Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Challenge of Smyrna: Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11

It was early one Saturday morning in February when the carriage pulled up to the stadium. The elderly prisoner scraped his shin while getting out. But there was no time to dwell on that. His day had come. And so the chief of police marched the well-aged man into the stadium, to the boos and jeers of the vast crowds. It had been a long night – scarcely any sleep, of course. They'd found him late in a farm cottage, in the upper room. He hadn't intended to be there, at first – hadn't planned to flee the city when he'd heard they were looking for him – but the churches were insistent, so he'd gone. But the powers-that-be had tracked him down, so there he'd been. When they got there, the police, he'd come downstairs and ordered a nice warm meal be prepared for them – no sense in being unpleasant. Better to be hospitable to those who catch and arrest you. That's what love looked like, he believed. In return, they gave him time to pray. He'd stood and prayed for two hours in the darkness of night, pouring out his soul to God, lifting up every church he knew in all the world and its people by name, praying for his own people and for his city and for the police, too. And then he'd been ready to go. And now he was at the stadium, with twenty thousand spectators looking on and the proconsul Lucius Statius Quadratus waiting his arrival. But Polycarp couldn't help reminisce for a moment as he crossed that irreversible line.

Polycarp had been raised there in Smyrna – oh, beautiful Smyrna, splendid Smyrna! Founded years before the Bethlehem birth of King David, it had attained great things through the years – reputed to have been the place where the legendary poet Homer was born, or so they boasted. During the long centuries, it was broken down and demolished by Lydian conquerors, dispersing the Smyrnaeans into village life for over three hundred years, until Alexander the Great and his successors had the city rebuilt on and beneath the slops of Mount Pagos. The people of Smyrna liked to remember how their city had died and, after centuries, come to life again. And they were proud, so proud, of that city, their prosperous seaside city with its two harbors for the shipping trade. They were proud, too, of their reputation for loyalty, for patriotism, for faithfulness. Ever since they'd allied with the Romans back during the Carthaginian wars, they'd been all-in – Smyrna had been the first city on earth to build a temple where Rome itself could be worshipped as a goddess. They were the birthplace of the imperial cult.

It was there that Polycarp grew up, born within one to five years after the deaths of the Apostles Paul and Peter in Rome. Polycarp remembered hearing those names a lot in his youth – he was the son, after all, of Christian parents, themselves converted likely by missionaries sent by Paul from Ephesus. Polycarp spent his Christian youth in that city a fifth of a million strong; his boyish feet ran back and forth between stone monuments commemorating the city's gift of gold crowns as civic honors for meritorous citizens after they died – crowns for the dead, enjoyed by no one. The whole city was like a crown on Mount Pagos, where their main street, the Street of Gold, wound 'round the hillside – and yet for all the city's prosperity, not all could share in it.

Polycarp was scarcely a teenager when the Praetorian Guard declared Domitian emperor – an autocratic tyrant. But by the time he was in his late twenties, the Smyrnaean church had fallen on hard times. Christians were a deeply unpopular minority in patriotic Smyrna, and the pressure was on. They had, over the past decades, been successful in their evangelism, especially in drawing off folks from the local synagogue – both Jews and also Gentile God-fearers. And the synagogue, now under rough taxation from Domitian, was pretty angry about it – they saw the church as illegitimate, saw the church as dangerous. And so the synagogue of Smyrna hated the church of Smyrna, so much so that it consumed them, so much so that they would break the laws of Moses if it would help them hound the Christians. So the synagogue community in the city – well, some of its members had begun denouncing various Christians before the Roman authorities, insisting that the church was not a valid expression of the Jewish faith and so had no right to the historic Jewish exemption from the imperial cult. They spread all sorts of rumors about the church as a nefarious force in civic life, charged Christians as unpatriotic and conspiratorial. The result was that Smyrnaean Christians like Polycarp and his family and friends were boxed out, excluded, deprived of economic opportunity; they were sued, they were hounded, their houses were robbed and vandalized from time to time. Needless to say, when Sunday morning rolled 'round, there wasn't much to put in the offering plate. But it was one Sunday morning that Polycarp huddled with other Christians in a house to worship God, and a messenger came to read a scroll delivered from a prophet exiled in Patmos.

Polycarp was one of the first to hear the Revelation, and one of the first to hear the letter dictated by the Risen Lord specifically to his church in Smyrna. And what a relief it was – Polycarp remembers that Sunday in his late twenties – just how simply and succinctly Jesus sympathized with their situation. Jesus knew! Jesus saw! Jesus understood! “I know your tribulation and your poverty,” the Lord told them. He knew they didn't have much. He knew they were scared and sad and shivering and suffering, huddled up and hurting. Jesus knew. He saw them in their pain. How good it is to know that Jesus sees, that Jesus knows, that Jesus understands what we face, what we go through! How good to hear that Jesus turns no blind eye to our aches and bruises and fears and griefs! Young Polycarp heard that, and his soul was lightened.

He heard, too, that Jesus knew “the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). Jesus heard the rumors about the church, the slanders, the denunciations. He rejected them as false. And he also rejected as false those who spread them. Jesus looked at the hostile synagogue and saw it filled with the influence of the Evil One. That synagogue collaborated with pagan powers and sought deeper entanglement with the state. That synagogue failed to recognize their own Messiah when the evangelists of Smyrna announced him to them. They had dropped off the Abrahamic olive tree, as Paul described (Romans 11:7; cf. 11:11-21). They were, in a deep sense, lifeless. King Jesus Messiah of Israel looks at the synagogue in the city of Smyrna, and the Messiah denounces them as illegitimate, mere pretenders to the lofty name of Judah – there is no bright praise in their mouth, only lies and calumnies. The synagogue community is, in the eyes of the Risen Lord as John hears him, not even Jewish. They had become a fraudulent parody of the Israel they were meant to be – that's how far gone they'd become, driven by jealousy and hatred of the church.

But the church, on the other hand – Polycarp and his friends – are, though they're materially poor, nevertheless praised by Jesus as spiritually “rich,” rich in all the ways that count the most. Polycarp learned in that word that no outer circumstance could deprive him of what really matters in life, which is being rich toward God, rich in his heart, rich in his relationships with those who love the Jesus who gave them life. Polycarp and his fellow believers are truly rich, Jesus says – they, not the synagogue, are the real Israel, the people whom Jesus chooses and elects, those who inherit the promises to the patriarchs and prophets. They are the ones loyal to the Messiah who sits on David's throne, they are the ones who share Abraham's faith in a God who raises the dead. They are the truest expression of Israel's faith, the most authentic Jews – for just like Paul said, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart – by the Spirit, not by the letter: his praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29). Those in Smyrna's synagogue, Jesus says, have no praise from him – their hearts are uncircumcised, their Jewishness is only skin deep – but he has much praise for Smyrna's church, whose hearts are circumcised by the Holy Spirit. The faithful church of Smyrna is truly and authentically Jewish, deep down – even those of other ethnic backgrounds, even those raised in pagan homes but now turning to one God through a Jewish Messiah. Jesus, after all, told the Smyrnaeans that he was “the First and the Last” (Revelation 2:8). And in saying that, he identified himself as Israel's God, who said through Isaiah, “Thus saith Yahweh, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, Yahweh of Hosts: I am the First and I am the Last; besides me there is no god. … Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel whom I called! I am he: I am the First, and I am the Last” (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). Jesus is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the Creator and Redeemer who called Israel in the first place and who holds all history in his hands – and not a thing happens that's beyond his sovereign reach.

And yet, Jesus warns the Smyrnaean church, for all the tribulation and poverty and slander they face in their day in the late first century, worse times will come. “You are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10). What lurks around the corner – and this surely shocked Polycarp to hear for the first time – is a time when some of them will be arrested. They will be persecuted. They will be put on trial. They will see the open hostility of society arrayed violently against them. And Jesus tells them, when the messenger reads the letter he dictated to John – Jesus tells them that some of them sitting there that morning will be murdered if they stay loyal to him.

That is a pretty sobering word to hear at church! I'm sure it was for Polycarp that day. He scarcely can imagine – even when poor and harassed and slandered – that things would actually turn to violence, that he really could face a risk like that. It's hard to seriously believe, even when things are bad, that confessing the gospel will ever literally become an act with physically deadly consequences. But that's what Jesus says. It's hard to hear! It's intimidating. And maybe this church has been living in fear, maybe they've been worried about where things in their society are headed. Maybe they see things getting worse and worse around them, more and more hostile all around them, and they wonder where it will stop. And Jesus says, first of all, that it will go down the darkest road, that it will end in tears and blood, that it will get as ugly as their worst-case scenarios. But Jesus also tells them, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” (Revelation 2:10). Yes, things will get deadly. But worry not, fret not, fear not. Because Jesus has bigger purposes for allowing the devil to do this.

The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested,” Jesus emphasizes, “and for ten days you will have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10). Jesus reminds them of Daniel and his three friends, when they first went to Babylon, when they were tempted by the luxurious offers of the king's own food and his own wine. But they refused, and asked the chief eunuch to “test your servants for ten days” with “vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1:12). So the chief eunuch Ashpenaz “tested them for ten days” (Daniel 1:14). In the same way, Jesus says, the devil's coming violence will only provide a platform for the church to show off Jesus – to demonstrate that Jesus gives them strength beyond what synagogue or state can imagine. The church must be allowed to show their faith under fire, in the midst of this deadly tribulation, so that Jesus can praise them all the more! So here Jesus tells them what's going to happen – so they can spend the intervening time in training. The church in Smyrna needs to get ready. They need to set aside any distracting programs, they need to give up their time-wasting hobbies, they need to make sure they're serious and committed. If there's a test coming, they need to study, need to train, need to disciple and be discipled. The elder members of the church need to train up young men like Polycarp, and the children among them, in a serious Christianity. None of this shallow stuff. Older believers need to get serious about readying themselves and the next generations – they cannot afford to lose their kids and grandkids to trendiness, shallowness, and worldliness. It's time to get ready.

