Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People and the Competition"

Scriptur Readings: Revelation 12:1-11, & 17; Revelation 13:1-18
(Actually the sermon is based on the whole of Revelation 12:1-15:4)

I have only worked a wheat harvest once. That was my first summer here. It was long, hot work. I didn’t do anything but work, and eat, and work, and sleep, and work.

And then it was done. We were done. We stood in the last field. We had turned it all to stubble. We stood in the stubble of that last field, in our cluster of combines and trucks.

Nobody said anything worth remembering. Or, if they did, I don’t remember it. But it felt really, really, really good. It was victory!

The Book of Revelation celebrates the victory of God and his people. It shows the whole game of the contest of heaven and earth, with God’s victory scene, over and over again.

For us to read the Book of Revelation would be like being on a very big and strange football team that would review videos of their last game from beginning to end. But the videos of this game come from more than one camera. If you were on this team, you would have to watch each video, from each camera, from beginning to end, one after another after another.

Say that one video came from cameras set on the goal posts, another camera was held by someone who followed the plays back and forth along the side lines, and another camera was on top of the quarterback’s helmet, and another camera was just focused on the coaches. Maybe that’s not the most efficient way to do it, but that is what happens in John’s vision that forms our Book of Revelation. More than once you get to the end of the game and you think “victory!” but there is still more footage to see, and think about.

In Revelation, the final harvest of heaven and earth takes place at the beginning of chapter eight, and again at the end of chapter eleven, and again at the end of chapter fourteen, and there are still eight more chapters to go. In chapter fifteen, the beginning of the next video-version of the game is announced; but that one is interrupted by the song that the winning team sings at the end, just the way our team does it.

This is how John says that he sees it: And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed. (Rev. 15:2-4) That is the victory song at the end of the great game of the old heaven and earth.

What John calls the sea of glass, mixed with fire, is a real part of the picture of harvest and victory. Glass represents the purity of the victory; and fire represents the hardship, and tribulation, and just the plain trouble that went into the victory process.

Back in the Old Testament, the courtyard of temple that Solomon built had a great big thing in it called a “sea”. It was a basin made of cast bronze, about 15 feet across. The sea stored water for cleaning and washing in the temple. (1 Kings 7:23-26)

Washing is a kind of harvest too. It is the harvest of all the dirt and the sweat of the harvest. To come in from a long, hard, hot, harvest day, and take a shower, and sit down is a kind of victory. It feels really, really good. The crowd in John’s vision, who stand beside the sea of glass and fire, have come home and washed after the last, long, hard, hot day of harvest is over, and they have put on fresh clothes, and they have (over, and over, and over again) done the one thing that John says is so important.

He says that getting through the troubles and temptations of this world “calls for the patient endurance of the saints.” (Rev. 13:10 and 14:12) They have done this one great thing. They have patiently endured. That is why they are singing victory at the end of the harvest game.

The sister of a friend of mine once commented to her about me (once when she saw me dressed up). She said, “Dennis cleans up good.” Revelation is all about how belonging to Jesus gets us through life so that, in the end, we clean up good.

In the fourteenth chapter of Revelation, there is a final harvest. Actually there are two final harvests: a harvest of grain, and a harvest of grapes.

A field of stubble, after the harvest is done, is a very different place from a field of ripe grain. The field is empty. The fruit of the harvest has moved on. The life has gone somewhere else. But the vision of the final wheat harvest in the Revelation is told as a happy thing.

In the final grape harvest, the juice that will come from crushing of the grapes to make the wine of judgment is compared to a river of blood. This is not a happy thing.

These two final harvests clearly show that the final harvest of heaven and earth will be good for some: a happy thing; a great day. It also clearly shows that the final harvest will be a catastrophe for some: a day that crushes them, a day of destruction.

There is something violent about any harvest. It is a kind of battle or conquest. It is violent to the plants in the fields and the vineyards. The truth is that our lives are shaped by battles.

For a farmer, a good harvest is a joyful battle, and that is how life can be. In fact we need joyful battles. We work. We play. We strain and weep. We celebrate and rejoice.

Patient endurance does not mean grim endurance. Patience knows how to grunt and sweat, and how to laugh. Life is what Paul calls “the good fight.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
But the part of the last harvest where the blood flows so deep, and so far, is a clear warning that the final judgment will be a time of gut-wrenching crisis. There will be unspeakable fear.

At yet, in that final time there will be more than one kind of fear going on. There will be the bad fears, but there will also be the one good fear.

There is one good fear. We read about it in that line from the song of the victors: “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?” (Rev. 15:4) How odd that, when you fear the Lord, you are full of joy. Your life shows how good and gracious the Lord is.

It is true that if you dearly love someone and, even more, if you know that someone dearly loves you, there will be things that make you afraid. You will be afraid to do certain things, if you are truly loved. And it is said that the person who truly fears God will fear nothing else. And this will be possible for us, even if we are the ones on the scene who are left to face the final judgment.

In the two harvests, the wheat and the grapes are people. We are either wheat or grapes, and ripeness is everything. In the two harvests, no one is touched until they are ripe. You must be everything that a grain of wheat can be. You must be everything that a grape can be. You must be finished to be harvested. You must be ripe. The great question is: will you be ripe wheat, or ripe grapes?

