Sunday, October 27, 2019

What's New: Sermon on Revelation 21:1-5

Does it all ever just seem... old? Worn out, overplayed, exhausting? All the poverty. All the lack. All the sorrow. All the sickness. All the violence. All the confusion. All the woe and the chaos and the pain and the grief. All of the loss. Doesn't even the world seem run down sometimes? For we know that it's written: “Of old you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish..., they will all wear out like a garment; you'll change them like a robe, and they will pass away” (Psalm 102:25-26). “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Mark 13:31). “The heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner” (Isaiah 51:6). Paul was right – your “outer self is wasting away,” and so is mine (2 Corinthians 4:16). Nothing holds up over time. Things wear out. Even the skies above and the earth below. Things crumble and fade. They slip from our grip. What have we lost?

The realities of loss and impermanence were no less a problem for John and the first readers of this Revelation, this book of unveiling. We've been journeying through it together since the close of April, and I'd like to take a few minutes to look back and see where the trip's taken us. After a richly theological introduction, we promptly were awestruck with a vision of the risen Jesus Christ as the Living One, the Everlasting Man, in the splendor of his glory. It reminds us that this isn't meant to be a book of fear, or a book of perplexity, or a book of history written in advance. It's a book of Jesus. It's about Jesus from beginning to end. It's meant to redirect the seven churches, and every church since, to a vision of Jesus.

Within this book of Jesus, we explored the chief cast of characters. We found two opposing 'teams,' if you will – the reality and the parody. And each team comes with a trinity, a crowd, and a city-lady. Revelation reveals God, the 'Enthroned One,' and shows his greatness over against his parody, the devilish Dragon. We meet Jesus as the Lamb, who expresses power through self-sacrifice, over against the Beast, brutal earthly power. With God and the Lamb is a sevenfold Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who inspires witnesses to the truth, unlike his parody, the False Prophet, a beast which deceives with propaganda. God, the Lamb, and the sevenfold Spirit receive worship from a crowd of holy Lamb-followers, who bear a divine seal, whereas the earth-dwellers, those who serve earthly powers, are branded with a beastly mark as a sign of who and what they ultimately worship. And the Lamb-followers are waiting for the revelation of the Bride-City, the New Jerusalem, a purified civilization and culture; whereas the earth-dwellers and their rulers are living it up with her parody, the Harlot-City of Babylon, a corrupted civilization and culture that's doomed to destruction. The latter realities are only parodies from below. Through these visions, John encourages us to pick a side. He wants us to see that everybody worships, and Revelation is a call to choose and then live accordingly. But to do that is to recognize the worship basis of everyday life, beneath which John sees a Babylonian beastliness lurk.

To gain clarity, John invites us to pivot our gaze for a while from this world to heaven, because in no other way can we see things rightly than from above. In heaven, we glimpse the beauties of heavenly worship, which unmasks all the drama of earthly empire as a cheap farce. We meet the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders and the myriads of angels, and we behold the ascension of the Lamb, slain but somehow standing again – crucified yet risen. And Jesus the Lamb is the only one found worthy to open the scroll and fulfill God's secret plans for the universe. Through Jesus, we found ourselves drawn into the drama of heavenly worship, seeing our prayers offered up as incense and cast down to earth as flame, hearing the new songs that Jesus' glory inspires, watching the dream of worship sweep up all things in the universe into a single unified praise. And we remembered that, outnumbered through we may feel, we stand in the cosmic majority.

We were reassured that, though our gravest fears may gallop like armed horsemen through the world, yet their havoc is only moving the Lamb's plan forward in ways we can't yet fathom. Then we glimpsed the martyrs under God's altar, their lives and deaths as a holy sacrifice; we heard their plaintive cries for justice and watched them receive rest, and we learned that our lives, offered up to God in witness, are his measure of earthly time, the way he counts down to the end. Then we caught visions of the church – on the one hand, looking like an elite Israelite army, and on the other hand, unveiled as a countless multi-ethnic crowd. We heard the story of salvation told and retold as our exodus through the troubled waters of the worldly seas, and we witnessed scenes of immense glory as we edged closer and closer to the final unfolding, as God's presence began to be displayed to our view, and then heard the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the last trumpet.

From that, we jerked ourselves back, taking a pause, holding off from last things so that we could now go and retread the seven letters Jesus dictated to the seven Asian churches – churches with their strengths and flaws, churches full of people not so different from you and me. We walked their streets, breathed their air, got to know them, understand them, searched for our own strengths and weaknesses in the mirrors of their faces, as Jesus encouraged them, challenged them. We met the church at Ephesus, theologically pure but lacking in love. We met the church at Smyrna, virtuous but beaten down by persecution. We met the church at Pergamum, compromised by false teachers who corrupt the gospel with unhealthy beliefs. We met the church at Thyatira, undergoing revival except that they're tolerant of a false teacher who seduces some to immoral excess. We met the church at Sardis, alive in name only, on the brink of extinction unless they catch revival. We met the church at Philadelphia, pressing on faithfully but discouraged by opposition and exclusion. And then we met the church of Laodicea, assimilated to the culture, neutered by self-sufficiency and luxury – but Jesus will bless the people even there, if only they'll let him in where he belongs. And amidst these seven churches, we can find all that's right and all that's wrong with ourselves – our lives, our church, we hear the voice of Jesus over.

Having taken stock of ourselves in the present, we took a deep breath and went back to the sound of that last trumpet. We knew it would change everything. After all, Paul had written that “the last trumpet... will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52) – “the Lord himself will descend... with the sound of the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first..., and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). And so, leaping forward to the sounding of the seventh and final trumpet, we then heard the call telling us that the “marriage supper of the Lamb” was ready – the union of Bridegroom and Bride, Christ and his Church, for an eternal feast. We then caught sight of the Second Coming, as Jesus rides in as our Warrior, taking up our fight and overcoming evil. And we stood still, sobered, at the Great White Throne, watching the skies roll up and the earth crumble before God's presence to judge.

And that's where we left off last week, as we delve into what lies ahead. But now our journey has taken us past the Final Judgment, and today we enter upon the grand finale, the elevation, the consummation, the glory! It's all up, up, up from here! And when the Last Judgment is done, John can't help but remind us of what God said through the prophet Isaiah once: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old – look, I'm doing a new thing! Now it springs forth – don't you perceive it? I'll make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert!” (Isaiah 43:18-19). And John himself hears the same voice that spoke to Isaiah. And the voice of God the Father cries out where John can hear it: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5)!

