Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Bowls

(A sermon based on Revelation 15 & 16 for Sunday, August 30, 2009)

In the Bible, the bowl or cup is a stock symbol of judgment so it is appropriate that the last series of visions that John has employs the symbol of the bowl. We should see the visions of the seven bowls as parallel with the earlier visions of the seven seals and the seven trumpets. They describe more or less the same kinds of events, namely, God’s judgments on the false gods of the world and on the people of the world who worship those gods. One difference with the judgments pictured by the bowls is that they appear to be more complete and final than those we have witnessed up to now; that fact communicates that the time is coming when the judgments of God will be completed and there will be no more chances for repentance.

We should keep in mind the main messages that the book of Revelation is trying to communicate. The primary message is that God is working God’s purposes out. If God is working God’s purposes out, then God’s people can confidently believe that God will deliver them and save them. Moreover, if God is working God’s purposes out, then God’s people can confidently believe that justice will be done. The world powers and the world citizens who continually deny the reality of God and who try to create their own reality will inevitably be judged by God.

Those messages were meant first for the Christians in the churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century. Those persecuted Christians who lived with the constant temptation of giving in to emperor worship and to other forms of idolatry needed to know that if they held on God would finally deliver them and would finally punish their oppressors.

So on one level the vision of the seven bowls signifies that Rome and its cohorts would be judged for their actions against God’s people. On another level, the vision reveals that God always, in every period of history, judges such oppressive, egotistical, and power-hungry institutions and people. On a final level, the vision affirms that in the end, God will finally judge all such powers that have opposed God.

All of the talk in these two chapters about plagues and seas reminds us that we are in the middle of an exodus—not the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt but the church’s exodus from the oppressing world. Just like Israel did after crossing the sea and seeing the Egyptians drowned in the sea, so does the church triumphant sing a song beside the crystal sea. Only now it is both the “song of Moses . . . and the song of the Lamb.”

John has the martyrs mainly in mind but he is probably also thinking of all who have died in their faith without giving in to the worship of the beast. In his day, he would have meant those who did not worship the emperor. In any day, he means those who do not sell themselves out to the vain promises of the world. Notice that the focus of the song is on what God has done, not on what the believers have done.

Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed

Everything for which we have to give praise is something for which we should praise God. When we persevere, when we hold on, when we are victorious, it is because of what God has done through Christ in our lives.

The plagues in chapter 16 symbolize the judgment of God on an unbelieving and unrepentant world. Again, they are patterned after the plagues inflicted by God on Egypt during the Exodus; most of the images used here are drawn from the Exodus plagues: sores, water turned to blood, hail, frogs, and darkness. We can profitably comment on the possible meaning of some of these symbols.

For one thing, note that it is those who bear the mark of the beast who are afflicted with sores. To bear the mark of the beast is a symbolic way of saying to have sold your soul to the world. If you bear that mark in your soul, then you will be subject to a tormented conscience and to a troubled spirit.

The turning of the water into blood with the attendant death of marine life could be a reference to economic difficulties. The economic systems of this world that are built on exploitation and that are used to injure God’s people will inevitably fall.

The darkness of the fifth bowl can signify the reality of the sinners’ separation from God.

The “three foul spirits like frogs” that emerge from the mouths of the dragon (Satan), the beast (the Empire), and the false prophet (the second beast which is the local councils that promote Emperor worship) when the contents of the sixth bowl are poured out are interesting. Frogs traditionally represented evil spirits. Moreover, the facts that they engage in meaningless and endless croaking and their function in the vision is to gather people together for their own destruction give us a clue as to their meaning here. They represent the propaganda of the world systems opposed to God. Totalitarian systems are especially skilled at such propaganda, but even in our own setting we sometimes see how a lie that is told skillfully enough and loudly enough and regularly enough can come to be seen as the truth.

In the context of the sixth bowl, John also saw the Euphrates River dried up in preparation for a great battle. In the Bible, God causes waters to dry up and to flood as a part of his judging and delivering activity such as during the Exodus. Also, we know that Cyrus the Persian diverted the waters of the Euphrates so that he could conquer the city of Babylon in the sixth century BC and a result the Jews were set free from Babylonian Captivity. In a similar way, the Lord is preparing to set his people free from the oppressive world in which we reside.

The place Armageddon literally means “mount of Megiddo.” There is no such thing as a “mount of Megiddo” in Israel; there was, however, a town of Megiddo that was beside the Plain of Esdraelon where many significant battles have taken place. John is using a famous Israelite battleground to symbolize the great conflict between God and Satan, between the forces of good and evil. On one level, the conflict would be acted out one day when Rome would fall to the barbarians. On another level, this conflict is always taking place. On a third level, one day it will culminate in a showdown, though not necessarily a military one, in which Christ and the Church will prove ultimately victorious.

The seventh bowl symbolizes the final judgment, when God will make all things as they are supposed to be. Finally, when Christ returns, all will be made right and God’s way and God’s people will be vindicated. The victory that has already been won through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ will be finalized.

As I said at the beginning, the bowl or cup is a symbol of judgment in the Bible. God’s judgment is always being exercised against those who oppose God and God’s will and way. In every generation God’s justice works its way out. Always there are evil and oppressive systems that have to be overcome; it happens when totalitarian aggressors are vanquished and it happens when the structures of racism and prejudice crumble in our own nation and in our own time.