There are two great powers pictured in these chapters. There is the Lamb who was slain. And there is the Beast (well, there is the dragon, represented on earth by the power of the two beasts).

Have we ripened in the Lamb, or ripened in the Beast? The real beast is the dragon, which is Satan; and the Lamb is Jesus, who is God in the flesh.

Now, in the twelfth chapter of Revelation, we see the defeat of Satan described in three different ways. In the first version, Satan is defeated by a baby boy, the son of the woman who is clothed with the glories of nature; the sun and the moon and the stars. The woman’s son is born and taken up into heaven.

This son is Jesus; and this summarizes everything he did between being born and ascending into heaven. Here we have his incarnation (his birth as a human to share life with us), his humble life and service, his death on the cross, his rising from death, and his going up into heaven. (Rev. 12:1-6)

In the second version, the defeat of Satan is pictured as a battle in the heavens: the archangel Michael and his angels fighting against Satan and his fallen angels. But that is just another way of seeing what Jesus did. The birth, and life, and sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus are a cosmic victory. It is a victory on the earth. It is a victory in the spiritual world. It is a universal victory. (Rev. 12:7-9)

The third version of the victory over Satan happens in the song. The song is about our victory over Satan: “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Rev. 12:11)

There are two choices. There are two powers to live by in this world, and this choice of what power we will live by is how we decide to ripen for the harvest. There is the ripeness of the Lamb and the ripeness of the Beast.

The power of the Lamb is in his blood. Here is Jesus, and his power is his dying for us and rising for us.

This is how he makes us his own. This is how he seals us. This is the mark that he puts on our forehead and on our hand. The mark is his label. The mark is his claim upon us, his ownership over us, his power working in us.

Jesus, living for us, dying for us, rising for us is the love of God made flesh. It is grace. It is forgiveness. We respond to his love by loving others. We respond to his grace by being gracious to others. We respond to his forgiveness by forgiving others.

If this is true, then this is the power that makes us ripen as the good harvest, the joyful harvest, of the grain. The power of Jesus in us is what makes us like Jesus.

The power of the Beast makes us different from Jesus. The power of the beast is power for its own sake. We live for ourselves. We use others. We do not give grace. We do not forgive. We measure our value by what we have and what we get.

The image of the beast that tries to make people worship the beast is a technological idol. There were pagan idols (in ancient times) that were rigged with machinery that enabled them to move, and speak, and do other things. It is all about stuff, and techniques, and methods of getting results, getting what you want, and getting others to do what you want.

What this stands for is what happens when people carry on their lives by means of methods, and tools, and techniques, and possessions, and stuff. It is life by using and manipulating, and not by living, and feeling, and caring.

In the world of the early Christians, the Roman Empire was a world of power for power’s sake; a world where the end justified the means. One of the emperor’s titles was Savior. The emperor saved by his power. If people were hungry, the emperor fed them. If people were restless, the emperor entertained them. People did not help others because the emperor and his local representatives did that. It was not the job of a normal human being to be compassionate.

There have been times when societies and nations worshiped power, and order, and control. The communists and the fascists encouraged the worship of governmental power focused in the person of a great leader: a Stalin or a Hitler.

The Revelation of John foresees a final crisis where the fate of the whole human race will seem to rest on (and depend on) the power of government and, perhaps, the power of one human being, and the common worship of that government and that person. Anyone who stands against this will be considered an enemy of all that is decent and good.

There is another way of seeing this. There was an ancient Christian hermit named Anthony who said, ‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us”’
Those who base their lives on human-based power, and the salvation based on human systems, and human effort, will become the fruit of the Beast. Those who base their values on the principle “the end justifies the means” will become the fruit of the Beast.

The spirit of these principles is the mark of the Beast. The person who lives a life guided by these principles is marked. You can identify such people by the way they live their lives.

The world tends to reward the people who conform to the world’s ways. The world tends to raise obstacles against those who do not conform. Before the end comes, this will grow much worse. Even now, human beings live with one of the two marks of life: mark of the Lamb or the mark of the Beast.

But let’s not judge anyone before the time; not even ourselves. Strangely, until the time when they are fully ripe, a spiritual grain of wheat can be mistaken for a grape, and a spiritual grape can be mistaken for a grain of wheat.

The woman who gives birth to the son whom the dragon wants to devour is the Old Testament church, the people of Israel. By the end of the twelfth chapter, without any explanation, the same woman is the mother of those who belong to Jesus. Here she is the New Testament church. In a sense the woman is us. We are that church, and that church is our mother, all at the same time.

This woman is part of the truth that the power of Jesus begins with his incarnation, with his becoming our own flesh and blood. Jesus becomes us in order to save us.

If the woman is our mother also, and also us, at the same time; it gives us a similar lesson about ourselves. The power to overcome, and to be victorious, comes to the people who will incarnate Jesus; who will seek to be Jesus in this world.
We are called to be his hands, and feet, and back, and shoulders, and his voice in this world, no matter how troubled the world becomes, no matter how risky and dangerous it may seem to follow him.

If we love Jesus, as the scriptures show him to be, we will not be coerced or deceived. The Lamb, who is Jesus, died to hold us close to him forever. We can overcome by the blood of the Lamb; and by the humble, patient endurance that is willing to fight the good fight.

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