Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: His People and His Warnings"

Scripture Readings: Revelation 8:2-13; Revelation 11:1-15

A man was going for a drive with his wife. Now this man had the habit of driving faster than the speed limit, and she had the habit of pointing this out to him. He politely dealt with her habit by ignoring it. But on this drive, after ignoring his wife a number of times, he got pulled over by the state trooper, and got a ticket. When this was over, they went on their way, and the man complained to his wife that the officer could have just given him a warning. But his wife commented: “John, I gave you the warning.”

We live in a world full of warnings. And there are all kinds of warnings.

Some are really important. Don’t run with scissors. Look out for snakes.

Some warnings may seem silly, but they make sense when you really think about them. For instance, there was the warning label on the toilet bowl cleaning brush that said: Do not use orally.

There are warnings that we may want to ignore. As serious as they are, we don’t want them to be serious for us. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not covet. Do not commit adultery. These might actually seem silly when they get in the way of our getting what we want, but they are dangerous to ignore. They take their toll. They are given to us to make us think.

There are other kinds of warnings that make us think. There was a time, many years ago now, when I got further and further behind paying my federal income tax, and this turned out to be very embarrassing and it really made me think.

I haven’t been in any real natural disasters, but my family did evacuate our home just before Christmas, when I was thirteen, because of flood warnings. Actually we did this a couple times. And during my time in the Midwest I spent time, more than once, in basements, wondering whether the tornadoes were going to hit the house I was in. These things make you think.

The Great Depression, in the nineteen twenties and thirties, made a couple generations of Americans think, and our economy right now is making us do the same kind of thinking. The great dangers that seem to face our country from abroad, and the thought of young people from our families or our communities serving their country, in harms way, makes us think. The death of Drew Swank at our homecoming game makes us think.

Such things make us think: how do we give thought to the people around us? What should we see when we look at them? What should we hear when they speak to us? How do we live? How do we live with passion, and energy, and faith, and hope, and love? And how do we help others live? The world is full of warnings that make us stop and think about such things and, hopefully, to follow through.

We find that the Book of Revelation tells us something important about Jesus and such warnings. The very first words of Revelation are these: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1) The revelation of Jesus means, first of all, that we have to see and know Jesus himself.

We have to see and know Jesus, and what he is like, because the issues and the events that will take us through history to the end of this age, and to the judgment, and to the beginning of a new heavens and a new earth, are all based on who Jesus is, and what Jesus does through us and for us.

It may seem to contradict what we know about Jesus in the fact that the Book of Revelation is so full of destruction. But the very world we live in is full of destruction. It is a beautiful, magnificent world, where so much good is spoiled by anger, hatred, violence, fear, exploitation, abuse, corruption, greed, injustice, self-righteousness, and so many other sources of harm (or even such seemingly little things like jealousy and gossip).

Toward the end of chapter eleven, John, the writer of the book, is told: “The time has come…for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (Rev. 11:18) All of these negative things are destructive in their own way. What is to be done with the destroyers: What would Jesus do?

In the section we are looking at today, there are four things to be done with the destroyers. There are prayer, and warning, and sanctuary, and witness. We are involved in all of these.

There are seven trumpets to be blown in this part of Revelation. These trumpets are symbols of warning. In the end, there is a stubborn remnant of human beings who will not think when they have been warned. They will not repent. They will not have a change of heart. They will not stop, and turn, and surrender. (Rev. 9:20) But this is the point of the warnings. Their purpose is to give anyone who will only think a chance.
The seven trumpets of warning are tied to prayer. John gives us the picture of an altar where all the prayers of all God’s people have been collected, and offered to God, and are sent back down to the earth in the form of the seven warning trumpets.
When we pray all kinds of prayers, for all conditions of people, all over the world; when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray for the warning of the world. We pray for God to put a stop to all the destruction caused by the destroyers. And God’s first answer is to give them warning.

The number seven, in the Book of Revelation, and in most places where it is found in the Bible, is a number that represents perfection or completeness or the essence of the thing. It is like when a parent says to a child, “How many times have I told you?” Of course, in that case, even if you have told them enough times, it is obviously not enough, and so you go on telling them.

Whatever we need to know, God will tell us enough times for it to be enough, and more than enough. He will tell us that he loves us more than enough times for us to hear him. And he will warn us, wherever we need to be warned, more than enough times for us to hear him. All of the prayers of all of the saints add up to this.

Revelation is full of sets of seven things: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath. These are not all set end to end, as part of a complicated time-line. They are like pictures, or parts of a picture, that overlay each other. Each layer adds to the design of the layers above and below it.

