Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sermon on Revelation 20:11 - 21:8 (April 28th 2013).

“It Looks Like We Win in the End!”

I’m sure many of you have heard the old story about a youth pastor who took his church youth group to a school gym for a game of basketball. It was an evening game, and while the kids were playing, the janitor was sitting patiently on the sidelines, waiting for them to finish so that he could clean the gym. The youth pastor noticed that the janitor was reading the Bible while he was waiting; he got a little closer and saw that the old man was reading the book of Revelation. The youth pastor was surprised, since Revelation isn’t normally thought of as a waiting-room sort of book. He mentioned this to the janitor; “Do you understand it?” he asked. “Not all of it”, the janitor replied, “but I skipped to the last page, and it looks like we win in the end!”

Well, since you and I were together last week we’ve done a mighty ‘skip’ across thirteen chapters of Revelation! We’ve missed plagues and scorpions and war in heaven; we’ve missed persecutions of God’s people who overcome evil by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony; we’ve missed natural disasters that kill millions of people. In fact, we’ve skipped all the things that would give you bad dreams at night, or keep you from suggesting that your kids read Revelation as bedtime reading! This, of course, is typical of our Sunday lectionary, which often tries to keep the nastier or more puzzling bits of the Bible away from us.

On the way, we’ve missed some interesting characters as well. There’s a ‘Beast’ who rises from the sea; in apocalyptic literature, which is the genre we’re reading here, beasts almost always represent evil empires. Since Revelation was written at a time when Rome was the ruling empire, it’s not hard to figure out who John of Patmos is talking about! There’s also a ‘False Prophet’ who tries to make people worship the Beast; he probably symbolizes the cult of emperor-worship that was causing Christians a lot of trouble. Then there’s a scarlet woman who rides the Beast; she probably refers to the City of Rome itself. Sometimes she’s called ‘the great whore’, and John goes into great detail about how she’s drunk the blood of God’s people and how the whole world has become intoxicated by doing business with her. In Chapter 18 she’s referred to as ‘Babylon the Great’, another code phrase for Rome.

But behind it all, there’s a dragon, and John doesn’t want us to be in any doubt as to who he is. In chapter 20:2 he says ‘(The angel) seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more’ (20:2-3a). This is what the dragon has been doing ever since he first tempted human beings: deceiving us, trying to persuade us that right is wrong and wrong is right, and trying to persuade us that important things don’t really matter very much, and that things that don’t matter are really important.

These are the great enemies in the Book of Revelation, and as the book draws to a close they are defeated one by one. In chapter 18 a great angel makes a joyful announcement: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (18:2). When John wrote, the power of the City of Rome was absolute, but he foresaw a time when that impregnable city would fall and her empire would be at an end – as all human empires come to an end. Then in chapter 19 the armies of heaven win a great victory over the Beast and the False Prophet and their armies; the Roman Empire and its false cult of emperor worship are at an end. Finally, as we saw a moment ago, the Dragon himself is bound with a chain and imprisoned for a thousand years, after which, strangely enough, he’s let out for a last gasp before he, too, is thrown into the Lake of Fire. We’re not going to get into what those thousand years mean today!

What’s going on here? Well, all through human history evil forces have preyed on human beings; dictators have oppressed us, rich and powerful people have exploited us, and generals have made war on us. The little people, the poor, the powerless, have felt like pawns, and often they’ve cried out to heaven and said, “How long, O Lord? How long are you going to let evil triumph over good? How long are the rich and powerful going to have their own way? How long are the innocent going to be slaughtered?”

Well, Rome fell in the 5th century AD, but of course there have been many other evil empires since then. The Beast has had lots of children, and the False Prophet continues to tell us that Caesar is god and we must obey our country, right or wrong, even when it tells us to disobey the teaching of Jesus. Like the Scarlet Woman, lots of cities since then have become drunk with their own prosperity and with the blood of the followers of Jesus who they have persecuted.

So it will be a long time, but not forever. That’s the message of Revelation. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” is a prayer that will be answered one day. Evil will be judged and condemned. And we all know that’s the right thing. We know it’s right, even though there are many voices in the Christian world that say that God shouldn’t send anyone to hell. How can a loving God consign individuals to centuries of torment? How is that compatible with the teaching of Jesus?

Well, it’s actually quite compatible with the teaching of Jesus, as a glance at the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats will tell you. But there’s another point to be made here. Do we actually want evil to end some day? Do we actually want the world to be free from the power of oppressive people, of brutal dictators, of child pornographers and of people who turn children into soldiers in organizations called ‘The Lord’s Resistance Army?’ Surely we don’t think that God should let that go on forever?

Of course not, and that’s what judgment is all about. Judgment is actually a hopeful idea; it tells us that, although God is patient, wanting all human beings to repent, the time will come when he will say ‘Enough! This is where evil ends!’ There will be a world completely healed from evil and sin, and you and I will see it. And it’s the reality of judgment that makes this possible. The world cannot be freed from misery unless God judges evil and puts an end to it.