All things new! Can you believe it? Not a thing will stay as it was. Not a thing as it now is will go unchanged, unrefreshed. Everything may be wearing down now, but it will be renewed and restored – not just restored, but transformed, brought to what it was always meant to be. Everything will take on a sacred unfamiliarity. And it will begin with us. Because the first thing that needs to be done is our resurrection. We touched on it somewhat last week. What will it be like to be raised from the dead? To come alive again, and be entirely new? It's worth thinking about, because that will literally happen to each one of us. We're all liable to die, but not a one of us is going to stay buried, not one of us will be abandoned to dust and ashes for good. What will our bodies be like? John doesn't get into it, but Paul tells us that they'll be “raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42), “raised in glory,” “raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43). They won't be able to fall apart, they'll be glorious and strong and profound. Paul tells us that they'll be “Spirit-driven bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:44). Right now, what moves you, what fuels you, what powers your body is just your own soul, your natural self. But when your body gets made new, it will have a new power source: the infinite Spirit of God! Out with the AAA batteries, in with the nuclear reactor! You cannot begin to imagine the energy that will fuel you and govern and direct your living. And as we see how that plays out in the only example of a resurrected body, we find it can integrate the matter we know – after all, Jesus eats ordinary fish that the disciples cook, though we suspect he doesn't need to eat, yet he can (Luke 24:42-43). Jesus' risen body doesn't play by our familiar rules, as he proves when he just appears inside locked rooms (John 20:26). Power and glory indeed! And that's what our bodies are going to be.

But our bodies aren't the only thing that will be resurrected. Paul tells us that the entire creation is groaning and hoping to be “set free” by sharing “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The whole universe wants to ride our coattails into liberation, into resurrection. And so it will. Because didn't Isaiah hear: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind – but be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create” (Isaiah 65:17-18)? And just so, that's what John sees: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1).

The skies above, as they now are, are chained down in corruption. We read rightly in the book of Job that “the heavens are not pure in [God's] sight” (Job 15:15). But that won't always be the case. When we get our liberty, so do the skies above. Having passed away, slain by God's presence, they'll be resurrected as new skies, fresh and vivid, marvelous in their beauty. What might it look like for Mars to become a new Mars, perhaps a more flourishing and more hospitable Mars? What will it be like for Pluto to be raised to new life? What could it mean for the Andromeda Galaxy to be newly transfigured with the glory of the Lord God Almighty? We can scarcely dream it. Not only that, but the soil under our feet will be new soil. The earth, too, will be resurrected, set free of all the pollution and the sin and the damage. It won't be the familiar earth of affliction. It will be a risen world of risen forests and risen fields, risen hills and risen valleys, risen atmosphere and risen oceans. John describes it as being without a 'sea' simply as a symbol, because the turbulent sea was the thing God had to clear aside for the exodus, and the sea is the thing separating him from his beloved churches. But in this risen earth, we'll find again a hundred times all we now lay aside for Jesus' sake (Matthew 19:29). What will this new earth be like? What transfigured laws of physics will it operate under? What smell will a risen rose release, what texture will resurrected blades of grass present to the soles of our feet as we run? What awaits us is surely mysterious, perhaps, but not vague and certainly not dull.

Still, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Our wildest dreams are incapable of guessing positively most of what will be true about the new heavens and the new earth. That's why John describes it chiefly in negative terms – by what won't be there, by what will be missing. And one of the most important things to go missing will be death. The prophet Isaiah had already heard that God “will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). And now John learns it for himself: “Death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4). Imagine it – not only will we be raised to new life, but it will be a life that can't be lost, that can't be taken away! No more separation, no more worrying, no more needing to dwell on our mortality – because we'll have put on immortality! Maybe you remember the opening and closing lines of the sonnet written in 1609 by John Donne:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so....
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Death shall die! And what will life look like for us once it does? What will life be, without death haunting it, without death looming over everything? Without fear of an ending, without the bittersweet injection of parting, without the suspicion that anything will be our last this or our last that – how much more able will we be to live in the moment and savor each second to the fullest? Having been through a mortal life now, we'll appreciate each moment as a gift, and yet never more have to worry about being deprived of that gift. Our zest for life will only grow. The perfection of life will be new life.

So, too, the perfection of joy will be new joy. The prophet Isaiah called out to God to “awake as in days of old … Wasn't it you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 51:9-11). Sorrow and sighing must flee away if gladness and joy are to be everlasting. And that is what John hears will happen. “Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And how will those things be made to disappear? Because God himself, personally, “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4).

Think of everything that vexes you inwardly now. All your inner struggles. Your fear. Your doubt. Your times of confusion. Your vices and temptations. All your griefs. All your sense of loss. All your frustrations. They will be made to go away. Right now, each of us carries some kind of brokenness inside. We've been hurt. We wear the scars. We bear the burdens. We may not even be able to recognize that heaviness, because it settles so into the background of our every moment that we forget the weight is even there. We just accept it as baseline normal. And yet each of us, right now, carries that brokenness. We always have, since our first breath. And it builds as we go through life, as we sustain our emotional and psychological and spiritual bumps and bruises. We lose things – and people. We hurt. Sometimes it's sharp and cutting, sometimes it's dull and aching. But we carry it with us always. And yet John hears promise of a time when that really will no longer be the case. All sorrow and sighing will flee away. There will be no more mourning over loss. There will be no more crying over fear. There will be no more grief of any kind. Nothing will be allowed to cast the slightest shadow over your gladness and joy ever again. We may know now that some of the songs we've sung are untrue – we are not, here in this age, “happy all the day.” But in a new earth, under a new sky? You bet!

Yes, the perfection of joy will be new joy, unending joy, ever-increasing joy. Each new day that comes, you'll be gladder. You have no thought to the joy and bliss you were made for, the contentment that was custom-built for your soul, the peace that was tailor-made just for you. But you will. You will! You will wear “a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3). You will become all gladness (Isaiah 65:18). Your desires will be deeper and richer and more daring, and each and every one of them will find its truest satisfaction. Along with that will come total peace and safety, inside and outside. The perfection of health will be new health.

We've said how a resurrected body will be imperishable, how you will be raised incorruptible. And that, with the promise of pain being a thing of the past, means that every disease and adverse condition you now know will be a thing of the past. There will be no such thing as arthritis. There will be no such thing as dementia. No such thing as cancer. No such thing as cataracts. No such thing as anxiety or depression. No such thing as Parkinson's or Lou Gehrig's disease. There will be no such thing as fibromyalgia or scoliosis, no such thing as hearing loss or carpal tunnel. All disabilities and diseases will be consigned to the history books. They'll be among those former things that won't even come to mind any more.

