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!

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