But one day, God’s perfect justice will be accomplished finally and forevermore. When that day comes, God’s people will sing a victory song praising God for what God has accomplished, even as we can sing that song all along the way. Evil will not win; Satan will lose; his servants will be punished eternally. We don’t gloat about what will happen to those who persist forever in rejecting God—but we do praise God for the fact that God’s grace and love are stronger than any other force, and what God is going to accomplish can’t be stopped.

Our lives and all of history are in God’s hands—and God is faithfully working God’s purposes out!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Beasts and the Lamb

(A sermon based on Revelation 13 & 14 for Sunday, August 23, 2009)

When last we visited Revelation, we saw Satan pictured in chapter 12 as a dragon who had been cast down to the earth because he was defeated by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We were told that the dragon was going to wreak havoc on the earth during the little time that he had left. Chapter 13 tells us about how Satan wreaks that havoc on the earth, and especially upon the saints. In his symbolic world, John sees two beasts that carry out the bidding of Satan. When we think about what John’s words would have meant specifically to the seven churches to which he was writing and what they mean in an ongoing way, we will arrive at a helpful interpretation of this chapter.

The first beast arises out of the sea. The churches of Asia Minor would have understood this beast to be the Roman Empire. They were accustomed to seeing its representatives arriving by ship. The heads of the beast would represent the emperors of Rome. The dragon gave this beast his power; that is, the beast was the embodiment of satanic power. The beast was blasphemous, John says. The blasphemy of the empire was in claiming too much power for itself; the blasphemy of the emperors was in accepting praise as if they were divine. Those who were Christians, whose names were written in the Lamb’s book of life, were the only ones who would not give in to this idolatry. Still, the empire had power and it was willing to use it. Therefore, Christians ran the risk of being killed for their faith and they would have to endure (v. 10).

What does it mean that “one of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed” (v. 3)? Most scholars relate this picture to a rumor current in the first century. The rumor had it that the emperor Nero, who committed suicide in 63 AD, had come back to life and was waiting to reclaim his empire. That may be the origin of John’s symbol, but I think it more likely that John meant one of two other things. The first possibility is that John means to say that the empire, despite its sometimes seemingly eminent demise, kept bouncing back. Related to that would be that upon the death of an emperor another emperor inevitably took his place. The second possibility is that John is saying that the empire had been struck a fatal blow by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but that it still continued to function and to exercise Satan’s power. That could be the meaning of the head of the beast having been “healed” of its mortal wound.

The second beast rose out of the earth. It appeared harmless and even positive (“it had two horns like a lamb”) but it was in fact evil and satanic (“it spoke like a dragon”). Verse 12 is the key to understanding the meaning of the second beast: “It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast.” Local councils existed in Asia Minor that promoted and enforced emperor worship. The councils could apparently even pull off some pretty amazing religious-looking tricks to promote the worship of the emperor.

The first beast is said to have a “mark.” We are told that no one could buy or sell without having that mark, that the mark is the number or name of the beast, and that the number of the beast is 666. What does all this mean? The number is easily understood. Three sevens would be perfection. In some early Christian tradition, the number of Christ is given as 888, thus even beyond perfection. 666 is less than perfect three times, and thus very bad. Interestingly, when you spell “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew, the numeric value of the name is 666. That could be convenient coincidence. In short, 666 for John and his original readers would have stood for the empire and/or emperor that claimed divinity but fell short of even being decent humanity. We should not envision a literal mark. The meaning is that unless one worshiped and served the emperor he would suffer economic deprivation. Now, it is interesting that coins bore the image of the emperor and also his various titles, including those that claimed divinity. Perhaps that is in the background here.

Also in the background might be the image of the phylactery, those small boxes containing Scripture that Jews would attach to their foreheads or to their wrists, signifying that they served God with all their minds and with all their actions. The meaning then would be that to bear the “mark of the beast” meant to serve him with the kind of dedication that should be reserved for God alone.

Today, of course, we don’t have to worry about the Roman Empire. But we do still have to be aware of the power of the devil and of the ways that he uses the powers of the earth to do his bidding. We don’t have to fear the power of the devil, because our Lord has defeated him. But we do have to take seriously his activity during these, his last days.

There are still worldly powers that serve him. When powers or structures or institutions or individuals or economics demand more allegiance of people than is rightly theirs, then we have the beasts in our midst. When people put other allegiances before their loyalty to God, when they sell their souls to gain an economic advantage, then we have the beasts in our midst. Rome’s not a problem, but the beasts surely are, because Satan surely is.

Still, those who have trusted in Christ are safe and secure. Moreover, they can trust in the just judgments of God. Those are the main teachings of chapter 14.

At the beginning of chapter 14, John sees the Lamb standing on Mt. Zion, accompanied by the 144,000 who bear both the Lamb’s name and the Father’s name on their foreheads. Bearing the names means the same thing as their having been sealed in chapter 7 meant. They are identified with the Lord and he makes them safe. These 144,000 represent all those Christians who persevere and who claim Christ’s victory.

The symbolism of their being “virgins” (v. 4) means that they have been faithful to the Lord and have not committed adultery by worshipping the emperor or any other false gods. The Lamb who is Jesus Christ is always with his faithful ones, and one day he will return to take all his faithful ones home to be with him, and he will execute judgment on those who have served the world and its beasts rather than God.

For the most part, the remainder of chapter 14 proclaims and pictures the great future judgment of God upon the ungodly and the wicked. John portrays the judgment in very graphic terms, all of which are meant to underscore the seriousness of the matter. When the Lamb comes, when Jesus Christ returns, then those who have trusted in Christ and have followed him will know for all eternity the blessings that already begin when a believer dies in her faith. But those who have rejected the Lord for all their lives will spend all eternity apart from God, punished for all time as the consequence for the choice they consistently made.