Can you daydream of life without those? With no disability, no disease, no aches and pains at all? Not so much as a common cold or an earache or a headache? Every thought coming through clearly, every joint moving comfortably and smoothly? Every day, you will feel young and vibrant and glorious and satisfied. Every day, you will know that whatever the day holds – whether it be planting a tree or rearranging the stars – will be a wild adventure, and that your body and mind and heart and soul will all be 10,000% up to every challenge that comes your way. Can you imagine hang-gliding off the peak of Mount Everest, with the perfect knowledge that you're immortal, invulnerable, untouchable, fearless? I think that one's on my post-resurrection to-do list. And yet I know that all my dreams and all my plans will pale next to the real possibilities I'm not yet creative enough to think up. I guarantee that what we'll be and what we'll do is wilder than your greatest dreams. Paul spoke of “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And that's what we were made for!

But best of all – we will be sinless! Oh, all these great joys are wild and thrilling and exhilarating, but if we had still to carry the burden of sin, how could we ever enjoy them? If we still had to fear making a mistake, if we still had to wrestle with guilt, if we still had reason to be ashamed, it would be the worst of curses. If sin were to keep even a toehold in our hearts, the freshest world would be the stalest hell. But sin will have no toehold in you. You will be wholly purified and entirely sanctified and robustly glorified! Sin will be a thing of the past. You will have no guilt. You will bear no shame. With your body being powered by God's own Spirit, the prospect of sinning, of missing the mark, will no longer be a possibility. Your love will be so complete, and your wisdom so deep, as to preclude sinning as an option. You will indeed be holy as the Lord your God is holy – and God's love will be so infused into you that sin will have nowhere to grasp. Marvelous joy – a sinless life! Nothing ever to apologize over. Nothing further to repent from. No resolutions of amendment to make. No more stumbles, no more sidetracks. No more wrongs. You will walk with your head held high.

And with not only yourself but each neighbor sinless, the perfection of community as we know it will be a new community, a new civilization. For John sees “the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). We'll explore the significance of this New Jerusalem, the Bride-City, more next Sunday. But for the moment, suffice it to say that it means perfect community. Goodbye loneliness. All the ransomed of the Lord will come to that Zion with singing. All the resurrected will dwell together in blessed unity and a degree of friendship that does not yet exist on the whole face of the earth. If you've been married, you do not yet even grasp what sort of closeness with your spouse is a possibility when sin and sorrow exit the picture. When you've been entirely sanctified together and when your resurrected bodies fully reveal your souls to each other – the depths are unthinkable. And yet each of us is destined to have a deeper friendship with each other than the closest relationship we could ever have now.

But the greatest thing in the new creation will be this: the perfect presence of God. Long, long ago, the highest hope Israel received, as a blessing offered on the condition of obedience, was this: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them..., I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down..., I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply, and will confirm my covenant with you. You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new. I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you, and I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:3-12). And now, that is exactly what John hears announced as a reality: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humans! He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). God with us. Us with God. What will it be like to walk next to him, his glory unveiled, and see him face-to-face? Remember last week: the skies and earth all fled from before God's face. They could not bear to look at his glory which blinded the sun and stars. And yet, in the new creation, we “will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). What no old-creation mountain or galaxy could endure, your new-creation self will. As one medieval poet put it, your resurrected self will be “stronger than the universe..., strong enough, even without effort, to overturn the world!” And because of that, and because you will be sinless, God will walk with you, unveiled. No separation. No mask. No buffer. Unshielded intimacy with God. Dwelling in his immediate presence. Being beautifully identified as his. Living openly with him as his son or as his daughter. The heights of spiritual ecstasy now are shadow and smoke next to the glory of God's dwelling being with us.

Yes, he is right to say he is “making all things new.” Right now, things are old. Human inventiveness is worn out – every trend we devise is old-hat before it even gets out of our minds. But they will be new. New because they'll be brought into conformity with the infinite richness that is Jesus Christ, the beginning of a new creation. The skies above will somehow be more like Jesus. The rocks and trees will be more like Jesus. You and your relationships will be just like Jesus – “we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). Everything will be like Jesus, because Jesus will be “all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). And so, patterned after Jesus as its template, the heavens and the earth will all be restored and transformed – completely new! Rejoice forever in what God will create!

Knowing the joys in store is what comforts us now. Amidst every present difficulty, “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). And these things “are trustworthy and true” – so take note (Revelation 21:5)! Hallelujah! This is what we're living for – this shows why the gospel is such good news for our future, and for the entire universe's future. Accept no substitutes, but live by a faith that will lead you into the new creation. And already it begins, for those who have faith: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But this is the beginning of what will someday be brought to a fullness beyond our wildest hopes. How should we live in light of what's ahead? How can we give thanks enough for what's new? So go dream a dream, be joyful, and celebrate the goodness of the God who makes all things new!

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Runaway Earth, Runaway Sky: Sermon on Revelation 20:11-15

As I'm sure just about all of you know by now, not only do I serve as the pastor of your church, and not only do I serve as the pastor of our sister-church, but I have a third hat to wear: as the one and only archivist overseeing the archives of our entire denomination of the church of Jesus Christ. Now, if any of you ever made an appointment with me up at the archives, there's a lot you'd be able to look into. From our boxes and filing cabinets, you could pull out a folder of material about each and every church we've got, including this one. You could also find a file for each and every pastor who served this church since at least the 1920s, if not before. If you wanted, you could look at files with material from lots of past missionaries – I found one old photo album filled with black-and-white pictures taken in India, some featuring the joy on new believers' faces at the moment of their baptism into Christ. You could, of course, find files on all the committees we've ever had, and files on all our affiliate ministries, and files on all the denomination-level programs. You'll find file folders just stuffed with minutes and newsletters and bulletins and manuscripts. I have a few favorite things I've found while looking through, like a little notebook recording sermons with their dates at one of our churches over 150 years ago – it actually records who preached a memorial sermon there, and from what text of scripture, after the Lincoln assassination. (The preacher was one Rev. Leopold, and the passage was Judges 19:30, for those who are curious.) In those archives, there are many things you could make an appointment with me to see.

But there are other things there that you couldn't make an appointment to see. And the phrase we professionally use for those is 'closed files.'  The Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology explains that “a closed file carries the connotation that no one may see the file until the conditions causing the file to be closed have expired or have been removed.” I sadly add closed files on a regular basis – manila envelopes, taped shut, with a name across the top, containing the personnel records of each pastor who dies. And they're to be sealed until twenty-five years after the subject's death. When that day comes, only then will I slice open the envelope and transfer the contents into a nice acid-free file folder, label it with the name, and put it back into the drawers. There are, of course, other closed files – we have boxes full of the papers of many of the bishops who've served us, but the correspondence of some of the more recent bishops are still sealed for up to fifty years after their death, to protect the privacy of younger pastors who wrote to them and who might still be around thirty or forty years later.