Polycarp took Jesus' message to heart. He wasn't yet out of his twenties when the Emperor Domitian died and was replaced by Nerva, who set John free from Patmos. Polycarp had grown up occasionally seeing John. In fact, Polycarp in his young days had met and learned from a number of believers who traveled from Jerusalem and Judaea and Galilee after the war – believers who had been among the hundreds to see, meet, touch the risen Jesus, eyewitnesses of the resurrection truth. Polycarp learned from them, and learned from John especially. In Polycarp, John saw a solid man, a man who embodied what a church leader should be. So within the next ten years, we're told, Polycarp was “appointed bishop of the church in Smyrna” at the hands of “apostles in Asia.”

After John's death, Polycarp sought to guide the Smyrnaean church according to Jesus' words. Polycarp knew them all by name – Gavia and Daphnus and Eutecnus and Attalus and Crescens and that dear woman named Alce, passionate and devoted in spite of her pagan brother Nicetas and his son Herodes. One day, soldiers came and marched the Syrian bishop Ignatius, at least nineteen years Polycarp's senior, through Smyrna. Ignatius saw the Smyrnaean church as “mercifully endowed with every spiritual gift, filled with faith and love.” He urged Polycarp to “press on in your race and to exhort all people, that they may be saved.” He advised Polycarp that “it's the mark of a great athlete to be bruised and yet still conquer.” And he encouraged the Smyrnaeans to all follow Polycarp's lead: “Whatever he approves is also pleasing to God.” Within months, Polycarp wrote a letter to the believers in Philippi where Ignatius had been taken next, telling them, “If we please [Jesus] in this present world, we'll receive the world-to-come as well, inasmuch as he promised to raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we'll also reign with him – if, that is, we continue to believe! … If we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him.” Polycarp, now hitting forty, was getting ready.

Down through the decades of his ministry, Polycarp kept faithful. He preached and taught what he'd learned from apostles. He led with dignity. His unschooled mind was no less keen than the best-trained philosophers, and he put it in the service of the gospel, diligently making the case to city councilmen and passersby alike. But he also presided at the table, celebrated the communion of his church community, and stayed strong even when times were tough and money was tight. Polycarp rose in prominence in church circles – in his early eighties, he was sent to Rome to represent all the churches of Asia in a meeting with Bishop Anicetus, and while there, he rebuked heretics and led many back to the authentic gospel through his teaching. Then he came home again.

And that's when the persecution broke out. First, select believers from Philadelphia were carted to Smyrna to stand trial before Quadratus the proconsul – himself a very persuasive man, able to launch into a philosophical debate at the drop of a hat. Then some Smyrnaean church leaders came under fire. And that's when the crowds started calling for Quadratus to go for the head – to catch Polycarp, “the father of the Christians.” Now police chief Herodes and his father Nicetas has brought him into custody, presented him before the jeering crowds in the stadium. Now Polycarp, in his old age, was to stand trial. Now were those “ten days of tribulation” Jesus had warned him about decades in advance. Now was the time he'd trained for. Now was the time to not fear.

The proconsul began openly questioning Polycarp, urging Polycarp to be a good Smyrnaean and patriot, to just pray to the emperor, swear an oath by the emperor's guardian spirit. If only the proconsul could sway Polycarp, it would devastate the church. The proconsul urged Polycarp to reject the church he'd taught, to denounce the Christians as criminals, to call them godless. Instead, Polycarp groaned, looked up to heaven, and urged God to cast away the godlessness, the atheism, of the pagan Greeks and Romans. The proconsul baited him again, promising Polycarp his freedom if only he'd curse Jesus and leave that life behind him. But Polycarp objected, “For eighty-six years I've been serving him, and he's done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? … Listen clearly: I am a Christian. And if you intend to learn the message of Christianity, appoint a day and hear me out.” Polycarp would gladly dare and make his case with the proconsul as an audience.

Quadratus threatened Polycarp, first with wild beasts, then with fire. But Polycarp, with age-old joints and achy bones and wrinkled skin, told him, “You threaten with a fire that burns for an hour and is soon put out, because you don't know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that's stored up for the ungodly.” Refusing to compromise, Polycarp called on the proconsul to move along and do what he had to do. Courage and joy filled Polycarp's heart, even as the crowds began to boo Polycarp as “the destroyer of our gods.”

The pagans hated Polycarp. So did the synagogue community, just as Jesus had seen. Even though it was the sabbath when Moses had forbidden work and the gathering of wood and the lighting of fires (Exodus 35:1-3; Numbers 15:32-36), the synagogue members of Smyrna worked to collect firewood to help burn Polycarp. No wonder Jesus called them what he did. Once tied to the pyre, Polycarp prayed and gave thanks to “the God of angels and powers and all creation and the entire race of the righteous who live before you.” And once he said amen, the soldiers lit the wood ablaze, and the flames billowed around Polycarp like a sail in the wind. What do you think was on Bishop Polycarp's mind as the wood beneath his feet caught that first deadly spark?

I have to think that his mind was firmly fixed on Jesus. Jesus is the heart of it all. Jesus Christ is the Lord who knows his way through death and out the other side. Smyrna boasted they'd been restored to life like a phoenix from the ashes, but Jesus is “the First and the Last, who died and came to life” (Revelation 2:8). If there's someone to trust when life and death are the stakes, Jesus is the man! And so Polycarp believed Jesus when Jesus told him, “Don't fear what you're about to suffer.” And Polycarp accepted this one command from the lips of Jesus: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Smyrna bragged about its political faithfulness to Rome and her emperor – but Jesus wants Smyrnaean Christians like Polycarp to be faithful to him, the Lord Messiah, the King of Israel and their Redeemer, the King who saves us. Faithful not just when there's prosperity and ease and comfort, but faithful when it costs, faithful when it hurts, faithful when it's uncomfortable, faithful from poverty to persecution, from distress to death.

When Polycarp was questioned, he warned that proconsul that God has in store for the ungodly a “fire of the coming judgment and of everlasting punishment.” And he learned about that from John who took down this letter from Jesus. Because Jesus promises that those who trust in him and are loyal to him are the ones who will in the end be free from the fire. “The one who conquers,” the one who overcomes through faithful witness to Jesus even under fire, “will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). The kind of death that keeps funeral homes in business is not the worst thing. It is not the biggest death. There's a bigger death, a second death, the death that involves destruction in hell and the eternal smoke of torment. Next to that, the first death is a pittance, a nothing. Polycarp has nothing to fear in the first death, so long as he can't be hurt by the second.

Instead, Jesus tells him, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). The Smyrnaeans loved to hand out those golden crowns to good citizens after they died. Polycarp spent his boyish years running between monuments that said just that: “The people give a crown to so-and-so.” Grave markers. Crowns for the dead. But what Jesus offers is nothing like that. Jesus “was dead and came to life” (Revelation 2:8). He was crucified, he bled, he died to save John and Polycarp and me and you. But then he came to life, he rose from the dead more permanently than Smyrna – and “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). To Jesus has been granted a truly “indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16)! Jesus declares, “Fear not, I am the First and the Last and the Living One – I died, but look, I'm alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades!” (Revelation 1:17-18). Jesus is alive, hallelujah! Jesus has the keys, hallelujah! And Jesus is giving crowns of life, hallelujah. Wreaths like these crown the wearers as victors in the strife, as overcomers, as those who instead of the second death enter into a new life beyond the grave, as those destined for glorious resurrection when Jesus will one day “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). Jesus has crowns to give away, crowns of life, for overcomers.

In the end of Polycarp's journey here, when those fires were lit, I'm sure that's the promise from his youth that he was thinking about. The eyewitnesses who wrote down what happened that day call him “an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our times, and a bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna, for every saying that he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished. … Through his endurance, he overcame the unrighteous ruler and thus received the crown of immortality. Rejoicing with the apostles and all the righteous, he glorifies the Almighty God and Father and praises our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls and Pilot of our bodies and Shepherd of the catholic church throughout the world.” Polycarp, burned as a martyr with love in his heart in his old age, well into his eighties, after a lifetime of faithful ministry – he overcame. He got the crown of life that Jesus promised, because Polycarp was faithful from youth to old age and even unto death. He passed the test. Now he belongs to that “great cloud of witnesses” watching us run our race (Hebrews 12:1).

As for us, most of us here have little expectation of ever facing physical persecution for our faith. We risk no capital punishment in living out the good news of Jesus. Neither did Polycarp, yet, when John wrote. Even at that time, Polycarp did already have to choose between fidelity and prosperity. Few of us here have ever had to choose between being faithful to God and faithful to the economy. But those times do come, as Christians are more and more slandered and vilified, as Christians lose out on worldly opportunities, as Christians learn anew what it means to place no trust in princes – or in constitutions and institutions (cf. Psalm 146:3). In all these things, we'll each wish the next generation had been better trained in the gospel – because tribulation will come. But even now, the Christian life for many of us is one with challenges: disappointment and dismay, sickness and sorrow. Not all of us have rosy outward circumstances. Yet Jesus tells us: no matter how much is in our wallets, we can be spiritually rich in all the ways that matter most. But we must be loyal in times easy and hard. We must devote ourselves to Christ's mission to build us into a healthy multi-generational church, a church serious about courage and committed to joy, a church faithfully setting aside fear but ready for times of testing.