Embedded in these verses of judgment are some very beautiful words: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them’” (14:13). We can endure anything! We can live through anything! We can suffer anything! We can persevere through anything! Why? Because we know that the Lamb is stronger than any beast. We know that in the end, God will win his victory and will make everything as it ought to be. We know that we can die in the Lord and that we can rest forever from earthly toil.

We know in whom we have we believed: the crucified, resurrected, and returning Lamb of God.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Messiness of Mercy

My late mother was, according to the testimony of many whose perspective is much more unbiased than mine, one of the finest Christians you could have ever wanted to know, but she nonetheless provided me with a very good example of how messy mercy can be.

One Sunday night, during one of the inter-tribal conflicts that unfortunately characterized the life of the church of my childhood, my father, as a good deacon should, stepped in between our pastor and a woman who was berating him which gave the lady the opportunity to turn her berating skills upon my father who, although he possessed a temper himself, just stood there smiling and taking it. I, along with others, was an eye witness to the whole episode.

The following Wednesday night, on which was scheduled—rather ironically I thought—our church’s monthly fellowship supper, I and the rest of the folks who were there, including my good mother, watched in fascination as my father and the berating lady came walking across the church yard, their arms around each other, smiling and laughing and obviously reveling in their newly negotiated rapprochement.

The next day, as I joined my mother in her daily visit with her mother and my grandmother on Granny’s front porch, my good Christian mother—and I’m not being ironic in describing her that way—offered her assessment of my father’s act of mercy: “I could have killed him.”

To her way of thinking, Daddy’s extension of mercy to and embrace in mercy of the one who had offended and hurt him as his response to the mess that the offense and hurt had created was a scandal that created more mess.

Mercy is messy.

I thought about that story as I contemplated the decision of Scottish authorities to release on humanitarian grounds Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 on 270 counts of murder in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988 and who is reportedly suffering from terminal prostate cancer. Understandably, Megrahi’s release has raised a storm of protest, particularly in the United States which was home to 189 of the victims of the terrorist attack; the anger over his release has been exacerbated by images of the hero’s welcome that Megrahi received upon his arrival in Libya.

In a BBC story on the release, Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is quoted as saying, "Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.” “But, MacAskill continued, “that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."

MacAskill went on to say, "Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available. For these reasons and these reasons alone, it is my decision that…Megrahi…be released on compassionate grounds and be allowed to return to Libya to die."

It is my understanding that some people believe that Megrahi was wrongly convicted (he maintains his innocence) and that some believe that others were involved and that he should not have been the sole one punished. I have also heard some speculation about the politics behind the release, which goes something like this: Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi has in recent years been much better behaved and has in effect begun to play ball with the community of nations by ceasing sponsorship of terrorism and by ending his quest for nuclear capability and it is thus in the best interests of diplomacy to help him when possible and this release is a public relations coup for him in Libya.

But the Scottish Justice Secretary’s public pronouncements have focused on compassion as the motive for Megrahi’s release and I will take him at his word that the release was an expression of mercy.

If so, it underscores the truth that mercy is messy.

I want to be very clear about something here: I am my mother’s son and, if I had a relative who was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 my feelings toward the Scottish government would likely mimic those that my mother expressed toward my father when he exhibited mercy. I confess my own sense of outrage that, if Megrahi was in fact guilty of playing any role in the killing of so many of my countrymen and of so many citizens of other nations, he has now been shown mercy where he showed none; I admit my anger that justice has not been done.

I wonder, though, what such attitudes say about my Christian character and about my Christian commitments; I wonder what they say about the quality of my following of Jesus Christ and about the effect or lack of effect that the presence of the grace, love, and Spirit of God in my life have had. While how I feel about the release of Mr. Megrahi, who did me no personal wrong, may make little difference, what do my feelings about the mercy shown to him reveal about my desire and about my willingness—even about my capability—to show mercy toward someone who has directly hurt or wronged me?

Such thoughts bother me because I am supposed to be a Christian—I’m even supposed to be a Christian pastor.

I am not even attributing the Scottish government’s decision to Christian motives because I don’t know that such motives stand behind the decision; besides, I have elsewhere made the case that a nation state cannot be expected to be Christ-like in its policies, particularly related to affairs with other nations, because such an approach would be suicidal to a nation given the state of things in the world.

But I and other people who worship, serve, and follow Jesus Christ are supposed to exhibit Christ-like attitudes and actions in our lives and there is simply no way around the fact that one of the primary characteristics of God as God is revealed in Jesus is mercy; therefore, one of our primary characteristics should be mercy.

It is easier—and neater--to live our lives always insisting on justice; it is easier—and neater—to live our lives always insisting that people must get what they deserve; it is easier—and neater—to live our lives always insisting that that the letter of the law be followed and that every wrong must be righted.

It is harder—and messier—to live our lives showing mercy; it is harder—and messier—to live our lives always insisting that people must be forgiven; it is harder—and messier—to live our lives insisting that grace must be shown.

Is it possible? Is it possible for me? Is it possible for you?

I think of those Amish folk who expressed forgiveness for the man who murdered their little girls back in 2006 and I say, “Maybe.”

I think of a story I heard years ago about a family who, when their daughter was killed by a drunk driver, brought that young man into their home because, they said, there was no sense in two lives being destroyed by what had happened and I say, "Maybe."