We have open files; we have closed files. I've even spotted places where the two got administratively mixed-up in the past – I've accidentally stumbled across records of discipline and therapy that some of our still-living pastors went through, I've found personnel files that never got appropriately sealed before, I've found evaluations about the strengths and weaknesses of pastors who are still in denominational service. To serve as our denomination's archivist is a privilege and, I think, a hefty responsibility. There's a fantastic wealth of material for me to steward there. And not only do I go up a few times a month to oversee it, but I'm able to do research there – and yes, before I accepted a call to my second church, I went and read the open file on it! And over time, there will be even more open files of material... but in many cases, we just have to wait until the day each closed file gets opened.

We know that, in the Bible, archives had a place in the life of God's people even then. Plenty of records had to be stored in the palace or in the temple. After a long season of national backsliding, someone found a copy of Deuteronomy stored away in the temple, and it stirred King Josiah to recommit Judah to her covenant with God (2 Kings 23:2-3). When the temple was destroyed, a great deal was undoubtedly lost, though not all. When the people returned from their exile in Babylon, those who wanted to serve as priests had to be verified against the archival records listing the priestly families, to make sure they qualified for that hereditary position – and not all who thought they were could actually be found there, so some “were excluded from the priesthood as unclean” (Ezra 2:62; cf. Nehemiah 7:5). And, of course, when enemies tried to stop the Jews from rebuilding the temple of God, the Jewish elders were able to appeal to the Persian king Darius to check “the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 5:17) – and, sure enough, a scroll was found “in the house of the archives” (Ezra 6:2), which allowed the construction to not only continue but be fully funded by government grant (Ezra 6:8-15).

With a background like that, it's no wonder that, over time, Jewish thought began to imagine heavenly archives. Over time, some Jewish visionaries started claiming to have seen angel scribes keeping records in heaven, with some files filled with the names of God's friends and others with the names of God's enemies, or with some listing the good deeds of the righteous and others listing the sins of every sinner. But it all stems from a vision that Daniel saw while living in exile: “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. … A stream of fire issued and came out from before him. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.... And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (Daniel 7:9-11). Much later, but just like Daniel, John would look forward to the time when “the books [will be] opened.” What John is talking about is the time of the end. So what can we really say is going to happen?

First, we look forward to the general resurrection of all the dead. Daniel had already heard that “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake: some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus himself declared that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). And so John first sees this under the imagery of a double harvest, first of good grain and then of grapes that get trampled (Revelation 14:14-20). But John later clarifies the image by telling us that “the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them” (Revelation 20:13). “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” (Revelation 20:12).

Friends, our eternal state does not begin as soon as we die. Because the goal is not for your spirit to fly away to heaven and leave your body in the dust forever. That's only Phase 1 at best. This passage is finally taking us to what comes after heaven. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed; for this perishable body must put on the imperishable, this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). There will come a day when precisely zero of the graves in our church cemetery are filled. Because they will give back the bodies entrusted to them. Those bodies will be raised. Every person who ever lived, no matter how they died, will stand up again. That means your parents and your grandparents and your ancestors from thirty generations back. That means your spouse you laid to rest, and it means your children and grandchildren. It means Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. It means all the people in the missionary's photo album and all the people in those manila envelopes. So you have to think beyond the afterlife. What happens right away, away from the body, is just the start. The dead will all be given back.

Second, God appears, manifests himself, to judge. And when he does, things get... intense. Never before has God been so directly seen in his glory. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostles could write (1 John 4:12). “Man shall not see me and live,” God told Moses (Exodus 33:20). But on that day, God will fully drop the veil that keeps him from the universe's view. Every layer of protection will be stripped away. There will be direct exposure to God in his fullness. And it will send the old-creation structure scattering before his splendor. The prophet Isaiah had already known it would not be something the universe could handle: “Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of Yahweh of Hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:13). “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall like leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4). So when God appears on his throne of judgment, with Jesus seated on the same judgment-throne at the Father's right hand, the skies above and earth below will recoil in terror. On “the day of God..., the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn,” we're told (2 Peter 3:12). “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). But when John describes the same thing, he just says: “I saw a great white throne, and the One who was seated on it. From his presence, earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (Revelation 20:11).

We cannot forget that God is “the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 21:6). Just as he was the Alpha and Beginning who brought those heavens and earth into being, so he will be their Omega, their End. And they try to run away and hide, this earth and this sky, but “no place was found for them.” There is a hope for them, for the whole universe, but it, too, will come only by dying to be raised as a new creation. (More on that next Sunday.) For now, just contemplate all that's impressive in the universe. The majestic heights of mountains. The sun that, from 93 million miles away, can still blind us if we stare directly into its glory. The galaxies that dwarf the measures of which our minds can conceive.

Now think that, with one glance at the appearance of our God on his throne, the sun and the stars will go blind, unable to bear to look at his brightness. Think that, overwhelmed by his immensity, whole galaxies will feel small and ashamed. Think that Mount Everest will crumble in fear at the sight of him, that Mount Rushmore will hide its faces. Think that Mars in its reddish hues will blush in worship and try to hide. No wonder no one could ever see God, truly see God as he is, and live. So when John will later go on to say that, after this coming day has passed, those who serve God “will see his face” (Revelation 22:4), know that it can only mean that the smallest and weakest believer here has, as a destiny, to become stronger than all this universe we now know – to be tougher than mountains, planets, and stars. (But more on that in the weeks ahead.) Too often we have lost our healthy awe in approaching God. Nuclear war is a pinprick next to the sight of him. The dinosaurs got off easy with the asteroid. And can we be blasé in thinking of him? God forbid!

Third, once the runaway earth and runaway sky have left the picture, once all who've ever lived have stood up and been called into court before the 'great white throne,' then the court will be in session. And for the court to be in session, the closed files can be closed no more. So, we read, “books were opened … and the dead were judged by what was written in the books” (Revelation 20:12). “They were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13).

The scene would not have been intellectually shocking to well-read Jewish believers in the seven churches who got this first. After all, the prophets had pointed to it, and later Jewish writers had envisioned it. They knew, as an intellectual doctrine, that there was going to be a last judgment. But it's one thing to apprehend something in the abstract with the mind, and another thing to enter upon it with the heart, the core of the self. From those seven churches to our churches today, and from the first-century world to the twenty-first-century world, we all need a periodic reminder: There is a judgment. Records are being kept of what you do. No moral or immoral action is passed over by the diligent scribes in the Almighty's employ. As Jesus said, “on the day of judgment, people will [even] give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Every word you've ever said or written is in those books! And they will serve as evidence before the court.