We could do worse than to imitate Polycarp as he imitated the apostles who imitated their Lord Jesus. We must be a healthy and faithful church, and we can't do that without each striving to be healthy and faithful ourselves, like Polycarp was. Each of us can be spiritually rich. Each of us is called to be faithful. And for how we live and the choices we make, there are real consequences beyond the tombstone – a second death or a crown of life. Those things hinge on our faithfulness now, in each day and in each hour, whether we cling to grace and let the life of Jesus change us from the inside-out. Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He was dead, but he's alive forevermore! Wherever death touches you, you have a Savior who gives life the last word! Hallelujah! Each of us must be able to say, with Polycarp: “I've served Jesus, and he has done me no wrong. How could I be unfaithful to my King who saved me?” How indeed! May the Spirit that burns hotter than persecution's flames burn also in us, to glorify Jesus in our faithfulness in fearsome days. Let us press on and seek the salvation and discipleship of everyone we meet. Though bruised in the journey, let us overcome with Jesus by faith. Amen!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Challenge of Ephesus: Sermon on Revelation 2:1-7

It was the early years of the sixties, and Robert Wilson, preacher and editor, sat in his Myerstown study with the day's mail, as the radio babbled in the background. Over the airwaves, Wilson picked up a familiar voice – one he'd heard in the halls at seminary three decades before. It was the voice of a popular and controversial radio preacher, whose journey had been anything but smooth and gentle. Wilson's ears caught the accents of the Rev. Carl McIntire. And he remembered Carl.

Carl McIntire, born in Michigan, was raised first in Utah where his father pastored, until his dad had a mental breakdown and left the family. Carl was raised then by a single mom in Oklahoma, finished college in Missouri and then in 1928 moved to New Jersey to train for the ministry at Princeton. He was a loyal Presbyterian. But the Presbyterian Church in the USA at the time was divided between two sides of a controversy over key points of the gospel. Some overly broad-minded folk wanted to revise Christian teaching in light of modern morality and modern science, so they were called Modernists. Other folk warned that some things just weren't up for debate, like the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the atoning death of Jesus, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus so that he'd literally come again. Those convictions, they said, were 'fundamentals' of the Christian faith, without which it couldn't be Christian. And because they believed in fundamentals, they got nicknamed the 'Fundamentalists.' That was the camp to which McIntire and his best-loved professor John Gresham Machen belonged. They were defenders of the fundamentals.

Not long after Carl got to the seminary, the Presbyterian Church voted to reorganize it to give more power to the Modernists there. Machen and others quit Princeton to found a new seminary in Philadelphia, Westminster, and Carl followed him to study there. It was there that Robert Wilson met Carl McIntire – Robert's first year there was Carl's last. Carl graduated in 1931 and got ordained. By '33, he was pastoring a church in Collingswood, New Jersey. But by a few years later, because he and Machen had founded a more biblical missions agency, the Presbyterian Church USA put them on trial. They rejected its authority and, in 1936, founded what would be called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church – a new denomination committed to upholding the fundamentals of the faith that mainline Presbyterianism had thrown away.

In short order, though, the new Orthodox Presbyterian Church was embroiled in controversy. They agreed on those fundamentals, but they found they didn't all agree on other things. They didn't agree what to believe about the end-times. They didn't agree how to engage with politics. They didn't agree on whether it was okay to use alcohol or tobacco. And you'd think these would be questions that a group of committed Christians could settle peacefully among themselves, or at least learn to respect each other's convictions, to 'agree to disagree.' But that wasn't Carl McIntire's way. So he led a faction to separate from the newborn denomination to start yet another one: the Bible Presbyterian Church. His congregation followed him, and when their fancy church building got taken from them in a lawsuit, they marched out to a big tent to stick with their pastor.

In the early 1940s, it was clear that the main association of denominations in America, later to be called the National Council of Churches, had become led by the Modernists, and didn't give a voice to believers who insisted on what they read in the Bible. So two new organizations were formed. One, McIntire's, the American Council of Christian Churches; the other, not McIntire's, the National Association of Evangelicals. They were quite different in their tone. When the NAE was being created, one of its founders (Harold J. Ockenga) preached that “a terrible indictment may be laid against fundamentalism because of its failures, divisions, and controversies. … I am disgusted with this division and strife; I have no interest whatsoever in being involved constantly in these internal quarrels with the brethren.” But McIntire wasn't disgusted with that. He believed that there was never a time to cooperate with those who deviated from the Christian faith; not only that, he wouldn't cooperate with those who did cooperate with those who differed. That's why McIntire condemned, for instance, the ministry of Billy Graham as being too compromised to be truly Christian. Around the same time McIntire started a daily radio show called The Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour, his own Bible Presbyterian Church split in two, based solely on whether people were happy with Carl McIntire's style of leadership, which one of his own men called “extremist and unwise and uncharitable.” McIntire stood for the fundamentals against those who taught false doctrine, he was right to resist the Modernists, but he burned hot against whatever else he didn't like, too.

For two decades, since he was a Navy chaplain in the Second World War, Rev. Robert S. Wilson had subscribed to McIntire's magazine The Christian Beacon. Wilson had friends who worked for and with the man. But he wasn't part of McIntire's movement. Wilson's denomination belonged to the NAE. His denomination was ours. He was one of us. When people kept writing to Wilson about McIntire, he answered one letter by writing that he'd “agreed with [McIntire] on many points,” but not his attacks and his attitude. To someone else, Wilson wrote back:

He is obsessed with a crusading attitude that expects everyone to accept his personal viewpoint. Anyone who does not agree with him is then a heretic or a Communist or something else. … I believe in standing for the truth of God's word, but we should not be contentious about it so as to cause more harm than good. … His approach is negative, and his evidence is not conclusive. He stirs up opposition when wrong should be met with prayer and sound doctrine. I know that people are being misled by his broadcasts, and they are substituting anti-Communism for evangelization. Money is going to support anti-Communists and taken away from missionary projects. This weakens the work of the gospel. Our main task is to declare the gospel and witness to Jesus Christ. With a positive stand, we will be able to counteract the wrong doctrines and positions in a way that will endure. This should be better than merely stirring up people to a negative attitude which creates doubt and dissension and leaves the churches in a worse condition than before.

And to answer yet another letter, Wilson said about Carl McIntire:

He is a man with zeal who feels that everyone should toe the line in regard to orthodoxy. He condemns everyone who holds to any heresy, or associates with anyone who holds to a heresy. … He spends his time and effort in negative work, rather than positive. … McIntire has a number of radio broadcasts in this area. He has evidence which sounds good, but many times his zeal blinds him to being charitable and even accurate in his evaluation. … The American Council has several denominations in it, most of whom split off from other churches … They have much truth, but their zeal exceeds their Christian love.

When I read those letters in our denomination's archives this past week, I thought about this letter John wrote down – a message from none other than the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to the church as it meets scattered throughout the tenements and houses and workshops and halls of one large first-century city. Ephesus had over a quarter of a million people. It had a massive stadium, a theater, a marketplace, and its temple to the goddess Artemis was so gigantic it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Only one of the pillars is left standing; I've been there, and it's huge. Ephesus had been moved around several times in its history, being destroyed and transplanted by first the Lydians, then the Greeks, and they worried that if they couldn't stop the Cayster River from silting up, they'd have to move again. It was into that city that the gospel came, first through Priscilla and Aquila, then joined by Paul who lived there more than two years to build up a thriving church from which missionaries were sent to other key cities in the area. Paul moved on, but many co-workers stayed. Paul later met one last time with the Ephesian church elders to warn them to “be alert,” because he knew soon there would come “fierce wolves,” “men speaking twisted things,” false teachers who would try to revise and corrupt the teachings he'd left with them (Acts 20:29-31).

Paul charged them to be on the lookout. And as we meet them in today's passage, written down a generation later, we hear Jesus' own affirmation that they'd listened to Paul's warning. Jesus says that the thing that sticks out about the Ephesian church to him is that they “cannot bear with those who are evil” – when messengers came to them and claimed to be apostles who could teach them more, they “tested” those missionaries and “found them to be false,” and so the Ephesian church sent them packing (Revelation 2:2). Those were wolves like Paul warned about. Now another mysterious movement has arisen, the Nicolaitans, who advocate for some compromises with the 'modern world' and its realities – they want more accommodation to the pressures of society – but the Ephesian church has no place for them. Jesus tells the Ephesians, “You hate the work of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). The Ephesian church is sticking with the fundamentals. They are asking some right questions of those who come with alternative suggestions. They know the faith they were taught, they're sticking to it, and they're exercising discernment. They refuse to swallow just anything. They do not believe whatever sounds good in the moment. No, they put every claim to the test.

And that is not an easy thing to do. Living faithfully like that in a big city, with ideas aplenty in the streets and the market, is not a simple task. They have to put up with a lot of pressure. They have to get made fun of as backward bumpkins who refuse to get with the times. Maybe they get called intolerant, maybe they get mocked by these teachers as incomplete without a new word. It would be so much easier to just lower their standards to go with the flow. It'd be a simple thing to loosen their grip on the fundamentals. But they don't. Jesus observes that they show “toil and patient endurance” (Revelation 2:2). Jesus tells them, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3). In other words, no matter what anybody says about them, they aren't tired of the fundamentals, aren't bored with the old faith, aren't at much risk of giving in to the pressure. They'll cling to the old rugged cross anyway.

