-rights advocacy on behalf of the freedom of Christians to live out their confession of Jesus (and on behalf of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in general), they provide accurate reporting on anti-Christian activity around the world so that governments can intervene, they funnel financial help to the families of martyrs. They're there to help us do what Christians have always been told to do. It's up to us to partner with them in that work. How much time and talent and treasure do we devote to serving our persecuted brothers and sisters, those who may well be crowned as martyrs in our generation, versus the time and talent and treasure we fritter away on less worthy things?

Historically, one test for a healthy church, a well-discipled church, has been this twofold question: First, is this church shaping believers who are ready to be martyrs? Second, is this church shaping people who give support in practical ways to believers facing persecution (of whatever degree of severity) around the world? Let those questions rest with you. Is this church shaping you in ways that would help you sacrifice your life for the word of God and to uphold your testimony? And is this church shaping you in ways that make you want to support persecuted believers? And if so, will you follow through on that desire? What can we do to make this a church that supports persecuted believers? What can we do to make this a church that produces and trains potential martyrs who will confess Christ boldly to the costly end? How can we raise up people who really do love Jesus more than life? May that be true of all of us, as we work together in service to his kingdom. And may the day of his return be soon and yield justice for every martyr, every suffering saint, and find us all in white robes of pure victory. Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

What the Lamb Lets Loose: Homily on Revelation 6:1-8

An overweight Italian shoemaker's hand trembles as he writes about dark days – how his own hands had laid to rest his wife and five children. Agnolo's quill scratches out the inky words, “So many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” And given everything that his generation had lived through, no wonder. Although his birthdate isn't known, maybe he was a boy in 1315 when the weather changed and the crops failed and the Great Famine began. Even some kings found it difficult to find food. One in ten, maybe one in four people starved to death. One poem of the time lamented that “when God saw that the world was so over-proud / he sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard. // … A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry / of poor men who called out, 'Alas, for hunger I die!'” In those years, crime surged rampant, with rape and murder common events. As the famine eased off, it left its mark in Europe's collective psyche.

Fifteen years after the famine's end, Europe was swept up in the start of the Hundred Years' War, entangling nearly every kingdom. Agnolo was undoubtedly relieved that the war and the revolutions stayed away from his town. But then, breaking into the war came a mysterious power. It was May 1348 when it reached Agnolo's city. He could only call it “the mortality.” People would be stricken dead, wherever they were, even in mid-conversation, after parts of them swelled. Parents abandoned their children, wives abandoned their husbands. Death was suddenly everywhere, hundreds by day and hundreds by night, dumped unceremoniously in ditches. It took Agnolo's wife. It took his boys. But beyond the walls of Siena, the same death – the Black Death, a massive plague pandemic – raged from China to Spain, killing queens and kings and archbishops and peasants. In some places, the majority of people died. Death could only be measured in the tens of millions. Overall, one in three Europeans – and perhaps one in five humans on earth – died in the span of a few years. It was a dark, ugly, and terrifying age to be living in, a generation facing famine and war, plague and uprising. No wonder many thought it was the end of the world. And no wonder many turned to the Bible for understanding.

Centuries and centuries before that generation, a visionary named Zechariah “saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. … These are they whom Yahweh has sent to patrol the earth” (Zechariah 1:8-10). “And they answered the Angel of Yahweh who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, 'We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.' Then the angel of Yahweh said, 'O Yahweh of Hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?' … Thus saith Yahweh of Hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion, and I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease...” (Zechariah 1:11-15). And immediately after that, Zechariah saw four craftsmen who “have come to terrify … the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah” (Zechariah 1:21). In due time, Zechariah writes, “I lifted up my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. … The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses – all of them strong. … The angel said to me, 'These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.' … When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he cried, 'Go, patrol the earth!' So they patrolled the earth” (Zechariah 6:1-7).

And now, in his own visions recorded in the Book of Revelation, John sees that celestial patrol set loose to terrify the nations indeed. As the first four seals on the scroll of God's plan are broken one by one, these four colorful patrol sentries are identified and commissioned to cause great havoc throughout the coming ages – great havoc meant to greatly terrify. John sees them signifying the four things the Roman Empire most feared.

John says, “I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1-2). To the people living in John's place and time, there'd be no mystery here. John sees a mounted archer on a white horse. Rome didn't excel at using mounted archers, but their rival empire the Parthians did, and they used white horses in every army. A few decades before John writes, Romans were shocked when not only did one of their armies lose a humiliating victory, but the Parthian king Vologaeses nearly invaded the Roman province of Syria. The Roman sense of immunity began to crumble. They were terrified of the empire being invaded and conquered – foreign armies rampaging through their land, stealing their territories, dominating their people. That's what John sees.