Messy. Mercy is messy. It stirs up so much trouble, so much resistance, so much anger, so much fear, and so much misunderstanding. But perhaps it also stirs up so much more mercy—which of course only stirs up more mess.

It was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” It was Jesus who lived exhibiting perfect mercy. And it was Jesus who died on the cross for our sins so that, as we live our lives and when we face the judgment, it will be the mess of mercy and not the order of justice that defines our destiny.

Is there anyone out there who will join me in this prayer: “O God, let me in my life show such mercy that I make a big, big, big mess; cause me in my life to be part of the mess that your mercy makes”?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care as Moral Drama | Politics | ReligionDispatches

It seems to me that some helpful thoughts may be embedded here about what drives some religious conservatives always to be battling and attacking, as with some Southern Baptist leadership who seem, having divested themselves of the "moderate threat," to always be looking for some other threat.

Health Care as Moral Drama | Politics | ReligionDispatches

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Link to

I've added a link to at the bottom of the left-hand column of this blog. If you are like I am, you don't have time to ferret out misinformation and that site seems a reliable source for such ferreting.

New Post at The Jesus Lens

Go to The Jesus Lens to read and comment on my first shot at reading a book of the Hebrew Bible through the Jesus lens.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


(A sermon based on Revelation 12 for Sunday, August 16, 2009)

Here we have clear evidence that the book of Revelation is not a chronological presentation of the unfolding of events. For here in the middle of the book, at chapter 12, we have a symbolic presentation of the meaning of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a life and ministry that predated the writing of the book of Revelation. The reasons that John emphasizes that past event are clear. First, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are absolutely foundational and crucial to everything that we are and do as Christians. Second, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were important to the generation of Christians to whom John was writing because his victory was the basis for their victory.

The symbolism in this chapter is very powerful. John sees “portents,” or signs. One is a woman, the other is a dragon. The woman represents the people of God. That is, she represents the faithful and believing people of God who expected, longed for, and finally produced the Messiah. Her birth pangs and her agony of giving birth picture the difficulties that God’s people went through as the coming of the Messiah was awaited. The dragon represents Satan. The seven heads and ten horns represent the kingdoms and earthly powers through which Satan does his work of persecuting Christians.

In the thought world of Revelation, as in other places in the Bible, what happens on earth to God’s people has a heavenly counterpart. That is the probable meaning of v. 4, “his tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.” Obviously, a third of the stars of heaven cannot be thrown to the earth. A collision with just one large asteroid would irreparably harm our planet; collision with one small star would obliterate it. The stars represent the angelic counterparts of God’s people. When God’s people are persecuted, it has effects even in heaven.

So Satan persecuted and assailed the people of God with the goal of stopping the ministry of the Messiah. He wanted to “devour” the child. This could be referring to the attempts of Herod to have the child Jesus killed. More likely it includes that event but is not limited to it. Satan did everything he could to stop Jesus from doing what he came to do. But Satan could not stop his birth, he could not stop his life, and he could not stop his ministry. Finally, Satan thought that he had won because his forces, the oppressive forces of Jesus’ day, executed Jesus. But he was resurrected and ascended to heaven, and there was nothing Satan could do about it. Defeat was turned into victory. The Messiah took his rightful place because of his victorious death and resurrection.

Meanwhile, “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days” (v. 6). Like Israel of old fled into the wilderness to escape the persecution of the Egyptians, so here the wilderness stands for the protection of the church. So the woman going into the wilderness paints the same picture as the sealing of the 144,000 and the measuring of the temple. God’s people are protected from ultimate spiritual harm. “One thousand two hundred sixty days” is the symbolic number for the entire period of persecution, or the entire period of Christian history.

Satan, of course, did not like the fact that Jesus Christ had won the victory despite Satan’s best efforts to stop him. And so “war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (v. 7). In Jewish writings Michael typically represents Israel. Here he represents the new Israel, the church. The meaning of this symbolic “war” is that Jesus, through his death, put an end to the grounds that Satan had for accusing the people of God.

We must think some about what the role of Satan had been before the time of Christ. He appears in the Old Testament as the accuser of God’s people, trying to find grounds for them to be rejected (see the books of Job and Zechariah). When Revelation says that Satan and his angels have been cast down to the earth, it means to say that he can’t cause trouble for us in heaven so he must do it all on earth now. You see, Jesus has paid the price that we should pay for our sins. Therefore, Satan finally has nothing on us. So, he has no influence in heaven as he once did.

This meaning of the vision is made clear by the proclamation of the “loud voice” in vv. 10-12. Look at what v. 10 says:

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

The authority of Jesus as Messiah was established by all that he did, but especially by his death, resurrection, and ascension. That made our salvation possible and the establishment of the kingdom clear. As a result, Satan has lost his grounds for accusation. We are saved by what Jesus did, and there is nothing Satan can do about that. The words of v. 11 are very important here.

But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death

This is the literal way in which the war in heaven was fought and won. Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross and thereby paid the price for all the sins of which Satan could accuse us. True Christian believers participate in the death of Jesus by their own faithfulness. John speaks here especially of the martyrs who had given and who would give their lives for their faith. But this is important for all of us: we have an adequate and conquering word of testimony when we love Christ more than we love our own lives. Victory over Satan was won by the death of Christ, and it continues to be won when we who belong to Christ live sacrificially to the point of giving our own lives.

Verse 12 continues to explain the meaning of John’s vision in this chapter.

Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!

We have here an explanation for why the devil continues to cause so much trouble for us even when we are Christians. He has been defeated but is still given liberty to wreak havoc here on earth. So, he is going to take full advantage of that time. We sing that “we’ll work ‘til Jesus comes,” but so does Satan—only he means that he will work for himself, trying to torment and persecute Christians for as long as he can. As G. K. Beale has put it,

Christians can be assured that the serpent begins to battle against their bodies only after he has lost the battle over their souls. This expresses one of the major themes of the book: the suffering of Christians is a sign, not of Satan’s victory, but of the saints’ victory over Satan because of their belief in the triumph of the cross, with which their suffering identifies them. [The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 663]

So we should not take Satan’s assaults on us as an indicator that he might win; we should take them as proof that he has lost. Having no authority or rights in heaven, he cannot hurt our souls. He can only hurt our bodies, and such hurt has no eternal consequences.

Verses 13-17 continue the theme of Satan’s persecution of the church and God’s protection of it. Exodus language is employed to say that like God protected Israel from Pharoah, so he will protect the church from the devil. Finally and spiritually, Satan cannot hurt us. During the Exodus God took threatening water and turned it into an instrument of victory. Here God protects the church. What, then, is the meaning of v. 17: “Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” What does it mean for the “woman” to be protected but for her children to be persecuted? I agree with Beale, who says that the meaning is that the “one heavenly church” cannot finally be conquered, “but the many who individually compose the church can suffer physically from earthly dangers” (p. 677.

When all is said and done, what does this chapter say to us today? After all, I have said that we must look for what is helpful to Christians if we are to find John’s true meaning. Chapter 12 is all about victory. Satan has been defeated. He was defeated by the sacrificial death of our Savior and he continues to be defeated by the sacrificial lives of Christian. By living sacrificially, even being willing to die for our faith, we contribute to the defeat of Satan. He has already lost his heavenly privileges; now, like a pathetic little troublemaker, all he can do is cause earthly powers that oppose the church to harm us physically. Our proper reaction to that is, “So what!” We are ultimately safe and secure in heaven. Today and every day, let us celebrate the victory won by Christ through his blood.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hello Goodbye

I was in Atlanta last night (Friday, August 14) rather than tonight (Saturday, August 15) which is at the same time both fortunate and unfortunate—fortunate because I was picking up our son Joshua at the airport but unfortunate because I’m missing tonight’s Paul McCartney concert at Piedmont Park which I admit I probably wouldn’t have attended anyway because of (a) the cost (b) the trouble and (c) the expectation that I will be in decent shape to get up and preach on Sunday morning.

Still, it would have been nice.

Had I been there I wonder if I would have heard Paul sing his Beatles classic “Hello Goodbye”: “I don’t know why you say ‘goodbye,’ I say ‘hello,’” it goes.

The past few days have made me think a lot about hello and goodbye and about the wonder and glory and the pain and agony of them.

Our daughter Sara has since January been working as an intern at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida on what was to have been a six-month assignment; during that time she has been working at Epcot at the Innoventions and Mission Space Race attractions. She has enjoyed the work but I think that she has enjoyed those co-workers who have become her friends, most of whom are also interns, even more.

But internships are temporary and over the past couple of weeks Sara and some of her best friends, people to whom she first said “Hello” just a few months ago, have now said “Goodbye.” On the other hand, Sara has extended her internship through next January (she’ll be working at the Great Movie Ride at Disney Hollywood Studios; if you go down be sure to go by and say “Hello”) and so she will have the opportunity to maintain some of her friendships with other interns who have also extended and with some of the “regulars.”

The reason that Joshua flew into the Atlanta airport last night is that he had just finished a three-month stint working with the Southwest Conservation Corps in Salida, Colorado, during which he worked with other young adults building trails, putting up fences, constructing outdoor stairways, and rounding up lizards for scientific research—among other things. He worked very closely with and lived very closely to seven other men and women who are about his age; such proximity creates a high level of camaraderie. But now he has had to say “Goodbye” to his friends to whom he first said “Hello” just three months ago.

“Hello.” “Goodbye.”

Since I arrived at the airport over two hours before Joshua’s arrival last night and since I was in the Arrivals area I got to watch a lot of people saying “Hello.” I saw a young soldier being greeted by his father and his sister, a young lady nearly breaking the neck of her boyfriend as she threw her arms around him and just hung there, an upper middle aged/lower senior aged couple locked in a long, long embrace—the longest one I saw, by the way, which fills me with optimism--a grandchild holding a sign greeting her grandmother that I’m not sure the grandmother ever saw because when the little girl saw her she forgot all about the sign and just grabbed her grandmother; and two old friends shaking hands and clapping shoulders.


Had I been in the Departures area I would have seen the other side; I would have witnessed the tears, the holding on for just one more second, the waves, and the looks over the shoulders.


It’s fair to say, I think, that most such hellos and goodbyes are temporary. Oh, there may be a few of those folks that I saw greeting each other at the airport who may never again be parted for any significant length of time and there may be some of those folks who bid farewell at the airport who may never see each other again whether or not they know it now. But the fact is that, given the wonders of modern technology and the ease of modern travel, my children will likely be able to maintain their friendships with those friends from whom they have recently parted if they really want to do so.

It’s also fair to say, I think, that many “Hellos” and “Goodbyes” are more complex than brief scenes, however poignant they may be, can indicate. Let’s face it—some of those folks saying “Goodbye” may have been to some degree glad to be going or glad to see them going; some of the “Hellos” offered by other folks may have been tinged with some trepidation about the words or actions that might come next.