The seven seals tell about the facts of the world as it is, and always is. The seven bowls of wrath to come (that follow the seven trumpets) represent the reality of judgment. The seven trumpets, in the middle of the other two, represent warning. The trumpets are worse than the seals, and not nearly as bad as the bowls of wrath that follow.

This does represent the message that there will be a time when things will go from bad to worse; and from worse to worst. When we pay attention to the pattern of growing seriousness and growing alarm, the purpose of this, too, is to make us, and the whole world, think. The purpose is to make us, and the whole world, decide how we need to live, and how we need to change.

There is one more thing about prayer and warning. The prayers are offered at the altar in heaven. In John’s vision there is one altar, alone, that represents sacrifice and prayer (see Rev. 6:9-11 and 8:3-4). This altar represents Jesus Christ, who died for us and who also prays for us. (Romans 8:34)
Jesus died for the sins of the world because he and his Father so loved the world (John 3:16). The warnings in the Book of Revelation come from God’s love for the world.

The first four trumpets announce warnings that take the form of damage to land, and ocean, and fresh water, and the air that is darkened so that the sun, and the moon, and the stars fade in the sky. If God wants to warn those whose actions destroy the earth, perhaps we are being shown pictures of the warnings in which the destroyers are allowed to see the outcome of their own work. And yet God does not allow them to be destroyed by their own doing. He only warns them.

A couple of the trumpets show us that destruction is not only a physical thing. We are shown some pictures of swarms of mutant locusts that come out of hell, and pictures of the 2,000,000-strong army of mutant creatures.

These mutants are not human beings, and they are not human weaponry. These mutants are evil made visible. They are evil with a demonic face. They show that evil and destruction are not just something that humans do to the physical world, but that they also destroy the heart, the mind, and the soul of human life. The toll this takes will be huge. And there are those who will look at what they have done square in the face; and they will refuse to see it, and they will refuse to change.

There are two more things we are to do in a world full of warning. This is for us to be a sanctuary and witnesses.

The temple John is told to measure is us. The Bible tells us that Christians are the temple of the Lord. Paul tells the Christians in the city of Corinth: “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, also 1 Peter 2:4-5) We are the temple because we are in Christ, and Christ is the true Temple. The Temple is the only place where God is truly to be met, and known, and served.

Jesus said that he was the Temple, and that he would become that Temple by dying for the sins of the world and rising from the dead. In the Gospel of John he says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19) If human beings build a new Temple in Jerusalem (as exciting as this might sound) it will not be the real temple at all. Jesus is the only place where truly we meet God face to face and serve him. This is true for everyone who belongs to him.

In a world full of God’s warnings, we are a sanctuary together. We are to be a haven and a shelter in a crazy and fearful world. We are to be safe people for the shelter of others who need refuge, and strength, and peace. We are to live together in a way that the world does not live.

We also need to have a source of life beyond ourselves that makes such a way of life possible. We can only be a sanctuary because we have taken sanctuary in Jesus, who is our life. In John’s vision we are protected as God’s sanctuary even though we may feel surrounded and besieged. (Rev. 11:1-2)

Being the sanctuary means being in a zone of safety. However, we also have to faithfully function as God’s people outside the zone of safety, because we are witnesses. The witnesses in John’s vision go out, and are eventually killed. There are only two witnesses in John’s vision, but they stand for us. They stand for the church.

They are also Moses and Elijah, but Jesus does a strange thing with Moses and Elijah. In the gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high hilltop, and he changes before their eyes. Jesus starts to shine and dazzle them. We call this the transfiguration. And Moses and Elijah are there with him, and with the disciples. The disciples see the three of them together: Jesus, Moses and Elijah; and they hear Moses and Elijah talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Then Moses and Elijah go away. There is a voice from God who tells them to listen to Jesus. (Luke 9:28-36) And so the disciples become the witnesses of Jesus, in place of Moses and Elijah.

The disciples take up the task of Moses and Elijah, they take the place of the law and the prophets who are the Old Testament witnesses of Jesus, and we follow in their path. This is our job, the job of the church, to be witnesses to Jesus, right up to the very end of the very end of those days.

The fire that comes from our mouths, in John’s vision (Rev. 11:5), is just the truth, and it is the gospel of the love of God in Christ. Love always burns the most those who resist it the most.

This world will be a world full of the gracious and loving warnings of God, right up to the day when everything is finished and the angels say: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

Our job is to pray, and to be a surrounded and besieged sanctuary, and to be faithful witnesses, until that time. This is how we will give those who do not know Jesus a place to go when the warnings of the world make them stop and think.

The vision of Revelation is scary and threatening. The world we live in now is scary and threatening. But the vision shows us how to be on the right path in scary times. It shows us that we can live with passion, and energy, and faith, and hope and love in Christ, and be his partners all the way.

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