And all of that is good, Jesus says. The Ephesian church is loyal. The Ephesian church knows what they heard and were taught, and they believed the right things. Doctrinally, theologically, they have checked all the right boxes – and Jesus likes that! Jesus would have a problem with them if they dropped those things, if they started compromising – Jesus would object. We'll see, in some of the other letters we'll read soon, about other churches where that happens, and Jesus is not happy about it. But in Ephesus, there isn't even a hint of that. They know the Christian faith well, and even when it's hard, even when they get called backward and intolerant, they refuse to change their minds. They are not weary of sticking to the fundamentals. And the fundamentals they believe are, in fact, fundamental in the eyes of Jesus. We cannot read this letter and forget that truth.

All this makes the Ephesian church sound pretty healthy and thriving. Hooray, we might think, for Ephesus! It may shock us, then, that Jesus identifies a problem so severe that it threatens their very identity as a church. He is happy that they have, as it were, a robust immune system. Their immune system is not allowing contagious false teachings to establish a beachhead. And that's good. But their immune system is overactive. They have become so obsessive about discernment, so scrutinizing and suspicious, that their immune system has become a different kind of unhealthy. Spiritually, the Ephesian church is suffering from an autoimmune disease.

We're familiar, many of us, with different sorts of autoimmune diseases of the body. For instance, in celiac disease, exposure to a normal protein – gluten – leads to an abnormal response. And then there's lupus, where the immune system gets so hyperactive that it attacks healthy tissues in general, or rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system goes after a specific sort of tissue, the joints. The result of such autoimmune diseases isn't a great thing. The very system designed to defend the body against bad things has been kicked into overdrive so that even good and healthy parts of the body come under suspicion and get attacked. The body fights itself, the body no longer treats its very own parts with love, and the inflammation that results is not a healthy outcome.

That's essentially what Wilson saw happening in McIntire's ministry. McIntire at times broadcasted antibodies to attack even natural things in the church, and to do it in an abrasive and inflammatory way. The immune system was good when it rejected revisionist teachings, but then it got all worked up over normal things like different views on minor issues, and with so much suspicion, it doesn't take long to cause inflammation and damage to the body. Wilson had to admit, “They have much truth, but their zeal exceeds their Christian love.” Doctrine is not meant to come at the expense of love. But that's what Wilson saw. And it's also what Jesus sees happening in the Ephesian church. For the sake of zeal about correct teaching, they'd abandoned the love they used to have for each other, the love that motivated them to work together, to care about each other as people and not just as bundles of ideas labeled 'right' and 'wrong.' They excelled at toil, at work, but it was largely a negative work of putting everybody under a microscope. Jesus tells them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” – the love, for instance, that they used to have for each other (Revelation 2:4). They used to excel at that, in the early days. But after the struggle to preserve their theological purity against infiltration and corruption – which was, again, a healthy thing to seek to maintain – now their autoimmune disease was getting in the way of love.

Today, it's quite possible to make the same mistake as the Ephesians did. McIntire shows us a bit what that can look like. It isn't always flagrant and so obvious. When we handle our differences poorly, we can have similar effects. When we major on the minors, this sort of thing is lurking 'round the corner. Discernment is really crucial – but discernment must put first things first and stand with the whole church, not a narrow sect. Which is what the Ephesian church could become, if not careful. Unloving discernment can mislead down back alleys.

Not only had the Ephesian discernment-mania gotten out of hand and distracted them from loving each other, it also had distracted them from loving those beyond their walls. They became insular and unevangelistic. Maybe they didn't even realize it. Maybe they still thought of themselves as gospel-people. But they no longer were. I can easily imagine that they thought it was enough to talk at their neighbors instead of to them. You can just picture Ephesian church members leaving tracts in the restroom for people to find, then patting themselves on the back for having done evangelism. And it isn't tough to believe that they might condemn their neighbors, shake their head over their neighbors, puff at their neighbors, criticize their neighbors – and in all their warnings about the moral corruption and religious emptiness of Ephesian culture, the supposed evangelist might leave their neighbors with little reason to understand that the gospel is good news for them. What we have here is another immune system overreaction: a transplant rejection, failing to integrate needed healthy tissue from the outside into the systems of the body – failing to integrate their neighbors into the local expression of the body of Christ, and so let the life of Jesus fill and sustain them.

It is easy for a church, now as much as then, to lose that love. Wilson observed that McIntire's radio ministry was so hung up on various pet projects that people were funding those instead of supporting missionary work. Remember what Wilson wrote: “Our main task is to declare the gospel and witness to Jesus Christ. With a positive stand, we will be able to counteract the wrong doctrines and positions in a way that will endure.” We must not lose sight of our mission. Our mission is to speak good news, positive news. It isn't to tell the world what the church hates, but to celebrate who the church loves, and to show how Jesus really is the answer – the good news – for all that ails each neighbor and neighborhood.

Wilson would advise us, “Serve the Lord faithfully and win souls, rather than criticizing everything.” And yet it's easy for us to get caught up in announcing how much we hate the darkness. It's easy for us to be heard issuing our lists of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. It's easy for us to launch into a speech and talk at our neighbors without ever listening to them. It's easy for us to leave a tract and settle for that. And it's especially easy to get so caught up in our own life, even our church life, that we, for all intents and purposes, ignore the need around us. We might still convince ourselves we're gospel-people. I'm sure the Ephesians had. But we can trick ourselves into thinking we're more evangelistic and more welcoming and more loving than we really are.

What the Ephesian church needs, and what we need, is a hefty dose of Christ crucified and risen. That's why we have this letter – one of seven letters dictated by Jesus Christ, through his servant John, to be sent to seven key churches on a circuit in Asia. Jesus announces himself to them as “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1). Jesus did not come just for one church in one place – he has a fullness of churches in his hand. A small local sect is not enough; each local church has to realize they're only part of the plan in Jesus' hand. But Jesus insists on envisioning each church as a “golden lampstand.” And what do lampstands do? They give light to what's around them. And the problem in Ephesus is that there's a lot of structural integrity but not a lot of glow. They aren't sharing their light; they're hoarding it. And Jesus already told us that no sane person “lights a lamp and puts it under a basket; they put it on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:15-16). The gospel light needs to be given off, needs to be shared. A church needs to be evangelistic. A church needs to be caring and compassionate. A church needs to persist in the way of love, and not abandon it and fall.

Jesus has a sharp warning for the church in Ephesus. They think they're doing fine because they agree with all the right things, they check off the proper boxes. And Jesus likes that, but they're forgetting the power that put them there: love. If they keep on the track they're on, they'll fall to pieces. Just like Ephesus had been moved and transplanted, the 'lampstand,' their presence as a church, would also be taken away and moved elsewhere – in their weakened and insular state, they'd be easy prey to fall under the domination of the very culture they're zealously resisting, much as McIntire's movement never retained the numbers to mount a significant stand, and much of his work unraveled in his own lifetime. Just so, Jesus warns the Ephesian church, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place,” if things continue as they are (Revelation 2:5).

But it doesn't have to be that way. They can change. They can reawaken their lost love, the fire, passion, care that drove them when they were first planted, when they and their parents first caught the gospel and stepped into a new kind of living. What Jesus asks of them is to “repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). They need to ease up on their obsession and regain their balance. They need to get back to the way it used to be, and rediscover the beauty of God's grace in each other, and restore the fullness of their fellowship. They need to set aside their suspicions and embrace each other. They need to step back from the negative and return to the positive mission they have to build each other up and to transplant Christ into their neighbors and their neighbors and neighborhood into Christ. They need to climb back to the love they'd fallen from. That doesn't mean they should lose all their discernment and get doctrinally indifferent. A radical course of immunosuppressants is not Dr. Jesus' prescription for them. His prescription is a dose of grace and love that can restore equilibrium. Because the healthy functioning of a church is the golden mean between immunodeficiency and autoimmune disorder, between mainline modernism and McIntire fundamentalism. And that golden mean is discerning love.

The good news is, we know that the Ephesian church listened to Jesus – they did repent after getting this letter! We know because just eleven years later, a bishop from Syria – Ignatius of Antioch – was being taken to Rome, to be tried and put to death there for his faith. And as he passed through this region, members from the church in Ephesus came to bring him food and supplies on his way. The delegates included their bishop Onesimus, and their deacon Burrhus, and other men from the Ephesian church like Crocus and Euplus and Fronto, who came to help him out of their own resources, even though they'd never seen him before, even though he probably did things differently in his church than they did it in theirs. After he'd passed through, he wrote a thank-you letter, which we can still read today. He said Onesimus had informed him that the church was still dedicated to discernment – that they had no heresies among them, that they still rejected every false teacher. And yet they must have had a fresh tone and outlook. Ignatius calls Onesimus “a man of inexpressible love,” and Ignatius celebrates that the whole Ephesian church is united in “harmonious love.” Ignatius met some of the very same people to whom Jesus was speaking just eleven years earlier, and the discerning love he sees there shows that, without becoming immunodeficient, they'd left behind their imbalance and returned to their original health.

I would hardly call us an all-doctrine church stuck in discernment overdrive. But we can learn from what Jesus said to one that was. Can we say we keep our priorities in order well enough? Can we say that our lampstand shows the gospel to our neighbors? Can we say we're actively making a difference in our community out of love for them? When we compare this church now to the way it was when it was first founded, how close are we now to the love we had at first, the love that gave this church fire and passion and purpose? How close am I to the love I had when I was freshly saved? How about you? Or do our pet projects and obsessions distract us? Have we found a way to uphold the real fundamentals in a positive way, in a charitable way, in an evangelistic way? Or are we tempted to be negative, tempted to go into lock-down, tempted to keep to ourselves?