It’s also fair to say that some “Hellos” and some “Goodbyes” feel awfully permanent—and some are.

Most of my family members live between my home in Fitzgerald and the airport in Atlanta and so I took advantage of that fact to stop along the way to the airport to visit as many of them as I could.

At one stop I learned that a cousin of mine and his wife have separated and are likely headed toward divorce. It occurred to me that it is just possible, given the dynamics of the situation, that I will never see her again.

At another stop I spent some time with an uncle who is very near death. I am just a month away from turning 51 and there has not been one moment of my life when he has not been there and when he has not been my uncle but, barring a miracle,my “goodbye” to him yesterday was probably the last one.

It’s all about relationships and relationships by their very nature begin and end and by their very nature have in between their beginning and ending changes and adjustments and ebbs and flows because in between the gain of the first “Hello” and the loss of the last “Goodbye” there are many more “Hellos” and “Goodbyes” and much more gain and much more loss.

What we hope and pray and live for is that, in the last analysis, when the last “Goodbye” is uttered and the eternal “Hello” is said, the hellos will have outlasted the goodbyes and the gains will have outweighed the losses.

And through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe, that is the inevitable and inexorable outcome.

So, even with the tears in our eyes, let us say “Thanks be to God!”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Gospel According to the Eagles

In this morning's worship service Hal Wiley and Casey Brown provided the special music; their selection was "Amazing Grace" set to the tune of the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling." It worked.

It also got me to thinking about how I might incorporate Eagles songs into a sermon.

How about this?

Desperadoes, why don't you come down from your fences?
Stop living life in the fast lane.
One of these nights all those witchy women (or men, as the case may be) and tequila sunrises are going to catch up with you. It's hardly worth it anyway, after the thrill is gone.
Don't look at me that way--Jesus can see right past your lyin' eyes.
Besides, you never know how much time you have left--just like all those people you knew who are already gone--so why take it to the limit?
If you'll wear his yoke you can take it easy.
Be sure to give him the best of your love
and all will be well in the long run.

Now, that'll preach!

The Trumpets

(A sermon based on Revelation 8:6-11:19 for Sunday, August 9, 2009)

What is the point of holding on? How do we hold on? How important is it that we maintain our witness in the midst of an unbelieving world? Where do we find the strength and encouragement to maintain that witness? Those are some of the questions addressed by today’s passage.

It is important that we remember some of the principles for interpreting the book of Revelation that I have mentioned in earlier sermons.

For one thing, Revelation creates a symbolic world. Therefore, we must accept the fact that we have symbols in the book or, put differently, we have pictures in the book. The symbols or pictures should not be taken literally. They do communicate real truth, but they themselves are not literal.

For another thing, Revelation is a pastoral book. The way I have put this before is to say that we should look for what is helpful. John intended his book to be of help to his readers in their present situation of trial and suffering. He intended his book to help his readers endure to the end. John had no way of knowing that his book would become Scripture; he did not set out to write Scripture. He set out to write a helpful book. Because it is Scripture, it is designed also to be helpful to us and to every generation of Christians.

Those things having been said, let’s look at some of the meaning of this very long section of the book.

The opening by the Lamb of the seventh seal on the scroll led into the blowing of seven trumpets by seven angels. The blowing of those trumpets leads to plagues on the unbelieving inhabitants of the earth. The meaning of the trumpets is pretty much the same as the meaning of the seals, only now the focus is on the punishment of the wicked.

It is very, very important to note that most of the contents of the plagues brought on by the blowing of the seven trumpets is based on the plagues wrought by God against Egypt during the time of the Exodus. Basically, John is saying that just like Israel of old was liberated from an oppressive empire by God’s judgment activity through plagues, so will the church be liberated from an oppressive world by God’s judgment. The judgment described here in symbolic language means to underscore that the judgment of God against the unbelieving world has been taking place ever since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Symbols are employed to communicate that God is carrying out his judgment against the evil and oppressive nations and peoples that oppose God’s people. Symbols are also used to communicate that the judgment is a partial one (especially the continual use of “one-third”) until the final judgment comes.

Note, though, that even after they are afflicted and tormented for their sins of idolatry and for their persecution of God’s people, the wicked still don’t repent but instead continue their idolatrous behavior (9:20-21). You see, there will always be those who are opposed to God, who would rather live their way than God’s way, and who hate those who do serve God. Don’t be surprised by it; that is the way it will always be. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ precipitated a judgment against the wicked that continues to this day, but for some, like for Pharaoh during the Exodus, the plagues just stiffen resistance to the Lord.

Before the seventh trumpet is blown and we are given a glimpse of a picture of the end, many words of encouragement are shared by John. He sees an angel coming down from heaven with a little scroll. When the angel shouts, seven thunders sound. John is about to write down the contents of the thunders, but he is commanded not to do so. Why that command comes is unclear, but it probably indicates that human beings, even inspired ones, are not privy to all of the plans and purposes of God. He is in control, and he lets us know what he wants us to know. Then, John is assured that when the time is right God will bring everything to its appropriate conclusion (10:5-7). Finally, John is told to eat the little scroll and to experience its sweetness in his mouth but its bitterness in his stomach. The prophet Ezekiel had a very similar experience (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3), and it signifies the acceptance of a call to proclaim God’s word. That word is sweet because it is good news but it is bitter because it brings about judgment.