We humans are so prone to put on appearances where we know we can be seen – we get dressed up, we cover up our faults, we try to manage perceptions – and yet we think that, once we're by ourselves, what happens there is our lasting secret. But there is a God who “sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4), “for nothing is hidden except to be made manifest, nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mark 4:22). Each word, each deed, is reflected in the records that are being kept. The heavenly archives have no continuity gap in their coverage. Be assured that nothing here goes unrecorded there. The heavenly files have more information about your life than you reckoned there was to know. And there certainly judgment rendered, on the basis of what's in the heavenly files.

For we know that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). There is coming “a day when... God judges the secrets of human beings by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16). And when that day comes – the day John is foreseeing, the day we're talking about, Judgment Day – on that day, “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10), “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Judgment Day is coming. It is a real time. Each day crossed off the calendar reduces the count by one. It could be ten thousand years distant. It could start before I finish this sermon. Are you ready?

Ready or not, when it comes, fourth, sentence will be passed. And we know that some will not fare too well. We heard last Sunday about how John introduces the image of a burning lake, a lake of fire and sulfur, his picture of hell, the final hell. We heard how “the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet” that had deceived the world, and “these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Revelation 19:20). We heard also about how “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). The devil does not get to reign in hell. (Maybe you remember that Miltonian line where the devil considers it's better to reign in hell than serve in heaven (Paradise Lost 1.263)?  Well, sorry, Satan: 'reigning in hell' was never an option!) The devil can only languish in hell, suffer in hell. The devil is who the lake of fire is there for. He's not there yet. But it's guaranteed that he will be! Satan will lose. And no milder punishment could fit all the devil's crimes.

Just the same, “Death and Hades” are going to be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). Death will lose its power, for it will burn. The grave, the underworld, will go down in flames. All the forces that Satan's been using will not be left to keep infesting the world. No, the lake of fire is the garbage dump of all creation, the incinerator that's meant to quarantine the trash so everything else can be cleaned up. Death is trash. Into the incinerator it will go, joining Devil, Hades, Beast, and False Prophet. All of them will, as it were, be 'deaccessioned' from the cosmos. All as it should be.

But then we read a sadder twist. The lake of fire was made for spiritual realities that have to be excluded from God's good world. But through sin, we fuse ourselves to such unclean spiritual realities.  Through sin, we estrange ourselves from God and from his good world. And because sin stains our names in the books of our deeds, we're on a path to same flame. Those with un-atoned sin still on the books will similarly be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). The “day of judgment” will be “the day of... the destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). For as God spoke through Isaiah to those who estranged themselves: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame” (Isaiah 65:13). “Their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24).

Hell is real, and the stakes are higher than we imagine. “If anyone worships the beast..., he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:9-11). Who goes there? The lake of fire will be the destination for “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” (Revelation 21:8). Who tells us that? It's the voice of God himself, decreeing it from the throne! And that list certainly covers the bases, doesn't it? Our impulses may tempt us to try to justify one or another of those categories, but equally they lead to fire.

What will it be like, this 'lake of fire'? Like everything else in Revelation, it's a symbol. No fire of the flesh can burn fallen angels who have no flesh, much less worldly power-structures like the beast. But what this picture shows us is destruction – a destruction for which we were not made, but which God lets us ultimately choose, if we prefer it to him. We were made to swell with life and be crowned with glory in Christ, but people have the option to say no to Jesus, to reject the Way, the Truth, the Life. If people do that, then they starve their souls even now. And that starvation will continue unabated, only there will be nothing left to mask the feeling. So those who turn away from the Life will starve themselves, forever shrinking, curving in upon themselves, withering, imploding. The best and most decent person outside of Christ will find that, when all borrowed grace flies the coop, what's left can't keep its own structural integrity. It's the natural consequence of continuing to exist in the absence of borrowed grace. The very self will endlessly diminish.

And we weren't made to endlessly diminish! We were made to receive the love of a God who is inescapable in even the grave – “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8) – but to fall into the 'lake of fire' is to finally refuse redemption, finally refuse joy, and so be left with nothing but haunting shame. It is to be magnetically repelled by God's love, shamed by their permanent exile from everything that's good, all while unable to escape or deny. “Those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus... will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). Internalizing that shame and that penalty, they thus experience their own sin-shriveled souls as corrosive from within, producing a torment that yields “no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:11). For an experience like that, the burning shame of a corrosive soul amidst the smoldering collapse of a self, the loss of an ability to experience love as other than wrath, we can find no sensible image other than fire and sulfur: as the psalmist says, “fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (Psalm 11:6).

That is not a portion that I ever want to have! That is not a portion I want any of you to have (which is why I get up in this pulpit on Sunday mornings, after all). It is not a portion I want any of my neighbors to have. It is not a portion for which a man or a woman is made. So to realize that anybody is on a road that leads to such eternal destruction should give us deep discomfort. “Take care, brothers [and sisters], lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God! But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'Today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13). That serious word should lead to introspection. That serious would should lead to impassioned evangelism. And that serious word should lead to committed discipleship. But that word is so serious, it almost makes us ask if there is any hope, any way to avoid the 'lake of fire.'

If the books of our deeds were all we could rely on, we'd be in dire straits, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We “have all fallen away; together [we] have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:3). But there is one last book that gets opened, and John sees it as worth mentioning separately. “Then another book was opened, which is the book of life” (Revelation 20:12). Elsewhere we hear of it as “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8), and it takes a dominant role in God's court. It is precisely because the Lamb was slain that our names can be written into that book at all. It's the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, told as it unfolds throughout time, as each of us allow our old selves to be crucified to the world with Jesus (Galatians 2:20; 6:14), so long as we continue to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4), “for we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14).

The prophet Daniel had, long ago, heard a promise of deliverance, of salvation, for “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (Daniel 12:1). And, to stick with that image, your name is written there, if you are really a follower of the Lamb wherever he goes. That entails more than just claiming to be a Christian, just going through the motions, just using the word and grabbing the name. John is well aware that there are people in his seven churches who are not really followers of the Lamb, and there are some who are in danger of leaving the Lamb. But for those who persist in a faith that overcomes, their name will not be erased from the Lamb's book of life: “The one who overcomes... – I will never blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels,” Jesus promises (Revelation 3:5). If Jesus is our permanent record, then the book of life is the volume that reveals our eternal destiny.