The good news is, even if our fire has dimmed, it isn't too late. The Ephesian church turned around quickly, and the same can be true here. Jesus is speaking to Ephesus but inviting all the churches to hear it, if we can get what he's saying. And if we take this message to heart, Jesus has a gift waiting for us: “To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). Safe haven at last, beyond the pressures we endure now. Asylum and refuge in the royal garden of our King – now free of every stain, now free of every risk. And the tree he offers is not the dark tree of dizzy discernment run amok, but the tree of life – his tree. Growing from the cross, he offers us fruit to enjoy and savor, just like when we first began the biblical story. He wants to take us back there, to real peace, to fresh love. So let's go. Let's find our way with Jesus. Because, as McIntire himself said in his final broadcast: “Only Jesus counts.” And with that, we can all agree. Keep alert, but don't let it get in the way of love as fresh as Eden's bloom. Jesus offers sanctuary against every peril, and Jesus has fruit to feed your hungry soul. May this church be so. May we all be restored to the love we had at first. Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Temple of Tomorrow: Sermon on Revelation 11:15-19

If they'd been watching carefully down below, they should have been nervous. Because it was Saturday now. It was the day the invaders had been waiting for. Down on the plain, around the city, for the entire week, they'd been doing the same thing. Each day, they'd done it. Joshua had heard it from his Commander, and he'd relayed it to those he led. A procession, marching, orbiting the city. Stamping down the ground. At the head of the procession, the sacred box, hefted by the Levites on long poles. Joshua was one of the only ones still living and able to remember watching that box get made. It was in the months after the fire had descended on the mount, with “thunders and lightnings … and a very loud trumpet blast” (Exodus 19:16). It was up there that Joshua's mentor had been told what this box should be: a chest of acacia wood overlaid with gold, with gold rings for the poles, and then covered by a gold lid called a 'mercy seat' and overshadowed by cherubim. Inside would be the testimony, the tablets of stone recording the covenant of King Yahweh with his priestly kingdom Israel; and the Great King would treat the box like a throne, speaking and commanding from above it (Exodus 25:10-22). The box – the Ark of the Covenant – had been carried before Israel at the vanguard of their movements through the desert (Numbers 10:33) and in crossing the river Jordan (Joshua 3:3). Now it went before the Army of Israel, heralded by seven priests with seven shofar-trumpets, blasting them thunderously and furiously each weekday.

But now the week was up. The seven-day entry ritual, frighteningly familiar to the locals, was being completed. It was still by the dim light of the sabbath's early dawn, the rays of the sun peering over the eastern horizon, just scarcely glinting off the gold. It was early, awfully early, earlier than they'd done it the other days. Now, to recap the cycle, the seven priests led the ark which led the army seven times around the hilltop city – an early start, but a profound delay. As they circled, Joshua instructed his soldiers what to do. And as they finished their seventh revolution, the seven priests blasted their seventh trumpets on that seventh day on their seventh march, and the army let forth a great war-cry, a loud shout. And the hand of the Lord God Almighty toppled the firm walls of Jericho atop themselves, and the warriors of Israel ran straight up into the city and took it (Joshua 6:1-20). Seven priests blew seven trumpets, the Ark of the Covenant was shown, and once the seventh trumpet sounded, the warriors made a great shout, the defenses of the city fell, they rushed in, and they took the land of promise. On that day, the kingdoms of Canaan began to become the kingdom of the LORD and his Israel.

Throughout the years, the Ark of the Covenant was to be treated with great respect. That gold-covered wooden box, built according to God's design and carrying his covenant with them, was the physical symbol of his own presence on earth. When it traveled to the lands of the Philistines, it shattered an idol and forced the idol to bow down to it (1 Samuel 5:1-4); then, when it returned to Israel, those who looked inside it were struck down by divine judgment (1 Samuel 6:19). For touching the ark with his bare hand, Uzzah died (2 Samuel 6:6), but when Obed-edom showed hospitality to the ark, God blessed him abundantly the whole time (2 Samuel 6:12). In time, David brought the ark to a tent on Mount Zion, and he established a daily temple liturgy there. In honor of what God had done through his ark at Jericho, David named seven priests to “blow the trumpets before the ark of God” each and every day (1 Chronicles 15:24). No doubt that continued when Solomon built a house for the ark and had it installed in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:1-8).

And so the ark was hidden away – most of the time, it was to be screened off, out of view from all but the high priest (Exodus 40:21; Leviticus 16:2). But during the lifetime of Jeremiah, something happened. People began to lament that the ark was missing. Maybe that started before the Babylonian invasion, maybe it took place in the destruction afterward. Jeremiah told them not to worry – that when they would prosper in the land, they would still have God's presence even without the ark (Jeremiah 3:16-17). The ark was missing. Historically, it seems likely the ark was destroyed. Decades later, when Nehemiah dedicated the new wall of Jerusalem, he had no ark to call for, but still he sent seven priests “with trumpets,” not to topple a wall but to bless one (Nehemiah 12:41). Like Jeremiah said, they came back to the land and had no ark. But over the years, even before Jesus took up the cross, a legend had emerged. And in one version of the legend, Jeremiah had smuggled the ark out of the temple and had taken it to the desert where Israel wandered those forty years, and there he had locked it away in a cave, to be hidden until it would be revealed again in the end times (2 Maccabees 2:4-8; Lives of the Prophets 2.11-19; 4 Baruch 3:9-11). In another version of the legend, the ark gets buried by an angel “until the last times” when it would be “restored” (2 Baruch 6:4-9). In the legend, there was an expectation that the ark would emerge in the end, be seen like in the days of Joshua, “and all the saints will be gathered to it there as they await the Lord and flee from the enemy who wishes to destroy them” (Lives of the Prophets 2.15), a time when “God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy” (2 Maccabees 2:7).

It's in light of that legend and its expectation that John is about to see a vision featuring the Ark of the Covenant – that's how he knows he's seeing the last times. For we read, “God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, sounds, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Revelation 11:18-19). And having grown up in Judaea, John would know what he heard from an early age: that if the ark were seen again, it's where the saints would gather, it's where God would show them mercy. It's where they'd run to and be safe.

And now the heavenly temple of God flings open – and you'd expect there to be a thick curtain or veil between the ark and the temple doors. But there isn't. Because when Jesus died, it tore the temple veil, did away with the screen, granted open visibility and access to the Holy of Holies for all who'd pass through the torn and broken flesh of a crucified and dying Lord (Mark 15:38). So there is no veil screening the ark off from John's eyes in the heavenly temple. When the doors open, there is no obstruction between John's sight and the seat of all mercy. God's intense presence, the same presence that came with such fire on the mountain and made the Israelites too afraid to listen or see (Hebrews 12:18-20) – that very intense presence of God will be visible, completely visible, manifest before our eyes. There's no more veil, no more screen, no more separation.

With John, we peer through the open doors and see the sign of mercy and grace. For once the engraved words of God were on earth to be enclosed inside a box of wood and gold. But now the eternal Word of God is wrapped in the flesh and bone of human nature, and is our true mercy-seat in heaven, where atonement for our sins has been made once-and-for-all! When we see with John, we know that great mercy is standing for us right there, for under the symbol of the Ark of the Covenant, John beholds the mercy of God's presence, awesome yet welcoming, that draws us together from our different paths of life and bids us converge in one place and praise the Lord in the splendor of his holiness and find refuge in Jesus.

If that were all John saw, it would be enough to satisfy. John sees the mercy of God laid open wide, welcoming his saints to gather in where once they couldn't. He sees the presence of God in power to protect and defend us. He sees the last times when everything once taken will be given back to us. He sees our access unobstructed.

But John sees more. Because he sees the ark in a very specific context. Throughout Revelation, God shows the same thing, over and over again, from different angles: strings of judgments that lead up to their completion. It was presented to us with the seven seals. It was presented to us with the seven bowls. But here, in this passage, we're at the end of another string of seven: the seven trumpets. We saw it open back in chapter 8, with “the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” (Revelation 8:2). Then “the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them” (Revelation 8:6). And stretched out over the next few chapters of text, we hear the trumpets go off, one by one. After the first four trumpets, John hears an eagle yelling, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow” (Revelation 8:13). Chapter 9 takes up the fifth and sixth trumpets, then we have an interlude until today's passage at the end of chapter 11. For today's passage began by telling us that “the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven” (Revelation 11:15).

What we ought to recognize is this: When John draws together seven angels blowing seven trumpets, with the ark of the covenant in the picture, and then the seventh trumpet is followed by loud voices, he's taking us back to a familiar story. John is taking us back to Jericho! Because there, the seven priests blew their seven trumpets in front of the ark of the covenant, and then the seventh trumpet blast was followed by loud voices – and that's when Jericho fell. John is seeing and passing along to us a picture of the new 'Battle of Jericho' that finishes off human history as we know it. Only the whole earth, the entirety of human civilization in all its diverse forms and fashions, make up the new stand-in for the city of Jericho. And once again, as the trumpets begin sounding, God is circling the city of earth, with the army of the church in his wake. The promise we have is that the last trumpet will blow. The great thanksgiving liturgy of history will wrap up. Our orbit of a fallen world will give way to a victory shout. And the defenses of the world will fall to God's invasion. Jericho is falling, the saints are about to begin inheriting their promised land, when the kingdom of the world gives way to the kingdom of the Lord God Almighty and of his Anointed One, his Messiah, his Christ named Jesus.