Next, John says, “When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Revelation 6:3-4). The sword-wielding rider on the blood-red horse was another big fear of the Romans: internal conflict. A few years after the close call with the Parthian invasion, a revolt against the Emperor Nero allowed a general named Galba to replace him in June 68. The following January, Galba was assassinated, leading to what's been called the Year of the Four Emperors – a season of immense upheaval. And while all this was going on, the province of Judaea was in open rebellion, trying to break free of the empire. Decades later, John would only be set free from his island exile after the Emperor Domitian was assassinated and replaced by his advisor Nerva. It all reminded the Romans how fragile their society could really be. Civil war, rebellion, violence in the streets!

John goes on to say, “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!'” (Revelation 6:5-6). Upon the black horse rides yet another of a Roman's big fears: Famine. It must be a famine, because the scales are for careful rationing of food and the prices quoted for wheat are about eight or ten times the normal going price at the time. At the prices John hears, it'd take a normal man's entire daily wages to buy a day's worth of wheat for himself or the lower-quality barley for his small family – barely keeping them alive. A few years before John writes, his province had tangled with a grain famine. The prospect of having the food supply choked off – that got Romans nervous.

Finally, John says, “When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and famine and pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). The main new terror introduced by the pale horse – really, a sickly-yellowish-green horse – is the pestilence. It represents the spread of disease epidemics, even pandemics, not unlike the plague in the Black Death.

Invasion, civil war, famine, and epidemic – the four biggest fears any Roman could have. The things lurking in his subconscious, looming over his shoulder, unsettling him, making him nervous about the future, filling him with anxiety. John warns that they're going to be set loose as a judgment on the world – stampeding like horses across the world they know, afflicting them, destabilizing them.

Our society shares many similar fears. Here in America, we haven't historically had to fear invasion – but our sense of security was shattered on 9/11, a foreign attack in our own homeland. And before and after, we've at times been worried about the prospect of nuclear war. There's our white horse. And we can feel the bonds of our society weaken and fray, we know of places with riotous violence in the streets. There's our red horse. It's been a while since we've had a famine – to us, perhaps it best conjures up images of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Economic recession is perhaps our black horse. And the last decade has seen the bird flu, the swine flu, Ebola, and the Zika virus all start to make us nervous and take evasive action. Maybe epidemic, with natural disasters following it, remains our pale horse. Just like the Romans, Americans have our fears, our four horsemen, stalking the edges of our consciousness. We know they're out there. And they frighten us.

It's no wonder we think of this as starting off the scary section of the Book of Revelation. Because, yes, we're shown some rather imposing figures, whose purpose is to terrify the nations. Forces of judgment and peril are being let loose as the seals break. And in frightful, nerve-wracking times, we're right to come back to these verses to try to understand what's happening in the world. The horsemen do pace and prance around us. But John would have us ask just one key question. Yes, the Four Horsemen are let loose as the first four seals break. But who's doing the breaking? Who lets these forces loose and gives them the power they have?

The seals are being opened by the Lamb. By Jesus Christ. The One who laid down his life for you. The One who continually calls for you, who wants to love and cherish you, who wants you by his side, who paid a dear price to breathe life into you! It's Jesus Christ, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, who lets these forces loose into the world. They are not random. They are not out of control. Even in their wildest stampede, they are under his authority. He commissions them for a purpose, and all the destruction they cause will achieve his will. The Black Death, for all its devastation, not only rebalanced Europe's stewardship of resources, not only spurred new technological innovation, but it exposed cowardly ecclesiastical leaders and awakened a deep spiritual thirst among 'ordinary people,' who began to yearn for a fresh relationship with God. God can work even the Black Death together with other disasters and turn them toward his people's good (cf. Romans 8:28). When the Four Horsemen rampage, yes, they do great harm, and yes, it seems like the world is coming undone. But they come only with the consent of a Lamb who loves his people. So when the horsemen intimidate you, shout back to them that you know who holds their reins. When the state of the world concerns you, take a deep breath and remember that all of this only moves the plans of God forward toward an ultimately beautiful end.