Then, John is told to “prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). In effect, what we have here is a recommissioning of John as a messenger of the Lord. He is to continue to speak and to share no matter what the difficulty. I believe that John’s experience here is meant to encourage all believers. We are to accept God’s commission and encouragement to continue to proclaim his message no matter what the cost, because God is going to work his purposes out.

That is basically the meaning of chapter 11 as well. The measuring of the temple in vv. 1-2 signifies in symbolic language the same thing that the sealing of the 144,000did in chapter 7: God’s people are kept safe and secure from ultimate spiritual harm. The temple here is no literal temple in Jerusalem or anyplace else. The temple rather represents the people of God. That the temple is measured but the outer court is not because “it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months” means that Christians are kept ultimately safe even though they are threatened by persecution.

“Forty-two months,” which is the same as three and a half years or 1,260 days, is symbolic and not literal. It has Old Testament antecedents. It is used in Daniel to signify a period of persecution. It is the amount of time that the famine prophesied by Elijah lasted. It is the number of stations in the wilderness wanderings; it could signify the amount of time that the Hebrews spent in the wilderness (in years rather than months). Its New Testament background may be found in it being the approximate length of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It signifies a limited time of tribulation, no doubt to be identified as the entire church age from the time of Christ until the end. Our ministry is to be like that of Christ.

That is the same amount of time that the “two witnesses” of John’s vision are to prophesy. The two witnesses are not two literal people. They are based on literal people, probably Moses, through whom the earth was stricken with plagues, and Elijah, through whom the rain was stopped. But the two witnesses represent the church. That is made clear by the fact that they are called “lampstands.” Why are only two lampstands indicated here rather than the seven of chapters 2-3? Perhaps it is because only two of the churches in the letters of chapters 2-3 were seen as offering truly adequate witness. The church’s witness will always be incomplete and imperfect, but it will always be effective, at least as God judges effectiveness.

John’s picture of the murder and resurrection of the witnesses is a very important part of the vision, for it is very honest and realistic but at the same time very encouraging. The “beast,” Satan and his forces, are seen to kill the witnesses. It would appear that the church has been defeated. But, as was the case with Christ, who was killed by forces of Satan and thus was seemingly defeated, the witnesses, representing the church, are raised to new life. And one day we will be raised, literally. In this case, though, the meaning is like that in the vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. The church will be vindicated and given new life so as to show that evil cannot finally triumph over the church because Satan cannot finally triumph over God.

The meaning of this part of the vision for us today is the same as it was for the churches of John’s day and the same as it has been for every generation of Christians. We are to be faithful. We are to take up the calling given to us by God. We are to proclaim his message with word and deed no matter what the cost to us. We are to expect opposition, even life-threatening, serious opposition. We are to understand that there will be times when it appears that we are losing or that we have lost, but that is when God is really working, for that is how he worked through his Son Jesus. We are to keep on working, keep on serving, and keep on speaking, no matter what. We do so because we are ultimately safe in his arms.

Then the seventh trumpet is sounded, and we are given a glimpse of the end. One day Christ will return and God’s victory will be complete. Then the presence of God will be fully and completely known by his people. What a day that will be! For now, our calling is to persevere and to endure and to work ‘til Jesus comes. Are you relying on the encouragement and inspiration of God? Are you being faithful?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Seven Seals

(A sermon for Sunday, August 2, 2009 based on Revelation 6:1-8:5)

As time marches on, good and bad things happen; they always have and they always will. Christians have the wonderful opportunity to discover and understand the meaning of the events of our lives, even if they are negative events because we know that God is working God’s purposes out. We also have the privilege of knowing that no matter what happens, we are safe in the arms of God. We are, as the old song puts it, “safe and secure from all alarm.” And that is the main thing that John’s vision of the opening of the seven seals teaches us.

A brief word is in order about the structure of the book of Revelation. Today’s text offers us a picture of the opening of seven seals and the resulting events. That picture will be followed by one of seven trumpets. That picture will in turn be followed by one of seven golden bowls. Those three sets of seven events should be seen as parallel rather than as consecutive. They picture the same kinds of scenarios from three differing perspectives. They all affirm that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ history is going to unfold according to God’s purpose.

Remember now that in the symbolic world of Revelation the seven seals are on a scroll that the Lamb, who represents Jesus Christ, is opening. He is able to open the seals and to instigate the events of the scroll because he conquered through his sacrificial death. Therefore, the events of the scroll are in progress and have been in progress ever since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. So it is not surprising that when the Lamb opens the first four seals, conflict happens.

As the first four seals are opened we see four horses with four riders.

The first horse is white and its rider carries a bow. In John’s day, one of the great threats to the peace of the Roman Empire came from the Parthians to the east, who were known for their mounted archers and for whom white was a sacred color. The second horse, a red one, represents the bloody destruction that takes place in war. The third horse is black and represents the death and pain that come from famine. Famine is the cause for the inflated prices for wheat and barley in v. 6, while the reference to not harming oil and wine may indicate the class distinctions that take place in time of famine; the well to do still have their luxuries. The fourth horse is pale green and represents death in a summary way.

As you can see, the four horses and horsemen stand for warfare with all its attendant sufferings. Of course, in time of conflict, both the guilty and the innocent, the good and the evil die and are harmed. War and conflict are the inevitable results of the evil that people do.