Looking back, the divine council – the twenty-four ancient priest-kings of heaven – look back and comment on God's great victory (Revelation 11:16), once the Lord God Almighty has “taken [his] great power and begun to reign” (Revelation 11:17). Looking back on human history, here's how they summarize it in just a couple of words, a couple words to encapsulate the age we live in: “The nations raged” (Revelation 11:18). That's it. It can be said that simply: “The nations raged,” or, “the nations were enraged.” Irritated. Provoked. Stirred up and noisy about it. And all you have to do is open a newspaper – or, for some of us, check our social media – and no description has ever made so much sense. Check the news, check social media, take the pulse of the United States and the pulse of the United Nations, and it can all be summed up by saying that the nations raged. What is modern American culture, if not an outrage machine? People are mad about everything. People rage – we struggle to trust each other, we draw partisan boundaries, we condemn, we get furious. The Chicago Tribune had a headline telling us “outrage culture is out of control.” The Huffington Post had a headline telling us “outrage culture kills important conversation.” The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial lamenting, “Outrage culture is out of control.” It's not limited to one side of the political aisle. There's plenty of rage to go around. As a nation, we have become outrage addicts. We watch the news, not just to gain information, but to find more pretext for the rage we feel deep inside. We've come to feed off of it. We want to make a lot of noise about it.

But the whole of human history can be summed up in those words: “The nations raged.” Most specifically, the nations have raged against God. The diverse nations of the earth have, for the most part, been a united kingdom of anti-God, anti-Christ rage, to one degree or another. Centuries before Jesus died for us, the psalmist heard all about it. In Psalm 2, he asks, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his Anointed One, saying, 'Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us'” (Psalm 2:1-3). The nations rage as a way to try to escape the jurisdiction, the power, of God and his Anointed King, God and his Messiah. Earthly nations have a natural tendency to resist a power above that of the state, a power that isn't merely a shadowy self-projection against the sky, a power that can sit in judgment over what we here below do. A great deal of what happens in the world today boils down to the nations of the earth trying to 'burst their bonds' and 'cast away their cords.' The news is filled with violence and death, with sexual abuse and reckoning, with political heat and mockery, with racial hatreds and preening self-righteousness. And that's just the domestic news from our own country, not counting yet the corruption and the bombings and the chaos and the surveillance states and the prison camps of the world. But all of it, foreign and domestic, amounts to nations striving to cast away God's cords – to say, “We will not live by your love, we will stew in our own rage first. We will not bow to your power, we will make a name for ourselves. We know how to run our lives. Set us free of these bonds.” So the nations say.

For that reason, when the church is on track – as we sadly often aren't – and points to God and his Messiah as the Giver of healing and the Guide for living, the nations are often indignant. With our frequent hypocrisy as a pretext, they dismiss the possibility that God has wisdom and a right to rule. And so the rage they feel for him, they may hurl at us. By and large, the world does not think well of me and you, because we love Jesus and seek to follow him. That's not as new as we imagine. In all my study of American history, there has seldom been an age when I've found preachers not objecting to the immorality, the hypocrisy, the rage, the viciousness, the anti-Christian hearts of large segments of American society. When the psalmist writes that the nations conspire to cast away God's cords, well, seldom in history has any nation not chafed against those bonds. The United States of America was never quite as loyal to Jesus as some of us would like to believe. It was not like the mantras we repeat. It was not what we tell ourselves. Now we also see the emergence of a self-consciously post-Christian society, in which many are beginning to doubt that religious liberty – for Christians, at least – is even a real right at all. With that is sure to come the increased focus of outrage culture against faithful Jesus-followers.

All that seems dark. But it's good to read on in the psalm and realize that God does not seem terribly concerned about what the nations are up to. “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). God, with Jesus at his right hand, laughs in the face of our agitated conspiracies against him. He laughs in the face of our outrage. He doesn't apologize, doesn't bend, doesn't slink back to some distant corner. He dubs it absurd when we decry him and stumble along our own way. His providence scoffs, trips up, makes sport of our ridiculous schemes. Nations like ours may well strive to inaugurate a new age beyond the orthodoxies of the past, but all our outrage and all our bull-headedness only digs us deeper into a pit. And one day, God tells us he'll offer a decisive answer to the nations. The psalmist says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury” (Psalm 2:5). The twenty-four elders in heaven pick that up when they call out, “The nations raged, but your wrath came” (Revelation 11:18). God judges our rage by rage, helping us to a dose of our own medicine, because it's the path we've chosen. No, America is not exempt. “The USA raged, but...”

But you know what's next. The elders call out to God, “You have taken your great power and begun to reign” (Revelation 11:17). And just so, the heavenly war-cry after the seventh trumpet shouted out the news, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). Those words should be familiar to you, if you like good classical music. They're the heart of the famed Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah: “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!” That's what one of the greatest pieces of music ever written is celebrating at its core, and the line comes from right here. What it means is that our “Lord and his Anointed One,” the Father and his Son, will take over, take charge. Jesus, the Incorruptible One, will exercise his absolute power.

The devil once tried to tempt Jesus by offering him, in a cheap and ungodly way, “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). Jesus did not take it by a sleazy bargain. But Jesus will take it by his righteous judgment. He will hold “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” whether the nations like it or not. He will be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, with or without the consent of lesser kings and lesser lords. All of the nations, the united dominion of earthly power, 'the kingdom of the world,' will be handed over in an instant to the direct governance of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. That includes America. No, we will not 'take the country back for God.' What John is hearing does not come through our efforts. We may hope for a revival, but there will be no godly uprising. Governance over outraged nations like ours will come into the hands of Jesus, not through the decisions we make or the works we achieve – for our efforts have often done as much bad as good – but through his own victory at the day of his appearing. What would it look like for 'the kingdom of the world,' including the United States of America, to become 'the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ'? What will it be like for Jesus to move into the Oval Office and the Capitol Building and the Pentagon? What would it change, as he quells our rage? Every unjust law on the books to melt away, every corrupt deal to come undone, every gun and knife to become a plowshare, every mouth to find its plenty, every stranger to gain a shelter and a friend, every temper to be doused with the cooling waters of his gracious love? Can you dream for the day?

Because some day, that will happen. America, no more or less than any other nation, will become the kingdom of God and Jesus. He will be unveiled as President of Presidents. He will grab the controls out of the hands of those who misuse them so badly in our generation. “The government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6). And when that happens, all of heaven will celebrate. What happens here is important there. And when that day comes, the Lord's Prayer can never be prayed again. Because there will be nothing in it to pray for. The Lord's Prayer will become past tense: “Our Father, who art here with us, your name is now hallowed, your kingdom has come, your will is being done on earth as it was in heaven; you gave us daily bread through all our days, our debts are wiped clean forever and forgiven, there's no more temptation, for evil has been destroyed and we have been delivered, so thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory now and eternally, hallelujah, amen!”

What a beautiful day that will be! As we listen to the chant of the twenty-four elders, their song explains to us three more things scheduled to happen when the Lord God Almighty takes his great power and begins to reign. First, we hear, it will be “the time for the dead to be judged.” All who have died, all who have been laid to rest beneath the topsoil, will come up to present themselves for God's final evaluation. A certain segment of our church property will be exceptionally active on that day. The tombstones will get commas. But John will hear more about it in Revelation 20, and we'll hear more about that on October 20, so we'll move on this morning.

Second, it will be “the time … for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” The elders are quoting from the word of God given to Jeremiah, that prophet with the last word on the ark. Through Jeremiah, God said he'd “repay Babylon … for all the evil that they have done in Zion” (Jeremiah 51:24). And the Lord announced to Babylon, “Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain … which destroys the whole earth; I will stretch out my hand against you, and roll you down from the crags, and make you a burnt mountain” (Jeremiah 51:25). So here, the twenty-four elders of the future look back and say that God did just that – he destroyed those who 'destroyed the earth' with their corruption, with their pollution, with their greed and deceit and violence. Those who lived by destruction, those who hurt others and God's creation, will chug their own medicine and be rolled down from their lofty heights. Their sins will be judged, and when they cling to their sin all life long, they'll cling to their sin as it sinks in flames. Destruction will be “a burnt mountain.” Those who cling to their destructive deeds will be destroyed with them. When we look around our country and world and behold havoc and destruction in action, we understand why all heaven celebrates the hope of destruction's destruction and death's death.

But third, it will be “the time … for rewarding.” Who will be rewarded? All those who respect God, who love God, who revere and serve and celebrate and cling to God through Jesus Christ. We followers of the Lamb – if we belong to Jesus, this is our line. Heaven calls us “those who fear [God's] name” – It isn't ourselves that we should be impressed with, it's with the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Heaven recognizes us by how we treat God's very name with respect, how we cherish his reputation, how we respond to God with awe and respect and devotion, how we'd rather make his name great than receive the glory ourselves. Heaven also calls us “[God's] servants” – It isn't our own will that we do, it's God's will that we aim to accomplish. He sets the agenda, and we implement it. He writes the script, and we perform it. He gives the order, and we follow it. We are not our own; we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Heaven even calls us “prophets” – spokesmen and spokeswomen who testify that Jesus is good news in every area of life, because we've experienced him and can attest that truth personally, and we've been sent into the world to do exactly that. We are “witnesses” sent to “prophesy” (Revelation 11:3), “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). We do that when we speak good news in God's name, and our good news is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! Lastly, heaven calls us “saints” – holy ones, striving for purity over every obstacle, clinging to grace, set apart by Jesus as different from neighbors who don't know him yet, set apart as different from the nations' outrage culture.

It may be hard to recognize ourselves in that. But it's who we must be, who we've been called to be. It's how heaven will see us, if we live it out in Christ. And this beautiful picture isn't only available to Christian bigwigs – it's not for Christian celebrities, the ones with the TV shows and the book deals and the record label contracts. It isn't just for the fellow behind the pulpit or the voice on the radio. There is reward waiting for “those who fear your name, both small and great,” the elders tell us (Revelation 11:18). They heard from a psalm that God “will bless those who fear Yahweh, both the small and the great” (Psalm 115:13). If ever you feel isolated or insignificant, if ever you feel locked in and bogged down by routine, if ever you wonder what possibilities are open to you: there's reward for you just by being faithful here where you're planted, in your own neighborhood.