Whatever it is our society fears, we know that it's in the Lamb's hands. If he lets our fears loose into our world, it's only because he has a purpose for them. And he means to bless us, not destroy us. He aims to bring us into the open arms of his gracious love, and hold us tight through every storm. In days of invasion, he will embrace us. In days of violence and strife, he will embrace us. In days of famine and plague, he will embrace us. We know he died for us, know he bore the cross for us, know he lives again. And all power and authority are his. Even our rampaging fears bear witness that the Lamb is worthy, that the Lamb is the man at heaven's throne.

The Lamb, Jesus Christ, does not let these forces loose in the world to destroy his church, but to judge nations and to purify his people. Too often, we've averted our eyes from the Lamb and instead warily watched, with thundering hearts, for the horsemen. But that isn't how he means us to live. He doesn't want us fixated on the dangers in the world or on the decay of society. He wants us fixated on his goodness and beauty and truth. Let the horsemen trot around – they may patrol the earth and terrify the nations, but as for us, we will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We will rejoice during the darkest days, because we have seen the Light. And we trust that, no matter which of our fears must be let loose in the meantime, still his plans for our fears will make for a better eternity than ever we dreamed. For Jesus means to bless us.

So, since he means to bless us, we gather at his table of blessing. He's our host, he's invited us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” through the place where the horsemen roam, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me – your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:4-6). He sets this table before us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the midst of galloping horsemen, where we belong is at the Lamb's table. Even when violence threatens us, even when famine and poverty and disease weaken us, still Jesus sets out his table. He wants to share a communion with us that not a thing we fear can take away. So let us lift high an overflowing cup in the face of death, and if our fears teach us anything, let them teach us to crave more and more of the Lamb who gives himself to us, goodness and mercy, body and blood. Let us eat and drink and be merry in him, for though the horsemen kill, the Lamb brings life abundant, everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Fireworks of Universal Praise: Sermon on Revelation 5:11-14

I'd like to start off by asking to see a show of hands. Who here watched any of the broadcast of the Fourth of July fireworks display out of our nation's capital this year? Anyone? I didn't catch it live while it was taking place, but I did watch a couple recordings the next day, and oh, what a sight! For the whole length of it, about a half-hour or so, just this unbroken chain of explosions, one atop the next, sometimes many at a time, just filling the sky behind the Washington Monument with radiance and color and smoke! See how they make the heavens dance with reds and greens and whites, and so much more. It got so that they didn't even let one firework fade away before the next was already detonating. The night sky over Washington DC was smoky but splendid – loud and flashy – without interruption.

But even if you didn't see that show, maybe you caught one of the local ones. It seemed like I had fireworks going off in every direction from my house – different shows launching on every side, maybe the occasional private contribution. (I still heard a few others last evening, I think.) There's just something about watching the fireworks that caps off the holiday or the celebration, makes it feel complete. Because fireworks are spectacular – they're meant to be a spectacle, meant to perform, meant to dazzle and fascinate. They express how we've been feeling all day – the desire to burst into exuberance, to be bold on behalf of the cause.

It's nothing new. Americans first began celebrating Independence Day with fireworks before the Revolutionary War was even actually over. In fact, the day before the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted in its particular wording, but the day after a formal resolution for independence was passed by the Second Continental Congress, John Adams himself predicted that the anniversary would be commemorated by future generations, and that it would be “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” John Adams was right – especially about our use of “illuminations,” or fireworks. Even though some of the advancements in fireworks didn't develop until Italians perfected the art in the 1800s, we were already building on the progress out of China, which used them by the 1600s to make colorful military smoke signals. In fact, though, fireworks are about a thousand years old, in one form or another.

Yet about a thousand years before the invention of fireworks, a visionary named John was taking seven church communities in various stages of health on a grand tour – showing them life as viewed from the control room of the universe. In any fireworks display, if you don't have the right angle, you won't get the full effect. A camera down here aimed at the ground just captures a cacophony of noise. We might or might not see a great show by looking up. But have you ever seen an aerial view of a fireworks show, by drones flying through from the heavenly side? It's an entirely new sort of beauty. And just so, John offers us a heavenly-side view of things.

In particular, as we've been exploring for a number of weeks in the fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation, John has given us a heavenly view of what worship is all about. And the lessons we've learned are many. We've seen that worship is about encountering God – ultimately, aiming to behold him, reigning in power and majesty from his throne, surrounded by his brilliance. Worship means seeing the world as it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all – and resolving to praise God in the midst of it, no matter what's going on. That's what the four living creatures that we meet do, all covered in eyes on every side, surveying all history as it unfolds. And like them, worship means celebrating God simply for who he is – the Holy One at the heart of it all.