In that case, our appearance in court will not be as criminals brought up from prison to a sentencing hearing, as will be the case with those who haven't followed the Lamb. No, our appearance in court will be more like being brought down from heavenly protective custody as witnesses, coming to be vindicated by the Judge's ruling. It's true that we'll stand for a performance review: “Each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire … If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). In that sense, “each of us will give an account of himself [or herself] to God” (Romans 14:12). But so long as we stick with the Lamb to the end, ours is eternal life in place of the second death. John promises us that, if we abide in God through love, “we may have confidence for the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17)!

But ever-present to our minds and hearts, we must know that there will be a day of judgment, and that our faith must be an active following of Jesus if we hope to look to that day with confidence. These things are real. Life and death are more than biological. In the end, everyone throws their lot in with God or Dragon, Lamb or Beast, Holy Spirit or False Prophet, and will get their wish to be where their respective choice is. Sin is nothing but imitating the devil – those who back away from the Lamb are backing into the maw of a Dragon. But for those whom heavenly archives reveal to have really belonged to the Lamb, there's nowhere to go but 'further up and further in'! The name of each Lamb-follower is recorded in a book, a Book of Life, and the name is no misnomer. To belong to the Lamb is the only way to have, not just extended quantity of life, but to be promised the full quality of life – Jesus came so we “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Real flourishing and wholeness, real enjoyment and vibrancy, will come as we “forever shall [his] love and glory know,” spending eternity in journeying wherever the Lamb leads the way. If you belong to Christ, if you have him as your Rock of Refuge, if you keep following the Lamb, then the day of runaway earth and runaway sky will be a good day for you and (I hope) me!

So be courageous. Be trusting. Be honorable. Cling to life and purity, devotion and truth. Abide in God's love and follow the Lamb. And know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, when everything is resolved, it will no more matter what this age's court of public opinion has said. What will matter is whether your name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life (and what further rewards might be warranted by what's written in the books of your deeds). And hallelujah – Jesus is still taking names! Stay faithfulhe will not blot yours out.  Glory to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The War of the Word: Sermon on Revelation 19:11-21

The city streets were full of chaos, confusion, debris, and smoke. Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria, was one of the targets of the Turkish bombing raids after American forces abandoned the region. While a young girl lost a leg and a brother, others also lay dead. I don't know their names. But in the wake of this week's bombings by both Turkey and ISIS, one pastor and his church family have begun wrestling with the decision to flee the region in search of safety. Meanwhile, in the African nation of Burkina Faso, Friday saw a village mosque become the scene of slaughter as gunmen stormed it during the time of prayer, gunning down fifteen Muslims and forcing many locals to flee the village. The day before that, in a city in southeast India, Hindu-nationalist radicals broke into a Christian home where a pastor was visiting the family to bless the house – they beat the pastor and the family, ordering them not to pray. And the day before that, a synagogue in Germany was attacked by a gunman with homemade explosives in his car as Jews inside prayed in observance of their Day of Atonement. As recently as Monday, Christians – including a pastor's wife – were being kidnapped from churches in Nigeria and being held for ransom. Meanwhile, over a million Uyghurs, a minority ethnic group in China, are being detained by the government in 're-education' camps – the US Secretary of State calls it “a brutal systematic campaign to erase religion and culture.” Some escapees tell stories of forced abortions, of organ harvesting, of sexual assault and torture – all as China continues to build a radical surveillance state in which churches have been closed or blown up and pastors have been arrested and made to disappear. And while that's all going on, we've seen the remarks of a possible US presidential candidate lead to a surge in popular American sentiment asking the United States government to tax churches out of existence, mirroring the same trend that eleven days ago led a British court to declare belief in the Bible to be “incompatible with human dignity.”

The first half of October has been overcast with a darkness upon the world, frequently fueled by ethnic hatred and anti-religious bigotry. Much of which is nothing new. All the past predictions of a brighter tomorrow have seldom worked out so well. To pay attention to this international sweep of atrocities is to hear tales of oppression, injustice, slander, violence. In lesser ways, the same forces may intersect with our own lives, as much as we like to imagine ourselves living in a comfortable bubble here in the bucolic countryside. And yet we know, in the face of the darkness, we're tasked with shining a light. We're called to speak and work for justice where we can: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless, maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3). And yet all the individual cases set before us are symptoms of something too deeply pervasive. We have to be aware that the sum-total of human evil – the terror and the brutality, the deceit and the propaganda – is beyond human ability to ultimately fight and solve. End one crisis, more spring up in its wake. The hydra is humanly unbeatable. If all things continue as they are, evil will forever hold the upper hand.

There was a time when Zion, the city of God, found herself in a similar plight. Corrupted within, oppressed by the Edomites and other nations, with no way out. “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,” the prophet told them, “and your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isaiah 59:2). “We all growl like bears, we moan and moan like doves – we hope for justice, but there's none, and for salvation, but it's far from us” (Isaiah 59:11). “Justice has turned back, and righteousness stands far away, for truth has stumbled in the public squares and uprightness can't enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever departs from evil makes himself a prey. Yahweh saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede. Then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds, so will he repay wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies” (Isaiah 59:14-18). “Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah – splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? 'It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save!' Why is your apparel red and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? 'I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me. I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart and my year of redemption had come. I looked, and there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold. So my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their blood on the earth'” (Isaiah 63:1-6). “For behold, Yahweh will come with fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire Yahweh will enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh” (Isaiah 66:15-16).

The God we meet in those passages is a fierce God of justice. We behold Yahweh the Divine Warrior stand up and say, “No more!” And so he fights for his people – indeed, fights for them without their knowledge – until the forces of darkness that surround them are no more. Sometimes, from our bubble perspective, passages like these make us uncomfortable. Our tender and squeamish hearts recoil at the thought of God at war. But while the God of Israel is abundantly merciful, he is not infinitely indulgent. A God of Love must be a God who can be wrathful against injustice and oppression. And until oppression is ended, salvation – rescue from oppression and injustice – is not complete. And oppression can only be ended in two ways: repentance or destruction.

But as we survey the last two weeks, many thousands of years after the time Isaiah described, what we need is for these things to still be true. We need the God who is Love to still stand up against injustice. We need an ear in heaven to listen as we cry out in dismay. We need God to be appalled and ready to step in. We need him to put on garments of vengeance and to wrap himself in zeal as a cloak. We need him to tread the winepress, to fight on behalf of the downtrodden, on our behalf, and to finish the war once and for all, on a global scale, on a cosmic scale. We need a Divine Warrior.