All this will take place when the seventh trumpet caps off what we've known. The trumpets that topple the wall of the world are the liturgy of our thanksgiving and the dawn of a never-ending jubilee! When that day comes, then with a shout we'll at last enter our final promised land, a world being made new around us. And we will take possession of an inheritance we scarcely can dream. For in the days of Jericho, a man named Yehoshua led the conquest of the promised land – our Bibles translate his name 'Joshua' – but we're told that “Joshua [did not] give them rest” with that conquest (Hebrews 4:8). “So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). And we must get it from our own Joshua, our own Yehoshua. For while the name in Hebrew is 'Yehoshua,' in Greek the name 'Yehoshua' or 'Joshua' is... 'Jesus.' And when the walls of the world fall, our far, far greater Yehoshua, the Messiah, will lead us – will lead me and lead you, if you follow him too – into the land of our inheritance and our great reward! So “we give thanks to [the] Lord God Almighty” for the great works he will do and the world he's preparing and the rewards he has in mind for us there – Hallelujah!

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Tabernacle of Tomorrow: Sermon on Revelation 15

With a loud crash and a soaking spray of mist, the walls collapsed – walls, not of stone, but of water. Surging back to their place, they swamped the pursuers, leaving the pursued safe and sound on the far shore. Miriam could scarcely believe what was before her eyes. It had been such a long trial, but it was over. Save for a body popping up to bob in the wake, their tormentors had vanished in an instant. The sense of fear gave way to relief. The power of Egypt was shattered in the waters. She turned to her younger brother Moses – 'younger' being, of course, quite the relative term, in their eighties – and watched his face as the whole assembly of Israel moved from stunned silence to an ecstatic uproar. With a few swings of his rod, he quieted tens of thousands to hear his voice amidst the still and silence of their peace. Line by line, he led them in a song, while Miriam seized on her tambourine and led the women:

I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. Yahweh is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. Yahweh is a warrior, Yahweh is his name! Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Sea of Reeds. The floods covered them, they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Yahweh, glorious in power – your right hand, O Yahweh, shatters the enemy! In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury, it consumes them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the water piled up, the floods stood up in a heap, the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. … Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? … You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you've redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Exodus 15:1-13).

Looking back, Israel's salvation – their rescue from Egypt and its slavery – did depend on God being a warrior for them, fighting against Egypt's petty gods and Egypt's petty pharaoh and Egypt's petty chariots. His warfare didn't begin with the sea, of course. It was waged with ten plagues – from turning water into blood, through frogs and gnats and flies, through livestock death and boils and hail and locusts and darkness, all the way up to the death of Egypt's firstborn. The plagues showed the impotence of Egypt's gods, unmasking them as frauds, proving that Israel's God is uniquely “majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds” (Exodus 15:11).

In later centuries, looking back on what it took to free Israel from Egypt, their descendants reflected on the ten plagues, and came to the belief that what God had done once to save Israel at their beginning, he would have to do again, on a bigger scale, right at the end. One rabbi said that God had already made Egypt drink two cups of wrath in biblical history, and that there was a third they'd drink someday along with all other nations (b. Hullin 92a). One of the Dead Sea Scrolls prays that God will treat the “seven vainglorious nations … as you did to Pharaoh and the officers of his chariots” (1QM 11.9-11). Another Jewish writing from the time lists out ten plagues they imagine God saving up for the end times – plagues much harsher and more final than what God did to Egypt in the days of Moses (Apocalypse of Abraham 29-30).

So we can understand the scene John treats us to, when he sees yet another sign, a symbolic trip through reality. He catches a glimpse, he says, of seven angelic priests, coming out of a heavenly tabernacle, the one after which the tabernacle Israel built in the desert was patterned (cf. Acts 7:44). Bezalel and Oholiab led the construction after Moses relayed the heavenly example he'd seen. And because the records of God's presence among them were kept there in a special box, including the stone tablets with the covenant of God engraved into them, the tabernacle became known as the “tent of the testimony” (Numbers 9:15), or “tent of witness.” Now John sees that heavenly model open up: “I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure bright linen with golden sashes around their chests. And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 15:5-7). There are plagues that have to be poured out – John calls them “seven plagues..., the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished” (Revelation 15:1). He's contrasting them with the first plagues faced by Egypt – those were the former plagues, these are the latter ones. Just like God used plagues against Egypt to break what they believed in and set his people free, so rescue for his people in the end will come because, as time rolls on, God similarly breaks down and afflicts all idols.

When Bezalel and Oholiab finished the tabernacle in the desert, Moses was about to go in, but “then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle, and Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34-35) – God's cloudy presence was so thick that even Moses couldn't break through. In later years, when a temple was first built, “a cloud filled the house of Yahweh so that the priests couldn't stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of Yahweh filled the house of Yahweh. Then Solomon said, 'Yahweh has said that he would dwell in thick darkness'” (1 Kings 8:10-12). And centuries later, Isaiah was terrified when he saw the temple “filled with smoke,” because he knew it cemented his exclusion (Isaiah 6:4). There can be no entry to the tent, to the house, while the holy smoke packs it thick. It's a no-admittance sign, a closed-for-business sign – divine fumigation in process.

So now John sees that the heavenly “sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished” (Revelation 15:8). Until judgment is done, there can be no approach to interrupt it. Until judgment is done, there can be no barging in to interfere. No customers are being seen. When God has set his mind to undermine our idols once and for all, there can be no business as usual. The holy tent is full of holy smoke. Nor can we view or envision, with our eyes or with our minds, what lurks in that thick darkness, what's going on. It's hidden from us, what he is doing, what he's planning, what he's preparing. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9) – the smoke shuts off our sight of the secret things. We cannot begin to dream, beyond what's been told to us, what God is preparing in his dark and hidden sanctuary. For the blueprints of a new creation are unrolled. But only once judgment is done can we walk in and find a new creation where God will dwell with us – a tent big enough for all and sundry, deity and humanity. And while we wait, while we perhaps even watch the seven bowls of judgment poured out against the false securities earth's false gods falsely promised, we rest secure in this true promise and this true security: These seven bowls of wrath are the last harsh things God will ever have cause to say.

Sandwiched between this tabernacle scene, John sees something else in heaven – whether it's a flash-forward to after the plagues, or seen before them, it's hard to tell. But John sees something remarkable. John writes, “I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire” (Revelation 15:2). And he sees the saints, the ones who overcame the beast, standing on, or beside, the sea of glass. Over the last two thousand years, a lot of ink's been spilled trying to figure out what John means by “a sea of glass mingled with fire.” But when the Jewish community looked back, in days gone by, on the scene that Moses and Miriam beheld, they told a story of what it meant when, as Moses sang, “the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exodus 15:8). Some took that phrase and explained it this way: “The sea congealed on both sides and became a sort of glass crystal” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 5.15). In other words, Israel passed through the sea only after it became a sea of glass. And, as the tradition went, “as for the waters between the sundered paths, a fire came down and lapped them up” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 30a) – so, a sea of glass mingled with fire.

John's vision combines that image with the established image of an ocean in heaven (2 Enoch 3:3) and perhaps with a rabbinic interpretation of Genesis that derived the Hebrew word for 'heavens' as a compound meaning 'fire' plus 'water' (Genesis Rabbah 4.7), and he sees a heavenly “sea of glass mingled with fire” – it's exodus imagery reflected into God's dwelling place. And so he depicts the triumphant saints “who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name” – through faith in Jesus Christ, believers refuse to compromise with any worldly idol or with its stranglehold on economics or politics or culture, and by remaining loyal to Jesus and trusting him, we have hope of overcoming, simply by holding out to the end of our earthly lives. If we can do that, then John sees us “standing upon the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands” (Revelation 15:2). In other words, on the other side of an exodus story, in the place where Moses sang and Miriam danced with her tambourines. Egypt behind us, Pharaoh beaten, the dragon broken, chains unbound – and all we have to do is remain faithful! That's the hope John sets out for us. Because he sees us living our own exodus story.

There, one day, we will stand on the glassy sea. There, one day, we will rejoice, with all trials and tribulations put behind us. There, one day, we will look back and see all our former idols wash up dead on the shoreline – and we'll know and see for ourselves that Jesus alone is Lord, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds. All we have to do is continue to confess Jesus and live for him without compromising with idols, even when the world's chaos lets beasts run rampant. They may charge at us, they may claw us, they may bite us, but our one sole aim is to stay faithful to Jesus. We must not let the idols lure us into their false securities. We must not let the idols guide the pattern of our lives. We must not give power to the twenty-first-century American pantheon, with its alluring cast of characters – of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty, of war-like Mars and pleasure-obsessed Dionysius and sex-vexed Venus and Hermaphroditus, of beasts like eagles and donkeys and elephants, of gods of old order and new order, of leisure and prosperity and all the rest. We must not let them have our devotion. We must not let them distract us from Jesus or distort the Christ we know into their image. For the living God wages war on idols. And one day, they must all die in the sea.

If we overcome the world by keeping to our faith – trusting in Jesus and being loyal to him and his way of life – then we will have “conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name.” And if we do that, then we will stand beyond the sea, on its far side, with all oppression and indignity behind us. We will stand in the light of true freedom, liberated from every hindrance. We will stand as an exodus people. And we will stand “with harps of God in [our] hands.” Or, as a modern seer might put it, we'll rock out with God's guitars.