Worship also means celebrating God as our Creator – finding a pretext in every existing thing, past and present and future, that points to his value, because it could not exist without him, and neither could we or any animate or inanimate thing. And in recognition of that, worship means surrendering our rights and our dignity and our blessings and whatever else we treasure – it means referring them back to him continually, it means actively celebrating that everything we get is a gift contingent on his continued approval, and then talking and living that way. That's what the twenty-four ancient priest-kings – the “elders” – are seen doing.

But then, when we reach chapter 5, we find out that worship means seeing Jesus at the center of everything. It means that all eyes should be on Jesus. Worship means seeing Jesus as the victorious warrior Lion by seeing him as the slaughtered sacrificial Lamb, whose shed blood lays the foundation for a new kind of universe. Worship means measuring the value of everything in terms of Christ Crucified. Worship means recognizing that self-sacrifice, not domination, is where value comes from. Worship means celebrating our redemption, which not only gets us out of a bad future but gets us into the opening of responsibilities and privileges we'd never even dreamt of – appointing us as royal priests to God the Enthroned.

Worship requires a new view of our prayers, both individually and together. Our prayers, we see, are incense for heaven's worship – devoted to God, pleasant to God, encompassing all the circumstances of our lives in which we conceivably could pray, each being necessary to the final perfect blend. And we trust that God will use those very prayers as his tool, setting them ablaze like a sacrifice, to make right what's wrong with the world we live in. But worship also requires a new view and new practice for our music, individually and together. It shows that our musical worship should be new – it should be fresh, it requires us to stretch and grow, it needs to be centered on Jesus but ever exploring the infinity of his grace, and always developing and increasing to express our daily discoveries in the endless adventure through his glory.

And now, as we come to the end of the chapter, as the song gets catchy and passes from voice to voice, we hear over and over again that Jesus is worthy, that Jesus and his Father together are worthy. Hear the next chant as the angels take it up: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12)! How marvelous! Because the Lamb was slain, he should be empowered with authority and strength. Those belong to him in their fullness, and he has them. No one and nothing is superior to the Lamb, for he shares fully in the authority of God his Father. There is no defeating the Lamb. Slain though he's been, that's how he wins. Throughout Revelation, everything the world thinks they can do to thwart his plans – killing his faithful people, for instance – only further secures his victory. The Lamb has all the power and might. And because he was slain, he also deserves all riches and all wisdom. There's no one as resourceful as the Lamb, and no one cleverer than the Lamb. No one else has it all figured out. We get easily confused and outmatched in life, but the Lamb has us covered, if only we follow his path and share in what he's done. And the only proper response to the Lamb is honor and glory and blessing. We must respect and defer to the Lamb. We must turn our attention to the Lamb. We must celebrate the Lamb. We must speak well of the Lamb. Because the Lamb is Lord. The Lamb is God. The Lamb is at the heart of it. Jesus the Lamb of God is worthy to get it all.

And in the end, the last word to resound to the very ends of the universe is this: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13). In the end, worship of the Enthroned God and worship of the Lamb Who Lives have to share the same voice, the same words of blessing. They have the same honor and glory, they work with the same might. They are One God, from whom their Spirit radiates and burns and flows. And they never pass out of style. They never are obsolete or irrelevant. The opinions of the day may not match what they say, but so much the worse for that day and its opinions. There will never come a day when the Enthroned Father and the Lamb are less than honorable, less than glorious, less than mighty. There will never come a day, not even in our darkest hours, when they don't deserve to be spoken well of, in the very same breath together. Because they are the eternal anchor, the one true constant in a whirlwind world, from the first century to the twenty-first century to the ninety-first century to the quadrillionth century and eternally beyond. In every age, to them be blessing and honor and glory and might! All good things are found in them, and they deserve all the best from us and from everything.

What I really want us to see, though, is the trajectory of this chapter. We start with the open question of whether anyone can open the scroll, whether anyone will be able to advance God's secret plan (5:1-4). But then we find out that the answer is yes, and we see the slaughtered Lamb present himself and take up the scroll (5:5-7). After that, we hear the new worship begin, in a song sung by the Four Living Creatures and the Twenty-Four Elders (5:8-10). But what we'd seen so far as of last Sunday was only the opening movement, the first measure, the initial move. It was like a pebble dropped into a pond – no, a boulder hurled into a heavenly ocean, sending out waves of worship for others to ride. Because now we hear others start to catch the tune.