Down through the years after Isaiah's time, God's people kept praying for a Divine Warrior to come save them, to step in and fight their battles. And in the course of centuries, there was a growing belief that the Warrior who would come and do that would be their coming king, the Messiah. One writer prayed: “See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the Son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and righteousness, to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter's jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth! At his warning, the nations will flee from his presence, and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25). “How beautiful is King Messiah who is to arise from among those of the house of Judah! He girds his loins and goes forth to battle against those that hate him. … His garments are rolled in blood; he is like a presser of grapes” (Targum Neofiti on Genesis 49:11). John grew up hearing that the Messiah would come and be that Warrior his people craved. And so, when we come to today's passage, we at last meet our Divine Warrior, our Messiah – and John realizes he already knows him. It's Jesus!

That may be difficult to square with our mental picture of Jesus. Really, Jesus as a Warrior? But he is, though perhaps not in the way we'd imagine. Too often, we have stripped Jesus down, domesticated him in our hearts, portrayed him as soft. John writes to remedy that. While “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” is our blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), nevertheless it will not be well-received by all: “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Revelation 1:7). Just so, when John sees Jesus as the Rider on the White Horse, galloping down from heaven to lead his holy invasion of the earth, John also sees “the Beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army” (Revelation 19:19). We profess that the mystery of our faith is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. And he really will, he truly will. And it will upset a lot of people. So much so that John can envision them trying to fight him, trying to resist him, trying to oppose him.

It's with that awareness that John can write: “I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The One sitting on it is called Faithful-and-True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). It is only in righteousness, in justice, that he judges anyone. There will be no bribes. There will be no excuses. There will be no deft and crafty legal loopholes to leap through. And it is only in righteousness, in justice, that he makes war. There has never been a war in human history that has been executed for quite so just a cause, nor pursued with quite so just a method, as this one. The American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II – all of them, as prone as we are to lionize the 'good guys' in them, came with their substantial measures of injustice. It is an ugly thing, war as we know it. But the war John is talking about isn't like that. The Warrior-Messiah's final confrontation against Dragon, against Beast, against False Prophet, against the kings of the earth – that war is morally unimpeachable. John wants to assure us of that up front, before we read the rest. This is the war that will end all wars, and this is the worthiest war there is.

John depicts Jesus at his Second Coming riding in on a pure white horse of triumph, but he doesn't come alone. We're told that “the armies of heaven – arrayed in fine linen, white and pure – were following him on white horses” (Revelation 19:14). Elsewhere the Bible tells us how “the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father” (Matthew 16:27), how “the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment on all” (Jude 14). And yet when he comes, “those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). Behind Jesus will ride the angels. And behind Jesus will ride the martyrs. And behind Jesus will ride the other saints who've gone before. Jesus is escorted by heavenly armies at his back.

And yet those who ride with him come unarmored and unarmed. They are merely observers and celebrants, not combatants. These armies of heaven do not come as warriors. Their participation in the fight is solely by proxy – an act of grace. No pretext is given for our foolish crusades. There were Jewish groups who expected to take up arms and fight in the final war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. But Jesus is the Warrior who fights alone. We follow him, but as observers and celebrants. We overcome through his conquest, by remaining faithful to him. And Jesus is the Warrior who fights in our defense and finishes it.

In John's earlier visions, he had seen both the devilish Dragon and his beastly protege crowned with emblems of power and authority on the earth. The “great red dragon” appeared in John's vision “with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). The dragon calls forth the beast as its mirror image – “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads” (Revelation 13:1). Satan and the worldly violence and oppression he fuels both have what looks like complete power – seven diadems, ten diadems – to rampage across the earth, to dominate the world. And that's the impression we've gotten in the past several weeks, just as at any other time. Dragon and Beast loom large with their diadems and blasphemy. But when John beholds the returning Messiah, Jesus wears “on his head” not seven, not ten, but many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). There is no equivalence between the Beast and the Warrior, no equivalence between the Dragon and the Warrior. Jesus is crowned with diadems beyond number. He has far more authority and power than Dragon or Beast can ever hope to wield. All the powers of darkness around us – all the terror, all the dread – pales next to Jesus! This world is his by right, and he will have it. “On his robe and on his thigh, he has a name written: King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Petty tyrants set themselves up over nations – over neighborhoods – over businesses – over households. Mobs revolt and seize crowns for themselves. But over everything we call king, Jesus is the King of kings. Over everything we yield to as a lord, Jesus is the Lord of lords. He will establish his kingdom.

John tells us that the Warrior he sees has “eyes... like a flame of fire” (Revelation 19:12). And we've heard that before, as John's described “the Son of God who has eyes like a flame of fire” (Revelation 2:18; cf. 1:14). Jesus can judge in perfect righteousness and make war in perfect righteousness because his blazing eyes are the eyes of Yahweh who “searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9; cf. Jeremiah 17:10; Romans 8:27). “I am the One,” Jesus tells us, “who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). Nothing is hidden from his view.

And when he comes, the prophecies will be fulfilled. The second psalm tells how God the Father will say to his Son, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall rule them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel” (Psalm 2:8-9). And so we're told that the Warrior-Messiah John sees will “shepherd [the nations] with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15). He invades the earth from heaven, and he seizes world domination, and his authority and dominance will be total. This is not the movie Independence Day. The scrappy nations don't band together after the earth's invasion and find some weakness so they can eke out a win. No, the invasion of earth from above in our story, the true story, wins effortlessly and completely. And that's a good thing, because the Invader is more robustly human than the Beast and Dragon he's come to overthrow. Hallelujah for the invasion of heaven into earth!

But the problem is that, as we're told, the Dragon is able, with the Beast and False Prophet, to “deceive those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 13:14), to “deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth” (Revelation 20:8). This is, in a limited way, a present reality. The human race is deceived. People are deceived into believing that might makes right. People are deceived into believing that there are neighbors who need not be loved. People are deceived into adopting false and destructive visions of 'justice' that are no justice in the sight of God. And we've heard already some of the sorts of fruits of such deception.

When John sees the Warrior, “he is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (Revelation 19:13), a callback to Isaiah's depiction of God emerging with bloody clothes from defeating the oppression of Edom. There, Isaiah heard God describe it as like someone stomping grapes in a winepress and getting their clothes all red: “I have trodden the winepress alone … I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their blood spattered on my garments and stained all my apparel” (Isaiah 63:3). And drawing on that same image, John looks at the Warrior on the white horse and writes, “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19:15). As we sing in one of our songs, this passage is about “the glory of the coming of the Lord” who is “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

What John is talking about is how the Beast and the False Prophet will fall (Revelation 19:20), how ultimately Satan will fall (Revelation 20:10), and how the kings of the earth and their armies will fall – those who persist in their sinful opposition to Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will be harvested for the winepress of the grapes of wrath (Revelation 19:21; 20:9) – “the grape harvest of the earth,” thrown “into the great winepress of the wrath of God, and the winepress was trodden outside the city,” as John writes (Revelation 14:19-20).

