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!

No comments:

Post a Comment