When the prophet Daniel dreamt of heaven, he saw the Ancient of Days seated on a throne, and “a stream of fire issued and came out before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:10). But glory was reserved for the “One like a Son of Man” who presented himself before the heavenly throne (Daniel 7:13-14). Just so, glory accrues to the Lamb who's the Son of Man now that he's presented himself before the One seated on the Throne and has taken the book to be opened. And as this happens, we see that there are a thousand thousands to serve and ten thousand times ten thousand to stand before God. For John records that he looked and “heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11). What we have here are angelic crowds, counting into the hundreds of millions, all surrounding this scene at God's throne. John uses the biggest numbers for which there's a ready-made word in his language. He's saying he sees more angels than there were humans on earth in his time. And all of them are focused on Jesus, celebrating the One who came by way of the cross.

What a comfort that must have been to the seven churches, each a tiny minority in their city, representing their vulnerable minority status in the Roman Empire and in the broader world. The Christians in John's churches must at times have felt like, unless they accommodated and curried favor with popular opinion, then they were irrelevant, relegated to society's margins, out of touch. Sometimes, churches today – especially small churches – face similar temptations, feeling the burden of being a small faithful minority vastly outnumbered in broader society. But here, John sees more angels than he has words to count. And all of them are focused on Jesus. To follow Jesus is really to be in the majority. It's those who resist Jesus who are the odd men (and women) out.

But things don't stop with the angels. The cascade of worship goes on from there, stretching from this spiritual realm to the more familiar world we know in part. John doesn't have eyes to see that far, but he can still listen. And as he listens, he says, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea – and all that is in them – saying, 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!'” (Revelation 5:13). Every creature in heaven. Every creature now standing on the land. Every creature under the earth. Every creature in the water. All giving voice to the same message: Glory to the Father and the Son!

We know that, right now, the whole creation groans for its salvation from the oppressive bondage of corruption. Paul tells us that: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now,” having been “subjected to futility,” but “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage of corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-22). Which means that Jesus is more than good news to just you and just me and just the man or woman or boy or girl down the street or across the globe. He very much is that! But Jesus is good news for stars and starfish, for chimps and comets, for birds and barricudas, for pine trees and peonies and protozoa! Jesus is good news for every created thing – he comes with healing and freedom for all of creation – and so every created thing will praise him.

We'd already heard that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). John gets a heavenly view of what Paul was saying, but he sees creatures without knees and without tongues joining in the worship. John sees the fulfillment of the Psalms and the Prophets. For didn't the psalmist urge, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:11-12)? And the prophet Isaiah said that God's redemption of his people was a reason for the heavens to “sing” and the “depths of the earth” to “shout” – “break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it” (Isaiah 44:23). He said that as the redeemed marched to their freedom, “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Creation praises God for redeeming us – because ours is the glory into which freedom all creation longs to enter.

Listen to the words of Psalm 148, really listen: “Praise Yahweh from the heavens, praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! … Praise Yahweh from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Hallelujah!” (Psalm 148:1-3, 7-14).

John sees this psalm coming true, really true. Not only is God praised in the heights of his throne room by the Four Living Creatures and by the Twenty-Four Elders, but he's praised by all his angels and all his hosts. And now he sees the cascade of worship sweep up every creature in heaven or on earth or under the earth or in the sea. He sees it reach the sun and moon, which radiate worship. He sees the animals that live in the sea praising God. Fire and hail give their worship, as do the snow and the mist and the stormy wind. Each mountain gives its worship, and so do the trees. So do the wild animals and the domesticated ones, all the creepy-crawlies and all the birds that soar through the sky. And so does human society, in the psalm. All praise the name of one God – only John sees that the name of 'Yahweh' surrounds both Father and Son, Enthroned One and Lamb. But all must worship, each in their own way.

I don't know what that looked like, as John saw it. I don't know what that will look like when we fully see it. I can scarcely grasp what it might mean for a cat to worship Jesus, let alone for a gecko or goldfish or geranium to worship Jesus. But they either do or will! We know it because John hears it here. John, with heavenly ears, can hear the geraniums worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear the goldfish worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear the geckos worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear cats and dogs worshipping God and the Lamb. Perhaps that gives John a newfound appreciation for the creation around him on earth, and makes him want to treat each animal and plant more kindly, knowing that they're meant to take part in the same great concert of worship as he is. Maybe it inspires John to tend each animal and plant well, showing it the love of the Lamb in his own heart so that they can share the Lamb's love too. Perhaps there's wisdom in these words for Christian gardeners and Christian farmers and Christian hunters and Christian pet-owners and Christians of every vocation as we interact with the creation around us – creatures now subjected to futility, but longing for our freedom to be their freedom, and ready to learn how better to worship the Jesus who makes that happen.