Again, it's a harsh description. But John aims to show us the rich complexities of Jesus. He's already presented Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb. But being the Lamb does not replace being the Lion. Being the Faithful Martyr does not replace being the Triumphant Warrior. Jesus' love requires wrath against injustice. Jesus' mercy needs strength. Powers and influences like Dragon, Beast, False Prophet – those can't be allowed to run amok for all eternity. If there is ever to be an end to all the violence and the oppression and the lies and the swindling and all human inhumanity, ever an end to the darkness that infests earth and star, a Divine Warrior must step in and handle it. And while it'd be nice to daydream that, with just enough time, we'd work things out ourselves, we have to stop fooling ourselves. There is a limit to how long God will permit the story of evil to drag on before decisive action must be taken. Jesus already declared the judgment on every power when he allowed himself to be crucified, and sin was condemned in his sinless flesh (Colossians 2:15; Romans 8:3). And then he will finish things by striking down sin itself – with those who cling to it sharing its fate. Jesus Christ “is a God of justice: blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18). Our choice is simply where to stand – complicit with the armies of the kings of this earth, or in the “camp of the saints and the beloved city” (Revelation 20:9)?

Truth be told, when Jesus returns, we'll find we don't really understand him. He comes with “a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). There is more to Jesus than we know. There is more to Jesus than we understand. But we do know that he's “Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11). We do know that he's the “Lord of Glory” who was “crucified” for us (1 Corinthians 2:8), we do know he's “the Living One” who “died” but is “alive forevermore,” hallelujah (Revelation 1:18). And now, as we meet him again, we do find one last name we can get a handle on. “The name by which he is called is: The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). And accordingly, “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Revelation 19:15).

And now, finally, we can begin to understand. Ours is a world where words are commonly twisted, weaponized in the arsenal of oppression and injustice. One Holocaust survivor, the linguist Victor Klemperer, after the war wrote a study of how the Nazis twisted language into a means of oppression. He wrote that when used this way, “words may be little doses of arsenic.” And in our world, we see the same thing: torture euphemized as 'enhanced interrogation,' unborn children defined out of the world of the living, immigrants defined out of the sphere of civil society, religious freedom smeared as 'bigotry,' jingoism repackaged as 'greatness,' sanity smeared as 'discrimination,' even the meaning of basic words like 'man,' 'woman,' 'human' debased by radical redefinition. Little doses of arsenic....

But the Warrior who's coming is the Word of God. He is the Truth, Faithful and True, the Word who dispels all the world's deceit, the antidote to every 'little dose of arsenic.' And that's the only sword he comes with – his speech. The sword is in his mouth, not in his hand. He doesn't come to amplify the world's violence, but to wage a war that takes it away. He will fight, but it's a warfare by way of lawsuit. Jesus vindicates his followers by prosecuting their accusers, and his verdict is a speech-act that instantly implements itself when he speaks it to their faces. The Beast, the False Prophet, the Dragon, the kings of the earth who get swept up in following them, all their armies of people surrendered to sin – they don't stand a chance. Because this Warrior won't need a prolonged campaign of skirmish after skirmish. When Jesus rides in, the time of struggle and setback is done. The Word's victory will be swift and sudden and certain.

And in this lawsuit-warfare, the Word of God doesn't wield anything external to himself. The Word speaks, and kings fall. The Word speaks, and violent power is captured. The Word speaks, and chains break. The Word speaks, and things change. Because this Word is Faithful and True. The Truth of God speaks, and everything is penetrated as with a sharp sword. The Truth of God speaks in favor of good news, and as a result, all evil dies away. At Christ's return, he will not have to lift a finger. He need only speak, and the sum-total of darkness will collapse and dissipate forever. Only in this way will “the rest” of the armies of evil “be slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Revelation 19:21).

And that's the picture we're meant to put together here. Jesus is coming back, personally, physically, bodily. He really is. And that's part of the good news we have to tell! The day is coming when heaven will be fully open – the Truth is undeniable – and all the skeptical posturing and relativistic cavils and deluded denials will shatter against revelation. On that day, Heaven's Truth will expose the world openly. A Faithful and True Word from God will announce the truth so plainly that there can be no confusion. Our long road of faith will be vindicated, justified, by that Word. Yet, like what we see around us in the world, the clamor of violence and oppression will still lead people to oppose the open Truth. Even with all excuses exposed as nothing, people are still going to want to cling to their causes, still going to want to justify themselves, still going to want to resist a King who sits over other kings and a Lord who reigns over other lords. And so the truth, the Word of God who bears names beyond what we can know, will ride onto our earthly stage, with all heaven in his train. But they will not lift a finger. We will celebrate as Jesus returns and makes war against everything that holds the world back from being the world God dreams of it being. We will celebrate as, with the sword of his mouth, with his speech, Jesus declares his sentence – good news for those who follow the Lamb, bad news for sin and those who perversely clutch it to death. The war of the Word will answer the cry of every hurting heart, will break oppression and make violence cease and put an end to every lie ever told. Because Jesus is the Word of God. That Word is Truth. And that Word is a Warrior.  Knowing that, we can confront all the powers of darkness with fearlessness now.

Jesus will be back – to fight for us! Jesus will be back – to fight for you, if you're a follower of the Lamb now! Jesus will be back – coming in great glory! “Be warned, O rulers of the earth” (Psalm 2:10)! But while the return of Christ is a future event, the Word is marching now, galloping in the conquest of the gospel spreading abroad in the world. “The word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9)! Ever since the days of the apostles, “the word of God” has “continued to increase” (Acts 6:7), “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” even now (Hebrews 4:12). In every converted heart, the Word's sharp sword slays the old self (carving a 'Paul' out of a 'Saul'), and turns over the 'flesh' to be consumed by the Spirit. So if you have been “born again... through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), then “the word of God abides in you” (1 John 2:14). This word – the good news of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords – is on a conquest march, exposing injustice and corruption and lies, giving birth to new justice and purity and truth. Like the armies of heaven among whom we hope to one day ride, our call is to follow with the gospel word, Jesus' march through our present world, as we wait for his bodily return from heaven, looking to the skies in hope. Faced with the violence and madness of the world, our call is not to despair, though we may lament; our call is not to rage, though we must speak out. Our call is to accompany the gospel word of God in long-suffering love, all while we wait for the Warrior-Word of God to decisively descend. For even now, “he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, the gospel: God's Truth is marching on!”  May we ever march and ride with the Word!