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.

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