But of course, as Bruce Cockburn said in one of his songs, ‘Everybody wants to see justice done to somebody else!’ It’s very comforting for me to be able to point the finger at someone else’s evil; the great deceiver has been tempting people to do that ever since the beginning, when the man said to God ‘the woman, who you gave me, made me do it!’ But the reality, of course, is that the line between good and evil doesn’t divide nation from nation, culture from culture, religion from religion, or person from person. All of us are a mix of good and evil. Every one of us is capable of acts of love and acts of selfishness, acts of kindness and acts of great cruelty. If evil is going to be judged, it’s not just Hitler or Stalin or Osama bin Laden who are going to be judged, it’s me too.

And so John tells us that there will be a great white throne set up, and the one sitting on it is so majestic that heaven and earth flee from his presence.
‘And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books…Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire…and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:12, 14a, 15).

These books are a little confusing to some people, but in fact they’re quite clear. There are two categories of books. In the first one, everyone’s deeds are recorded; this is John’s way of saying that there will be no mistake. This is a frightening book, because we all know that we’ve done some pretty rotten things in our lives. Paul says in Romans ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23), and ‘the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6:23). That’s what the books are all about. If you’re trying to buy your ticket into the new Jerusalem you’re doomed to failure, since nothing imperfect is allowed in there, and none of us are perfect. These books lead to an automatic sentence of death and judgment.

But the book of life is different. In 21:27 it’s called ‘The Lamb’s Book of Life’. What does that mean? Well, last week Susan told us about a great multitude of people who have ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (7:14). That’s impossible, of course: blood will not make things white! But John is using symbolic language again: Jesus, the Lamb of God, gave his life for us on the cross, and through his death we are all offered the gift of forgiveness. So to wash your robe in the blood of the Lamb means to come to God fully aware that you’ve fallen short, to cry out for mercy, and to ask to be forgiven. And those who have done this have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life.

This is the gospel message. Those who are judged and condemned have all earned it, but no one whose name is written in the Book of Life has earned it. Forgiveness, salvation, eternal life – all of these are free gifts. They come from what the Bible calls ‘grace’: God’s love that you don’t have to earn or deserve. It comes to you as a free gift, because God is love. So yes, there is a judgment, and we all need to take it seriously, but the good news is that no one needs to fear it unless they are unwilling to turn from sin, turn to the Lamb and ask to be forgiven and washed and set free.

So we’ve reached the point in Revelation when evil is no more. The powerful forces that have ravaged the earth have all been destroyed. Now the stage is set for a wedding. The people of Jesus are his fiancée, and now our bridegroom is going to marry us. Look at chapter 21:1-7:
‘Then 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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
 Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

We don’t have time to explain this in detail, so let me quickly point out a few things and then come to a conclusion.

First, the city is not a literal city: it represents a people, the people of God. We know that, because it’s described as being ‘like a bride adorned for her husband’, and in the rest of the New Testament the Church is described as ‘the bride of Christ’. So this city is God’s people through the ages.

Second, note the direction: it’s not up, but down. The gospel isn’t about people escaping from an evil earth and going up to heaven when they die. Yes, for a while we do disappear from the earth, but it’s a temporary state. The New Jerusalem isn’t ascending from an evil earth to a perfect heaven: it’s coming down from heaven, to a new earth freed from evil and sin. In other words, Jesus’ prayer has now been answered: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Third, note what everlasting life is like. It’s not solitary individuals enjoying private experiences of God. It’s not even just me being united with friends and family members. It’s about a community, a city, God’s people together. Not only the people we love, but the ones we find irritating; not only our friends, but maybe even our enemies. That’s why it’s so important to learn to love one another in this life: we’re going to be spending a long time together in eternity!

Fourth, note what the ultimate blessing is going to be: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (21:3). Later in the chapter we’re told that the city won’t need a sun or moon, for ‘the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’ (21:23). Nowadays, of course, the sun is often obscured by clouds, and often the presence of God feels like that, too; we have a sense that he’s ‘out there somewhere’, but we can’t seem to see through the clouds. One day, though, the clouds will clear, and we will all experience the immediate presence of God without fear.

And this is where I want to end. Those of you who are fans of the old Star Trek series may remember an episode in which the Enterprise takes on an alien who is so ugly that the very sight of him will drive humans mad. And Spock accidentally looks at him and is indeed tormented by the sight, because it’s so horrible.

Can you imagine the opposite of this? Can you imagine a sight so glorious and beautiful that it would drive you sane? A sight so beautiful that just to look at it would give you ultimate joy? In Christian spirituality this is called ‘the beatific vision’ – the vision of blessing. In most of the Bible we’re told that it’s perilous for human beings to look at God, because we are tainted by evil. But that won’t be the case in the New Jerusalem. Jesus says in the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8). On that day we will all be pure in heart, and so the sight of God won’t be a fearsome thing but a vision of wonder.

Let’s close with that. Yes, we’re all looking forward to the day when the dead are raised and we will be with our loved ones again forever. Perhaps we even think that this will be the greatest joy that eternal life can offer us. But don’t kid yourself; it’s not. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a wonderful thing, and I’m looking forward to it myself. But there’s another blessing, a blessing so wonderful that everything else will pale into insignificance beside it. That will be the blessing of seeing God face to face, and not being destroyed by the sight.

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart,
I want to see you, I want to see you.
To see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory,
Pour out your power and love as we cry holy, holy, holy.

Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy,
Holy, holy, holy,
I want to see you.


1 comment:

Tim Chesterton said...

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