Then, John says, we'll give all glory to God for our victory, the God who gives salvation through Jesus and who pours out the Spirit of witness. And we'll glorify him by playing that music and singing a song – “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3). It's like the song that Moses sang with Israel on the far side of the sea in Exodus. In Jewish writings, it was said that this was the song the resurrected would sing, and that Moses and the Israelites of his day would be raised up again to sing it (b. Sanhedrin 91a; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1.9). But John says that conquering confessors of Christ will take up Moses' song. What God has done for us entitles us more to it than even Moses and Miriam could know, because God has done a greater thing for us in Jesus than God did for Israel under Moses. Moses was a servant in God's house, leading people through the water from Egyptian slavery to desert freedom, and he bore witness that God judged Egypt and its idols so that Israel could find salvation and be free; but Jesus is the heir God appointed over all things, far above Moses, and he leads us from a deeper slavery to a brighter freedom, being himself God's great action to judge sin and idols so that we could find salvation and be free on the far side of the sea (cf. Hebrews 3:1-6).

The saints in glory still sing “the song of Moses, the servant of God.” Moses has not become irrelevant. It can never be the case, not even in heaven, that we'll set the scriptures of the Old Testament aside, as if they didn't matter any more, as if they'd been made null and void. The oldest songs will still be songs for us in heaven, the oldest writings will still be read out and enjoyed. How much more here? How much more, then, should we cherish the Old Testament? How much more must we learn it, study it, understand it, as the church militant on earth, if even the church triumphant sings from it? There will be no such thing there as a Christian who ignores the Old Testament. If we ignore it here, then either we won't be found on the glassy sea that day, or else we'll have an all-too-steep learning curve ahead of us, one of our own manufacture and not of God's. We do not have to lay the old stories aside to glorify Jesus. No, we glorify Jesus by singing all of God's great acts of salvation, from the old to the new. For the “song of Moses” has become now also “the song of the Lamb.” There can be no true worship that leaves out the old, but the old songs have to be expanded with new victories. In Christ, the old story of the exodus is launched stratospheric – kicked up to a higher level than e'er we dreamed!

Just listen to this snippet from the song they sing: “Great and wondrous are your deeds, O Lord God Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3-4). It's a new song, never before written down, and yet every strand of it is from the Old Testament. The psalmist of Psalm 111, looking back on the exodus of Moses, sings that “great are the works of Yahweh,” who “has caused his wondrous works to be remembered” (Psalm 111:2-4). Moses himself, at the other end of the desert, sang, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). So no wonder we'll sing, “Great and wondrous are your deeds, O Lord God Almighty, just and true are your ways.” The next lines were written by Jeremiah: “Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due. For among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like you” (Jeremiah 10:7). It's part of a brilliant polemic against the idiocy of idolatry – Jeremiah says that idols are nothing but scarecrows, and you must be dumb as a bird if they dupe you, but God, on the other hand, is living and active worldwide. Most of the lines after that come from the eighty-sixth psalm: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God” (Psalm 86:8-10). Our God is without parallel – none of the idols of Egypt or of America can measure up. All the nations, or at least their remnant who hears sense, must come and glorify this God above all else – he alone is God. He's the God who, in the words of another psalm, “has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:2). No wonder that psalm opens by calling for “a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (Psalm 98:1). And that is exactly what John hears: the song of Moses made new, even with lines taken from the Old Testament, but fit to celebrate all God's great acts of salvation from Moses to the Lamb.

John writes to teach us about worship, which is the cornerstone of Christian living. And he wants us to hear the sort of worship that conquering saints – the people we aspire to be – would bring before the awesome God who lives and reigns forever. Our true worship should set God apart. He alone is God; the idols are nothing, the nations are a drop in the bucket, but God is alive. He is not a theory, not a postulate – he is living and active in the world today, and in our lives, even where we cannot see. True worship celebrates him: he's holy, he's king, he's glorious, he's righteous; his ways are truth and justice; his deeds are impressive and amazing. The only sane response to him is awestruck wonder and adoring praise. Anything less is the dull derangement of a dying world. God is living and active. God is holy. God is not like these lesser substitutes we foolishly accept.

Sometimes, we're prone to forget we've been saved. After we've been crawling through the desert a while, the fresh vividness of that first instant, that release from slavery, that mighty hand of God coming down and saving the day – it all fades into the muted shades of the background. We forget our story for the sake of the present. We stop thinking of our story at all, and only look to the dunes ahead and beside. And when that happens, we're prone to think the story useless. There are too many believers from whom I hear that they don't want to keep hearing about Jesus, they don't want to be told the old, old story, they don't want to hear about all this, they just want to be given a commandment or two to work on so that they can be a better person. And it grieves me at times to hear it. Because God didn't send Jesus Christ into the world to make people morally better; he sent Jesus into the world to raise the dead. And that's a story to be told. God shapes us, not simply in abstract moral imperatives and illustrative anecdotes – if you want that, you can visit the mosque on Friday just as well as you can find it here – but he shapes us by pouring the Spirit of Jesus into our lives, he shapes us by rewriting our backstory and handing us a script to play with, he shapes us with images. Because if we see ourselves a new way, then we can act and live according to his vision without scouring a hundred law textbooks. That's why, as I've been preaching through these texts, I've wanted nothing else but to point you to Jesus and to highlight the images, the symbols, through which John wanted to help us see ourselves and our faith and church and world.

The reality is, we get in trouble when we lose sight of those images. We get in trouble when we forget our story and start running off a broken script. We get in trouble when we take our eyes off Jesus and when worship gets to be an afterthought. Revelation is the antidote to all that. And what John wants you to see right now is this image of exodus saints – that is who we are. Like Moses and Israel passed through the sea, you have passed through the heavenly sea in baptism in advance. You drowned, and a new you set foot on the land. And at the far side of the desert, the waters will part for you one more time. You'll see the dragon die off. You'll conquer the beast and its image and the number of its name, if only you stay faithful to Jesus and remember who you are in Christ and make no compromises with idols and their safe and familiar routines. Because the stories they roar at you aren't the story God's whispering. And when you stand safe across the glassy sea yourself, if you endure 'til the end, then you'll sing and shout the victory. Because you will have proven an exodus saint.

What has been done for you and in you is not just the mild and tepid adjustment of an incremental improvement in morality, an upgrade in decency, a lesson in behavior. What has been done for you and in you is a whirlwind of divine life. It is the invasion of the Lord God Almighty, in a hurricane of fire and glory. It is the thunderbolt falling from the sky. It is the parting of the sea, and the lethal judgment against sin. You were a slave, but now are free in Jesus. You are called to a promised land of pure delight. The dragon you wrestle with – his doom is sure. All the idols of the world, and all the dark influence they wield around you – you know their destiny. Just cling to Jesus and finish your exodus. So take this harp of God and sing and dance.

See, our true worship should be dramatic! For God has written us into the great drama of redemption. We have been rescued through baptism, saved in the arms of Jesus through the waters. We will be saved fully and finally at and through the final judgment, when all idols wash up dead. We have been infused with life not our own, if only we've been united to Christ Jesus by his Spirit who works faith in us and then works that faith into the bloom of love. And that is dramatic. Our worship should be rich in story, it should retrain us how to think and how to see, and it should be wild – wilder than we're used to, wilder than maybe our domesticated hearts can yet handle. We've been through a dramatic turn, from death to life, from slavery to liberty, and yet will we come and mumble and sweat and snore and then go back to where we came before? True worship should shock us awake! I'm not much a fan of Annie Dillard, but I will never forget this one passage I've read again and again:

Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee and doughnuts on Deck C. … On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

And so it should be! We should jump for cheer and joy! We should be consumed by the wild, wild story that's overtaken us. We should feel ourselves saved – yanked back from the brink of destruction, adrenaline pumping, heart fluttering with the wind. We should be awestruck by the presence of God in our midst. We should be mystified and electrified in having been justified and sanctified! We are to be exodus saints, set free by a God so holy, a God who dwells in thick darkness and unapproachable light in his tent that dwarfs the Milky Way, a God more dynamic than dynamite, the Consuming Fire who dries the floodwaters to let us pass to our salvation. But do we believe a word of it? Or do we strum mindlessly on these harps of God, insufficiently sensible of conditions? Have we the foggiest idea, not just of who God is, but of what he's making of us?

For true worship should be a celebration – that jumping for cheer and joy, that singing and dancing with Miriam on the tambourine. Worship is too serious for seriousness. It should be a frenzy in our hearts, even if our joints struggle to follow through. You have been rescued in advance, and the full rescue is coming! Your redemption is accomplished and close at hand! Whatever griefs you face, their clock ticks down. Whatever dullness drags you low and discolors the world to your sight, there's a clear and bright sea waiting for your feet to trod it down. You have more to look forward to than eye can see or ear can hear or heart can dream up. You will never run out of songs to sing, rehearsing again and again the song of Moses and the Lamb. Even when this life is fogged and we can't see through the smoke and the darkness, we can stand and sing from day to day, because even if we don't know what's next, we've heard what's last, and it's worth the long stretch of faith!

So behold God's salvation – for Israel by Moses and for you by the Lamb – and rejoice, rejoice, again we will say, rejoice! Whatever else happens this week, this much is true: exodus is the name of your story, by the mercy of God. So commit to conquering the beast. Commit to conquering its image. Commit to conquering the number of its name. No compromise with idols and with Egypt's chains. Stay faithful to the Lamb and to the Lord God Almighty. Great and amazing are his deeds, just and true are his ways. His righteous acts and his judgments have been revealed, he has publicized salvation, so who won't stand in awe and give him all the glory? He's the King of the nations, and the nations he's made must come and worship the God of glory and power, the God of wrath upon sin and grace for the sinner – the exodus God we meet in Jesus our Lamb. To him be all the praise from all of his redeemed, forever and ever. Amen.