What interests me is that, as the cascade of worship like a wave spreads to every creature, it unites them in one message, one gospel, one blessing spoken by mushrooms and minnows and microbes and more. Now we see creation so out of harmony. Now we see creation torn by conflict. And there is only one way to restore unity and harmony to creation, and that's for the same universal worship to bridge every divide. If there's one page for all creation to get on, it's the page marked “Worthy is the Lamb.” All creation needs its E Pluribus Unum, its “out of many, one” – not eroding creation's diversity, but each creature lending its diverse praises to the same worship of one astounding God with a Lamb in his heart. And then, as the wave of worship reaches the outermost limits, the extent of creation, that wave bounces back as a reflection to the very heart of it all, and we hear the Four Living Creatures, with all their eyes on God's pleasure, pronouncing this universal worship to be very, very good. For “the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:14).

Perhaps the best way to describe what John's seeing is like a fireworks show. “Praise like fireworks,” dazzling with colors yet unknown, lit up by every angel and every creature, until it relentlessly illuminates all heaven and all earth from every side, booming and sizzling and sparkling and shining with worship. And what John saw is in progress now – slowly, steadily. This display of the fireworks of universal worship is stretching out towards the grand finale. The destiny of every creature is to light up the universe with worship. But we are not to stay passive observers, looking up at the sky, aloof from the action as it plays out for our amusement. No, we must allow these fireworks to surround us and overjoy us and make us bright and beautiful. We are called to join in the cascade of worship and to spread it along to all creation within our reach!

So often, the church has bickered about what our real purpose is. Do we exist primarily to worship, or do we exist primarily to witness, or do we exist primarily to work in the world? Liturgical churches have often given the first answer, but at times that focus on worship has been reduced to mere routine. Evangelistic churches have often given the second answer, but at times that focus on testifying, witnessing, has been reduced to a sales pitch. Social-Gospel churches have often given the third answer, but at times that focus on working in the world has been reduced to whatever the latest cultural and political cause du jour is. Our denomination is currently veering toward a missional-church model, which hovers between the second and third options, to the point that some of our congregations have chosen certain Sundays to skip meeting together for worship so that they can do service projects in the community instead. At times, such self-described 'missional churches' can be at risk of reducing worship to, if not an afterthought, then an instrument that recharges us to work for God whether or not we actually encounter God. There are dangers in that path, dangers to which we must not become blind.

The truth is that John portrays our purpose very well. Our purpose is worship. That is why we were created, and that is why the church has been gathered from every tribe and tongue: to worship. But our worship is only taking part in these fireworks of universal worship. And our worship should be attractive to other creatures who come sniffing 'round what we're doing. Because our worship is attractive, and because our worship is leaning into the destiny of all creation, we must invite other creatures by our witness – hence, in the service of worship, we must be evangelistic. Our worship celebrating the good news of Jesus must broadcast the good news, and we must share the good news so that others can celebrate in the same concert of worship. And just the same, taking part in the concert of worship should change us into people who long for creation's healing and who just naturally get to work in the world on our way to ride the wave of worship back to the throne of God and the Lamb, who will use our worship and witness and work to make all this world new.

There's a fireworks display going on, a fireworks display of worship that's meant to be universal. And our task, like that of the angels, is to see the Lamb and detonate with worship for him and his enthroned Father. But as we do, we don't want anyone or anything else to dilly-dally on their way to the fireworks display – we want the timing to stay constant. Nor do we want the clutter of a broken world to obstruct the visibility and efficacy of any firework, like the tree that hides most of the local fireworks from my line of sight from my bedroom window. So, to tear down obstructing clutter, we work for the healing of the world around us. And we reach out to people we know and impress on them the beauty that's begun. We do all that because we ourselves have started catching the cascade, the fireworks of universal worship. We see who God is and who the Lamb is, we've experienced what they've done, we've heard the good news reach our own eyes and ears, we're fireworks going off, and we're eager for the grand finale – we want the beauty of the fireworks of universal worship to fill all things, to the glory of God and the Lamb!

That is what our worship should be like. It isn't ours alone. It doesn't start here. It starts in heaven and spreads to here, and from here outward. It's the destiny of all creation. It's leading up to a grand finale that will dwarf any celebration we've ever seen or heard or imagined. So burst into exuberance. Be part of that fireworks display. Let loose praise like fireworks, and let your worship be so dazzling, so infectious, that other creatures around you – human and beyond – light up too, with the joys of this love.