Sometimes Christians are caught up in the fallout of war and conflict. Sometimes Christians are directly targeted by hatred and persecution. Either way, they suffer for the Word of God. Either way, they risk and sometimes experience martyrdom. Literal martyrdom is well beyond the experience of most American Christians. I would remind you, though, that even as we worship here this morning many Christians around the world are paying terrible prices for their faith. I would also remind you that we, just like those who are being actively persecuted, are called by God to remain faithful to him no matter what. To be a martyr is to be a witness, and we witness to our faith by our faithfulness.

The opening of the fifth seal leads to a vision of those who have given their lives for their faith. They are under the altar in heaven, and from there they ask that justice be done. They are told to rest until the persecutions and martyrdoms that will take place through all of history are completed. As G. K. Beale has said, “Such sufferings are not meaningless but are part of God’s providential plan that Christians should pattern their lives after the sacrificial model of Jesus. Seen from the heavenly perspective, such sufferings ironically advance the kingdom of God, as was the case with Christ himself…” [The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 389]. This vision affirms that the souls of martyrs are safe in heaven, that more suffering is yet to come, and that justice will finally be done.

When the sixth seal is opened, Old Testament language is employed to describe further judgment on the world. The main idea is that the evil of people infects the social and political systems of the world and so there is constant great upheaval. Based on the Old Testament imagery employed, “we have every justification . . . for supposing that in John’s imagery the earthquake stands for the overthrow of a worldly political order organized in hostility to God” [G. B. Caird, A Commentary on The Revelation of St. John the Divine(New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 90].

One day there will be a great judgment, as Revelation will later make clear. But the judgment of God is always taking place in every era of history. Sin leads to upheaval and to strife and to war. That is the meaning of the seals. Through all of the trials and tribulations of human history, God is working his purposes out. Sacrifice is required on the part of God’s people as we live through those processes. Indeed, sacrifice and even martyrdom are part of those processes.

It is encouraging to know that no matter what, we are playing a part in God’s plan to redeem the world. But is there any other encouragement in these chapters of Revelation? Indeed there is. It comes in the form of two visions that go together. The first is the famous vision of the sealing of the 144,000. As always, we must remember that we are living in a symbolic world in Revelation. The number 144,000, which is not to be taken literally, is arrived at by multiplying 12 by 12,000. In the symbolic vision, 12,000 people are sealed from each tribe of Israel.

In the thought world of Revelation, the church is the new Israel. Twelve is a number of completeness. Therefore, the vision communicates that the totality of God’s people is sealed so as to be protected from the great tribulation that takes place throughout church history. Obviously, they are not sealed from physical harm, because people have been suffering and dying for their faith and continue to suffer and die for their faith. They are sealed spiritually; nothing can ultimately harm them because their lives are hid with Christ in heaven.

That truth is underscored by the following vision, in which John sees a vast multitude, one so great that “no one could count . . ., standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9). This is the same group as the 144,000, and they are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). In other words, John is seeing all those who ever have and who ever will persevere in their faith and die as martyrs or otherwise die in their faith. They are sealed in the sense that they will be with God, safe and secure for all eternity.

My, do those people celebrate! John sees them singing hymns and having a great time of worship. What do they sing about? They sing about their salvation, which has connotations of deliverance in this context (7:10). They sing about the power of God, which they know firsthand (7:12). It’s a lot to sing about, isn’t it? And shouldn’t we sing about it down here, too, if we are among those who have been sealed and saved? No matter what we’re going through, should we not be bursting with worship of our great Lord for his promises to us, promises the fulfillment of which all those who have gone before us are already experiencing? Yes, we can live in this life, down here, with the faith of the sealed. As Eugene Peterson has said, John “is providing us a picture of what happens to persons who live by faith in a world noisy with evil” [Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (HarperSanFrancico: 1988), p. 84].

Not only should we be celebrating; we should also be praying. When the seventh seal is opened, silence happens. Then seven angels are given seven trumpets, which will lead to the next set of visions. But then another angel mixes incense with the prayers of the saints, and that leads to more upheaval and judgment. You see, our prayers do matter. They contribute to what God is doing in this world. The sealed people need to be a praying people and a worshipping people.

Judgment has happened, judgment is happening, and judgment will happen. Evil still has much sway in this world. The gospel goads and picks and pushes and pulls, causing trouble in its own way. All the while Christians suffer and are martyred for their testimony to Christ and as the result of their participation in a life like his. But when all is said and done, we truly are “safe and secure from all alarm.” Isn’t it inspiring to know that your place in heaven is secure and that you can live faithfully and securely right now?

A Prayer for Sunday, August 2, 2009

O God,

We call on you today as we call on you every day—praising you for who you are, looking for your kingdom to come, seeking your gracious provision, and desiring whole and sound relationships.

We praise you, O God, as the Maker and Sustainer of all that has been, all that is, and all that ever will be. We praise you for your power and for your glory and for your sovereignty.

We look for your kingdom, O God, knowing that in Jesus Christ your Son your kingdom broke into this world and knowing that we who are following him are living in it. May we seek to know your will and to do your will that we might find meaning and purpose in all the events of our lives and so that we might bear appropriate witness to you.

We seek your gracious provision, O God, humbly thanking you that our needs are met, humbly trusting you to continue to meet our basic needs, and humbly asking you for the opportunity to be the ones through whom the needs of others are met.

We desire whole and sound relationships, O God. We desire such a relationship first with you; forgive us of our sins and cause us to accept your forgiveness. Help us to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us; compel us to seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged.

And now, O God, hear us as we pray together the prayer that your Son taught us to pray when he said, “Our Father….”